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Our Darkest Hour

Now the dark is upon us. The late afternoons are suddenly devoid of light, plunging our spirits into an ancient human fear that the sun will never return.

Our national world  plunges into a deeper and deeper darkness; the lights of democracy flicker. The movie we go to see on a lowering winter afternoon, Darkest Hour, echoes our dread exactly. We tend to forget how dim English hopes were in1940, when, the politicians wanting a “peace agreement” with Hitler having very nearly forced Winston Churchill to abandon all resistance, invasion by the Nazis seemed inevitable.

Most Republicans have struck an agreement with an American President who, in tones unnervingly similar to Hitler’s,  thunders  his misogyny, racial supremacy, homophobic and anti-immigrant tirades down upon us while ecstatically applauded by thousands of followers.

Many of us, following Robert Reich’s Churchillian refusal to normalize the tyrannical features of this presidency for a single moment, have thrown ourselves into political resistance.  Nevertheless, several of my women, LGBT, progressive and Jewish friends have found the dread darkness of our time so unnerving that they have actually sunk into depression.

Like many of our ancestors, when the darkest nights of the year fall upon us, we feel a profound need for light.   We set candles on our windowsills, challenge the night with outdoor illumination, and string our Christmas trees all about  with brightness, hoping in our feeble way to turn the darkness into light.

The Celtic peoples believed that the world was created out of a vast outer darkness, which, when the light of creation shone forth, was never absolute again.

Toward the end of Fly Out of the Darkness, the second novel in my Infinite Games series,  the world of my Marshlanders  was as dark as ours is now, everyone feeling puny and weak before the forces of an engulfing evil.  From somewhere in my imagination a character named Father Robin had emerged, a priest of the banished old (Catholic) religion (I don’t know how he got into my novels; one day he was just there). At the midwinter solstice, the darkest night of the year, as my heroes prepare for a final engagement with their enemies, this wispy old priest mounts a wooden box to preach his last sermon.

“Fear not evil,” the ordinarily soft spoken little man shouted forth suddenly. “The universe is luminous with good. There was only one utter darkness, and only that one time, into which the light poured that is all around us, even to this day.

I am not denying that evil can touch us, and mark us, and wound us, and even kill us.

What I am saying is that evil is a shadow, and a shadow is always cast by a light. If you crouch in a shadow, you are holding yourself back from the light that casts it.

That brightness does not shine from afar, it shines from within. The light of the world is in you and in me and in the heart of our beloved community!”

Have courage, friends.  Light your candles in every window, so that we can find each other to go forth together in courage and fortitude to combat the darkness. 

With wishes for a blessed solstice to all.   Annis Pratt

Has Anyone Ever Died For Lack of Gossip?

I often asked myself this question when my soul shuddered down the mute corridors of my academic department, where a heavy silence always prevailed.  There were no huddles of chatting professors, no voices to be heard except those of cowed students from behind closed office doors, nor did my colleagues ever pause to chat on the sofas of our comfortably furnished faculty lounge.

My University of Wisconsin culture was totally different from  Wayne State, where my husband Henry taught. Everywhere in his building you could be distracted  by  gaggles of fascinating gossip, both personal – “and do you know she said…and then, the gall of it, he said.. and political – an ever-fraught entanglement of academic cliques and territoriality.

Here’s a poem I wrote then:

We are born for a web of words, an embracing patter about baseball plays, whose mother called,

what she said, what you said, who is born and who is dying. 

Sometimes in the store when I pass by women talking all together, I feel a terrible hunger – has anyone ever died for lack of gossip?    

Well, what do you know? My feeling that gossip is a mortal necessity turns out to correct. According to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, his striking new book on human history, around 70,000 years ago (about halfway into our 150,000 year residence on this planet)  human beings experienced a “Cognitive Revolution.”  As hunter-gatherers, we had communicated with our own bands and a few others nearby, but now we were able to exchange

larger quantities of information about the world surrounding” us, to have “the ability to transmit large quantities of information about Sapiens social relationships,” and also to “transmit information about things that really do not exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and human rights” (p.17).

Harari thinks that It all began with gossip, the passing along of personal, social, and spiritual information garnered from far and wide, an exchange of information that become the covenantal glue binding cities, nations, and civilizations.

We live by legal and social agreements; we are all in covenant, one with the other.

 

When our social agreements begin to crumble, argues New York Times columnist, David Brooks 

“We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal.”

