Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources

B went on a biking and birding tour of SF recently and came away with this recommendation from Josiah, our resident eco-nerd. The book was terrific, especially when sipped between sunlight patches in the wilds of Northern California near Ukiah. My biggest takeaway is that the natives were gardeners in this state, deeply involved in cultivating the seeds/bushes/wildflowers that gave them sustenance. They also were careful not to over-harvest, always leaving something for the next person to come behind and gather, leaving something for the next season to build on. Also, controlled burning had a real value and purpose, which we’ve abandoned.

  • Large quantities of quail: “In 1867 we moved to a ranch located between ‘Spanish-town’, now called Half-Moon Bay, and San Gregorio, on the coast side of San Mateo County. There I saw quail by the thousands everywhere…” – she mentions flocks being common of from one to five thousand. Another naturalist mentions a “plague” of quail at the missions. So what happened? In the 1880s and 1890s, millions of quail were shot or trapped; in 1895-6, 177k quail were sold in LA & SF.
  • “The cyclical departures and returns of wildlife were so predictable that California Indians, with their weirs, nets, and traps, could have extinguished large numbers of animals. Yet for the most part they did not, having learned that yearly abundance could be ensured by working with nature instead of taking advantage of it.”
  • The natives didn’t just submissively accept their fate of being snubbed out, they resisted with both active and passive actions.
  • Whites plowed ahead with over-harvesting everything they found in the garden that natives had cultivated. “By 1900, 40% of California’s 31 million acres of old-growth forest had been logged.” Between 1850-1910, relatively few Europeans and Asians caused major declines in dozens of bird & mammal populations, denuded entire landscapes, accelerated erosion, destroyed countless acres of productive wildlife & plants, decimated Indians & their culture. Yay!
  • Fires = good! 1) decrease detritus & recycle nutrients 2) control insects & pathogens 3) managing wildlife 4) modifying structure of forest & woodland vegetation 5) maintaining habitat for shade-intolerant species
  • Seed collection was done with seed beaters to remove edible seeds, falling directly into their baskets. To avoid rattlesnakes: smear arms & legs with tobacco (snakes supposedly hated the smell); also wore shiny ornaments to startle the snakes.
  • Sierra Mowok used 48 types of greens; we commonly eat about a dozen greens.

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

Ahhh, a much better choice for the writing class I’ve enrolled myself in. Gornick has been an invaluable guide to memoir writing and an enjoyable read, and compared to Nancy Hale’s dusty and irrelevant tome from 1960, this was a treat to read and slurp up ideas.

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

It’s the movement toward knowledge that matters:

“The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or the movement toward it—that counts.”

She includes great snippets from a variety of writers (unlike Hale’s over-reliance on Out of Africa), including Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” going on to pinpoint what it is about Orwell that we admire while hating his actual person:

“Orwell himself was a man often at the mercy of his own mean insecurities. In life he could act and sound ugly: revisionist biographies now have him not only a sexist and an obsessed anti-communist but possibly an informer as well. Yet the persona he created in his nonfiction—an essence of democratic decency—was something genuine that he pulled from himself, and then shaped to his writer’s purpose. This George Orwell is a wholly successful fusion of experience, perspective, and personality that is fully present on the page. Because he is so present, we fell that we know who is speaking. The ability to make us believe that we know who is speaking is the trustworthy narrator achieved.”

The drive toward resolution:

“These writers might not ‘know’ themselves—that is, have no more self-knowledge than the rest of us—but in each case—and this is crucial—they know who they are at the moment of writing. They know they are there to clarify in relation to the subject in hand and on this obligation they deliver.”

On the need to create sympathy for the subject no matter how ugly they are:

“In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct or morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows.”

She sums up what she’s learned over decades of teaching: know “who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two.”

Of course, a laundry list of titles to check out: Ackerly’s My Father & Myself, Hazlit’s On the pleasure of hating, Harry Crews Why I live Where I live, Gosse’s Father & Son, Wolff’s Duke of Deception, Zinsser’s Inventing the truth.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero: A Graphic Novel

The One Hundred Nights of Hero: A Graphic Novel

Isabel Greenberg does a graphic novel treatment of Scheherazade’s story. The main action revolves around a virgin wife who’s in love with her maid; her dumb husband bets his neighbor that he can’t seduce her even if given 100 nights to attempt it. The maid overhears the nefarious plan and she and the wife devise a plan to avoid entrapment—Hero will tell amazing stories for 100 nights and the neighbor will forget all about seducing the wife. Which is exactly what happens, and we flit around into various folk tales. Good stuff!

