Why Walls?

walls

All the talk about building that wall along the border between my home state of Texas and our neighbor to the south made me more than a little curious about who else around the world has built (or may plan to build) a wall. It’s an informative list. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_barrier )

Of 30 countries listed in the Wikipedia article (which may or may not be complete or accurate), only seven of the walls were built before 2000 and only four predate 1990. Prior to that date, the only border walls noted were between China and Hong Kong, between North and South Korea, between Egypt and Gaza, and between South Africa and Mozambique. There also used to be one between East and West Berlin in Germany, but that one’s history. (A history we should study, BTW.)

South Africa has subsequently built additional walls on its borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe, making it one of the most walled-in countries in the world. The second most walled-in is Uzbekistan, which has built border fences with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has barricaded itself from both Yemen and Iraq. India has a wall along its border with Kashmir.

In Europe, a barrier separating Spain from Morocco was built in 2001 (an earlier section was built in 1998) and walls or fences have recently gone up between Bulgaria and Turkey (2014), between Macedonia and Greece (2015) and between Hungary and both Serbia and Croatia (2015).

Walls are currently under construction in eight more locations and are proposed for an additional six. India is fortifying its borders with both Bangladesh and Burma. The other walls being built separate Argentina from Paraguay, China from Korea, Iran from Pakistan, Slovenia from Croatia, Ukraine from Russia, and the United Arab Republic from Oman.

Further walls are proposed between Belize and Guatemala, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, between Estonia and Russia, between Malaysia and Thailand, and between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And then, of course, there’s the one between Mexico and the USA, small sections of which already exist.

Why all this 21st-century wall-building? Of the 30 walls existing, under construction, or proposed, fully 25 of them are being built at least in part to curb “illegal immigration”. Eight instances are intended to inhibit smuggling, seven are built in (or define) conflict zones or “disputed territory”, and four are construed as “anti-terrorism” barriers.

Now it’s time for the anthropologist to make a couple of observations. First, I would point out that there are more people alive today than at any time in the past. Why does nobody talk about overpopulation anymore? Second, we need to talk about the fact that human beings have never been as fixed in place as most of our high school history and social science texts would lead you to believe.

Overpopulation

When I Googled “overpopulation” I got five options – definition, myth, problems, facts, and “in china”. This last entry is about China’s well known one-child policy and we’re going to leave that aside for our purposes here (although I will note that the policy has recently been abandoned).

The definition of overpopulation is this: “excessive population of an area to the point of overcrowding, depletion of natural resources, or environmental deterioration.” This is the standard applied to all species, not just humans.

As for the “myth”, this refers to the complexities of applying the above standard definition of overpopulation to a cultural, social, technology-enabled creature like Homo sapiens. The disturbing idea that there could be some natural limit to human population constituted by the carrying capacity of planet earth was designated a “myth” sometime in the mid-20th century and the declaration made that there really is no such thing as overpopulation for us. This arose in the heyday of our faith in science and technology and human creativity and was touted as recently as 2013 in the opinion pages of the New York Times.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/opinion/overpopulation-is-not-the-problem.html )

Ongoing research into climate change and other forms of human destruction of our planet and its resources calls this optimistic myth-busting faith in human capability into question. Or maybe it’s becoming not so much a question of “can we” continue to support a burgeoning human population, but rather “will we”. When we deny the admonitions of climate scientists to rein in our carbon-transforming ways and refuse to change our high-consuming habits, we are clearly not living up to our potential and may be producing the very overpopulation that scientists have for several decades now told us we didn’t need to worry about. Rachel Carson’s 1960s classic Silent Spring has suddenly become a bestseller again on Amazon, recently grabbing #1 in environmental books. Climate refugees are a reality – people fleeing lands that no longer produce a livelihood – and nations become more possessive and defensive about their own resources. We increasingly perceive a limited-sum game and immigrants are no longer resources who can potentially make our nation stronger. Rather, they are “taking our jobs” and otherwise straining the limited resources of our nations.

