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Life as Plague: Thoughts on Camus and Ebola

the plagueAbout six weeks ago, I was looking around for some books to take with me on a long flight to Boston, and chose as one of them The Plague by Albert Camus. Though Camus has long been one of my favorite authors, undoubtedly the Ebola crisis had more than a little to do with my choice. (Later I learned that NPR book critic Michael Schwab had previously recommended the book  as “this week’s must read,” describing it as a way to find “meaning in the midst of Ebola.”)

The novel was written in 1947, and tells the story of how the city of Oran, Algeria, was overtaken by a severe outbreak of Bubonic Plague, with thousands of people dying miserably, much like what is happening today in West Africa. Admittedly, it is a difficult read, especially since you find yourself rereading the author’s brilliantly crafted sentences, pregnant with multiple meanings. The city of Oran was actually devastated by the plague during the 16th and 17th centuries, and later by an outbreak of cholera in 1849, which wiped out much of the population. The book can also be viewed as an allegory of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, since Camus was very much a part of that resistance. Relentlessly, the plague rages on, month by month, as a team of doctors and medical volunteers fight to stop the spread of the deadly disease. All seems hopeless, but rather than despair, the medical team plugs on valiantly. I was touched by how Camus lovingly illuminates the inner life and humanity of each character, investing each one with an essential dignity. I think this is what I found most moving about the novel. In the words of the narrator and main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux: “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

Camus reminds us that life itself can be seen as a kind of plague. No matter how well we plan or predict, there is always an irrational side to the universe—be it an epidemic, war, or killer asteroid—that may strike without warning, bringing us suffering and exile from homes and loved ones. Like death, such upsets will eventually find each one of us, no matter how secure we think we are in our gated communities, bomb shelters, and fenced-in countries. Our task as human beings is to carry on and help each other survive, and not give in to fear and despair.

As we watch and listen to the endless news reports of the Ebola scourge, we must resist both the numbness of media overdose and our all too human tendency toward irrational fear. Lately I find myself becoming increasingly disgusted by the calls of some of my fellow humans calling for drastic and counterproductive measures such as cancelling all airline flights to and from West Africa or closing our borders even further. In such times, rather than dwelling on the negative qualities of our species, I try to focus instead on the many brave men and women who this very moment are working to stop this horrible disease, and to commiserate with the many unfortunate victims of my human family. And I remember a line from the last page of The Plague: “…to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Approaching Wilderness Now Available in Print Format

For those who prefer reading print over digital books, I’ve now issued a print edition of my little book “Approaching Wilderness.” https://www.createspace/5031223                                                                                                             Approaching Wilderness (print cover)                                                                                                                                                           

The War on Packrats

The Absurd NaturalistAN Transparent

How did it come to this? I never intended for it go  this far. And now, with the war turning badly, I fear  the worst.

When we first moved into our little cabin in the hills, there was no hint of the troubles ahead. Yes, there were a few skirmishes with the local javelina and rabbit tribes, but it was nothing we couldn’t handle. Then we started noticing stuff: mysterious droppings and urine spots on the patio; piles of twigs and cones under every shrub and boulder; and inexplicable chew marks on the siding of our cabin.

As I recall, it was when I discovered that one of our car’s front headlamps was out that things turned ominous. When I brought the car in for repair, I was in for a double shock. The mechanic informed me that the wires to the headlamp had been neatly severed, most likely by a packrat, which was apparently in the process of building a nest there. Then he handed me a bill for $200.

I tried my best to take this philosophically, but when it happened again I knew the tiny gauntlet had been thrown down. When later I discovered a ziggurat-sized packrat nest behind our cabin, I knew there was no turning back. I must stand and fight.

You wouldn’t think a creature with such a cute name—we even apply it to certain humans who can’t throw anything away—could be so much trouble. OK, so technically they’re rats—wood rats, to be exact—but unlike those nasty Norway rats which live in sewers, subways, and other dark places, these guys just live out in the woods and deserts. They have long hairy tails and big ears, and the way they look at you with those dark liquid eyes you’d swear they belong in a Disney movie. Hard working little critters, they build huge nests that can be occupied for a thousand years or more by generations of rats. Scientists just love these nests, by the way, because in addition to their tasteful furnishings of cans, glass, cartridge cases, jewelry and assorted objets d’art, they also contain gobs of plant debris and pollen that can provide clues of past changes in plant communities. Nature writers wax eloquently about how packrats have adapted to survival in the harsh desert environment, investing them with a certain charm and cachet.

