Category Archives: A Writing Life

618.1 Over There

Things are still busy here, the posts I had planned for this week are not quite ready for prime time, and I have one more short piece of fiction ready for you. It was originally scheduled for next week. I’m going to swap the posts and the fiction, then I’ll bow out of the regular posting business for a week and let you read Coulter and the Gray Man instead. This link will carry you to the first of three posts over in Serial

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618. Digging Up the Dead

I would love to show the excavations I took part in
but I have no such pictures.
This eyecatcher is an excavation of a
Roman site in London.

Last post I told about doing survey archaeology in Michigan in 1967, ending with the statement that suddenly, when the summer was almost over, everything changed . . .

We got a phone call from the University, and within hours we had packed up, left our base, and were heading half way across Michigan to Bay City.

The Sagnaw River runs through Saginaw, then northward about twenty miles to Bay City where it empties into Lake Huron. It is a major shipping channel which frequently silts up. In Bay City, a project was under way to dredge the shipping channel. An area along the river had been designated to receive what the dredges removed.

The dozers preparing to receive the outflow exposed human remains and everything came to a stop. The police came, but it was clearly not a crime scene. The remains were skeletons in what little remained of wooden coffins, surrounded by grave goods. It was an Indian burial ground.

Yes, Indian. That’s what they were called in 1968 and it was just a designation, like Dutch or French. It wasn’t an insult word. There were plenty of insult words, like redskin, but Indian was just a word. It still is.

Mr. Fletcher, who owned the site, gave permission to Michigan State to do salvage archaeology. We had two weeks to work before the bulldozers were scheduled to go back to work.

When we arrived on the site, we found a flat basin a hundred yards wide and a quarter of a mile long, of mostly pure sand. Those are “close enough” figures from memory. Bulldozers were impatiently poised to return to work.

The site was surrounded by dikes, perhaps twenty feet high. Once we were finished, the dredgers would pump a slurry of sand and water from the river bed into the basin, the water would make its way out through the sand dikes, and whatever remains we could not remove would be lost forever under twenty feet of fill.

There were four archaeology crews out that summer. Three of them had specific tasks that could not be abandoned. Our survey work could be done any time, so we were elected.

It was frantic work. The site, we learned eventually, dated from about 1750. The Indians were in contact with traders and settlers, both English and French, and the graves were full of trade goods. There were a lot of copper pots. Other than bone beads (well preserved) and furs which were barely recognizable, most of the grave goods were of European origin. That did not mean that these were westernized Indians, only that they had trading relationships.

We found a lovely silver cross, but that did not mean the deceased was a Christian. We found a flintlock pistol — or rather, a lump of rust that had once been a flintlock pistol. We found the remains of a musket, badly preserved; the wood was marginally better preserved than the iron.

One of the skeletons we found had a row of brass buttons down its sternum and scattered in the dirt in the belly area, along with tarnished epaulets above the points of the humeri. There was no fabric, but he had clearly been buried wearing a military great coat. That didn’t mean he was a scout for the French or the English (there wasn’t enough remaining to know which), although he might have been. He might also have traded for it, or have taken it off a dead European after combat.

Despite the hype about pyramids and Schliemann finding Troy, there is much that can be implied by an archaeology site, but much less that can be proved.

When I say skeletons, you should not picture the dead happy pirates of Pirates of the Caribbean. Bones do not last well in moist ground, and not all bones are created equal. Skulls and femurs last better than pelvi and ribs. The bones of the hands and feet don’t preserve even that well. Tiny bones hardly last at all. There were miniature coffins for infants, but they were pretty much empty, with maybe a few grave goods and a few flakes of skull.

I have to touch on the morality of all this. These were Indians buried by their own people. How would you like to have someone digging up the graveyard where your grandmother is buried? There are valid complaints to be made which I understand and have no intention in arguing against.

This particular case, however, was salvage. To me, it was no different than salvage of European bones. If during the construction of a modern building, a two hundred year old white folks cemetery was discovered in the basement excavation, the bones would be removed and reinterred. You may not realize it, but those bones would certainly pass through the hands of physical anthropologists who would study them for what they had to tell about the history of disease in early America, before being returned to the earth.

