Archive for October, 2010
I recently finished Eleanor Arnason’s Mammoths of the Great Plains, an alternate history novella in which the mammoth survives into the mid-twentieth century. Like all of Eleanor’s science fiction, it is more than plausible, it has me believing. And it is a very satisfying tale.
It also reminds me how I loved learning about the Ice Age here in Southern California. We studied it in third grade, at Rosewood Elementary School in Los Angeles. We visited The La Brea Tar Pits, i.e. The The Tar Tar pits, on a field trip, where we were taken on a tour. We saw skeletons, and we saw dioramas of an environment like today’s but wetter, colder, and way more exotic. (Oh yeah, and no great big city in the middle of it.) We learned how animals became trapped in the asphalt deposits between 11,000 and 55,000 years ago, thereby preserving their remains for posterity, which is us.
I wanted to go there. I wanted to time travel, to see the great mammals and birds of the last ice age.
One of my favorites was the dire wolf (Canis dirus), which is related to the modern timber wolf. I’m not certain there was all that much special about it wolf-wise, but I loved the name. I mean, a wolf already sounds a bit dire to me, you know?
The most popular animal among my classmates was probably the sabertoothed cat (Smiloden fatalis), which we erroneously called a sabertoothed tiger. It is not a tiger. It is more closely related to the bobcat, which we still see in these parts. The sabertoothed cat’s popularity extends beyond the third grade class at Rosewood; it is the official fossil of the State of California. And really, I think it has the hottest name after all. Smiloden fatalis? Fatal smile? You bet it had one.
Among our local herbivores here in SoCal Pleistocene times, I would love to have seen the extinct camel (Camelops hestemus). This camel more closely resembled the llama. According to the tar pit web site, modern-day camels evolved in the western hemisphere, and migrated across the land bridge to Asia.
Finally, I longed to see the western horse (Equus occidentalis). What young girl doesn’t want her very own horse?
There were lots of other animals, mastodons, bison, sloths, bears, turkeys, peccaries, American lions, tapirs, and mammoths. Some species from back then survive to this day: coyotes, bobcats, eagles, vultures, and termites. All those others, however, gone. Extinction saddened me as a child, and it saddens me as an adult. One must remark that the discovery of this fossil treasure-trove, at the end of the nineteenth century, happened as a result of oil drilling by the Hancock family, who owned the Rancho La Brea land. So. They drilled for oil, and found the fossils of extinct animals.
I would love to travel there, though. I would bring my camera. I would want to travel in comfort and safety. I would ask the time capsule operator to move away from the pits themselves, so that I wouldn’t have to watch the animals getting stuck, or hear their shrieks and cries. I wouldn’t want to see their suffering. I’m a typical tourist.
I would want to escape from the fact that time moves in a single direction, that the Pleistocene is no more, and that its inhabitants will never return. A reality I especially do not want to dwell upon the reality that my Pleistocene–my third-grade version of it–never existed, being as it was only a third-grader’s diorama without walls.
We can’t rewrite history, but we can re-imagine it. Mammoths of the Great Plains was a terrific re-imagining that took me down two alternate history paths–both Eleanor Arnason’s and my own.
Note: I researched tar pit facts on http://www.tarpits.org, which is the official La Brea Tar Pit website.
I didn’t want to get up; I turned off the alarm. Between 7:09 and 7:50 AM, I had the following dream.
Mike had arranged for us to adopt a young kangaroo. Then I, Mike, and our daughter, Michelle, went to Disneyland for a day of fun. We took the kangaroo with us.
At the end of the day, the four of us were headed back to the gate. We were at the top of Main Street, in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, when the kangaroo, who had no name, began to misbehave. It lay down in the middle of the street, and was nearly run over by a car. There were cars on Main Street, not old-fashioned, antique cars like they had back when the real Disneyland opened, just regular cars. I put a leash on the kangaroo. I did not know the gender of it either.
Just after we exited the park, I saw the leash was empty. The kangaroo had escaped. Michelle told me emphatically I would find it where the candy was, which I recalled was somewhere in Fantasyland. She and Mike continued to the car, and I reentered the park. Night was falling. I thought about following Michelle’s advice, to go where candy was being sold, but thought it better to seek help closer at hand. This was Disneyland. They found lost children. Why not a kangaroo?
But as I stepped back into the park, I discovered Main Street had changed. It was deserted, run-down, and derelict. I thought, It was so much nicer here when I was a kid. I looked in vain for the buildings I remembered, the Lost and Found, the City Hall. I entered a gray, unlabeled building to my left.
