The Most Merciful Thing

H.P. Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926 and I encountered it some time in the early 1970s. The opening paragraph has stuck with me these many years:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

The over-the-top prose is part of his appeal—the man would never be confused for Hemingway. But he is on to something here, this idea that we really don’t know how fucked we are. Read Genesis and you get the feeling that God and Man are all alone in Creation. Sure, we got animals and Wo-Man for company, but there aren’t any other Chosen Folks out there. Earth is it. We are the only sentient beings other than God in the universe. Now that’s scary. This is why God is around, to help you with that particular terror.

It’s not like science is any better. Our post-Darwinian world is filled with terrors as well, seeing that DNA proves we are all part of the primordial ooze. Everything from the virus to the orangutan are our kin. Our racial differences, so important to our culture and identity, are hopelessly trivial in the grand genetic scheme. The Space Age showed us a universe that was close enough to infinite in size and age that god got reduced to lower case.

The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and  of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

That’s one sentence! I think we are there, that frightful position with the terrifying vistas. Whether you believe the universe is filled with intelligent aliens or not, the fact remains that even the close ones are so far away on the human scale that it doesn’t matter. We ain’t meeting them anytime soon. And be you theist or atheist you are still standing on a barely hospitable rock racing its way through a thoroughly inhospitable space. Step off the rock, you are dead.

So that leaves us with the choice: madness or peace and safety? And if we choose the rational course, peace and safety, we have to choose a new dark age. Madness is the consequence of understanding. See the truth, lose your mind. Stay sane only by closing it. Or medicating it. Or otherwise occupying it with such things as the pursuit of happiness. If we really allow our minds to appreciate our cosmic insignificance, we’ll quit. The vastness of the known universe already dwarfs our consciousness, the more we learn only makes it worse. The atomic nature of reality is too weird for normal people, only quantum physicists can really discuss it, but the little we do know shatters our world. Best not to think of it and stay afloat in the macro-verse.

Extra helpings of religion and mysticism come round to the same end. Only through embracing a deliberate irrationality—faith in a particular set of stories—can you have hope. Otherwise it’s an eternity of hell. Choose a particular madness and devote yourself to it and the pain of existence will be ameliorated. God will save you.

So, do we flee from the deadly light of knowledge? Do we accept insanity as the price we pay for learning? Seems like we have to. Just because science is scary doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. People have been saying ‘the truth hurts’ for a long time and they are right. So we are going to have to learn to take it. It’s hard to let go of sacred assumptions and precious notions but they are, on a daily basis, reduced to mere cant.

I fear the dark age more than the light. Technology is now independent of the science that spawned it. It will grow and mutate and evolve along its own lines, on its own power. So it can be used to serve the overlords of the dark age just as easily as the wardens of the lunatic asylums. I think we all need a little more madness in our lives. That’s not to disparage the rational, just to say how can one be rational when staring out on the abyss?

In Genesis, God stares down the abyss, the face of the deep, and brings order out of chaos. Each day our minds perform the same task. We wake from our bewildering dream world and we sort out all the shit and get everything lined up for another go. Eventually we will succumb to the entropy, our bodies and brains will decay and return to the void, but we have to keep busy creating our world in the meantime.

Lovecraft was a paranoid loon, a racist misanthrope who longed for simpler days. Those types prefer the dark ages. But I’ll take my chances on the terrifying vistas and the deadly light. It’s kind of exciting out here—something new every day. We started as cosmic dust and we’ll end up as cosmic dust, but maybe we’ll learn something along the way.

 

And all watched over . . .

I like to think (and / the sooner the better!) / of a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony / like pure water / touching clear sky.

I’m afraid I can’t reproduce the layout of the stanza—the damn slash marks are the best I can do—but that’s a bit of Richard Brautigan. I first encountered his work in high school and it was this very poem that I read. In college I picked up a copy (which I still have) of his “novel” Trout Fishing in America. That book is prose, but reads like poetry. I’m not sure Brautigan was capable of ordinary prose, a linear narrative, or even plotting. But it’s great read: sad and lonely, but funny and warm, and filled with memorable images and metaphors, and other nutty stuff that’s hard to explain.