You want some facts? Consider that between 1999 and 2011, global population increased by a billion people. That’s a lot of strain on human ingenuity. Furthermore, our population continues to grow by more than 3,000 hungry mouths every twenty minutes. Just this past week, the United Nations declared a state of famine in South Sudan. Clearly, our human creativity and engineering potential are struggling. It’s also worth pointing out that these 3,000 new people per day hunger not merely for food and clean water but also for cars and air conditioning and cell phones. (SOURCE: http://www.postconsumers.com/education/10-facts-overpopulation/)

Human Migration

When I taught cultural anthropology, one of the most stubborn misperceptions of my students was the idea that there were great benefits to humans “settling down” during the Neolithic farming revolution and even that humans would have found it a great relief to do so! First of all, I would explain, the initial stages of living in the same place year-round would have meant a less varied diet (relying on a limited range of crops) and a much less hygienic environment (living in the midst of your own waste is not so pleasant). Archaeological data support this hypothesis that the earliest farmers were less healthy than hunters and gatherers in a strong environment. Furthermore, how can you argue that humans are naturally sedentary in light of our thriving tourism industry? We love moving about! And the archaeological record clearly shows that we have always done so.

We also tend to have these crazy ideas about European countries being somehow ethnically homogeneous entities. To begin with, most European countries encompass relatively small territories. France is comprised not merely of French, but also of Flemish, Alsatians, Jurassians, Bretons, and Occitanae, all speaking distinct languages. Spain, too, has its Basques, Catalonians and Galicians, in addition to its Spaniards. Add to this the shifting boundaries through history and you begin to get the point, which is that national boundaries have always been artificial and the notion that they enclose “a nation” is a tribal myth.

Humanity is diverse and always on the move. Our numbers are inexorably increasing. In our eagerness to incorporate “primitive” peoples into the world economy, we induced them to give up subsistence farming and plant cash crops. In many places those crops have led to more rapid deterioration of farmland and we now berate these same people for their inability to “feed themselves”. The global competition for resources – dominated by the richest and most powerful nations – contributes to conflict and political unrest on almost every continent. It is no wonder that desperate people are fleeing their failing and conflict-ridden homelands in record numbers. And it is equally understandable that they head for the resource rich, resource-hoarding nations.

Because population increase continues apace and because our drive for survival always outweighs any sense of rootedness in a home territory, the flood of refugees and migrants worldwide will only grow. The 21st-century phenomenon of wall-building is rooted in the growing suspicion that there really may not be enough for all of us.

Walls are not going to fix anything.

Advertisements

Morning. After.

"Discouraged" 8 x 8 shadowbox

“Discouraged” 8 x 8 shadowbox

11/11/2016
Early morning walk.
I greet my neighbors.
“Morning,” I say in passing.
I can’t yet say “Good morning.”
It isn’t good.
And it won’t be good
Until
Everyone can feel as safe as I do
Walking through their neighborhood.
And mine.
Until the woman in the headscarf,
The youth in the black hoodie,
The man who is fluent in Spanish,
The lady in the wheelchair,
Until all of us can be safe.

Safe when we roll down the car window
For the policeman who pulled us over.
Safe when we put our arms around
The one we love
Right out there in public
No matter who it is we love.
Safe when we speak a language
Other than English
Or English with our parents’ accent.
Safe when our disability means
Maybe we take a little longer at the ATM.
Safe when we’re the only woman on the bus.
Safe when our visa has expired and we’re
Too scared to go back to our broken country.

I want to know what it’s like to be you.
I can put on a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt
And experience the hateful stares and scoffing comments.
But I can also take it off.
It doesn’t tell me how you feel every day
Walking around in the skin you were born with.
I can speak Spanish with my friends
But no one assumes I don’t speak English.
I can wear a headscarf like I did on cold, windy days
When I was a girl. We all did that.
No one would assume I was a terrorist.

