You can read more of my writing

I know, I know. I’ve been away. But I’m still writing! Check out my story “Crossing Off” in the new issue of Noyo River Review, a beautiful volume worth picking up. When I first wrote the story, I did not anticipate how much more relevant it would become in this new American era. I’d love to hear what you think!

Also, my poem “Hit Man” showed up in North Coast Journal. Enjoy!

Brain Worms and Heart Holes: My Idea of Good Fiction

IMG_20160225_181138[I’ve been reading some really good books lately and wanting to write about them. But a challenge I face when reading other peoples’ brief reviews of books (such as on Goodreads or Amazon) is that I am often left wondering what standards they are using. So my starting point here is to try to articulate what standards I tend to use.]

What is a good work of fiction? You may know the real answer, but here is the one I’ve settled on: a good book is one that fully engages me while I am reading it and lingers in my mind long after the reading is over. You know, kind of like a parasite.

This is a deeply subjective, individualistic definition, vulnerable to all the usual forms of bias and qualifications. So I will turn to books I’ve enjoyed in the past, some of which are widely read, to paint a fuller picture of what standards I am using.

Genre.

A word first about genre. I’ve concluded that, at some level, genre labels are for the convenience of the publishing industry, not readers, and so I don’t feel particularly bound to any of them. I’m interested in gorgeous writing, no matter what section of my beleaguered local bookstore shelves it. Much of the fiction I like talking about could be broadly categorized as speculative fiction, a term that in my mind encompasses much of literary fiction (hello Franz Kafka and Salman Rushdie) as well as what’s interesting in science fiction, mythic and fantasy fiction, historical fiction, and even horror.

When I say “speculative fiction,” what I mean is a work that abandons some fundamental assumption about our world as it is frequently perceived: “What if [insert assumption] were not true?” This manifests most obviously as a central plot device, e.g. There are time machines! Matriarchy is dominant! Someone else was elected U.S. President in 1968! Zombies! Magic! All of the above!

But I am also drawn to works that do not make any express claim to these kind of overt twists to reality. Rather, they shift me ever so subtly into a sense of surreality or transcendence. I start to wonder whether all the clocks really did just stop for the chapter’s events, or whether this is meant to read like a dream sequence, or whether I am correctly interpreting that that obscure prophecy just came true.

What I like about these reading experiences is that, when they are done well, after I have put the book down I can not quite look at the world around me as casually as I did before, because I have been reminded that things shift uncomfortably. All the time. They leave their mark on the part of me that interprets what my senses perceive, and I am grateful for it.

Transportation.

Because I want a book to transport me out of my normal mental state, I look for an engrossing excursion that gets many neurons firing at once and becomes a source of preoccupation when I am not actively reading the book. I want the books I read to invade my mental world and distract me as I attempt to perform mundane tasks. A good book, then, is one that achieves this in at least one of the following ways: 1) emotional investment, 2) imagination, or 3) engrossing plot. An astonishingly good book touches me on all three of these levels at once.

1. Emotional investment.

I want to feel connected to the plight of the book’s characters, which is what happens following successful appeals to the universality of fundamental human experience. So Octavia Butler’s ground-breaking work Kindred had me in its grips because I could feel the corruption of slavery viscerally rather than as a spectator, as its main character Dana encounters it as a modern woman rather than as an historical artifact.

And I am still reeling from the beauty and tragedy of the harried main character, Abel, in A House Made of Dawn, M. Scott Momaday’s elegy to reservation life and the push of mid-century urban relocation. I felt things on behalf of Abel that I could not have felt without Momaday’s artful assistance. He tore a hole in my heart and it’s still a little bloody there.

Less tragically, I was surprised by how closely I identified with the protagonist in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, given that we would on the face of things appear to have very little in common (such as continental residence, gender, generation, culture, faith, and politics).

We are all snowflakes, yes, and we are all coming from different walks of life, but when we are humans reading together, we recognize our own kind, and it is a beautiful thing.

Sometimes, that kind is another species entirely, such as Karen Joy Fowler’s chimpanzees in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, or the extraordinarily alien creatures in China Miéville’s Embassytown. In both cases, it is the human encounter with the “other” that provides tremendous poignancy and a great space for the author to play with fundamental questions about the scope and limits of our humanity.

2. Imagination.

The opportunity to encounter richly detailed, layered worlds other than the one I routinely inhabit is one of the best things about the books I love.

Sometimes, the writer is describing a part of the world familiar to others but foreign to me, in which case my imagination is engaged because of the setting’s relative novelty. Even when I can recognize settings, really good books occupy a place apart from simply solid ones when they provide an immersive experience that leaves an enduring mark and provides a point of reference for the rest of my life.

This is the experience I remember having while crying my way through The God of Small Things, many images from which continue to haunt me years later. I’m not sure the extent to which the India of Arundhati Roy’s description is actually extant, but I know I’ve been there. Similarly, I will never imagine life in Turkey the same way after reading Pamuk’s Snow, which also impressed me with the familiarity I now feel for the wintry, remote city it inhabits.

Even books set in more familiar locales can be masterfully imaginative. I feel like I only narrowly survived the maritime experience that opens T.C. Boyle’s California-based When the Killing’s Done. My understanding is that he did a ton of research to get his story right, and the vitality of the imagery that persists in my head after I’ve finished the book attests to this.

When worlds are entirely made up, a good imagination factory kicks into overdrive. My first introduction to China Miéville was in Iron Council, which gave me a world so utterly strange and yet entirely compelling and believable that I am still a little bit stuck there. Similarly, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion not only introduced me to a new planet, but made me fall in love with some of its richly textured and visually arresting natural features (flaming trees, anyone?).

Some of the most imaginative works are the ones that tease with their one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to realism. The first part of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus masterfully flirted with the impossible by creating a kind of artful disorientation and begging the question of what a woman could be – a bird? a virtuous harlot? a performance artist? a goddess? (though I wasn’t as thrilled with the latter part of the book). Philip K. Dick’s drugged-out A Scanner Darkly provoked for me that special kind of deranged paranoia that is only possible when you are certain that at least some of what you fear is definitely true. Both books had me grinning and marvelling at the extent to which they interrupted my reality.

3. Engrossing plot.

Sometimes I just want a good adventure. It can be seemingly straightforward, especially at the beginning: boy stranded in boat with tiger (Yann Martel’s Life of Pi), ship carrying colonists headed to distant planet (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora). However, what moves a book from the “Well, that was entertaining enough” category to the “Please, world, read this!” category is the extent to which the author’s vision exceeds what I expected to see, given the premise. Both of the above examples accomplished this for me.

Although I have enjoyed many books with simple narrative arcs, there is a special place in my heart for complicated stories whose events are hard to map in a linear fashion. I like being surprised, or at least unsure, of where the author is taking me, but only when I trust that we will, in fact, get somewhere worthwhile. Sometimes good books are difficult to read and sometimes they are impossible for me to enjoy as, say, audiobooks, because I like to flip back and forth in the book quite a bit to confirm my understanding. I think the first time I remember really enjoying a book with a labyrinthine plot was years ago with Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, in spite of the fact that even at the time I was aware I was reading far over my comprehension level (and probably still would be if I tried it again). Still, it was fun.

