Samhain Old, Samhain New

It has been a strange year.

That’s a statement that should probably go into the Understatement Hall of Fame. Though not my utterance of it: there must be a billion or more similar sentiments expressed around the world.

For me, the strangeness all rolled up into Samhain.

Until just a couple of centuries ago, people around the world ended and began the day at sunset. Many still do. It’s a natural time of transition: the liminal period as color drains out of the world and we pass into twilight, an indeterminate in-between that fades into darkness and rest. Similarly, the year — in the median latitudes — shades into a liminal period as the light fails and the green earth goes to seed.

It is the season of twilight.

Today was gray, cool, and it drizzled just a little. Only a little. A quiet day. Liminal.

We decorated the front yard for Halloween in the afternoon, day before yesterday, while the sun was bright and hot. We have only a single box of Halloween decorations in our garage, but it’s an excellent box. Three witches — reapers, perhaps — that we set up in the front yard, lurking near the pampas grass and the Great Pot of Jade. A string of pumpkin lights, like Christmas lights but with little orange-mesh pumpkins around the lights. I bought three real pumpkins — Santa Rosa, just an hour south of here, is the land of Charles Shultz and the Great Pumpkin, after all —  and Marta and I carved them together, in between trips out to the grocery store for more candy, and the next day’s breakfast. Hurricane lanterns, some with real candles, some with flickering electric flames. A skull with red and blue flames inside. We pulled out the Witches’ Cauldron for the candy, and both of us donned our formal summer Druid robes to greet the ghastlies and goblins who breached our property bounds to demand tribute to the traditional cry of “Trick or Treat.”

As an elder, I found I had to instruct some of the youngsters in the proper etiquette of extortion, after my sometimes inaccurate attempts to guess their True Names: Spiderman, Mutant Ninja Turtle, Skeleton. I nailed the Medieval Apothecary, with his bird-beak, much to his astonishment. I miscalled two Dalmatians: I said Holsteins, and was appropriately shamed. The Mad Hatter was trivial, but Alice confounded me — she wore buttons marked with card suits, and my mind was clouded; but the Red Queen was lovely.

The California evening was mild and exceptionally beautiful. We are only thirty-five minutes of latitude (a little over half a degree) south of Denver — all but identical to the seasons I’ve lived with throughout my life. But Denver is a mile closer to the cold vacuum of space than us, the air thin and the winds free, while here we nestle in a valley of grapes and pears in a Mediterranean climate with a wet season and a dry season. Samhain Eve was one of the last of the dry evenings for the year. We sat on the porch and greeted knee-high creatures of the night until Marta grew tired, and then I sat alone and watched flashlights bob up and down the street and offered chocolate benedictions.

Last night, we did the OBOD Samhain rite in our back yard. We have a power spot there, a crossing of fire and water lines, where we set the fire pit, with an altar to the West. Lanterns marked the directions, and we had strung white Christmas lights all along the fence, and on the gazebo and the arbor.

We spoke the familiar words, just the two of us — by power of Star and Stone;  each presence is a blessing; here in peace and love we stand — and I ached for our fellow-Druids from  the Place Before. This was no small move, to come here. But though I missed our grove, the call to be here is still very strong. The Ancestors came, and they comforted us.

Goddess knows what tomorrow will bring. But that is always the case.

After our rite, we walked over to the Civic Center, where the half-ton pumpkins have been carved and placed on display. Did I mention that this is the land of the Great Pumpkin?

Today has been cool, and misty, and damp, and very quiet. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. I offered them a blessing, and they parted in peace. Is Samhain two days, or three? Or a week? Scholars bicker and denounce one another: that is their high play.

I think they are all wrong. It is a liminal time, time without time. It takes as long as it takes. We’ll be there when we get there. Deep chemistry is converting life into death, and death into life. Our obsessions with  human calendric schedules is absurd.

Civility, Fascism, and Cultural Insanity

Many of us seem to be facing a common problem these days. I hear it over and over, in different forms.

“I can’t speak my mind, because I have a lot of old friends and relatives who would just flip me off and dismiss me if I did.”

I’ve written before about the Fascist turn the US has taken, and the fact that this is not a top-down takeover, but is (as all forms of fascism are) a bottom-up demand for a Fearless Leader to sweep away the crusty old rules and replace them with modern, effective, efficient rules. We’re well into that transformation in the US, now, and the only reason things aren’t much worse than they are, is the overwhelmingly self-centered, infantile incompetence of the man that The People have chosen to lead them into their Glorious Future, combined with the fractured dysfunction of the political party that put him into power.

It’s important to realize that this is a people’s movement. Our current governmental disarray is not the clever work of Vladimir Putin, nor Fox News, nor the Illuminati, nor the Rothschild family, nor Islamic terrorists, nor White Supremacists. It isn’t because of immigrants, or women, or white trash, or inner-city blacks, or religious Fundamentalists. It isn’t because of the electoral college, or gerrymandering, or campaign funding, or election fraud.

