Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Knapsack Poems

I was going to post more at great length about Jared Diamond. Instead I will post this.

My story "Knapsack Poems" has been reprinted in The James Tiptree Anthology 3. I just got my copy. The other contributors are Dorothy Allison, Aimee Bender, Ted Chaing, L. Timmel Duchamp, Nalo Hopkinson, Margo Lanagan, Ursula K. LeGuin, Vonda McIntyre, Pam Noles, Geoff Ryman and James Tiptree, Jr.

Woo! Woo! What company!


The weather is cold at the moment, below freezing with a sub-zero windchill. This means the snow that fell last weekend isn't melting. It flecks the trees and covers the litter along the freeways. For the most part, it is still white. Smoke rises from the chimneys of houses and from the skyscapers in the two downtowns. Huge clouds come from the downtown heating plants. I love the sight of a cold downtown, with smoke billowing around the tall buildings. In Minneapolis, which is a more modern city than St. Paul, with a lot of glass and steel buildings, the skyscapers reflect the smoke as it drifts past.

I go in for layers in the winter: a turtleneck covered with a cord shirt. Over that I put a Wintergreen parka, which has a thin lining, since it's designed to be worn over a polartec anorak. Most days I skip the anorak, since it isn't cold enough; and I don't bother to zip the parka, since I'm going in and out of buildings and buses. Why zip the parka to walk four blocks?

The last few days I have thought of zipping the parka; and I would, if I had to wait for a bus on a corner for any period of time.

I got a ride home tonight. There was still light in the east at 5:30, but most of the sky was dark. We drove along the Mississippi, then over the Lake Street Bridge. The peace demonstrators who are there every Wednesday were finishing up, carrying their signs to their cars. Tonight they had on down jackets and long down coats. Many, possibly most, are retirement age. Hardy folk.

On the other side of the river, we went through residential neighborhoods. There was snow on the roofs of the house and snow covering the front yards. Christmas lights were still up and shining through the darkness. This is the way my home town is supposed to look in the winter.

I suddenly felt moved to say, "If our forebearers had wanted to live in Omaha, they wouldn't have built these cities. The weather that was good enough for them is good enough for me."

Monday, January 15, 2007

More about Jared Diamond

There are some interesting comments on my previous post about Guns, Germs and Steel. These have led me to think more about the book. It's bothering me, niggling at me, so I may keep commenting as I read. My sense of Diamond is that he is overfond of sweeping statements, which means he is ignoring the compexity and variety of history. It's very appealing stuff for science fiction writers, who like Big Ideas and simple analyses. (Simple is dramatic, and SF is very much a fiction of high drama.)

I suspect Diamond is moving toward the inevitable triumph of Europe and Europeans, while arguing against racism in every chapter. I may be wrong. I am only halfway through the book.

As I mentioned before, he talks about the edge that farming societies have in making war, since they have surplus food, governments and a literate elite.

But the history of Eurasia is full of many examples of settled, literate farming societies getting creamed by illiterate nomads. I have a vivid memory of being in Bamian as a kid and looking across the valley floor at the ruins of a city, partially excavated by the French. The remaining walls were a few feet high. Our Afghan driver said in a brooding tone, "Genghis Khan did that." Afghan agriculture has not yet recovered from the damage the Mongols did. I don't know if it ever will.

I don't think it works to make nomads honorary farmers. Yes, they had domestic animals. But aside from that, the Mongols of old are closer the Lakota (who also had domestic animals, come to think of it) than to the Chinese or Romans.

His arguments work by oversimplifying. For example, he says that hunting and gathering peoples never develop writing. It depends on what you mean by writing. The Lakota painted their tipi liners with "winter counts," histories of the families in the tipis. These combined pictures with symbols. Was it writing? Well, people could read the counts and explain the story being told.

Why not say that writing exists along a continuum, including pictographs and the knotted cords used by the Incas, and that many peoples have invented many different ways to keep records? The English kept tax records on notched staves for centuries, because so few people were literate. The staves were split in half, one half for the government and one half for the taxpayer. When the taxpayer came to pay his or her taxes, the two halves were fitted together. "Aha! Your records and my records are in agreement!" The government staves, kept somewhere in London, were finally destroyed in a 19th century fire, if I am remembering correctly.