Sometimes these plot structures are of a recursive, hall-of-mirrors type, like Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, in which the main character makes vertiginous tumbles in and out of other stories on so many levels I found it almost physically disorienting to read. And yes, that is a compliment.

Truthfully, though, my ever-lengthening reading list has me demanding that an author establish his/her credibility with me before expecting me to scamper along down the rabbit hole of a byzantine plot. I need to really enjoy the writing on every page to make the investment of time and energy necessary to knock out a long, complex, dense, confusing book. Being hard to read does not, on its own, qualify a book as worthwhile to me.

Thought Experiments.

A lot of good writing succeeds in transporting me outside myself in the manner I’ve described above. But what I really love about really good speculative fiction is the power of asking “What if?” All fiction asks this to some extent: What if you could be a fly on the wall in such a person’s life? What if you had that person’s memories and experiences? What if events happened to occur in exactly this sequence?

Some books step this up enough and become almost case studies on behalf of a given idea. The best thought experiment-type book I’ve read in the last couple of years was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. What might a functioning anarchical society actually look like, and what kind of minds might it produce? Only after I understood that the “K” in the author’s name was from her father Kroeber, as in Alfred Kroeber of U.C. Berkeley anthropology fame (and, perhaps, infamy), could I begin to fathom how an author could engage me on a sociological level so profoundly. I’m guessing she never had a chance to take social structures for granted, given that her childhood home was a crossroads of many cultures. Most writers don’t have quite this intellectual advantage, but we are all better off for it when they do.

I had a similar appreciation for Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 book Aurora. Given how interconnected all of life is on our planet, what might be the consequences to people if we actually sent them by space ship to colonize another planet, many decades of travel away? I don’t usually go in for space-travel stories because the suspension of disbelief is too hard for me and I have this idea that they tend to all be about the same things (namely, killing aliens). Yawn. But Aurora proved to me that, in the right hands, space stories can be fabulous places to play with timely, relevant, far-reaching ideas. Thanks, KSR!

Make Me Laugh.

The truth is, there are books and writers that make me laugh so predictably that I read them solely for that reason. I doubt I will review them here because I don’t have much more to say about them than that. Sometimes, they aren’t good books at all by pretty much any other measure, but I am still grateful for having laughed because of them. Some people have favorite sitcoms. Some of us have books.

A book is only a good book to me if it appeals to more than my occasionally retrograde sense of humor. Here’s the thing: writing that says big, mind-blowing things while being funny is not only rare and hard to do, but it is so precious to me that I feel a different kind of devotion to those who can pull it off. Also, some things worth saying are hard to really hear without the pressure valve of humor. Really brilliant stand-up comics exemplify this and that’s why we love them. Make us laugh and we will love you, even if we are uncomfortable along the way.

This is one of the reasons I deeply enjoyed Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger: its painful account of economic injustice in India could have been unbearable, but I was able to face it with the author’s comic assistance.

In fact, in mulling over the books I’ve most enjoyed, I’m realizing that probably most of them made me laugh at some point.

Big Risks.

My formal education wasn’t in literature, so I may not always appreciate where the risks really were for the writer. I’m probably not the best judge of what even qualifies as a big risk. Undoubtedly what is considered a big risk changes over time.

But as a lifetime reader, I do have a decent sense of where median risk-taking is at, or where there is no risk taking at all, because I’ve enjoyed reading a lot of pulpy, trashy, vapid stuff over the years. Some books are entertaining, full stop. And there is a place for that and I enjoy them on that level and that’s fine. But I’m not going to call them “good” if entertainment is the only thing I get out of them. The bestseller lists provide these authors enough validation and I don’t really know what I can add beyond that.

On the other hand, I appreciate it when Gerald Vizenor writes a story without a discernible plot (Shrouds of White Earth) because I can see that he is doing something else entirely, and he is doing it with the kind of precision and insight that demonstrates he is intentionally beguiling me with his radical ideas about what justice isn’t, in the context of an Indigenous experience in the U. S. of A. He is doing it using a different narrative structure, and a lot of ideas that hadn’t rattled around in my brain before, and some really beautiful passages too, and I am grateful for all of it, plotlessness be damned.

I was also enchanted by Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic partly because, in addition to its poetry and the brave subject matter (the emigration of Japanese women to California last century as mail-order brides), she employed first person plural throughout, and she did it well, and it gave the book a feeling of community voice that, frankly, my brain could use more of. Having your primary character be “us” rather than “her” is not something you encounter every day in fiction.

China Miéville’s The City & The City also belongs in this risk-taking list. The central premise of this highly imaginative detective-style book is that two cities with different cultures and governments simultaneously coexist enmeshed in the same geographic locale, and they are actively at odds with each other. If this sounds impossible and confusing, and/or much like modern life, then you can understand why it is an interesting read. I was weary of certain elements by the end, but I still consider it a good book because it kind of blew my mind. (And yes, that is the third Miéville book I’ve described here and I will not be apologizing for that.)

I’m not interested in gimmicks for their own sake (mostly). If, for example, a book is wildly disjointed, thus requiring more work for me, there had better be a pay off by the end. (Note to self.) But all of the above examples played with narrative conventions in order to serve the book’s purpose, and they served it well. That’s the kind of risk I’m interested in.

But Mostly, Brain Worms.

So, in sum, the fiction I love most has an infectious, memetic quality: it sticks with me and I find myself pondering it in the middle of the night a few days after I’ve read the last pages. It has probably made me laugh and given me a lot to think about. It definitely transported me outside of my usual life by way of the intimacy I felt with the characters, its hold on my imagination, and/or its enticing plot. Really good fiction opens a hole in my heart at the same time it infects my brain, and I love it, and now I’m looking forward to writing more about it.

Why I Am 100% Behind Bernie Sanders this May Day

Would I like an African-American woman with mighty progressive credentials and a reputation for getting hard things done to be the next President of the United States? Absolutely. Would I like her to do mighty things to protect our communities of color, immigrants, and vulnerable populations from all forms of oppression, once she gets into office? Yes, I would.

Absent that, I want every person who is working to end institutional racism, reverse climate change, support the rights of women, and champion economic justice this fine May Day to be able to look at their elected officials and say, THEY REPRESENT ME. That is what I really want.

Bernie Sanders gets us far closer to this ideal than any candidate in the presidential field so far. Unfortunately, he is an old white guy from a tiny, tiny state. He isn’t the world’s sexiest pol, but dammit if everything I have heard him say in my fifteen years of following, and occasionally working in, progressive politics doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to me.