This is a broad-based people’s movement, reacting to the shuddering, glacially-slow peak and collapse of the global capitalist economy, with which the entire American enterprise is fatally intertwined. There are extremists and sociopaths and criminals leading it, certainly, and plenty of hanky-panky in a corrupt and misshapen voting process. But the reason it managed to install an incompetent sociopath as our forty-fifth president is that too many people no longer really believe in the United States or its democracy. They are fed up with the endless political deadlock, the economic dysfunction, the loss of opportunity for themselves, the loss of a visible future for their children, the loss of respect for their class, the loss of any sense of rootedness or ownership. The political bromides of the past about democracy and freedom have all fizzed over and left the glass empty.

Many, many people want change. They want it now.

Were this not the case, we would not be facing so many old friends and relatives we can’t talk to.

I’m one of the people who wants change: no, who sees the necessity for change. I have that much in common with all the people who support the man currently occupying the White House.

Beyond that, our ways are sundered.

Consider for a moment this business of “fact-checking” the president. There are six colors in a child’s primary palette: red, purple, blue, green, yellow, and orange. If the president states the color of the sky, he has one chance in six of getting it right. We can expend a lot of effort “fact-checking” him on this, but the reality is, we are “fact-checking” a Magic 8 Ball. He spews statements with only one filter in place: how much publicity will this generate for him? There is no relationship between the president’s statements and facts, because he isn’t doing any fact-checking of his own before he opens his mouth. He isn’t playing that game. You might as well be checking how often he begins sentences with words that contain the letter ‘b’.

Fact-checking the president is a waste of time. The president isn’t interested in facts.

This isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

Talk to a car salesman about his work, sometime. If he opens up to you, he will educate you about people. He will tell you that it’s important to know the specifications — the facts — about a car, but that isn’t what sells it. What sells it is the customer himself. When a customer walks into a showroom, he’ll see something he forms an emotional attachment to. The salesman’s job is to notice that, and to help the customer sell himself that car: to pay attention to the shift of emotions, perhaps suggest another car to which he will form an even greater emotional attachment; to play the customer like a hooked fish, never allowing the line to break, until the papers are signed and the deal is closed.

This is why there are showrooms and retail stores. It isn’t about anything except the fact that people have a much harder time forming an emotional attachment to something in a catalog. They’re more likely to make a rational choice when using a catalog, which often means not buying anything at all.

President #45 is a salesman. It’s all he has ever done. It’s all that he knows how to do. He notices and reinforces emotional attachments. In fact, I’ll even throw some credit his way: having suffered from a debilitating mental illness his entire life (sociopathic narcissism), he has figured out a way to be financially successful by noticing and reinforcing other people’s emotional attachment to the only thing in the world that holds any interest for him: himself.

This is exactly what the mass media does, as well. There is very little national journalism left. What we have instead is a vast, multi-tentacled entertainment industry, one facet of which is called “News.” But it isn’t news at all. It is entertainment, and that means it has to be entertaining, not informative. Everything about it involves noticing and reinforcing emotional attachments. That’s why opinion polls are so important: the mass media uses facts about people’s emotions, but it sells entertainment.

Facts are irrelevant to entertainment content.

The public has adapted to this world. Facts are irrelevant. It’s entirely about emotional attachments.

Nuclear war? Meh. The question that serious men ask is, “Will it help us sell shit?”

So let’s return to all those people you can’t talk to. They’ve formed their emotional attachments. They know they’re going to buy a Ford. You’re wasting your time and breath trying to tell them they should consider a Chevy, or — God help you if you suggest it — a Toyota. They’ll dig in their heels. They’ll concoct rationalizations about why Ford is better. They’ll make up stories about Chevys that lose their wheels on the highway, or Toyotas that catch fire in your garage. They’ll tie it to patriotism, and to God. If you press the point, they’ll start to hate you. They’ll forget to invite you for Thanksgiving, and scratch you off their Christmas card list.

Would you really invite this kind of wrath over Ford versus Chevy?

Of course not. You excuse them as lovable pig-headed fools, and drop it. Who cares if they buy a Ford?

People have now become emotionally attached to the idea that fascism is just a better, more authentic form of democracy, just as our forefathers envisioned it; that reverse-racism is a real and present threat; that homosexuals have an agenda; that immigrants take our jobs; that lowering taxes on the rich creates more jobs; that this endless, sickening vomit of nonsense is What Is Really Going On, and Someone Ought To Do Something About It.

And now you want to tell them that Obama is not a Muslim.

The problem is, this isn’t Ford versus Chevy any more. They are agitating and uniting to make deep changes in the fabric of US law that are going to hurt and kill a lot of people: people including themselves, and including you and me. They are pig-headed fools, yes, but it’s not nearly so excusable.

When this escalates to internment camps, mass murder, and genocide, it won’t be excusable at all.

That is, of course, where all this is headed. Surely you all know that much history?