Eve’s Hollywood

Eve's Hollywood (New York Review Books Classics)

You know a book is good when you take a brief intermission in the middle of it to frantically scan the library holdings for anything else the author has written. All of the other Eve Babitz books are now in my queue to be greedily gobbled up, although I’m sure to be disappointed by them compared to this gem.

The writing is perfect, punchy, well-timed, smooth, sparse and angular like the setting sun over the Pacific. She is a fierce defender of the culture of L.A., at least from when she was born there (mid-1940s) to when this book came out (1972), ten years after she graduated from Hollywood High. Eve’s parents are part of the vast, talented music industry that supports the film industry, and she see plenty of culture everywhere she looks, especially being Stravinsky’s goddaughter.

Her pieces range from tight, few-lined gloriousness to longer expositions. My jaw dropped frequently at her skill: “She was the grand finale of what it meant to be darling, adorable, and cute,” and:

“From her warmly tanned face she languidly opened her expensive blue eyes wide before narrowing them, transforming them into the eyes of an aristocratic animal whose defense lay in some rapid paralyzing venom which hissed from the pupils and stopped him in his tracks. She stirred her snowcone while she took her time assessing him from his bloody face to his sandy feet to his blood-soaked pocket and then she lowered her eyes, shrugged, and strolled through the space the crowd had opened for her with me floating in back of her, having no wish to stay on after witnessing that crisis of frozen looks.”

In Secret Ambition, she confesses a desire to have a house in Ojai with cats, orange trees, and a goat. “A stone house with a dirt road… And the thing was, my secret ambition has always to be a spinster.” Her friend Tina, “Yours too?”

Eve spends a year in NYC and predictably hates it. (Earlier, she mentions how in the Depression, everyone with brains headed to New York, and everyone with beautiful faces headed to LA). “That always seemed like the whole thing; they’ll let you have stories, but you can’t ever think in a certain way. There are no spaces between the words, it’s one of the charms of the place. Certain things don’t have to be thought about carefully because you’re always being pushed from behind. It’s like a tunnel where there’s no sky.”

I love her even more when she attacks the fallacy that Nathanael West (nee Weinstein) was the best writer about Hollywood. “I think Nathanael West was a creep. Assuring his friends back at Dartmouth that even though he’d gone to Hollywood, he had not gone Hollywood. It’s a little apologia for coming to the Coast for the money and having a winter where you didn’t have to put tons of clothes on just to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes or a beer.” In another story she shrugs off Christmas in LA saying how weird it is to wish someone Merry Christmas as they’re watering their lawn in shorts.

There’s even a chapter on books (even better, from the library) which gave me some breadcrumbs to follow next. My heart swooned when she said “Mostly, I find myself coming out of the library with all women writers. I keep hoping the library attendant won’t notice, but when 8 out of 8 of the books you take out are by women, you try not to look too dykey.” Other recs: Anthony Powell (“much less leaden than John Updike and he’s a downright souffle compared to just about anyone else.”), Colette (Earthly Paradise), Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, Max Beerbohm (“Max, like Kaluha, any idiot can like it”), Joyce Carol Oates (them, and Wonderland) and Raynar Bahnam’s Los Angeles: A City of Four Ecologies. She wrote a fan letter to MFK Fisher telling her she’s just like Proust only better because she also gives us recipes. MFK wrote back supposing that some day someone will write their PhD thesis on madeleines.

Her exclamation about Virginia Woolf also left me happy:

“Virginia Woolf tantalizes me. I wish I could write like that. She is in love with London and I am in love with LA but London has seasons and this giant history and stratas of society… She wouldn’t like LA but maybe she’d forgive me for loving it anyway. The Waves is the best she’s written, you go crazy it’s so perfect. And then, it was her A Room of One’s Ownn that made me believe in Women’s Lib.”