We were careful with everything we found because every piece had a story to tell. I spent hours drawing the remains in situ before they were removed, and hours with an alidade (described in post 586) making sure that the locations were well mapped.

We were careful with bones and copper pots, but we didn’t treat either as sacred objects. A pot is not a meal, and a bone is not a person. Everything went to the museum and the bones were, I believe, eventually reburied.

There are a few more personal bits to this story. My future wife was also on archaeology crews those two years, but not with me. She lived in Saginaw, and when she came home for the weekend during our salvage operation, she drove up to the site and volunteered to help.

When someone asks me where I met my wife, I say we met in a graveyard. Then I explain further. The following winter, she and I worked together upstairs in the MSU museum cataloging the results of the dig. Two years later, we were married.

The site was so rich that the land owner had it diked off. The dredging went on, but the fill went elsewhere, and the site was not lost. I spent the following summer there, this time accompanied by my college roommate. The site later became a field school, and my roommate wrote up the results as his Ph.D. dissertation. It is on line. The site ended up on the National Register of Historic Places, and has its own brief spot on Wikipedia.

Archaeology wasn’t an occupation I could continue, but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.

617. Raiders Before the Ark

Ground penetrating radar used in survey archaeology.
I’m jealous; in 1967, we just walked and looked.

Anthropology has been a major part of my life. I spent five years in pursuit of it, and it forms the backbone of everything I think and write, even though my dislike of field work was pushing me away at the same time that writing was drawing me away.

When I discovered the field during the sixties, forensic anthropology was nearly unheard of and the tools of modern physical anthropology were just being assembled. Social anthropology, my specialty, and archaeology were the two choices for students then, and we all took classes in both.

My first class in archaeology was in spring quarter of 1967. The professor was a lean, fit man in his late thirties with thin blonde hair and a beard. He had great tales to tell. The class was taught in the MSU museum and there was a stuffed moose standing in the corner of the room. How cool can you get?

My roommate and I immediately started growing beards. I still have mine. In a miracle of convergence, I had a full beard about the time I saw them growing on faces all over campus. I had become a hippie, when all I wanted to do was look like Dr. Cleland.

It was an Indiana Jones moment, fourteen years before the movie came out.

I had escaped Oklahoma and had no intention of going back to spend my summers working on the farm. There are no summer jobs in social anthropology, but you an sign on to an archaeology crew, and I did for two summers.

1967 and 1968. Keep those numbers in mind. I was nineteen, then twenty. Keep those numbers in mind, too. Feminism was on the horizon, but I hadn’t heard of it yet. Political correctness, in those days, meant hating the Commies, supporting the Vietnam war, beating up hippies and draft dodgers, and voting Republican. I wasn’t politically correct.

The definition has changed since then, and I still am not.

Archaeology was an alpha male enterprise, in an alpha male era, and it was an alpha male time of my life. Sorry. Not bragging, not apologizing, just reporting.

Archaeology is hard, dirty work in the hot summer sun. It was much like what I left in Oklahoma, minus the manure but plus an intellectual content. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t fall in love with it. Like everything else in science, you spend a thousand hours of work for one tiny nugget of knowledge. The work didn’t bother me. Work is just work; I’ve always done it and I will as long as my body holds out. But there weren’t enough rewards.

My crew was doing survey archaeology all over northwestern lower Michigan. Our home base was Kalkaska just southwest of Traverse City. It’s a small town known for its giant fiberglass trout statue. The local young guys yelled insults at us when they saw us on the street. We were too cool (in our own minds) to be bothered. You know the drill. If there were any local young girls in town, they kept them well hidden.

We spent our days walking up and down the local rivers, looking for evidence of camp sites along the banks, or walking the shore of Lake Michigan for the same reason. Evidence of habitation meant chips of chert (the local low grade version of flint), pot sherds (broken pieces of pottery), or midden (trash heap) mounds. You had to learn to distinguish chips of worked stone from natural breakage while walking along at a normal pace.