The cognitive mind-set of the far right perceives liberal progressives like me as so existentially “other” that they dismiss everything we say as “lying propaganda.”  To our shame, from within our similarly obdurate cognitive bubbles we  demonize them as deplorably stupid, inexorably evil and  unworthy of our conversation.

Our national covenant, the constitution,  prescribes a balance of powers within which we can thrash out our differences; it presumes that if citizens  exchange ideas it will be possible for us all to reach a compromise.  If, in both our personal and civic behavior, we cast aside our national covenant about how to handle disagreement, our democracy is in peril.

So this Thanksgiving, lets try good old gossip for starters, perhaps some  give-and-take about baseball scores, whose mother called, what he said, what she said, who was born, and who is dying. Having established our commonality, we might find openings to discuss what else – our economic needs, our fear of fire and flood, our hope for our families – that we have in common and can work together to ameliorate.

 

(The three bronze women are a sculpture by Rose-Aimee Belanger called “Les Chuchoteuses,” the whsperers)

 

 

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Hope in a Time of Climate Armageddon

Dear Blog subscribers:

This is my Press Release for The Battle For the Black Fen with a slightly different emphasis  from my previous blog.

The Battle for the Black Fen. Moon Willow Press (Coquitlam, British Columbia) 2017.  ISBN: 978-1-927685-24-2  [Birmingham, Michigan]

We are out of our minds with worry that climate warming will eliminate not only whole shorelines and species of plants, insects, birds, animals, and reptiles but human life itself. We human beings, deluded that we can bend the natural world to gratify our every whim, have become global predators and planetary nemeses. This realization is so hard to bear that many deny scientific reality, while others, paralyzed with dread of impending climate doom, take no action whatsoever.

Enter Eco-Fiction. There are new genres of Cli-Fi and Solar Punk in the science fiction mode, with characters who adapt to climate warming and build new cultures; Arcadian descriptions of communities in harmony with nature; and traditional novels with plots based on environmental conflict.

Small boats to the rescue: longboats, like ones the Iraqi Madan use to ply their marshlands, and coracles, made of willow and canvas, are the crafts of choice in Annis Pratt’s Arcadian series Infinite Games, where marsh dwellers fight for their wetlands against developers trying to drain them for agriculture. Based on the historical conflict between Fen Tigers and Merchant Adventurers in England (1630-1930), Pratt’s writing examines the economic roots of environmental degradation, dramatizing why we act the way we do and how we can do better. These are compellingly plotted adventure novels with appeal for young and old alike.

Can fiction really do us any good in a time of climate Armageddon? Stories like Annis Pratt’s newly published The Battle for the Black Fen,” writes Citizen Scientist Sharman A. Russell, “help us imagine new ways, even as we are entertained by the human drama of characters and plot, war and love. Eco-fiction is a new and important genre in literature.”

Nature writing has always been a way to foster the defense of nature. The world of Pratt’s embattled Marshlanders takes readers into verdant wetlands that sustain the soul. Notes publisher Mary Woodbury.  “The Infinite Games series shares the author’s joy in nature’s splendor,”

The Marshlanders, Fly Out of the Darkness, The Road to Beaver Mill, and now The Battle for the Black Fen can be purchased at www.amazon.com

 

INFINITE GAMES, INFINITE HOPES

I have always loved Geoffrey Chaucer’s send off to Troilus and Criseyde:  “Go, lytl book, go, litel myn tragedye” (go little book, go my little tragedy).  I intone his hail and farewell every time  put a manuscript in the mail or, more recently, hit the  send button which delivers it to my publisher in an internet instant.  It is my affectionate send off for a book I have spent years writing, my fervent prayer that out there upon the deeps of the reading world someone will enjoy this bread I am casting upon the waters.

And so, this week, I am sending The Battle for the Black Fen,  the last of my four-volume eco-fiction series that I have spent twenty years writing, out into the world.  Everything that I have ever longed for – love, friendship, family fellowship,  a life led in harmony with community and nature, human beings working together for the good of our beloved planet – is in my Infinite Games novels.  Here, in the final novel to the series, it all comes down to one decisive conflict between my self-sustaining Marshlanders and greedy developers.

Years ago, apropos of  white writers using tribal images and spiritual practice in our work, my Native American students challenged me: “Don’t you have some nice Euro-pagan ancestors you can write about instead of us?”   That was when the Fen Tigers,  marsh dwellers in the east of England who fought for three hundred years to keep their wetlands from drainage by “Merchant Adventures” and who probably  included some of my  Lincolnshire ancestors, became my inspiration.

