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The LCRW 33 Interviews: D. K. McCutchen: Star Stuff & Worm Meat

September 2nd, 2015

D. K. McCutchen is a Senior Lecturer for the UMass College of Natural Sciences. Lack of poetic DNA led to tale of low adventure & high science titled The Whale Road (Random House, NZ; Blake, UK), which earned a Pushcart nomination & a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book award. In a literary attempt to save the world, she’s now writing mostly scientifically accurate, sometimes erotic, gender-bender-post-apocalyptic speculative-fiction. The series begins with Jellyfish Dreaming—finalist for a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship. She lives on the Deerfield River with two brilliant daughters and a Kiwi, who isn’t green, but is fuzzy.

“Jellyfish Dreaming”, an excerpt from the above-mentioned novel of the same name, vies with Giselle Leeb’s “Ape Songs” for the weirdest dystopian future depicted in LCRW 33— a world of deserts and acidic oceans where humans and jellyfish are among the only things left alive, humans live off the jellyfish and are starting to become jellyfish themselves–it is also, disturbingly, the most plausible. For that reason I think this makes an excellent capstone in my series of contributor interviews (read them all here)

Settle in, friends. This one’s good.

Artwork © Tim Paulson

Artwork © Tim Paulson

Is humanity doomed?

Sure we are! That’s the way evolution works. Species survive or don’t when their environment changes, eventually making room for the next thing. Some meteorite made elbowroom for proto mammals; humans will leave the stage to someone, or something else sooner or later. But what a fabulous run we’ve had! The late Dr. Lynn Margulis (who I once observed getting booed at a Native Land Rights Conference for saying this) essentially said —but more elegantly—that every organism, from bacteria on up, breeds until it dies in its own shit. For a long time we just pretended we were outside the system. Maybe because we could imagine being special more easily than we could imagine not being at all. But humans are just doing what bacteria does, living until we die. So it’s time to look at quality of life over quantity.

E.O. Wilson, in his memoir, Naturalist, talks about the “changing nature of nature” and how our relationship to the natural world has shifted over time. Once we proved to ourselves that we’re not separate beings, above or transcending the rest of life, it allowed us to imagine being an integral part of that elegant, complex life-web we’ve so thoroughly examined, misunderstood and damaged. Star stuff and worm meat. We’ve certainly had our effect on other species. Wilson claims that ecosystems and species are disappearing at the fastest rate in 65 million years. That’s quite an accomplishment. We’re like J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort; wonderful and terrible in our fear of death. Maybe someday the cockroach tribe of the distant future will name us something like Terrible Mammal Kings, Tyranno-Mammal Rex.

The point is, while we speed toward our species’ demise, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Life is tenacious. That thing our big brains allow us to do, besides create sustaining/damaging technology, is to imagine. “Oh the thinks [we] can think” to misquote a great children’s book writer. We can imagine how old this planet is, and look for evidence. We can imagine other life forms developing on other planets, and see proof of it in the stars. We do seem to have a little trouble imagining the world without humans, but that’s fair enough. I can’t even imagine someone else living in my house after I’m dead. But I can imagine going back into the earth, recycling my own star-stuff and the elements that make me myself, and continuing as part of the system. Matter is constant, according to the First Law of Thermodynamics. But the Second Law (and Phillip K. Dick) also states that the quality of matter/energy deteriorates over time. So in another sense we are all going to Kipple in a hand basket. Paradox abounds.

What inspired you to write this piece? 

Everything. So many species have multiple strategies for adapting to changing environments. What might some of our strategies be? What are we capable of under stress? How can we use stories to imagine the future? It’s what we’ve always used, after all; stories to explain the world, stories to explain ourselves, stories to pass down knowledge, stories to imagine alternatives, stories to test against reality, stories to explain science. If we can’t imagine it, we can’t know it, influence it, create it, change it.

I can also say that JELLYFISH DREAMING arose out of terrible anxiety. As a late-blooming parent, a former dedicated traveler & science dilettante, a teacher and writer, I have a helluva lot of worries for my daughters’ futures. JELLYFISH became an ordering of fears and hopes alongside random interests, snippets of information and experience. It was imagining that short step into the future, removing species and adding climate change—and of course sex, that other thing scientists study quite a lot. For several decades I assisted field studies involving, in one way or another, the sexual fitness of Tasmanian Native Hens (polyandry anyone?), Humpback Whales, Right whales, Sperm Whales, Hector’s dolphins, Yellow Eyes penguins, Fairy Penguins, New Zealand Fur Seals, Kakapo, Kina, Geckos, Weta, various sharks and more (I even fell in love with my husband while dissecting a rotting 25 foot basking shark). Sex tells us a lot about the living world. JELLYFISH incorporates all my daydream and nightmare material.

What’s your own relationship to the earth like? 

That question also links to JELLYFISH. When I was very young, I wanted to know what was going to happen to the world. The tragedy of dying, back then, was to never know. I imagined living forever (as one does), but living can be scary and hard. So I imagined being in a bubble, above it all, observing. The great writers like Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald gave us stories like Orlando and Benjamin Button. From childhood we got J.M. Barrie’s surprisingly durable Peter Pan, the Nez Pierce gave us Coyote who’s so similar to—though more cheerful than—the Greek Orpheus, and as self-renewing as Bacchus. And onto the imagination palette of cultural ideas dropped the concept of the immortal being who could both interact with and be apart from the rest.

