Tag Archives: ecology

386. Chief Seattle

Beware, I occasionally rant. Like today.

If this post had a descriptive sub-title in the nineteenth century style, the full spread would be:

Chief Seattle: White Man’s Indian
or, how a movie took a fine old man and turned him
into a puppet and a joke

How’s that for laying out a political agenda for all to see?

Yesterday and today I presented an ersatz Miwuk legend. Ersatz is a fancy word for “I just made it up”. I don’t apologize for that. Spirit Deer is a work of fiction, and I used Miwuk Indians as the basis for Tim’s knowledge because they were the resident Native American’s in the places he finds himself. (When I wrote the book in 1975, it wasn’t yet a crime to say Indian instead of Native American.) Later, I will also have a “family story” about his grandfather’s grandfather. That is also made up, to meet the needs of the novel. Again, no apologies. Fiction is fiction. Historical fiction has some responsibility for maintaining accuracy, but Spirit Deer isn’t even subject to that.

I wrote this novel, all of it, including the legends and family stories. It’s fiction, okay. If it were ever to be published, I would make sure that those facts were clearly stated.

Actually, that’s what I’m doing here.

There is a point to all this, beyond simply taking responsibility for what I have written. When I was a teacher, I came across a book called Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message From Chief Seattle and also the supposed text of Chief Seattle’s speech. This took place decades ago, and I can’t remember which I saw first, but my Hemingway style “writer’s shit detector” went off like a siren. I was sure that this was another white guy putting words in an Indian’s (excuse me, Native American’s) mouth, after he was long dead and couldn’t set the record straight.

It turns out, I was right. The version of Chief Seattle’s speech in question, which comes complete with the statement, “I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train,” was written by screenwriter Ted Perry for the 1971 film Home. Those buffaloes were killed and rotted decades after Chief Seattle made his speech, and half a continent away. To be fair to Perry, he tried for years to claim credit for the speech and counter its false historicity, to no avail.

Actually, as fiction, or as a soupy environmental statement, it is a powerful piece of writing. But it has nothing to do with Chief Seattle.

The publication of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky led to a 1992 Newsweek article that named Perry as the author of the speech. In researching for this post, I also found a more complete article from the New York Times. You can check them out for yourself.

All this slapped me in the face four ways.

As a writer, I work hard to keep my fiction from telling lies, either morally or factually. I am a long time student of ecology, and I abhor the way a hard-edged science gets turned into a set of slogans. As an anthropologist (B.S., M.A., and two summers on archaeology digs), I hate the way Native Americans are rarely seen for themselves, but as savages or saints, according to whatever is the current fashion. I am a student of history as well, and . . . you get the picture.

You might have guessed by now that I can be irritated by lies, and seeing a screenwriter’s version of “Chief Seattle’s” speech accepted as history grinds all my gears.

364. The Core Story

photo by David Mayer

For the last month, these posts have been coming later in the day, in hopes of finding new readership in other time zones. I haven’t been happy with the results, so today I am reverting to the old posting schedule.

Over in Serial today, I begin presenting the novel Spirit Deer. I had some hesitation about this.

As it stands, Spirit Deer is a juvenile, not a YA. It would be suitable for most of the kids I taught in middle school, but too young for teenagers. It would stand with Island of the Blue Dolphins, not with Twilight.

It didn’t start out that way. When I originally wrote it, as an experiment to see if I could I write a complete novel, Spirit Deer was a book for adults. Tim had a last name, a wife, a job, a backstory, and other adult considerations. When he got lost in the woods and had to find his own way out, it was a catalyst for changing his life.

It was only 45,000 words however. That was too short for a western or a science fiction novel, even in the seventies, and way too short for a regular novel. And while the lost-and-found part of the story was fine, the relationships part wasn’t ready for prime time. It didn’t deserve to be published, and it wasn’t.

I moved on and my second novel,  Jandrax, and it was published. Fair trade; Spirit Deer had done its job by teaching me to write. It could be put away with no regrets.

But it wouldn’t die. The problem was, once you strip away the wife and the job and the friend and the adult concerns, the core story of how to keep alive when nature is trying to kill you was still powerful.

After a lot of years, and several other novels, I went back to Spirit Deer and stripped it down to it’s essence. At that level, Spirit Deer could have been about any male above the age of thirteen, all the way up to senility. To be fair, a woman could have endured what Tim endured, but I don’t think a woman would want to read a book about it. At least not in the eighties and nineties when the core story was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Don’t give up on me.”