I like to think / (right now, please!) / of a cybernetic forest / filled with pines and electronics / where deer stroll peacefully / past computers / as if they were flowers / with spinning blossoms.

Many of the locales in Trout Fishing are here in Siskiyou County. He mentions the Klamath River several times, as well as Steelhead Lodge, Grider Creek, Tom Martin Creek, and the Marble Mountains. Brautigan was a product of the Pacific Northwest and found his literary voice in the San Francisco counter-culture scene. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Bolinas in 1984 when he was only 49. Trout Fishing brought him fame and some money, but after the 1960s he was mostly a forgotten figure.

I like to think / (it has to be!) / of a cybernetic ecology / where we are free of our labors / and joined back to nature / returned to our mammal / brothers and sisters, / and all watched over / by machines of loving grace.

I like to think of a cybernetic ecology, too. I think he’s on to something here. Could be ironic, or perhaps it’s a warning, but I like to take it literally. Brautigan’s work has an innocence to it, like he was seeing the world from the naive perspective of a child, or maybe he just didn’t like to think too hard about things. There’s a simple, seemingly effortless flow to the words. That’s high art in my mind, making it seem like the writing just happened and wasn’t labored over.

But that’s where we are headed, are we not? Does the wilderness exist? Sure, we draw the lines on the map and officially designate it as “wilderness” but that doesn’t make it so. It may be remote, or harsh country, and it may take “wilderness skills” to survive in it, but the planes are flying overhead and the GPS satellites are beaming their locations and the cars and parking lots are just over the mountain. We’ve parceled out the wilderness and designated where it begins and ends, taming it for our modern sensibilities. What we’ve learned however is that these wild lands still have to be managed. They don’t simply exist on their own. They are now part of our entire ecology, like highways and shopping malls and apartment complexes. Everything else in the human sphere requires upkeep and maintenance, is it so hard to imagine that wild lands will require the same?

And what of us? Will we be better off surrendering the quotidian and mundane to our marvelous new artificial intelligences? Will that, perhaps, return us to Eden? Seems like a long shot. People have a knack for pettiness, venality, and cruelty. Will our technologies be just like us, mean and selfish? Seems like that’s the real risk, that our machines will be all too human! Either way, I dig the notion of a cybernetic ecology, and I think we are living it right now with our smartphones and self-driving cars and automated factories. In fact, we are so immersed in our technological sea that we don’t know if we are swimming or drowning. I’m keeping my snorkel just in case.

 

. . . by machines of loving grace.

I eat farmed fish

Yeah, I know. I’m supposed to eat the wild kind. And I do. But sometimes I’ll order a fish dish when I’m out that I know ain’t no Alaskan King. Long live The King, I say, all hail the hook-nose. The Chinook is a lovely beast and makes great eating, just ask the bears. And Alaska has the last of the truly great wild fisheries remaining in the West, we are lucky to be reasonably close to the source, not to mention having some reasonably healthy remnant salmon runs of our own. But they ARE remnants. Alas, human population growth and large-scale industrialization has turned many once-thriving natural systems into islands clinging for life among rising seas. I meant that figuratively, but it works as well in a literal sense. If the rising temperatures continue as predicted even pristine places like wild Alaska and their magnificent salmon runs will be endangered.

But they keep telling us to eat salmon. It’s good for us! It’s better than red meat! It’s better than other meat! It’s got omega-something fatty acids, the new go-to ingredient! And we keep hearing about the perils of farmed fish, especially farmed salmon (which is mostly Atlantic salmon, genus Salmo; the Pacific varieties are genus Oncorhynchus), which can be a messy business. Runoffs of feed and waste, pest control issues, and habitat loss are obvious problems much like those associated with terrestrial farming.

But aquaculture isn’t going away. And it’s not just because I like a Cajun catfish filet (a lot of commercial catfish are from farms), which I surely do. It’s because it is big business. The demand for high-quality protein is going up. People expect to be fed and they want to have good, healthy fish. It’s going to take fish farming—hey, why isn’t it fish ranching?—to meet those demands. And I have this terrible sinking feeling that Wild Alaskan Salmon will succumb to the demand and become, eventually, so expensive that only the wealthy will be able to buy it. It will become a boutique food, like caviar. The rest of the schmucks on the planet will get soy paste, chickpeas, and farmed fish. Not that there’s anything wrong with chickpeas and soy paste!