It is all about the  question of whether we can build the worlds we long for or whether we will be crushed at last by greed and environmental degradation.

Can we abandon our finite games between winners and losers, between people with power and people they have power over? Is there time, before the demise of the human species or of even our entire planet,  to engage joyfully together in infinite games where everyone wins and we all share power amongst us?

In the Metro Detroit Area, you can buy your copy of The Battle for the Black Fen at the Paper Trail Books, 414 South Washington in Royal Oak.  All four volumes are available at Amazon.com.

 

A Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water

There is a chapter in my (tattered and torn) Winnie the Pooh when it rains and rains and rains until Piglet finds himself stranded in a tree, musing that “It’s a little Anxious to be a Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water.”

Didn’t we all feel that way during the September hurricanes in Texas and Florida,  the Caribbean Islands and Puerto Rico?  Television coverage alternated between graphics of one vast storm after another whirling down upon us and close ups of towns and villages, highways and shoreline communities entirely surrounded by floods.

Everyone down there must have felt just like Piglet:  “Here I am, surrounded by water, and I can’t do anything.”.

I attended a Paul Hawken webinar this week. He pointed out that when we puny humans hear about overwhelming natural disasters, we tend to ward off anxiety by freezing emotionally. The way the news is presented impacts us too.  “Battle” language about “fighting climate change” or “going to war with global warming”  convinces us that we are in a win/lose situation. Faced with such  a vast, existential threat to earth’s and humanity’s future, we feel like very small animals indeed; if somebody is going to “lose,.” and it will probably be us.

But Piglet is not without resources. He concocts a survival plan of putting a  message in a bottle. “IT’S ME PIGLET, HELP HELP!” Pooh finds it, and, though “a bear of very little brain” he is  is clever enough to cork up a big jar and float on (and below) it  to find Christopher Robin to read it. Christopher realizes that he and Pooh can go to Piglet’s rescue in his umbrella. (Considering that Pooh has acted very cleverly indeed, he christens their craft “The Brain of Pooh.”)

Paul Hawken’s Drawdown describes the many clever ways we can bring the time  when greenhouse gasses diminish closer.  It is basically a list of 100 technological and social solutions, a short chapter for each. They are all quite doable, things like refrigerant management (the top of the list as most effective), onshore and offshore wind towers, rooftop solar, managing food waste and production, the education of girls, planned parenting, etc.

Piglet is rescued from an overwhelming threat by his ability to formulate a plan, by Pooh’s little bit of  smarts and by Christopher Robin’s literacy and resourcefulness, none of which would do them any good were each not impelled by a will to action on behalf of the others.

As we watched the 24/7 coverage of hurricane flooding, our anxious hearts were lifted by all those people rushing around to rescue each other; white people wading out carrying black people on their backs and vice-versa, Cajun folks organizing flotillas of rescue boats, all impelled into action by community feeling.

And so we learn that global warming can be mitigated if we

1. Don’t just sit up there in our tree frozen with terror and anxiety

2.  Use our smarts.

3.   Brainstorm practical ideas

4.  And then, altogether, PADDLE!

 

 


 

FOG

I have always loved the fog, especially after bright hot August days in Maine when it rolled in from the Atlantic and the horn at Seguin began its plaintiff chant. Fog has often been a welcome  presence for me, soothing the bright edges of life that cut so sharply.

These days, I like to watch fog roll across Lake Michigan, or sit by the Betsie River as the mists dissolve.


 

Even here at home,  foggy mornings  soothe my spirit.

 

 

 

 

Toward the end of the first volume in my Infinite Games series, my characters are entirely dependent upon the fog to escape  enslavement  and exploitation in the early industrial city of Brent:

But where was the fog? The winter days remained relentlessly bright and sunny. Clare and Bess at the loom, the Fisher folk by their boats, the Marshlanders in their huts and the little spinners in the weaving house all prayed long and hard for the Gray Mother to come to their succor. But January wore on, and no help came.

Late one dark afternoon in early February, when the sun had already set, Rivelin was taking his turn at watch near the jetty. The two boats had been ready since midwinter: sails unfolded under the hatches, oarlocks wrapped in felt for silence. But the winter nights remained clear and moonlit, pricked with a thousand stars. Rivelin was watching for one of these stars because when it appeared he would be relieved for his dinner. It was Sirius, the Dog Star, and it emerged twinkling and blinking as it rose from the southern horizon but then, suddenly, disappeared. Rivelin became alert, sniffing in every direction. His sensitive nostrils picked up a damp, greenish smell. Out in the marshes of the bay, first one reed and then another acquired a wispy skirting. As the grey tendrils crept inland, one watcher after another passed along the signal that the time for escape had come.”  