I don’t ask that we always be comfortable.
Only safe.
Because safe is really important.

I have done nothing to deserve my privilege.
You have done nothing to deserve less.
Someday I will go for my morning walk
And say “Good morning!” to everyone I meet
And mean it
And know it is also a good morning
For you.
Until then
We have work to do.
Please, can we do it together?

Privilege

“For those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

I don’t know who said this first, but the words keep coming to my mind as an appropriate response to posts and comments all over social media’s political spectrum. People are saying all kinds of horrible things to one another because they’re hurting, and in many cases they’re hurting because they’ve lost some kind of privilege and they resent it. It got me to thinking about what kinds of privilege we – various ones of us – have become accustomed to. Here’s a quick checklist:

  • White privilege. This is universally apparent to people of color but often elusive to white people themselves. Ourselves. Some white people like to claim being “color blind” and to not notice color. This has no impact on privilege. Others readily make the leap from embracing white privilege to claiming white supremacy. (As an anthropologist, I could go on for pages and pages about the irrelevance of “race” to the human genome although not to the human experience. But that’s not what this post is about.)
  • Male privilege. This has been eroding away for decades. Is it any wonder many men are all too ready to follow the lead of a swaggering “alpha” male who exemplifies all the benefits of privilege they feel they’ve lost? A lot of women – perhaps fearful of being labeled a feminazi – still believe in male privilege, too, identifying with the sexy helpmate image the males assign them and seeking out the most swaggering domineering males they can find. It makes them feel protected or something.
  • Christian privilege. Suddenly there are Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists openly practicing their faith, openly not being Christian. Christians are horrified. Isn’t America “supposed” to be a Christian nation?
  • Marketplace privilege. Protected industries like oil or coal or manufacturing fall victim to “green” industries, robots, and offshoring, and people whose jobs and family history are tied to those industries feel robbed. They still work hard or are willing to if given the chance. They want to know who took their jobs, the jobs they thought they were entitled to.

As privilege erodes, those who have enjoyed the benefits of privilege feel deprived, hard-done-by, oppressed. Worse than that, though, is when people tell you you’re in one or more privileged category – white Christian male working in the oil patch, for example – and your life still sucks. These are Trump’s people. They want the privilege they were promised but never got. They want to “Make America Great Again”. Like it never was for them.

Retrospective

church

The house where I lived for four years during high school no longer exists. The ground where it stood is now a paved parking lot for the Methodist Church across the street. That church is why I was there. My dad was the preacher. We lived in the parsonage.

The church is still there, white and solid and pretty as ever, with its proud historic marker out front, its claim to continuity and care. The town itself looks much the same as I remembered it, only older and with a few things missing. The old train station is gone. It was where the whole town used to turn out for pep rallies on Thursday nights before the Friday high school football games. Trains hadn’t stopped there in years. The old Baptist Church is a ruin, but there’s a new one.

I was back for a high school class reunion – our 50th. Like the town, we were all older and some members were missing. My folks had moved away shortly after I graduated high school, so I hadn’t seen these classmates in 50 years. It’s a strange feeling. We barely remember who we were back in high school and have no idea who each other is now. There were only 33 of us when we graduated; seven are gone. Out of the 26 remaining, ten of us showed up for the reunion. Others were too far away, in poor health, or had pressing obligations of family or work.

“I’ve been thinking about how much things have changed in the past 50 years,” I said to one of my classmates as we departed for our respective homes, some farther away than others.

“Yeah,” he said. “You know, in 1966 when we graduated, it was the class of 1916 having a 50-year reunion. They probably thought things had changed a lot, too.” That added a little perspective.

We talked a while longer. He lamented the local schools having been taken over by the Mexicans. Not just any Mexicans – the Raza Unida ones. He said it was hard to get help on the farms and ranches anymore. Our hometown was now just a bunch of meth labs and addicts. Some people send their kids to distant towns – smaller towns – so they can get that good country schooling experience. Some people, he said, think about selling their farms and ranches. “But where would we go?” It was a tough question.

