Boudha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal
As I walked through Boudhanath, Kathmandu, one evening in September of 2013, under a light rain, I was enveloped in the crowd. Everyone was headed in the same direction, toward the Great Stupa. I was reminded of Barcelona, where I had been the week before. But here, instead of heading to the plaza to sip wine and share food with family and friends, we were headed to a sacred place to walk in brisk clockwise circles murmuring prayers.. or chatting with family and friends. I love both customs and the way they bring people together in a shared space at the same time.
Forest fires play a huge role in my latest work-in-progress (in the hands of beta readers now!) and in writing it I’ve done a fair amount of research into such fires. But I don’t think I envisioned anything quite so globally apocalyptic as what is occurring right now in the Amazon.
It is established fact that fires are part of life on planet earth. Fires are useful in the cyclical health of all kinds of ecosystems. Just yesterday I went for a walk at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, where they recently did a controlled burn over a large swathe of their property and posted signs promising a bounty of spring wildflowers.
The fires currently devastating the Amazon are not part of this natural cycle. They’re not even part of the centuries-old practices of indigenous people who clear small patches of rainforest with fire every dry season, a practice that kills off “weeds” and insect pests and leaves a layer of nutrient-rich ash. The indigenous people have always done small, controlled burns and, after planting the field for a couple of years and harvesting what’s left for a few more, they always let the space return to its natural rainforest state. They’ve been doing this forever, so when you hear that “farmers” are to blame for many of the blazes being set in Amazonia and Rondonia, the indigenous farmers are NOT the farmers we’re talking about. Instead, we’re talking about farmers and ranchers whose intent is to permanently clear land for larger-scale crops and grazing. We’re talking about thousands of acres being permanently removed from the Amazon rain forest.
There’s also the political firestorm surrounding all this. For years Brazil has tended to get huffy when lectured on the (scientifically well established) importance of the Amazon rainforest to the overall environmental health of our planet. The wealthy nations achieved their status in large part through devastating environments with impunity, they said. And now you’re going to tell “developing” countries we can’t follow suit? The general attitude was one of “fuck off.” But there were those within Brazil and the other nations within this vast forest who understood the importance of the Amazon and they formed political action groups and linked up with activists worldwide to engage in what was, until recently, a modestly effective conservation strategy.
Enter Jair Bolsonaro. Echoing the politics of the United States of America, Brazil now has a nationalist president who puts jingoistic Brazil-first profit above all else and has clearly indicated his support for “developing” the vast resources of the Amazon. So the Amazon burns. Animals of all kinds (including rare and endangered species) are roasted within the devastation. Native peoples who have protected their rainforest home for millennia are driven out. And scientists hastily recalculate the carbon balance of our atmosphere and recalibrate hopes of surviving climate collapse.
This blog post has no conclusions. I go back to my manuscript, to my story in which time is marked as much by “before the Great Fires” and “after the Great Fires” as anything else. And I watch the burning.
(NOTE on the image: This is a painting on paper that was sadly damaged beyond repair. The burning of a work of art is not the same as the burning of a work of nature…or is it?)
I’ve reached that moment of awkward disequilibrium that often occurs in my travels when it’s almost time to return home. It’s an ambiguous sort of nostalgia, where missing home is offset by awareness of how much I’m going to miss the place where I am now when I’m not here anymore.
I love Bali. I love the weather and the landscape and daily life in the banjar of Kutuh Kaja. I love the deep cultural persistence, the aliveness of ancient temples that are replenished daily with artfully composed fresh offerings. I love the strong sense of place among people for whom kaja (toward Mt. Agung) and kelod (away from Mt. Agung) are as important as east/west or north/south. I love that Mt. Agung is an active volcano. I love the artistry, the taksu, that has not (yet) been obliterated by the influx of treasure-seeking tourists. I love the dignified bearing and “bright faces,” the ready laughter, of young and old alike.
I’ll miss you, Bali.
But I also miss my family. I’ll get to see my daughter and son-in-law for a couple of days on my way home. I miss them a lot. I’ll soon get to hug my precious grandchildren again – I’ve missed them and their parents (my son and daughter-in-law). I’ll soon retrieve my little bird from her “summer camp”; I’ve missed her, too. I’ve missed my familiar spaces and places and habits.
They say, “Wherever you go, there you are!” But it’s also true that wherever you go, you’re not in any of those other places you hold in your heart. Nostalgia can happen anywhere once you’ve fallen in love with more than one place.
Maybe I’ll just go with Ram Dass: “Be. Here. Now.”
In honor of the Fourth of July, here’s a brief passage from my upcoming novel, NOT KNOWING, in which Meg’s archaeology students celebrate the holiday on site at Kawilkan, in the middle of the Belizean jungle.
Saturday would be the Fourth of July. The students had purchased some fireworks in Santa Cruzita and now they were begging to set them off.
