Category Archives: metastuff

What Kittens?


all what you do it come back to you
you got to bear the consequence

(an extended rumination, knitting several trains of thought)

The Young Tuan B3

53 years ago we were in Sarawak, helping to build a new village into which people from 15 Iban longhouse communities would be resettled. This Land Development Scheme (its formal designation) involved the planting of high-yield rubber trees which the Scheme participants would (eventually) tap, thus trading a semi-self-sufficient life on the fringes of the cash economy for full-fledged peasant status, living on the proceeds of their labor in the sort-of-cooperative rubber plantation. They would “own” their rubber plots, but pay mortgages on the land and on the single-family houses in the new village. What could possibly go wrong?

The premise that government-sponsored Development would make a better life for all (schools for children, health care clinics, “Progress”) was almost completely unquestioned. The assumption that demand for natural rubber would increase was unstated, because self-evident to the minds of mid1960s government planners. But that’s not how it turned out.

The new village was built next to the single trunk road that connected to the state capital (some 80 miles away) and continued on to link a series of (basically Chinese) towns, all situated on rivers that had formerly been the primary transportation corridors. Quite suddenly the accessibility of rural hinterlands changed—buses were available to nearby towns, a vastly expanded range of goods and services became available, and participation in a national and international cash economy was ubiquitous.

That process of infrastructural development and contingent change was what I thought I would return to Sarawak to study, but that’s not how it all worked out. I went to Nova Scotia instead, and only occasionally checked in with what was happening in Sarawak. The last 50 years has brought devastation of forests, the building of large dams on several rivers, rural dislocations and resettlements, and the advent of palm oil plantations to take the place of rubber as the principal primary export commodity. The Sarawak we knew is all but unrecognizable.

The new village of 50 years ago was on the edge of a vast and largely impenetrable peat swamp, covered in 100+ foot hardwood trees. Nobody envisioned any possible use for that land, since it would have to be drained and cleared. Nobody thought of palm oil as a possible crop for Southeast Asia until about 1980. That’s when Malaysia (and Indonesia) started to ramp up palm oil planting. Beyond swamp-draining and planting of oil palm, I don’t know any of the details of the development in the area we worked in, but in general the development process in Sarawak involves government and large corporations, and the public face of the operations emphasizes the benefits to one and all of the glorious implementation. The only sure thing is that the little people get squeezed and screwed, while somebody else reaps the benefits.

My attention to this bit of backstory comes about today because of a New York Times Magazine article on the tragedies of palm oil, which mostly focuses on Indonesia, and which raises some wider issues that I’m inclined to discuss under a new rubric: What Kittens?. The reference is to a passage in Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel, written 90 or so years ago but absolutely on the money today. Still more backstory is needed.


well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

When I began to read about agriculture, in the early 1970s and before I went to Nova Scotia to do research in what I was pleased to label as “agricultural transformation”, a central concept for my explorations was the importance of exotic energy, by which I meant petroleum fuels and such petroleum derivatives as fertilizers and pesticides. In the 20th century, exotic energy was brought to bear on agricultural production, underwriting its intensification and midwifeing the increasing scale and concentration of agricultural enterprises. It was the inexorability of the transformation process, together with its malign effects upon families and communities, that led me to abjure that line of research as soon as the ink was dry on my dissertation.

I continued to track the significance of exotic energies in human affairs throughout my teaching career, especially in about 15 iterations of a course I called Human Geography. I was never as systematic as I should have been, but I did continue keep eyes peeled throughout the years as a librarian. Some years ago I read a number of news stories about far-sighted experimenters who were using discarded vegetable oil (mostly from fast food fryers) to power their diesel cars. A win-win, one might have thought: recycling a disposable, replacing a petroleum product, carving out an efficiency. Soon after that rash of stories I heard about “biodiesel” as an alternative Green fuel source, and made the assumption that the feedstock must be recycled plant oils… Ah, assumptions. Little did I know that the Southeast Asian palm oil plantations were more and more the primary source of biodiesel, and (hand in hand with deforestation) responsible for much misery along with obscene profits for the perpetrators of ever-larger projects. None of this should have been in the least surprising.


archy she says to me
yesterday
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens

The world of academic thought and action seems at any point in time to be mappable into distinct Disciplines, though the edges of any Discipline are ragged and permeable. But over time, in decades or generations, the boundaries shift and shimmer, and local heresies morph into schismatic reorganizations; intellectual fashions and leitmotifs come and go, and the focus of the Important peregrinates. I’ve been on the edges of a succession of disciplinary kerfuffles, almost entirely as a bemused observer.