Even better, he has been saying the same things for DECADES. Decades. Since way, way before they had popular momentum. He was talking about economic equality back when those were still mostly just dirty words. In this era of flip-flopping opportunists, and pay-to-play politics, this kind of consistency matters to me enormously.

Far more importantly, Bernie Sanders in action is a lesson in stalwart integrity. He consistently takes a stand for The People in the ways that matter in Congress. He is a doer, not just a talker. And opposition researchers are going to have to work pretty hard to smear his name. They will probably have to resort to red-baiting, which is another way of saying they will have to try to silence dissent and keep the people of this country from paying attention to their own economic interests.

Maybe there is a side to Bernie that is sinister and will make me regret these words. I’ve never met the man personally, and I don’t want to put him on a pedestal. But so far, to my knowledge, nobody has been able to find anything untoward about his personal conduct. His reputation is one of integrity, pragmatism, and grit.

I worry that he is unfamiliar with coalition-building among caucuses of color. I worry that this weakness will render him unable to mobilize the kind of support he will need to win.

But his mere presence in the race already signals that this time, maybe, just maybe, the discussion prompted by our political bloodsport could be more fruitful. This country has seen wild swings of political sentiment over the last 240 years. All kinds of parties and candidates have had momentum and crazy ideas in the past; some good, some awful. But we know from history that we are capable of more than the treadmill-like quality of groupthink, of the stripping of nuance and meaning from the ideas we share.

And the amazing work of activists all over the issues in the last few years has reinvigorated us. We are re-discovering that there is room to be an American, and a good neighbor, and a good community member, while marching in other than lock-step. Actually, I was taught as a kid that our diversity of identities and opinions is one of the best things about living here. In spite of his old-white-guyness, Bernie Sanders epitomizes this to me.

There is room to be a progressive woman and support an old white guy, if that old white guy is the real deal. This one is the real deal, I think. So I am 100% behind him. I already gave money and will find a way to help with his campaign.

And I finally have something to look forward to in the presidential race.

[And about my long absence…I’ve had some new adventures and will be launching my new website, FlourishingEdge.com, a week from today. I’m already pretty proud of it and can’t wait to share what I’ve put together. No, it’s not a political project, except in the sense that the personal is always political. I hope you’ll stop on by on May 8.  Peace, all.]

Letter to My Next Dinner Guest: Of Bad Décor, Killjoy Clouds, and Fiasco à la Canned Salmon

This post began as an attempt to poke fun at some of my innumerable social failings here in Silicon Valley, the reputed center of the networking universe. But what began as self-criticism took a zig, and then a zag, on its way to riveting self-disclosure and navel-gazing vulnerability.

The art of hospitality

A few weeks ago I was a first-time guest in a home that, from the outside, looked like any other comfortable, well-kept suburban abode in the U.S.A. But immediately upon entering, I was floored by the art hanging from the walls, covering nearly every vertical surface. I found it difficult to have a normal conversation because the cornucopia of images was so engrossing. Not all of it was top shelf, but I was nevertheless transported. All the more so when I learned some of it was the work of my host, who I didn’t know very well. I felt fortunate to get to have this window in on her life.

I enjoy welcoming people into my home, too, especially for dinner. At least, in theory. At their best, intimate dinner parties say: I trust you. They say: I want to spend some time appreciating you, cultivating our friendship, all without appeasing the clock or the din of public life. You belong here in this safe place with me and mine. I felt a little of that at the artist’s house, even though there was no dinner. I felt she was trusting me with knowledge of her art, her home, her sanctuary. I felt honored to bear witness to it.

Which is why it disturbs me that I’ve all but stopped having people over to my own home. It gives me pause. I’ve been trying to figure out what is blocking my hospitality.

For a while, I could use busyness as an excuse. (That’s our favorite one around here, isn’t it, neighbours? Busyness.) Like a lot of people, I had a lot going on and was struggling to keep all the balls in the air. I regret, now, that one of those balls wasn’t more intimate down-time with friends. Some of you knew better than to let this slide. I, too often, did not.

Then, it became lack of skill: hospitality is an art form, and needs practice. So, I reasoned, given my imperfect craft, my failure to host is really a gift to these fine people of avoiding my bad hospitality. But that’s rather circular, isn’t it? I can’t do it well because I’m not doing it at all. Defeatist. And, oh, by the way, it’s not worth doing unless it’s done perfectly. Hmmmmm. Cripplingly perfectionist, much?

This line of thinking views hospitality as a performance to be rated, with a stage and an audience. But what I’m after isn’t that; it’s a shared and unassuming experience, an exchange, the verbs of laughing and conversing within the noun of home. It’s something that, actually, I have enjoyed — helped to provide, even — on many occasions, over many years, most of which have hardly been disastrous, but have certainly been valuable and life-affirming.

And yet, I rarely offer hospitality now. Here’s another excuse: I’m an introvert with, at present, woefully touchy neurobiology, so it takes a lot out of me to spend time with people, and all the more so when they are people who are fascinating and complex and fun and, well, stimulating. (So, yes, if I tell you you exhaust me, it’s probably a compliment.) Physically, I cannot do it every night. I need a lot of quiet time.

True confessions

But the biggest hurdle to my having the people I enjoy over for dinner is this (drumroll, please): my home doesn’t look like the ones in the magazines. I’m embarrassed by this, and, most unhelpfully, profoundly conflicted by my own embarrassment.

Digression: if you are male, and reading this, and the foregoing paragraph does not seem like a confession to you, congratulations. You are probably still benefiting from generations of social conditioning that leave women more likely to feel responsible for the outward appearance of their hearths and homes, and, what is more absurd, to involuntarily stake some part of their identities in said domestic arts. You, on the other hand, may be more psychologically free to ignore such expectations and go on about your business of excelling at things you are both innately good at and enjoy, which may or may not be keeping house. Thank you for reading this far.

For starters, my home not only bears no resemblance to the ones in magazines, it doesn’t even look like what real homes are supposed to look like, at least here in Silicon Valley, at least when they are inhabited by a lawyer and a couple of engineers, in which case, it is fair to say, expectations may occasionally run high.

Rather, my home tends to say: Oh, look! You are so far behind the Joneses, you’re not even breathing the dirt they kicked up as they zipped on by.

Sometimes I kick myself. Why don’t I just go ahead and put together a home that’s, you know, pretty, or, at least, something closer to it? With sumptuous, urbane, trendy furnishings. Is it lack of industry, or pluck? A failure to apprehend the finer things of life? Well, yes, probably some of these.

Of course, I’ve also failed to master the ukelele, to try fire-breathing or the trapeze, and haven’t yet got around to sculpting the Venus in clay. No tango dancer or voice of the angels has arisen here, as of yet. Maybe after I’ve got more art forms like these under my belt, I’ll tackle mastery of home décor.

