Thai Red Curry Pumpkin

I never cook with a recipe, although I occasionally record what ingredients I have combined to make a dish. More often, I have no idea what it will taste like until it’s done, and by then I have moved on to the next project. I’m never even sure that I can duplicate the taste, remember each ingredient and their order.

The Thai red curry pumpkin is an easier dish to make in some ways, for it is made in a crock pot. That means the ingredients are put in without a cooking order and then cooked for a few hours. I took photos of my cooking in order to remember the venture this time, and so I am ready with a recipe of sorts.

1.5 cup of fresh mushrooms
1 cup of onions
3 cups of pumpkin
1 cup, or three small potatoes
1.5 cups of carrots
1.5 tablespoon of garlic
1 block of tofu
1 large tin of whole tomatoes
1 small tin of tomato paste
1.5 cup of broccoli
.75 cup of green onion
2 tablespoons of Thai red curry paste
1 tablespoon of dried sweet basil
1 tablespoon of dried oregano
.5 teaspoon of ground sage
1 tablespoon of ground ginger
1.5 tablespoon of chopped ginger
.3 cup of juice from the artichoke heart bottle
.3 cup of juice from the banana pepper bottle

The point of using the pumpkin is obvious to anyone who has been following my Instagram life this summer. I wasn’t sure if I was going to leave the city all summer, so on the chance that I was, I dug up the yard and planted pumpkin, spaghetti squash, carrots, green beans, potatoes, rhubarb, raspberries, swiss chard, kale, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, lemon basil, and chick peas. I have several large pumpkins left over from a crop of fourteen, although I have nearly eaten—in three cases given away—the sixteen squash. Because of this cornucopia, I have been making squash bread and pumpkin apple crumble, although that is a story for another time.

In this recipe, the potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, and green tomatoes came from my garden. I piled it all in the slow cooker, added some fluids, and waited at least five hours. It took some time for the cooker to bring the food up to temperature, but once it did, and it was nearly done—which can be identified by the delicious smell of cooking food in the house—I unplugged the cooker and went to bed. By the next morning, everything was cooked and the pot was still slightly warm. That is more of a testament to the amount of food and the well-insulated pot than it is to how warm my house is.

Posted in Gardening, Health, recipes, Self-reliance | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Thai Red Curry Pumpkin

Nepotism and the Publishing Industry

The writing community industry is small enough in Canada that even someone like me, who is,q_auto,w_1024/zvbz8xx4nh6gvm8fmlui.webptangentially related to the literary world, can often see names I recognize in literary magazines. I also check which books are published by which presses, for that gives me useful, if depressing information about the lay of the land. Although at first blush this sounds as though I am eagerly celebrating the successes of Canadian writers, I am actually more interested in what polite people call networking and the rest of us call nepotism.

Because I have known some Canadian writers personally, I followed their career with interest when they published their work with presses that happened to be where they were living at the time. That intrigued me*iYH2f5abCUS2m4PP.jpgbecause I usually knew they were volunteering or working at the press or had a friend or spouse who had given them the nod. Perhaps because I had been burned by the literary production enterprise, I took a prurient delight in such suggestive coincidences that pointed to nepotism. That opportunities like that are made available in the publishing industry doesn’t shock people who know the trade, but the industry’s blunt flaunting of the practice is sometimes surprising overt.

A friend of mine told me I was overly cynical when I suggested that who you know in the publishing world has as much to do with your success as the craft. Only when she unsuccessfully tried to escape from the leg-hold trap of nepotism and patronage—the press founded by her friend which had published her two books—did her way of thinking about the!/fileImage/httpImage/image.png_gen/derivatives/16x9_780/canada-reads-2020-authors.pngacademic press change. She had always pled that her friend wasn’t necessarily a part of the selection process, but sensitive about the optics, she still looked further afield for her next book. The community was small, and her relationship with the co-founder was well known, at least locally.

She began by sending poems to a variety of literary journals. She wanted, understandably, to have portions of her book published before she shopped it around to the small presses. She sent poems to Malahat Review well as other literary journals whose names I have forgotten, but she was dismayed to find many of them didn’t even bother to reply to her submission. She knew Malahat was famous for its arrogant disregard, but she still believed that her reputation on the Canadian literary stage would at least warrant a form rejection.

She tried other literary magazines with similar results. The Canadian literary elite had moved on. She knew some important names from years before, but they didn’t have the clout she needed to get read at the journals where she was submitting her work. Most Canadian writers work at our universities, which both gives them access to literary journals—since the journals are located at universities—and means that they know each other. Canada only has a handful of degree-granting institutions!/fileImage/httpImage/image.png_gen/derivatives/16x9_940/cbc-book-fall-preview-canadian-fiction.pnglarge enough to have their own presses, so most of them haunt the same halls. They sit on panels which broker literary awards, and they are part of the funding mechanism that feeds the small presses, even as they are coincidentally the beneficiaries of much of that funding.

My friend became snippy when I told her that I had grave misgivings about the system of nepotism literary rejection letterswhich controlled the slush pile. She disagreed when I said I was so disappointed in the quality of the journal’s rejection letters that I’d given up on the enterprise entirely. They weren’t serious about their work, I told her, but she assured me—at least at the time—that my plaints about the connection between networking and publication were unfounded. A year later she was agreeing with me. The journals had snubbed her, and she realized that the connections she’d taken for granted—likely real friends in her case, not just useful relationships—had disappeared. She said no more about her search for another press, and soon her third book was published by the same press.

I also encountered another university connected writer who was writing a book which he was sure would be wildly popular. It struck the right tone, it was topical, and could be marketed to a known demographic. He bragged about movie optioning even while he was writing the first draft. He flew to New York nearly every month to meet with the publisher and editors, and they would discuss the size of print run and translation options. This was all happening without a book in hand.

This apparent success story is undermined by the fact that the author had never written a book. In fact, he’d never published a short story. The publisher had never seen the book, had only heard it described, and they were already setting up the bank account in the Cayman Islands. Such excitement about a book which didn’t exist, as well as such reach for an unknown author, implied nepotism to me. He worked alongside colleagues whose multiple books had never drawn such attention, but they’d also never been as cutthroat about making useful connections. He went on to win a prestigious prize while their books were merely mentioned or shortlisted. Although nothing was said, I couldn’t help but think that they knew how the trick had been done. No press would risk publishing a first book from an unknown author if they weren’t connected, and the shortfall in his prose was made up for by advertising and public relations work.

When I meet aspiring authors who are so confident, I want to know their secret. I’m not as interested in their stories about mornings spent writing and evenings editing. I want to know their real secret. Similarly, a major prize-winning book from twenty years ago was not that well written. In fact it was trite and downright cringe worthy in spots. I wondered, when I met the author, how she had managed its publication and then later won the award. Meeting her did little to inform me. She was incredibly self-centred, and as far as she was concerned she’d earned her credits.

I asked her what she thought of the university, and she heard, “What do you think of you and me?” She thought my inquiry about her new writer in residence gig was a come on. I laughed when she repeated what she’d heard, and then told her what I’d meant more explicitly. When she talked about her work at a reading, she was a little more forthcoming. name-dropped several major writers in Canada, and confessed they’d been friends as much as they had mentors. She was only posturing for the crowd, showing how she’d been hobnobbing with the hoi polloi, so she didn’t realize that she was exposing the relationships which had led to the award. She gushed that they’d taken such an interest in her work that they had edited it for her. That explained the prose as well as the award. Such writers would be on the panels which judge such awards, and even if they were not, their would be.

