Giselle Leeb Interviews Christopher Brown

tropic-of-kansas-cover-435x655Michael: Since Giselle Leeb and Christopher Brown happen to have appeared together in both my editorial efforts in the world thus far, and since they seem to me to share a certain radical sense of humor and outlook on the world, I figured there must be something significant to be learned by all parties in introducing them. 

Read Christopher Brown’s essay, “The Rule of Capture” here, and Giselle’s story “Wholphinia” here. You can find their previous work in LCRW 33.

Giselle: “There is no such thing as an empty lot,” is the first sentence of ‘The Rule of Capture’. You mention that “more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.” What sort of environment do you think will exist in the future? Will it be like the fascinating urban wildernesses you describe?

Christopher: I imagine the near-term future will resemble the urban woodlands where I live, as humans further expand their territorial occupation of the planet and wild animals must learn to adapt to Anthropocene environments, flee, or die. I am no scientist, but over the course of my lifetime, I have seen many species become more prevalent in the urbanized U.S. Raptors, coyotes and foxes have all become prevalent in cities. Urban raccoons and opossums are evolving faster than their country cousins, solving the food-sourcing challenges of our complex environment—like how to open a trash bin secured with bungee cords. And vultures seem to really thrive on all the death we create—cruising over the interstate highways for roadkill, lording over the degraded fields from perches atop cell phone towers.

While the experience of wild predators inside the urban fold is wondrous and uncanny, it is also immensely sad, in its implicit reminder of all that has been overtaken by our sprawl. If we can work harder in our landscape design to think about sharing habitat, I think we can mitigate the damage we cause, and maximize the everyday wonder around us. But I fear the long-term future is one in which nature will have checked human hubris and overdevelopment—which may be a better future for those who survive.

Giselle: You write about a realtor who can only see animals as property, a vision limited by his self-definition of what it means to be a human being. What sort of self-concept would people need to develop to improve the way they interact with the environment and animals?

Christopher: I think it’s more a question of getting past the contemporary obsession with the self, and seeking unmediated connection with the environment in which one lives. But that’s a hard thing to find—it takes a kind of tuning of the senses, and patient exploration. And even when you experience it, it is usually only just for a passing moment. Letting our landscapes go wild, as we have done with our feral roof, is a great way to heighten the everyday experience of sharing the world with other species. That aids an intuitive empathy, one science is catching up with as it comes to better understand animal intelligence and the social networks of plants.

Giselle: “A world in which the fox also had rights would be a very different one than the world we live in. It would probably not be one in which…more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.” There’s an urgency to this. How can the fox’s point of view be taken into account and how does this relate to human stewardship of the natural world?

Christopher: We are a long way from a world in which animals have authentic rights. In the U.S., at least, we are going in the other direction at the moment, with the extractivist philosophy triumphant. The American identity is so tied up with the notion of eternal frontier abundance that we are all plunderers to some degree—though the idea of the commons was far more prevalent in our early history than most appreciate. Even the noble notion of “human stewardship” starts from a proprietary premise. No wonder so much of contemporary conservationism is an expression of property rights—as governments, non-profits, and the super-rich purchase huge parcels of land to protect them from exploitation. I read recently that media mogul Ted Turner is the biggest landowner in the U.S.—perhaps refuge in nature is the ultimate luxury good on an overcrowded planet.

My forthcoming novel Tropic of Kansas deals with these themes—in part by envisioning a kind of green insurrection. That’s a fantasy, of course, though real-world movements like the Standing Rock protests show the potential of civil disobedience in service of ecology. In the end, I expect the only really effective motive force will be the need to survive, as the future scarcity created by our own consumption catches up with the present.

Giselle: Your non-fiction has a fascinating way of going from the immediate to the general and then looping back through history and ideas to the particular, with a wry and insightful humour. Near the beginning of ‘The Rule of Capture’ you say, “if this were a fairy tale, I would tell you how the fox appreciated that,” and the ending includes a fantastical element. How do you find writing non-fiction compares to writing fiction in the way that you tell a story?