In 1993, while doing research in New Zealand on human generated toxins found in Hector’s dolphin blubber, I read several hundred scientific studies exploring the damage organochlorines and endocrine disruptors do to mammalian reproduction. Later, I came across the immortal jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii with its multiple strategies for survival, including regression to an immature stage. Another of my favorite nature writers (and a magnificent bagpipe player), the late Bill MacLeish, in his book THE DAY BEFORE AMERICA, wrote about the unpeopled landscape. These ideas and archetypes splattered onto the canvas of an overly incorporative imagination, stirred by that wish to know and fears for my children’s future. From a frustrated awareness of women’s standing in our culture, I decided to remove (or actually complicate) gender issues. I came up with Jack, an immortal, intersex adolescent who never grows up, but who witnesses the catastrophic events that the other characters have come to accept as the norm; lost species, lost environment, lost cultures. But Jack has to live it all, and his memories become dreamlike and fragmented until he can barely distinguish them from story.

In my twenties, reading Barbara Tuchman’s MARCH OF FOLLEY: From Troy to Vietnam was an eye opener. She argued that all cultures imagine their own doomsday scenario and rush toward it, despite the warnings of Cassandra that the horse (or bomb) is loaded and ready to go off. Tuchman explores the paradox of governments creating policies contrary to their own interests (Trade Agreements that give corporations power over government? Selling off native and protected lands for mining? Allowing offshore oil drilling and pipelines that always fail eventually? Come on!).

Tuchman’s Law also plays with the idea of “subjective probability.” It says: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five-to tenfold.” Ergo, bad news multiplies in our imaginations and can become overwhelming. In our current media the news is full of people imposing their beliefs on others, of increasing distance between rich and poor, a polarization of those with rights and those with none, of climate changing faster than we ever imagined.

We are, as a culture, focused on the fearful stories. That alone makes me think there are very hard times ahead.

I don’t think doomsday stories are enough to make us change for the better, since we tend to turn away from fear, wallow in denial, and most of us rationalize our current behavior. Maybe that’s because no one sees themselves as the bad guy—or maybe because we simply need to feed our children. Change is hard and takes time, and current thought is that it may also take new generations (but what if those newbies can’t imagine, say, a pristine reef or forest? The norm gets reset too). And we may not have much time.

But the idea that we are racing to the end of our tenure on this planet doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change what we can. I’m also in an academic department where I read the writing of hopeful young students taking responsibility for their environment, planning (and instituting) recycling on a city-wide scale, improving alternate energy, better agriculture and animal husbandry, designing better buildings, simpler lifestyles. Our UMass librarians have challenged faculty and students to imagine sustainable systems. It ain’t over yet.

What do you think is fiction’s (or poetry’s) role in changing minds, making people think and feel differently? Do writers have a responsibility to engage creatively with humanity’s problems or encourage their readers to do so?

I don’t think prioritizing moral responsibility in fiction helps the process or how it’s received. As my daughters tell me, a writer’s job is to write. Part of the process is tapping into that unconscious moil of ideas that float in one’s head. Some writing is more purposeful. But if there’s always an agenda, if the only purpose for stories is to preach, we’d have less of an emotional connection with the tales we tell. Fortunately our stories are as diverse as our ecosystems used to be (or should be), so there’s room for the slipstream—though a social anthropologist once pointed out to me that as we lose diversity of species, we also tend to lose diversity of language.

If we make what we imagine come true, and if the media is influencing what we imagine by feeding us worst scenarios, then journalists, as much as scientists or philosophers, need to explore and offer alternate scenarios and well rounded points of view. But fiction? Control that too much and all you have is propaganda. I’m open to argument, but my responsibility is to the not-too-controlled chaos of imagination.

Persuasive argument has its place. I particularly appreciate Gore’s seminal film, Inconvenient Truth, for that moment when he didn’t follow the usual Environmentalist trope (one that is way too close to religious zeal for me) about the twelve ways humans are destroying the planet. Twenty minutes into the film, he showed his audience a scientific study, a political reaction and a positive environmental consequence. With one picture of an ice core from the Arctic in which the ice was visibly cleaner after the 1973 Clean Air Act was passed, Gore essentially said: Look, we did good. We took action and made a difference. The implication, of course, is that we can do it again. That proactive form of environmentalism moves away from the evangelical self-flagellation of the past that made so many people feel they couldn’t make a difference.

In other areas, like politics and education, we seem to be regressing into some kind of cultural kipple. We all have the same fears and biological drives, and most schools of thought ask the same questions: “Where did we come from and where are we going?” But humans just have an unfortunate propensity to believe that our own way of thinking is better than the other guys. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination (so much for big brains).

I’m probably an Evangelical Agnostic myself (“I don’t know and you don’t either”), but I’m interested in any school of thought that can further the process of knowing. I quite like that carving at the oracle of Delphi: “KNOW THYSELF” (and I have a secret admiration for the Flying Spaghetti Monster). Yet, as the child of psychoanalysts, I don’t expect to truly know anything—it’s the process of trying that’s interesting.

What more circuitous and interesting a way to become familiar with one’s own brain than writing about one’s fears, profession, random thoughts, archaic myths and stories, then stir before throwing them at the canvas in true Jackson Pollock tradition? Splatter the colors where they may. So, as for my responsibility as a writer? I don’t see myself answering some missionary call to spread the word of science. But it’s one of the more reliable ways of interpreting the world (note the qualifier- question everything!). I like process. I like figuring things out. I like stories. Sprinkle random experience into a rich stock of subconscious and stir. Splatter. Edit later. Stories (and interviews) never come out the way I expect. Thank goodness. Because if we really KNEW where we were heading—to the stars or into a worm’s gut—we’d have reached THE END.

Heart

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet No. 33, a theme issue about humanity’s relationship with the earth guest edited by me, is available in 30% recycled dead tree form from Small Beer Press and indie bookstores near you. The ebook version is at Weightless Books.

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