I don’t like to be cynical, dystopian, or pessimistic. But I can’t see the demand for salmon decreasing. Try as a I might, I can’t. And that means the resource will be stressed. So, I expect it will be harder to get. Harder in the sense that it will become prohibitive in cost or that the stocks will actually go down and there will actually be less available. Or both. Seems like a law of nature, not anything people can do, other than quit wanting the stuff. And I don’t see that, like I said. Perhaps we’ll develop taste for jellyfish. Maybe we can grow ’em in tanks and bio-engineer them to be more palatable and nutritious. What do you think? I would have thought that was a nutty notion not too long ago. But we have GMO salmon coming on-line soon and like so many other things science fiction is now science fact.

But I’ll eat a farmed fish. Hell, I was raised a Catholic. We have to eat fish. It’s like an executive order or something. “Mackerel-snappers” was a derisive term in 19th-century America for the Papist immigrant hordes. Maybe I’ve just eaten so much damn fish that I can’t live without it, like an addiction. And when you are a junkie you’ll take a chance on some dodgy shit. I’ll eat a GMO salmon. I will. I don’t think they are that dodgy, really. DNA is organic, man. Totally natural. I’m cool with that. I have to say I like what they are trying to do. I know GMO food scares a lot of people, but not me. It’s not a panacea, no technology ever is, and a lot of technology is way oversold. But that does not mean it can’t be useful. Seems to me that big problems need lots of possible solutions. If I have to eat franken-fish out of a tank, so be it. Plank-grilled, please, with saffron risotto, endive salad, and a nice rosé.

 

 

Are firelogs organic?

This weekend we burned, for the first time, “firelogs” in the wood stove instead of “real” logs. They worked great. Burned hot and clean. These particular firelogs are from Cottonwood, CA and are made from cedar and redwood. I can’t find much information about Sis-Q-Logs but they are most likely pressed together from mill waste. Now I have a hard time with the notion of waste, and any outfit that sees a resource instead of a throwaway has already got me on their side. A lot of these wood products are actually superior to “natural” logs in terms of emissions and sometimes even heat output. Some have waxes added to bind the sawdust and chips together and to make them easier to light, but the ones we used appeared to have no such extra material and left little or no ash.

It got me thinking about our whole notion of “natural”, “synthetic”, and “organic” when describing everything from fabrics to foodstuffs. Rayon is made from cellulose, so it is a “natural” fiber in origin, but a “synthetic” one due to the chemical treatment required to make a finished product. Nylon is “synthetic” because it comes from petroleum. That seems a little weird, doesn’t it? Petroleum products are something you study in a course called Organic Chemistry*. Why do chemists call it “organic” chemistry? Because it was originally about chemicals that occurred in living or once-living things. As opposed to chemicals that occur in, for example, rocks. Ocean salts are “inorganic” but oil deposits are “organic” because they were once—mostly—vast swarms of phytoplankton. (Coal is mostly terrestrial, oil mostly marine.) The key is carbon. Another way to say organic chemistry is carbon chemistry and to avoid confusion that terminology is gaining more acceptance. If your chemical has a carbon backbone, it is organic as far as a chemist is concerned. That means petroleum products are organic. Yes, that includes plastics, pesticides, and polyesters.

But these days we have organic farming. This kind of farming is no more carbon-based than any other kind of farming but the unfortunate naming confusion exists. To the ordinary person, organic means closer to Nature and less dependent on synthetic chemicals. That’s all fine. I’m big believer in sustainability and will support any scheme that seeks to improve our methods of production. Certainly industrial agriculture is too dependent on non-renewable fuels (even though those “fossil” fuels are “organic”!) and relies too much on short-term soil treatment. And pest control has to be more integrative, we can’t just keep poisoning these things and inventing more poisons when the old ones fail. Organic farming employs ecological principles, or at least attempts to, and that’s good. We could use more ecological principles in all our industries.

