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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Aozora Brockman Interview: “Kill or Be Killed”

Read “Kill or Be Killed” in Reckoning 1.

aozora-brockmanMichael: I have been waiting to ask you and talk to you about the tension that is at the core of “Kill or Be Killed” pretty much since I read it. I’ve thought a lot about what constitutes civilization, how the way we negotiate killing in order to live has changed as what it means to be human has changed. I’ve been thinking about it for most of my life–this satirical bit by the comedian Bill Hicks sticks in my head, I heard it first as part of a Tool song in high school–where he mocks militant vegetarians, asking why nobody is lamenting the pain we cause to carrots. The point being (at least, so I have interpreted) that we have to eat to live, that what we eat is something that was once alive, death is universal, pain is universal, and it’s forgetting to acknowledge it that’s the problem.

I love “Kill or Be Killed” for the intense, personal clarity with which it renders that moment, killing these little alien things that would otherwise be taking your food. I couldn’t help but be riveted by it. You’re writing about something you’ve actually experienced, I think? In other words, for you and your family, keeping pests from eating the food in your garden was a matter of livelihood–not such a common experience anymore for human beings. Too many people I know no longer need to think about where food comes from, so they don’t.

The poem, I think, invites us to contemplate those questions without feeding us an answer. Maybe it’s taking unfair advantage of my editorial position, but I’d love to know what your answers are, if you have any. How do we decide what lives and what doesn’t so we can eat? Is it okay to kill an ant, but not a chicken? How does empathy play into that decision? Do you ever look at it from the ants’ point of view, or the potato’s? Has your experience working with the land, growing food, taught you anything about how to negotiate those complexities?

 

Aozora: Thank you so much for these wonderful questions, Michael! To be clear, I do not—at all—have the answers to what/who we should kill to eat and what/who we should not kill. But I do think that you are right that the point is not to make a list of living things we can kill and those we shouldn’t, but to always question, empathize, and think deeply about the lives you are taking into your body when you eat.

In Japanese, there is a phrase you say before you eat a meal, “itadakimasu,” which literally translates to “I am receiving your life”. My Japanese mother loves this phrase, and she explains it as a way to thank the living things that gave up their lives and became your food. I love it, too, because “itadaku” is a highly polite form of the verb “to receive,” and signals the deep respect the speaker feels for the living beings (now dead) before them. The phrase has Shinto origins and has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, but the real meaning behind the words are mostly lost to Japanese people today.

Which brings me to my point: we live in a society today in which we are wholly unfamiliar not only with who grows our food and how it is produced, but with the very fact that what we eat was once alive, and that the boundary between us and the animals and plants we eat is not as rigid as we’d like to believe.

People often assume I’m a vegetarian, but, like most of my family, I am not. But my parents always made it a point to make me and my brothers think deeply about the food—especially the meat—we were eating. All of the meat we eat is from our farm, and when we eat meat (which is not that often), I feel in my heart an immense appreciation and love for the animal who gave up their life. I’ve taken part in many chicken butcherings on our farm, and I think it takes great courage on the part of my dad to raise his ax to the neck of a hen. There is a holiness to that moment, of making sure death is quick and as painless as possible, and with the enormity of the deed washing over us all.

I believe that when I eat an animal or plant or insect, I am taking in their precious life and rebirthing them into my blood and bones. And when death comes for me, all of those lives consumed into my body will be returned into the earth to feed new life. The most important thing, for me, is to always recognize that I am not apart or above the cycle of life, and that I must try my hardest to give back all that I’ve taken.

 

Michael: What’s in the cocoon at the end of the poem? I don’t know enough about the life cycle of the tomato cutworm to be sure.

 

Aozora: I still have no idea what was in the cocoon! It was definitely not a tomato worm, though—based on my research, a tomato hornworm’s cocoon is red in color and smaller than the white cocoon I discovered in the poem. I actually found (and smashed) some tomato hornworm cocoons while I was digging in the soil to plant artichokes a couple days ago. I haven’t seen that white cocoon in a long while, and odds are that they are from a worm that doesn’t do much damage on our farm. (So I still feel guilty for murdering it.)

This goes back to your previous question, but as farmers, and especially as farmers who use no pesticides or herbicides to grow our vegetables, we are trained to find and kill certain insects when they are damaging a crop. We squish small, fat red potato worms, smash squash bugs, stomp on tomato worms, squeeze Japanese beetles and cabbage worms…the list goes on. In bad years, we have to look through row after row of plants and fill cups of soap water with potato worms or Japanese beetles until the water is fizzing with drowning bugs. The experience always gives my stomach a lurch, but I think it is an important one to have, because it makes you aware of what it means to consume food, and how much destruction you must wage against certain insects in order to eat. On industrial farms, all of the killing is left to chemicals, and the killing is not targeted: instead of bucket-fulls of Japanese beetles painstakingly drowned after hours of work, whole insect and microbiome ecosystems are wiped out with one sweeping spray of poison. That means that they are not only killing the pests, but are murdering the spiders, earthworms, ladybugs and bacteria that help make a healthy and nutrient-rich soil. All of this (unnecessary) murder is heartbreaking, and it’s all the more enraging that we all conveniently forget about all of this killing because we aren’t the ones doing it with our own hands.

What farming teaches me is that it is necessary to kill certain insects because they are eating up our beautiful broccoli or burrowing in our green tomatoes, but that it is not necessary to kill them all, or to kill insects that are doing no harm. We must only kill when it is truly necessary, and when we kill, we must feel in our hearts a deep gratitude and humility.

 

Michael: I’d like to ask a process question–about how you write. How true is this this poem? Another way of putting which might be, “Did you in fact squash a big gross cocoon with sticky white insides and get inspired to write poetry about it?”

 

Aozora: Yes, I did! One summer I was digging potatoes out in our bottomland field and had this exact experience. It was during a period of drought, so the soil was extremely dry and painful to kneel on and work with, and I was exhausted from running out irrigation drip-tapes day after day, night after night. In this kind of haze and daze, I was harvesting potatoes and killing ants and then all of the sudden, staring at this cocoon I’d squeezed, its insides all over my fingers.

I didn’t know, at the time, why that moment felt significant and strange, and I probably forgot all about it for a while. But when I was back at school and tasked with writing a poem (in the style of Robert Frost) for my poetry class, the experience came flooding back. What was beautiful about writing this poem (and writing most of my poems) was that I had no plan of what I was going to write about while I was writing it, and all of these emotions and thoughts and questions emerged naturally while I was exploring the memory through language.

Some of the questions that emerged in the poem probably weren’t concretely in my head when I was digging the potatoes that summer, but came to me later, through the classes I was taking then. For example, the biggest question I see now in the poem is one not just about the literal killing of insects, but the philosophical and moral questions of war and violence. The ants, in this case, are easier to kill because they are attacking me, and they are warrior ants—they know they are putting their lives on the line. But the sleeping cocoon, all of the sudden exposed to the sun—a mere baby, curled and innocent, in the dirt—killing it, that feels very wrong. And I think those feelings of guilt and non-guilt raise important questions: why is it easier to kill someone or something that is attacking you, versus someone or something that seems innocent and passive? Why do some feel so justified in killing our “enemies” abroad and yet rail against abortions? To me, those are the central questions of the poem.

But I love that each reader brings their own perspective to the poem, and it can spark different questions for different readers. When I shared the poem in my class, I remember that one student told me she thought the poem was about losing sexual innocence, and her reading surprised me because I did not think of that at all while writing the poem. But I can definitely see that theme in the poem, and I love that poetry can open up spaces and possibilities in this way. My memory becomes your memory, my experience yours, and we are all pondering on the same plane of thought.

 

 Michael: Thank you very much!