Also, I’m a backpacker at heart. Some of my most fulfilling moments have been marked by not a lick of furniture, as far as the eye can see, and farther. Living a while off of nothing but the air you breath and what you carry on your back is a grounding experience, literally and figuratively. Domestic trappings start to seem a little…gauche. Sometimes I look at my sofa, or a floor lamp, and think: why so heavy?

no furniture

Nope, not a lick of home décor here. Just a grubby, and elated, backpacker, 150 miles into her trip. (Pinchot Pass, 12,000’+.)

But that’s not entirely it, either. My aversion to proper hostessing also arises from something more fundamental. It’s an invisible cloud that hangs over me, and you, if you live here in Silicon Valley, and sometimes I choke on it as I breathe.

WARNING: KILLJOY ALERT

As you may or may not know, Silicon Valley is a place where some people are dripping in money and other people really, really are not. Tech creates enormous wealth and excitement and innovation here. I look at that previous sentence, and it’s so true it’s fatuous. Call me a small-town girl at heart, but I’m agape every day that I think about the fact I really, actually know real, actual people working for our “local,” world-impacting businesses: Google, Apple, Facebook, Adobe, Cisco, Boeing, Hitachi, Symantec, and many more. (Hi there, friends!) This says very little about me; I’m not even good at networking. Anybody could throw a stone around here and hit someone working in these annals of power (not recommended). These companies have human faces, in addition to their stock tickers.

But this is also a region with one of the largest wealth gaps in the nation. Maybe you’ve heard about our homeless encampments and our hungry children. When I worked as a poverty lawyer here, I saw through my clients’ lives the grueling, life-threatening hardships that come with living poor next door to Big Tech. It’s brutal.

We’re talking night-times spent trying to avoid death by exposure or the thieves (and worse) who prey, viciously, on you, if you are one of our more than 7,600 officially counted homeless people (the nation’s 5th largest population!). And daytimes spent trying to hustle up some work that will help you keep saving toward a shot at the indoor life in one of the steepest real estate markets in the nation. In the unlikely event you get a job interview (there’s a decent chance nobody ever taught you to read, let alone use a computer), it will take you a couple hours to get there by public transit and, since you will need to haul all of your worldly possessions with you (no place to put them) and you have no place to clean up and don your best clothes (such as they are), the interview is probably not going to go very well anyway. Meanwhile, as in so many places, it might be a crime for you to sit and rest there, or there, or there, or there; your body is falling apart from stress, disease, malnutrition, and, quite probably, abuse; and you may have lost your all of your teeth. (And we wonder why people drink under bridges.)

Yet very rarely do we hear voices of outrage from among our poor neighbours here. Some people say it’s because even our poorest often labor under the delusion that they are only one lucky break away from striking it rich. Or, worse, that they got what they deserved out of the precious, improbable gift of life: unmitigated suffering. They accept this suffering as fitting punishment.

Personally, I find these ideas abhorrent. And I think a lot of poor people know better, too. Look around, take stock, know the score. The deck was stacked, is stacked, against some of us. There are personal, individual choices, yes, but it takes a real commitment to willful blindness if you are going to insist that they explain the whole picture.

In the face of all this, the causes and effects of silence deserve our careful consideration.

The least of these is what your chaise lounge means to me

In my darker moments, sumptuous furnishings repel me because I hear them whispering: My owner has money to burn, and wants you to notice. Or, perhaps more insidiously, I’m here by way of a maxed out credit line, because someone was willing to go into debt in order to impress you.  This makes me…uncomfortable.

There. I said it. Sometimes, dear hosts, I behold your beautiful homes, and in doing so, do not think well of you or them, even while I delight in your fine hospitality, fantastic cuisine, and impeccable manners.

Terrible, I know, and no one will blame you if you choose never to invite me back.

Call it a weakness of mind on my part. I just keep remembering the homeless guy I see out near our garbage all the time. I don’t think of him often, nor, certainly, effectively, but, still, there he is. In my head. And along the creek, where I’m pretty sure he lives.

Can you see him too?

Retraction

All of this is utterly unfair. Because if you’re reading this, and you have a beautiful, well-appointed home, maybe it got that way because you were following a delightful instinct to share the good life, pleasure, bonhomie, and all, with the people you love. You worked hard for it, it reflects your deepest creative self, and it affirms part of who we are as humans: extraordinary animals inspired to find and cherish beauty in its many forms.

Maybe, too, you are far better than I at extending yourself to those without the privilege of a home to be ashamed of. It wouldn’t, frankly, be a difficult bar to hurdle at this point.

I applaud you for your successes, and I’m more than flattered when you choose to share them with me, too. Thank you.

My hangup about the way my own home looks — my self-consciousness of it, its unflattering reflection of some unsprung domestic diva version of me, and the economic injustices in every direction I see when I look hard at it — is made even more stupid by the fact that the people I enjoy bringing into it tend to have no interest whatsoever in judging me the way I judge any of these things. These guests, past, present and, I hope, future, are people who, I tell myself, can look on my humble abode and say to themselves, “Oh, look! Hanging over the front doorway is that faded construction-paper mobile, lopsided and amateurish, scrawled years ago in glorious chaos with the well-wishes and considerable wisdom of her friends and family, assembled by them over homemade enchiladas at a party in celebration of the marriage of two quirky, adoring people, both of whom seem to have forgotten at present to offer me a proper aperitif. Now, this is the good life, indeed.”

Finally, guidance for dinner guests

In hopes that I will work up the courage to invite you, or somebody almost as interesting as you, over for dinner again really soon, in spite of all of the foregoing — and maybe all the more because of it — let me just put it all out there.

I am thrilled you are coming, and have reason to believe good times will be had by all. To that end, here are some things I hope you can keep in mind:

1. We (the spouse and I) invited you because we like you. It doesn’t mean you’ve impressed us or we expect you to move our careers or investment prospects forward. So, please, let’s not worry about all of that. We just like you. We want you to feel like you can be yourself. If not, let us know what we can do to change things so you can, and then let’s all have a good laugh about how awkward we were, together.

2. Please don’t judge our housekeeping. Before you arrived, we looked around to make sure there was nothing here that would jeopardize your health. It got the thumbs up. So, you’re cool. Take a load off!

3. If there is anything we can do to make you feel more physically comfortable, please let us know. Please forgive our inevitable oversights. Unfortunately, we still don’t have a massage chair. But there is a hammock out back.

4. Our improbably athletic little black dog wants to make you her new best friend. You don’t have to consent to that. Just let us know if you want help rejecting her. It happens a lot…we’re all used to it around here. (All the same, feel free to borrow her for a day or two.)

little black dog

Your new best friend.

5. We will probably try to get you to play goofy card or board games with us or, if you’re really lucky, break out DIY craft projects or some of our favorite books or music. You don’t have to do or enjoy any of these things, but unless we hear a firm “no,” we might keep dropping not-so-subtle hints in one of these directions. Again, we can take the rejection, just shout it out, preferably with a friendly smile.

