Read my review of E.O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence” (2014) in The Humanist magazine

Recently I was given the opportunity to review Edward O. Wilson‘s The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) for the July/August 2015 issue of The Humanist, the official magazine of the American Humanist Association. Though I think the book serves more as an addendum to On Human Nature (1978) and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) than a single, independent work, it’s undoubtedly worth the read. Though he tries to cover a lot in this book, its best chapters are those when, rather than approaching the humanities with a fist, he opens his hand.

As I write in my review:

Where other scientists may be harsh in what they have to say about the humanities, Wilson seems to privilege it; as the discoveries of science converge in all parts of the world, he writes, “What will continue to evolve and diversify almost infinitely are the humanities.” Every culture that ever flourished and faded did so with nuance, and it is possible that if given enough time, each could have discovered gravity or natural selection. But it is only the English who could have produced Shakespeare—in the same way only the Persians could produce Rumi and the Japanese Bashō. Thus the humanities ought to hold a special place in our lives, for they represent, in Wilson’s words, “the natural history of culture, and our most private and precious heritage.”

Read the full review here.

The Wilderness of Big Bend National Park

Big_Bend_National_Tree

Big Bend National Park

Covering more than 801,000 acres, Big Bend National Park is Texas’ largest park and one of its last untouched wildernesses. On the southern part of the state’s mountain and basin region, 118 miles of the Rio Grande River forms a natural border with Mexico. Of the fourteen national parks with mountains, Big Bend is distinguished for being the only one to have within its confines an entire range – the Chisos Mountains. Driving the winding roads, one never loses sight of the Chisos, and in the distance, in late-afternoon against the otherwise flat landscape, the strip of faded purple ribbon can be mistaken for distant clouds. The sight can be breathtaking when at last they break into the foreground to encompass all views.

Centered within the Chihuahuan Desert, it is worth stating for the armchair traveler that the desert looks nothing as one expects (images of dunes surely just mirages of the Saraha). Instead, the whole landscape is full of flora and fauna, its own delicate ecosystem. Everywhere prickly pear cacti mix with blossoming yucca, seven-foot-tall sotols, and Texas madrones. Along the roads bluebonnets poke out of the grasses. At night one can hear the high-pitched yelps of coyotes and in the cool hours of morning follow in the dust the prints of jackrabbits and lizards.

NOT-POSSIBLE-WITHOUT-GIMBAL_javelina_PARKER

A pair of wild javelinas.

Visiting, as I hiked the trails I thought of how much has been invested to turn deserts into productive grasslands. The thought of land being “wasted” because it is not in use is a mindset I will never sympathize with. After all, the javelinas and mountain lions seem to be making excellent use of it already. No need to ruin a good thing. It is only within the last 150 years, really, that the west has recognized the need to set land aside for nonuse. It is only within half that time we’ve gone further to accept this land not as a resource but an entity not requiring but deserving preservation. The land has a right to free existence, untouched not only by the mechanical hands of industry but the flesh and bone of man’s. Wilderness has its own value beyond its “productivity.”

John_Muir_Cane

Naturalist John Muir (1838-1914)

Though not legally-recognized as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Big Bend National Park is functionally so (due to a very particular loophole). It is my hope that it and other lands achieve this designation because as the naturalist John Muir observed: So much of the national identity is engaged with wilderness and it is something to be experienced rather than read about. To stand at the base of a mountain and watch the shadows ascend, chasing the light so the contrast of every stone becomes sharper, each cave deeper and darker. To hear one’s voice echo within the 1,500 foot walls of the Santa Elena Canyon. To, in those moments, be a vessel of the old dream that knew there were unknown lands to be explored and witnessed and reported on. Each of these things are now words on the page but live in parts of me words cannot reach.

After experiencing the wilderness, when one returns to the city, it is apparent how we are primed to regard the land as built within the city, another structure as manmade as a skyscraper, as though each park and river were carefully layered onto city blueprints. The land, it feels, exists on pavement and not vice-versa. But to witness the less than 5% of wilderness that is unsettled by the United States supplants this delusion. Everywhere man inhabits exists within the landscape; beneath it will never be a city but beneath all cities will be it. Returning home from a visit to Big Bend National Park, the world feels a little larger, unknown.