I felt the distance between us. Not just the years, but the disparate experiences. I thought about the old story of the blind men and the elephant. We’re like that. We’ve experienced different slices and segments of life, so of course we draw different conclusions about what it all means.

He told me about an encounter he’d had a couple years back with a “colored man” coming through town. There weren’t any “colored people” in our town. According to what my dad heard when we were living there, the last black people in the town had been lynched.

This is where I went to high school. This is where I graduated 50 years ago. Things have changed a lot in 50 years. In some places more than in others.

Same and Different

CB017727

As I continue to read all the words flowing forth from both the wise and the foolish in the aftermath of Orlando, I keep pondering, “What can we do to prevent such a thing happening again?” Yes, we definitely need to do something about the ready availability of such powerful tools of death as were used in this instance. I applaud the efforts of the Senators (not mine – I’m from Texas) filibustering to compel their colleagues at long last into action. But we also need to do something about the hate that fueled this particular outrage – the hate directed against, as it’s often put, people who are “different”.

What does that word even mean these days? Different? Different from what? Just as humans don’t inhabit skins of a limited number of colors – black, brown, white, yellow – but instead come in a marvelous gradation of every color and combination, we also don’t come in only two genders. This realization shouldn’t come as a surprise; human cultures around the world have made room for these non-binary gradations in gender and sexuality for centuries.

In order to combat the hate coming from the stubborn gender dualists out there, we need a new and empowering alliance of all people who want to challenge such stifling gender definitions. We need to come together as LGBTQ folks and cis-gender feminists and men who are weary of the old macho mentality. We need to embrace one another as members of one incredibly diverse and beautiful array of human possibilities.

In a sense we’re all different. And all the same, all beautiful manifestations of exactly what it means to be human. We need each other in order to know, experience, and understand the full reach of our humanity.

Be the rainbow, y’all!

Looking at the Moon

shadow

I don’t choose the titles of my books lightly. Way of the Serpent dealt with an old New Guinea folk tale about a contest at the beginning of time for human destiny, a contest between a bird and a snake to see whether human beings would be like snakes, shedding their skins and living forever, or like birds that have to die.

Shadow of the Hare takes on the question of our human tendency to project our own wishes and desires onto the objects and experiences of our world. What do we see on the face of the moon—a human face? A hare? It depends.

My highest aspiration is to write books that readers will want to go back to—to think about, to read again. I want to raise questions in the reader’s mind that will lead somewhere, not offering easy answers to life’s tough questions, but offering, perhaps, a sip of wine to aid digestion.

Here’s to your enjoyment of my next book—cheers!

Available on Amazon.

Book launch event Saturday, May 21, 1 to 4 pm at Half Price Books on North Lamar, Austin, TX. 

Read the first chapters of Way of the Serpent HERE

The Hare Moon

HARE02

Whether you celebrate Beltane or May Day or nothing at all, it’s good to take note of the first day of May, as it brings us ever closer to summer. It’s no wonder the day was traditionally noted by our agricultural antecedents in Europe as a time for the celebration of warmth and fruitfulness, fire and fertility!

I find this particular May Day exhilarating, as it marks the beginning of the month I’ve selected for release of my next novel, Shadow of the Hare. This particular celebration is set for May 21, the day of the full moon that is known is some quarters as “The Hare Moon”.

Associations of hares (sometimes rabbits) with the moon abound in folklore and I’ve always felt a personal resonance with the creatures. The symbolism has worked its way into my novel. Here’s a small taste–it was hard to find one without spoilers!