6. We experiment a lot with food in this household. Not in the chic, cultured, Manresa kind of way, but more in the “hey honey, look what I found in the refrigerator” kind of way. We mostly eat a lot of vegetables and legumes around dinner time, but if you happen to be on a bacon-only diet or something, we can try to accommodate that, too (the spouse says: gladly). We try to feed dinner guests well, but maybe you should know there have also been some spectacular failures, most notably one involving too many people, an enormous mound of unappetizing canned salmon, a backed up sink, and not nearly enough foresight. Nobody’s gotten sick, though. There’s really good pizza (with an edible salad bar on site) not far away, if it comes to that.

7. We don’t have a TV or all that much to show off, other than, hopefully, love and good cheer. So if you come over, it’s because we want to talk at with you and hear your stories. If we get boorish, it’s ok to tell us, or even out-monologue us (though the latter can be a difficult feat for non-relatives).

I’m truly looking forward to your visit.

On John Malkovich and Apricot Bingeing: California Monsters Part II

[Today, we return to our examination of The Atlas of California: Mapping the Challenges of a New Era. Because at the end of the day, context is everything.]


Yesterday, at the local farmer’s market, it took real restraint not to go wild with the stone fruit. Alas, as is so often the case in moments of passion, I failed to take pictures.

But allow me to paint it for you: the air is sweet, the children are bouncing from sample tray to sample tray. Easily a half dozen languages are debating the merits of watercress versus kale, crimini versus oyster mushrooms. And, vitally, great mounds of cherries, apricots, and nectarines are heaped on tables, drawing clamoring crowds.

Last week, I brought home more fruit than I could eat – and then ate it. This week, I endeavoured to practise restraint.

    So the “Agribusiness” section in the Atlas chapter titled “Economy & Industry” is naturally on my mind.

    It drove home for me that densely populated Santa Clara County, where I live, borders three of the top six biggest agricultural counties in the state: Stanislaus, Merced, and Monterey.

    To say these are among California’s best places for growing is saying a lot. Not only are California fields the country’s largest producers of fresh fruits and vegetables (and dried, and canned), we also grow food for the rest of the world. We export billions of dollars of the stuff**, especially to Canada, Europe, China, Japan, and Mexico. In fact, we export over half of our pistachios, dry beans, almonds, dried plums (aka prunes), grapefruits, walnuts, and raspberries/blackberries/loganberries/mulberries.

And that’s just the beginning.

The preceding list of crops might well provoke an ugly twinge of jealousy for readers from agricultural regions in other states. Because chances are, you mostly just grow corn.

I had locally grown, sun-speckled golden and pink apricots for breakfast, and they were very, very good. So, yeah, I’m gloating a little.

    Admittedly, my gloating is misplaced. Because by “we grow,” I can only mean “you grow,” as in those of you who are among the hundreds of thousands — millions, even — of people who work at California farms each year to put over 400 types of local crops on my table.

    I am most definitely not actually among you. One of the ways I know this is because my life is, well, easy.

In fact, while we’re on the subject, allow me to summarize my views on California farm labor generally.

Since I eat food in California (or, apparently, on planet Earth) I feel a debt of gratitude to you, the farm worker laboring in a California field. Like, for example, Odilia Chavez.

I happen to know from experience that I make a poor farm hand, so maybe you can be sort of glad I’m not out there under the baking sun with you. I would probably slow you down. And because I know it is extremely difficult work, I’m definitely glad I’m not among you. You probably deserve a substantial raise (among other things), and yes, I am more than willing to help pay for it – especially if I know the money is actually going to you.

    Please, take good care of yourself – and each other. Please drink plenty of water, and demand it and shade whenever you need to. And by all means, let me know what I can do about your pesticide exposure. I had a brief encounter with pesticide drift once and, long story short, I now prefer urban smog.

    Talk is cheap, though, so in celebration of what you have done for me, California farmworker, I am going to take this opportunity to join with some of you and others in reminding my elected leaders that they are in the wrong unless they are actively making it possible for you to feed me legally.

The email I just sent to my U.S. Representative reads, in part:

It really embarrasses me that the people who make it possible for me to eat don’t even have a chance to do so legally. Please, change this. It’s what we are paying you to do.

     None of this is an adequate way to thank you, farmworkers, for all you have done for me — namely, feed me all of my life — but at least it is something.

   As I write this, a futile and irrational impulse has me wanting to throw darts at the face of John Malkovich.

    Sorry, John. But you kind of asked for it. I guess you represent my California monster this week.

    Now back to San José. Our proximity to ripening fields and booming agribusiness is made more poignant by a little historical context: this used to be the agricultural wonderland, right here, until we paved it over to build computers and such. Imagine, instead of Google, Apple, Cisco, Adobe, Boeing et al, 8 million fruit trees.

    But the apricots I ate this morning were not grown in the impossible little apricot orchard that still exists fifteen minutes by bicycle away from my home. This month I keep going by there (admittedly, usually by car), hoping to catch the farmstand for the very brief window of time when it is open.

    Meanwhile, on quiet mornings, before the freeway commute traffic sets in, I can hear cows mooing from the hillsides behind the orchard. And, when I’m really, really lucky, the nearby, unmistakable cry of a pack of coyotes, like the one I saw once while hiking in the nearby hills of Ed Levin Park.

    Silicon Valley, indeed.

[**The map depicting agricultural exports on the Atlas’ page 50 used international decimal conventions, leading for me to the impossible initial impression that our exports are in the trillions. A quick check of the cited data, from UC Davis, cleared this up.]

Of Salt Ponds, Libertarian Ghosts, Raw Sewage, and Hope

Drawbridge, today, is an enigmatic scattering of wood structures sinking slowly into the Bay. You might see it if you commute by train from San José to points northeast – unless you blink.

But Drawbridge is more than a ghost town. It is a story of California in miniature. It is like an abandoned Synecdoche, New York of the greater Bay Area, without the dramatists, ego-centrism, or neurosis. And, following an intensive restoration effort spanning many years and thousands of acres, it is becoming again part of the flourishing edge of the Bay.

Drawbridge is at the edge of eras.

Drawbridge is at the edge of three California eras. Agrarian California meets boom-time California, meets mitigative California. It appeared and disappeared in the space of less than a century, from the final decades of the Nineteenth to the late middle of the Twentieth. It boomed when irrigation for agriculture was first a statewide preoccupation, and its last occupant departed around the time computers became part of the popular consciousness. Now, it is sinking into a wildlife refuge.

Geographically, Drawbridge is situated on a tiny island – Station Island – that edges both the Bay and its shores to the south and east. The island is separated from the mainland by little more than the waters of Coyote Creek and what used to be tidal marshlands. However, during its heyday, Drawbridge meant much more to its residents than merely a trip over a bridge.

bridge to Drawbridge

The current rail bridge to Drawbridge. Access to the ghost town, visible here as a tiny collection of brown structures rising above the bridge, is illegal for safety and other reasons. The trail ends here, on the southern bank of Coyote Creek as it spills into the Bay. Photo by Sam Silbory.

Drawbridge is at the edge of place.