This book is perfect. I want to read it all over again.

The realities of fiction: a book about writing

The realities of fiction: an author talks about writing

After finishing The Prodigal Women, I was thirsty for anything else Nancy Hale had written and opted to dip into her lectures on writing. Unfortunately, this collection of her thoughts from 1960 seems extremely dated. Not only does she reference walking on the moon as a distant possibility, but her attitude toward defining the novel vs. the short story seems rigid when looking back over 50 years. Still, the book is not completely without merits.

When writing, she emphasizes that novelists express the part of themselves that they are unaware of—writing as discovery/therapy. The writer trusts her imagination most of all, and makes society into a character. Hale claims that the only unique things are those that exist in the real world, that imagination creates things that are like something else. The pieces she claims as most important: beginning, the balance of forces or tension, writing in SCENES as much as possible, motivations for action, and skillful unnoticeable transitions.

I never need to read A Passage to India after consuming this book since Hale takes every available opportunity to praise and quote it.

Ultimate verdict- skip this book.

Charles Dickens: A Life

Charles Dickens: A Life

I’ve decided that I don’t like Tomalin as a biographer. She does very little in this book to get across the essence of Dickens, but maybe I’m too hard on her because primary sources are at a minimum. Dickens burned all his letters in 1860 and didn’t keep the type of journal that Woolf has delighted us with in her posthumous era. Tomalin works with what she has—mostly letters and the texts that D published—to pull off a quick 400+ page biography that conveys above all else that he was an extraordinarily energetic man besides being hugely talented. D kept his finger in every pie he got hold of, dictating the household arrangements and summertime escapes, charitably caring for random orphans and prostitutes and strangers he met along the way, enthusiastically carrying on with a large set of male friends (and having a shadow household of sister-in-law Georgy plus the mysterious Nelly/Ellen once he separates from Catherine). Early on you get a weird feeling about him, his going ga-ga over the death of his other sister-in-law (Mary) at age 16, the favored pet of his household later replaced by Georgina. When Mary Hogarth’s brother unexpectedly died, D was reportedly upset “not because he know George well but because he had been expecting to be buried beside Mary…”

He makes two trips to America, and in the first is overwhelmed by crowds swooning over his celebrity (and pushing for international copyright law b/c he saw zero money from U.S. publications). He loved Cincinnati: “a very beautiful city: I think the prettiest place I have seen here, except Boston. It has risen out of the forest like an Arabian-night city; is well laid out; ornamented in the suburbs with pretty villas… has smooth turf-plots and well kept gardens.”

I liked this photograph of him from 1850:

The Prodigal Women

I got swept up in the fast-moving currents of Nancy Hale’s dramatic masterpiece from 1942, a best-seller in its day that has now become moldering. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for stories with strong women who prefer solitude to anything else.

The story begins with a young Leda March looking back at her home and relishing the weekend’s release from school so that she can be alone. She comes from a poor branch of the aristocratic Marches of Boston and is an only child who finds comfort in the rollicking good time offered by her new friend Betsy Jekyll. The next 500+ pages follow the girls as they grow up and try on various identities—wealthy and beautiful wife (Leda) who bores of her marriage and chucks it all to become a poet, and Betsy’s bohemian spirit leads her to flapperism in NYC which she must renounce when she ends up with a wife-beating husband who loves to imagine all the various men she’s been with (so as to enrage himself). Leda falls in love with Betsy’s sister Maise’s husband, the artist Lambert Rudd. Maise herself gets sick in South America due to a botched abortion and becomes an invalid until she has her own child, and then loses her mind. It’s a real page-turner, delicious way to sink into the hours of the afternoon.

The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought)

A very approachable guide by Susan Buck-Morss to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project which has been gathering dust on my bedside table for months now. “The effect of technology on both work and leisure in the modern metropolis had been to shatter experience into fragments, and journalistic style reflected that fragmentation.” This, the essence of Benjamin’s masterwork. Buck-Morss’s book was published in 1989, before any version of Arcades Project hit the streets, and this is a useful guide that remains helpful even though the project has been published on its own. Photographs and illustrations help to make her point, along with biographical information about Benjamin.