I might have embarrassed her when I laughed about her guess that I was attracted to her, for she had little more to do with me from that point forward. That in itself is not so unusual, for I recognized the type from the many hallways they haunt at every university. Their first questions are about your status, and when they discover that you are not useful, the plant gets pinched off and the potential relationship dies on the vine. I’ve learned to look for the type over the years. The aspiring writers who eagerly seek the company of the mentor who can give them a leg up, and the young women and men who lay a sticky track of flirtation in order to get their novel read by a press.

Several scandals have rocked the Canadian literary world lately about such, and although many mercenary mentors used their connections to deny publication to those who refused to bed them, I was more interested in the opposite problem. The ones who got published, and how that worked in the system. Like questions about bribery or money laundering, finding the truth about such the system can be difficult. The practices are illegal or immoral, and potentially very embarrassing for all concerned if they are to be found out.

On one level, the publication selection process is at fault. The literary journals in general in the west—and I would include the United States in this statement—are particularly poor at giving all of their submissions equal airing. They receive so many submissions, and their staff—especially in the lower tiers—is typically made up of volunteers or 7 Ways to Keep from Burning Out at Your Summer Internship | Her Campusstudent interns, so work from an unknown warrants only the most cursory glance. The students bulk-read hundreds of submissions looking for names they’ve been ordered to select, and they basically discard regular submissions unread.

To ignore the new writer is to corrupt the purpose of the publishing enterprise, and undermines the most valuable service the journals offer. The increasingly rare Holy Grail—for a writer at least—is a journal which might reject the story but has an employee or volunteer write a cogent comment about the story’s faults. Any good writer knows they are often too close to their work to see its flaws. Unless they belong to a writing community, or are willing to lose friends by asking them to read, they frequently work alone. Without feedback, the writer cannot improve, and if nothing else, the craft of writing is a constant search for ways to improve.

When I still had some misplaced in the system, I sent a magic realist story to The Fiddlehead. The story was set in New Brunswick, like the journal, so I thought it might find a home there. The story is about hundreds of dogs chasing deer through the woods until they become a national spectacle. They are joined by an increasingly unhealthy braggart teen, and the event balloons beyond both physics and logic, until the dogs start to quit. The story is strange, admittedly, and maybe a poor fit for the middle class journals, but I was dismayed that the rejection letter was brief, dismissive, and insulting. Rather than print out a form letter, the undergraduate student who managed the slush pile for the journal scribbled onto a post-it note that “There sure were a lot of dogs.” I had printed out the manuscript, followed the by-times onerous rules which each journal slightly adjusts to individualize its submissions, and included a self-address stamped envelope for the answer as well as my manuscript. The manuscript was never returned, and the smaller envelope only included the post-it note. That was nearly the last time I submitted to the literary journals. That experience neatly symbolized the enterprise, and contrasted vividly with the feedback I had received from science fiction journals.

Although they do not garner the same academic acclaim, the science fiction journals often pay better than the well-heeled literary journals, and accept more experimental work. Rather than exclusively focusing on the concerns of the middle classes and rigid realism, or a shallow notion of avant-garde learned while writing for a MFA, the science fiction journals like Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone and Analog publish little known authors as well as those who guarantee sales. In terms of their feedback, at least in my experience, they were more thoughtful and insightful.

On one occasion, the editors at Strange Horizons sent me the critiques from three different readers. Each comment was well considered and observant, and I took their critique to heart when I revised the story. Even though they didn’t accept the story, they took the time to ensure I was on the right track, and pointed me back to the path they thought might best lead to publication. Such experiences ruined me for the academic literary journals, which normally demanded print submissions—and therefore upfront financial investment—and returned unread manuscripts or, more commonly, a form letter in a self-addressed stamped envelope. The return on such investments, both financial and in terms of time, was worthless even if they replied.

I had always read through the offerings of such journals to see what was being published, but as I began to look more carefully at the work they included, the problem became more evident. Beyond the opaque question of nepotism, the journals publish work that interests a rather narrow band of readers. Their middle class stories are by times witty and even clever, but work which expands those boundaries does not often find its way into their pages.

In the interest of full disclosure, for those of you who haven’t read my books, I should admit that I am partially at fault for dismaying the slush pile I have very little interest in the trials and tribulations of the wealthier classes. I do not write for the middle and upper classes, and rarely write about them. When I do, the portrait is not always flattering. I have written so many stories—a few hundred by this point—that inevitably some of them concern picket-fence realities, and the reaction I get from such stories is worth recounting here when discussing the predictable nature of the Canadian literary world’s interests.

I approached a mentor one time about looking at some of my stories. He was well known in Canada’s incestuous literary world, and I hoped to make the nepotism work for me. Even though he hadn’t fulfilled his promise of a reference letter years earlier, I thought he might like my stories enough to put in a word with his friends at various presses. I gave him four or five stories to read, and so the more acerbic ones didn’t put him off, I included my story “Following Fish.” One of the most middle class stories I’ve written, it tells the story of Frank, a tooth-grinding man on vacation who swims farther and farther into the ocean in an attempt to escape his life. Predictably, the grand old master thought that story was worthy of publication, and he advised me to send it to a literary journal. He was no more help to me than he’d been when I’d waited on a reference letter, and merely told me to format my story and mail it. The other stories apparently didn’t warrant mention, and that interaction cemented my impression of him as well as helped me come to my current understanding of the literary journals’ rather specialized interests.

I ran this experiment again, for I am nothing if not a fool. This time I approached the writer in residence at the university. I included a few stories, and the man—another well connected local author—glossed over the other stories in favour of “Following Fish.” He told me to send it to a local journal, and he promised to mention it to the editor when he met him for lunch later that day. Naively, I printed the story and mailed it to the journal. Two weeks later I told him that I’d taken his advice. He didn’t say anything for a moment and then sheepishly confessed that he’d forgotten to mention me to the editor. He wished me luck with the endeavour, and assured me that they might take the story.

I learned two useful lessons from this interaction. By his sheepishness, I knew my form rejection was guaranteed. More importantly, I had some insight into how the system worked. Perhaps unknowingly, he as as told me that prospective submissions should be preceded by someone who is connected to the editor. Have he or she put in a good word, and the managers of the slush pile would know what name to search for. If such wasn’t the case, I was convinced, he would never have guiltily admitted he hadn’t fulfilled his promise. He knew he was signing the death warrant of my story, and he had just enough shame to admit it.

After such experiences I began to concentrate more on the non-literary journals. The editors were more forthcoming with feedback—even if they were swamped with work and operating on a shoestring in the absence of government funding—and they seemed to consider work on the basis of its own merit. That doesn’t mean I had picked the lock that would lead me to publications, but occasionally I received an acceptance letter, and I was nearly always assured of a respectful rejection. One editor, or slush pile manager, wrote to me about a story I’d submitted in order to tell me he wanted to have it in the anthology, but it was so strange that he wasn’t sure it would fit. He was compelled by the story, and he wished to keep it for a few more months to evaluate its fit. Such interactions seemed genuine, and although they were not always positive in terms of publication, they were almost always considerate rather than manipulative, and prompt rather than derisive.

Recently, I have become interested in these stories of nepotism. That is partially due to a disturbing essay written by one of my contacts about the matter, and also because I recently submitted a story to an anthology on a whim. After a few months, I received a form rejection—which didn’t shock me—but having submitted to their press meant that I was added to their email list. Therefore, when they sent out notices about the pending publication, I was able to glance over their offerings.