The Marshlanders.

 

 

 

Review: Nina Munteanu, Water Is…:The Meaning of Water

Water Is…The Meaning of Water by Nina Munteanu. Pixel Press 2016

Are you fascinated by what goes on in the physical world? Are you curious about the inner workings of natural phenomena? For anyone like me who is fascinated by water, Nina Munteanu’s Water Is…:The Meaning of Water  offers wonderful analyses from minutia like the construction of a single drop to the way whirlpools and eddies form in the flow of a river and more macro issues like the relationship between the “stable chaos” of turbulence and quantum physics.

Water Is provides delightful explanations of things you thought you knew –

  • That “water occupies over 98% of a human cell molecule,”
  • That “what we do to water we do to ourselves.”
  • How water’s negative charge benefits the health
  • How water arrived in earth from the cosmos
  • What are we drinking, e.g. In various bottled waters?
  • Issues of sustainability at various locals- the Arab Sea, the Empire of Angkor

Though a practicing limnologist and water scientist, Munteanu considers herself “one of the mavericks of the scientific community,” attentive to what her colleagues term “weird water” – aspects of the way water behaves for which traditional science has not (yet) found formulas. The result is a trove of disparate treasures, like how Galileo understood water flow, the Chinese character for water,  Leonardo da Vinci’s water drawings, the Gaia Hypothesis, and David Bohm’s theory of flux

 

 

This is less a sit-down-all-in-sequence read than a quirkily diverse compendium of disparate wonders which I dipped in and out of, sitting on my cabin dock as the river babbled and eddied by me, all summer long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Battle Writing

 

Of course there is a battle: this novel I am working on is called The Battle for the Black Fen.  The whole point is the battle. My three previous novels in the series are all geared toward battling it out in the end. I have always know there would be a battle.  But how do I write a battle?

Input from grandson #1: I haven’t killed enough of my own people.

Oh dear oh dear,  who  should I choose to die from among characters I have lived with and loved the whole series long? (Disclosure: we are talking twenty years here).

Input from grandson 2: you need a map!

(Query: Is this a guy thing?)

I drew a map, he drew a map, I superimposed them and made a nice copy, if I say so myself, on a special large-item machine at the copy shop, but the first novel’s publisher shrank it down so no one could read it.  Then my daughter  gently remarked that my map looked too amateur.  Besides, it didn’t cover the landscape my characters traverse in the last volume.

A wonderful cartographer, D.N.Frost, popped up on my twitter feed.  After considerable back and forth and much tweaking of detail, we had our map!

But I still have to write the battle scenes. Although I am no fan of action movies, I was impressed  by the way the battle was portrayed in the movie version of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Return of the King. There was action all over the place, but the director avoided muddle by going scene by scene, from one limited vignette of action to another. Enemies on elephants!   Ents (marching trees) join the fray!

In the build up to the battle for the Black Fen, my characters were in three companies and one enemy militia. Very orderly.  However, the purpose of the companies was to call widely scattered communities to battle, during which members of The Marshland Company, the Delta Company, and the Dunlin Company joined various allies. As a result, when the battle was joined they were distributed all over the fen among Crane Islanders, Stilt Walkers, Turtle Islanders, Fox’s Earth folks – you can see how complicated it all became.

That is where the way the Tolkien movie was constructed –  skirmish by skirmish – came in handy. Also, for a unity of perspective, I positioned my rear guard on the top of the Moor of Nern to watch the action spread over the fen below them.

In the middle of all this heady battle writing,  my excellent new map informed me that I had written southeast when it should be southwest and northeast mixed up with southwest and that, somehow, a couple of extra characters I never really developed have slipped into the action.  Edits all around.

(Query: has my  publisher figured out I am dyslexic yet?)

These last edits took place during a very  dark time in our lives, when the Power of Mordor seems to be closing in and the Dark Eye sweeps over our land determined to destroy our hopes for a better world of being .  And that is why we story tellers go on telling our stories, hoping against hope that the Ring of Power will not fall into the wrong hands and that, puny as we may feel, our strength will suffice for the battle.