It always has been — this was part of its charm. Like so many tiny towns, it was en route to somewhere else. Its very name depicts its status as an interruption — a bridge in motion, a transient connection. Nevermind that, in fact, the bridge in question swung to the side (a swing bridge), rather than to the heavens (a draw bridge).

Trains were the raison d’etre of the human settlement of Station Island — the station in question was one for trains. Trains, or rather Chinese and other laborers working on their behalf with the strength of human shoulders, metal picks, and dynamite, had chiseled their way through the Sierra Nevada to breach that colossal granite north-south divide between California and the rest on the nation.

But trains before Drawbridge did not do much to transport people between, say, San Francisco and San José. Those lines were for cargo. The peopled trains that ultimately went through Drawbridge, by way of Newark or Alviso, were the brainchild of entrepreneurs who noticed that two ounces of gold was a lot for people in the northern Bay Area to pay for a dayslong, bumpy ride to the seaside idyll of Santa Cruz. So for a few, rollicking years, Drawbridge was a stop of note on a significant artery of locomotive travel.

One can imagine getting off at the Drawbridge stop. A cool, salty breeze dancing across the tules on its way to ruffle your hair. The giggles of card playing on screen porches, the off-loading of muddy boots, the excited whoots of children with long strings of fish. There was a hotel, where the proprietress slept occasionally in the bathtub to accommodate her guests. There surely was ice cream. There was the echoing of shots as hunters caught fresh duck dinner. By night, there was carousing. It was fun.

It might in this way have been a kind of paradise, especially for a pioneer-bred people.

Drawbridge was a wild corollary to the burgeoning settlements of its near neighbors. There, in San José and Newark, say, places were being carved into the landscape that would shape the lives of millions for decades to come.

Here, too, at Drawbridge, dozens of wood structures went up – but their uniting purpose was outward-focused, to the waters, the land — not inward-focused, to the interhuman networks of an urban populace. What Californian father would have exhorted his ambitious son, in the shadow of San Francisco, San José or even, at the time, the bustling port town of Alviso, to head down to Drawbridge in order to strike it rich?

Drawbridge was instead a kind of carnaval of the wild, a permanent summer camp, where a particular mode of nature play could flourish unobstructed by the gobble of land for urban growth elsewhere. This was not primarily about the trading of goods for gold. This was the trading of time for play.

How fitting, then, that the stationless island would reclaim the buildings when the play had left.

Drawbridge ruins

To the left of my ear is a ramshackle remnant of Drawbridge, on the north side of Coyote Creek. The slope on the horizon is northish of Mission Peak. Photo by Sam Silbory.

Drawbridge was at the edge of culture.

Drawbridge was a microcosm of human society in other ways, too. Throughout California’s history, peoples of distant lands have pressed into each others’ lives. Here, too, at Drawbridge, Chinese fisherfolk and shrimpers lived, for a moment at least, aside settlers of European descent well-armed for hunting. Perhaps some of these same people had helped carve the way for the trains through the Sierra, and perhaps these others had ridden them here. There surely was unease and tension between these residents, but also, it was a very small space, and people of different cultural features did manage to co-occupy it. Perhaps they shared a watermelon from time to time.

Drawbridge was about freedom, an excellent volunteer guide, Dr. Ceal Craig, President of the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society, repeatedly emphasized during a recent lecture and public tour of the area. At Drawbridge, women could wear trousers instead of skirts. Children could splash in the marsh, perhaps catching frogs or fish with their hands alone. Birds canvassed the area so abundantly one can almost see them flying straight into hunters’ boat-bound laps. Why worry about the burgeoning effluence drifting north from Alviso or, more ominously, from San Jose? This is where the people go to play.

Drawbridge is at the edge of survival.

For millenia, the Ohlone people in the area traveled in tule boats and gorged themselves on abundant shelfish and other marine and land life. In addition to the waterfowl, plants of resplendent variety blanketed the marsh in multitudinous hues and layers of green, and amber, and azure, and brown. It was an ideal place to be if you were a hunter-gatherer.

Then, with genocidal assistance from the next wave of immigrants, the Ohlone were here no more. In their stead were steamboats, railways, and the rising urban landscape we think of as the Bay Area today.

The salt ponds came. An enormous mound of the white harvest still punctuates the horizon to the north of Drawbridge. This extraction served a useful purpose, to be sure. We all eat salt. But the cost was the decimation of these intertidal lands.

Too, there was the output of human waste into the Bay. Even now, the southern horizon is punctuated by enormous landfills. One passes the wastewater treatment plant on the way to the Environmental Education Center, where my tour commenced. The treatment plant represents a tremendous improvement over the outpouring of raw sewage that preceded it.

Imagine what it would have been to stand on the shores of Drawbridge and see the shit of thousands drifting toward you with the tides. Fish for dinner, anyone?

No wonder that the people left and the houses started their inexorable descent. Even when the trains were replaced by automobiles, this might otherwise have been a pleasant enough waterfront location. Instead, it was beset on all sides by the brittle waste left behind by salt mining, and the influx of urban pollution.

But something extraordinary is happening here now. Literally, the edge of the Bay is flourishing.

Drawbridge is at the edge of resiliency.

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project appears, to my eye at least, to look like a miracle in progress. Begun only in 2008, the result of the work so far is jaw-dropping in its visual drama. Walking the trail north to Drawbridge, the entire bordering land- and water-scape reads like an environmental history tour.

See that barren zone, where nothing in sight is alive? That’s an unrestored salt pond. That’s what places look like when humans don’t play well with other species.

salt pond

An unrestored salt pond — currently barren mud — in the shadow of Mt. Allison.

 

Unrestored salt pond.

Unrestored salt pond. Photo by Sam Silbory.

See, on the other side of the levee, that lush marsh, where the birds are flocking and the reeds are blooming? Yep, that’s what nature does when given a chance to heal itself.

 

restored salt pond

Unrestored to the left, restored to the right. Wetlands aren’t supposed to be only water! Photo by Sam.

marsh with railroad

The thin straight line through the blooming marsh is the railroad.

From the Project’s website,

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is the largest tidal wetland restoration project on the West Coast. When complete, the project will restore 15,100 acres of industrial salt ponds to a rich mosaic of tidal wetlands and other habitats.

San Francisco Bay has lost an estimated 85 percent of its historic wetlands to fill or alteration. This dramatic decline in tidal marsh habitats has caused populations of marsh-dependent fish and wildlife to dwindle. It has also decreased water quality and increased local flood risks. Restoration of the South Bay salt ponds provides an opportunity to begin to reverse these trends, by improving the health of San Francisco Bay for years to come.

Three pond complexes form the Project area; Drawbridge is in the middle of the southernmost one.

While Drawbridge will never come back to us, the joyous habitat it celebrated is getting a second chance to flourish. Rising seas and climate chaos are among the practical reasons to embrace this work, even for those on whom the aesthetic ones are lost.