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

You can’t be a self-respecting feminist without reading this book. I was somewhat clueless about the inner workings of Pussy Riot and their political art until Gessen laid it all out for me. The title comes from a quote from Solzhenitsyn used by Nadya in her closing statement during the sham trial. The three women (Nadya, Kat, Maria) were charged with essentially hurting the feelings of the religious people who witnessed their action at the Orthodox church in Moscow. Kat’s sentence got commuted, but Nadya and Maria got a few years in jail, but let’s not forget that this is Russian jail, where human rights are particularly overlooked. Maria became quite the jailhouse lawyer and continued fighting for better conditions at each penal colony she was sent to. Nadya philosophized and sent out various speeches through any channels she could. Fortunately, there was enough media attention on the women and jailers were forced to treat them somewhat well. They exited the system in 2013. Sadly, my own interest in their story is heightened by the fact that conditions in the U.S. are teetering towards those of Russia, so all outspoken feminist art warriors should read this as a cautionary tale but also for inspiration.

Enchanted Islands

Enchanted Islands

Sometimes you have a bad idea that you just have to follow through on. Today’s mistake was deciding that I’d slough off on work and simply read all afternoon, which I doubled down on by consuming this not so great book in a few hours. I was intrigued by the premise when I saw the book jumping out at me from a Chicago bookstore not long ago, so ordered it up and polished it off in one sitting, despite giving myself a tummyache in the process. It’s not good writing. It’s not good plot development. The characters are flimsy and unbelievable. Yet, I persisted, driven by the idea that some nugget of wisdom about female friendship would be waiting for me at the end. Nope.

It begins at the end, when Fanny & Rosalie are tucked away in an old folk’s home in the Bay Area, then yanks you backward through their childhood growing up Jewish in Minnesota, running away from home to work as a secretary in Chicago and then fleeing for farm life/suffragette life in Nebraska (of all places) when Fanny walks in on Rosalie with Fanny’s boyfriend Zeke, in an unnecessarily graphic and extremely detailed sex scene. Then Fanny ends up graying in San Francisco as a teacher, which she eventually chucks to go back to secretarial work in her 50s for the Navy. She gets recruited to pose/become the wife of a spy and go live on one of the Galapagos Islands in the lead up to WWII. Her husband, Ainslie, is gay, the “confirmed bachelor” hints broadly ignored by Fanny up until she catches him (of course) in flagrante.

The part of the story that unfolds on the islands is the flimsiest, most improbable, and least worth reading despite what you’d imagine. There are German spies on the island, drama drama drama, then the war, and Fanny’s shipped back to SF where she finally does fall in love (Joseph) but returns with Ainslie to the Galapagos when the war is over. It’s a muddy, icky, not-worth-your-time mess and I wish the author had had the kindness to keep it tucked away in a drawer and forgotten.

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

Bits of this were good but overall it’s not her best work. It’s an interesting attack on the bloated insistency on positive vibes, positive thinking, optimism. With this enforced viewpoint, we stumble blindly towards disaster, blithely ignoring warning signs of economic recession because of course the housing market can’t fail, etc.

The best parts of the book were the intro and the summation, and sandwiched in between were her story of wading through the pink paradise of surviving breast cancer, dealing with hyper-optimistic gurus who insist that all is cured with a flick of the mental switch, megachurches that more resemble corporations insisting that God wants you to be rich, and too much detail on the motivational speakers that made me want to crawl under the covers and never see the light of day again.

Ehrenreich discusses how positive thinking snuggles up quite closely to late capitalism’s insistence that we buy more and that corporations continue to always grow, fueling consumer society by saying that bygod we deserve newer/better electronics/cars/houses. “Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.”

The effect is seen in the economy, we spend a lot and save a little, never worrying about a rainy day that will never come. Good news– we do have “defensive pessimism” that keeps us safe, assuming that cars won’t stop at red lights or that engines may fail, otherwise we’d truly be living in a LALAland where nothing bad can ever happen (also why Ehrenreich says we were taken by surprise during 9/11 despite the many signs leading up to it).