The US is moving inexorably into a period of cultural derangement. Facts don’t matter. People have a right to opinions built on baseless rumors. People are emotionally attached to nonsensical beliefs that create a moral imperative for them to commit lethal violence against their scapegoats. We are becoming a violent, unthinking mob, on a national scale.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That poem was written by William Butler Yeats in 1919, and it seems to me entirely apropos of this time and place.

Personally, I have no answers to the dilemma of what to do about those old friends and family. I’ve cut some of them out of my life, because I cannot bear their level of unreason, and that has offered me some personal peace. I’ve cut back drastically on contact with social media for the same reason, and it has been good. I don’t follow the News branch of the entertainment industry at all: the only news I keep up with now is local news, and that sparingly.

When it comes to speaking out, I feel my way along like anyone else.

Sometimes, I speak up, as I am doing now.

More often, I’m silent. There’s an old saying: never try to teach a pig to sing — it wastes your time, and it annoys the pig. People who have fallen into this encroaching darkness of unreason are largely, in my experience, unreachable. I don’t try to teach them to sing.

I do try to remain civil. What I mean by that is that I try to avoid triggering or escalating unnecessary violence, verbal or otherwise. I find that it’s easier to do this if you raise your expectations of yourself, and lower your expectations of other people.

But I have no answers.


Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

It’s always fascinating to me to see some of my own weirder thoughts (built up, of course, from things that others have written) fleshed out in a book that takes things much further than I’d dreamed possible, backed by wit, vision, and hard science.

Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, is one of those books. It isn’t a light read, but it’s a good read, and it’s quite amusing when it isn’t blowing your mind.

In the opening Note to the Reader, he says, “As Einstein so eloquently put it, We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The book is about nothing less than learning to use a different kind of thinking. As he works patiently through the project of reframing our concept of the world so that we can change our kind of thinking, he gives us little quotes from the great minds of the past that make it clear that this is nothing new: what he is teaching is exactly how the great minds thought, and the reason we call them the great minds.

The core insight is that the Earth is alive. This does not mean it is a dead ball of rock covered with a skin of viciously competing life-forms clawing toward the light. It means that the Earth is a living entity in its own right, an entity that regulates the global environment just as the human body regulates its internal temperature and blood-glucose levels. But the Earth is not simply a giant thermostat that clicks on and off in a predictable, machine-like way. Rather, it displays all of the characteristics of a living being with a very high (though non-human) intelligence. It is, in fact, far more intelligent than humans. It possesses billions of years of accumulated memory, and its neural net, composed of countless bacteria, mycelia, and plant root nodes swimming in a sea of brain-chemicals like serotonin (which is everywhere) girdles the entire planet.

I feel certain that one of the reasons James Cameron’s film, Avatar, had such a profound impact on people, is that it reminded us viscerally of the truth of this insight, that the Earth is alive. It is an insight that has been rigorously trained out of us by a human education that states unequivocally that we are the masters, and the world is a dead thing to be used, covered with inferior species that also exist by our leave and for our pleasure.

One of the sections of the book that fascinated me was on the natural function of all the psychoactive chemicals that inundate the soil and waters. He talks about the role of these chemicals in promoting neuroplasticity, which underlies the ability to learn, and in neural gating, which is what underlies the ability to selectively ignore sensory input.

I’ve been reading that many “gifted” individuals suffer from sensory overload, or a “gating deficit,” which interferes with their ability to filter out sensory input. It is (in our society) labeled a pathology and is sometimes treated with drugs to forcibly blunt the senses. Interestingly enough, the different mode of thinking that Buhner lays out consists precisely of lowering the neural gating threshold and “opening the gates of perception.”

This is one of the primary functions of many of the psychoactive compounds that suffuse the natural world, such as DMT (the active ingredient of ayahuasca), LSD (concentrated from naturally-occurring ergots), and the one that is confounding our legal system right now, cannabis. These psychoactive compounds change our perception, just as they change the perceptual processing of bacteria, carrots, and trees. They make us more aware of our surroundings, by lowering our perceptual gates and allowing us to sense more.

This is also one of the primary functions of many religious and contemplative ritual practices throughout the ages: opening the gates of perception. While we don’t have a full account of the Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece, they seem to have contained a strong element of sensory overload, possibly combined with psychoactive compounds. The essence of a rock concert or a large drum circle is sensory overload and entrainment within the driving rhythm — again, often combined with psychoactive substances. There are quiet, contemplative approaches as well, all of them attempts to quiet the “monkey chatter” of the mind that runs free when our sensory channels are closed tight and the mind has nowhere to go but ’round in circles, often combined with psychoactive substances produced by the body through hunger, sleep deprivation, or induced fevers (as in a sweat ritual).

Opened perceptual gating is how we talk with Gaia, the world-intelligence.