In an update from two months ago they joyfully revealed that they had received more seven hundred submissions. They would need more time to evaluate the submissions, the editor suggested, and he guessed at a date we might receive notice. Another month went by and another breathless email gushed about how much they were enjoying the submissions. I wasn’t too concerned over the eventual rejection. At least ninety percent of my stories were rejected, and my ego had never been married to the written text. As well, I knew I was competing with submissions from all over the world. The chances that they would take my story were slim. In the end, they only accepted ten stories. At three to five thousand words per story that seemed to be a slim volume, but I didn’t trouble myself any more about something which was so expressly not my concern.

When another notice of pending publication promised a glimpse of the book cover, I began to look into the press more closely. I might not even have paused over an included photograph a year earlier, but such was the Covid ubiquity that a photograph of the three interviewed together stood out. The only way they could have been photographed together was if they all lived in the same small town. People were not traveling, and even if their work demanded it, they would certainly not travel for a photo shoot. Pondering the coincidence that three out of the ten authors were from the same town, I began to wonder about its population. I initially guessed the town where the press was located had a population of around sixty thousand. I had visited many years earlier, and was relying on my fuzzy memory as well as extrapolating from the size of nearby cities. I consoled myself that three writers out of ten from the same small town might look suggestive, but it wasn’t impossible. A quick search on the population statistics disabused me of that notion. The total population was much closer to fourteen thousand.

Mere chance does not such a coincidence. Out of more than seven hundred submissions from all over the world, three people from the same small town—and the writing community would definitely know each other—had their stories chosen. Such a happenstance forcibly reminded me of interactions I’d had with people who ran such small presses. I remembered how they’d had friends submit work, even while others laboured to crack into that rather exclusive—in connections if not in taste—market.

If the stories are of equal quality, then we naturally want to support our friends, but the implications of such numbers leaves a bad taste on the page. The rest of the writers were nearly all white, Canadian, and most of them were from the same province. I wasn’t sure how many others lived in the same small town, for information was scarce on most of them.

I began to dig a bit deeper, seeing what other information I’d overlooked before I’d begun to take an interest. The owner of the press bragged that the over seven hundred submissions had taken him a month to read. I did the math. He read twenty-four stories a day.

If the average story was four thousand words in length—they asked for stories between three and five thousand words—then the overworked editor read ninety-six thousand words every day for a month. He read a novel’s worth of short stories each day, as well as evaluated them before moving on to the next story. Every day for a month. What a paragon of the publishing industry that he would devote so much of his time to his readers.

I don’t want to pretend that my story could compete with seven hundred from around the world, or even that the editor would go through the slush pile as carefully as writers might wish, but I was increasingly intrigued about the circumstances which led to the three writers selected being from the same small town. In their interviews, two of them freely admitted that was their first publication. Another author from the same province said the same.

I looked further into the press. If I had done that before submitting, I would have seen the lone four books in their catalogue as a warning. One book was authored by the press’ owner, another is a novel by one the interviewed writers, who also happened to be an editor at the same press. His book cover was designed by one of the other editors, who edited the anthology I’d submitted to, and that anthology was the third book. The only book which didn’t look like a vanity project was a walking guide, although in an interview with the author, the press owner revealed the man was his friend.

When I was looking for information about the various authors involved in the project, I found that one of the only places that advertised the anthology was a blog. CBC news had carried a brief story about the anthology, but the blog gave more information about its pending publication. I became curious about who was writing the blog. It shared a name with a real literary journal, although it wasn’t associated with it, but those well-trod coattails made it difficult to track. The blog listed no author, but its various news stories provided better counsel. The blog seemed especially interested in the exploits of the same small press. It carried a story about the anthology, as well as introduced the press’ other meagre listings.

I looked through the bios of the blog’s nine followers—for the author of a blog who wants others to follow it will almost certainly follow it themselves. One of the followers was the same editor at the small press who’d had his story accepted in the anthology. Given that the blog advertised other books from that press amongst its more newsy stories, it was likely penned by that same editor. His background in journalism confirmed that suspicion, as much as that was possible, for the blog read more like a local news source than a personal account.

I am deliberately obscuring the name of the press, as well as that of the editors and authors, in this examination. Partially, I am concealing such details in order to save the press the embarrassment in case my few readers uncover the perfidy. Mostly, I am being deliberately vague—even to the point of distorting my diction—because this story is not about a particular press. It is merely a case study in a system of nepotism and self-publishing that is rampant in the Canadian literary scene. My friend didn’t get her poems published by other presses because she wasn’t connected to the editors, and the press which accepted her book published it for the same reasons. The other man who had never written anything had his book optioned before he even had a book, while the award-winning woman pronounced who she’d known who had ensured her book’s success.

Although the proponents of small presses vehemently proclaim their legitimacy, in many cases they are nothing more than vanity presses in disguise. They are edited by friends, they publish each other’s work, and they ensure their mill grinds only their own flour.,504x498,f8f8f8-pad,600x600,f8f8f8.jpg

I offer this anecdote to enquire whether the publishing system has been so hijacked that the major presses are printing—if not editing—Fifty Shades of Grey, and the small presses are publishing their friends for academic credit even though the print runs generally produce no more than a few dozen books.

The true losers in this enterprise—although I am tempted to mention the overlooked writers—are the readers. They wonderingly plough through stories written as academic experiments even while they puzzle over how such work was published. books published because of nepotism disappear after a few years, when they have done their work of securing tenure or supporting the career of someone’s fawning friend. Then their tiny print run ends, and they go out of print. The presses know what they have done, but the evidence is buried through a complicit lack of interest and poor sales.

“We’re not trade publishers,” they proudly proclaim. “We only publish the best.” shout this to each other in a closed room over wine even while the warehouse smoulders and the unsold books are alight.

Posted in Culture, Literature, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Nepotism and the Publishing Industry

Teaching Farley Mowat

Farley Mowat occupies a curious position in Canadian letters. He is a kind of Ernest Hemingway of the north, but in the academic world of English study, he is never dressed well enough to be invited to the party. Some might protest that he does not deserve to be at the same table where Margaret Atwood and Margaret Lawrence are sharing a cheese ball with Alice Munro, or Daphne Marlatt is into the wine with Leonard Cohen, where Timothy Findley and Robert Kroetsch are returning to the bar, and Fred Wah and Aritha van Herk are recruiting for the west. Others claim that the party is open to those more iconoclastic than Mowat, and they point to his credentials as the problem. The other writers are the grand old masters of the field, so goes the argument, and at such formal dress events, Mowat’s attempt at a tweed jacket with shoulder patches just wasn’t believable. Like Bert Archer suggests, “He looked like a mountain man, sounded like your rude brother-in-law from the sticks” ( Hardly the sort one would invite to fine dining.

When I was young enough to assume the attitude of the academy, I internalized this argument enough to guess that Mowat’s prose was simplistic and his theorizing shallow. At that time I might have agreed with Professor Emeritus Sam Solecki in his statement about Mowat’s welcome at a formal dinner:

Mowat’s place and stature on university courses remained wonky throughout his career because his books were not easy to place in academic courses, His popular novels weren’t strong enough to stand by the side of MacLennan, Richler, Munro and their peers. (

Only upon rereading some of Mowat’s books as an adult, have I returned to the matter with more questions than answers. Even though the relatively straightforward The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float and The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be had their roots in young adult writing, they were wittily written, clever in their execution, and captured as much of a moment in time as Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, although he evaded their deep dive into the tribulations of the middle classes. His celebration of the natural world, or feelings of connection to things as much as the other concentrated on relations with people, might have been estranging for that crowd, but his prose style was not less for the difference in direction.

