On Reclaiming Beauty

The other day, I was walking in Walla Walla’s Pioneer Park, a beautiful spot with towering evergreens and flower-lined ponds where I’ve done some of my finest rambling of the last few years. On the western edge of the duck pond, a man in a wheelchair struck up a conversation with me: first about the Civilian Conservation Corps workers who built the park by decree of Franklin Roosevelt’s alphabet soup in the thirties, then about my Environmental Humanities degree, and finally, and most animatedly, about his life as a farmer in Nebraska.

I’m not usually good at talking to strangers. I don’t get to know my seatmates on airplanes, I don’t form kinships with people I’m standing in line behind, and if the only other seat in the coffee shop is at a stranger’s table, I’ll just go outside–mostly because I tend to assume people aren’t waiting for me to burst into their lives. Other than the fact that this can be rude and unsettling when unasked for (just ask the way too many women who suffer unwanted attention riding the subway), I’m 22: sure, I have some cool hobbies, I’ve done some cool things and been some interesting places, but the most interesting thing about me is the stuff I’m going to do.

Every now and then, though, I’ve had these mystical experiences where someone bursts into my life and leads me on a whirlwind tour before disappearing as suddenly as they came. The last one was a guy with a cat on the Whitman campus who traded for my $2 bill and got me thinking for the rest of the day about how the Declaration of Independence used to be some random piece of parchment in Thomas Jefferson’s stack. This old man, though, had a story that could put Willa Cather to shame: with only brief detours into his staunch Democratic voting record and the loss of his virginity following a surprisingly erotic tractor ride, he described how he bought, at auction, a plot of land whose previous owner had eroded it into the ground by plowing the wrong direction. Starting with nothing, he was able to repair the soil enough to make a living from the federal soil bank program and retire to Walla Walla.

This man (to my shame, we didn’t exchange names) had a recurring theme in all his stories: that of starting with something worthless and making it into something he found beautiful. It was a concept tied intimately to place–the rocky farm in Nebraska, the derelict house on the land which he made into a home with the schoolmate he reconnected with on the tractor, and the cow pasture which became Pioneer Park all had their beauty reclaimed. At the end of the hour or so we talked, he apologized for detaining me, to which I responded that someone trying to write stories for a living will never be sorry to hear one.

I meant it. His tales helped connect ideas that have come to me from other places before. I talk a lot of my philosophy with two dear friends who come from radically different directions, but have both, in the past, described the wounds that come from modernity leeching the world of beauty.

I wrestled with this for a long time, moving from Wales to Texas: I thought I’d been forced to give up a land saturated with history for a bleached suburb of chain restaurants and overpasses. But a recent insight from Patton Oswalt’s admittedly inconsisent Zombie Spaceship Wasteland suggested that nobody truly begins to leave their hometown until they learn to love it. I learned to imagine in north Austin in a way I don’t think I would have in Wales, simply because the place was doing it for me. That’s how reclaiming beauty works: whether you have a rocky farm or a bleak suburb, you work to make it better, and improve in the working.

The labor for people like me is to create meaning in these places, and of these things, that doesn’t fit into the strictly capitalist reasons they were created. I spent a lot of time wandering the back streets and lots of my Texas neighborhood, ranging as far as I could go by foot or bike. I held conversations with a bridge, a friend I still visit today. I read for hours in the ditches they dug to drain floodwaters off the asphalt–that’s where I first finished The Amber Spyglass and sat with the book half-open, exhausted by sadness, thinking about how many millions of words I was going to write to make up for Philip Pullman royally screwing over Lyra and Will (Stephen King’s On Writing describes a lot of fantasists have similar feelings about losing Frodo and Sam to the Grey Havens).