In the 1960s the concept of Development was a leitmotif in many social science disciplines, not least in Economics, Political Science, and Anthropology. After a brief vogue for Ecology, Cybernetics, and a whiff of Sociobiology, in the 1970s and 1980s the leading edge lurched toward Postmodernism and Diversities (thankfully, I missed those morasses). The 1990s found those same fields riveted by Globalization. And the 21st century has seen Global Warming and Inequality come to the fore as the reigning integrative challenges. Each of these seems like an era, and the succession leaves a trail of supposed focal Problems behind, their dilemmas unresolved and their protagonists ageing gracelessly.


but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove them

So I escaped the Wheel in the 1990s, into the aether of Library and Information Science, and enjoyed more than a decade of adventures completely outside of disciplinary argy-bargy, learning and building and following my nose. They paid me to know stuff and find out about more stuff and help others find what they were seeking. I had audience and agency, and an infinitude of things to explore. The 13+ years of retirement continues to present that infinitude, in which I revel. I sometimes miss the audience and the agency, though photography offers both.


these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too

But every so often I encounter some subject matter that reopens old files and nudges me toward trying to make better sense of one or another of problems left behind. It was palm oil this time, but who knows what next?


one day she was talking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject

a lesson learned

The Just A Rock book is beginning to come together, slowly, and is of course accompanied by discoveries and diversions of many flavors. I’ve been photographing at Drift Inn almost daily for the last 6 weeks or so, and each time I discover new rocks and often enough re-photograph ones I’ve already collected. A few days ago I was paying more attention to smaller rocks, those that fit in the hand and are rolled back and forth by the tide. One that I picked up seemed especially characterful, so I set it on a flat granite surface and photographed it:


DI3ii1842

…and tossed it back onto the rocky beach.

It wasn’t until I was processing the image that I noticed that it was a portrait, and my first thought was “Zen Patriarch” since it reminded me of Japanese paintings I’d seen of those worthies. I wasn’t immediately sure which Patriarch, but put that question aside to explore later.

I’ve lately been reading The Gateless Gate: the classic book of Zen koans, and yesterday morning arrived at Number 4:

Wakuan said, “Why has the western barbarian no beard?”

The commentary explains that the koan has to do with the vexed and fundamental question of the distinction between the essential and the phenomenal, which bears directly upon what I’ve been trying to write about in the case of rocks [relevant to the distinction between rock as an abstract and a rock as something with character and personality]. The “western barbarian” in the koan is often personified as Bodhidharma, the First Zen Patriarch, who was indeed an Indian monk who went to China in the 6th century:



So I realized that I wanted to find that rock with Bodhidharma on it; I wanted to possess it (I do have a modest collection of especially evocative rocks…). I went back to Drift Inn to try to find it again. And didn’t. And went back twice more, trying to reconstruct where I might have tossed it. No Bodhidharma.

A haiku came to me, as haikus are wont to do:

seek Bodhidharma
among the ten thousand rocks
alas, he’s moved on

The quick-witted will note that my Drift Inn beach Bodhidharma has no [evident, phenomenal] beard. Teisho’s commentary on the koan includes this:

Pictures of Bodhidharma are well known, and not only does he always have a beard but a very thick beard indeed! Wakuan was well aware of this. Why then does he say that Bodhidharma has no beard?

Everything has two aspects, phenomenal and essential. The phenomenal Bodhidharma has a beard, but the essential Bodhidharma has no beard. To realize this, you must grasp by experience the essential nature of Bodhidharma.