I’ve been teaching at Canadian and American universities in Canada now for over twenty years, and I have yet to see Farley Mowat on the syllabus of any English literature course. Somehow, despite being as familiar and venerable a figure as Margaret Atwood, despite his many awards and translated texts, he escapes their notice. As his absence on syllabi became more obvious, and the blank looks when I asked about him became common enough to become significant, I went back through his texts mentally in order to see what might inspire such devotion in his audience and such subtle derision in his potential champions.

I think the academy sees his writing as,204,203,200_.jpgtoo journalistic. In their collective mind he is a hack. His novelistic flourishes and literary craft are merely window dressing to sell what they would see as his latest pamphlet. A Whale for the Killing earned him the animosity of Newfoundland in general, and notoriety in Canada, but it was also scarcely calculated to engender the respect of the literary halls. He spoke about people as far from the literary journals as possible, with his working class heroes and underclass poverty. While the academy’s favourite writers were just beginning to dive into the personal narratives about family self that would make their career, from People of the Deer onwards he was celebrating and excoriating the world around him.

Like a good journalist, he carefully observed Canada’s north, animals, native people, Siberia, the coastal life of the Maritimes, archeological findings, and a dozen other passions, and although he wrote himself into his books, they were not primarily about him. They looked at a real world that he made fantastical. He brought obscurity into the light and obscured those elements which were already brightly lit.

Some critics have made much of his stated wish to “never let the facts get in the way of the truth,” and they point to the tenets of journalism he is ostensibly undermining. The public imagination has relatively limited tastes, however, and even if he looks for passion like a bearded Canadian version of Werner Herzog, it still fails to explain why his invitation to the party has always been lost. The writers feted by the academy—who are also a part of it since so many of them have positions—have also bent the truth. Timothy Findley’s The Wars, George Bowering’s Burning Water, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, and Aritha Van Herk’s No Fixed Address, but the champagne glass somehow still found its way into their hand.

I think the main difficulty the academy has with Mowat has less to do with his journalistic writing, and his bending of the truth, but rather what he chose as his topics. He wrote about the poor, the dispossessed, the forgotten, and he did it without pretending that their life was his. He didn’t myopically examine the imagined poverty of the Canadian literary canon, but rather talked to the people at hand and found his narrative in their experience. He was a traveller,!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/4x3_1180/sea-of-slaughter.jpgand more than the city authors cowering along the Canadian border cities of Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver and Calgary, he ranged over land that others would require the Group of Seven to understand. He sailed off the eastern coast, and confronted eastern storms on the Atlantic just like the jackotars he imagined in In that speculative evocation of the past, he described the harbours along Greenland to support his case of former inhabitants, and walked around the Brochs on the two continents to guess at their builders.

Caught between the status of outsider artist like Henry Darger, Miroslav Tichý, and Vivian Maier and a journalistic fervour which drove him to expose Canada’s treatment of indigenous people, to tell the story of little known professions like tugboat captains and Dian Fossey’s work with mountain gorillas, he likely knew the wine and cheese were never for him. I would also guess, if we may use his significant contribution!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_804/david-suzuki-farley-mowat-jpg.jpgto the Nova Scotia Nature Trust as an indication, that he might have torn the invitations as they arrived. He might have found flights between Toronto and Vancouver with hundreds of other academic literary writers tiring, even as he wished he was trailing behind a dog team on a thousand kilometre trek in what came to be Nunavut. Solecki claims that Mowat had chosen a different audience for his books, and “that his legacy will depend on the fate of those works that turned our attention north, to socio-political and environmental issues that are still with us” ( People raised on the middle and upper class novels of manners of the southern cities would never have encountered the struggles of working people, or those of the Inuit in the far north of Mowat’s Canada.

If we return to the, it behooves us to carefully examine the self-contained Canadian writing community. Some of the older writers have become lecherous with inebriation, the younger ones fawning and flattering, and in between others belch over self-congratulatory praise and nepotism. The observant guest will remember to check on the staff. In between carrying drinks to the guests, cleaning up vomit in the bathroom, and stocking the bar, the next Farley Mowat is rumpling their staff uniform as they scribble during their break.

Afforded little time and boundless,imgsize-368642,width-400,resizemode-4/75991482.jpgenergy, a deep empathy for the impoverished and a delight in their stories, they will likely forget their duties to the wealthy guests. No doubt they will be fired by the very people who claim to celebrate new Canadian voices. If, like Mowat, they are undaunted, they will write what makes them a living, and strive to tell the stories which represent their own voice and that of others who have yet to be invited to the Canadian literary party.

Posted in Activism, Culture, Environmentalism, Literature, Writing | Tagged , | Comments Off on Teaching Farley Mowat

Travelling Without Geography

Most people around the world marvel when American television shows feature street geography quizzes and Americans cannot point to a single country on a map. The subsequent discussion usually centres around the failing American education system, the geographical ignorance that citizens of powerful nations are allowed, and a squabble from the Americans themselves about cherry picking interviews and fake news. As impossible as it is to understand the thought processes of such people, I have often been intrigued by the blank slate of their interests or education.

My friend who worked in tourism had similar encounters with travellers who had no idea where they were. When she worked on Vancouver Island, RV-driving tourists would frequently claim that they’d arrived on the island by a causeway. With access to the island limited to a nearly two-hour ferry ride, she would usually argue with them.

Once confronted, she told me, they would dig in their heels and demand that they’d driven onto the island. “That’s fine,” she would eventually accede. “Just make sure you take the causeway when you go home. Don’t take the ferry service.”

My friend Lisa worked in a call centre doing roadside assistance. Her job became more,w_1120/g_south,l_text:style_gothic2:%C2%A9%20Ion%20Chiosea,o_20,y_10/g_center,l_watermark4,o_25,y_50/v1503007158/mbactsvypgytbt9n9wm5.jpginvolved and demanding when callers stranded beside their car could not describe where they were. Although they were frequently livid at her obstinacy when she didn’t immediately send a tow truck, Lisa was intrigued by what she saw as a mathematical word problem. If Train A is leaving Pittsburgh travelling at seventy kilometres an hour and passes Train B returning from Montreal at sixty kilometres an hour, at what point on the three hundred kilometre track will they cross?

Like many of us she’d encountered similar word questions in school, but she was suddenly asked to become proficient in calculation and surmise. She would calm the irate customers, gently tell them that if she had no idea where they were, then she couldn’t send assistance and they might be stranded forever. The threat of being permanently off the grid would scare them into compliance and she could ask them to recall where they were going.

She would then piece together what little the drivers knew, trying to isolate their particular dirt road. She used distance and time calculations, landmarks, and got to know tow truck drivers fairly well. She used skills she thought were dormant, left over from strategy games such as Battleship, as she asked them where they lived, how long they had been driving, what direction they were going or, failing that, whether they were driving into or away from the sun. Some of them would remember a gas station “some time back,” or a cute boat sitting in a front yard. Others knew where they’d stopped at a McDonald’s and how the petting zoo across the street was closed.

Sorting through their scanty recollections and faulty guesses, she would finally send a tow truck in a direction, hoping that the driver was on pavement like they!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_780/truck-sinks.jpg described—some people had to get out of the vehicle to check—or near the creek they’d possibly mislabelled a river. She spent hours using Google maps to find an Exxon station nowhere near a river, finding the wrong town, wrong county, wrong state.

I had my own encounter with a similar geographical confusion and although the conversation happened more than twenty-five years ago, and I have long forgotten the particular towns and villages Loraine lived near or in, I remember her inability to describe where she lived and my shock at the implications of her confident ignorance.

When Loraine told me that she came from Florida, I asked her where in Florida. This conversational back and forth was meant to put her at ease more than grill her about her home, but the question backfired.

“I live in Turnipville,” she told me.

“What is that near?” I asked her.

“Potato town.”