Once again we are reminded that not every brain develops the same

In the fall 2012, I briefly left the University of Minnesota Morris to do a series of directed studies in Houston, TX. One of these included attending Dr. David Eagleman’s “Neuroscience and Law” course at Rice University, which required that we write for the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law’s blog. This was originally published September 26, 2012.

In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the Columbian College of Arts are giving further insight into the evolutionary history of our cognitive development. In studying the brains of both chimpanzees and humans, they discovered that myelin, which is “fatty insulation surrounding axon connections of the brain”, ceases developing in our distant cousins long before it does for us. In fact, in humans it fully develops only once we have entered early adulthood.

The developmental timing of myelination is important because it establishes connectivity among parts of the growing brain, which is essential to higher-order cognitive functions, such as decision-making and emotional regulation. These cognitive functions are known to mature relatively late in humans, after the time of adolescence. Also, this period of persistent myelin development during early adulthood in humans is a time of particular vulnerability to neuropsychiatric diseases, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.

This research is important for several reasons but I find it particularly interesting since it affirms, once again, that our legal system must accommodate the full diversity of brains that find their way before the bench. Right now, the legal system does differentiate between “youth” and “adulthood” but does so on purely artificial lines – if you commit a crime the day before your 18th birthday, you will be held to a different level culpability than if you had committed said crime a day after. Such distinctions are necessary since a line must be drawn somewhere but such lines are arbitrary and assumes that at this level of adulthood one has a full understanding of the consequences of their actions. Research like this reminds us that that is not true. Instead of having a bright line, we should be more flexible in how we distribute punishment – and once we do this, it will only follow that a fair and equitable legal system will be one that scales punishment according to the brain on trial whether we regard the individual as an “adolescent” or not.

Reading “Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner” by Mik Everett

Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a

Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner (Unknown Press, 2013)

As part of a project I’m doing on the state of contemporary writing, author Mik Everett mailed me a copy of her book Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner (2013). After reading it, I’m excited for what our generation has to offer the literary world. As Everett so clearly illustrates: we’re one of dreamers and as we set out, so much of what we have to say will be about how we maintained this spirit while navigating the world given to us by our parents. (And if you’ve paid any attention to the news at all, it’s not a great one).

Written while living out of a broken-down RV in a Wal-Mart parking lot, Self Published Kindling is about Everett’s experience running a Longmont, Colorado, bookstore that stocked exclusively self-published and regional books. Though the first store of its kind in the nation, Everett quickly discovers that few writers read and even fewer readers want books you can’t find in a Barnes and Noble. She tries to mitigate this through author readings and art crawls, but everyone who comes in leaves empty-handed. Soon she and her partner, John, conclude, “Everybody’s just here to pretend they support art” (48). If you’re an artist who’s ever tried to sell their work, you know exactly what that means.

Besides providing a small glimpse into the world of self-published writers, the fact that all this happens within the context of homelessness lends this book a kind of Steinbeck-esque quality. Raising two children with her partner, the pair struggle to keep up with the apartment rent and once evicted suffer through the hoops of getting public assistance. Applying to every homeless shelter in the region, they discover most are at full capacity and won’t have openings for years. Still, she applies anyway, finding little encouragement and grinding her teeth through the process. Eventually, the pair settle on living in a Wal-Mart parking lot, relying on soup kitchens and whatever they can steal from the megastore.

As the story flutters between these two worlds–literary and homeless–Everett describes the different people she meets, doing so with a humanity and compassion others may instinctively spare. In these pages we meet young, touring writers who she calls the modern Beats and others who, sleeping out of the backseat of their car, struggle simply to survive. It’s an interesting juxtaposition and one that kept me second-guessing the author and asking, “Who’s actually Beat?” (A part of me suspects that the real Beats are the ones who’ll never pick up a pen).

As someone who’s read and reviewed his share of self-published/small press booksSelf Published Kindling is one of the few that I can, in good faith, recommend to others. In fact, for anyone interested in this new generation of writers still finding their voice, it’s a hint of what’s to come. Though Everett’s prose is at times weak, it’s the story and what this story means for the rest of us that redeems it. It’s a story of how we twenty-something creatives managed to survive in this changing world, one disdainful of both art and poverty, and the perseverance we retained even when the worst happened.