Flourish, borderlands, flourish!


Many thanks for the excellent lecture and tour provided by Dr. Ceal Craig and hosted by the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which inspired this post. Any factual errors are entirely my own.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone!

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California Monsters, Perceived, Verified, and Queried – Part 1

In a previous post, we pondered the significance of sea monsters in a map of early California. If sea monsters might once have been a feature in the lives of those with the technical skill of maritime navigation, what beasties might similarly haunt the modern technologist?

Perhaps it is too personal a question, and the risk of stereotype too great. We are, after all, many minds, each crossing an ocean slightly different from all others’.

And the menu of choices — for beasties, that is — is terrific, indeed. Many voices clamour for our modern attention, and often those who get it are those who shout the worst news, loudest. I won’t remind you, here, of all there is to fear. Who needs more of that?

But to understand, to accept, or to transform what is unacceptable — these are useful undertakings.

I was delighted, then, to pick up a copy of The Atlas of California: Mapping the Challenges of a New Era.  This is a different book entirely from the other, also excellent, also from UC Press, Historical Atlas of California, where sea monsters can be found. Where the latter traces the visual representation of California through time, the former visually traces California itself. That is to say, the latter shows how peoples’ perceptions have changed; the former graphically shows the actual changes within the state.

Delightfully, Mapping the Challenges is a slender, pithy volume. This gives one hope, momentarily, that perhaps the challenges in question are neither many nor great.

Alas.

Nevertheless, there is much to celebrate in its concise pages. One of the joys of the book for me is how the authors, Richard A. Walker and Suresh K. Lodha, stated clearly their intention to move the conversation forward. From the introduction:

“We make no pretense of neutrality; the facts presented here constitute a call to action on many fronts…But wait! Is such advocacy a violation of the honest goals of a California atlas? Is an atlas not a neutral purveyor of facts and geographic orientation? Such is the prevalent fiction, but, as the history of geography shows, it is far from true. Of course, atlases are meant to inform, and they should do this in a manner as honest, elegant, and truthful as possible. Nevertheless, maps are a language like any other, in which the speakers pick and choose what they want to say, or what they want the reader to hear.”

In other words: where there be monsters, there also be careful curation.

Here is some of what this curation taught me in the first two (of ten) chapters, and some of what these lessons triggered for me:

  • A dizzying color-coded map of the state’s vegetation distribution (wetlands v. riparian v. coastal scrub v. 18 other categories) shows extraordinary habitat diversity in the greater Bay Area — except for the dark grey blocs where it’s marked “urban.” The Sacramento region has a big “urban” smudge too, but the dazzling colors return for the rest of the north.  The state is one of the world’s 25 most biodiverse regions.

    ›› Question: This may be partially a resolution problem (the book is not big enough to show a satisfying scale for this minutely detailed map), but there are definitely riparian habitat corridors in my community. Haven’t you enjoyed them with me? Is it really fair to paint us as a monolithic urban wasteland?

  • “Half of California’s land is in public ownership” such as parks.

    ›› Question: Why do I feel that most of the space around me is inaccessible? Is this a psychological failing of mine, the result of ignorance, or is there more to this story? Do you (if you live here) feel you can freely go to half the surface of this state?

  • After Sacramento County, Santa Clara County has the most American Indian (“alone”) residents of any county north of Fresno, and the number is at least ten times greater than it was in 1950. (The book’s source here is the 2010 Census.) And, there are possibly more Native American residents in all of California than there were before the genocide/s of the last three hundred years.

    ›› Question: Does the fact that this strikes me as novel say more about the invisibility of my tribal neighbours, or about my own ignorance? Because while 13,000 is less than 1% of Santa Clara County’s total population, it’s been years since I’ve knowingly talked with anybody in this county who identified primarily as Native American. To put this in perspective: my previous vocations had me interviewing hundreds of people after they had been asked to disclose their ethnic identities (among other things). And ethnic identity is something I think about a lot.

  • The 1950’s and 1960’s represented a dramatic slump in the percentage of Californians who were foreign-born, following decades of decline (and anti-immigrant laws).

    ›› Question: Ok, this may be wishful thinking, but is it possible that some of the hysteria around immigration in this state may reflect, at least partially, a *lack of exposure to actual immigrants* during the formative years of people of a certain age?? In other words, maybe if certain humans from here could just get to know humans from other parts of the world who now live here, there would be less angst at our borders?

  • California was 48th out of the 50 states when ranked by the number of state and local government workers per 10,000 people in 2011 (396). In other words, Texas, Florida, and nearly everyone else has more state/local bureaucrats per capita than CA.
  • California has been really, really bad at projecting revenue volatility in the last fifteen years. Like, really bad.
  • Our long-term outstanding debt of $84 billion (2012) includes only $3 billion for housing.

    ›› Question: Homelessness and infrastructure decline, anyone?

  • Special districts are the most common form of local government in CA, and “provide a way around” the hamstringing of municipalities by Prop 13.

    ›› Question:I’m not entirely sure what my excuse is, but it’s only been in the last couple of years I could even roughly describe what a special district is in California parlance. And I spent nineteen years in California public schools, including law school. Why is this?

  • California is “the most militarized of states” by defense personnel and spending.
  • By the time California’s prison overcrowding was addressed by the US Supreme Court in 2011, corrections as a percentage of state expenditures had more than tripled from 1980. In other words, we were paying a lot more of our state budget for far worse conditions.

Sigh. Perhaps that’s enough for now.

Dear reader, I invite you to share your thoughts on the foregoing – leave a comment if you are so inclined. And, do tell me if you think my monster-spotting has gone awry.

 

Would That I Were Weedier, and All Tigers Free

Weed Aversion

    A single step away from pavement, I can feel the brush of these weeds against my bare skin, cool, beckoning: Why the rush everywhere? Come soak up sun with us.

    Spiny stalks here, delicate prisms there. Heart-shaped tiny tinkerbell plants. Leaves, lush, perfect for grazing. Mallow, mustard, filaree, fennel, dock. Why do I know you each so little, when I see you so much?

 

dainty weed

Dainty weed.

 

    Here in Silicon Valley, we mostly walk right on by these patches of weeds, on our way to our manicured lawns or, more likely, indoors. We prefer to ignore them. These weeds are so… unrestrained. So messy. What is there to see – just vines and twines, madness, unruly growth.

mallow

Mallow, four feet tall.

    Should we venture into them, we never know what will end up sticking to our shoelaces. Or what spiders or bugs will hitch a ride. And what about ticks? We don’t want those.

    Uninterested in convention, weeds do not tame, nor trouble themselves to suit our whims. That is why we kill them.

 

Eating Weeds

    I have a friend who is a committed grazer. She will wander about these waste places, taking handfuls of this and that, and place them in her mouth to chew.

    At first, I was scandalized by this.

    People don’t eat weeds, I thought.

    And then I thought about it. Why not? I eat plants. Why are these plants so different?