“Any other places I might have heard of?”

“Broccoli Village, but that is small. Maybe Rhubarbton.”

“Are you near Miami? Or Jacksonville? Tallahasse?” I thought I would try the extreme south and north, as well as the capital, and in that way jog her memory.

She looked pensive for a moment and then shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

I grew more determined. “Orlando? You know, Disney World?”

“I’ve never gone there.”

“Are you on the Gulf Coast? Ever hear of Fort Myers? Tampa?”

“Of course I’ve heard of them.” She became testy at the suggestion.

I waited. “Are you near them?”

“Celeryton? That’s nearby.”

I started ticking off what cities I knew on my fingers, hoping one of them would startle her into awareness that she lived just beyond its borders. “Fort Myers, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Clearwater, Orlando, Daytona.”


“Jacksonville, Tallahasse,” I tried again.

She was confused by my persistence and I finally let it go, I simply had to admit that she’d somehow travelled to Canada from her home state of Florida though she had no idea where she lived in the greater Florida context. I imagined that she had merely told her local bus station that she wanted to go to Canada, and when she was buying a ticket in a larger centre, she mentioned New Brunswick, Canada.

If she’d encountered someone like herself, they would have flummoxed, but with the bus system computers in front of them, they merely looked up where she needed to go and the system generated the needed tickets. They may have had no more idea where she needed to go than her. Going home would require a similar system. She would buy a ticket for Florida at the local Canadian bus station and the staff whose job it is to ensure their passengers arrive at their destination would get her to a city in northern Florida. From there, they would be able to search for her local village of Turnipville, and she would pay for the series of tickets which would rewind her journey back to her home.

The most startling aspect to the whole encounter for me was the impossibility of imagining how someone could blithely leave their home and not really know they lived. Her profound trust in the system—that the bus station workers would not send her to another Turnipville in another state—was horrifying. She did not care at all that she couldn’t describe where she lived. In fact, she was slightly derisive that I couldn’t locate Turnipville on my mental map without the extensive assistance of how close she lived to a city.

I was reminded of the early wanderers in human history, who travelled the by-times-dangerous Silk Road or traded between the Mound Builder culture of the Americas. Without a map, operating sometimes only on stories, those brave and curious early travellers crossed invisible borders, had to cope with new customs and rules, and still persisted in knitting early human culture together by reaching out to their neighbours.

That was an easier task for the Australian, who followed the songlines or dreamlines of their ancestors. The ancient songs dictated the directions or travel, landmarks, the language varied with local languages, and travellers along the songlines were protected by the obligations of all peoples to the sacred nature of the journey. Despite much of the interior resembling a trackless waste, it is crisscrossed with a cognitive and cultural map which both brings the land to life, identifies important landmarks, and provides safe travel for the Aborigines along the routes.

In many ways, those ancient travellers still walk amongst us. They have the benefit of maps and GPS, but are drawn instead to the adventure. Like the early wanderers relied on their gods to help them and cried to the sky when they were in trouble, the modern motorist cries into their phone. Without knowing where they are or where they were going, they hope to still be saved.

Perhaps the internet, with Google map services and blogs devoted to famous spots along each route, is the modern traveller’s songline. Rather than trouble themselves to learn the song, and thus walk it out across the land, they instead play catch up when they are lost by calling upon the internet as a depository of human geographical knowledge. their god on speed dial, they reject having to learn the songline themselves, and hopefully the system will continue to protect the tourists in the RVs, the motorist by their stalled engine on the pavement, and Loraine as she tries to find her home while ignoring a bewildering wilderness of place names and locations.

Posted in Ancient Peoples, Culture, Education, Internet, Self-reliance, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Travelling Without Geography

Excerpt from the second in the Life at Sea series: Landlocked

He tried to recover the salt air, the yelling men in the rigging, and the other piecemeal accoutrements of the nautical life.

He rarely imagined himself on a, although Moby Dick had taught him to expect the hardy meals of cabin bread and salt pork, the backslapping and desperation and fear of the breeching whale. Instead, he was on a ship of the line, by times ferrying passengers to the new world, watching the eager faces turned toward port as their dreams hovered just beyond a horizon that even they couldn’t see.

The steamships also put in their appearances, and he’d been an oiler, running from shaft to shaft an oil can slippery with his sweat, or commanding others to crawl into holes while the massive engine idled, all potential energy pointed toward wreaking destruction but channeled into a narrow tube. The coal burners needed shovelers almost constantly, and he was black by the end of his shift, but above decks the white gloves of a steward covered the burn marks from sparking coals.

Sometimes he was a Joshua Slocum, recently vacating the naval yards for the smell of wood and tar. He turned in Slocum’s narrow bunk as the winds howled outside the port or near at hand canoes from the shore gingerly crept upon him in the night.

Kon Tiki was also there, as he hauled in lines with half a dozen other bearded men, their girlfriends and wives forgotten in the thrash of the waves. He could see the broad desert that was the ocean, the lift and settle of the shack behind the heaving waves, and sense the Paul Gauguin greetings of native women, their limbs Tahitian brown and their breasts half uncovered while they laughed shyly behind their hand.

Posted in Literature | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Excerpt from the second in the Life at Sea series: Landlocked

Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Covid

News about the Covid 19 virus has become a ubiquitous backdrop in our lives, and the media’s frenzy in our lives has become more ubiquitous than the trappings!/cpImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_780/covid-que-20200926.jpgof the disease itself. More than masks and people side-eying while they avoid others, Covid news either placates or terrifies, although much of it is rhetorical rather than substantive, at least in the way that it is conveyed.

With each media source competing for our attention, the Covid stories either tend toward the outlandish—think of Trump’s advice about mainlining antiseptic—or garden variety fearmongering. More recently, perhaps recent work on the virus’ inner workings is understandably slow, our media has begun to play a blame game. It has become fashionable to blame the ponderous steps of governments, the intrusion into our bubbles of foreigners, or young people.

I am sure most people are familiar with the headlines about young people going on spring break, for the sept-and-octogenarians everywhere were horrified that youth might return with the virus. Many Canadian news stories proclaimed that new cases were predominantly amongst young people, and some headlines even gleefully featured the single and unfortunate death of a man who was nineteen. Without much information about the poor man’s co-morbidities, the headlines continued claiming that young people everywhere were partying too much while Rome burned, and there was much discussion about how the younger generation cared about nothing:

Dr. Prabhat Jha, a professor of global health in the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine, said the demographics of COVID-19 have shifted nationwide, with new cases being driven primarily by people aged 20 to 39.

“The current sets of new infections, right throughout the country, are occurring in younger people. The vast majority are below age 40,” he said. “That’s attributable to close contacts, particularly in parties or in indoor spaces without distancing or masks.” (

Not surprisingly, this type of boomer talk sells news, for boomers make up most of the audience of the major media outlets, but such statements obscure the situation of people under forty. They make up half the population in Canada ( and they are predominantly the working population of the country. They are the essential workers, or, as in the case for many of them, they are too poverty stricken to stay at home while their bank account dwindles.

Occasionally a news story will put a new spin on how it blames young people for the persistence of the virus. Desperate to elicit views, they have recently began to explain an increase in recent cases—ignoring the reopening of schools—as people not isolating enough. The news story which caught my attention, however, was one which contrasted two very different pieces of information about the relative size of social groups in the early days of the pandemic with a more recent number. Momentarily forgetting that the many news stories quoting the WHO or CDC, or Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (, who warned that an uptick in cases would likely arrive with the cooler weather, people in general are currently portrayed as careless by comparison of our earlier more timid selves:

In April, when pandemic restrictions were in place, the head of Winnipeg’s contact tracing unit said new cases of COVID-19 had an average of about three close contacts per case.