I’m not trying to suggest this work is as demanding as farming, but it’s almost as crucial to our well-being. We cannot survive by accepting the messages dictated to us by the power centers of our culture. They can kill plants and animals, but we will keep songs and stories alive. That overgrown lot with the tree is an ugly blight: get your first kiss there and see if you feel the same. This shopping mall is soulless, and so is everyone in it: walk through it blasting classical music, have a lightsaber fight on the escalator, sneak in after dark and explore with flashlights. If something lacks spirit, we must act on it to bring the spirit into being.

(Sidelight: this has an analog in the commercial sale of books and movies. Just because they are trying to make money, doesn’t devalue the messages in the stories. The author is dead, and so is their publisher.)

Robert MacFarlane, in The Old Wayshis book about walking, describes the Songlines tradition of the Australian Aborigines: “the ancestors emerged to find the earth a black, flat, featureless terrain. They began to walk out across this non-place, and as they walked they broke through the crust of the earth and released the sleeping life beneath it.” On bad days, I console myself this way. When they have paved over and warmed over the world, anybody who has ever taken a story or a song to their heart will walk through the ruins and begin to build something again. Until then, our collective cultural output is a kind of metaphysical soil bank.

Next week: I’m doing NaNoWriMo for the first time, along with future featured artist Kate Seiberlich.

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The Goldfinch, Or: Only Some People Are Alcoholics

To start off: my brother, Thomas, who just left Austin to start his third year at Harvard Law, informed me that this blog is the third thing that comes up when you Google its title. The first two are the George R.R. Martin quote. Moving up!

I did not get selected as a top-15 finalist for the Michael J. Sullivan contest, which, I’ll admit, frustrated me in a way very endemic to this phase of an art career–namely, I don’t know if “A Tale of Rust Town” was the 16th-best story in the bunch or a smear of absolute tripe. Two things lessen the blow: 1) as stated earlier it’s more clockpunk than fantasy, and thus maybe not what he was after, and 2) now I get to find another place to send it. With “The Foaling Season” still at Tor.com and my other short stories on hold while I get two novels in working order, the ability to put something on the market is a breath of fresh air.

Speaking of those novels: The Valley of Steel remains on schedule, and the new improved Glass Thief is creeping along right beside. Hopefully in a month I’ll be querying and sending out for betas side by side. In the meantime, I might perhaps consider having some kind of life. Right after I get some sleep.

In today’s post, I want to talk about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, because, frankly, I have a bad taste in my mouth from my last book review. I’m done hating The Book of Strange New Things. Now I just want to write nice things on this blog until it gets scrubbed clean, or at least acquires some damn perspective.

The Goldfinch follows Theo Decker, 13 at the beginning, who loses his mother in a bombing at an art museum and carries a priceless painting out of the rubble. Trying to embrace his twin new identities as orphan and art thief leads Theo down a steadily more dissolute path, which, after an eight-year time skip, has him addicted to pills, selling phony antiques, and pining for an unattainable love.

The Goldfinch deserves every word of hype and more. Tartt has a mystical sense of detail–Theo’s dissolute father cooling off from his hangovers with Chinese beer, specifically Chinese beer, is one that struck me–and her central question, “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted?”, spills over the pages without ever needing to be answered. She offers us two poles to choose from: Hobie, antiques restorer and father figure, who secludes himself away in search of beauty to protect, and Boris, utterly unclassifiable, for whom beauty can go hang so long as he’s having a good time.

Neither is correct. Both suffer, both thrive. I could plot all the characters on a pair of axes labeled “fulfillment <–> denial” and “devotion to present <–> devotion to all time,” but knowing how I tinker with the D&D alignment spectrum, that’s a rabbit hole and I’m just gonna leave it alone. Suffice to say this is a book of monstrous cathartic value that’s also as lovely in its own right as a portrait gallery.

And yet. The alcoholism.

I trashed The Magicians for this. I’m not “trashing” The Goldfinch per se; I don’t know that I could. But it seems like addicts are proportionally overrepresented in novels of the Pulitzer-winning stripe. Theo, Boris, their respective fathers, and several other characters drink to oblivion and abuse pills. Which is fine–the use of medication as a replacement for absent beauty is compelling–but it’s so frequent that Hobie’s ability to have only one drink a night marks him as some kind of superhero in the Goldfinchverse.

It doesn’t end with addiction, either. Broken homes, child abuse, violent and nonviolent crime, fanatical religion: all are, unless I’m fantastically naive (and I hope somebody will tell me if I am), far more likely to occur in the childhood of a literary hero than a real person. Which, again, is fine. These things elicit strong emotion and inspire strong action in the characters. All I’m saying is that there are many people in this world who have never suffered a worse tragedy than loss of a job, loss of a relationship, the death of a grandparent or a pet. These people get together with friends after work, they have fun Thanksgivings and Christmases, they lock themselves in bathroom stalls to get a few minutes’ peace with which they can wonder if this is all there is.

As writers, we have a responsibility to these people as well. They too seek the line of beauty. Theo’s mother, who was merely poor as a child, gives a lecture to Theo–and the reader–early on, teaching us how to appreciate detail in the works of the Northern Masters. Her lessons extend to the whole book. Rembrandt and his kind achieved fame by breaking away from angels and messiahs and painting the people who search for angels and messiahs. As much as I enjoyed The Goldfinch–more than enjoyed–I have to remind myself that a heart that can’t be trusted is not the only way to make a person compelling. What if Theo Decker, with his indelible voice and perception, were just another lonely New Yorker?

In which Sam gets stung several times by an angry metaphor, then throws his pants at it

This has already been the best letter-writing summer of my life, and it’s only half over. Reading and re-reading all of them with a huge smile on my face in my usual Saturday writing spot, the Seaside Coffee House.

Writing update: As of this week, the first draft of The Valley of Steel is finished, and “A Tale of Rust Town” sent off, with a brief detour through name changes that all sounded too much like Edgar Allan Poe references (“The Night of the Raven” etc). The next order of business is to unite the first ten chapters with the rest of the manuscript, as there was a significant gap in the middle during which I edited The Glass Thief.

Speaking of that weighty tome: the “final version” might not be so final after all. I’ve managed to cut 3,000 words from the first seven chapters alone, so I’ve decided to stop querying it until I remove one of the major hurdles–I’m certain I can get the word count down to a reasonable level for debut fantasy. It will still be about lobsters, though. That’s non-negotiable. To prepare for the next charge unto the breach, I’ve taken pains to become addicted to Query Shark. The author is an agent who tears apart and rebuilds queries. Funny and educational.

Rewriting “Rust Town” was one of the more challenging tasks I’ve been faced with as a writer, and time will tell if I rose to the occasion. To go into exactly how daunting it was, I’d like to tell a work story.

Our work site for Tuesday and Wednesday was Clear Lake, a placid spot tucked away in the suburbs of Warrenton, up the coast from Seaside. The lake itself, nine acres across, is 4,000 years old and was formed in the last big earthquake. Clear Lake quickly shot into my list of top five NCLC properties for its wetlands, winding shady trails, abandoned dock, and reasonable invasive populations: only yellow flag iris is really a problem, and it hasn’t gotten away from the water. Even what happened Wednesday morning couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the place.

8:00 AM. We arrive early, planning to finish work early so that Eric, my supervisor, and my co-worker and roommate Jason can play in a soccer game in Cannon Beach. I’m always happy with an early morning, and I had my short story to work over in the afternoon, so I was on board. We had a “work party,” which would bring volunteers to tackle the population of scotch broom, at 10, so we set to work on the yellow flag iris.

Around 9, I volunteer to head into some standing water to tackle a small population of the odious fan-shaped leaves. Eric is on the bank next to me. Right before I hit the mud, I hear Ari, my other co-intern, shout, “Run!”