But don’t be fooled. They are ruthless and will stop at nothing. They will invade your castle. They will construct nests within your car and rip out your wiring and upholstery. They will chew up your siding and steal anything not nailed down. And they will leave behind them a trail of urine, feces, kissing bugs, and even Bubonic Plague.

Normally I’m a peaceful guy, but this was war. It was either them or me.

Over the next few years, as I experimented with various lethal devices, I became expert at trapping them. Considering the number of hours I now devote to this task, it has grown from a mere hobby to a sacred mission. I am fully convinced that, if not for my efforts, this seething rodent swarm would quickly overrun my neighborhood and the world.

I have lost track of the number of rats I have killed. I started notching them on the wall in the kitchen until my wife put a stop to it. Having destroyed every hint of a nest on our five acres, I diligently patrol our property each week on search and destroy missions. At the first hint of telltale droppings or nest building, I set out new traps. Like fur trappers of old, every morning I go out and inspect my trap lines. I must be ever vigilant, for I know they are out there planning their next attack.

Lately there have been some new developments. Despite my best efforts, I have been discovering nests such as I have never seen before. Unlike the previous ones, these are more sturdy structures, complete with tile or asphalt roofs, little wooden doors, and reinforced walls. Whenever I manage to demolish one, I find paneling, insulation, and other undeniable signs of remodeling, as well as scraps of diagrams, metal and plastic scattered about, as if they were constructing some device.

Then, one day, as I performed my usual patrol, I saw it. It was right next to my favorite rock outcrop—a place where I often go to sit. About five feet long, it seems to be made of some sort of hard black plastic, with a little tray in the middle. Call me mad, but I swear it looks just like a huge trap…baited with brie cheese and a bottle of chardonnay.
©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses October 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/tag/gene-twaronite/

 

Selfies

The word burst upon our lexicon with
all the subtlety of a Playboy centerfold.
In a snap our clever devices provide
puerile portraits of our daily antics.
Yet only the technology has changed.

Ever since we first scrawled images
on the social walls of caves—
here I am stalking my prey
have we thrust our portraits
into the popular ether.

Whether it be the self-mocking
image of a Van Gogh or Picasso
looking back at us from the canvas or a
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,
it is all of the same mold.

We don’t need a new word.
It is the same game of fame.
But now all that will remain
of us as we pose triumphantly
in front of the Eiffel Tower
while cuddling our crotches are
shifting images lost in the cloud.

First published in BLACK HEART MAGAZINE,                                                                September 2014, Quarterly Issue #1.14    http://blackheartmagazine.com/2014/09/30/september-2014-digital-issue-1-14-now-available/

 

 

The Well-Equipped Naturalist

The Absurd NaturalistAbsurd-Naturalist-EDIT-300x221

I have commented elsewhere on the need for naturalists to be well dressed whenever setting out into the field. It is no less important, however, to be properly equipped with the essential paraphernalia that will identify you as a working naturalist. Otherwise, you may run the risk of being picked up as a vagrant or worse.

A lot depends on whether you plan to specialize in a certain area of natural history or prefer to be simply known as a GN—generalized naturalist. A herpetology (reptile and amphibian) buff, for example, should always have a couple of cloth bags hanging from the belt in which to transport captured snakes or lizards, a snake hook or tongs, along with an assortment of plastic containers to hold frogs and salamanders as well as potato salad. Entomology (bug) enthusiasts, on the other hand, should always carry a butterfly net. Even if you’re not into bugs, there’s just something about a butterfly net which makes others take notice and lends just the right je ne sais quoi quality to your outfit. Bug people should also carry plenty of small bottles and some sort of killing jar, at the bottom of which is placed an absorbent material soaked with a chemical to asphyxiate insects. I am told that used foot pads work very nicely.