But that number has ballooned for recent cases, “and that means we’re having additional people who are exposed to the virus, and contact tracing becomes more complex,” Manitoba Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday.

In one instance, a single case in the Winnipeg health region reported a total of 50 people as close contacts, according to the most recent provincial surveillance data. (

What most attracted my attention is the CBC article’s attempt to compare the apples of averages to the oranges of anecdote. I have written elsewhere about the use of anecdote as proof, and typically in context it is easily recognizable, but what is most insidious about the comparison made by Canada’s national news agency is how they have obscured it by waves of supporting prose. Their reference to past “pandemic restrictions” implies we no longer have such restrictions, and they make an appeal to authority by citing Manitoba Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin. They even deign to give a statistic, and tell us that the average of contacts per newly-tested person in April was three.

This argument would carry more weight if the article didn’t rely so heavily on its schoolmarm warning that we were all being derelict in our Covid duty. Rather than give us the numbers and have them speak for themselves, the article—and seemingly, the Chief Public Health Officer—would rather have us respond to the notion that people’s contacts have “ballooned.” The number they use to show this is the case is the one person with the fifty contacts. They have data, they suggest (“according to the most recent provincial surveillance data”) but they are not interested in providing it to support their claim. The one person with fifty contacts might be a minimum wage earner who works with the public and who has been forced back to work because of cuts to government funding, or merely the most social outlier in a grouping of people who are generally much more careful. Without knowing the current average, without the article being more honest about how many cases now have something closer to fifty and far more than three contacts, there is nothing to indicate that this isolated case is anything but an anomaly.

That is the logic of the numbers, but the lack of numbers makes for a much more damning conclusion in terms of the article’s rhetoric. The numbers exist, the article is quick to inform us, but since it does not deign to deliver, we are tempted to presume that the numbers do not accomplish the fear mongering goal of slandering both young people and the person with fifty friends.

If the number of contacts a recently diagnosed person has on average recently risen dramatically, from three to four or five per person, and the person with fifty is an outlier, then the message is that we need do little more than we have been doing. If, as the stridency of their rhetoric suggests, the numbers have risen to thirty or forty on average, then the implications of their article—that we are to blame for the uptick in cases—might be true. In the meantime, I am much more interested in another story. I would like to hear about the numbers behind the anecdote, and how an analysis of how reopening the schools has affected the present swelling number of cases. The lockdown has scarcely changed since the summer, except for schools reopening, and the timing of the recent surge in cases is at least coincidental. School reopened three to four weeks ago, and that neatly matches the virus’ two week infection rate.

Lest anyone think I am advocating confining the children to our homes, let me assure you that I am as much a fan of the free—or rather tax-subsidized—daycare that is the school system as anyone else. I do not propose that even if millions of school-aged children going back and forth from public buildings to their houses have caused the current second wave we should close the schools, but I think we need to get past the simpleminded news stories which pick someone to blame and then stoke that fear until we have a new outgroup. When the virus was just starting to get a foothold in Canada, there was lots of talk about backpackers coming home from other countries, which was rapidly turned against new immigrants and foreign workers. That stridency faded when it appeared that the virus was also entering the country by the agency of retired people enjoying the petri dishes Japan has quarantined the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship carrying more than 3,000 people, over coronavirus fears.amenities of massive cruise ships. The spring break kids were blamed, and then people walking their dog. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, conservatives pointed to protestors, and now, other than the finger pointing that youth have learned to expect from the boomers, there are also the rabid anti-mask people.

I wish for a simpler time, when we could blame the virus on gods and demons, and let each other alone. But with the virus seemingly here to stay—at least until a vaccine is constructed by the labs working frantically to be the first—we need to learn how to cope with one another. It is no more useful to blame a segment of our population than it was for the Nazis, and unless we begin to think of a way to transform our society equitably we have as much chance of getting the government to act responsibly as we do a media source which compares an anecdote with some statistics.

Posted in Culture, Health, News, Politics, Social Media | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Covid

Don’t Tell the Archaeologist

My friend was flanked by two Inuit elders as she repeatedly picked up and asked about bones found on the ground. “A walrus rib,” the elder would reply, and then my friend would be off after another object. She knew that knowledge from elders is in shorter supply every day, and that the moment might be her only chance to ask about the bones she’d seen littering the tundra.

When she picked up a shaped bone covered in lichen, however, the elder next to her paused. He looked more carefully at it, and then called over the other man. Together they discussed the object, and as my friend’s excitement grew, they said it was a snow knife made from whale jaw.

She turned it wonderingly over in her hands. An actual artifact that would have been buried by snow most of the year. She might be one of the only people who had held it since its maker had used it for carving the drifts into igloos.

She asked the elders what to do with it. They told her she could throw it to the ground again, or take it. At first, influenced by her southern suspicions, she suspected a trap. Were they encouraging her to show her greedy southern ways, or did they actually mean that she might have it. And if she could take it, with their blessing, should she?

In the end, she took the artifact home, fending off the jealousy of the other southerners who wanted to find their own ancient Inuit artifact. Possession of the object weighed on her, however, as she frequently returned to the elders’ admonition: “Don’t tell the archaeologist.”

Like her, I rework her encounter with the past in my head. Who has title to the objects left by former members of the community if not the elders? And if the archaeologist can claim title, what does that look like?

Immediately it will occur to anyone interested in matters of sovereignty that the elders should have the right to dispose of their property—or that of their ancestors—as they see fit, regardless of the endless streamer of laws coming from faraway Ottawa. If they were inspired by the southerner’s awe, or merely wished to be hospitable to a young newcomer, so goes the argument, they were within their self-given rights. The Canadian government—which has more genocidal actions to account for than beneficence—does not have any authority—except that which they give themselves—to say anything about indigenous artifacts. More importantly, the elders are their people’s knowledge keepers, and therefore may well have gifted the snow knife for a purpose which goes far beyond a casual gesture.

Perhaps they thought that a southerner who showed such interest in northern culture should be encouraged, or that such a gift might engender a respect for Inuit!/fileImage/httpImage/inukshuk-toronto-airport.jpgculture in the rest who were merely tramping the landscape taking selfies. My friend is a teacher, so maybe they thought she would incorporate what she learned into her lessons. Therefore, their gift might return a hundredfold as the children of the community feel their own connection to their past as well as observe the rare moment that a southerner respects their culture. That might encourage them to look at their own cultural practices anew.

Without access to the elders’ thought processes, we are left with the actions of archelogy as a field as it is practiced when it comes to indigenous artifacts. It will surprise no one to hear that the colonial attitude toward indigenous cultural artifacts is not always respectful. Much of the clothing found in museums was taken from indigenous people killed in massacres, while other artifacts were looted from their destroyed towns and villages or unfairly traded for, which amounts to theft by another name. Even in modern times, as Thomas King justly addresses in his Dead Dog Café show, “It’s good to have Indians in Canada so that white anthropologists don’t have to dig up their own graveyards.”

I’m sure King’s statement resonates for many indigenous listeners, and even made a few colonials pause and they remembered that loyalist graveyards in eastern Canada remain untouched while grave sites which are much more recent are regularly pawed over to satisfy the route of a highway or a museum’s collection.

The archaeologist where my friend is living is almost certainly more beholden to their own career—and what articles they can publish—than they are to the elders. And they are more interested in what museums and their field of study wishes to know than the needs or wishes of the community.