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Emily Houk Interview: “Plague Winter”

emily-houkRead “Plague Winter” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: The more of these interviews I do, the more clearly I perceive common threads that recur through many of the pieces in Reckoning 1. It seems they ought to be telling me something–about myself, about all of us writing and thinking along these lines. “Plague Winter” touches on so many of these threads I don’t know where to begin.

Okay: invasive species. I got to talk to Travis MacDonald a little about their history, their progression, the line between invasive and naturalized and native and how it blurs over time. But in “Plague Winter” you come at all that from the other side, from the individual, the personal. Robin cares about the hemlocks in a way I understand at a visceral level. It doesn’t matter to her that those hemlocks aren’t so very old in the age of the world, that they came in only after the Northeast was deforested by a different plague of invasives of which we’re reminded by Robin’s grandmother who comes from the Mohawk and grew up isolated and displaced. And it maybe doesn’t matter to Robin that the beetles designed to defeat the adelgid that’s killing the hemlocks may bring about some other plague yet unforeseen. It’s irrational, but that’s how people work, and the natural world changes because of it–so drastically as to be unrecognizable in just a few generations. I love the way you layer all this. It’s subtle. I don’t know if you’re for setting those beetles free or not, and–as I said talking to Aozora Brockman last week–I don’t really know if it’s fair to ask. Do I have to let the work stand on its own? Do I have to come to my own conclusion?

I’ll tell you my answer: I’d set the beetles free. I think. I suppose it would be hard to say until the moment came. And I suspect I’d have given a different answer a few months ago. I’m feeling rather radicalized of late.

How about you?

Emily: I wanted “Plague Winter” to raise questions without necessarily providing answers. Because that’s real life, right? Stumbling around, trying to find answers. Like you say, the lines between native and naturalized and invasive can be blurry. I wanted the story to illuminate that blurriness, to provoke readers to consider what belonging is. Which parts of “nature” do we feel belong?

When I first started drafting this story, which was actually several years ago, I was more on the fence about my own beetle-release philosophy than I am now. Coming back to the story, I found I came down much more on the side of beetle release. Partly this has come from hanging out with scientists and learning more about biological control, which has changed dramatically since the disastrous early attempts, when invasive species were introduced and threw entire ecosystems into chaos. While I don’t trust human schemes and strategies to be infallible, biocontrol efforts go through a lot more testing now. There’s an attitude of caution around them. And then there’s the fact that hemlocks are widespread, and losing them would have devastating consequences for plants, animals, and humans. So yeah: Release the beetles.

“Plague Winter” reads like science fiction, but the story is actually historical. Based on the progress of the adelgid and the use of biocontrol to manage it, the story takes place in 2009. That’s the year that the predatory beetle Laricobius nigrinus was introduced as a biocontrol for the hemlock wooly adelgid in upstate New York, where “Plague Winter” is set. So while the story feels speculative, it’s actually fictionalizing a real moment in the past. The idea of using predatory beetles to manage the adelgid seems like this weird, out-there idea, when in fact it’s been happening for almost a decade. Ripe for a story!

Michael: Then there’s the question of what to do, as an individual, how each of us makes that judgment call, where our personal effort and emotional investment will do the most good. Most of us aren’t given the chance to steal beetles and set them free, even if we wanted to. A question I asked a lot of your fellow-contributors for awhile and got away from, and maybe should get back to: do you think writing fiction about it does any good? Does it make you feel better, at least?

Emily: These are some rough times for the planet and us who live on it. For myself, it’s been a matter of figuring out how to stay active and engaged without becoming overwhelmed and shutting down entirely. When I say “stay active and engaged” I mean a variety of things. There are traditional ideas of calling senators, sending postcards, going to a protest or rally or local meeting. Then there’s contacting corporations to urge them to join Business Backs Low-Carbon USA and follow the standards of the Paris Climate Agreement. There’s supporting my local library, donating household items to refugee resettlement efforts, turning the compost, working in the garden. Sharing skills with people in my community. And then there’s writing a story.

Does writing fiction make me feel better? Maybe a little. I feel better because it gives me an opportunity to explore the realities we face. It is important to deal in realities, now and then, and fiction is a great tool for doing that. This is the world we have. It may not be the world we want, but it is the world we have. To deny what’s happening would be a disservice to the world, to ourselves, and to each other.

Do I think writing fiction does any good? Reading fiction does me good, and it always has. So I hope that the things I write will have some sort of positive impact, even if, in this case, it’s just to encourage readers to notice and appreciate hemlock trees a little more. Telling stories is important. Language is important. We have to tell our stories. There is a strength in doing so.

Speaking of language and stories, in “Plague Winter,” we’ve got Eddie, who was kidnapped and forced to live at a boarding school where she was forbidden to speak her native language and follow the traditions of her Mohawk family and community. That was a real, calculated effort by the U.S. government to destroy the native population of the country. There were boarding schools like that all over North America. It’s a horrifying part of our history, and it’s important to acknowledge what was done to those kids. This didn’t happen all that long ago. Many of those schools existed into the 60s and 70s. As you mention, another invasive was behind that act of aggression. Again, facing the world we have. Not the one we’d choose.

Michael: Aside from plague beetles, aside from fiction, where do you choose to focus your efforts? I feel privileged to already know some of the answer to this, but would you please indulge me and tell me a little something more about the ways you’ve found to resist the metaphorical and literal plagues of this world?

Emily: When I was in college I studied human ecology and environmental design. I used to say that I went to school to study the end of the world. That was over a decade ago. I stumbled onto that path sort of accidentally, but once I was on it I couldn’t imagine a more important thing to learn about. I ended up working at a transfer station for awhile. Nothing like waste disposal to make you think about how things could be done differently!

I live with a whole bunch of artists and writers and musicians. That in itself feels like a bit of rebellion. Lately I’ve been focusing on how I can be of use to my community. In the last year I’ve taken classes in herbal medicine-making and wilderness first aid. I’m thinking of taking a chainsaw skills class. With the current global instability, I feel compelled to acquire as many useful skills as I can.

I try to fight despair by thinking creatively. I run Ninepin Press with my partner. We’re a very small press that creates literary objects in unusual shapes. We recently published a collection of poems by Travis Smith based on forgotten constellations. At a certain point in the 1920s, a group of astronomers got together and had a meeting where they decided which constellations would be recognized as “official.” So a bunch of constellations got the axe, like The Hot Air Balloon, The Printing Press, and The Sundial. Most people don’t know they ever existed. I wouldn’t have known, either, but for Travis’s poems in Zodiac B. While our work as writers and publishers might seem tangential or even unrelated to the way we think about the environment, that work can give us an opportunity to illuminate and question the stories we tell ourselves about our environment. To see the world in unexpected ways.

Michael: Finally—I want to ask about the feeling of marginalization, of operating way out at the periphery of a society, that I get from Robin’s position in the world. She’s scrabbling for a living, and to do what she can for her brother and grandmother, and to do what she can for the hemlocks, with minimal support. She operates brilliantly under the radar, on a shoestring, and I admire her for that. Can you tell me how you came to that aspect of her character? I’m curious if it was…an interpretation of ye archetypal heroism…or whether this is an interpretation in fiction how you, Emily Houk, operate in the world, or something in between? Or something else entirely.

Emily: I love the way you describe Robin’s situation. I knew from the moment I started writing that Robin was going to be a community college student. I went to community college myself, and it was an important part of my development as a human. It was so much less insular than a four year school. Everyone had jobs. Many of us had a bunch of different weird jobs. There was a lot of scrabbling. My classmates were anywhere from sixteen to eighty years old. Everyone was just trying to get their work done, to do what they needed to do. Some were caring for elders, others had kids. Some had stable places to live and others didn’t. Robin was someone I could have known back then.