But I hate the fuzziness of the words. Why is a synthetic chemical bad? A natural, plant-based or animal-based poison can kill you just as readily as a factory-made one. A human being is part of Nature, so aren’t the products of human ingenuity equally natural? And I don’t, for the life of me, grasp this fear of chemicals. I hear it all the time: “we don’t want chemicals in our food!” What? EVERYTHING IS MADE FROM CHEMICALS. Water is a chemical. Air is composed of chemicals. Foods are heaping piles of chemicals. Hell, DNA is a chemical! No DNA, no life. If you want to wear wool because it is an animal product instead of polypropylene because it is a petroleum product, fine. (I love wool long johns, by the way.)  But they are ALL chemicals. And they are ALL organic. And they are ALL natural. Wool is renewable—that’s good. Focus on that.

Is burning wood better than burning natural gas? Probably not. Natural gas burns cleaner and puts our more heat per unit. But wood stoves are very popular in the high country because we have access to wood. They would not be practical in cities due to the smoke problem, and in fact many rural areas have wood-burning restrictions for that reason. When we get inversions here in our little valley, which can be frequent in the winter, we can get a smog that rivals Beijing. But it’s OK, right? Wood smoke is natural and can’t hurt me, because, you know, Nature. Tobacco smoke is natural, too. God created tobacco plants, not Man. So smoke eagerly, my friends, and hold it in to get the full effect!

I’m sold on my new synthetic logs made from natural materials. I suppose they qualify as organic, too, as I’m assuming the original logs came from forests. Forests are pretty damn natural, right? I also burn fuel oil in a heater. We have a big house and the front half does not get sufficiently heated by the wood stove. Not to mention the fuel oil heater comes on automatically and requires almost no attention. That fuel oil is organic, I hate to say. Not as groovy as wood fuel but certainly as earthy. Those hydrocarbons come from Nature. I’ll spare you my rant on inorganic-but-still-natural things, that’s for another time. But the silicon and germanium and arsenic and gallium and whatnot in the chips my computer runs on are also products of Nature. And let’s not forget the miles of copper that link us all together!

 

 

*In 1828 an extraordinary chemist by the name of Freidrich Wöhler accidentally synthesized urea (a component of animal urine) from inorganic (not extracted from living things) materials. Soon other scientists realized that chemicals once thought to be exclusive to living organisms could in fact be created in a lab.

 

 

 

2017: WET

They are measuring the rain and snowfall across the West in feet, not inches. Here in our little nook on the eastern terminus of the Klamaths we have switched from snow to rain and the foot-and-a-half of fluff in my backyard is now half a foot of glop. Puddles abound in the open spots and sheets of rainwater are racing each other down the street. We’ve not reached the forecasted highs either of the last two days and the snow is melting grudgingly. That’s probably a good thing—there’s enough chance of flooding already and sun and warmth will only add to the mess.

And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. (Genesis 7:19)

I normally love the winter. It’s hot and dry most of the time here and I welcome the cold, rain, and snow. But this storm is an atmospheric river, the so-called Pineapple Express, and it is wreaking havoc all across the land. Both local ski areas have had to close their doors more than once due to extreme conditions. Skiers like me want there to be piles and piles of fresh snow with more on the way, but sometimes the storms are too much and the hazards too great even for the powderhounds. But that’s a small thing, important to me, but it pales in the face of flooded homes, power outages, and highway accidents. Some folks have taken a real beating from Mother Nature this time around and it’s going to be a few more days yet. Thursday we are supposed to get sunshine here but temperatures will remain just a hair above freezing.

So, here I sit in the midst of The Deluge trying to keep my spirits up. I desperately need to go for a nice long walk. It’s one of the things I love no matter the season but particularly on a crisp winter morning. The streets are a mess however, and walkers have to share the semi-plowed roadway with the vehicles as most of the sidewalks are still slush heaps. The cars are going too fast and spraying icy crud all about. Hard to get into a good rhythm when it is slick and variable underfoot and the drivers are too stressed to pay attention to pedestrians. Not to mention that I torqued my knee on my last ski trip and I’m hobbled. I can move around like an 80-year old (and I mean no offense to my elders by that) but that won’t get my blood flowing. I spend half the day with my bum leg elevated anyway, so it’s not like I’m getting in any other exercise. Unless you count going outside to get more firewood from the rack—that’s about all I can get done right now.

