A Human Seed Within Nature

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Next month, July 12, will be the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau. The man most remember as just another author read in high school English classes, was in fact an early American man of letters, an archetypal naturalist, and a person both reviled and respected for his moralist posturing. William Howarth, a Thoreau scholar, has taken this opportunity to write of Thoreau’s complexities in the most recent issue of American Scholar (Summer 2017), “Reading Thoreau at 200,” of how in an era in which we value corporate profits over a natural environment that can only offer us sustenance, Thoreau’s work has slipped into disfavor.

Odd how educational thought finds it so easy to draft behind the surges  of an overreaching business world, isn’t it? The truth? As Thoreau might have put it, there are connections here, some illusory, some tenuous and prone to expedience, others slowly rooted and out of sight, holding such disparate worldly structures together. Shallow societies neither note nor respect these deeper connections between human society, its technologies and regimens, and the seemingly spontaneous and chaotic natural world.

The further truth? Nature’s constructs do have a sense about them, but they are there playing the long game; they’re in it for the long haul, persisting for millennia uncounted as human societies rise and fall. Maybe this is why we all but declare war on nature, hacking farms into the Amazonian rainforest, filling the atmosphere with our technological offal: we sense our frailty and wish to impose it on the natural world.

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But it’s just this situation that eventually compels a human seed to grow within nature, a person such as Thoreau, to walk away from the ways of our human world and return (if only for strategic moments) to the soft-spoken natural world that encompasses everything we do. This may be the only way we can allow ourselves to understand nature, to give a nod to its lessons and perhaps for an occasional brief and shining moment accommodate them within human activity.

This is why I was so enthralled with the subject of my last post, Connie May Fowler’s memoir, A Million Fragile Bones, of her struggles against the Deep Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, of the manifold ways the gulf’s flora and fauna struggled against this poisoning tide, of how dependent we clearly are on a flourishing natural world.

The world of 200 years ago had a single Thoreau, and this person’s thought helped damp the worst of humanity’s instincts for most of two centuries. The world of the 21st century, however, and despite the passion and drive Ms. Fowler displays in her memoir, will need a thousand of her to accomplish the same balance between us and an environment that helped create us and will likely preside over our eventual passing.

 

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Oil and the Human Soul

 

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A Million Fragile Bones, by Connie May Fowler

More and more, it seems, there are two paths humanity can take as we wend our way through our evolutionary steps and missteps. One is to retire into enclaves, in which we’ll have our technology to filter our water, to purify our air, to grow our food, and treat our waste while the world about us succumbs to some unrecognizable dystopian state. The other is to exercise our technological wizardry to restore our natural environment’s processes so we can take our place once more in that natural state of things. Ms. Fowler gives us in A Million Fragile Bones her personal experience of that nexus.

The author lived in a shack (her word) on a sandbar at the Gulf of Mexico’s edge, was tacitly welcomed into the many animal clans there, drew much of her subsistence from the Gulf, and eventually married, the couple living on the edge of civilization. I suspect Ms. Fowler will roll her eyes at that phrase, because in her telling she and husband Bill hewed out a most civilized life there, constructing a new nature religion as their idyllic days and months passed.

Then it happened. On 20 April 2010 an offshore drilling rig owned by Transocean produced a geyser of seawater, followed by more of mud and methane gas. The methane quickly produced multiple explosions killing eleven personnel. To go into great detail about BP’s and Halliburton’s role here is somewhat irrelevant, for this is Ms. Fowler’s story of the effects of what eventually proved to be some million gallons of crude a day spewing into the Gulf water, the damage to sea life, to plant and animal life on the Gulf shores, and quickly to the Gulf economy and its residents. The author, rightly horrified by this and by BP’s and the state and federal governments’ stonewalling of information and resolution to the “spill,” wrote letters, badgered executives, and organized residents – all to no avail.