If we found enough surface evidence, it was time to make a test pit. That meant a ten foot by ten foot square, taken down with flat bladed shovels in four inch lifts. All the dirt from each lift was tossed into a sieve — a wooden sided box with a 1/4 inch screen bottom. This was suspended from a sapling tripod and shaken. Dirt went through, chips, flakes, arrowheads, stone knives, or bits of pottery would be left behind.

Or, more often, nothing would be left behind and the test pit would be abandoned.

Sometimes we would be on public land, but most of the time we had to negotiate for permission to enter. The grad student who was leading our group spent more time making friends with local farmers — or trying to — than he did looking or digging.

So it went for most of two months and then everything changed for the better. It was about to get exciting. I’ll tell you about it Wednesday.

616. Anthropology

If you took my advice and watched Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, you know now that the K. stands for Kroeber, after her father A. L. Kroeber, who was one of the important early anthropologists, and that her work was influenced by growing up in the atmosphere of Berkeley. My work has also been influenced by my study of anthropology, as I was ready to share in this post. I wrote it a few weeks before I saw the American Masters presentation. I moved my post down to shoehorn in my recommendation that you watch the TV show while it is still around. 

==========

I was seduced by novel writing in 1975 and that ended my five year study of anthropology, but there is more to it than that.

There were two things in anthropology that were driving me out before I wrote my first novel. One was cultural relativism, the philosophy that underlies the whole field. I didn’t buy it. I still don’t. You’ll hear more about that in a future post.

The other thing was field work. I did field work in archaeology for two summers, and that was fun, but my specialization was South Asian social anthropology. That meant sitting in some village in India for a year asking questions about local relationships, and there was no way to avoid it. It’s an absolutely required rite of passage and doing it once isn’t enough. You have to do it again and again. It is the way anthropologists do their research.

It offended my sense of privacy. If anyone were to ask me the kind of questions anthropologists ask their subjects, I would tell them to take a long walk off a short pier. Needless to say, being the person doing the asking wouldn’t make it feel any better.

There is also a deep triviality to field work. It resembles lab research in other sciences in that way. The end result of scientific research is not trivial, but the day to day weighing, titrating, or looking at slides from a telescope or an electron microscopes is exceedingly tedious.

That would also be true of asking questions about who is related to whom in the village, and making out kinship charts so you can tell who is a parallel-cousin and who is a cross-cousin. No, I’m not going to tell you what those two phrases mean; it’s better you don’t even have to think about it.

Encountering anthropology in college is like eating at a good German restaurant. It is laid out on your plate, already prepared, and delicious. It is still the same in grad school until the day you reach the field. Then you have to butcher the hog and make the sausage. It’s no fun any more.

I love ethnologies, treatises explaining in detail how other cultures work. The variety of ways in which mankind has organized his work, his time, and his beliefs is both staggering and fascinating. I would have enjoyed writing them, but the research needed to reach that stage would have been more than I could have borne.

I use what I learned in anthropology every time I write a novel. Sometimes it’s only a little; sometimes it forms the backbone of the whole enterprise.

I also wrote a long article on the subject called How to Build a Culture. I presented it at Westercon 34 in Sacramento, and later archived it on this website. It it’s present form, I have divided it into eleven virtual chapters to make navigation easier. The internal links to reach individual chapters are at the top of the file.

If you want to see it, click here. I think you’ll like it. It’s still anthropology, but you don’t have to do the fieldwork.

615. Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Last night (August 2nd) I watched American Masters: Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. I was not looking forward to it, since PBS screws up so many of its programs. The advertisements didn’t help. They emphasized that “before Hogwarts there was Earthsea”, as if her work didn’t mean anything until Harry Potter imitated it.

It turned out to be an excellent program, balanced, praising her for her excellence and her importance to other authors like China Miéville and Neil Gaiman, but not suggesting that she single handedly made science fiction and fantasy great again.