This New Year is trying my patience. I’m not the gloomy type, really. I can be a bit of cynic, but I’m generally upbeat, or try to be, but this last week has been hard. I keep finding myself staring out the window, awed by the storm, longing for a break. Like I said I normally dig winter storms, but this one is a doozy. I’m upset about hurting myself, even if it seems to be merely a minor setback, not very serious, but irritating and discouraging nonetheless. I hope I can walk downtown this Friday for a pint or two, a meal, and the new show at Liberty Arts. We’ll see. The aches will have to subside a bit and the sidewalks will have to be cleared. (I feel bad about failing to shovel in front of my property, I normally do and take pride in it, but my knee won’t take it.) But that’s the plan. Only thinking a day or two ahead at this point, with the weather the way it is that’s about all I can do.

Stay warm and dry, my friends.

 

 

Peepland: you want it for Xmas

peepland_2_cover_a-jpg-size-600

Hard Case Crime and Titan Comics have teamed up to create a new noir comic called Peepland. I just got issue number one in the mail last week and I have to let everyone know how great it is and that it would make a terrific stocking-stuffer. Pictured is the cover for #2 which I just ordered. The lead writer of the series is one of my favorites from the Hard Case stable, Christa Faust. She is the author of the 2008 novel Money Shot, featuring Angel Dare, and its 2011 follow-up, Choke Hold. Both are great and Angel is a unique and original noir hero(ine). The covers of both books were done by the brilliant Glen Orbik who sadly passed away last year. Faust is joined on the by-line by Gary Phillips, an author with an enviable résumé and veteran of several mystery series both in print and graphic form. I first encountered him via his excellent 2009 novel for PM Press, The Jook. The Peepland story takes place in New York City in the late 80s in the red-light underbelly of Times Square with its peepshows, strip clubs, and porn shops. You get bad guys, killers, and cops straight away and a couple of likable if somewhat marginal protagonists. A perfect noir stew!

So much good stuff is happening in the comics field these days. Take a look at Image Comics in Berkeley, for example. Many people assume comics and graphic novels are kid stuff and can’t possibly be good literature. They are wrong. Don’t believe me? Read some and find out for yourself!

I was not familiar with the artist, Andrea Camerini, but his drawings are crisp and beautiful and complement the story perfectly. Credit also has to go to colorist Marco Lesko who captures the lurid side of things with bright, bold hues. Good comics are like good movies—the various parts have to mesh together to make them work. No problem here, these folks are pros and the first issue kicks ass. Can’t wait for the next installment!

Take another look at the cover above. You want it, don’t you? Well, what are you waiting for, go buy it!

Standing Rock

Imagine if law enforcement had entered the Malheur Wildlife Refuge with dogs and water cannons and attempted to drive off the so-called occupiers and for good measure shot at them with rubber bullets. I think we know what would have happened—the Bundy Gang would have shot back with real bullets and then the SWAT types would have taken over and we would have had a Ruby Ridge/Waco scenario played out again. The Feds wanted to avoid that and so they let Bundys alone, mostly, and tried to get them in court. That failed miserably. Armed white men in Carharts and cowboy hats who trespass and destroy property were told that their acts were not criminal.

Fast forward to the Standing Rock Sioux and their standoff with local and federal authorities. Unarmed, non-violent protesters are assaulted with dogs, water cannons, and rubber bullets. The use of dogs and water cannons—made infamous in the civil rights protests in the American South—was particularly shocking. People expressing their beliefs, assembling peaceably, and engaging in actual civil disobedience are attacked by not only sheriff’s deputies but by private security teams. Private security? Really? This is like the Pinkertons acting as strike-breakers! Do we unleash men with guns on dissenters? It’s bad enough when those sworn to protect-and-serve attack people under the auspices of legal authority, I can’t imagine how we can allow private outfits the license to abuse citizens. I suppose it is an outgrowth of out-sourcing. After all we out-sourced much of the Iraq occupation to private security contractors.