The discovery of Kennewick Man in the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, United States, in 1996 is a famous case of the wrangling which can happen as the colonial powers struggle to control even the ancestors of indigenous people. Once DNA confirmation established what the local Umatilla people had suspected, the skeleton was turned over to them for a tribal burial. However, that only happened after the archaeologists pursued a lengthy court case in which they argued their study was more important than the relatives’ wishes about the treatment of their ancestor’s body. The Spirit Cave mummy from a 1940 discovery, and the Wizards Beach Man from 1978, were similarly contested remains, and that led to lengthy court battles to repatriate the bodies.

In 1999, when Kwäday Dän Tsʼìnchi (Long Ago Person Found) in the Southern Tutchone language, the four hundred year old preserved DNA showed similarity to that of local people, but the archaeologists in this case were much more circumspect about how they handled the body. They consulted with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, who sent representatives to name the person. The First Nations bands were further consulted about the project in general and dealt with the disposal of the remains once the agreed upon scientific studies had taken place.

Similarly, the only local source of metal in Greenland, which was Innaanganeq meteorite, still resides in the American Museum of Natural History and the University of Copenhagen Geological Museum. In 1894 Robert E. Peary shipped the three largest pictures to the United States where he told them to the American Museum of Natural History.

There is no museum in my friend’s new home, and there is no local collection of artifacts to which she could contribute the snow knife. Although southern museums and art galleries frequently trade in Inuit art, they have no money for building a permanent exhibit in the north. Therefore, the snow knife either stays on the ground, is collected by an archaeologist where it might contribute to a paper to enhance the archaeologist’s career, or merely catalogued, boxed up, and shipped south.

I’m not sure that the artifact is better off in the hands of my friend, but at least in accepting the generous gift she is following the dictates of the elders, who have repeatedly seen anthropologists shipping their history and culture into a green southern land where it remains. They know what little the north gains from such encounters, and that might make them reluctant to give up yet more of their history to such unsteady hands. Perhaps, given the absence of a museum, the poor condition of housing in the north which makes their own living situation unstable, the elders merely choose the best option amongst those which were worse.

My friend senses the responsibility which she has taken on, and just as in her instruction she feels the weight of her task; she will ensure that the snow knife will not merely be thrown away, put on a museum shelf to attract colonial currency to the institution, hidden in a box, or as lost completely to time as it would be if left on the ground. Given the way indigenous artifacts are handled by the Canadian government or curious southerners, perhaps that is the best we can hope for.

Posted in Ancient Peoples, Culture, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Don’t Tell the Archaeologist

Writing as a Logical Series of Steps

The inevitability of plot is one of the easiest aspects of writing. As a storyteller you shove a metal key into your characters, wind them up like a toy, and watch them perform series of proscribed motions. Many of the stories which adhere rigidly to the rules are easy to identify. They it within well-known genre categories, such as westerns, adventures, and romances. The stories which rail against, which deform the boundaries of those rules, are those for which narrative is an examination of reality, and how reality is malleable when it confronts our story of its existence.

When I think of the characters’ agency, or rather lack of it, I am reminded of the toys of my youth. Although I never had one of the little cars myself, I was able to see how the key, once wound, would push a spring to drive a series of gears. The real genius of the self-driving car—which would drive straight and turn and reverse depending on its programming, was the programming chip. The chip in those early days was not computer driven, any more than the cars were electric. Instead, a shaft moved against a shaped piece of plastic and its instructions were directed to the wheels. Leonardo da Vinci designed exactly the same device, and in later years we credit him with creating the first programmable machine. The genius of the device, at least in terms of writing, is in the limited possibilities offered by the shaped plastic. Narrative operates the same way.

In much the same way that a person’s life is shaped by their social and economic background, their access to education and privilege, and their relative mental and physical health, the toy car’s behavior is influenced by the blunt instrument of the plastic cog.

A storyteller is in the same situation as the toymaker who produced the plastic cog. They must decide what direction they want the toy to go, backward or forward, turning to one side or another, and then reversing at the end of its travel, and the writer is faced with the same decisions. There is a ripple effect which informs the entire life of a person born with a physical disability. Likewise gender influences whether someone can hold certain jobs in some societies, or even be taken seriously in a meeting. The writer takes those uneasy truths about society and makes those the tracks their characters must travel. How well the character stays on the pre-programmed path defines the character’s independence or how the writer thinks about the choices offered to their character if the society of the novel resembles their own.

If I assume that my protagonist is a girl born into a wealthy upper class medieval home, then the contemporaneous notions of propriety and a woman’s place in society become either a foil to her desires or a straitjacket which she must endure. The writer can choose to stretch those boundaries, and therefore tell a modern story in the trappings of the past, or future as far as that goes, but they are both bound by—in the sense that such rules are what they are working against—and freed into the possibilities of the narrative.

In my first novel, in the Road, I imagined a man who had decided to eschew society and its consumer waste and strike off on his own. He removes all his clothing, and with that symbolic gesture he leaves his house and walks down the rural road. Once I set my character on this path, there were some inevitable realities that he had to deal with. He needed to eat, drink and sleep, and before long he would need clothing for warmth even if he didn’t need it for modesty alone in the woods. The first chapters of the novel wrote themselves, as the man scavenged for food and clothing on the margins of society. Once he went deeper into the woods, then he was limited in what he could do by what tools he could make and the resources at hand. If he met someone, there were a series of options in terms of where the interaction might go, and once that other person reacted, he was also limited in how he might respond.

The patterned way that people behave is both complex, in that we daily choose from a bewildering array of options—and simple—in that those options are confined by what is allowed by the physics of our locale, limited to behaviour that is coherent in terms of our past decisions, and accepted by society. Characters face the same constrictions. If they pick up a hammer they are likely going to strike something, and if they hit a nail the world around them changes, and if another being, then their world changes even more.

Once a character marries, then divorce is a possibility, and once they have a child they can lose them. Each choice a writer makes both opens up the story, in that it inspires another whole range of options, and closes the story, for there are a million roads not taken for the one chosen.

The story doesn’t lie so much in these societally dictated choices, however, but rather interesting narrative is influenced by the tension between what the character does and the reader’s and society’s expectations. Once Huck set off with Tom and Jim down the river in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the current draws them farther into the deep south of Jim’s slavery. This allows the characters to have adventures along the way, but the river cannot reverse and take Jim north to freedom. Twain was bound by the phenomenological world just as much as the boys on the river. Likewise, Huck’s limited educational background, however enhanced by Twain’s voice speaking through him, makes him a product of his background and place. He cannot talk about space exploration or universal human suffrage, so he is confined to asking questions. The cleverness and subtlety of his character lies in the questions he asks, however, and that creates the tension between what is possible for him in his society and the ways he pushes the boundary through his indomitable will.

Writers live mostly on the borders between these two options. They are confined by the possibilities of their textual ethos, the physics they have chosen to inform their story’s foundation, and their characters either chafing under those confines or striving to break through the boundary to some other possibility.

Posted in Art, Culture, Literature, Writing | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Writing as a Logical Series of Steps

Always a Working Light Bulb

No one who has lived in the west and has observed the rampant consumerism and waste will be surprised by yet another example of still functioning goods thrown away, but when people learn about the light bulbs, are still right to be surprised.

One of the most common items to be discarded is a lamp. For some reason people throw them away more often than end tables or towel racks. Perhaps that is due so a misguided fashion sense, the notion that the old lamp does not match the new decor, and therefore should be sent on its way. When this happens, however, the lamp is almost always accompanied by a bulb. One might guess that part of the dissatisfaction with the lamp has to do with a burned out bulb, but this is rarely the case. Instead, in the seventy percent of lamps discarded with a bulb, the bulb is nearly always functional.