I think Robin is a fun subversion of the idea of a hero. I mean, she doesn’t have much going for her. But that’s what makes her great. Looking back on the first draft, I think I gave her the name Robin so that I would feel her story more personally (Robin was what my parents were planning to name me before I was born). I’ve always lived kind of marginally. I grew up in a fairly remote area surrounded by hemlock forest. When I was a kid we grew a lot of our own food. I didn’t go to school until I went to college, and I didn’t attend college until I was in my twenties. But my parents weren’t much like Robin’s. They aren’t hermits, and they’ve been very present in my life. Like Robin, I tend to find myself in care-taking roles. But beyond that, I don’t know how similar she is to me. She’s more stoic than I am. Laconic. More like my own grandmother.

In some ways I see Robin as a cowboy in a western, or some sort of rogue knight in Arthurian legend. The system isn’t out to get her because it has anything against her; the system doesn’t even know she exists. And yet she finds a way to fight it, to get what she wants out of it.

Though Robin is scrambling to support herself, in some ways her story is one of wish fulfillment. Because she succeeds, at least temporarily. Eldercare in our society is so troubled and dehumanizing. This young woman was able to eat enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sleep on enough couches to get her grandmother a place to live. I guess it’s weird to go for such a small, brutal sort of wish fulfillment, but I’ve watched people I love get older and I wish there was a more humanizing structure in which that could happen. (My one remaining grandparent, my grandmother Justine, will turn one hundred next month.)

I didn’t know I was writing a story about grief until I finished it. I have to fall sideways into these things.

I think that if Robin were around to look at 2017 and give me advice, she would say this: Do what you can to avoid despair. Despair immobilizes. And right now the world needs us to be our best and brightest selves.

Michael: Thank you very much! This interview has in fact done a bit to help me hold away despair.

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Cae Hawksmoor Interview: “Civitas Sylvatica”

cae-hawksmoorRead “Civitas Sylvatica” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: This story I feel like has gotten exponentially more topical in the time since I first read it. We’re shown two people caring about each other and doggedly pursuing the advancement of knowledge while the world turns to ashes around them. Thank you for showing me that. It turns out I needed it.

I want to ask how you’re managing with that. Brexit starts today, as I’m writing these questions, and Trump has just rolled back what progress Obama made on climate change. For months I’ve been telling myself to keep making my small, positive contributions to the world despite so much of the rest of it falling apart before my eyes. It doesn’t get any easier. Have you managed to do the same? Are there any small, positive things you’ve been doing for the world you’d like to share?

Cae: Not to start off too heavy, but I guess I’ve always felt the world was ending. It just took me a while to work out how. Growing up through the tail end of the Cold War, I remember doodling mushroom clouds in the margins of my schoolwork when I should have been paying attention in class. After that, and despite the continued and calm reassurances of my rational mind, in the long dark when I couldn’t sleep I obsessed over the supposed 2012 apocalypse. It was just this feeling that’s always followed me around: the lingering suspicion that I’m watching something end.

It took me a long time to make sense of it. To see that civilisations rise and fall. I’m not talking about the showy and fiery apocalypse we see in Hollywood movies, social structures just quietly go on following their own patterns of growth and decay. And, despite our increasingly frantic insistence that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet, ours is no different. As far as our own society goes, we are living through the last days of the Western Roman Empire.

I don’t even feel like I have to argue that point much any more, there’s a whole shopping list of evidence that it’s happening. From the increasingly unpredictable and devastating effects of climate change, the worst mass extinctions since three-quarters of the living things on Earth died at the end of the Cretaceous, there are famines, war, refugees, the rise of fascism and xenophobia as representatives by alt-right political parties all around the world, and the prolonged economic collapse. At this point you can basically take your pick. Every day for the past few months especially, I feel like we’ve woken up in the morning, looked at the headlines, and felt our world grow a little smaller and darker.

I guess that’s part of the reason why I wrote this story. When I feel like everything is collapsing around me, it helps to think about our society in terms of the natural world, where things grow and die and decay and tip the balance back into life again. There’s a kind of rhythm to it, if not a meaning. A kind of comfort in the wider context.

In practical terms, I guess that I’ve been working on spending less time inside my head and more time living out in the actual physical world. Trading some of the chaotic (and often unrelentingly bleak) drone of news reports and social media for walking, volunteering, meeting up with other people. Helping them out as best I can. I think our society spends a lot of time convincing us to exist only in our own heads, in a fog of persistent anxiety where we are easily controlled and even easier to sell things. Being more in my body, and with what is actually physically around me, is the only medicine I’ve ever found for that.

Michael: “Civitas Sylvatica” plays with scale. The tree of civilization grows and flourishes and contaminates the earth around it and destroys itself, beautifully, against a backdrop of Atiador’s own civilization destroying itself. And at the end, I think Atiador encourages Kestlie to use the seeds he sends her to start the whole process again–though that’s open to interpretation. I fear I may be in the minority of SF readers in that I love a good metafiction. I like writing that encourages the reader to look up at the author, or to look back upon themselves from the perspective of the text. And I feel that, in playing with scale, “Civitas Sylvatica” is encouraging me to do that. Did you think this way at all as you were writing? Atiador mentions a Great Architect–I am too easily tempted think of that as you, Cae Hawksmoor, great gardener in the sky. And I wonder, if I went downward in scale, down into the tree of civilization Atiador has planted, if I’d find sentient beings planting their own gardeners and taking Atiador’s name in vain.

Cae: I can’t speak as to metafiction, but I definitely think that one of the greatest strengths of speculative fiction lies in portraying other worlds in such a way that we learn more about our own. Ursula LeGuin is the master of that, although I also feel as though I have to mention the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica–with its drum beat of the Cold War and the post 9/11 world always rumbling underneath the surface.

My favourite speculative fiction is always this sort of double image: the shadow of our own thoughts, structures, and systems of power overlaying a world that’s utterly alien and fantastical. It encourages us to look at the familiar with new eyes, through the use of symbol and metaphor. This story was definitely an attempt to go and play in that sandbox.

If you looked very closely at the branches of the civitas sylvatica, I’m not sure you’d see little people there, but I’m betting you’d find something that was undeniably alive. Something building, gardening, re-shaping their world to the very extent of their strength and abilities. And, just like Atiador and the Great Architect he worships, telling themselves it was godly.

Michael: Do you garden? Would you plant Civitas sylvatica, knowing it might kill everything else in your garden? Is it beautiful enough, fruitful enough, to justify the ruin it causes?

Cae: I think I’d probably describe myself as a mostly frustrated gardener. Plants fascinate me with their endless cycles and change. And there are so many wonderful reasons to learn to garden! To be a little bit closer to the skin of the world and learn how to produce a little of what you take from it.

Yet, despite all of this, all I can say is that my adventures in growing things have taught me a lot about weeds, a lot about surrendering control, and a lot about admitting defeat. I’m pretty certain, at least, that the caterpillars and blackbirds that currently reside in the tangled wilderness behind my house are much happier without my interfering.

And trust me, if I can’t grow a potato, then you really don’t want me trying my hand at the tree of civilisation! No, I’ll just continue to sow weeds around the edges for the caterpillars to hide in, and let the tree of civilisation do what it does, I think.

Michael: Can you tell me how you thought about the World Tree myth in writing this story? Were there any specific instances of that myth you were referencing in particular? I feel like there ought to be epic trees that play home to civilizations popping up in fantasy all the time, yet in some ways it seems a neglected trope. Thank you for contributing a little to its rebirth.

Cae: Trees are incredible creatures. They’re both like us, and not like us. A lot of the smaller trees are roughly the same height as a person and have about the same lifespan. And all the time we’re finding out new impossible things about them–how they communicate through root networks and support the weakest and sickest members of their colony. They’re just like us, except they’re also like a lung turned inside out that sheds its skin in winter, right?