 

 

 

 

Midsummer, and the Living is Exciting

By this time most summers, I expect my living to be easy – keeping up with my correspondence, a blog here and there, short pieces of nature writing to accompany lots of time out of doors – but this summer, things are more exciting than usual.

With the help of my (very) patient publisher, Mary Woodbury of Moon Willow Press in Canada, I am doing the final proofreading of The Battle For the Black Fen, the last novel of my eco-fiction series.  Our publication date is August, so I have kept my eyes on my computer screen to find every lost comma, confusing bit of dialogue, and typo.

A couple of tips I have picked up while proofing: in dialogue, always state who is speaking.  Silly me, I figured that if I know who it was, my reader must get it too; similarly, if I start with “Clare thought” and have her musing away about other characters besides herself I had better bring her name in again, even in the same paragraph. And those pesky quotation marks that seem to have vanished into thin air, not to mention the commas and periods before the ends of the quotations…..needless to say, my eyes have been glued to the page.

I never like to dwell in my brain for days on end,   so I have been to my Betsie River cabin a couple of times, and every visit the temperature has plunged to 50 degrees or lower during the (summer?) nights. The wood turtle laid her eggs in mid June; now that other people appreciate my nature observations,  I did my duty as a “citizen scientist”  by reporting her to the Michigan turtle authorities.

By the end of June, tiny fry have hatched and flit about in the warmer shallows, and les becs scies, saw-toothed ducks (mergansers) that give the river its name, are busy and active.

And so are the beaver. Last winter they didn’t fell whole stands of slender trees but were hungry enough to chew completely around the trunk of a sturdy hardwood:


 

This circular gnawing serves two purposes:  the beaver get to eat the inner bark that they can reach and, at the same time, fell the tree so that they can eat the rest. I have never seen them drag a tree this heavy into a dam. It might be possible, but I think mine are bank beaver, only stripping such larger trees for nourishment.

So I let the babble and ripple of the river rest my mind for a while, strengthening my spirit for one last edit of my novel.

Every day of this daunting political year, my fictional battle between a self-sustaining nature-loving people and cruel enemies greedy for wealth and self-aggrandizement seems less a fictional plot than a grim reality. We are trapped in a finite game of victory and defeat; only if we give up on this hoary and outdated paradigm will any of us – enemies and friends alike –  survive. Are we strong enough, smart enough, open-minded enough, resilient enough to abandon the utter destruction of win/lose, you-or-me thinking for an infinite victory where everyone wins, nobody loses, so that we can enter at last the worlds we long for?

 

 

 

 

Rabbit Nests

Now comes that time of year, midsummer approaching, when my sights turn from Niebuhrian incongruities, the capitalism/commons paradox and even my favorite poems to what pops up in front of my eyes, to startle and amaze, from the world of nature .

I wanted to grow in my whole back lawn, which, I learned, was illegal.  I could, however, “landscape” a “wild flower meadow” in part of my yard, so demarked a crescent with a little green wire fence and now all kinds of things are growing there – gill-over-the-ground, little blue heal-all blossoms, and delicately fluffy pink daisies among the timothy grasses:

And also, startlingly, rabbits.

A rabbit or two has always appeared on my lawn in the summer dusk, nibbling quietly. But when my “wild flower meadow” was all grown in a rabbit left the shelter of the back copse to wriggle out a shallow patch in it, all of the way down to the dirt:

This really piqued my curiosity, so I had recourse to that all-time great compendium of nature lore, our friend Google.

What I learned is that a cottontail rabbit likes to make an oval nest in the meadow grass. I thought maybe she laid eggs there but – silly me – of course that’s where she has her babies. My house being in a much lawned-over suburb, she must have found the sudden appearance of my genuine meadow entrancing, but, as it turned out, too exposed to human beings.

The mother rabbit doesn’t stay in the nest with her babies but leaves them alone all day and night, only nursing at dawn and dusk to protect them from predators. Instead, she weaves a lid composed of grasses and her own soft belly fur and places it over her litter for camouflage and warmth.

My own rabbit never used her meadow nest, probably sensing my entranced presence on my porch, far too near for comfort.  A couple of weeks later however,  I found this interwoven lid near the undergrowth at the back of my yard:

My back yard rabbits are our common Eastern Cottontail variety, but there has always been something quite uncommon – even magic –  about rabbits to the human mind. I thought mine would lay eggs because her nesting reminded me of the giant rabbit Goddess Eostre, from whom Easter derives its name, and she is only one of the March Hares and Moon Rabbits, sacred receptacles for our awe and wonder at nature, down through the ages.