“We have to celebrate Independence Day,” Ashley said, following up with a vivid description (with gestures and sound effects) of fireworks displays in her hometown and some even more spectacular displays she’d witnessed in Beaumont on the banks of the Neches River while listening to patriotic music played by the Symphony of Southeast Texas. Of course I’d finally agreed, warning the students to be extra careful.
“You can never be sure of the quality of fireworks,” I said. “I don’t want you to blow anything up. Especially not yourselves.”
Sarah had bought several packages of frozen wieners at the supermarket in Belmopan, as well as a yellow plastic container of mustard and some chutney that she claimed would be just like sweet pickle relish. Elodia and Seth had collaborated on making buns. And since it was a Saturday night, I’d okayed the beer as well, although I insisted that those who were setting off the fireworks must abstain until after everything had exploded.
Pacál said he’d had some experience with Mexican fireworks and volunteered to assist Brad in orchestrating the show. He read the name on each item and explained what they could expect from it. “Provided it really is what it says and provided it works at all.” He was obviously enjoying his role as cultural ombudsman. They cleared an area and agreed on which direction they would try to aim the fireworks.
They started off with a bundle of firecrackers. The spectators complained that they were pretty pathetic, not making nearly enough noise. I felt otherwise. I didn’t want to admit how much I hated fireworks. I remembered that one New Year’s Eve when Rick had gone with me to Charco Seco to meet my parents and how ashamed and angry he’d been at the way he freaked out during the fireworks display. None of the fireworks at the Kawilkan Fourth of July celebration were particularly loud or spectacular and a few were outright duds. But all in all they provided enough entertainment to satisfy our crowd. I was glad when the noise stopped.
The release date for NOT KNOWING is July 20, but you can preorder the ebook now on Amazon. Or join me at Malvern Books at 7 p.m. on the 20th and get a paperback. I’ll sign it for you!
“Writers are even worse than anthropologists when it comes to taking notes on human behavior,” Meg thinks, as she watches Seth surreptitiously photographing people and making notes on his phone as they travel on an overcrowded bus from Belmopan to Belize City.
I am both a writer and an anthropologist, and creating characters I’d like to know in real life is one of the great pleasures of writing. I love my characters in my new book, NOT KNOWING. Yes, even the difficult ones.
Meg Fitzellen is a troubled but dedicated archaeologist, firmly committed to science but pursued by things she can’t explain. Magic? Surely not! Her husband, Seth, is a science fiction writer, wrestling with questions of time as his own fictional characters, the Timecrypters, shuttle from past to future and back again. Meg’s best friend Indra is a mycologist whose dissertation research focused on the psilocybin mushroom. And then there’s Pacál, the troublesome undergraduate who is the son of famous archaeologists and who may know more about Meg’s past than she would like to believe. There are also two parrots that really ought to be included in the cast of characters…
You can meet all of these and a few more when NOT KNOWING is released on July 20. Pre-order the Kindle version now, or come get a copy of the paperback at my release party at Malvern Books!
In preparing for our visit to Pura Tirtha Empul at Tampak Siring yesterday, I had to decide whether I was going to enter the holy spring waters or not. “Can I just take darshan from looking at the waters?” I asked.
Not familiar with darshan? Here’s how it is understood in Hinduism: “Darshan, (Sanskrit: “viewing”) also spelled darshana, in Indian philosophy and religion, particularly in Hinduism, the beholding of a deity (especially in image form), revered person, or sacred object. The experience is considered to be reciprocal and results in the human viewer’s receiving a blessing.” (That’s what Google said.)
At a somewhat deeper level, there is the sense that viewing something/ someone sacred or powerful results in real contact. Even westerners sometimes talk about “laying eyes on” a person or thing. With darshan, it’s as if there’s a kind of energy that passes between the two participants in the viewing, with agency on both sides.
All of this led me to wonder something else: Can I take a blessing away with me in the form of photonic patterns inside my iPhone? Can darshan happen again when I look at such images as they come up on Facebook memories five years from now?
In the final analysis, I spent some time gazing at the waters of Tirtha Empul, quietly contemplating amid the splash and hubbub of my fellow blessing seekers. Then I walked to the edge of the water, dipped my hands into the flow and sprinkled some water on my head. I also took pictures.
I’m not a very good tourist. I tend to either avoid the highly packaged “attractions” or else sneak in around the edges, on my own time, doing my own thing. I deeply respect the rights of the local people to keep us gawkers cordoned off, herded into manageable tours and treks that interfere as little as possible with their “normal” lives while still permitting them to earn income from our desire to gawk.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to see the historic and cultural “places of interest.” But I like to know what I’m seeing. All too often, what you get from tour guides is a watered-down (and occasionally downright fabricated) version of history and culture. Like pablum for babies, with lots of sugar.