In a different world, a different time, people with “gating-deficit disorders” would have been the shamans who speak with the plants to find their healing properties; the seers who see the bad rains coming, or the locusts, or the droughts; the story-tellers who follow the Golden Thread into the metaphysical reality behind the world’s appearance, and convey to the people who they are as children of Gaia: what their purpose and meaning is.

The rise of all this literature, fiction, film-images, and the shift in scientific thinking, signals to me that such a world and time is returning. As it must, if our species is not to be thrown out of the game as a hopeful experiment gone wrong.

One of the things that Buhner states in several places is that Gaia is profoundly indifferent to the human species. In a way, that makes perfect sense: genus homo is a real newcomer to the Gaian ecosphere, and homo sapiens sapiens is just an eyeblink. It may be that the only reason we are still here is that we are so new She hasn’t quite noticed us. One of James Lovelock’s nightmares — he’s the fellow credited with introducing the Gaia Hypothesis to the scientific community — is that if we pose too much of a threat to the Earthmind, Gaia may just up and decide, “You know, this whole oxygen experiment isn’t really working out. Let’s go back to a methane atmosphere.” If you thought global warming was bad, you ain’t seen nothin’.

But I’m not so sure about this one. I can’t say I’m a good channel for the Gaian intelligence, but in my few and fleeting contacts, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of both beauty and loving attention. I think there’s still a trace of mechanistic science floating around in this book, and an underestimation of the vast intelligence of the Gaian mind. I think — or at least, I want to believe — that each of these experiments Gaia has crafted, from pufferfish to humans, was not a toss-off, a “Let’s shake up some genes and see what comes out, and if it’s a monster, we’ll just step on it and start over.” No experienced potter would make a bowl that way, and if Gaia has nothing else, She has experience.

That store of experience also means, of course, that She is no sentimental pushover.

However, if She does remove us from the Earth, I think it will not be with indifference, but with great sorrow. And disappointment.


I was so enthralled with the book that I blogged before I finished reading it, and one of the most mind-blowing thoughts comes right at the very end, when Buhner talks about the ecological function of humans.

Clearly, humans have one, as do all organisms — else we wouldn’t be here. But what is it that we actually do?

Buhner’s suggestion comes from an earlier part of his book, where he talks about sex, which permeates the living world: it’s how genes recombine, which is key to how Gaia functions. An early form of sexual propagation was based on diffusion, either through water, or through the air. But at some point in her endless experimentation, Gaia came upon the idea of directed sexual coupling, through pollination: a new kingdom, like the insects, came into being, and in the wonderful dance of multi-layered meanings that is the signature of Gaian activity, they serve not only their own reproductive purposes, but also the reproductive purposes of the plants they harvest for food. Both species change: the plants develop bright colors and sweet nectar to attract the insects, and the insects develop physical features to assist in carrying pollen and a preference for nectar from certain plants so that they carry genes from one plant directly to another plant of the same species. It’s quite elegant.

So it turns out that microbes from the Earth are going into space all the time, propelled upward by winds, by volcanoes, by asteroid strikes; any number of these get carried out of the earth’s atmosphere, hitching rides on low-flying rocks that skim the atmosphere but do not stop, and other mechanisms. It is propagation through diffusion into space. The odds that any of these will end up on, say, Venus or Mars, are not zero, but they are miniscule. It would be so much better if they could hitch a ride on something actually directed toward Venus or Mars in a kind of microbial pollination.

Humans, for some unknown reason, have always had an obsession with exploring….

Buhner also notes that when a plant reaches reproductive maturity, all its resources go into producing the seed, to the profound (apparent) detriment of the plant. In fact, the plant starts looking downright shabby and used-up as it “goes to seed.”

It’s a loose set of suggestive metaphors, but it frames a fascinating thought. Perhaps our human overuse of global resources has been intended all along by the Gaian intelligence toward a specific end: namely, seeding other planets. And the more fascinating thought is this: we’ve already accomplished that task. It isn’t, and has never been, about human propagation. We are merely the pollinator species — the husk around the seed. Our purpose has always been to spread the Gaian seed to other worlds, a seed which is, at root, microbial.

Humans have sent probes to the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and its moons, and various asteroids. We’ve attached to, or attempted to attach to, various comets, some of which will return to dark objects far outside the solar system, like the Oort Cloud. We’ve sent at least one spacecraft entirely out of the solar system, into interstellar space. And despite “clean room” construction environments, every one of these probes has carried huge loads of bacterial DNA and microbial life.

We humans have pollinated the solar system. We have used up or displaced tremendous amounts of Gaian resources in the effort, nearly all of which can be restored — in time. Very long reaches of time.

This suggests that our destiny as a species may now be very different from what it has been for the last hundred millennia.

Beyond Capitalism

In previous posts, I’ve discussed a definition of capitalism, the central flaw in capitalism, a description of certain identifiable pathologies that can be expected to occur in the final stages of capitalism, and a brief, speculative discussion of what some form of steady-state capitalism might look like: which is, ultimately, just a return to a variant of the static class system of the Medieval European feudalism from which capitalism originated.

