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.


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!