So, if you are a native person you are a criminal if you engage in the occupation of federal land. I don’t want this to be about race, but when armed white men can be exonerated for an illegal takeover and native people harassed, what am I to conclude? I’m saddened that the local authorities feel that their only recourse is violence. The videos from the Standing Rock protests have shown that law enforcement has indeed over-reacted and used excessive force. I’m not one to blame cops for everything—peace officers have one of the toughest jobs in the country. I’m amazed by the professionalism and cool-headedness exhibited by many in uniform. And I’ve no doubt there are protesters who lack the discipline and moral courage to remain non-violent in face of an armed response. No protest is perfect. In fact, there are episodes of vandalism, monkey-wrenching, and attacks on police. But they in no way deserve the appalling treatment they have so far received. The vast majority of those involved—regardless or how you feel about the merits of their case—have behaved properly. If people engage in civil disobedience, such as trespassing, they should expect to be prosecuted. That is, in fact, the point of such actions, to create an opportunity to be heard in a court of law. Much of the conflict is about people feeling like they have not been heard. I can only hope that the protesters maintain their commitment to non-violence and that law enforcement responds in kind.

I have no issue with the pipeline. You want to move crude oil you have four choices: rail, truck, barge, or pipeline. The oil is being pumped and it needs to get to the refineries and other sites where it can be processed or trans-shipped to other destinations. The Standing Rock Sioux feel the route choice of the pipeline is targeting them. Perhaps it is, I can’t say. It seems the people of Bismark didn’t want the pipeline either and their objections resulted in the re-routing. So it’s not like the builders haven’t been stymied before. I can understand the Sioux feel like their objections aren’t being heard while those of other folks were.

But the oil is there and it’s going to be moved in one way or another. I’d just as soon it be a pipeline, that’s probably safer and more reliable than truck or rail and can reach places where barges can’t get to. I grew up in the town of Benicia which has an oil refinery on the outskirts. There are storage tanks, rail lines, pipelines, and a port. Across the Carquinez Strait there are more of the same. Tanker traffic is a big part of the San Francisco-San Pablo Bay complex. My dad, a pipefitter, worked in every refinery in the Bay Area except Shell, which was non-union. The petroleum economy is of crucial importance to California. I understand that some see the Standing Rock protests as a refutation of our over-reliance on fossil fuels. That we should be more focused on renewable sources and be working harder to reduce our carbon footprint. I certainly agree that those should be national priorities. But our energy needs are massive and will require all of our resources. We can encourage and promote a movement toward sustainability, but we can’t just throw up our hands and say we won’t use the oil we dig out of the ground. We will use it. We’ll use it in our cars, our trucks that transport our goods, and in our power plants that make our electricity, the one thing none of us will live without.

There are bigger and deeper issues at Standing Rock than energy policy. Obviously Indian sovereignty is the over-arching theme, that once again the United States Government is siding with the developers and against the native peoples. I should note that plenty of tribes have taken advantage of their resource holdings, like the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, for example. The Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota sits on top of the Bakken Field and the tribes there have pursued oil leases for income. I’m not advocating for or against such schemes, resource extraction is risky business and subject to extremes of boom-and-bust, not a panacea by any means. I’m just pointing out that tribal issues can’t simply be lumped together as a monolithic viewpoint. Much like the so-called Hispanic voting bloc—there’s a lot of variety in such sub-groups, and it’s racist to assume all in the group think and vote the same way.

But that’s not what motivated me to write. The violence against the protesters is what set me off. Like I said I’m not really interested in the merits of their case. My research has revealed that there are a lot of variables and a lot of false news claims and a lot of disagreement over who said and did what. But this is the United States of America and we have Constitutionally guaranteed rights of speech and assembly. I don’t think any of us should tolerate the quashing of voices just because we might not like what they have to say. Dissent is part of democracy. We need to find a way to embrace disagreement, to use it to work together and go forward. We aren’t going to agree on a lot of things, that doesn’t mean we have to be divided, just that we have to work harder to make progress. I don’t claim to have the answer for the issues raised at Standing Rock. But I’d sure like to see us hammer out our problems over a table and not across a police line.