Agriculture also exists along a continuum. The Dakota, eastern relatives of the Lakota, settled by rivers after the spring floods were over and planted gardens of corn, squash, sunflowers and tobacco. In the fall and winter, they moved to other areas and fished, trapped and hunted. Were they farmers? Yes. Did they also hunt and gather? Yes.

It was horses that enabled the Lakota to move onto the plains and become full-time hunters. Before that, they combined hunting with farming. Once they began to follow the buffalo, they gave up their gardens. So the domestication of a specific animal moved the Lakota away from farming. Were they hunters and gatherers? Or were they a nomadic herding people, since their herds of horses were absolutely key to their culture? I'd say they were nomadic herders and hunters, descended from semi-settled farmers and hunters.


I just wore my beloved mukluks down to the local coffee shop and back. I didn't really need them. The sidewalks are plowed. I could have made do with athletic shoes. But I wanted to wear the mukluks and stomp through the snow. Now I am back in my living room. Sunlight is shining in, and Beethoven's Ninth is on MPR, the choral movement. Zowie!

Post script: The Ninth was a special performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the glee clubs of Morehouse and Spellman Colleges in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day to everyone!


It snowed last night, the first real snow of the winter in the Twin Cities, and it's going to be cold enough this week for the snow to stay. 4.2 inches in St. Paul!

My response is joy.

The streets are already plowed. Minnesota snow plow drivers have always been heroic. I remember an article in the Star Tribune years ago, back when we had winter. There had been a snow storm, and the reporter interviewed a supervisor in the state highway department. The supervisor described how the plows in the western part of the state were going through huge drifts -- I think I remember fifteen feet high, which seems unlikely, but there is a lot of wind in western Minnesota. In addition to battling the snow, the drivers had to keep an eye out for cars. If they saw one stuck in the snow, they had to stop and go check, knowing that they might find people frozen to death. The supervisor concluded by saying, "Days like this are kind of hard on the boys."

I wonder how Minnesotans are going to handle the change in our climate. Our sense of who we are is to tightly wound up in having harsh winters. What are we going to do without winter sports? The ice fishermen will probably stay home and fight with their wives. The snowmobilers will buy ATVs and do serious damage to the ground in state forests. I have no idea what the skiers and hockey players will do. How can we be Minnesotans, if we can't play hockey outside in city parks?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Dark Side of Minnesota Politics

I tried to write about the dark side of Minnesota earlier, in the post titled "Politics." But I wasn't happy with what I wrote and have deleted it. I said the dark side was embodied in the current Republican Party. The Republicans do represent the more conservative elements within the state; and being a science fiction writer, I am all for the future. But it sounds too much like partisan politics to say DFL = good; Republicans = bad.

Let's talk about the dark side as movements that may or may not adhere to a specific political party.

Abortion is a huge issue here, made so by the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life and national anti-abortion organizations. When you get outstate in Minnesota, you see one "pro life" billboard after another. The billboards always show a human baby old enough to focus its eyes and smile. I'd say six months plus, though I am not an expert on babies. 99% are white. The hidden message, it seems to me, is "We are losing America to colored people. We need more white babies."

Minnesota has a long history of prejudice against Native Americans. There is also a fair amount of amount of anti-semitism. The prejudice against Native Americans surfaces periodically, mostly in complaints over treaty rights. The anti-semitism is more deeply buried, thanks to the Nazis, who gave anti-semitism a bad name; but I have heard a fair amount of it over time. (People think that someone named Arnason is not likely to be Jewish, which is true. So they figure it's safe to say what they really think.)

Other forms of racism used to be less common, because Minnesota did not have a significant nonwhite population, except for Indians. In the past 20 or so years, African Americans have moved here from Chicago, Detroit, Gary and other Rust Belt cities. Immigrants have been moving into the state in the same period. We now have a number of good-sized immigrant communities, Vietnamese, Hmong, Somalian and Hispanic, among others. Members of these new communities have opened restaurants and stores and made the core cities more colorful and fun. Is there anything brighter than a bright orange or lime green Mexican market building? Or lovelier than Somalian women in their long, graceful dresses? The school systems in Minneapolis and St. Paul are now majority nonwhite, with many kids whose first language is not English.