Spirit Deer became a juvenile because of its length. When the wife and friend and backstory went away, there were only about 25,000 words left.

Consider this:

Man against nature, other men, or himself, is a story.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus gunfights, is a western.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus thugs, is a thriller.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus spies, is James Bond.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus sweet sex, is a romance.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus rough sex, is men’s action — a genre which has all but disappeared.
Man against nature, other men, or himself, plus sex, catching a big fish, and death on the last page, is Hemingway.

I didn’t want to add any of those plusses, and I didn’t want to make Spirit Deer artificially longer, so it became a juvenile. It’s still a good story, it taught me a lot, and it provides a lot for us to talk about as writers.

That is, I assume you are or want to be a writer, or I would have lost you in the second paragraph.

Spirit Deer will be presented in forty posts over in Serial, and there will be posts over here on A Writing Life expanding on the story, on being a beginning writer, and on how many ways a writer can present a core story.

Alien Autopsy (4)

In Jandrax, I was happy to use modified mammals and birds. That was all the story needed. When I wrote Cyan, I faced a different situation. My crew was set down on an alien planet for one year, with the task of coming to understand its weather, geology, and ecology in order to prepare for colonization. They were all scientists, so their actions and conversations called for a deeper understanding of their new world than any other kind of science fiction novel would have required. That challenge was half the fun.

When I began Cyan, I had been studying ecology for about twenty years, starting back when I had to explain what the word meant. I later came to understand the essence of Earth’s taxonomy in the most rigorous possible way — I had had to condense it to a level which middle school students could understand without dying of boredom.

Terrestrial taxonomy looks something like this:taxon

Drop a salmon egg on the gunwale of your canoe and it will dry out in minutes. A chicken or turtle egg would survive the same treatment. This is the meaning of amniote egg (although there are other, competing meanings). Creatures who lack them, must lay their eggs in water. The rest of the chart should be clear, although simplified. For example, birds have scales on their legs as well as feathers elsewhere, and I skipped Dinosauria altogether.

I built up Cyan from the taxonomic level. If I had hadn’t been showing the planet through the eyes of a team of scientists, I would never have started out there.

It had to be weird but recognizable — that’s the key to all science fiction invention. It also required restraint. You can only explain so much to your reader without losing them, and beyond a certain point, your backstory is wasted effort.

I took grasses and weeds for granted. I gave my trees multiple trunks bound together, like a strangler fig without its victim. For something like insects, I made Chitropods – chitro sounds like chitin, and pod means foot, so the reader can be expected to infer an exoskeleton. Continuing the idea of inference, if we call the flying creatures who eat the chitropods pouchbats, the reader will draw a better picture in his mind that we could on paper.

The number of legs is important to Terrestrial arthropods, but I bypassed that by giving all chitropods many legs, but with only one joint each where each meets the body. This gave them a rolling gait “like caterpillars on crutches”.

These are throw-away inventions. They could have been applied to any ecosystem and they are not systemically related to each other. They alone would be good enough for most science fiction novels, but not for one about scientists teasing out the essence of their planet.

Here we need a key differentiation, from early in evolution, from which a thousand lesser differences can be derived. I decided that on Cyan, early in the development of chordate life, the vertebral column doubled at the posterior, giving Cyanian sea life twin tails. That changed everything. Earth fishes evolved legs from their fins. Cyanian “fishes” evolved legs from their split tails, so every Cyanian land creature is a tail-less hopper, fundamentally different from anything on Earth.

On Cyan, the classes are Pseudo-pisces, Amphibia, and Inturbia. No reptiles, no birds, no mammals, no dinosaurs. The Amphibia are cold blooded. Inturbia are inefficiently warm blooded. The term Inturbia should imply “internal body temperature un-perturbed by external changes”. Not every reader will get that, but writers should reward their best readers by not spelling everything out.

There are a thousand other details, but for that, you will just have to download Cyan.

All this is not to say that I didn’t invent interesting alien creatures. Kavines are incredibly fierce. Dropels, especially after they became domesticated, are cute and tasty. In the southern part of the upper continent, the Cyl developed something close to sapience, leading Viki to . . . nope, sorry, that’s a spoiler. I just started with taxonomy so they would all fit together.