They’re a gateway between the known and the unknown, but we also see something of ourselves in them. And we can recognise things about ourselves from our relationship to them. At the moment, a lot of what that relationship tells us isn’t good. I’m not just talking about clear-cutting and the worldwide destruction of our forests in favour of plantations that are basically factory farms for trees, although that’s part of it. Our relationship with individual trees can be just as telling.

As I write this, I’m not long back from a walking trip to Sherwood Forest where we went to see the Major Oak–a thousand-year-old behemoth that has the somewhat dubious honour of being “Britain’s Favourite Tree”. This becomes rather more amusing and ironic when you realise it looks like an old sock that most of the elastic has gone out of. The whole tree is strung together with cables and held up by girders to stop it from falling apart. It’s covered with lead plates to keep out the rain, all the trees around it have been cut down, and the ground’s stripped bare to help us desperately pump more nutrients into its ancient roots.

It’s a tree that’s had its day, and is dying. It only continues to live because we have put it on life support. I guess it seems fitting that it’s tied up with all the Union-flag-waving, God-Save-the-Queen-singing imperialist nostalgia-and-delusion that unfortunately makes up so much of modern ‘Britishness’. Hell, it’s even called ‘the Major Oak’. If I wrote this stuff down, you’d say I was being too heavy-handed.

To its credit, it’s worth saying that the Major Oak itself is still happily making acorns while its entire superstructure collapses like a half-burned candle, isolated from the rest of its colony over its last few days and years of its life.

Maybe a tree is exactly the right size to contain a whole civilisation after all.

Michael: Thank you very much!

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Travis MacDonald Interview: Concrete Jungle

travis-macdonaldCheck out the four pieces from Travis MacDonald’s Concrete Jungle that appeared in Reckoning 1.

While the project as a whole has not yet been gathered in one place, other pieces can be found in a number of online and print journals:

Michael: What gave you the inspiration for Concrete Jungle—what has been your personal experience with invasive species?

Travis: The very first inspiration for this project came while I was studying at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Soon after moving to Boulder, a transplant from the east coast, I was struck by the silver leaved trees that seemed to grow along the banks of every river and stream. They seemed to define the high-plains landscape in a distinct and majestic way. I soon discovered that these Russian Olives were not exactly welcome and had been categorized as an invasive species. One which consistently drained an already taxed water table and resisted all attempts at eradication.

That encounter sent me to the Colorado invasive species list. What I discovered was a richly textured list of colloquial folk names that seemed to contain a vast and varied web of historical threads and associations. Each non-latinate name hinted at a story whose origins could be tracked and followed back through hundreds of years of metaphor, oration and migration. They carried contexts and connotations long since lost to, or blurred by, the landscapes where they now found themselves.

They seemed to echo and trace the human (and perhaps more specifically, American) experience in a unique and subtle way. Which is to say, for me personally, they made me more acutely aware of my own role as an invasive species.

Michael: Where I am in Southeast Michigan, my local state and county parks are at the front lines of battle with a couple of “noxious weeds”: garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, and the common reed, Phragmites australis. I’ve participated a bit—I harvest garlic mustard in the spring and eat it. But I’m aware that there’s another kind of battle ongoing about what species get classified as invasive, what resources are devoted to eradicating them, whether those resources would be better spent elsewhere. Where do you fall in that debate?

Travis: That’s a good question. And one I’ve given a great deal of thought to over the past few years. On the one hand, I believe that the preservation of our planet’s biodiversity is one of the most important battles being fought today. So, in that light, I applaud efforts to save native species whose survival is threatened by the influx of others that evolved outside of a given regional biome.

On the other hand, I can’t shake the feeling that there is no fitting this particular cat back into the proverbial bag. These efforts are an example of treating the symptoms rather than the disease… it’s a losing proposition in the long run. Because if we continue down this path, we can only hope to hold back the inevitable tide set in motion by the actions of our ancestors.

Of course, when we speak of “the resources devoted” to this fight, in my opinion any amount of money earmarked for invasives is much better spent than the offensively ridiculous sums we Americans invest in our nation’s military budget or, say, the privatized prison economy.

Michael: I’ve recently become enamored of the Dutch concept of “next nature”—the notion that since human beings are a product of nature, the unexpected patterns produced by complex human systems themselves constitute an extension of nature….

Travis: I must admit, I’m not familiar with the term “next nature” but I tend to mostly agree with the underlying idea you outline here. However, I would hesitate to categorize the European model of colonial expansion in the name of civilization and progress (and all its accompanying side effects) as “natural.” In fact, if we take a closer look at our own evolutionary backstory, I’m pretty sure we’d have a hard case for it even being characteristically “human.”

That said, I’m of the mind that mankind’s recent (evolutionarily/geologically speaking) intervention has accelerated the organic processes of natural selection beyond our planet’s current speed of counterbalance. Our intervention in those processes now, no matter how well intentioned, seems ultimately futile. The idea that we can somehow hope to preserve a vaguely defined “ideal” state of nature or turn back the clock to before we meddled in the affairs of carefully balanced bioregions developed over millennia, seems like typical human hubris to me. The only way is forward from here. What that next nature looks like depends in no small part on our action (or inaction) today.

Michael: I love how the complexity of the ways people interact with plants is embedded in the words of Concrete Jungle: it’s not just about the way plants and people move, but about the way names and identities evolve with movement. You call it “procedural word art”—a term with which I was not hitherto familiar. Can you talk a little about the theory behind it, the process of meaning-making involved in turning data into art? Did you come to it from natural language poetry, or from visual art, or both? Do you consider your work a product of the digital age, of the proliferation of machine language?

Travis: Thanks! That complexity of identity and interaction was at the heart of my interest in (and inspiration for) this project. More than just state borders, ultimately, that’s the motion I hoped to map with each curation.

I have a longstanding love for both ecopoetics and Language poetry, both conceptual and contemporary visual art, so I suppose I brought a little bit of all those influences to this particular project. The “concrete” in Concrete Jungle, of course, is a nod to the concrete poetry movement that was so effective in combining the visual and textual into a single movement and which eventually gave rise to some of the amazing VisPo being done in the world today by folks like Nico Vassilakis, mIEKAL aND, bpNichol and many others.

I tend to use the term “procedural” as a way of describing my work as a whole and setting it apart from the more well-established borders of “conceptual” poetry and art. Don’t get me wrong: despite some recent (and not entirely wrong) assertions that conceptualism is a colonialistic practice at its core, I have a great deal of appreciation for the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place and others….

However, for my own part, I’m interested in the places where appropriation goes beyond simply re-contextualizing and ventures into the reconfiguration and intentional manipulation of language, creating new forms and patterns. Language is the only material of artistic expression equally available to all and, as such, should be treated as an unlimited resource. Simply by speaking or writing, are imposing a process upon language. We are bringing our own contexts and experiences to its arrangement every time we set out to communicate. Making those processes and procedures more apparent as a means (and not just the method) of communication is one of my primary pursuits as a writer.

The processes that fall within the boundaries of proceduralism can be digital and mechanical (my own personal tendency) as well as natural, organic and ritualistic (as in the work of CAConrad, for instance). However, I should note that while it’s my own personal belief that there are a number of writers working in the procedural realm (Christian Bok, Michael Leong, CAConrad… to name a very few) I’m not sure any of them would necessarily agree with my categorization.

Michael: Thank you very much!

Travis: Thank you for sharing this work with your readers!

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Aozora Brockman Interviews Chloe N. Clark

chloe-clarkMichael: Continuing in my campaign to foster creative cross-pollination among contributors to Reckoning 1, I asked Aozora Brockman, whose poem “Kill or Be Killed” is forthcoming on the site in a few weeks, to interview Chloe N. Clark about her poem “Sidelong Catastrophe”.