You can purchase Mik Everett’s Self Published Kindling here.

Philip Larkin on reading versus hearing poetry

f

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

In order to familiarize myself with the work of English poet Philip Larkin, I recently read his 1982 interview with The Paris Review (its famous “Art of Poetry” series is a resource I encourage all writers to check out). Regarded as one of England’s top poets, during his lifetime Larkin shied away from his fame, working as a librarian at the University of Hull. A proud page poet, he refused to give readings (though he did record a few of his books) and had this to say about their growing prominence in the United States:

Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much—the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing “there” and “their” and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the “score” that doesn’t “come to life” until it’s “performed.” It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.

There’s certainly a parallel here with the current state of poetry, which in its most-popular form gravitates toward spoken-word/SLAM. The prominence of both of these is a net positive for the literary community because by blurring the lines between poetry, oratory, and music (i.e. hip-hop), it’s made the genre more accessible to a wider audience. But it’s not without its stylistic problems (which I could lecture on at length).

Often the medium overtakes the content, which as Larkin notes can lead to “easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax” that, when transcribed, just don’t work on the page. Conversely, some of the best poetry ever written must be read — to name one example, John Berryman’s Dream Songs. There is just so much in his odd syntax and phrasings to be appreciated that it requires a slow read; when read aloud, it flashes past and by the end it feels as though you’ve only seen the surface beneath which something greater rumbles. Spoken word may allow the performer a spectrum of sounds and body movements, but the page offers just as much, if not more.

This short note isn’t meant to privilege one approach over the other but is instead a reminder to think about the tools in our hands. Ask yourself: Why am I writing a poem and not prose? Is this piece meant to be performed, heard, or read? Simply asking these questions is what separates writers from those who merely write.

Read “Exodus of the Dead” in Popshot Magazine (UK)

 

“Exodus of the Dead” appears in Popshot Magazine Issue 13. Purchase a copy here.

What if the freshly-dead refused to drop as gravity intended — and instead, simply floated away? In my latest short story, “Exodus of the Dead,” I answer this question, envisioning a world where crime scenes are harder to discern without a victim and nobody fights over the airplane window seat. Written in the magical realist tradition of Italo Calvino and David Eagleman, the story is playful yet serious, fantastic but deeply human. Here’s an excerpt:

Death is tragic enough without having to get the dead down from the ceiling. No one knew why it happened, but starting one late-summer afternoon, the freshly-dead refused to drop as gravity intended. As though the last breath was wind in their sails, steadily they ascended like balloons, disappearing into the clouds. All across the world, patients lifted from their hospital beds and families came home to loved ones bumping the ceiling fan.

Support small presses and magazines! Issue 13 of Popshot Magazine (UK) can be purchased here.

“Words were powerless”: A Minnesota newspaper’s response to the Lincoln assassination

To recognize the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination, this article is a follow-up to my last post,The Funeral of President Lincoln.” If you enjoyed this, you may also like my short piece on Minnesota newspapers’ reaction to the death of Charles Darwin.

"President Lincoln Assassinated!", The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

“President Lincoln Assassinated!”, The St. Cloud Democrat, April 20, 1865.

On April 15, 1865, lying in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theater, President Abraham Lincoln died, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. What was a week celebrating an end to four years of bloodshed was capstoned by one last tragedy. Though not everyone felt the same way, tens of millions mourned their fallen hero, and in Minnesota as well as elsewhere, this sorrow turned into disbelief, into anger.

Lincoln has a special importance in the history of Minnesota not only because of his political legacy but also the fact that 1860 was the first presidential election the state could vote in. Although a few counties went for the Democratic candidate, the state overwhelmingly handed its four electoral votes to Lincoln. Months later when the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was one of the first to commit troops to the Union cause, and while the state and administration did not agree on every issue, the two were undoubtedly close. This made it all the more traumatic when news of the assassination reached the state.