Christopher: Well, I find that the trick is to violate the boundary between the two. Putatively factual prose is more interesting infused with the lyric intuition of fiction, and imaginative literature is more compelling when powered by observed truth. These pieces I have written for Michael DeLuca’s Reckoning and LCRW 33 try to obliterate the boundary completely. Exploring that territory is a lot of fun.

Giselle: How has your relationship with the environment changed over your life?

Christopher: As children we are trained to objectify nature. We learn the names of animals, we experience them as toys and as pets and screen images, we see them in zoos, or as objects of backyard experiments. We come to understand nature as something other than the place where we live. Over the course of my life I have tried to break that mediated alienation, with some success. I have always gravitated toward wild remnants hidden in the fabric of the city— empty lots, rights of way along roads and railroad tracks, bits of forest not yet tamed as park—practicing a kind of eco-psychogeography. “Sous les pavés, le fôret,” you might say. When you do that daily over the course of years, you sometimes experience the natural world around you without names or taxonomies, almost without active thought, and there I think lies the path to the everyday transcendent, where you momentarily and authentically feel your connection to all the wild around you, and see that the environment in which we live is our true home.

Michael: Thank you very much, Giselle and Christopher. This was fascinating.

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The Rule of Capture

Christopher Brown

1.

There is no such thing as an empty lot.

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2.

I knew foxes were living back in there in the woods behind the door factory, but the first time I saw one was when it was running away from a realtor.

It is curious how we can identify so many animals that we have never seen. We are taught to do it as children. Especially the animals dangerous enough to eat us, or wily enough to live at the edges of our encampments and steal our food.

The realtor did not see the fox, and I did not call it to his attention. If this were a fairy tale, I would tell you how the fox appreciated that.

We entered the lot through my back gate, and then walked through the tall grass toward the old roadbed that once led to the ferry across the river. That’s where I saw the fox. It ran right down one of the tracks of the human path, then into the dense brush of cactus, scrub trees and mustang vine grown up around the drainage pipe that empties behind the construction supply warehouse. I suspect the den is back in there, and have seen trailsign, but have never found the hole.

Most of us are better at the taxonomy of human variants than the naming of animals, even though we have no zoos to show us the former in simulated habitats, unless you count television. The realtor was typical of his breed, an affluent white guy in his twenties, tall and business casual, looking lost the minute he stepped out of his polished black SUV and tried to interpret the spot where the road ended at a run-down chainlink gate overgrown with uninvited vines, like Boromir pondering the hidden door to Khazad-dûm.

As with most realtors, this one was kind of a hunter, but not the kind with eyes trained to see movement in woods. He was hunting for human value locked up in undeveloped land, a percentage of which value he could capture as numbers on paper by finding someone who would “improve” the land. The lot was ten acres of woods above and along the river, land that had once been owned by the ferry company as its north landing, and then been a place where men would dredge river rock to make concrete to pave the city.

Capital abhors unimproved land, especially when it is in the fastest growing city in America. And capital does not see wild animals. They do not appear on its register, unless they have been captured and turned into property. And that is probably why realtors cannot see wild animals, even in Texas, where all the realtors who are real Texans are also real hunters, the kind that have nice guns and coolers full of very cold beer.

Realtors are how capital captures the wild instincts of human hunters and uses them to eliminate wildness from the world, by partitioning every spot of earth and sometimes the air above it, overlaying the surface of the entire planet with a grid that allocates dominion among the naked apes. A system which has very little to say about the things capital does not register, like all the other living beings with whom the land and air and water is shared.

 

3.

The first case you read if you go to law school is about a fox running from a real estate investor across an empty lot.