There was a short line inside, although there seemed to be no ride or show on offer. I told a pleasant woman I was looking for my kangaroo, and she asked another woman, who said that she had heard about it, and that the kangaroo had been taken to the pound.
She did not say which animal shelter, and I did not ask. Logical questions don’t occur in dreams. And at this point, I came upon that common point in dreams–paralysis. In some dreams, it’s physical. Something is chasing me, and suddenly, my body is unaccountably heavy; I move in slow motion. In this dream, the paralysis was mental. I was unable to do anything about finding the kangaroo; I could only worry about it.
So, next I went home to a shabby unchic apartment in an old building. I walked back and forth from the bedroom to the kitchen, and thought about how I would have to call all the animal shelters in Anaheim the following morning.
And in the morning, I thought about how, later, I would sit on my bed with my laptop, and I would look up the locations of all the shelters in Anaheim. But I never did that. The last scene of the dream found me with my laptop, at a large work table with a number of other people in a large work room. I placed my purse on the floor, began my day of work, and thought about how I had to rescue my kangaroo.
I woke up.
I looked at the time, and it was a second or two before I said, and I may have said out loud, “Oh. There is no kangaroo.” I ought to have been relieved, but in fact I was disappointed to have the responsibility of my dream pet lifted from me, and sad that the dream didn’t last long enough for me to be reunited with it, that the suspense was never resolved.
I’ve occasionally used dreams as jumping-off points for writing short stories, but they’re always a problem. I’ve only been successful when I’ve been willing to let go of the dream completely, and its meaning, and be satisfied with only using an image or two from it. The main problem, I think, is that my dreams are not stories.
In this instance, I have no recollection of the first part of the narrative–acquiring the kangaroo, my agreeing to adopt it, the rest of the day at Disneyland, which had apparently gone well enough for us to still be there by dusk. It’s a deeper problem than not making sense. And although ambiguous endings can be effective in stories, they aren’t supposed to just drop off the edge like that dream did. I mean, why was I procrastinating my search of the animal shelters? Why didn’t I call them? For that matter, why didn’t my husband, who brought the darned thing home, take some responsibility here? Because this was not a story about a kangaroo. It was a reworking of the life I am leading, which, like my dream, lacks a pleasing narrative arc.
Dreams never have clear resolutions. They’re never meant to. I can’t have a clearly resolving dream until the moment I die.
So I’m left with this fragment. I’m haunted by uncertainty, and by the feeling that, somewhere out there, a young kangaroo still waits for me to rescue it from its jail-like cage.
My life has not been rich in physical danger. Danger has not sought me, and I have not sought it. I avoid undue risk wherever possible. I am mildly acrophobic. The one or two times I thought might be in immediate peril, my reaction was one of dead calm, and determination to do what I could to maximize my safety. No heart racing, no stomach fluttering, no queasy knees.
Every day, I drive around my megalopolis, on freeways and surface streets where fatal accidents occur with some regularity. Generally, I am not afraid at all. Every now and again, I have a genuine close call–never my fault, of course–and I cuss and say to myself I can’t believe what that guy just did and then I carry on. The incidents are common enough that I usually don’t even mention them to my husband later on. I don’t think about them later either; I do not fret about what might have happened.
And yet, my life is marred by fear. Not fear of real stuff, happening right now, but fear of what might happen.
“People wish to learn to swim and at the same time to keep one foot on the ground.” – Marcel Proust
Mr. Proust is showing us an excellent example of the effect of fear in our lives. Learning to swim expands our possibilities, allowing us to go on a boat without worry, or to jump in the deep end, and swim to the side. On the other hand, we might sink. Water might fill our lungs. We could die. Worse, other people at the pool might laugh at us because we’re such doofusses for not being able to do such a simple thing as swim. Polls show that fear of death is routinely outranked by fear of public speaking (i.e. public humiliation) in most people’s minds.
It’s worth noting that most children learn to swim pretty easily. They have enough trust in to believe that the water will hold them up. I have two friends who did not learn to swim as children, and in spite of attempting to learn as adults, neither has succeeded. I think they have somehow developed a core belief that swimming is impossible for them.