One of the first Minnesota newspapers to report on the it was The St. Cloud Democrat, based out of the central part of the state. “He is Dead!” its editor, W. B. Mitchell, frantically announced, adding that God had struck “the light from our eyes” by taking “our great, good and mighty ruler.” He continued:

On Sabbath morning [April 15th] the terrible news fell upon us—crushing, stupefying, sickening. Men heard with blanched cheeks, and the blood cold—frozen—in their veins. To believe seemed impossible, and yet there was no room for hope—the truth was only too well established. Words were powerless. In the formation of language no such deed as this—the assassination of Liberty’s chosen son in a land that boasted to breathe only the air of freedom—had never been contemplated, and the brain of man had framed nothing for the tongue to express that was not weak and impotent. (April 20, 1865)

As the newspaper sorted through the details of the assassination — that John Wilkes Booth was the perpetrator and Secretary Seward a second victim — it worried about what was next. As Mitchell noted, the nation had lost a part of itself: “The heart of the nation had twined around that great body and taken it to themselves, and the great soul it contained had become a part of their soul.” For many, including Mitchell, Lincoln was an American Moses leading the country toward the Promised Land but never reaching it himself. Yet with the prophet gone, visions of this land became dubious and for some stained red.

"Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm," The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

“Letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm,” The St. Cloud Democrat. April 27, 1865.

A week later The St. Cloud Democrat published a two-part letter from Jane Grey Swisshelm, an early supporter of Lincoln and one of the state’s most vocal abolitionists. Recording what she saw while in Washington, D.C., her correspondence is fascinating in that, written days apart, the two-halves capture the emotional shift that must have shaken so many. For example, the first is dated April 14, only hours before the assassination, and in it she observes the raised flags and “virtual peace” taking hold in the country: “[O]n this favored day the sun shines gloriously, after a long season of clouds and rain.” But three days later the storm returned:

It is sickening to pass the White House … so recently all gorgeous with flags and all manner of festive devices blazing with many colored lights, and reverberating with triumphant music, and witness the change to the sable emblems of woe. What made these garments even worse was the knowledge that just behind that draped wall lies the mangled body of our sainted, martyred President, and this visible presence adds greatly to the sorrow and gloom.

Finally, she seethed, the true character of the South had revealed itself by murdering the one person who would show them mercy:

The world at large—the masses of the Northern people—had no more just idea than had Mr. Lincoln of the animus of this most fiendish Rebellion[.] He was the one to test generosity, magnanimity, Christian charity and all that class of virtues to the utmost limit, and we have the result. As Christ was murdered by those He came to save, so has President Lincoln been sacrificed by the wretches he would have shielded from the just punishment of their crimes.

df

Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884)

With the president gone, “Who now will stand between them and the reward of their two centuries’ of crimes against our common humanity, the thought of which makes the blood curdle in one’s veins?” She demanded that Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, not steady his hand in retaliation: “Nations have no hereafter, and National sins must meet their punishment in this life.” This was a position she maintained in successive letters to the newspaper, recanting any benevolence she may have once shown, insisting that “The nation can never be safe while these, her implacable and wily foes, are above the grounds” (May 6, 1865).

In the months following, Swisshelm was not alone in her bloodlust. As the “Radical Republicans” in Congress sought to punish the South and ensure the rights of free blacks, President Johnson advocated a more moderate approach. Trying to reunite the country as quickly as possible, his policies alienated individuals like Swisshelm, who feared weakness would validate treason. The new president’s efforts backfired when, in 1866, the Radicals swept the midterm elections.

Although Reconstruction may not have affected Minnesota in the same way it did the South and New England, it did ignite a debate over how to reach the “Promised Land” Lincoln prophesied. While Minnesota sent several of these Radicals to Washington (including former Governor Alexander Ramsey), on the state-level, Republicans pushed for a black suffrage amendment to the state constitution. This, though, was voted down twice (1865, 1867) before passing in 1868 and was the first step on a path the state would take nearly a century to travel.

There really is no modern parallel to the anguish many Americans felt when President Lincoln was assassinated. Right when the nation’s bloodiest war was drawing to a close, it lost something greater than a man: it lost a symbol. As the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln represented a vision of what the United States could be, and as that “great soul … had become a part of [the people’s] soul,” for many it must have felt as if much more than just the president had died that day. Upon hearing the news, how many asked, What now?