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago Studies in American Politics)

Another great book helping to explain the unexplainable—why people will vote against their best interest (rural folks voting against the social safety net that helps them). Cramer spends years in the field infiltrating a few dozen small groups around the state, mostly of old men. She develops a theory of rural consciousness as a lens through which to view everything from non-urbanites. Diving into the numbers, she shows that rural displeasure in having to pay more than they get back is misplaced—rural areas skew towards getting more per capita than they put in. There’s a deep-seated feeling of resentment, the idea that urbanites are getting more than they deserve and not working hard. The idea that manual labor is more deserving than white collar labor is pervasive. Very readable recap of several years of research with great bits of conversation recorded. Rural denizens feel left out, abandoned, ignored, and as if they are stupid.

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

Brilliant book by the smart, funny, honest and intensely brave Laura Kipnis. It changed my perspective on automatically assuming that sexual assault reports were to be believed by exposing the grotesque practice of kangaroo courts of Title IX investigations on campus. Kipnis lands a goldmine of evidence from Peter Ludlow who was railroaded out of his star tenure position in philosophy by two somewhat disturbing accusations from female students that disintegrate under serious study. Kipnis encourages us to view women not just as the passive objects that we’ve become, needing to be protected by overzealous university administrators with consent rules. She even touches on that taboo subject of excessive drinking on campus and its role in attacks. Wisely, she counsels women to take self-defense classes and learn how to vehemently say NO!, unraveling the socialization of being female that has taught us to be pleasing and placid.

Kipnis gets caught in the maw of this Title IX beast when charges are brought against her by people upset about an essay she wrote, claiming that it created a chilling environment on campus. “I knew next to nothing about Title IX, but we were still living in America (or so I thought) and either the place turned into a police state without my noticing, or using a federal law against gender discrimination to punish a professor for writing an essay was something other people were likely to find outrageous too.”

It’s fierce, intelligent writing that takes an unpopular view, sprinkled with bits of Kipnis’s wit throughout. “During our interview, Ludlow tried to interest me in My Little Pony, too, insisting at one point that I watch a video clip of a bunch of winsome animated ponies cavorting in a candy-colored field, which was the longest three minutes of my life.”

Let’s teach women how to say “Get your fucking hand off my knee” instead of setting up bizarre secret courts which allow them to hogtie men for their actions with very little evidence.

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

It’s too soon to read this book. Unless, of course, you’re ready to pull the scabs off and start digging into the open wounds again, raising your ire and fully hating Bernie bros, Comey, and the misogynist nation that barely elected Toxic T. No thanks. I wasn’t ready to deal with this, wasn’t ready to have it all condensed into a few hundred pages. Maybe in a few years.

A London Family Between the Wars

A London Family Between the Wars (Oxford Paberbacks) by Mary Vivian Hughes (1979-10-31)

Molly Hughes is the perfect traveling companion, lightening your spirits with jolly tales of life in the countryside on the outskirts of England in the 20s and 30s. It seems all of her books include a tragedy of some sort and this is no different—she becomes a widow and has to forge on by earning her keep to feed and shelter her three sons.

Beautiful language throughout, such as her description of a moonset, a term she coins, “The moon was setting among a glory of silver clouds. I stared in stupid amazement. I had seen many a fine sunset, but never before (or since) a moonset. In fact, I am coining the word, for the O.E.D. doesn’t mention it, although quite chatty about a sunset.”

She moves to the countryside and is beset by invitations to join “society” which she rebuffs by saying “I’m so sorry but I can’t join your circle. I can’t sew, or do anything useful, or play cards, or be sociable in any way; and I’m not a lady.” This gets her out of the obligatory social calls that deaden an afternoon and waste time, but she’s extremely friendly with neighbors and people who pop in to ask for things or just a brief informal chat.

She gives invaluable advice about lectures, suggesting that “unless you shock people you make little impression.” Also interesting thought about the gramophone and how she was reluctant to use it because she might put on a record once too often and thus lessen the joy of listening to it. In this age of play whatever you want, watch whatever you want whenever you want, I wonder if we have some of the same deadening.

Her tone is always funny, and she relates little tales that make you laugh, like the Irish shopkeeper who closed up shop. “What made you close down?” asked an Englishman. “Ah, we were getting too many orders.” was the reply.