I’m reminded of clearing my Uncle Bill’s bookshelves in San Antonio, Texas, after he passed. His partner, Ann, had owned the travel agency at Joske’s back in the latter half of the 20th century and my, how the two of them did travel! Uncle Bill’s books were not travel guides, however, but travelers’ memoirs and language books – Chinese, Korean, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, etc. They always wanted to know at least a little of the language of their hosts. Sometimes they even took classes before the trip. I think “tours” have changed a lot since Ann was selling them at Joske’s. I also think Ann and Bill were not themselves tourists. They were interested and respectful guests.
Earlier this week I stopped in at a little shop in Ubud that sells locally crafted fabrics. The girl behind the counter seemed quite knowledgeable as she told me about the beautiful cloth she spread in front of me and how it was used in her village as protection against bad magic. She would sell it to me for a mere five million rupiah (~$350US). She seemed almost apologetic about the backwardness of her beliefs and offered some admiring words about the culture I come from. “But why do you think we come here?” I said. “It’s because we have to get away from the chaos and noise of our culture. We come here for beauty such as this.” And she smiled as tears glittered in her eyes.
“Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once and space exists so that everything doesn’t happen in the same place.” — Albert Einstein (allegedly…)
This quote showed up in my Facebook “memories” today. It was fortuitous, since I had already typed in the title of this post…
Bali (the space I currently occupy) invites reflections on time. In Bali, you see, there are three calendars running simultaneously – our standard Gregorian calendar is one; the 210-day calendar called Pawukon is another; and the third is the Saka lunar calendar.
The Pawukon is not so much a “year” as a cycle, “since no record is kept of successive ‘years,’ nor are they numbered or named. They just pass by.” The Pawukon is organized into ten different systems of weeks, from a one-day week to a ten-day week. Most important are the three-day, five-day, and seven-day weeks. All these different “weekdays” have names and the conjunctions of these myriad cycles is important in differentiating auspicious days from inauspicious ones for all kinds of activities.
In my new book (coming July 20), “time” is an important subtext to the story. Meg is an archaeologist, obsessed with the past. Her husband Seth is a science fiction author, writing about time travel and the future. So, yes, the subject of time comes up in their world. Here’s a brief example, in which they’re discussing an impasse in Seth’s WIP. Meg speaks:
“Are you sure they’re not interfering with the timeline?” (Would I mind so much if they were?)
“Well, there’s another aspect of the story I’m still working on.” Seth scratched the back of his neck and frowned. “Maybe time isn’t a line…”
You may now pre-order the Kindle version of NOT KNOWING and it will be sent to you on July 20!
(Quotes about Balinese time are from Fred Eiseman, Jr., BALI: SEKALA & NISKALA.)
I woke up this morning thinking about flow, about how awareness of flow, synchronization with flow, has been so important to life on our planet. Flow is profoundly present in cultures like the Balinese – the flow of water, the flow of light-energy (east/west), the flow of winds, the lunar flow of tides. We are water beings, light beings, wind beings. How have we in the modern West become so immured to flow?
So many sacred places around the world have to do with water (sacred springs, streams, rivers), or with the energy of celestial movement, with high places and low, with crossroads and confluence. The Balinese are deeply sensitive to their orientation within the flows in their world. Everything is kaja (toward Mount Agung – the active volcano that is the highest point on the island) or kelod (away from Agung) and concurrently kangin (east) or kauh (west). I want to know how it would feel to be like that, to be satisfied that I know where I am without Siri or Google Maps. To know which way is up, how the water and earth and heavens move (and me in it) and for that to be enough. Instead I often feel like a fish trapped in an overcrowded and stagnant pond, waiting to be fed.
Like Meg in my novel, I am sometimes troubled by what people call “magic.” This isn’t magic. It’s just flow. It’s real. It’s possible. It’s everywhere.
Happy summer solstice!
I know my friends in Texas think summer began weeks ago, but my tropical island nest here in Bali is treating me to such mild weather it’s hard to remember the 100 degrees in Austin earlier this month!
What I’m enjoying is also a very different tropical June from the one experienced by my main character, Meg Fitzellen, in my soon-to-be-released novel entitled NOT KNOWING. Meg is an archaeologist and every summer she heads for “the field” to dig and discover. Her archaeological site is Kawilkan in northern Belize, an area I know well from my own fieldwork, which began in the 1970s (and may still be ongoing)! The last time I was in Belize I was working on this very book at a resort near Belmopan LINK. That resort has kind of worked its way into my novel under a different name and with a few other changes.
In the book, Meg’s summer is not turning out the way she planned. As she observes on page 139, “Apparently, this summer was destined to push all my buttons. I’d just been reminded yet again of how dangerous it could be to have firearms in camp, reminded of exactly why I’d instituted my strict rule of no firearms in the first place. Dr. Fitzellen’s rule was no firearms. No firearms and no weed. No exceptions.”
Here’s hoping our summers turn out better than Meg’s! Mine is already downright epic!
You can now pre-order the Kindle version of NOT KNOWING and it will be sent to you on July 20!