Aozora: I love that your poem “Sidelong Catastrophe” surprises us in the opening line (“I’m not sure who the sky is / when it’s not the sky”) by giving the sky a dual identity—at once a “who” (human-like) and an “it” (object-like). In the poem, the perceived boundary between human beings and nature are blurred: a river was once a beautiful woman, and clouds show human-like emotion when they “weep the ghosts / of rivers for days on end”. What, to you, is the boundary between humans and nature? And what can a poem that blurs these boundaries open up?

Chloe: This is such a great question but I’m not sure I have a cohesive/at all well-thought out answer for it. I’ve always been fascinated by boundaries and the blur between them (my love of fairy tales is probably to blame with all their liminal spaces between boundaries). I also think the boundary between humans and nature is a liminal one, or at least a shifting one. I grew up closer to nature than many, because of where (and how) I lived as a child. So to me nature has always been something I exist in, not against or beside, and thus the boundary is something non-existent. However, obviously, this changes—I think in cities, there’s probably a much more defined sense of the boundaries. But maybe that, even, is false—since the natural world still interacts with all landscapes (something that we’ll likely notice more and more as climate change increases the disruption of what we think of as the norm of weather and natural cycles).

I think poetry is always about blurring boundaries. A poem itself is a liminal space—existing between the writer’s intent and the readers’ interpretations. So maybe a poem is the best way to shake us from the boundaries we imagine are there.

One of the coolest aspects of the MFA program I graduated from—Iowa State University’s MFA in Creative Writing & Environment—is that it kind of forces you to constantly be thinking about this in your writing.

Aozora: There is a tension between power and powerlessness in your poem. At one moment you are dreaming of the possibility of solving all of the problems of the world (“sometimes I imagine / that we can solve everything” ) but, a couple lines later, are wholly without hope, drawing “scenes / of decay because that is what / we know”. As humans we know that we have great power over nature—after all, we are the ones that have systematically destroyed our environment. But at the same time, it feels impossible to halt the poisoning of soil, water and air. We are, at once, extremely powerful and extremely powerless—and your poem lays bare this contradiction and tension. As a poet (and a person), when do you feel powerful? When do you feel powerless?

Chloe: I’ve always felt the most powerful, day-to-day, when I’m focused in on something. I cook and bake, so that’s a meditative act but it’s also one where you can feel powerful because you have this mastery over what you’re doing—especially once you became more and more skilled at it. That’s an exquisite feeling. When I’ve felt powerful in writing is when I hit that sweet spot between the last few lines and the ending, when you can see the writing coming together and everything feels like that stomach-jumping feeling you get when an elevator drops a little too fast but you know you’re still safe.

I think there’s so many situations when I feel powerless as a person (which maybe is why I write). It’s that moment when someone you love is hurt and you can’t do anything, or when you’re walking alone at night and the darkness seems a little too shadow-filled, or when you watch the news and the world is so filled with horror. It’s easy to feel powerless.

As a poet, the only time I ever feel powerless is in the poems I haven’t yet written—the ones about emotions that I haven’t figured out or events that are still too close to see right to put into language.

Aozora: What do you think is the role of a poet writing about the environment and natural world? What impassions you to write? And how can we change the world through poetry?

Chloe: I don’t know, to be honest. I think that writing purposefully about the environment and natural world is good, but when people set out to do so—it often feels like just that: something they made themselves do. I’m far more interested in writing that can’t help but be filled with these things. Where it bleeds into every line. So the role might be as witness, more than voice.

Chloe: The things that impassion me are so wide that it’s almost weird to think about: I write because I can’t not (I think I’m stealing that from somewhere, but it’s true). I’ve always been fascinated by stories themselves and I think of poetry that way—as a story, just told in slightly different terms than fiction.

I want to say we can change the world. But often I think I agree more with something Wilfred Owen wrote back during WWI: All the poet can do today is warn. Sometimes warning is the most we can do. But, I hope we can also offer some bit of hope: if only because someone else is noticing the same things as you, or finds beauty in the same place as you, or makes a joke that makes you laugh. I think that can be a lot.

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Daniella Levy Interview: “The Olive Harvest”

daniella-levy

Read “The Olive Harvest” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: Thank you so much for sharing this story with me, and for giving me the chance to pepper you with questions about it.

It seems to me it takes a lot of aplomb to tell a story with this level of clarity and directness. I love a parable, I love a folktale, but it’s not easy to tell a new one in a way that feels fresh.

Daniella: Thank you! I didn’t really know that that’s what I was doing at the time!

Michael: I want to ask what sources you were drawing from. I think immediately of Genesis 1:26, where God grants us dominion over all the earth, that phrase so hotly contested between capitalists and conservationists. But I come from an American Catholic background, and I feel like my grasp of the religious lore is very limited. Are there other references you’re making I’m not getting? What about more recent influences on your style and voice?

Daniella: Yes, this story actually draws on quite a number of sources.

The most recent one, the one that really influenced the rhythm and cadence of the story, is a famous folktale of unknown origin, about a pair of brothers who work on a field together and split the portions evenly at the end of every workday. Each brother is concerned that his brother needs more than he does, so in the middle of the night, each of them takes from his own portion and transfers it to the other’s. Every morning they are both mystified as to how the piles are even again. This goes on day after day, until one night, their paths meet in the field, and they understand what has been happening, and they embrace and weep together. Jewish legend teaches that the Holy Temple was built on the spot where those two brothers embraced.

Obviously, there is reference to the story of the Noah and the Ark in chapter 8 of Genesis. It’s a story about a global disaster brought about by human cruelty, and the image of the dove with the olive branch, signaling to Noah that the Flood is receding and that they will soon come upon dry land, has become a universal symbol of peace.

“Between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal” is a direct reference to a mysterious ceremony mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 11 and 27) and the book of Joshua (chapter 8). It took place just after the Israelites entered the Holy Land, on these two mountains, which rise up around the Biblical city of Shekhem, known now as Nablus in Arabic–a hotly contested area in our times.

The purpose of the ceremony was to demonstrate that if the Israelites followed God’s word and carried out His commandments, they would inherit the land and prosper, but if they ignored His commandments, they would experience famine and hardship, and may eventually be expelled from the land. “I call upon the heaven and the earth today as witnesses: I put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Every time I read those words I get a tingle down my spine.

Finally, there is a less obvious, but more fundamental reference to Deuteronomy 20:19. At the end of a chapter about the rules of waging holy war, a rather peculiar, out-of-place commandment pops up. God forbids the Israelites to destroy trees that bear fruit in the process of laying siege upon an enemy city. “For you may eat from it,” He explains. “Is a tree of the field a man, to go into siege before you?”

In Jewish tradition, we believe that the Torah (the Jewish Bible) is centered around the experiences and actions of man. That is its focus. But I see this passage as a little peek into God’s relationship with the rest of His creation. “You go ahead and wage your wars and cleanse the world of human evil as necessary,” He seems to be saying. “Just… leave My trees out of it, okay?”

Michael: I confess, the first time I read “The Olive Harvest”, I hesitated–did I want to open the enormous can of worms that is Middle East Politics, even approaching it from the eminently apolitical position of an olive tree? But I get the sense you’re depicting what may be for you a far more immediate reality.

Daniella: Man, I hear you. Thank you for having the courage to take it on. A few years ago I would never have imagined myself writing fiction about Middle East politics. It’s so very polarizing and emotionally charged, and especially living where I do, the stakes are so high.

But when I started focusing my energies on short fiction, I found that I couldn’t resist.

I think most people don’t realize how much totally normal contact Israeli settlers and Palestinians have with each other on a daily basis. People from the neighboring village come here to do construction or farming work every day. People from here take their cars over there for repairs and washes. Israeli contractors buy construction materials from Bethlehem and Hebron. There is a lot of small-scale commercial cooperation. We drive on the same main roads, shop at the same supermarket at the Gush Etzion Junction. The bizarre paradox of this mundane, day-to-day co-existence alongside the very real violence and injustice is our crazy Middle Eastern reality. It just lends itself to fiction.

I have two other stories on this topic being published soon:Shattered Glass in Newfound, and Scarf Sisters in arc-25 (the literary journal of the Israel Association of Writers in English). The former is about an Israeli settler who gets in a car crash with a Palestinian, and the latter is about an Israeli settler and a Palestinian woman who bond over their identical headscarves at that supermarket. Both of these situations are things that could totally happen to me. (Though I certainly hope the first one won’t!)

Michael: What does environmentalism look like from where you are in the world?

Daniella: Well, the climatic and political conditions of Israel make it very difficult to ignore the environment. It’s a tiny, politically isolated country, more than half desert, with precious little in the way of natural resources. This forces us to be creative with the resources we have. Thankfully, Jews have always been a hopeful and imaginative bunch.

Until very recently, we were entirely dependent on rainfall for our water supply and regularly experienced alarming droughts. One of the responses to that problem was the most well-known Israeli contribution to sustainable agriculture: drip irrigation. I say “until very recently” because in recent years we got some new desalination plants running along the Mediterranean that basically solved our drought problem. These also utilize Israeli innovations that make them particularly efficient and sustainable.

Israel is also a world leader in solar energy innovation. The flat-plate solar heater was perfected by an Israeli engineer in response to the oil crisis of the 1950s, and Israel was the first country in the world to use it on a large scale. Over 90% of Israeli homes use solar energy to heat water.

Thanks to our vigorous afforestation efforts in the 20th century, Israel was one of only two countries in the world to enter the 21st century with a net gain in trees.

The government recently legislated a tax on plastic shopping bags to discourage their use in the big supermarket chains. My local municipality (the Gush Etzion Regional Council) implemented a highly successful waste separation and recycling program a few years ago.

Don’t let me paint too rosy a picture, however. Our two major power plants still run on coal, despite the recent discovery of plentiful natural gas fields beneath the Mediterranean. When I first moved here 20 years ago, the littering culture was truly appalling. Thankfully, this has improved a lot, but there is still much work to be done.

In the Palestinian territories, a lack of functional cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli authorities leads to some serious infrastructural issues, including open sewage. We often see and smell burning garbage in the neighboring villages.

So, there are problems, some of them highly political. But the general feeling I get is that there is motivation to improve things. Like I said, we are a hopeful people.

Michael: Have you found ways to be like the olive tree in the story, to bridge otherness and bring people together?

Daniella: I try to do so through my writing. My blog, Letters to Josep, is a collection of letters to a Catholic friend of mine in Barcelona about Judaism and life in Israel. In addition to my own letters, I invite people from all walks of life to write “guest letters” about their own cultures and religions. So far I’ve hosted letters from a Puerto-Rican-American Catholic, a Chinese-American Protestant, a Palestinian-American Orthodox Christian, a Pakistani-American Muslim, a French Jew, and an American Baha’i, to name a few!

I love to learn about people who are different than me: how they see the world, what is important to them, and what we have in common. I hope and pray that my writing helps inspire others to get curious about each other and see people who are different from them in a new light.

Michael: You mention that an olive tree takes seven years to bear fruit–is it possible to cultivate that kind of patience when there’s so much animosity in our day to day?

Daniella: You know, until you mentioned it I hadn’t even thought about the symbolism in that.

Michael: I ought to give credit where credit is due: Marissa Lingen is the one who pointed that out to me.

Daniella: I think the lack of patience we have in the Western world is a major part of the problem. We want clear-cut solutions, we want to fix things, draw lines, wrap things up in neat packages and stamp a label on them—and we want it now! Things don’t work that way around here. The trees that are native to this region, like the olive, are very slow-paced. They grow very slowly, reaching relatively unimpressive heights, but because of their slow, steady growth, their wood is very dense, strong, and fire-resistant.

It’s interesting to note that during the first afforestation efforts in the early 20th century, the Jewish National Fund wanted to plant trees that would grow quickly, to bring about a quick reversal of desertification and make the land more fertile. So they planted imported pine trees of a variety that is known for growing quickly. Unfortunately, they are also known for being highly flammable.

There’s definitely a metaphor in there somewhere.

Michael: Your descriptions of the olive grove are very vivid–have you had experience with olive trees yourself, cultivating or harvesting them? Do you garden? I’d love to hear a little about what personal experience with nature motivated you to write a story like this.

Daniella: Since I was a little girl I’ve felt very connected to trees. My mom used to tease me for being a natural tree-hugger! I loved to hold my face up to the bark and breathe in the fragrance of wood and sap. As a child in Pennsylvania I favored the maple trees with their sturdy trunks and brilliant foliage. When I moved here, I fell in love with the ubiquitous olive trees, especially the gnarled, ancient ones. They tell so many stories. Though admittedly, they are harder to hug!

Sadly, I have no garden now, but I would love to have a yard with an olive tree someday.

I came up with the concept for the story when I was driving home one day, listening to the radio, and I overheard talk of some concern about possible clashes because of the olive harvest. It’s a time when people are going out into the fields to tend to the olive trees, and this increases the likelihood of flare-ups. In general, there is a lot of tension around olive trees in this area. They are planted sometimes by people who wish to claim land that does not belong to them, and then destroyed by other people who wish to negate that claim, or cause financial harm to the other side. This kind of selfish and destructive behavior is done by both Israelis and Palestinians. And I thought, how ironic is it that this universal symbol of peace has become a target in this conflict?

If there is one thing Israelis and Palestinians have in common, it is our intense and deep-rooted love for this land. If anything, we should be working together to nurture and protect it, and invest in the futures of our children. We have very real grievances against one another and many injustices to rectify. But it is a travesty to make the land pay the price for those grievances.

The tree in The Olive Harvest is not planted by an Israeli or a Palestinian; it is planted by God. This land belongs to God. And He sets before us life and death, the blessing and the curse. We must choose life.

Michael: Thank you again!

Daniella: Thank you!

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Blythe Woolston Interview: “Agapostemon”

blythe-woolstonRead “Agapostemon” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: A disclaimer: I have just had a kid (three days ago as I write this) and thus am just a little sleep deprived, so I have gotten a bit of help with these questions from Johannes Punkt, who wrote “The Honeybee-Maker’s Kiss”, another heavily bee-centric piece in Reckoning 1.

Johannes suggests I ask about your personal history/connection with bees and beekeeping.

Blythe: I have never kept bees. My relationship with bees is quite ordinary and haphazard. When I was little, I played with bees just like all the other children in my school. We would catch them in jam jars, show them off to one another, and then open the lids and set them free. It felt daring. We made pictures of them: black tippies, white tippies, gobs of pollen on their knees.

My most recent encounter with a bee was a few days ago. Warm and sunny, the snow sublimating, dissolving directly into the air. I was cleaning detritus from a patch of herbs. The bee appeared, a honey bee. There was nothing for it. “It’s too early,” I said, but I’m certain the bee knew that as well as I did. I don’t know what became of it. Since then it has snowed.

Ha! This is really quite dull, but I am dull. I am certainly less interesting than a wild bee.

Michael: Can you tell me a little of how you were thinking about wild and domesticated bees when you composed “Agapostemon”?

Blythe: Domestication is the exploitation of an organism’s traits for human benefit. Honey bees offer not only honey and wax production, but a colony lifestyle that makes them easier to manage. Domestication also means that humans are more aware of threats to honeybees, like colony collapse. But, at the bottom, domestication is a tiny window on the actual economy of wild Nature. It sees only those things of human interest.