The problem with all variants of capitalism revolves around its core concept of the sovereignty of ownership, which is at root a doctrine of separation.

When I “own” something in capitalist economic thought, it automatically and by definition becomes “not yours.” My ownership separates you from whatever I own, unless I explicitly grant you (limited) permission to use it, usually in exchange for some kind of compensation like a rent, or a use-fee, which I am allowed to set and entitled to collect. Conversely, if you buy it from me and it becomes “yours,” it automatically and by definition becomes “not mine.” There are a few concepts of “joint ownership,” but these are always framed in terms of some fictitious third entity — a corporation, a marriage, a contract — which itself holds the sovereign ownership (“not anyone else’s”) and then spells out certain fixed rights and responsibilities for the parties in the agreement. In the event of a “breach” of the contract terms, the fictitious entity is dissolved, and ownership returns to the individual parties.

Our entire legal and economic structure is built around the idea that the natural state of a thing is to be owned by someone.

There is nothing natural about this concept, even within human societies, particularly in the extreme form it takes in capitalist economies and law.

In nature, things are shared: habitats, food, water, air, sunlight. The so-called “circle of life” is nothing more nor less than an enormous, braided loop of dependencies in which everything is ultimately shared.

As they say of beer, you can’t own it, you can only borrow it for a short while.

It is interesting to watch the scientific community come around in its vision of Nature. The nineteenth-century vision of natural evolution was popularized as “nature red in tooth and claw,” a place where everything scrabbles in mortal combat for a brief ray of sunshine or a drop of water, with “pinnacle species” (homo sapiens chief among them all) free to control the world while lounging about in the sun, while “lesser species” are forced to skulk in the shadows beneath rocks, hoping to catch a few crumbs.

As it turns out, this is a reasonably accurate portrayal of nineteenth-century British society under its capitalist economic system, but it is completely wrong regarding Nature. Biologists increasingly find that every species fills an ecological niche that it created and maintains for its own survival and comfort, in an extraordinarily complex web of non-linear relationships that share and reuse everything, right down to genetic components. Eradicate any species, and the whole suffers in unpredictable ways — at least, for a while, until the various feedback loops either replace the eradicated species, or rebalance the entire system.

All of these feedback loops in nature are regulated by a concept of “enough.” A panther comes to the water to drink, and when it has drunk, it walks away. It does not try to prevent other creatures from coming to the water. It does not try to “own” the drinking hole, or the river that feeds it, or the skies that provide rain to fill the river. It does not try to eat every deer in the forest. Once it has enough, it moves on, allowing other creatures to live and thrive. Even other panthers.

Nature is a single, homeodynamic organism, of which we are a part. In nature, the idea of “ownership,” insofar as it exists at all, is both temporary and fluid. For any part of it to try claim sovereign ownership is like the human heart trying to claim sovereign ownership of the blood that it pumps, or the stomach trying to claim sovereign ownership of the nutrition that passes through it.

A few years ago I fell into a debate with a hard-core Free Market Libertarian in a face-to-face meeting, and I posed a straightforward (and common) scenario that completely stumped him.

A man has a farm upslope of another man’s farm. The upslope farmer’s land is covered with trees that he decides to harvest for lumber, by clear-cutting. The loss of the trees will result in mudslides and erosion which will utterly destroy the downslope farmer’s land, including his house and his livelihood. How does the “free market” resolve this?

It had been a long day, and we were both tired, so I will cut him a little slack over his answer, which — to his credit — he recognized was an extremely poor answer. He said that the downslope farmer should offer to buy the land from the upslope farmer for a fair price. I asked what a fair price might be, and he said something about the value of the timber on the land.

Which led me to my next scenario, which I unfortunately didn’t get to discuss with him.

Say that I have bought up properties in a large city, all meth-houses that have been rendered unlivable by the toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing of the drugs: consequently, I purchased these properties for a very low price, and they really aren’t fit for habitation. It is my intent — which I publish extensively in each neighborhood I have bought into — to put a small, dirty nuclear reactor in each of these houses to generate power to sell back to the power company for profit. If the neighborhood residents don’t like this idea, they can buy back these properties from me for a “fair price,” based on the value of selling power back to the power company. Better still, they can lease the properties from me for a lower, but ongoing, rent, to compensate me for the “opportunity cost” of not developing my plan.

If you think this through, it’s a form of extortion. The nominal value of these properties — the “opportunity cost” of not exploiting them — is a purely speculative one (which is true of all “opportunity costs”) based on a bizarre and unworkable business plan that exists only on paper. The actual value of these properties is the value of the properties I don’t own, that I’m threatening to ruin. I don’t have to buy a single pellet of enriched uranium, nor hire a single engineer, nor generate a single Watt of nuclear power to make a fortune off this scheme.

The reason no one has yet tried this is, of course, all that pesky “government regulation” that would stop this in its tracks and possibly jail me for attempted extortion.