“A cat bitten once by a snake dreads even rope.” – Arab proverb, possibly, but also credited as Chinese idiogram
In our pre-verbal and early-verbal years, we have various frights–loud voices, scary shapes, dreams–that we cannot name. Not surprisingly, adults around us are often oblivious to what we are feeling. For instance, as a three-year-old, I had an unaccountable fear of women’s peep-toe shoes. I only know it was somehow connected to airplanes. I did go on an airplane flight at three, to visit extended family back east. Yet I remember enjoying that flight. I loved it, in fact.
“Only your mind can produce fear.” – Anonymous
I see why no one claims that one; it’s sort a duh realization. We need to worry to bring on that stomach-in-the-throat, bowel-gushing, hand-trembling paralysis. Worry requires taking what has happened to us in the past and projecting it into the future, without understanding the connection between our past and our present.
“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie
But had Madame Curie understood radioactivity more thoroughly, she presumably could have avoided dying from the effects of it. At the same time, she couldn’t possibly have gained the understanding of radiation without exposing herself to it. Even if she had been fearful, she couldn’t be aware of what, exactly, she needed to fear.
Looks like we’re stuck. We need fear, but it mostly just holds us back.
“Fear is the most damnable, damaging thing to human personality in the whole world.” – William Faulkner
News flash: While writing this, I solved the peep-toe-fear mystery. On that childhood visit back east, I was bitten by a dog. Not mauled, just bitten, and not the dog’s fault. It was bad enough for me to remember though, and bad enough that I can still find the scar on my hand all these years later. Anyway, I think, when we boarded the plane to come home, there was a woman across the aisle from us wearing peep-toe shoes, and I believe I became concerned that an animal could come along and bite off the exposed toes.
Try explaining that to an adult.
“…Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration…” – Frank Herbert, Dune.
Listen to Mr. Herbert, for he is telling us the truth.
I have three really cool songs on my ipod having to do with wolves and/or werewolves. They are:
Furr by Blitzen Trapper
Wolves by Phosphorescent
Werewolf by Michael Hurley
Canis lupus (the gray wolf) and its subspecies once blanketed virtually the entire northern hemisphere. Even now, gray wolves and their subspecies reside in Asia, Europe, and North America. Wolves are predators, they are a social species, and like many predators, they are beautiful. In both the speculative and non-speculative worlds, we love them and we hate them.
One subspecies of the gray wolf is Canis lupus familiaris, i.e., the dog. Dogs are descended from gray wolves, and are still closely enough related that they can breed and produce viable offspring. Wolves are not dogs, but dogs are wolves.
We control the domesticated wolf, most of the time. Sometimes, we cannot. We strive to civilize our pets, to fold them into our society, even as we can never forget their origin.
We humans strive to civilize ourselves, to fold ourselves into our society, even as we remember our wild selves. But we have diverged too far from the apes to interbreed, and besides, well, wolves seem way hotter than chimpanzees. So…when we imagine ourselves wild, why not transform into a wolf?
In Furr, Blitzen Trapper presents a coming-of-age tale. The boy leaves civilization at age seventeen, grows fur, joins the pack, and gives up his notions of right and wrong in favor of pure instinct. Sounds like he has a pretty darn good time. Then, at the age of twenty-three, he meets a girl, is moved to marry her, and gives up his fur for skin. Happy though he may be, on occasion, he finds himself nostalgic for the good times of his youth. We all have moments when we want our fur back, I guess.
Michael Hurley’s Werewolf is the most chilling of the songs. He plunges right into the violence, the predator’s love of violence, the synthesis of sex and violence, and of course reminds us the werewolf is just like you and me. Michael Hurley howls quite well.
My favorite of the three, Phosporescent’s Wolves, has a touch of dark humor to it. A boy is bewildered by the presence of wolves in his house. They might be Canus lupus arctos, as they are pure white. They do not behave well, mating, and fighting, and generally getting in his way. He tells his mother, but we are given the impression she is not exactly responding to the problem, as he sees it, anyway.
I don’t own a dog, have no Canis lupus familiaris eyes to gaze into, only the beady-black and vaguely reptilian eyes of three cockatiels, prey animals that nonetheless manage to cast an imperious gaze upon everything they turn their attention to. But sometimes, at night, I do hear the howl of Canis latrans, neighborhood killer of Felis catus, as well as smaller breeds of Canis lupus familiaris. I hear the coyotes howl, atop the hill behind our house, and a little tiny part of of me would like to go out there, climb the hill, and see just what they are up to. To see if they’re having as much fun as it sounds like they’re having.