The essential nature [of anything] cannot be destroyed, even by karmic fire. If the whole universe were to be completely destroyed, the essential nature would continue to exist because it is empty. It is nonsubstantial. It cannot be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears, or touched with the hands. No one can identify the spot where it is.

So here’s what I was writing about rock before all the above happened:

The essence of rock is mineral, molecular, elemental, time-encapsulating, entropic [in the process of returning to its chemical origins], crystalline, cooled to a solid phase of a material derived from and still encapsulating its liquid phase.

The essence of a rock, such as one might hold or photograph, is revealed via the phenomenal engagement with a mind: the mind discerns (makes, constructs) form. The mind of a geologist attaches labels and associations and temporal structure; the mind of a wall builder sees mass and shape and fit; the mind of a sculptor may see the form that dwells within; the mind of an artist abstracts and transforms the visual appearance of the rock…

So you can see why the progress on Just A Rock is slow…

One of today’s rock creatures:

DI7ii059

co incidence

I really admire Andy Ilachinski’s photography, and often enjoy the enlightenments of quotations he pairs with images in his Tao of Digital Photography blog. This morning’s Schopenhauer passage projected me into a 3-way conjunction with a deceased wombat and a decaying stump:

…All the events in a man’s life accordingly stand in two fundamentally different kinds of connection: firstly, in the objective, causal connection of the natural process; secondly, in a subjective connection which exists only in relation to the individual who experiences it, and which is thus as subjective as his own dreams, whose unfolding content is necessarily determined, but in the manner in which the scenes in a play are determined by the poet’s plot….
(http://tao-of-digital-photography.blogspot.ca/2017/04/a-great-dream.html)

This morning I happened to learn that Patrick the Wombat had expired in Ballarat, probably around the time I discovered Patrick’s visage at the dead center of a tessellation of an elm stump at Horton Landing, Nova Scotia:


elm stump5x2

(zoom in to inspect the visage more closely here)

Just sayin’

Not My Circus; Not My Monkeys [but surely some nearby somebody’s]

I’m forever finding things that seem to apply to people and situations that aren’t precisely my own but do need rediffusing in some medium. Here’s one that just snuck up on me:

Imagine a world where speaking or writing words can literally and directly make things happen, where getting one of those words wrong can wreak unbelievable havoc, but where with the right spell you can summon immensely powerful agencies to work your will. Imagine further that this world is administered: there is an extensive division of labour, among the magicians themselves and between the magicians and those who coordinate their activity. It’s bureaucratic, and also (therefore) chaotic, and it’s full of people at desks muttering curses and writing invocations, all beavering away at a small part of the big picture. The coordinators, because they don’t understand what’s going on, are easy prey for smooth-talking preachers of bizarre cults that demand arbitrary sacrifices and vanish with large amounts of money…

The analyst or programmer has to examine documents with an eye at once skeptical and alert, snatching and collating tiny fragments of truth along the way. His or her sources of information all have their own agendas, overtly or covertly pursued. He or she has handlers and superiors, many of whom don’t know what really goes on at the sharp end…

(from Ken MacLeod’s preface to Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives)

balm in Gilead?

Trump connected to the segment of the population that was prepared to believe that racism was realism, misogyny was locker-room talk, inconvenient facts were media myths, and viciousness was the new normal. Just as surely as he has redrawn the electoral map, he has radically altered the Overton window. No Presidential candidate before him had ever mocked a disabled reporter, or bragged about his penis size during a debate. What kept every other candidate before him from stooping to these tactics, presumably, was deference to social norms. But norms can be swept aside.

(Andrew Marantz, in New Yorker news blog)

I wrestle with the personal means to come to terms with the new sociocultural reality, and consider employing tools like Colin Woodard’s recent books (which deserve a careful rereading: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good), and the prescient writings of Thomas Frank in The Baffler and in his Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, and George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. As so often before, Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source is helpful in reminding me to think more broadly about what’s in front of my nose.