It’s that anthropocentrism that scrapes me.

I see it in my own life, and I’m not proud of it.

The poem rose from a very selfish moment. I was only thinking of future plums. Last spring, the little trees by my steps burst into bloom—it seemed—too soon. Then Agapostemon appeared shiny, tiny, and green ready for the flowers when the flowers were ready for her. The synchronicity between the bee and the tree decentered me, or, at least, it reminded me that I am not the center, not the purpose, not even able to do the work of a tiny, ground-dwelling bee.

One organism often overlooked among the domesticated is H. sapiens. Over the centuries, that sad animal has become increasingly isolated from the interactions that mark its role in Nature. I think we are being paid in “lesser sugar” too.

Michael: I’ve read a fair amount about the ecology in your part of the world, and traveled there a very little. It seems to me such a touchstone for the American cultural relationship with nature. But what we tend to hear about are the megafauna, the apex predators, and the way tourism and industry and commerce interact with them—not much about the smaller but important parts of our vast interconnected ecosystem, like bees and independent thinkers. What is it like for the bees in the Yellowstone River watershed? What’s it like for you?

Blythe: Yellowstone. The park is iconic, emblematic, and worthy of respect. I think awe comes first. Nothing like a glimpse of Scarface (Grizzly No. 211) to recalibrate the world and my puny human place in it. There are so many kinds of life there: bluebirds, mosquitos, things tough enough to live in boiling springs . . . but that diversity isn’t unnatural or extraordinary, it’s natural. It’s fundamental to life.

When Yellowstone, the river, leaves the park boundaries, it’s like a streamer of life escaping. The river, the white pelicans, the bison: none of them see the imaginary line, but, when they cross it, new rules apply. Bison are slaughtered because they are presumed to be a threat to domestic cattle. Scarface died because he met a hunter; he wasn’t legal prey, but he was a bear and the guy had a rifle. And as for the river: In 2011, a 12-inch pipeline ruptured and spilled 63,000 gallons of oil—that’s just one spill, and that’s just my river, the river that sustains my life. Clean up continues.

Engineering the world to maximize our benefit may be human nature, but it isn’t sustainable. As you wrote, it neglects the vast interconnections that are essential to life. The connections, though, remain. It is possible for human thinking to bend to a new value system, one that recognizes that interconnection. The transition may be awkward. It’s a vision of the world that flicks humans off the top rung of an imaginary ladder; that can sting. But it always was an imaginary ladder, the truth is far more complex and beautiful. Agapostemon and her attendance of the plum flowers is a part of that ecological truth. Tiny, but not insignificant.

Please, Michael, keep planting things in your garden to make the world more welcoming for bees. It changes the world. Thank you.

Michael: Thank you! I definitely will—and this was fascinating, really the farthest thing from dull.

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James Treat Interview: Four Found Poems

james-treatRead “Four Found Poems” in Reckoning 1.

Michael: Your poems provide a fascinating human perspective on the ways people’s relationship with land and water has changed over time as a result of colonization. I confess they’re the first instances of the found poetry form that have really caught my imagination–of the many poems you showed me, I had to struggle to choose only four to publish. Your intercession as a poet reframes these interviews from three or four generations past for a contemporary audience, but the poems themselves I think only hint at your curatorial role. Can you tell me a little about how you see the task of translating between the interviewees’ experience and contemporary experience? What’s changed in our perception of nature in that time? Do you have any sense of the kind of audience the interviewees were addressing themselves to at the time, what they expected to hear vs. what they were told? 

James: As the introductory note mentions, these found poems are drawn from interviews with elderly citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation conducted as part of a statewide oral history project sponsored by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.  When the project ended in the summer of 1938, it had generated some 11,000 manuscripts bound in more than a hundred weighty volumes.

The collected narratives comprise a haphazard archive, and the typewritten manuscripts can be difficult to read and to search.  They have been referenced occasionally by historians and other scholars, and consulted by private individuals conducting genealogical research.  There is a single book-length publication, Nations Remembered, composed of short, anonymous excerpts arranged thematically while intermingling Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole sources.  But eighty years after its inception, the Indian-Pioneer History Collection remains a formidable and underutilized resource for the study of Oklahoma Indian life.

As an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and a professional student of Muscogee history and culture, I have long been intrigued by this unique but uneven assemblage of Muscogee voices.  There is plenty of repetition and extraneous detail, but also lots of important information presented in matter-of-fact narration, and many passages that sing with vernacular English and the occasional Mvskoke-language expression.  Working through these interviews, I have pondered the possibilities for presenting this invaluable material to a wider audience.  The literary genre of found poetry offers an effective method for recovering orality from archival texts, grounding written language in the spoken word, and for performing the critical retelling that is a hallmark of indigenous oral tradition.

The Found Poetry Review describes the found poem as “the literary version of a collage.”  Working with “traditional texts like books, magazines, and newspapers” or “nontraditional sources like product packaging, junk mail, or court transcripts,” the writer excerpts words and phrases and arranges them “to create a new piece.”  Verbatim Found Poetry prefers simply to “extract a whole passage of text from writing that is not meant to be poetic, and add line breaks.”  I try to strike a balance between these polar approaches, judiciously excerpting and arranging passages while preserving the integrity of each narrator’s voice, and sometimes juxtaposing multiple narrators to generate a dialogue that reflects my own, contemporary interests and concerns.

Michael: I know you’ve published over a dozen poems like these in different venues. Do you have plans to continue or expand on this project? I’d love to see what it might look like if the poetic form were applied the same way to sources from different eras, from our era, or from different Native cultures in different places.

James: These four pieces are part of a book-length manuscript titled “Muscogee Nation I.T.: Found Poems,” which collects forty-eight poems arranged in a loosely chronological fashion and organized in three sections that correspond to the traditional Mvskoke seasonal cycle:  Meskē (Summer), Rvfo (Winter), and Tasahcē (Spring).  There is also an epilogue with several poems offering critical commentary on the various bureaucratic forms used to document the Indian-Pioneer History Project.

The central theme of this book is Muscogee human ecology and how it has changed over time: from origins to removal, from removal to statehood, and from statehood to the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936, which can be seen as an early step toward the recovery of self-determination for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of today.

Michael: I see you’re teaching a course forthcoming at the University of Illinois in the fall titled “Ecological Criticism”—a course I would love to take. That term seems like it has the potential to cover a lot of the kinds of ideas I’d like Reckoning to address. Forgive me if this amounts to asking you to sum up an entire semester’s worth of material in a single question, but what do you think the role of the humanities and the arts is and should be in addressing environmental crisis going forward into this ominous and unpredictable future? 

James: I usually introduce the course by suggesting to students that one way to think about the academic field of “Environmental Studies” is in terms of three broad areas:  environmental science (scientific disciplines such as ecology and climatology), which tries to understand the physical world and our effect on it; environmental policy (social science disciplines such as politics and economics), which tries to understand how scientific knowledge gets translated into public policy; and the environmental humanities (disciplines such as history, literature, and religion), which try to understand the underlying beliefs and practices that determine how we fare in the other two areas.  Or course, the very term “humanities” points to the pervasive anthropocentrism in Western (and some other) worldviews.  Many environmentalist thinkers and leaders have argued that our current crisis is fundamentally a cultural problem that requires a cultural solution, and it is not very difficult to demonstrate this in just a single semester-long course.  The syllabus for “Ecological Criticism” is available online and is linked from my personal website at https://jamestreat.wordpress.com

Michael: Thank you very much!

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Johannes Punkt Interview: “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss”

johannes-punktThis interview, per Johannes’s preference, shall be in epistolary format. Note: contains some gentle spoilers.