The exact date is hard to find, but around 1805 (the year the ensuing lawsuit was finally adjudicated) a rich dude in the Hamptons named Lodowick Post, on horseback and aided by hounds, pursued a fox across “waste and uninhabited land” (aka the commons, which was more plentiful in the early days of this country)—only to be stymied when, just as Post was about to strike, another local named Jesse Pierson killed the animal first. Post sued, asserting that by initiating the chase he acquired ownership of the animal. The trial court agreed, but the New York Supreme Court reversed1, citing ancient precedents to find that “occupancy” is essential to turn a wild animal into your personal property—and that occupancy can only be achieved through kill or capture, or mortally wounding the animal such that it will inevitably come under your control.

This case is used as a laboratory for hypothetical theorizing about property rights, and learning to think about the natural world in the way lawyers do, as a realm overlaid with infinitely divisible chains of human right. Rarely does anyone ask about the rights of the fox, and if they do, there’s a good chance they will get publicly shamed by the professor.

The fresh social contract under which Pierson and Post and their fellow citizens of the brand new United States lived derived its notions of property from the English philosopher John Locke, who theorized the justification for individual ownership of things found in nature by an invented counterfactual, the imaginary “state of nature” in which no prior property rights or other forms of “occupancy” exist. If you own your own body, said Locke, you own your own labor. And when you apply your labor to nature, by carving a piece of wood, or capturing and skinning a fox, you obtain ownership of the object because your labor is now embodied within it.

The rule of capture comes in very handy for people who make their fortunes off the things we find in the ground.

A world in which the fox also had rights would be a very different one than the world we live in. It would probably not be one in which, as the World Wildlife Fund recently reported, more than sixty percent of the wildlife population of the planet has disappeared in my lifetime.2

4.

On Highway 81 in north central Oklahoma, which travels the path of the old Chisholm Trail, there is a town called Bison. The only bison you will see there is a faded painting on the side of the old grain elevator.

Images of buffalo are all over the human landscape of the Great Plains. You can buy them on ball caps and refrigerator magnets in the service areas of the Kansas Turnpike, much of which follows the route of the Santa Fe Trail. In the Visitors Center they have brochures for places where there are actual living buffalo. Like petting zoos, without the petting, you imagine.

The ecology of the continent is there in the country you drive through. Sometimes you can perceive it through your windshield, in place names and long view topographies. There are remnants, real remnants, but they are not easy to find.

North of Bison, Oklahoma, southwest of the Wichita Vortex, near a town called Jet, one of the forks of the Arkansas River flows through an exposed plain of salt. You can see it on your computer map right now, the Great Salt Plains, where there is a national wildlife refuge and a state park. In the time of the free ranging buffalo this was an oasis for all manner of migratory wildlife, a place where the megafauna would gather from far away and the humans would come to hunt them. It still is a sanctuary for the waterfowl, who flock there in huge numbers. When you leave the refuge and head south through Jet, you realize where the town got its name, from the United States Air Force landing strip along the lake, and you understand why there are all those warning signs around the salt flats.

Boom.

You see it in Leavenworth, Kansas, from the scenic overlook where they let you take pictures of the very scary-looking old federal prison that looms beyond the main road. That riverfront northwest of Kansas City is a military outpost, strategically placed as a launching point for expeditions into the Missouri River basin all the way to the edge of the Rockies. As you drive south from there along the edge of the plains, you pass through other forts, and while the Indians are largely gone and subjugated, you see how the whole landscape is a captive. You see it in the brutalist grain elevators that tattoo themselves with the memory of the animals they displaced, in the grid of mechanized land uses traced on the road map, in the oil derricks pumping by the road, in the microwave transmission towers, even in the giant wind farms that now grace the flats along the interstate. The yeoman farmer that is the lodestone of American identity is a rapist who cut the trees and plowed the prairie to plant grain to feed livestock to feed white people so they can repeat the process. The Air Force bases of Kansas and Oklahoma, at the heart of the American continent, are the grandsons of the cavalry forts that were there before soldiers learned how to fly, taking the exercise of dominion into the sky. We have applied our labor to the rich wilderness we found across the water, and made it into a cyborg.

5.

A real estate broker, a fox, and a manitou walk into a bar.

6.