    We learn as children not to put things in our mouths willy-nilly. This is a good rule. I have heard it said that it was especially necessary in my case. That I was a human vacuum, scooping soil, leaves, household fixtures into my mouth indiscriminately. I was a gaping maw.

    Well. Maybe then I am closer to a weed than previously thought.

    Weeds are voracious. Those of us who try to grow other things know this. In fact some say this is literally what defines weeds: they are plants that grow where you don’t want them to. They push and shove and entangle and strangle. They choke and engorge themselves on the nutrients our domesticates need.

    That, presumably, is why they can be good eating – to an informed grazer, like my friend.

 

What Success Looks Like

books

Two very different books, together with a friendly fish.

    I have a book called Wildly Successful Plants. It is about weeds.

    Weeds are Advanced Placement at survival. They are a highly motivated sort. They rush to produce their seeds with no time to waste, before they will be hunted down and executed by us. So they don’t ask nicely, or wait for permission. They assert, demand, beg, grab and steal. They take, because nothing will be given to them. Along the way, they confer benefits that often go unnoticed.

    Hmmmm.

    I recently finished an entirely different book, the The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, a former Financial Times correspondent. It is a very good read about a man from an unenviable social position. He fancies himself an entrepreneur – a rare and peerless white tiger, as it were – and his determination to rise above the poverty of his birth inspires him to bold and desperate acts. He experiences myriad cruelties, and ultimately returns them in kind. It is a seething, angry book whose trenchant wit kept me laughing, heart in my throat, throughout.

    In the logic of the book, the protagonist is a kind of social weed, clamoring for survival in a hostile environment. Time and again Adiga torments his reader with painful glimpses of human destitution. His protagonist’s struggle for his own dignity includes a struggle to not internalize this debasement, which haunts him every day. He tries instead to focus on his ambition. He is often on the losing end of this battle, living in anticipation of the sharp swing of the scythe that, he fears, will end him.

    It is not only our poor man who is animalistic and wild. The book is replete with the hypocrisies of “polite” society. Time and again, wealth and leisure are unmasked as feral and vicious. Nobody looks civilized by the end.

    In a way, it is not so different from the weed book.

 

Order, Chaos

    Manicured gardens are beautiful and purposeful. I envy people with the aptitude to cultivate them. It is an ancient art, and one that has sustained our civilization.

    Farming is extraordinary. I am in awe of farms. I visited one, recently, an extraordinary place growing an extraordinary variety of plants with extraordinary deftness and precision. I eat the stuff of farms and gardens. I depend on them. Believe in them.

    But. My heart is with the weeds. I fear that where weeds have no place to thrive, nothing else that I love does, either.

    Wildness frightens us: wolves and cougars and the unknown. When I was backpacking solo a lot, people would often ask me: aren’t you afraid? And I would say that where I was going to be, there weren’t a lot of people, and the people who were there tended not to be the sort I feared (who hikes miles into the mountains to rape somebody??), so, no, not really.

    Then they would clarify: wasn’t I afraid of the wilderness?

    It is a fair question: there is plenty to fear in the great outdoors. Lightning strikes, abrupt ice storms, sweltering heat, and lost trails: all of these I have had to bungle my way through or narrowly avoid. There is sometimes poison oak or nettles, often insects of various kinds, and plenty of discomfort.

    But there is plenty to fear in the city, too. Especially cars, which kill, especially pedestrians and bicyclists, both of which I aspire frequently to be. Also, a too convenient, unlived life.

    So wildness doesn’t deserve an extra dose of fear, in my book.

    Yet our species is determined to avoid it: to wrap ourselves up tight in the night, lock ourselves away from what we cannot tame.

    To be fair, this approach has largely worked for us. Or, it did, until our determination to separate ourselves from every last semblance of the wild found us tearing down the very life systems that support us. But. That is another story.

    It a story completely lost on weeds. Weeds do not concern themselves with constructing alternative habitats. They don’t need to. They adapt quite nicely to what they’ve got. Along the way, they are terrifically impolite, and at times, deadly. They do not concern themselves with the plight of anything they happen to shove out of the way. They are too busy celebrating the life they already have.

weed stem

Wicked weeds. See the little thorns?

    Listen closely to the weeds in your life. They are not envious. They don’t care what’s going on next door. They are too busy being alive.

    They say: “SUNSHINE!!!!!!!!!” They say: “SOIL! WATER! SUNSHINE!!!!!!!!!! BEEEEEEES!!!! HURRAH!!”

    And they are oblivious to the rest.

wild mustard and radish

Sunshine, anyone?

Would that I, and you, were just a little bit weedier, though all our days kind.

Do You Know Where You Are? Really?

No, no, I don’t mean the address that you typed into Google Maps to get here. I mean do you know the where of where you are?

I suspect not. This is no insult. I don’t know where I am, either.

Allow me to illustrate. Let’s commiserate in the difficulty you and I have in answering the following eight questions with respect to our current physical positions – at least, without some additional study.

  1. For whom or what is the closest street named? Who named it? When?

  2. Where might a drainer go underground nearby to play in a lost river? A sewer?

  3. Where do those nearby power lines come from? Where are they going?

  4. Why are the buildings in this particular neighborhood laid out in the manner that they are?

  5. Why does the air outside today smell the way it does (or doesn’t)?

  6. What political boundary line (council district, state assembly, congressional district, etc.) lies closest to our present locations?

  7. Which species of living things broadly dispersed in the area were introduced here in the last one hundred years?

  8. How long has the surface we last walked upon been here in its present form?

How can this be so hard? I suppose it could be said that these matters are trivial, or unfair. But are they? Aren’t these subjects – the built infrastructure that makes our daily lives possible, the air we breath and ground we walk on, the boundaries we cross – quite fundamental to who we are and what we manage to do?

There are other reasons to be humble, too.

It has a little to do with sea monsters.

Let me explain. A mesmerizing book, Historical Atlas of California, is a collection of maps from throughout California’s recorded history. One of the astonishing things about it is how “wrong” so many of the early maps are – even though their makers were keenly interested in getting them right. Coastlines run in the wrong directions. Peninsulas are invisible or overlarge. Even if you know the region like the back of your hand, you may have a hard time placing any part of it anywhere on these early maps.

Also, there are, occasionally, sea monsters.

These unrecognizable maps were state-of-the-art to some of the same people who used navigational skills and equipment that would be, frankly, completely lost on most of us. Tools of extraordinary usefulness and specificity. And the map-makers were not, as a rule, mere fantasists, sitting at home dreaming up wild tales or scribbling beasties on a whim. They were people who got things done – complicated, difficult things, like sailing around the world — and inspired others to do them, too.

If they had sea monsters, we probably do too.

But we live in an age of science, you say. We know what goes bump in the night.

Perhaps. But consider:

So, dear Silicon Valley, and readers farther afield, if you and I barely know where we are, and we barely know what is true, what exactly are we about, all these busy, scrambling, headlong days?