I’m not sure that gnawing old bones of socio-political argybargy is good for the blood pressure, let alone the soul, though I can’t entirely ignore what comes at me via New Yorker and NYRB and various lefty blogs I follow. As an antidote, I’ve found it soothing to read Ursula Le Guin’s novellas and short stories (The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin and The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin), and I’ve just picked up the beloved Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller Jr. –can you believe it first appeared in 1958???) for the fourth or fifth time.

I’ve also been deeply into Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History, and via that engagement I’ve dipped into Gregory Bateson again, via Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, a book I tried to read maybe 20 years ago but bounced off of, feeling discomfort with Bateson’s concept of epistemology (I basically didn’t grasp what he was talking about). This morning I ventured to the Auxiliary Library in the barn and quarried my copy of Bateson’s Naven and what did I find but

What has happened has been the growth of a new way of thinking about organization and disorganization. Today, data from a New Guinea tribe and the superficially very different data of psychiatry can be approached in terms of a single epistemology—a single body of questions.

We now have the beginnings of a general theory of process and change, adaptation and pathology; and, in terms of the general theory, we have to reexamine all that we thought we knew about organisms, societies, families, personal relationships, ecological systems, servo-mechanisms, and the like.

(Gregory Bateson, Preface to the second edition [1958] Of Naven)

“And the like” indeed. So: back once again to General Systems Theory, which beguiled me 45 or so years ago, abstractions high-flown enough to calm the yammer of daily helpings of News of Fresh Disasters.

As Adam Fish just put it:

What is needed are new modes of counter-hegemonic governance. Towards that goal I am going to do nothing. Social evolution is slow and silent not obvious and obnoxious. It is time for a break into scholarship and away from reactionary tabbing back and forth from The New York Times and Breitbart, The Guardian and Drudge.

mid-October

Years ago Allen Smith observed to me that the great thing about being a reference librarian was that “It All Counts!

I’ve been doing a lot of organizing out in the barn (“winnowing” is another candidate descriptor for the activity), discarding lots of paper that’s been tucked away in file drawers for years. Along the way I’ve found all sorts of stuff that’s really worth saving, and reconnected with avenues and back alleys that have absorbed my energies at various times. I’ve been reminded how much energy went into exploring topics for students and colleagues and preparing classes, and I’m pleased to see how good I was at those things. But I’m also discovering that the net effects of my efforts were very limited –indeed, were principally and primarily good for my own learning. And I’ve convinced myself that there’s nothing wrong with that, that no grander legacy is necessary or maybe even desirable.

I still harbor inclinations to build something with my musical and photographic and textual archives, but I can’t imagine where to set the foundations or how to erect the skeleton or design the floorplan… I suppose this blog could serve as the accumulator and distributor for such a construction project, if I was a tad more systematic and less irregular in posting. Maybe I’ll try that.

and now some on Reading

Sometimes what I write in the basically 1:1 medium of email needs to be saved where I can find it more easily, and/or seems like it might want to be shared more widely, so I contrive some way to nudge the text into the semi-public medium of the blog. A continuing series of exchanges loosely centered on writing is a current example, and so I’m following up my post on Writing with yesterday’s thoughts tending toward Reading. Don’t know that I’ll ever refine these thoughts, but if I ever want to, I’ll be able to find where I started.

maths

All sorts of people will tell you that mathematics and music have profoundly overlapping domains, and the most tiresome of those folks may say that music is entirely subsumed within mathematics. I’ve had (not to say enjoyed…) a lifelong struggle with mathematics, ‘getting it’ up to a point but then losing the ‘it’ and not being able to go further for a while. How many times have I tried to “teach myself calculus” only to founder on one rock or another… Just this morning I ran across a resource that would have made all sorts of things possible, if only I’d had it years ago:

Numberphile on YouTube

I happened upon it via a marvelous video in which Edward Frenkel takes on the question How did the NSA hack our emails?



If I had nothing else to do (i.e., if I didn’t have about 50 other interests I’m happily pursuing) I’d get out my Hofstadter books and dive in again. xkcd warns me what a silly thing that would be…