Finally the spill was capped on 15 July, then sealed via relief wells and declared “effectively dead’ on 19 September of that year. BP lost an uncapped damage suit that landed in the U.S. Supreme Court. But in human and environmental terms, the damage to the Gulf and life there was immeasurable. In the author’s frankly open telling, the psychological effect on her and her husband devastated. Eventually they returned to a previous home base in St. Augustine.

There the tale ends for the most part, but the couple, determined to return to a similarly natural life elsewhere settled in coastal Mexico. Their story is one of human resilience in the face of one of the worst technological disasters in human history. Meanwhile oil exploration in the world’s coastal waters continues, and the Keystone XL Pipeline continues its way southward through sacred Native American lands, potentially endangering the Ogallala aquifer, which services much of the central U.S.

 

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So was it worthwhile for Ms. Fowler to write this particular memoir?

Yes.

Art rarely serves the moment. It’s often said that artistic effort, stimulated by similar human controversy, is meant to serve only the depths of the human soul. If this is true, then, its tandem value is in changing that human soul in ways more sensitive to the world it chooses to express itself within.

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

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Democracy Scorned

There’s a fine article in the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic by Graeme Wood about Alt-Right guru, Richard Spencer. I make note of the article, “His Kampf,” only because it’s fine journalism and Wood’s writing is elegant.

Still, it gives great insight into the Alt-Right’s political underpinnings and its aspirations for the current administration in Washington.

Here’s The Atlantic’s multi-media link to Wood’s article:

https://www.theatlantic.com/please-support-us/?next=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theatlantic.com%2Fmagazine%2Farchive%2F2017%2F06%2Fhis-kampf%2F524505%2F#seen

 

Civil War Redux, or How Do You Like War Now?

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American War, by Omar El Akkad

First novels aren’t often ready for inclusion in the canon of American literature. True, they will likely demonstrate a raw, natural talent with language and a gift for storytelling. Invariably, though, some fundamental technique or another needs to be polished and expanded upon. El Akkad’s first work of fiction, American War, fits these categories precisely. His project is to allow an empty Southern pride in that long-ago insurrection, an ensuing protracted war, re-created by what might be called the modern aspects of war’s evolving rules.
El Akkad is Egyptian by birth and reared in Qatar before moving to Canada. He then sits astride the U.S. conflict with al Qaida and ISIS, as played out on the blood-drenched soil of Iraq, the unconquerable terrain of Afghanistan. In this American war, echoes of Abu Ghraib appear, complete with the modern tortures of sensory deprivation and waterboarding, cautioning readers to examine such martial tactics, this time played out on Americans. As the author writes in his prologue, this isn’t a story about war, it’s about ruin.

The story then is of the Chestnuts, and we follow this proud Southern family over several generations: Simon, who is wounded severely, survives, and is held up as an icon of the South’s cause. Sisters Dana and Sara, and much later Simon’s son, Benjamin, who takes over narrative duties near book’s end. Sara, or Sarat, as she becomes known, is the book’s central character – a militia-type assassin trained by a mysterious man named Gaines.

El Akkad’s prose is elegant in places, fumbling with syntax and melodrama in others, but the book’s strength is its imaginative portrayal of national and familial decay in the face of individual hate and national war. As such, it’s nowhere near as inept a book as some reviewers have made it out to be. In fact it will surely have its readers consider the consequences of modern warfare on its true victims, the citizens who have bought into someone else’s rationale for fomenting war.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 

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A Nerdy Girl, or But Then What Is Normal?

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MinerDa, by Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Robin Follet

I’ll admit I’m way out of my league here. Graphic novels and junior high/high school bullying, while the stuff of teen culture in the new century, aren’t in my wheelhouse. But I thought while I’m emphasizing Kid Lit, I’d take this one on. After all, who doesn’t like a challenge?