Of course, too much consistency without outliers would be boring, so I added the globe wombs. The explorers see them shining in the treetops from their first minutes on the planet, and it takes a while for them to figure out what they mean.

Inturbia have live birth. Cyanian amphibs have to return to water to lay their eggs, except for one group, the Sphaeralvids, who produce globewombs. When a Sphaeralvid mother comes to term, she moves to a sunny spot in the treetops and exudes a transparent, leathery sac filled with a clear fluid like seawater. Into this she deposits fertile ova, then defecates. Algae from the Sphaeralvid mother’s bowels convert the feces into biomass and the Sphaeralvid nymphs fed off the algae.  When the feces are gone, the globewomb walls break down, leaving the now sizable nymphs free to face Cyan on their own.

Neat, huh? That is entirely too much detail for most books, but Cyan was written to show, realistically, what exploration of a new world might be like. This is just the kind of detail a crew of scientists would be recording.

Aside:      Shortly after posting this, I received a digital copy of the print-on-demand version of Cyan to proof. I spent May 29 and 30 in close reading of all 315 pages. The taxonomy and ecology of Cyan are backstory, dribbled out in bits here and there, but what the reader sees up front and in their faces are the individual alien beings. I realized that I need a fifth Alien Autopsy post to devote to the Cyl (the cover critter), but there is no space for it here. You will find it next Thursday over on the A Writing Life side of this website.

#               #               #

I began Cyan a few years after I wrote Jandrax, and set it in the same universe but hundreds of years earlier.

I also have in mind a third novel set in the same universe, but very different. It will take place on Stormking, a prison planet with a Uranian inclination to the ecliptic. The people who make up its population are not scientists, but outcasts. They have no interest in taxonomy. They meet the creatures native to their world one by one, and all they care about are which ones can they eat and which ones want to eat them. This time I’ll stop worrying about how these alien creatures make up a logical system, and just weird them up big time. That ought to be fun, too.

Alien Autopsy (3)

Imagined alien life forms can range from nearly human to outrageously strange. They can be imagined to meet story needs, or imagined first, with stories arising from their peculiarities.

Actually we can do even more. We can imagine whole ecologies. And again, we can go from minimalist to extreme. Arzor from Norton’s Beast Master is suspiciously like the American southwest, but Dune is a desert with an ecology quite a bit developed beyond any desert on Earth.

My first science fiction novel Jandrax [see note at the bottom of the page] is set on a deeply frozen planet, with only the equatorial region ice free. The only area I developed was a plain roughly a thousand miles across, centering on a massive freshwater lake. I stranded a starship with a load of fundamentalist passengers and a relatively unreligious crew, and watched the fireworks as they found two quite different ways of coping with the local ecology.

The area in question never sees rain, but during the cold season, snow and sleet falls, then melts during the (slightly) warm season. Viewed locally, this results in a dead season of snow, a brief season of wild plant growth during which massive migratory herds move through, and then a long season of dry, warm aftermath until the churned and destroyed vegetation is covered with new snow, where it and its seeds will wait for the next melt.

Viewed from the starship stranded in orbit, there is a moving line of green, eating up a mass of white, and followed by a growing gray, brown temporary desert.

I won’t tell you what happens to the people. That would be a spoiler to a book I’m hoping you will still read. Instead, let’s look at the alien creatures, starting with the herbivores.

Herbies are burrow bodied, tapir headed, fleet and harmless. Humpox don’t get much description, but don’t need it, with that name. Trihorns are as deadly as they sound. All are mammals, as are the carnivorous longnecks and krats. There are also huge carnivorous toothed birds called leers. They ended up on the cover.

These are the deliberately realistic creatures, all mammals and birds, devised in an era when warm blooded dinosaurs had not yet reached public awareness. In another part of the book, there is an interlude on an island which may be a hallucination or perhaps an encounter with the local version of God. Here the rules of realism don’t fully apply, and we find winged people who would never stand up to the laws of aerodynamics, and an insufferably cute, seal-faced, plump flying mammal called a dilwildi.

The example of Jandrax goes straight to the notion of purpose. Weird critters for the sake of weird critters is entirely valid. I love a weird critter novel. But Jandrax was my first full fledged novel, designed to show human interaction in a harsh, ice-age environment. It contains an entire religion, devised for the purpose of providing conflict. The ecology of the world was central to the story, and it was developed, but the individual alien creatures just needed to look right in an ice age environment. Nortonian minimalism is at work here.

