Monday, December 08, 2014

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy

I want to depart from my usual practice of reviewing fiction, so that I can talk to you about the incredible naturalist writer Ellen Meloy. I’ll be paying special attention to her last book, published shortly after she died in 2004, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, but each of her four nature-study books deserves to be read and praised. 

Meloy loved the desert, and especially the band of wild bighorn sheep thought for many years to be extinct. A sub-species of mountain sheep found only in the Four Corners area, Meloy named the little band she followed and watched for many years, the Blue Door band. Even in the time she was studying them, she remarks on their elusiveness, noting that on one particular sighting, the band disappeared into a crevice of rock, not to be seen again for many months. At the time, she thought they may have vanished forever.
For bighorns, topography is memory, enhanced by acute vision. They can anticipate the lands every contour—when to leap, where to climb, when to turn, which footholds will support their muscular bodies. To survive, this is what the band would have to do: make the perfect match of flesh to earth.
Meloy has the eye of an artist, and a facility with language that lets her word-paint for her readers  what she sees and understands about nature. Her first  college degree was in art, and upon graduation she became a wildlife illustrator until returning to school to get a Master’s degree in environmental science. There she met the love of her life and her eventual husband, Mark Meloy, a river ranger; their marriage and their love affair with nature continued until she died suddenly at fifty-eight in their home in Bluff, Utah.

Although Eating Stone is ostensibly about the Southern Utah big horn sheep, it is also simply  about beings of the desert, plants and animals. Her understanding of geologic history and biology shines forth on every page, and I found myself as astounded by her lyrical use of language as by her profound understanding of nature.
Home sapiens have left themselves few places and scant ways to witness other species in their own worlds, an estrangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth  of them.
Meloy talks a lot about arctic big horns and the vanishing herds of desert big horns in Arizona and California. She even takes the reader on a side trip along the Baja peninsula with lively descriptions of its history and of the steady and rapid encroachment of modern living on that so recently wild land.

Although a passionate advocate of wilderness preservation and critic of environmental degradation caused by corporate greed, more and more golf courses, and expansion of dwellings onto wildlife habitat, it is more her love and understanding of wild things that comes out in her work. Given her travels and her tireless exploration of nature, she cannot but see and warn us of the perils of the future, and yet her voice is hopeful. As one critic notes, she  seems hopeful that the power of words (and of really looking) may change things one reader at a time.
…in the desert there is everything and there is nothing. Stay curious. Know where you are—your biological address. Get to know your neighbors, plants, creatures, who lives there, who died there, who is blessed, cursed, what is absent or in danger or in need of your help. Pay attention to the weather, to what breaks your heart, to what lifts your heart. Write it down.
She certainly took her own advice. Midway through this lovely book, I decided I would read everything she has written; let me mention the titles of her three other works. Raven’s Exile. A Season on the Green River; The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, and The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, art and spirit.

Meloy is warm, witty, deeply insightful and extraordinarily patient, as anyone must be who decides to see and understand the quiet life of these ruminant creatures who return year after year, decade after decade, eon after eon to the same lambing grounds, the same rutting grounds, who depend on expansive vision and quick vertical escape. As faithful as they are to place, they are also so careful that they may abandon a favorite feeding or sleeping ground forever because of one encounter with a helicopter or some other feared predator.
There is in that animal eye something both alien and familiar. There is in me, as in all human beings a glimpse of  the interior, from which everything about our minds has come.
Meloy has an acute eye for where we have come from and, I think, for where we are going.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok

I want to talk to you today about an ambitious novel by a local writer and political activist, Benjamin Parzybok. The name of the novel is Sherwood Nation. A problem for all fiction writers is that of inducing the reader to suspend disbelief, and for dystopian or utopian novels, the suspension of disbelief is particularly difficult to achieve. The setting for this book is a possible future for Portland after a profound drought has set in and water rationing is mandatory. As the drought progressed, the Deschutes dried up in a single summer, and,
Finally, the greatest of them all, the Columbia River, its sources choked in mud, leaked its death-song through the gorge, and became only a scaly alligator skin of memory. In its wake, valleys turned to deserts, fertile farms to dust, and the great migration East began.
I have to admit upfront that I found this novel tough sledding, and not only because I had trouble suspending disbelief. Since I am fortunate in that I can read whatever I want, and reading is my main work, I am spoiled and used to fine writing. In the end, I think this novel is much more interesting and important for the political questions it raises than for the story itself. For the most part, I’ll leave the political questions up to Norm Diamond in his interview with Benjamin also included in this show. Unlike many futuristic books including those that attempt to raise political consciousness, this is a serious and mostly successful attempt to create real characters, and to let much of the action be determined by the characters portrayed. By the end of the book (though not during much of the long middle sections), I found myself really wanting to know the outcome—concerned for the fate of the main characters and for the city-state they had created. 

The plot of the book is long and rather complicated, and I have no intention of giving way the story, but I will say that it begins with a brave act carried off by a few people who decide to call attention to illegal water deliveries being made to rich folks in the West Hills. This small group decides to waylay one of these unmarked water trucks as a way to call attention to the illegal distribution. Renee is one member of this small band; she is injured in the attempt to commandeer the truck, and the local media get plenty of footage of her bleeding and wounded but handing out water to the group of onlookers who surround the truck. She is dubbed by the media as Maid Marian of Robyn Hood fame—one who steals from the rich to give to the poor. 

Renee (a.k.a. Maid Marian) has a boyfriend named Zach who is one of few who still has a job; he works for an advertising agency that works for the Mayor. Although sympathetic to Renee’s anger and frustration about city management and water distribution, he is unable to act with her, because he sees no fruitful outcome from her activities. Like many activists, Zach is paralyzed by uncertainty and the need to make sure causes he fights for are pure and have some real chance of succeeding. His need for purity and certainty frustrate Renee,
Zach—you’re always planning. And organizing and cataloging and recording and doing every preliminary step so as to avoid acting. I think what you do—writing ads, trying to make what the city needs palatable—is great. I mean it’s a mixed bag, you know that, and you’re doing what you can in there. But somebody has got to be out here on the front line.
I have heard complaints like this one from many activists, and I certainly see myself as one of those who stalls and waits for the right cause, the right moment, and it seems often simply to be an excuse for not acting. And yet, what to do? How do we bring about real change?

Because Renee’s water action is caught by the media, she quickly becomes a popular celebrity, and heads up a plan for a NE neighborhood to secede from the city, take up the task of water distribution as well as the safety and security of the neighborhood. Before long, she heads up what gets called Sherwood Nation, a kind of city-state that cuts itself off from city services and governance. 

Soon Maid Marian forms an alliance with a person who has been a powerful drug-lord in the neighborhood, and he becomes her general while his son Jamal becomes Captain and leader of the Green Rangers.

The credibility of the storyline is shored up by Parzybok’s intimate knowledge of Portland neighborhoods and of local governance. The Mayor and city council are other players in the action that ensues, as is the National Guard which is in charge of water distribution. 

While the storyline is very difficult to believe, I applaud the author’s effort to address questions of political action and expedience in the times we face now and the even harder times it appears are coming. I’m reminded of Doris Lessing’s 1975 novel Memoirs of a Survivor in which she scolds both the left and the right for acting as if the end of times is near—that all will end in a grand apocalypse.  There will be neither complete salvation nor destruction. Instead, contends Lessing,  there will be survivors, and life will continue one way or another. The questions will always be how we will act from where we are then, and how we should act now in order to prepare for a better future. Lessing’s novel predicted much that would come to pass in London as homeless kids grew in number, unemployment skyrocketed and social services broke down. Renee, Maid Marian, comes to similar conclusions about end-times.
“There are no end times,” she whispered into the room. It was a mantra she’d taken up since her first night in Sherwood. A poem of sorts that had taken shape in her head, the words reeling out of her. “There are no end-times. This time is simply a tunnel, from one time to the next.  I work here to see us through. The darkness is a passage.
The reader is told that crime-rates plummet, schools and clinics reopen and run better in Sherwood Nation than in the rest of the city, and yet we are also told that Sherwood Nation only lasts for nine weeks. Even with the combined efforts of a multitude of volunteers, it is hard to see how all of this could take place in a mere nine weeks, a blink in history. 