“Dogs are hereby declared to be personal property,” says Oregon law. There are caveats, and limits. Oregon law also declares it a crime to own, possess, keep, breed, train, buy, sell or offer to sell a fighting dog, to keep an exotic animal without a permit, to use a dog in the commission of a crime, or to carry a dog on certain parts of a vehicle operated on a highway without specified protective measures. Most importantly, it makes it a crime to cruelly kill or injure, or fail to provide minimum care for, an animal in your custody and control. On that basis the Oregon Supreme Court recently concluded that dogs are not mere property, but “sentient beings capable of experiencing pain, stress and fear” that may not be treated in all the ways humans are free to treat other forms of property, even if they may be treated in ways humans may not treat other humans.3

The Chippewa people of the Great Lakes, or so we are told by the Europeans who first encountered them, believed the bounty of their environment came from the union of man and dog. The story was told that woman, who was the first human being, had a nocturnal dream that she was sleeping with a handsome youth, who in reality was her pet dog transformed. Then one day a giant appeared, shaped the land into lakes and rivers and mountains, then grabbed the dog, ripped it to pieces, and cast its guts into the waters to make the fish and dispersed its flesh over the land to make the animals.4

The Chippewa, Ojibwe and Cree lived by an ecology grounded in a kind of contract—a relationship between the people and the animals that surrounded them based on duties of mutual obligation and courtesy. When the Algonquinian populations were ravaged by European disease that may have taken as much as ninety percent of their population, disease the indigenous healers could not combat, some Indians took it to be a conspiracy of the animals against them, and undertook a war of retaliation, aiding the Europeans in the harvest of most of the fur-bearing animals of the North Woods to clothe urban Europeans.5

Our cosmology may articulate similar obligations on our part in its notions of stewardship, but only trace echoes of those notions appear in our jurisprudence and political economy, which know only rights of possession and consumption grounded in the valorization of the human self and its physical expressions, countermanded only by such duties as our worst behavior compels the law to encode. Imagine if the opposite were true—that we were governed by obligations to protect the natural world in the way our contemporary religious traditions tell us is our duty, and that our rights to take from nature were confined by their concordance with ecological balance.

That is a dream, even sillier than a dream about the original woman making love to a dog disguised as a hot boy.

7.

That is why, every winter, we sacrifice a realtor to a remnant of the American woods. It would be an overstatement to call the supplicant a volunteer. Baited by the carefully dressed lure of a gorgeous woodland acreage in the heart of the city waiting to be sold to a corporate developer, he (it is always a he) comes to enslave the land to industrial capital. But this quest is closer to the search for the existential heart of the land than you might imagine.

Coyote_6-11-15_day_cropped

The ceremony takes place in a riverine grove of cottonwood, hackberry and mustang vine. The realtor is stripped and secured with flotsam cabling to the throne of the Texas Druid king, a wooden yard chair deposited in this spot by a Halloween flood some years ago. Adorned with a crown of chile pequin harvested nearby, gagged with the green brain fruit of the Bois d’Arc tree, the broker is “dressed” in a suit of honey made by a colony of Africanized bees in a half-buried truck tire. As night comes, a song is improvised on instruments made from the things the city leaves in the woods, a song of summoning and loss.

They say that many of the animals of the American woods only became nocturnal when the European trappers arrived. This is easy to believe, even if it is not true. Ask a beaver.

Sometimes the realtor manages to eat his way through the gag, and you can hear his cries echo along river corridor. But even then, language seems to be lost, as man becomes mere food and finds the involuntary path to authentic oneness with the woods.

The remains that cannot be eaten are mostly taken by the wet earth of the floodplain, eventually devoured by the bugs who provide food for the armadillos that forage the subsurface at night. Once in a while a bone is found in daylight by a human wanderer, but they rarely know what it is.


1 Pierson v. Post, 3 Cai. R. 175, 2 Am. Dec. 264 (N.Y. 1805)

2 World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2016, http://www.wwf.org.uk

3 Oregon v. Newcomb, 359 Or 756 (2016).

4 See Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game (1978), pp. 69-70.

5 Ibid.

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