Let’s be clear: my lifestyle is not one that requires people to yell that at me a lot. I can’t think of whose is. Athletes and bank robbers come to mind. It’s also happened to me in a few Dungeons & Dragons sessions (although I set a swarm of snakes on fire last night, so who’s running now?). But not so much in the primary world.

That considered, I’m proud of my reaction time. About a second passed between Ari’s warning and my hoofing it up the riverbank. I’d like to get that down, but it’s perfectly respectable for now.

Another second passes before I understand what’s going on: Eric put his foot through a nest of hornets. He later told us that he thought a blackberry thorn was pressing into his face, before he realized the truth. I myself had already taken a stinger to the back of the knee when I registered that hornets were in play.

I want everyone reading this to know that my decision to throw my pants was made neither in panic nor in clouded judgment. I laid out my options, weighed the pros and cons of each, and decided that the most advantageous move in that instant would be to remove my trousers and hurl them no less than twenty feet to the south.

The second hornet that stung me had made its way inside my left leather glove, so I removed both of those and tossed them on the path. Eric had already removed his shirt and commenced slapping himself with it. Through some shouting combination of words I don’t entirely remember, Jason conveyed the information that hornets are attracted to the scent of things they have previously stung.

Interesting. While running, I recalled that first sting I took to my jeans. From this moment events unfolded as I have already related. As expected, the loathsome insects flocked to the pants, allowing me to beat off the remainder of the swarm with my shirt. We waited a few minutes for the pheromones to fade before trekking back along the yard sale we had made of our garments.

In the end, I made it out with only two stings. Ari took one, Jason got off scot-free, and poor Eric, initial disturber of the peace, got it the worst. Not only did he take seven stings, but later that day, he unearthed a beehive, and got another two stings from an entirely unrelated group of angry insects. To top it all off, the “thorn” in his face caused his eye to swell up, and he missed the next two days of work. His boss, Melissa, greeted us at Circle Creek on Thursday with a card bearing a  construction-paper bee and the message “Sorry we stung you.” We all signed.

So it could have been much worse for me. I made it out with an anecdote, along with some new outdoor knowledge, plus my pants, the real victim in all this. Sitting at the Rippet House that afternoon, realizing I had 125 words to establish my reticent protagonist’s inner life and growing love for the makeshift family he’d just met, I began to think of how I could apply the hornets as a metaphor for “the process.”

The common phrase is “kill your darlings,” attributed to some guy called Arthur Quiller-Couch, but until now I’ve preferred John Muir’s version, “slaughter your gloriouses.” I have a new version now, though: throw your pants at the hornets.

People like pants. They are, as the bard tells us, comfy and easy to wearThey protect your legs from thorns, and convey a certain professionalism the pantsless cannot enjoy. But they attract hornets. The pants are those large parts of a story that seem integral at first glance, hornets here are bloat and directionlessness, and the defeatism that leads to. So many times, writing that “cannot work” can get shot in the arm from the hurling of its pants. Because, when it gets down to it, sometimes pants are just a liability.

Grimdark: Revolution or Fad?

This post is rife with spoilers for Game of Thrones, True Detective, and Fullmetal Alchemist. You have been warned.

The kayaking did not work. In fact, the term “spectacular failure” might be appropriate. Though I’m quick to distance myself from responsibility: it’s the Necanicum’s fault. That river is too low to navigate. I was walking as often as I paddled.

I’ve hit 29 rejections for The Glass Thief, and several helpful redditors have suggested that perhaps trying to debut with a 163k novel about lobsters is not the smoothest move in recorded history. Since The Valley of Steel is nearly first-drafted, and I intend to query it by the end of 2015, I don’t feel that trapped by this realization: in fact, I think it has helped thicken my skin. Meantime, I’ve tweaked my query again to remove crustacean references, so I’ll have a better chance to catch them with the first pages. The next round of eight goes out later today.