Ms. Hawks and Mr. Follet have joined forces here to depict one of the greater social issues of teens – bullying. Minerva is a girl who’s smarter than the other, properly dressed and coifed teen girls – or at least she could care less about covering up her smartness in school subjects. All girls this age need a BFF, though, and all Minerva gets is the nerdy play on her name and lots of abuse from the other girls. She wants to fit in and desperately needs a BFF.
Then, personifying a prayer answered, a new kid, Diana Lucy Woods, shows up, and PRESTO! Minerva has her BFF.

Then the book switches off the graphics and finds Minerva in high school, where she’s able to summon the nerve she wishes she’d always had and gains a modicum of revenge. Slowly, it seems, Minerva is beginning to live the old maxim that living well its the best revenge.

Hawks and Follet have collaborated here on a hybrid literary genre that’s part short story, part graphic novel, and part social broadside against teen bullying. Where this experiment will carry its progenitors is anyone’s guess. But such tinkering on the edges of tradition have always borne good literary fruit.

My rating: 18 of 20 stars

 

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Kiddies Can Be Curious

This week I’m beginning something new – something I’m barely aware of – books for kids, i.e., kid lit. I’m starting it off with a new series begun by a civil engineer from Atlanta – Sammy Powell. In my estimation Powell has natural storytelling skills for this age group, and as a result he’s a pretty darned good writer. If you can’t support his books directly, please tell your friends who can to see this website.

Thanks, Bob

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The Fox Tree – The Amazing Adventures of Sara Rae and Little John Polk, by Sammy Powell

One carry-over from our evolutionary roots is our innate curiosity. We learn by instruction at home, at the office, at school – and as do animals, by forays into the seemingly unknown worlds manifested by curiosity. Fledgling children’s books author, Sammy Powell, plays up this theme in the first of his The Fox Tree Chronicles.

Sara and Little John Polk discover a pair of magical arrowheads and wonder how they work as they turn them, rub them. Suddenly they find themselves in a time warp – but in the same place as before. They are quickly taken captive, afraid they’ll be half-hanged and beaten near death. But through youth’s wits and pirate dumb-foundedness they once again seize the day and end it at home with an extraordinary tale they can entrust to no one. Still, curiosity pushes them on toward Book 2.

Mr. Powell has crafted an artful tale for people in the 6 to 8 year-old age bracket; doubly impressive for a first effort. His vocabulary challenges but doesn’t intimidate, his story line makes it easy to travel in that fey world, but doesn’t overwhelm, as a barrow full of hobbits might. Powell, a working civil engineer, who moonlights with a rock band, has yet another talent to add to his resume.
My rating: 18 of 20 stars

 

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Revolutions and Writing

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It’s been said that the best creative writing comes from periods when political and social revolutions are happening. I suppose the drama of a revolution is a part of that, and the intellectualizing or rationale for the revolution generates situations and characters that writers can easily work with. But a quick survey of modern revolutions and their run-ups reveals different sorts of creativity.

Nothing much in the way of literature came directly out of the American revolution, but in its aftermath, as American society began to settle in, we had novelists Melville and Hawthorne, poets Whitman and Dickinson. The French revolution? Here think foremost of Hugo and Marat, who wrote their stories amid the revolution’s action. And similarly in Russia, the great writer Tolstoy. However, preceding the Soviet Union’s dismantling – a relatively gentle revolution – we have firebrand novelist Solzhenitsyn and poet Yevtushenko.

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In later years, the literary medium changed. The Cuban revolution and the U.S.’s almost-revolution of the fifties and sixties brought a new form of creativity to the fore: songs. Things were happening so rapidly, in the U.S. particularly,  that songs quickly written, recorded and put on the airwaves were the best way for energy to coalesce about the day’s drama.

In South Africa, the grander literature preceded the revolution outright, in the novels of Coetzee, and Gordimer, to name a mere pair of many.

And so we see the great fertile literary periods of the twentieth century were in times of ideological change and consequent revolution. What will this century bring, with its social media and blogs – something new and as yet undeveloped?

 

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