Whatever the plausibility of the events described in this book, the stories of the individual characters are well told and interesting. including the intense soul-searching each does as events come to pass. 

I would say that the political aims of the novel are noble, and the questions raised about how and when to act crucial not simply for Sherwood Nation, but for us-here-now. Whether this is enough to make it a good book, I will leave up to you readers.

Monday, September 29, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I want to talk to you this morning about a beautifully written book by Anthony Doerr that came out in May of this year; the title of the book is All The Light We Cannot See. It is a book about World War II as seen through the eyes of a French girl and a German boy. The story begins in 1939, skips to Aug. 1944, and then moves forward from ’39, backwards from ’44, interweaving the lives of the two children and how the war affects them. The French girl, Marie-Laure is blind from an early age and raised by a devoted and loving father who is the keeper of keys and locksmith for a museum in Paris. The boy, Werner Pfennig, is an orphan, who, along with his little sister Jutta, lives in a small orphanage in Zollverein, 300 miles northeast of Paris. 

Marie’s father carves a wooden model of the neighborhood in Paris where they live and gets his daughter to learn the streets and buildings by carefully feeling the intricate model he has created for her. When they are forced to leave Paris and flee to Brittany as the Germans advance into France, they settle in with a relative in Saint-Malo. There the father again carves an intricate model of the town, including every structure and street so that his daughter will be able to navigate the streets on her own in case she is left on her own.

Werner is a bright young boy fascinated by all things mechanical and especially by radios. 

Doerr quotes Joseph Goebbels in a beginning note, “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” And it is radio that eventually connects the two children in complicated and interesting ways. From a very early age, Werner and his sister listen to radio broadcasts from Paris that enchant them. Clever Werner finds a discarded, inoperable shortwave radio, fixes it and begins to pick up whatever signals he can from Germany and cities in Europe. Soon, he is repairing radios and other mechanical devices for everyone in his neighborhood. Eventually, we readers learn that Marie’s eccentric uncle Etienne, a recluse who is a lover of science and classical music, broadcasts science programs from a powerful transmitter he has built in his home, and the programs are picked up by Werner. Both Werner and Jutta are fascinated by the science in the programs, the readings from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and the lovely sounds of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”  It seems simply magical to them that they can hear this voice from a city so far away which brings them both music and science.
One night Werner and Jutta tune in to a scratchy broadcast in which a young man is talking in feathery, accented French about light. “The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
Musings about light and color, both philosophical and scientific,  pepper this book, and are deeply interesting and beautifully expressed. 

When Marie and her father are forced to leave Paris, due to his locksmith position in the museum he is entrusted with an incredibly beautiful diamond called The Sea of Flames. A German officer and gemologist who begins to collect antiques and treasures ransacked from Paris for the Reich,  lusts after this gem he has read about but never seen.  His relentless search, and the myths surrounding the gem provide yet another strand that brings together the lives of the two children.

Werner’s skills with radios lead to his being drafted into an elite military school for German boys, which is part of the Wehrmacht, and eventually he is assigned  the task of tracking down radio transmissions in occupied France. The mathematical method of triangulation Werner develops to track down the origin of radio transmissions is carefully described in the book, along with other scientific developments of the day—all of which add to the story-line. 

Marie-Laure miraculously survives the shelling of Saint Malo, though most of the inhabitants do not. Doerr  quotes Philip Beck in a beginning note: 
In August 1944 the historic walled city of Saint-Malo, the brightest jewel of the Emerald Coast of Brittany, France, was almost totally destroyed by fire…Of the 865 buildings within the walls, only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.
Besides the main stories of Marie and Werner, there are also side-stories about other children, Marie’s great-uncle Etienne and her grandfather. But rather than telling you more of the touching story about the lives and intersection of these children—a story that needs to be read rather than glossed, let me simply say that Doerr does an outstanding job of portraying in sympathetic ways how the war impacted the lives of ordinary people in both France and Germany. 

I will not tell you the fate of Werner and Jutta, nor of the gem, The Sea of Flames, but I’m sure you will find those stories as intriguing  as I did. Although this is the story of a horrible war, it is in many ways a really lovely book, and one that you will be glad to have read.