#               #               #

I was in high school when I  first read Richard McKenna ’s novella Hunter, Come Home. It was a deeply moving, human story of manhood, honor, and love. It also had a second dimension, the description of an entire sentient ecosystem in peril and fighting back.

Here is a brief summary. Mordinmen were descendants of a lost Earth colony which had fought a generations long war against the dinosaur-like creatures which inhabited their planet. Manhood had become symbolized by the killing of a dino, but now the dinos were scarce and poor families, like Roy Craig’s, could no longer afford a hunt.

Mordinmen had now claimed another planet and were setting about to destroy its native ecosystem, in order to rebuild it in the image of their home planet. Red dots (successful hunters) were running the show, assisted by blankies like Roy who was working toward the time he could make his kill on the new planet. Hired as specialists, the Belconti biologists were providing the virus-like Thanasis used to destroy the native life.

When the story begins, the fight to transform this new planet has been going on for decades, and it is failing. Now the Mordinmen, against warnings by the Belacaonti, are about to unleash newer, harsher, more dangerous plague on the planet.

That’s about as far as I can summarize without a spoiler alert. Roy Craig wants more than anything to be a full fledged member of his machismo society, but his blanky status leaves him marginalized and frustrated. At the same time, he is drawn to the relatively gentle society of the Belaconti with whom is is working, symbolized for him by the woman Midori Blake.

Other than the dinosaur like creatures imported by the Mordinmen, there is only one other alien species — the entire planet they are all on. The native life of the planet is totally interconnected, essentially a one-world-tree (shades of Gaia).

There is a three way contrast in Hunter, Come Home. The Mordinmen, from a macho society built on killing are placed in contrast to the Belaconti, scientists who understand and treasure the ecosystem they are trying to destroy, and they in turn are contrasted to the interlocked, semi-sentient native life of the planet. Roy and Midori are each caught in conflicting loyalties as the planned apocalypse moves forward.

This is one of those cases where world building, culture building, and alien species building work together seamlessly. more tomorrow

Click here for next post.

[You can find Jandrax in used book stores. It is also available on this website, in an annotated form. Eventually it will be placed in Backfile, but I’ve been busy. I you want to read it here and now, your best bet for navigation is to begin by clicking the March 2016 archive and find Jandrax 2, then read and slide up, skipping every other post — archives alternates posts from the two blogs on this site. It is a bit of a pain. You can get Jandrax most days through Amazon’s cadre of used book stores. If you want the annotated version, in which I explain the various foibles of a young author, I plan to put it into an easily accessed form in Backfile, as soon after Westercon as I can find the time.]

354. Cattle Junkies

This morning (May 3rd) they moved the cattle toward their high pastures. Where I live, that movement normally happens twice a year.

Here in the foothills of the Sierras, we are coming to the end of the green season, in a year that was unseasonably wet. For five or six months every year the hills are covered with lush grass and cattle. The rest of the year is dry, burned brown, and mostly free of livestock. Most of the cattle that disappear in May migrate directly to your local grocery store meat counter. Some of the mothers and calves which will provide next spring’s herds move up the mountain to summer pasture.

Mostly, this is by trucks hauling specialized trailers. You see them everywhere on the roads and in the fields during this season. But one local rancher still holds a biannual cattle drive. I get the impression that some the herders are paid hands, but most are volunteers. After all, if you were a cowboy, or worked cattle from your pickup truck and wished you were a cowboy, wouldn’t you jump at a chance to join a cattle drive? Even if it only lasted three days?

They pass only a short distance from my house, and my wife and I never miss an opportunity to watch.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Oklahoma. Twice a day from age eleven until I left for college I was in the close company of cows, and I miss them. My wife just loves animals of any kind.

What does this have to do with A Writing Life? If you were Truman Capote, probably nothing. If you were Gore Vidal — well maybe. After all, Vidal worked for a time for his grandfather who was Senator from Oklahoma. But probably nothing; Vidal, like so many writers, was an urban type.

I’m quite the opposite, and the natural world permeates my writing. While I will never write an Andre Norton pastiche about herding frawns across Arzor (a statement Norton aficionados will instantly recognize), watching the cattle go by is likely to inspire me to rush to the keyboard. Like I just did.

I took these pictures, and picked those which would leave place and people unidentifiable. We all like some privacy.