There are plenty of white Minnesotans who are uncomfortable with this situation. Because racism is not nice, their complaints are often coded.

Like the rest of the country, Minnesota has a fair number of right-wing Christians, who are extremely uncomfortable with religious beliefs different from their own.

Like the rest of the country, Minnesota has people (often right-wing Christians) who are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of gay marriage and gay rights.

And -- balancing the DFL's belief in community and cooperation -- there is also a well-established tradition that believes in limited government, low taxes and letting people solve their problems on their own, without help from the state and local communities. The huge growth in Twin Cities suburbs has made this tradition stronger. Suburbanites seem to believe in hardy independence, though there is nothing on earth less independent and self-reliant than a suburb.

Class conflicts were ferocious in Minnesota in the 1930s and earlier. After WWII, the state entered into a more benign period. But the detente between Minnesota working people and bosses -- the belief that Minnesotans can work together to solve the state's problems -- may be breaking down.

The current Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, took a "no new taxes" pledge when he ran in 2002; and he has kept the pledge, even though the state's surplus turned into a deficit. He has balanced the state's budget by cutting money for education, health care, roads and local government, and by raiding restricted state funds.

Pawlenty was reelected in 2006, though every other statewide office was taken by the DFL. The DFL also took control of the Minnesota house and retained control of the state senate. We will see what he does next. Rumor has it that he is looking at the 2008 election and the chance to be president of the United States. He has a lot going for him -- reelection in a year when the Republicans got slaughtered, a base in a northern state, and a pleasant personality. He seems like a decent, reasonable guy, though his policies do harm to poor and working people, children and vulnerable adults.

Guns, Germs and Steel

I am now reading Guns, Germs and Steel. I have mixed feelings about this book. Diamond has some interesting ideas, and he knows how to write a popular science book. But some of his generalizations make me uneasy. For example, talking about farmers in comparison to hunter-gatherers:

Farmers tend to breathe out nastier germs, to own better weapons and armor, to own more powerful technology in general, and to live under centralized governments with literate elites better able to wage wars of conquest.

The moment I read this I thought, Was Genghis Khan literate? A half hour later I realized that the north Asian nomads were not hunter-gatherers, but herding peoples. So may be Diamond's generalization stands, sort of.

But it's good to remember that the highly centralized, very literate farming culture of traditional China had an ongoing problem with nomadic barbarians, and while the Han Chinese of northern Chinese were highly successful in moving south -- assimilating almost every culture down to Vietnam, they did less well moving north onto the steppe; and they never figured out how to eliminate the nomads as a threat. The military theory of Sun Tse makes a lot of sense, when you remember that the nomads were always a problem. The best way to deal with an enemy is to pay one enemy group to fight another enemy group, according to Sun Tse. This really does work with nomads. Invading the steppe does not work.

Diamond also writes:

The biggest population shift of modern times has been the colonization of the New World by Europeans, and resulting conquest, numerical reduction, or complete disappearance of most groups of Native Americans.

Well, yes, maybe. There are as many or more people of Native American descent in the U.S. and Canada now than there were in 1492. Granted, they are a minority in two white countries; but Native American and mixed race people from south of the Rio Grande are reclaiming the U.S., which will have a nonwhite majority by 2050.

The current president of Venuzuela is mixed race and leading a revolution of the country's mixed race majority against the country's traditional white ruling class. The current president of Bolivia is Native American and represents the mixed race and Native majority of that country in their struggle against a white ruling class. The current political struggle in Mexico -- like so many previous political struggles in Mexico -- pits the country's mixed race and Native majority against the white ruling class. (The great Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata was a native speaker of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.) The current Zapatista movement in the Mexican state of Chiapas is Mayan Indian and the latest in a long, ongoing series of struggles by the Mayan people against colonization.

I haven't checked the demographics, but I think most of the people in Latin American are Native or mixed race. Yes, the Indians were conquered -- at the time and for a long time. But they did not vanish; and the race wars of the conquest period have become class wars, which still continue.

I may be misreading Diamond, but I think he is writing off the Native peoples of the Americas, and he shouldn't. There are plenty of Hispanic working people in the Twin Cities who have brown skins and straight black hair and classic Mayan profiles right off the art of ancient Mayan cities.


I just finished reading a book titled The Tree by Colin Tudge. As the title suggests, it is a book about trees -- their evolution, taxonomy, usefulness to people and the danger presented to them by people, especially by our current civilization. I recommend it to anyone who likes trees and has a high tolerance for taxonomy.

Here are a couple of quotes I like, from the last chapter, "The Future with Trees:"

Present-day leaders -- politicians and captains of industry -- are wont to suggest that any radical initiative that takes account of the realities of soil, water, and climate is "unrealistic," commonly because such initiatives may inhibit the plans of bullish industries and their governments, and hence inhibit "growth." But the word "realistic" has been corrupted. It ought to apply to the realities that are inescapable -- of physics, of biology -- made manifest in the declining earth, and the creatures that live on it. It should apply to the realities of people's lives -- whether they have enough to eat, and water, and shelter; whether they have control over their own lives, and worthwhile jobs, and can live in dignity. The "reality" of which our current leaders speak is the reality of cash. But cash is not the reality. Cash is the abstraction.

I don't believe the world can get significantly better if we leave politics to career politicians. This is not what democracy means. I also nurse the conceit (for which there is abundant evidence) that human beings are basically good (a belief that I have been intrigued to find of late is fundimental to Hundus). It seems to follow that if only democracy can be made to work -- if the will of humanity as a whole can prevail -- then the world could be a far better place: that it could, after all, come through these next few difficult decades; that our grandchildren can indeed live as they will want to do; and as people should.

A belief that humans are basically good is also fundimental to much traditional Chinese thought. The great philosopher Men Tze has a famous story about Bull Mountain, which illustrates his idea of human nature. The mountain was once forested and had streams, he said. But men came and cut down all the trees. The soil eroded and the streams dried up; and following generations said it was the nature of Bull Mountain to be bare and dry.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Keith Ellison

I am getting tired of the national coverage of Keith Ellison, the new congressman from Minnesota. (Note to the national media, he is not D-MN; he is DFL-MN). So what if he's a Moslem? From everything I hear, he is a good Minnesotan, who was previously a good Michigander. He grew up a short distance from where Patrick grew up in Detroit. Pat, who has met him, says he's a bright and personable guy, who takes good stands on important issues. He was fairly elected by people who knew what they were doing. Dissing him is dissing the people who elected him and the DFL and Minnesotans in general.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Another Trip to Duluth

We drove up to Duluth this morning. It was a bright day with an utterly clear sky. We took the Interstate most of the way, then took a two-lane hardtop the last fifty miles. It goes through pine and birch forest. The trees were encrusted with fresh new snow, so it seemed as if we were driving through a white lace fairyland. But the road was nasty, a mixture of packed-down snow, slush and bare pavement. The pavement was wet, and the snow was icy; and the highway winds and dips.

About halfway through the fifty miles, an adult eagle appeared and flew over the road, then landed in a ditch next to the road. A moment later, it took off, most likely startled by our car. Four or five crows or ravens took off with it, which suggests there was carrion in the ditch.

"We're going to be okay," Patrick said after we saw the eagle.

After that the road got better. The snow must have fallen in a belt south of Duluth, because we drove right out of it. There was no snow in Duluth.

I thought of the story one of the Wellstone boys told. He and his brother were going to see the place where Paul Wellstone's plane crashed, and they lost their parents and sister. On the way in or out an adult eagle landed on the road in front of their car and just stood there for a moment or two. Someone -- probably a Native American -- told them later that this was a good sign. Eagles are messengers from the spirit world.

I realize this sounds like New Age hooey. But eagles are amazing; and I like the story about the Wellstone boys.

Do I think the eagle made our road better? No. Except in the sense that the sight of an eagle makes life better.