I remember the year 2053, the year of the Global Peace Accord that officially put an end to war. Lio and I had gone to watch the celebratory fireworks displays on the D. C. mall, sitting in the shadow of one of the big war memorials next to a shallow pool. We lingered, watching the full moon rise, long after the crowd dispersed.
“How do you think they finally got the big weapons manufacturers and military corporations to sign on to the accord?” I asked.
“I’ve wondered about that. I wish I knew. They’ll never make much profit just making explosives for fireworks.” Lio grinned at me. “Although tonight’s show was pretty spectacular. And by that I mean over-the-top excessive.”
I snuggled up closer to Lio as a breeze rose up, rippling the water on the pond where the full moon was reflected. “Of course, weapons aren’t just guns and bombs these days,” I mused.
“Did you ever see a man in the moon when you were a kid?” Lio asked.
“Yeah. At least I think I did.”
“Did you know that in some other parts of the world peo­ple see a hare on the face of the moon?”
“I read about that once. I could never see it though. I guess we see what we’re conditioned to see, right? Whatever our cul­ture tells us is there?”
“Probably. And maybe we want it to be a living thing,” he suggested, “something with a face and eyes. Something we can relate to.”
“Can you still see a face on the moon?” I asked.
“Not really.”
“Me either. Though sometimes I wish I could.” 

PRE-ORDER Shadow of the Hare on Kindle and receive it May 21st! 

Celebrate release of Shadow of the Hare May 21st, 1 pm to 4 pm, at Half Price Books on North Lamar in Austin. Get your signed paperback copy and register for free gifts!

One Is the Agent

Donna-LOres2016-0318

I needed a new cover for the re-issue of Way of the Serpent, something that could provide the basis of covers for sequels in what has now become the Recall Chronicles. I analyzed the covers of dozens of other dystopian science fiction novels. I perused photographs available online. I searched through my own considerable inventory of photographs.

I kept going back to this one painting (see above), to which I’d attached a rather complicated title, a title that was in fact a line from a Buddhist practice I did sometimes: “One is the agent, caught in the reaction of cause and effect.”

The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that this painting and my novels were coming from the same space, a space in which agency constantly grapples with conditions that are, after all, oftentimes a result of one’s own actions. We’re not puppets, but we’re never free of entanglements, never entirely free agents.

The characters in my novels are like this, valiantly battling the circumstances of their lives, circumstances that are, to a varying extent, their own fault.

If these sound like the kind of characters you’d like to read about, you’ll like Way of the Serpent and (coming soon!) Shadow of the Hare.

Where No One Has Gone

IMG_8781

When I was a child, I used to imagine going to a place no one had ever been to before. There would be no trails, no trash, no trace of human presence. Over the years, as I studied the history of human migrations and tracked our exploding population and greedy exploitation of the remotest corners of our planet, I came to the realization that such places probably no longer exist. As I recently journeyed through West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, I decided I should simply revise my dream: not to go where no one has gone before, but simply to go where I have never been and to bring myself fully to the encounter.

In a recent Huffington Post article, Daniel Crockett writes about the trend in our culture toward seeking “wildness”, including purchasing the trips and costumes and paraphernalia that tell us we are explorers of the wilds. But we delude ourselves. “The wild you seek is not on some frozen summit, empty ocean or silent plain,” he writes. “The wild is within you.”

I find myself in agreement with Crockett’s proposal, and yet I would caution against naïve mythologizing of this encounter with our own wildness and with the natural world. It is something that my protagonist in Vol. II of the Recall Chronicles (Shadow of the Hare) deals with after she flees her urban world and lands in West Texas. “My excursion into nature quickly became a retreat into my own fanciful world,” she observes.

If we truly wish to meet the natural world, we must meet it as it is and not as we desire it to be or imagine it to be. It may not be as “wild” as we would like, but if we meet it with the wildness of our own hearts, our own nature, I believe we will find the encounter more than satisfying.

Coming in May 2016 – Shadow of the Hare (Recall Chronicles, Vol. II) – Malia Poole is a stubbornly dissident author and bibliophile in a world where books have ceased to matter and barely exist. Emerging from fifty years of self-imposed exile, she discovers a world far more terrifying that the one she fled.

Vol I – Way of the Serpent – available now.