It’s exactly the same with the upslope farmer. What net profit will he make from clear-cutting his land? Any number is speculative. The actual value he is exploiting is the value of the farm he doesn’t own, but is threatening to ruin. The matter is obfuscated by the fact that the timber really could be sold, perhaps for a tidy profit, particularly if the upslope farmer doesn’t have any other use for the land. In rural settings like this, there is often no pesky government authority for the downslope farmer to appeal to.

A saner concept of ownership would be a conditional ownership, which is actually quite normal outside capitalist (and Medieval European) economies. It works like this: so long as my ownership does not interfere with anyone else’s activities, I can consider it a sovereign ownership, and I can do what I will with it. As what I do begins to impact others, they start to gain ownership interest. If my use becomes flagrant abuse, as in the clear-cutting or the meth-house examples, I stand to lose all my ownership rights, without compensation of any kind.

It’s a principle we are all familiar with: “Johnny, if you’re going to use your toy fire-truck to hit Billy over the head, I’m going to take it away from you.”

The Netherlands is an interesting case-in-point. They have something they call “the politics of dry feet.” Much of the arable coastal land is below sea level. Individual plots of land are owned by individual farmers, but each farmer has a responsibility to maintain pumping stations to keep seawater out of the fields. No one farmer’s pump can do the job: it takes all of them, working together. If any one farmer skimps on this, it has the potential to ruin everyone’s farms. So, of necessity, they have to maintain a balance of both sovereign ownership and communal responsibility. You can’t just decide to sell your land to a condominium developer: the other farmers have a say in this. If you suffer a bad year and can’t pay for pump maintenance, others have to step in and help maintain your pump.

The natural (and obvious) regulator of such a system is the community itself. The community is also a fluid, flexible concept: it’s better to think of it as an ecology, a web of relationships among stakeholders. In the case of the upslope farmer, the community is everyone downslope who will be affected by his clearcutting. In the case of the meth-houses, the community is each neighborhood within contamination range of my dirty reactors.

The community also includes people downslope in time: future generations, who are not yet born and cannot speak for themselves.

The community also includes the speculative investor who started the trouble, of course, but here’s the interesting thing: the larger the community becomes, the less standing the speculative investor has. This is the heart of conditional ownership. So long as the speculator can contain the area of effect, he’s free to do anything he pleases. As he affects more people, his claim to sovereign ownership gradually erodes to nothing.

This is, of course, very difficult to accomplish with a cut-and-dried, one-size-fits-all system of law under a hierarchy of judges who have no normal contact with the communities involved. I think it illustrates pretty clearly one of the fundamental problems with our concept and practice of law.

I raise these points to suggest just how much is tied up in our current system of capitalism.

Capitalism is unsustainable: we cannot generate exponentially increasing wealth on a finite planet, nor even within the confines of three-dimensional space. My own sense is that capitalism is reaching a global crisis and an ending, probably within my lifetime; though I have a terrible sense of timing on these things, and usually think the wolf is at the door when, in fact, he is still three houses down the street.

That said, I think our overall cultural unconcern, even contempt, for future generations is a pretty clear sign that the system is approaching its death-rattle.

When it fails, whether within my lifetime or later, we will find ourselves facing deep crises in law and politics as well as economics. How we choose to initially resolve those parallel crises will doubtless focus foremost on preserving sovereign ownership — the wealthy must continue to hold wealth — which all but guarantees that the failure will be complete, since we are putting all our efforts into preserving the very core of the problem.

It is perhaps not such a bad thing: it clears the ground for — as Monty Python’s Flying Circus used to put it — something completely different.

The Lady’s Waltz

This music has a long history.

I don’t recall the year it came to me, but I remember the moment. I was at Dragonfest, walking the lakeshore road, entirely at peace with the world, and the melody started to play in my head. I remember running to the nearest campsite and shouting something like, “I need a pen! And paper! My kingdom for a horse!” Or something like that. It was Dragonfest, so this wasn’t all that odd. They responded immediately, and I scribbled down the notes. The fragment went into my Pile of Unwritten Music to mellow properly.

It next surfaced, again at Dragonfest: one of the few years I brought my fiddle up to the mountains. There was another fiddler there, and a guitar, and next thing you know, we were performing an impromptu arrangement for the Saturday Evening Talent Show.

That would have been the autumn of 2007, because the next February one of our dearest friends got married, and I pulled an orchestration together and dedicated it to her for her wedding day.

It started tugging at me again a few weeks ago, and I decided to extend and rework the instrumentation, since I now have a better orchestra.

It’s first up on the Music tab. Enjoy!

Space Aliens and All That

Summer is waning.

When I was a kid, late July and early August were the long, hot dog-days of summer vacation. Boredom was setting in, along with an encroaching excitement mixed with dread about the beginning of a new school-year. It was the perfect time for ghost stories, science-fiction, and books about UFOs.

