The real world’s magic system

I don’t spend very much time in the office in the course of my job–something I love about it, as the scenery is always different. Case in point: yesterday, three of us spent the entire day bushwhacking around a thirty-acre forest, looking for policeman’s helmet (an invasive impatiens that never fails to make me think “What’s all this, then?” when I see it), English holly, and spurge laurel, a plant whose main claim to fame is being all kinds of toxic. At one point, ankle-deep in mud and reed canary grass and wondering why I decided not to wear rubber boots, I discovered I could literally see into somebody’s living room. Not the first time, either; wilderness happens in weird places around here.

But I just got way off topic. Last week, on one of those rare visits to the office, I discovered this printout tacked to a corkboard:


It’s fascinating to me, and I’ll explain why.

One of my favorite statistics that I’ve read recently comes from a 2008 New York Times column that quotes a 2006 study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (my brother Thomas’s alma mater). According to Schneiderman, NORC found in a poll that sixty-five percent of Americans think that the government is not spending enough money on “assistance to the poor”–a strong, bipartisan mandate, even with the margin of error. However, change the word in the poll question to “welfare,” and the number plunges to twenty percent.

Lots of writers in the fantasy subgenres spend a great deal of time on their magic systems, probably due to the influence of Brandon Sanderson. Here, we’ve got the real-life equivalent, though it’s closer to what Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax calls “headology” than anything Branderson ever came up with. One single word is all it takes to alter the perceptions of thousands of people in a sample size, and–if NORC sampled well–millions more. If that’s not an incantation, I don’t know what is.

Which brings me to the printout in that photograph. In the world of ecological non-profiteering, this type of magic perceptual language becomes even more critical. Since we’re selling a product–untrammeled land–which boasts zero instant gratification, we have to be extraordinarily careful how we present ourselves. Words like “riparian” and “aquifer” turn people off. Nobody falls in love with a riparian corridor. They fall for rain on the water, swooping kingfishers, alder and spruce overhanging the creek. To cast our magic, we have to harness that, or the spell will fizzle.

Making it all more challenging is the way that people in my field love to run words into the ground. As an undergraduate, I thought a lot about how “environment” and “environmentalist” are terrible words (I prefer “planeteer”). Writing my thesis convinced me that a smoky, trash-strewn back alley is as much an environment as a pristine temperate rainforest, and should be considered to have similar influence. The land has to be considered another way. No doubt, on the first Earth Day, during the Nixon administration when Justice Douglas was turning the much-maligned Dick into the greenest president in American history, those words had an impact. No more. “Green” itself, along with “sustainable” and “alternative,” has been destroyed by overuse, not to mention persistent corporate greenwashing.

We do have magic words in the real world. Harry Potter has expelliarmus, Harry Dresden has ventas servitas, and we have welfare. But incantations gain and lose power based on people’s belief in them. Not a bad system, all in all.

Apologies for the rambling, but this has been on my mind. I’ll have some more writing coming up: an excerpt from my current novel, The Valley of Steel, which I’m roaring ahead on (have to brag–knocked out 4,000 words yesterday).

One more thing: since this post got slightly political, I want to extend an invitation to follow my cousin Matthew’s political issues tumblr blog, The Chapman Soliloquies. He and I don’t agree on everything: I’m suspicious of globalization, and a Sanders man, while he supports Clinton and TPP, but he’s levelheaded and loves to discuss the issues. Check him out, and then convince him to link to me.


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