All naturalists worth their salt carry binoculars. It’s a safe bet to say that anyone observed carrying binoculars in the field has to be one of two things—a naturalist or a peeping Tom. Come to think of it, all naturalists are peepers in a sense, forever peeping through an open window at Mother Nature’s enchantments. The most important thing to look for in binoculars is not image quality or durability, but how much they cost, the more the better. Nothing can so ruin a naturalist’s good reputation as a pair of binoculars that look like they came free out of a cereal box. Always make sure the brand label stands out clearly for all to see. Size is a matter of individual preference. Many naturalists consider 7×35 a good, all around size, though some go for the additional power and light-gathering ability of a jumbo 20×80. I have found, however, that such instruments tend to leave scars on the chest when carried too long.

Various field guides are always useful, especially in showing others that you are not some illiterate boob running around trying to look like a naturalist. It is particularly important that you open the book every now and again to make it appear as if you’re scanning the contents. It also helps if you mutter something in Latin. More affluent naturalists may go in for real field guides—those who, for $500 a day and all expenses, will lead their clients to all the natural hot spots and maybe even prepare a nice champagne brunch.

A few additional items are worth mentioning. A small notebook or journal is handy for recording field observations as well as the philosophical prose inspired by the sight of a rare Orinoco crocodile as it chews on your leg. Some naturalists, like Henry David Thoreau, have been known to get carried away with this to the point of spending their entire lives keeping journals. I end up mostly doodling in mine.

A camera is also nice to have, especially if you have just spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker or a sasquatch. Various telephoto lenses will help you take otherwise unobtainable close-ups of certain kinds of wildlife. For grizzlies, a 1000 millimeter lens is just about right.

A magnifying glass will help you examine natural objects more closely, or burn ants when you’re bored. It can also help start a forest fire in the event you become lost.

Those not overly fond of handling slime molds or scat might also wish to carry forceps. They are also handy in plucking leeches or nasty eyebrow hairs.

And the most important equipment of all, especially for those naturalists seeking out some of the more interesting and less primitive natural areas—Tahiti or the French Riviera, for instance—is a little piece of plastic to pay for it all. A naturalist does not live by birds and bugs alone.
©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses September 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/the-well-equipped-naturalist/

 

 

 

Favorite Humorous Stories – Mark Twain

No survey of humorous stories is complete without including those of Mark Twain. Having assigned myself the recent task of choosing three of my favorites, I have spent many happy hours immersed in the pages of his funny tales. My chief resource has been Mark Twain. Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, published by The Library of America, (1992), from which all quotes are taken. My choices are completely personal, based not so much on a story’s literary merit but on its capacity to make me laugh. Some people will immediately take issue with me for not including Twain’s famous story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (first published November, 1865), which was later reprinted as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” True, it’s a great funny story, but for me it lacks the sheer absurdity and audaciousness that characterize Twain’s best stories. So here are my three favorites. You’ll just have to read his stories and make your own list.

When I read “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper (first published July, 1870), my first impression was how well it applied to our current fact-challenged times. Twain did write for a variety of small newspapers and magazines, so I suspect there is a seed of truth upon which the story is based. It begins as the narrator temporarily fills in for the editor of an agricultural newspaper, who goes on vacation. Upon his return, the editor reacts indignantly to what his temp has written in his absence: about turnips growing on trees, the “moulting season for cows,” that “the pumpkin, as a shade tree, is a failure,” and discussing oyster beds under the heading of landscape gardening. Twain comes right back at the editor in equally indignant terms, claiming that he his articles have greatly increased the newspaper’s circulation (as fascinated readers clamored to find out what the new guy would write next). Twain’s final rebuttal to the editor makes this story as fresh as the day it was written: “… I tell you that the less a man knows the bigger noise he makes and the higher salary he commands.” Remind you of any “news” commentator or talking head you know?

“The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” (first published May, 1870) tells the story of a boy named Jacob who “always obeyed his parents, no matter how absurd and unreasonable their demands were…” So right off the bat, with the title and opening line, we are given ample clues of the writer’s own attitudes toward childhood and the prevailing popular sentiments surrounding it. We learn in the story that Jacob read his Sunday-school books with great passion, and admired the little boys portrayed there. In fact, his greatest ambition was to be put in such a book himself. But no matter how hard he tried, nothing ever went right with him. He tried so hard to be good but, unlike the good little boys in the Sunday-school books, never got his reward. In his life, it was always the bad boys who came out on top. Finally, he encounters one such group of bad boys, as they tethered together a pack of dogs and were about to attach some empty cans of nitro-glycerine to their tails. Jacob happens to sit down on one of these cans and, well, you can see where this is going. I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens to poor Jacob. Let’s just say, it was not a pretty sight. Twain concludes, “His case is truly remarkable. It will probably never be accounted for.”

Last but not least of my favorite Twain stories is “Cannibalism in the Cars (first published November, 1868). On a train to St. Louis, the narrator tells of meeting a stranger, a “mild, benevolent-looking gentleman,” who sits down beside him and relates a “strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.” (I love that introduction. Not only does it set the mood for the story, but it’s an apt description of the way the author himself wrote and spoke.) The stranger relates the events of an evening train ride from St. Louis to Chicago. Aboard were twenty-four passengers, all male. Later that evening, it begins to snow hard, and eventually the train comes to a complete halt, trapped in the middle of nowhere by a huge snow-drift. Days go by, and the men get hungrier and hungrier. They have plenty of wood aboard with which to keep warm, but not a lick of food. On the seventh day, one of the men makes a grim announcement: “Gentlemen,—It cannot be delayed any longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!” The methodical manner by which one of them is elected, with the passengers voting on the issue as if they were members of Congress, is hysterical. It also demonstrates my long held opinion that no topic, no matter how repugnant or unthinkable, is taboo for a humorist. Remember this story was written when the tragic fate of the Donner Party (1847) was still fresh in people’s minds. At last, the train survivors sit down to their gruesome feast, “with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days.” In delicious detail the stranger recounts the culinary qualities of the man they had just consumed as well as the others to follow (yes, they went on to elect and eat others). I will leave it to you, dear reader, to see how the writer could possibly end such a tale. Bon appétit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Police and the “Infernal Stranger”

The recent abuses of police power in Ferguson, Phoenix, and other cities are nothing new. Police officers, in spite of their extensive training, are all too human, reflecting the values of the communities they serve.

In his brilliant satire “What Have the Police Been Doing?” (1866), Mark Twain starts out praising the San Francisco police force of his time: “Ain’t they virtuous? Don’t they take good care of the city?” But then he goes on to say, “… isn’t it shown in the fact that although many offenders of importance go unpunished, they infallibly snaffle every Chinese chicken-thief that attempts to drive his trade.”

Twain gets to the heart of the matter in recounting the case of a man accused of stealing some flour sacks who, after being bashed in the skull, was locked up in a jail cell and allowed to die overnight unattended by a doctor. “Why shouldn’t the jailor do so? Why certainly—why shouldn’t he—the man was an infernal stranger. He had no vote. Besides, had not a gentleman just said he stole some flour sacks? Ah, and if he stole some flour sacks, did he not deliberately put himself outside the pale of humanity and Christian sympathy by that hellish act? I think so.”

Written almost 150 years ago, Twain’s words are still eerily relevant. When police react to a suspect as some infernal other, someone less than human, we lose something of ourselves.

All Twain quotes are from Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, published by Library of America in 1992.

 

 

 

Note to Amazon: Holding books hostage not a good business plan

I joined over 900 authors in signing Douglas Preston’s excellent letter protesting Amazon’s recent strong arm tactics with book publisher Hachette and its authors. It was published as a two-page ad in last Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. (For the first time in my literary career, my name appears on the same page as Stephen King, Avi, Paul Auster, Scott Turow, and Barbara Kingsolver!). I have been a long time supporter of Amazon and, like the other authors, do not take sides on the Hachette-Amazon dispute. But what Amazon is doing is wrong. As Preston notes in his letter, “None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”  You can read the entire letter here  http://www.authorsunited.net/