But first I am feverishly cutting “A Tale of Rust Town” down to 7,500 words so that I can enter it in Michael J. Sullivan’s Kickstarter-associated short story contest, where the first-prize winner will have their story bundled with all editions of the latest novel in his Riyria Revelations series. While “The Foaling Season” would also be eligible, Sullivan (who I thank publicly for creating this opportunity for an aspiring but obscure writer) writes fantasy that tends toward the lighter. Thus, since “Foaling Season” is about slavery, war, a suffering family, and a conflict of duty and love that mostly plays out in one man’s head, I might do better with “Rust Town.” While it is about human nature, grief, violence, and desperation, it’s also about flying machines, magic crystals, intelligent floating spheres, poisonous green clouds, and an aesthetic that hovers somewhere between steampunk and clockpunk. In case it’s not clear, I had fun writing it.

Genre considerations regarding Sullivan are a great segue into the body of this post. The term “grimdark,” according to TvTropes, that website I will not apologize for loving, originated with ad copy for Warhammer 40,000 which stated that “in the grim darkness of the future, there is only war.” It refers to a work with an exceedingly bleak outlook: nobody is safe from brutal death, nobody is truly good, and any minor victory by a character only sets them up for a harder fall down the road. And the grimdarkiest of the grimdark is, of course, Game of Thrones.

It’s no stretch to say that everything on TV wants to be Game of Thrones these days. The fantasy drama nobody thought would work is now an enormous cultural force–as one of the producers relates, European customs officials who used to ask if it was a game show now say “Don’t kill Arya!”–and it’s gaining followers. The creators of The Bernie Mac Show are even on the train, adapting, of all things, The Name of the Wind, a rendition I’m increasingly scared will be less The Lord of the Rings and more The Last Airbender. Meanwhile, The Atlantic speculates that Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Walking Dead, and other shows are skewing bleak due to shame about their “genre” roots. In movies, Warner Brothers has reportedly demanded “no jokes” for their continued, futile attempt to start a DC cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s (which has jokes).

The message is that everyone wants brutal, bleak, and unhappy, that everyone rushes back to the set for the next installment after their favorite character gets stabbed or eaten or burned to death. “Dark,” at some point in the last few years, became a universal compliment. I’ve had multiple arguments about the ending of the first season of True Detective, which my beloved mother continues to claim is too happy, despite the fact that it involves multiple members of a child-murdering cult escaping justice and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart realizing he will never regain the family he destroyed by sleeping around. “Too happy” because Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) suggests that maybe the whole of existence might not be a giant wine press that repeatedly crushes our souls for eternity.

I love Game of Thrones, both the show and its source material. But the grimdark just gets in the way for me, and I think a lot of fans will agree. I don’t tune in to watch Sansa get raped (speaking of Ramsay Bolton, funny how nobody can be entirely good but we’re fine with people being totally evil), or Shireen get set on fire, and I don’t think other average viewers do, either–but it seems like the showrunners deviate from the source material precisely to shove that kind of thing into the narrative where it doesn’t really belong. George R.R. Martin has a method to his darkness: partly for historical veracity, and partly to get us invested. Imagine a chapter somewhere in A Dream of Spring where Arya Stark has a shot to do some real, lasting good for Westeros. After she’s watched her father’s beheading, been captured a bunch of times in a row, witnessed the Red Wedding, and surrendered her identity to a bunch of creepy Assassin’s Creed types, I will root for her success harder than I have rooted for any character in my life. It’s not that GRRM wants to be different from every other fantasy. It’s that he wants us totally immersed in his fantasy. The man has never been ashamed to be a creator.

Another case in point: I’m currently re-watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the show that got me into anime and was probably a bad place to start because everything about it is so dang good. Seriously. The animation, the music, the plot that feels tightly wound despite stretching five or six threads over sixty-four episodes, and the supremely lovable Elric brothers at the center of it all. But this show is dark. Its fourth episode is about a man who turns his daughter into a hellish dog-creature just so he can keep his cushy government salary. A few episodes later, a goofy family-man military officer is shot to death by a recurring villain. A past genocide, which is referred to as such, which involved several major characters, and whose imagery we are not spared, is a major plot point.