I was afraid they would take the path of overreach — PBS tends to do that — but the presentation was closer to flawless as any one of us has a right to expect.

During the first twenty years of Le Guin’s career, I read her novels as they appeared. By the second half of her career, I had moved on to other things. After this presentation, I clearly have some catching up to do.

If Ursula K. Le Guin is someone you have only heard of, or perhaps planned to read someday, you should not miss the opportunity to view this presentation before it disappears back into the PBS vaults.

614. Wind and Air

Over in Serial, starting tomorrow, there will be a short story that is technically a prequel to Firedrake and Scourge of Heaven, two novels set in the fantasy World of the Menhir. This short story, The Gods of Wind and Air, offers no insights into the novels. Instead, it exists to tell the story of a serf whose character and philosophy interest me, and to give me a chance to experiment with connecting poetry to prose in a manner new to me.

Short stories come to me rarely. The only other short story from the world of the menhir is set some years after the main action, and can be found in Backstory.

One of the reasons I am offering The Gods of Wind and Air now is that my life is temporarily full of chores. A tree I planted forty years ago has grown into a giant, and now has to be trimmed back one limb at a time, plus lots of watering of other trees and bushes during the long California summer, plus the fact that I am now writing full speed on Dreamsinger. In the next few weeks I may not be able to provide two posts a week, so I am giving you something to tide you over.

                   Now, about the story itself . . .

When Marquart and his little band first entered the Valley of the Menhir, the unseen narrator (me) said:

. . . the Weathermistress was cooking up something unpleasant in her cauldron of clouds.

It is about the only reference to the elder gods in that novel. Unfortunately, that line ended up on the cutting room floor.

The World of the Menhir has always been lousy with god. Most of them are more like Greek demi-gods than like world creators. They live on the ground, brawl and love and hate, and are fairly human except for having Powers. I find them more interesting than omnipotent beings.

First to arrive were the gods of Comai, who entered from another world and dominated the native humans. They were eventually ejected in a string of events too long to even précis. Then came a thousand years without gods.

The events that make up my novels and short stories begin when a new set of gods from yet another world enter the land of the menhir and take up residence, beginning the century long battle between the Damesept and the Remsept. A chunk of that story is found in Banner of the Hawk 1.

Even before the Comanyi arrived, there were home-grown gods like the Weathermistress. The serfs and free foresters still worship them, as well as the Flower of the Waning Day, a trio of Comanyi who helped humans drive out their brother-gods.

Not Pellan, though. He is mad at all the gods, and that is where our story begins — tomorrow in Serial.

Incidentally, if the title sounds familiar, stories called The blank of blank and blank are everywhere. I think they all stem from the classic title The Queen of Air and Darkness which was first a novel by T. H. White, then a novella by Poul Anderson, and recently another novel by Cassandra Clare. It is a title rhythm that sticks in the mind.

Also incidentally, the logo presented at the top of all these posts is a runeboard, which is a means of divination used throughout the World of the Menhir. It doesn’t appear in this short story, but it was the only piece of world-of-the-menhir artwork I had available to me.

Enjoy.

613. Cyan Remains

Late in 2015, I began this blog in order to drum up readership for my upcoming novel Cyan. ‘Upcoming’ turned out to be a long time, so I had placed quite a few excerpts by the time it was finally released. It received good reviews, 4.3 stars on Amazon and 4.6 on Goodreads, but it never found its audience.

Cyan is set in the near future and covers the discovery, exploration and colonization of a planet around a nearby star, portrayed as accurately as possible. In an age of novels about galaxy spanning wars, it is possibly out of fashion, but still an exciting, human, realistic story.

Here is your chance to find out for yourself why it deserved better. The opening chapter crowds in quite a bit of background before the excitement starts, but it will give you  a picture of what is about to happen.

Blatant plug — available on Amazon. You might as well get on with reading it, because I’m not going to stop talking about it

Chapter One:  A New Planet
CYAN
Standard Year 600
Anno Domini 2092

Driving in from the eternal night of interstellar space, the Darwin stood on its tail, chasing the kilometers-long plasma fountain of the Lassiter drive. Stephan Andrax and Tasmeen Rao had been working for weeks, and lately for thirty-one unbroken hours, to plot the orbits of Procyon’s planets and choose a course that would let their residual inertia carry them rapidly toward a favorable orbit. Now the torch was stuttering as they slipped deeper into the stars’ gravity well. Softvoiced exchanges between Stephan and Tasmeen were echoed by equally quiet observations by the other eight explorers.

Keir and Gus were manning the spectroscope, trying already to determine if Procyon A III’s atmosphere contained the gasses which would indicate life. Tasmeen’s husband, Ramananda, and Petra Crowley were canvassing the asteroid cloud that twisted its Möbius strip around the two stars, searching for any that might be mined for ice — fuel for the journey back. Above them the main viewscreen flashed successive visual reconstructions, multidimensional projections of varying parameters, and flashing strings of calculations as one or another of the pairs briefly preempted its use. Viki, Debra, Uke, and Leia stayed out of the way, watching the screen.

With a final shudder, the Lassiter torch cut out and, for the first time in over a year, they were weightless. In that same moment the masking effect of the torch ended, and Keir yelled, “We’ve got life gasses.” Overhead, unmistakable spectral lines showing hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon flooded the screen.

Spontaneous cheering broke out in the cramped control room.

Stephan switched to a display of the Procyon system. Much was still unknown, but the planets, moons, and major asteroids had already been mapped.

Procyon A, blazing with six and a half time the ferocity of Sol, was surrounded by three planets of her own. A torus of asteroids lay where a fourth planet would have been. Procyon B simmered, cold and shrunken by stellar standards, with half of Sol’s mass, three percent of its diameter, and less than one percent of its light. Snuggled in close were four tiny planets, all useless rock. A second torus of asteroids surrounded Procyon B.

The asteroid belts interpenetrated like two gears meshing, which excited Stephan no end. The prospect of seeing asteroids in collision was not merely likely, it was inevitable. Beyond the asteroids were five gas giants, none as big as Saturn, circling the paired suns in the frozen outer reaches of this complex solar system.

For a minute they looked at the system that would be their home for a year. Then Stephan switched to a real-time display of Procyon A III. It was only a faint disk, pulsing slightly as the computer worked to keep it in focus, but its pale blue color was unmistakable. Tasmeen, who had been too wrapped up in navigating to watch the unfolding story, said, “Keir, give us a quick update.”

“It’s a little bigger than Earth; a little higher gravity. It stands straight up in its orbit — less than a degree of inclination. Day, 40 hours; year, 1242 days — if you want to call it a year. There won’t be any seasons, so the equator and the poles will be uninhabitable, but the area about 45 degrees latitude should have good climate.”

Standing soldier-straight in its orbit, Procyon A III was a planet of small continents scattered across a huge, world-spanning ocean. The equator was chastely girdled with thick masses of steamy clouds, churning up continuous storms that would make a Terrestrial hurricane look like calm day. From ten to thirty degrees north and south, every island and continent was part of a world-spanning zone of desert, separated by hot, dead seas.

Uke asked, “What names did we draw?”

Ever since Neil Armstrong blew his lines, NASA had kept close tabs on what its explorers could bequeath to posterity. The computer contained several hundred “suitable” names for the planets they might find, but it would only give them ones matched to what they actually encountered. No one at NASA wanted a charred lump of rock to be named Eden, or for two planets to get the same name, and nobody wanted a planet named New Earth. Tasmeen keyed in a request, and fourteen names appeared on the viewscreen beneath the planet.

“What the…!” Debra began, then shut her mouth.

Gus chuckled. Petra said, “Someone certainly didn’t think much of our chances of finding an Earth-type planet.”

They were all the names of colors.

“Madder, umber, vermillion…” Keir read out in disgust. Then he stopped short, glanced up at the winking blue disk on the viewscreen, and said, “Cyan.”

“It’s the best of a bad lot.” Uke said.

“No,” Keir said, “it’s perfect.”