Read “The Bumblebee-Maker’s Kiss” in Reckoning 1.

Michael:

Johannes,

Here is some rambly gushing about your story with questions wedged in between. Please don’t feel like you have to answer all of them, if there are some that hold your interest more than others.

This story does a lot of beautiful things at once, quite deftly, I think, but the thing that made me fall in love with it was what it seems to me to be saying about bees. I love that it moves past the current crisis of bee dieoffs and colony collapse disorder and replaces it with something that is human-made, functional and beautiful. I also love that it moves past the current crisis without ignoring its impact on people–not just in terms of questions about who’s going to pollinate our food, but how we’re going to grieve this loss. The bumblebee-maker is employed making beautiful things to replace the beautiful things we destroyed; what’s more, we get the emotional impact of that loss, but indirectly, transmuted, in the form of Tilda’s unrequited love.

That’s how I think of it, anyway. I’d love to know how you think of it. Am I getting it right?

How does the bee crisis look from Sweden? I’m very familiar with how it looks in the US—some of us (me, for example) are desperately seeking solutions, running around guerilla-planting native flowers in vacant lots, transforming our lawns into pollinator gardens, studying up on beekeeping, while others continue un-noticing; the media keeps referring to the dieoffs as a mystery, as if they couldn’t rattle off a litany of causes. But media in the US is isolating, particularly these days, and part of why I started Reckoning was as a way to learn new perspectives. What’s your experience of bees? What do they mean to you?

How do you find writing in the second person? I know many readers who claim to be put off by it, but I find there’s a certain vaguely dissociative, dreamlike tone for which it’s perfect. Is it a familiar mode for you, or was this an experiment?

Your prose and narrative description are beautiful, and to me, very distinctive. Are there particular authors you’d cite as influences?

I know you work in translation. Do you write in English? How do you negotiate that plurilingual space when you’re thinking about composing fiction?

I’m still a fan of Astrid Lindgren’s writing, and I do think some of her work touches on environmental justice, but I don’t know much Swedish literature otherwise. Are there authors you’d recommend? Anyone in particular you think I should solicit for Reckoning—from Sweden or anywhere else?

Thank you very much!

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Johannes:

Dear Michael,

Thank you for these questions. I don’t know how to structure this like an interview; I’m a letter-writer so I’m going to write you a letter. I think that answers one of your questions, actually—you ask how I find [myself?] writing in the second person. More than story-teller, translator and poet, I’m a letter-writer. These days I do much more of the letter-writing than any other literary endeavour. I’m at home in the second person, it’s intimate and it’s weird and it’s out of place. When you read someone else’s intimate correspondence—especially when the story seems to be, perhaps, something internal—there’s an otherworldly vulnerability to it. It feels wrong but it feels close. At least, that’s one of the responses I hope for. This feeling you get when you’re in a museum and watching through the glass cage the ink spilled by no-one you’ve heard of. An original letter by Verlaine’s wife. I don’t know if there is such a museum with that specific letter, but I recently read a letter from Tove Jansson to her mother in the ’30s, through glass, so that’s what I’m thinking about now.

I babble, I’m afraid. Does that answer the question?

I think you are right about what I’m trying to communicate with that aspect of the story, and it’s always a relief to know a communication has actually worked. Maybe the beauty isn’t the point, but we humans tend to think it is don’t we? Everyone in the story thinks so.

How do we grieve the future we’re not going to have? Is it okay to feel grief about possibilities? What about inevitabilities? The bees are still here, being shipped about in big trucks all over your continent, dying, surviving, amnesiac and medicated. They’re not all going to die, really. If enough of them die, we go with them nine point nine nine times out of ten.

We don’t seem to be so affected by the dieoffs in Sweden. A British man in a used-book store the other week told me that Swedish honeybees are exported to Britain where the Mary Celeste* still has strong wind in her sails.

Swedish bees are strong, allegedly, but I’m terrified. I’m hoarding knowledge about bees and beekeeping. I have a shelf on my bookcase of just bee-books, and my friends smile at it. In the spring and the summer, I carry a bottle of sugar-water with me to help any lethargic bumblebees I see. More often I see them dead. I might still try to give them water, though. A few weeks after I’d written the opening sentences of the story—where Tilda encounters a mechanical bumblebee that some cruel kid has apparently tortured—I found a recently-dead bumblebee and all I could hope was that it was dead before some kid mutilated it, and I felt sick. The rapid temperature shifts from global weirding are awful for these slow insects.

I take it too personally.

On influences: Ursula Le Guin is a constant lightning strike. I’d also like to mention Dessa and Hélène Cixous (the latter of which I’ve read very little from, sorry) for their powers of extending metaphors. I like to read fiction in translation, and that’s what I try to sound like. Something aptly translated but foreign in origin. I do this in Swedish too. (I used to foreignize my English accent a lot more to sound pan-European when I spoke, because it was an interesting challenge to incorporate enough of other accents to mask my own.)

Oh, one other influence worth mentioning: Karin Boye, the only dead one on this list. She’s amazing. But don’t read her in translation because I’ve never seen her aptly translated. Sorry. Her story is a tragic one, and I wanted to pay some homage to her. I always do. So I’m mentioning this because it would never get excavated from my story otherwise: Karin Boye had a girlfriend named Margot Hanel, who was widely regarded as not being good enough or smart enough for Boye. When Karin killed herself after the Second World War had started in 1941, Hanel was ghosted, turned into a ghost, and people didn’t recognize her as Karin’s girlfriend. So she killed herself, a month later; what I think of as path ’41b. I can’t do anything for Margot’s ghost, obviously, but we can remember something about her. For ourselves.

And I am so out of touch with Sweden, I’m sorry, I don’t know that I can recommend anyone. I would like to hear a Sami voice on reckoning, though.

When I started writing I wrote on the internet, which pretty naturally lead to writing mostly in English, because the potential audience is so much bigger. I still write in Swedish, but it doesn’t get published (or submitted). I’m out of touch, not so much disenfranchised as just outskirted. I don’t know where to turn that’s not someone’s lofty basement mimeograph pipe dreams or dodgy steampunk and fantasy anthologies half a step away from being vanity publishing—I have a very hard time trusting anybody’s literary project. Which brings me to you: thank you for this project. You are a conscientious editor and you are creating something trustworthy, and it means a lot to me.

Do you know about “telling the bees”? When something important happens in your life, such as a death or a marriage or a newborn, you must go to the beehives on the farm and announce it to them. So says the folklore. Do you have beehives near you?

*another name for Colony Collapse Disorder, after the famous ghost ship.

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Michael:

I had not heard of “telling the bees”. That is great. As far as I know it’s not a custom in the US, but I could easily be wrong. Maybe I’ll ask Marissa Lingen if it’s a thing she’s aware of among Scandanavian-Americans.

Where I live now in Michigan, honeybees seem to be incredibly scarce. I’m lucky if I see one or two in my garden all summer. I do see bumblebees, carpenter bees and various other occasional native bees, and every time I see one it gives me hope. And I plant for them—bee balm, native asters, echinacea, sunflowers, as well as the things I would love for them to pollinate for me—apple and cherry trees and strawberries and tomatoes and peppers. I also do a fair amount to support small local honey producers. Right now I have some four gallons of homemade mead aging in my cellar. I’d keep bees if I could, but I have yet to talk my family into it.

Which is of course part of the problem. I know people who are terrified of bees. I know people who are deathly allergic to them. Humans have always had these kind of interdependencies with other species that can harm or kill them, but the advance of civilization seems to make those interdependencies more and more remote. And we fear what we don’t know. So it’s very reassuring to hear about you caring about investing empathy in individual bees you meet in the world. Thank you for doing that, thank you for sharing it.

Thank you for sharing all of this, it has been fascinating.

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