In that childhood tradition, I watched a documentary on Netflix the other night called Unacknowledged, about the government UFO cover-up. Good production values, for a documentary of its kind. But it was nonetheless disappointing, and left me with all the wrong sort of nagging questions.

My education in asking these kinds of questions was the Antichrist Handbook, by Fred Clark, which is a bit like a literary form of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, focused not on bad movies, but on the bad books of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins — the famous (or infamous) Left Behind series.

The one thing that LaHaye and Jenkins accomplished in their books is to demonstrate that the Rapture and Tribulation at the center of their plot could never happen. It isn’t that their scenarios gratuitously break the laws of physics, or that they are theologically incoherent, though they excel on both counts. The real problem is that people simply don’t behave like that. When a father’s child vanishes in the middle of the night, he doesn’t go back to work the next day, much less express enthusiastic interest in the football betting pool. When a billion people’s children vanish, you don’t have rush-hour traffic the next day: you either have no traffic at all, or the mother of all permanent traffic snarls, followed pretty swiftly by mass suicides and the collapse of civilization. When your plot depends on billions of children vanishing, and then life continuing on with all the usual daily grind, including stocked grocery stores and regularly scheduled international passenger flights, you have a lousy story.

There are similar problems with Unacknowledged.

The basic premise is simple. There are indeed extraterrestrials, and they’re visiting the Earth. There is a secretive shadow government that has known about them for seventy years. The eventual goal of this shadow government is to unite the world with a false-flag “alien invasion,” and they do this with all the usual motivations of every all-powerful secret organization, namely to obtain personal wealth and power under the guise of nobly “doing what must be done.”

They have documents that prove all this.

Let’s start with the extraterrestrial hypothesis, specifically the Grays. These are the big-eyed, spindly-limbed, “little grey men” that figure so prominently in abduction cases. I’m not going to question their existence, nor any of the abduction tales: let them all stand as written. My question is this: what makes everyone so sure they are extraterrestrial?

They’re described as upright bipeds, bilaterally symmetric, equipped with two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two arms, fingers, and skin (not fur, scales, feathers, or spines). What are the odds that any extraterrestrial species would end up looking just like slightly weird humans?

I’d say damn near zero. We’ve got starfish, octopus, cuttlefish, and whales just on this planet alone, and the last three are demonstrably intelligent. That something from clear across the galaxy would appear so essentially human strikes me as flatly unbelievable.

My first guess — given that I’m deliberately not questioning their existence — is that these guys are entirely terrestrial, and further, that they’re genetically related to us. Maybe they’re an offshoot of homo, maybe something more distant, but they’re closer than the point where we parted from the chimpanzee line. Technologically advanced, to be sure, and good at hiding all traces of themselves from us, their more vicious cousins.

If they’re extraterrestrial, they have to break the laws of physics as we know them to get here. Ignoring that, and given the necessary technology to do regular round-trips, they aren’t dependent on the Earth or its ecosystems for their own survival: they just hop back to Grayworld and stop at a galactic Flying J for some fuel and some alien nachos and a Coke. There are billions of worlds for them to choose to exploit for their own needs, leaving no obvious reason for them to be here, in our faces. There are Earthlike worlds all over the galaxy being swallowed up by their own suns at this very moment: novas, supernovas, and gamma bursts that destroy entire planetary systems and everything on them or near them. I can’t see how the aliens would care about our itty-bitty troubles, like ecological suicide or nuclear self-annihilation.

If they’re terrestrial, however, they live within the same ecosystem that we do. They depend upon the same resources — air, water, food. If we kill the world, they die too. They have an obvious interest in our behavior. And we get to keep the laws of physics, or at least the big ones, like conservation of energy.

Before we settle that conundrum, let’s step over into the world of this shadow government, because it raises more possibilities.

Again, I’m not going to question the existence of the shadow government: let that stand. But I will point out that by definition, they lie. They lie about everything, including their own existence. They fabricate coverups: that was their original task, and it is at the core of their continued existence. It’s what they do. Misdirection. Deception. Lies.

So as the documentary trots out government document after government document claiming this or that about the extraterrestrials and UFOs, I have to ask whether these documents themselves are part of that lie. As they interview former “inside sources” who have apparently had a change of heart and now want to reveal the truth, I have to point out that these people have, according to their own accounts, made a career out of lies and coverups; there’s no reason in the world to believe them when they say they want to “come clean.” It’s far more likely that they are continuing in retirement what their former employers paid them to do — perhaps for a little “consulting” income.

This raises the possibility that there are not, and have never been, any aliens at all.

There are the lights and objects in the sky, of course, and too many people have photographed, tracked, and chased them to say they never happened. But observing them only underlines the U in UFO — unidentified. We know that they are — we have no idea what they are. They could be advanced military technology, or even illusions set up by this shadow government, which could help explain some of their “magical” behavior. Given that the alleged end-goal of the shadow government is to pull off a full-scale “alien invasion” scam, it would really make a lot of sense that they’ve been trying out different approaches.