Yet the good guys win. Despair is never final. Sacrifices prove to be worthwhile. And some kind of redemption is possible. Leonard Cohen sings that there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. I think that complimenting a work as “dark” is in fact complimenting it on how much light it reveals. We want to see the real world reflected, but the bleak is only half the picture.

I am not regarded by anyone who knows me as a particularly grimdark person. A friend has called me the happiest person she knows. Today, walking on the Seaside promenade, I touched the needles of a Sitka spruce, and started laughing out loud just because there were things in the world I could touch. I’ve been known to wander up and down the beach for hours, humming bits of my favorite soundtracks and coming up with ideas. So I’m biased, but I know this to be true: the great tragedies are only able to be tragedies because there is, in the end, something to restore. Even Hamlet saves Horatio. Even King Lear spares Edgar.

So I’m calling it now: the person standing in the ashes of Westeros when all is said and done will be one of the good ones. If it’s a Bolton or a Frey, the show is going to end up in the dustbin of history. Stuff tends to fade in the distance when there is no light to see it by.

Whew. Apologies for how long that got. Next week’s post likely to be about hunting bullfrogs.

Court decisions and James Horner

I’m sitting in the Seaside Coffee house, drinking a stinging nettle tea, and planning the best way to get to all the stuff I have to talk about today. I can feel the wind from the cold day sixteen years ago I first wandered away from a Welsh pub called the Village Green, climbed over a hedgerow, and wound up lost in a field of nettles. When I got out, it was like having dozens of tiny but pervasive bees lodged in my shins. I don’t think I’ve cried for that long since.

Of course, back then, I had no idea you could drink the bloody things, or make soup out of them. Nor that my job would eventually involve waist-high fields of pointy things. Time has made a change in me, indeed.

Today’s first big deal is of course the Supreme Court, who last week followed their usual method of making significant decisions all at once and then fleeing town (my high school theater director, whom I hated with a passion I now reserve only for 100-degree weather, whistling, and Channing Tatum, used the same tactic for posting cast lists). I have very ambiguous feelings about the highest court in the land. On the one hand, their secrecy is excessive, but on the other hand, in the 21st century, it might be necessary to have at least one branch of government that operates out of the public eye. On the one hand, they have far too much power to dictate policy; on the other, I recognize the hypocrisy of complaining about “judicial activism” only when I disagree with the decision. In the end, I think my reservations about the Court stem more from people misappropriating them for political purposes than for anything they themselves have done. But they could easily just refuse to hear such obviously political cases…like I said. Complicated.

But these are questions for next week. Now’s the time to celebrate. King v. Burwell, the case that will allow millions of people to continue going to the doctor, and Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that finally universalizes the government protections of marriage, will join Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of Education on the “good” side of the court scale, where they have a lot of work to do balancing out Bush v. Gore, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, and D.C. v. Heller. So, in the name of celebration, here is my favorite equality picture.

mawwiage-equality

This is a good day to be American. It’s always been a journey, not a destination, and the redemption of this country will never quite be finished. But today I raise a nettle tea to my homeland.

Next up, I wanted to take some time to acknowledge the life of James Horner. I haven’t been so sad about a famous death since Terry Pratchett, partly since I always hoped Horner would score the movie version of one of my books someday–I love his Celtic touches and his bombast. Here’s the main theme from Braveheart, which still makes me grieve for 800-year-old history:

And “Southampton” from Titanic, which always makes me forget that the ship is going to sink:

Rest peacefully, James.

Just as a final note, Celtic music is wonderful, isn’t it? I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this already, but strong melodies that plumb the reaches of the scales in both directions, performed on simple instruments, are the apex of music for me. The whole Northern European tradition offers that in spades. Expect more to come.

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:

IMG_0313

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.