That phenomenon is so that I have taken to collecting the bulbs even if I don’t have a way to test them on the spot. Each time I check a lamp for a bulb, however, and marvel that it contains one, I can’t help but wonder where the person thinks they are going that they will never need a bulb again. If they are near death and moving into palliative care, I can understand their situation. Likewise, if they are moving overseas and the familiar—to North Americans at least—Edison threaded fixture will not be available, then they should probably leave the bulb behind. They might better give it to a friend or donate it to a charity, but at least leaving it behind makes sense.

The many others, who are merely moving across town, or who bought a new couch which clashes with the old lamp, are impossible to understand. Where are they going that they will never again need a light bulb? Some of the newer bulbs are expensive enough to be worth carrying over into the new lamp or new apartment, and likely the new lamp didn’t come equipped with a bulb.

Of course the discarded bulbs are as much an analogy about waste as they are a loss of resources in themselves. The sheer bloody-mindedness of the casual discard informs the rest of western culture as well. clothing is made to be worn merely a few times, people buy paper plates so they never need to wash dishes—as though that were such a formidable task—and paper cups and fast food packaging litter our roads and streets.

Although we have only recently mastered producing the re-sealable container—in the form of the ubiquitous drink container found in every ditch—they quickly became taken for granted. While such a screw-top container would have graced an aristocrat’s table two hundred years ago, now children pitch them away and buy thicker containers—which they soon discard—to show off their environmental sensibility.

The many people around!/quality/90/? the world who struggle daily for their sustenance understand those who are dismayed by such flagrant waste. One light bulb at a time, we are casually and thoughtlessly ensuring that we are poorer, our landfills are bulging, and our insult to the planet is registered in some fashion.

Posted in Activism, Culture, Environmentalism | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Always a Working Light Bulb

Shovels are the New Gold for the Survivalist

People who worry about the collapse of society are usually preoccupied with that they can do now to prepare for that—they imagine—inevitable eventuality. That preparation invariably involves hoarding of goods, for many of them are interested in shopping and come from

Photo by Cris Faga/REX/Shutterstock (9990525v)
People shopping
Black Friday in Sao Paulo, Brazil – 22 Nov 2018

consumer cultures where the worst world they can imagine is one in which the shops have no goods for sale.

The converse of this mentality is the common scene in nearly every end of the world movie in which the heroes—and in some cases the villains—spend their time filling shopping carts with the suddenly free goods of the collapsed society. This fantasy is predicated on two important notions, that goods will be needed in bulk after the world has crumbled and that those with the most toys win.

Certainly there are some goods, such as foodstuffs, which are perennially essential, but for the most part those Sunday shoppers after the collapse gather flashlights and batteries, guns and bullets, and cans of beans. When the Covid 19 crisis arrived, or was perceived to be arriving, hot items for hoarding turned out to be noodles, tomato sauce, tinned beans, and oddly, toilet paper. I don’t think anyone imagined that toilet paper would become such a sought-for Covid commodity, and as the paper flew off the shelves in bulk, the shops struggled to compensate by increasing their prices.

My friend is teaching in the far north this winter and her colleagues flew north with their luggage packed to capacity with dried soups and pasta. They envisioned a world in which they would be asked to fend for themselves, and also hoped to save what they saw as the extreme food prices of the north. Partly such urges are about price and scarcity, and partly they are likely some instinctual response which lies deep in the reptilian brain.

This same notions drive those who would prepare for the unforeseen eventuality of global collapse. As they add toilet paper to their list of what they need to hoard, they cast their minds further into their imagined future. That is when they start to think about the future of currency. They cannot imagine a world in which items cannot be bought, so they try to stave off the inevitable inflation of paper currency with hoarding precious metals. They imagine that gold will retain its value, or even increase, so they hide gold bars under the floorboards, and if they cannot afford gold they buy silver. The more canny amongst them, as they see themselves, purchase silver quarters which were minted before 1965 when they were predominantly silver. Thus at one stroke they provide a market for old quarters, and save themselves hundreds or thousands of dollars while still hoarding metal.

The premise behind such hoarding is that society will retain a currency culture and that metals precious today will hold their value. Gold is primarily valuable because it does not tarnish, and therefore is useful in electronic work or jewellery where toxicity or allergies are a concern. Neither of those practices would survive the collapse intact, and the hoarder is left with an attractive but heavy lump of metal no one wants. Silver is more useful, because it is a very good conductor, but within the lifetime of the hoarder the world will scarcely run out of copper wire, mere scavenging will provide enough for any common use, so the prepper is left with more metal for jewellery.

The best item for the hoarder, if they are truly worried about their purchasing power after society has collapsed around them, is something which has intrinsic value. They shouldn’t rely on metals which are only because there is a luxury market, but rather they should consider items like food, which the starving survivor would gladly pay for with gold. Thus, the survivor who has a garden is much better off than the hoarder who has canned beans and toilet paper.

On one of the Doomsday Prepper episodes, one of the survivors touted his foraging skills, and the show followed him as he went along a creekbed gathering weeds for this dinner. His essential goods included salad dressing. One of his statements was more than a little strange however. He showed how he’d included in his pack fragments of obsidian for chipping arrowheads. Somehow he imagined a world in which the use of a bow and arrow would be so common that he could use the obsidian for arrow points, rather like our ancestors did some thousands of years ago. I cannot understand how he couldn’t see that the world we occupy, even after a societal collapse, is very different than that of our ancestors. With piles of metals containers, industrial waste, and discarded cars, the scavenger could avail themselves of metal with which to make a much better arrowhead than they would with obsidian, even if they were an experienced knapper.

This drive to hoard toilet paper and canned goods, guns and bullets, combines with a kind of back to the land notion, at least in the idealistic imagination of the urban dweller. They do not prepare for that eventuality by converting their lawn to food production, but instead their mind returns to what our ancestors used to prize, obsidian and gold, and their urge to hoard now for later never leaves them room to consider what a real currency might look like.

I suggest shovels, although knives, spoons—if they weren’t so common already—and axe heads would work as well. The item hoarded has to satisfy several different functions. It must have an intrinsic value regardless of what world confronts the hoarder. Whether an economic collapse, AI takeover, plague, zombie apocalypse, or decreased human fertility as a result of toxins in the environment, tools like an shovel or an axe have a value which will persist.

The other function that the hoarded item must have is portability. The user must be able to carry it from one place to another if it is to operate as a currency. Gold and silver are also portable, but they are value-dense, where the shovel or axe is not. If the item is too valuable, then it draws those who would steal it. The shovel is portable enough to be a currency, valuable enough on its own, but does not accrue value with its multiplication. More shovels are not more valuable than one, for any one person only needs one shovel. In that way, it is the perfect hoarder item.

I would suggest that a hundred shovel heads—for the handles can be added by the user or become a value-added function of the seller and having a non-functional shovel would discourage stealing—would be the best currency for the hoarder concerned about such things. Even if the world didn’t end, then their shed full of shovel heads might be sold as a lot to a consignment store where they would easily retain their value. If the worst happened, however, and the hoarder needed to rely on their purchasing value, the gold bearer would show up to their door begging for a shovel so that they might bury their wealth, and they would be prepared to pay a premium for such a useful tool. Other neighbours would come with squash and carrots, chickens and medical knowledge, in order to barter for the shovels the wise prepper had hoarded in advance.

A useful tool in all situations, the shovel would become a steady source of income for the hoarder, and trimming poles to make handles a lucrative side industry while others stay crouched over their silver quarters or eating their tinned food.

Posted in Climate Change, Gardening, Post-Apocalyptic, Self-reliance | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Shovels are the New Gold for the Survivalist