The up-close alien encounters are somewhat different, in that they are essentially private first-hand observations. After all, we don’t have a regular public experience of little gray men getting on the elevator on our commute to the office; we have “Big and Tall” sections of clothing stores, but no “Short and Gray” sections. I don’t think there are even any space alien hate groups. (If there are, I really don’t want to know about it. My opinion of people is low enough as it is.)

Furthermore, it seems that the repentant professional liars have claimed credit for at least some of these encounters: they kidnap people, pump them full of Versed and LSD, stage a terrifying little “encounter,” then turn them loose to see how they behave.

Maybe the shadow government is behind all of the alien phenomena. It’s an obvious plot hole in the documentary.

But the biggest plot hole comes up toward the end, when they start talking about how dangerous this shadow government is. At this point, the documentary goes full alt-right: they drag in the Kennedy assassination, and talk about how anyone who spills the beans ends up dead. Which raises a bloody obvious question: how did these guys get away with making this tell-all documentary in the first place, much less getting it distributed on Netflix? Unless, of course, the shadow government wanted them to make the documentary… (cue eerie music).

Edward Snowden leaked real secrets, and pissed off the real shadow government. He’s now living in exile in Russia with an arrest warrant pending if he ever sets foot on American soil. Dr. Stephen Greer, the main figure in Unacknowledged, who is exposing a coverup that makes everything Snowden disclosed look like grade school playground gossip, is filmed walking around in Washington, DC, in front of the Washington Monument. He’s not even wearing a hat to disguise himself. His deep-cover repentant liars don’t have their faces fuzzed out, and there is no indication that they are using fake names.

Honestly, guys. Get a better scriptwriter, and run this past some beta readers.

Of course, they can’t do that. “UFO literature” is a genre, and like any genre, it has its rules. You can’t write a thriller without some bad guys chasing some good guys. You can’t write a bodice-ripper without some bodices and some ripping.

At root, UFO literature is a form of carnival side-show — the bearded lady, the painted man, the snake with two heads. It is intended to evoke the thrill of seeing the unknown and the unnatural. At a slightly more elevated level, it is intended to challenge comfortable dogmas about the nature of the universe, and our place in it.

The root problem with the UFO genre is that it has become a comfortable dogma in its own right. It really hasn’t changed at all in the last seventy years: the same tropes, the same pacing, the same clichés.

Which is probably why I tuned in and watched Unacknowledged, though I have to confess that I nodded off at one point in the middle. It was a nostalgia trip: revisiting those dog-days of summer when I was a boy. Like finding an old board game in the attic that you enjoyed so much as a child.

Then finding it isn’t nearly so much fun to play now.

Saint Jake – Epilogue

Rudric crouched on the ground, fingers locked in a death grip around the shattered haft of his hayfork, still-warm horseflesh pressed tight around him, holding him upright. Several of his companions who had been in the second rank were still alive. He was the only survivor from the first rank, the one on which the horses had broken for the critical seconds it took for the Jakes to destroy their riders with their fleschette rifles.

When the foot soldiers realized they were up against two Jakes, they had broken and fled, and a few of them had doubtless escaped. But only a few. The Jakes had pursued them, and wherever the Jakes went, Death followed.

His friends helped him out of the tangle of horseflesh and corpses of men, and helped him pry his fingers from the hayfork shaft. As if releasing his grip had loosened all the tendons in his body, he fell to the ground and the world went dark.

He recovered just as the Jakes returned, and rose slowly to his feet.

One of them rode up to him, and dismounted. The late afternoon sun, tinted almost blood-red by the dust in the air, gleamed off the Jake’s silver armor. Rudric started to kneel, but the Jake gripped him by the arm.

“No,” he said. “You do not kneel to me. I slew your enemies: I sat on a horse on a hill and spat Death at them from a safe distance. But you saved my life, and your village, and you did it with naught in your hand but a stick of wood, facing certain death. You displayed more bravery and honor today than I have ever possessed. You do not kneel to me. I kneel to you.”

The Jake went to one knee before Rudric, removed his shining helm, and bowed his head. The other Jake had rounded up Rudric’s surviving companions from the hayfork line and brought them to stand beside Rudric. Then he, also, knelt beside his fellow Jake, and removed his helm, and bowed his head.

After a moment, the two Jakes replaced their helms on their heads, and mounted their horses.

The village mayor stepped forward, and behind him the rest of the village drew close.

“Won’t you stay and celebrate this great victory with us?” he asked.

The Jake’s expression could not be read beneath his helm, but his voice was gentle and tired.

“This is your victory, bought at a dear cost to you. You should well celebrate, and then mourn your dead. It is not our place to join you. We have merely done our duty, following the rules of our order. Duty now bids us leave. Be mellow.”

“Be mellow,” the people answered, and the Jakes turned and rode away into the shadows of the east as the last rays of the sun gleamed on their armor.

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