=================

“Post”script, May 17: By coincidence, the second herd of the spring drive went by about six hours ago.

348. Spring

        Friday was Cinco de Mayo. Since I don’t post on Friday, I have placed this note here.
        Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day are opposite sides of the same coin, as I explained in 115. St. Patrick’s Day with Juan O’Malley, last year. I also had something to say about racial identity in 144. Who Said You Were Mexican?, on Cinco de Mayo, a year ago today. I don’t want to repeat those posts, but you are welcome to click and visit.

Now, today’s post, beginning with a quote from Cyan:

For the colonists, the world that loomed beyond the perimeter fence was a fearsome enemy. Cyan’s climate aggravated the problem. The colony was situated in the region of spring — or autumn, depending on your psychological makeup. But it was neither spring nor autumn, and as the year wore on there grew up an unhealthy expectancy. Minds and bodies geared to seasonal change had a gene deep awareness that spring had been prolonged past its time — an awareness that slowly changed to a deep, unarticulated dread.

In Cyan, I made a great deal out of the lack of seasons, because seasons are so overwhelmingly important on Earth. Of course, people who were born and lived all their lives in Hawaii or Tahiti probably look at that claim and say, “What the heck is he talking about?” But most of us know.

Here in the foothills of the Sierras, half the year is harsh, brown and dry. The other half is green, and during that rainy seasons wild flowers not only come in profusion, but they also come in order.

First comes miner’s lettuce, with tiny flowers in the center of large, circular leaves. Not impressive as flowers, really, but a life saver for the the vitamin starved miners during the gold rush. Then comes Blue Dick. Now don’t blame me; I didn’t name it, and it is lovely despite its name.

The lupine come early middle and late, in a variety of colors. When my wife and I first came to the foothills, we learned most of the names, but now we mostly just look and enjoy.

What has this to do with writing? It’s the way I choose to live, and the places my characters go are mostly places I wouldn’t mind accompanying them.

Today (April 24) my wife and I drove to one of our many favorite spots. It’s late in the sequence of things, but the white lupine haven’t quite reached their peak.

In New York City today, there are writers inhabiting dim, smoky bars, gathering material for their next novel. More power to them. I couldn’t take it.

For me, I spend my green winter going out twice a week to see how the wildflowers are coming along, and gathering material for my next novel. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

337. The Year Without a summer

The Little Ice Age (yesterday’s post) was vague and questionable in its outlines and origin. The Year Without a Summer was precisely delineated, and there is no question of how it came about. It was the result of volcanic activity.

There is, however, a smaller mystery. In 1808, a very large eruption took place, but no westerner saw it. It is memorialized in ice samples from Greenland and Antarctica, and scientific detective work places the eruption somewhere between Tonga and Indonesia. It began a period of northern hemispheric cooling.

Then in 1815, the largest and most destructive volcanic eruption in human history took place at Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. The explosion was heard 1600 miles away. (Krakatoa, a better known eruption in the same region in 1883, was less intense.) Between the mystery eruption of 1808 and the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, the second decade of the 1800s became the coldest on record. 1816 became known as The Year Without a Summer.

(As always seems the case with science, nothing is simple. 1816 fell within the Little Ice Age and was also associated with a low in the cycle of sunspots. If you really want to understand, I suggest a Ph.D. and a lifetime of study. That will give you some answers and a cartload of more sophisticated questions.)

The Year Without a Summer was disastrous. Crops, which had already been bad, probably because of the 1808 eruption, failed. Famine was everywhere in Europe, followed by typhus. There were massive storms and floods; an estimated 200,000 died in Europe.

In America, the northeast was hit hardest. Frosts continued through the summer. In August ice floated on Pennsylvania rivers. Snow fell in June in Massachusetts. Food was scarce and in 1816 there was no way to move it from less affected regions to those hardest hit. That year and shortly after, masses of northeasterners moved to the midwest, swelling the populations of Indiana and Illinois.

The event left echoes in literature. In 1816 Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, J. W. Polidori and others were storm bound together in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva. A contest of writing ghost stories ensued. Byron wrote a fragment, which Polidori later turned into the first vampire story (The Vampyre), Mary Shelley began what later evolved into Frankenstein, and Byron also wrote Darkness, a long poem inspired by the lightless days.

Here is a bit of that poem, which brings back memories of those old science fiction stories from my youth when the glaciers moved in to destroy humanity.

The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame