Urban Green Man

Urban Green Man is the both the title and intended subject matter of a forthcoming theme anthology from Edge Publishing for which I’ve been invited to submit a story. Considering all this moss that’s been creeping from my armpits and between my toes of late and the details of my living circumstances over the past couple years, you’d think this would be right up my alley, right in my hermitage, so to speak… but for some reason I’m really having a hard time at it.

The below ramblings on nature and the city are the result of an attempt at writing-avoidance aka “brainstorming” in order to figure out what the green man myth could possibly mean in an urban context and in the modern age.


Some variety of blue lobelia, best guess Lobelia kalmii, Franklin Park Wilderness, Roxbury, MA.

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Me and the Thunderbird


Thunderbird, on a 19th-century Cheyenne drumhead, Detroit Institute of Arts.

The co-opting of Native American culture makes me sad. For years I thought a thunderbird was a car driven by greasers and meatheads and Pontiac not a doomed, desperate tragic hero of the Ottawa but a disreputable manufacturer of cars. If it weren’t for the automotive industry, though, would I ever have even heard these names? I guess we owe them for keeping the memory alive, in however twisted a form.

And there are instances of co-opting that make me unashamedly happy. There’s a really nice Mexican lager called Bohemia brewed by cervezeria Motecuzoma Cuauhtemoc in Monterrey which I would never have tried if it weren’t for the portrait of Motecuzoma they use for their logo. I could do without Mel Gibson, but he put native Yucatec Maya speakers in a big-budget film. When I heard Johnny Depp was playing Tonto in an inexplicable remake of The Lone Ranger, I was as annoyed as everybody else until I remembered Dead Man… that long, wordless opening scene, a bespectacled, comically pale-faced young Depp staring out the window of the train at the landscape of the West as the grim faces of passengers shift and fade around him, visions of his own death in the wilderness pass before his eyes, and that brutal Neil Young noise riff gnashes over all. Just thinking about it makes me want to go watch that movie right now….ahh, but I have shit to do. Anyhow–however trumped up Depp’s one-sixteenth Cherokee blood, I give him credit for caring about Native American culture, to the point that I’ll probably see The Lone Ranger.

And so on and so forth, with mixed feelings of reverence and liberal guilt. I am not really supposed to talk about it, being as how I am a white male.

Which brings me to the point of this. I have co-opted Native American culture. Part one of my novella “Death and the Thunderbird”, featuring those lovable, culture-raping centaurs; a locomotive powered by sorcery; and yes, a thunderbird, is live today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #97, opposite the excellent Tina Connolly. I labored long and hard over it and am proud. If you’re a fan of the centaurs, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But I doubt it will win any awards for cultural sensitivity despite my best intentions. By way of beginning to atone for this, I share below a brief bibliography of American culture-rape. As usual, I would almost rather you read the source material than my story. But read the story too, if you have time.

Ok. Must stop myself. Enjoy! Be edified.

Permanently Unlost in the Infinitely Receding Forest

Where I live now, no matter where I stand or how far I walk, it always looks like the woods are just beginning beyond the farthest-away squat little fenced-in company cottage I can see. I can pursue them, but when I get there, they’ve inevitably receded to exactly the same distance as before.

These days the actual forests have barb-wire fences around them and the skulls are decidedly un-mossy, so I dwell in forests of the mind. Justin has recently introduced me to the concept of psychogeography, which I gather basically demarcates any attempt to interpret urban landscape as the product, or the manifestation, of the internal landscapes of its inhabitants. I’m going to bend that a little to fit my own purposes. Or maybe completely ignore it, just fall back on the usual influences—Castaneda, Borges, Freud and Thoreau—under a different auspice.

Outside my office window there is an auto-body shop. It’s ugly. It makes high-pitched metallic noises repetitively. I have undertaken the mental exercise of replacing it with various monolithic elements of natural landscape lifted from my experience: a lichened granite ledge shaped by glacial processes, a kettlehole pond, a field of wildflowers, a hemlock glade, a Yucatan thicket, a colossal zoomorph of the Classic Maya. It works, to a point. There are some landscapes to which that space just won’t lend itself, even in my imagination: the mazelike warrens of thirty-foot boulders populated by owls and deer and Polyporous berkleyii in the woods of Satans Kingdom surrounding the neighborhood where I grew up. Or, you know, any mountainside I’ve ever fallen down.

But it keeps the bats out, if you get me.

Soma

Pardon a short hiatus from the Guatemalan ramblings while I dig myself out from under this pile of work. In the meantime….

The word “soma” came into Sanskrit from some even more ancient Indo-European root tongue. I’ve seen it translated as “flesh of the gods”; it referred to a sacred ritual drink of the Vedic culture in the third millennium B.C. Little is known about it except that it was made from an eponymous and equally unknown plant, but I think it can safely be assumed to have been a psychotic doom hallucinogen of some sort. Occasionally I’ve come across the titillating but unsupported speculation that soma might have been Amanita muscaria. The Olmecs held a certain mushroom sacred too. These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night. Or at least give me interesting dreams.

And sometimes they work their way into my fiction. This month’s Apex Magazine #23, edited by the fabulous Catherynne Valente, features a rather dark story of mine about the beginning of time, “The Eater”, in which soma plays a passing role. Should you care to try it out, there’s a teaser here on the Apex site. Get the whole thing in print through the Apex store or in ebook form from none other than Weightless Books.

Loving (A Setting) Too Much


Dancing rain god figure, Altar O, Quiriguá, Izabal, Guatemala

The first days of my second trip to Guatemala, everything felt weirdly comfortable, familiar. The sight of the one-legged guy nimbly navigating the steep steps of a chicken bus to ply his scarred palm and sad story no longer blows my mind. Likewise the spiderweb cracks cris-crossing the impenetrable blackness of every car windshield in the city. I have learned the appropriate words to apologize politely for being two feet taller than everybody else on the bus and my backpack clumsily wonking them all in the face. The dudes with tin shotguns on street corners and in tienda doorways no longer fill me with fear. In fact they almost make me feel safer—which may even be their actual purpose.

All of which was satisfying in a way. I felt less helpless, better able to actively participate in my surroundings. But I started to worry I was just on vacation here—that if I wanted the intensity and awe and revelation of my previous experience, I should have traveled someplace else.

I’m always looking for new setting details—unique tidbits of color or scent, idiosyncracies of human interaction that will make an otherwise mundane story leap off the page. I’m also looking for entirely new settings into which I can expand my spotty experience, the range of subjects and places about which I can “write what I know”. This isn’t the only reason I travel, but when I do travel, there’s a strong chance it’s what I’m doing at any given moment: soaking it all up like a sponge. I talked about this once before, including some caveats, in Expatriates and Homebodies.

There’s a danger, though, that I’ve run into repeatedly: falling too hard for a particular setting, loving it so much that it starts to feel wrong, disrespectful, to try to assimilate it into my fiction. I’m afraid to take liberties for fear of screwing up the truth that made me love it so much in the first place. This has happened to me most often and most painfully with respect to precolombian cultures. The Anasazi (more accurately the ancestral Hopi) have had a strong influence on my wild west centaurs setting, but all the stuff that actually includes them is in a trunk never to see the light of day. The Aztecs (more accurately the Mixtecs) I am afraid to even touch. With the Maya, it’s even worse. In the past I have been unable to stop myself writing slavish, Castaneda-influenced historical fiction about how the Mayans possess the spiritual Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything and we white people with all our rationalism don’t have the ghost of a hope. Which I loved, and even managed to sell, but which now fills me with uncomfortable embarrassment. I have endlessly blogged about them. And very recently, tenatively, I’ve been thinking about how I might dip my toe back into writing about them—though in a very different way than before.

I owe this new approach to this second visit to Guatemala.

That initial, superficial sense of familiarity never went away. But it was very quickly superseded by a whole new set of questions. I saw gradations, depth, in what had seemed uniform, and when I looked a little closer, I saw even more. I found myself thinking more and more about individuals—about character. What’s the difference, in terms of circumstance, upbringing, past experience, between the tuktuk operator who drives the white folks in circles to confuse them then tries to charge triple, the tuktuk operator who drives the white folks past his mom’s house to show them off to his nieces and nephews, asks the minimum fare without even haggling, and comes back to get them at a scheduled time at no extra charge, and the tuktuk driver who butters them up with disingenuous chatter, then veers into a blind alley and pulls a gun? (A tuktuk is a three-wheeled golf cart shaped like a giant red egg, powered by a lawnmower engine and blazoned with Jesus slogans, used as a car-for-hire for local transportation.) How do the Catholics and the Protestants get along with the Mayan traditionalists? How do the Mayan traditionalists get along with a more secular, idealistic younger generation? How does Guatemala look to somebody who moves to South Dakota to start a family, then has to come back and spend years away from them trying to secure a visa? And how does any of it develop into an integrated, educated, well-informed indigenous population, still in possession of its cultural identity, yet capable of joining forces to foster positive change, say, to effect a representative government under an indigenous president, like in Bolivia, or take advantage of digital media to foster political change, like in Egypt and Morocco?

The picture I have isn’t full enough, not nearly. I need to go back again, and again after that.

And the answer I have come upon for how to write fiction about a place and a culture I love too much to disrespect? Complexity.

Writing fiction about anything is an exercise in simplification. Words are never enough to encompass anything, the confines of narrative, of storytelling, even less so. The only way to honest about it, with yourself and with your readers, is to admit you don’t have the answers, and to try, to the best of your ability, to demonstrate why. I think the fiction that best succeeds at this (no coincidence, the kind of fiction I love most), is the kind that leaves things open. Borges, Asturias.


A king in the jaws of a jaguar-crocodile, North face of Zoomorph P, Quiriguá, Izabal, Guatemala