Thursday, July 22, 2021

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

 

One of the things I have learned as a parent is that when your teen recommends you read a book, you should. Particularly if you desire that they read books you suggest. Of course, if you have teens who are avid readers, their suggestions will probably be pretty good. That is the story behind this book. 

 

My second kid, who is sixteen-going-on-ready-to-run-the-world, has been responsible for a number of our book discoveries over the years. As a child, she was in to all things rodent, which led to The Tale of Despereaux and thus Kate DiCamillo, and Secrets at Sea and thus Richard Peck - neither author of which I was familiar, but both of which have become favorites. She went through some specific phases too: the Redwall books, Harry Potter, and most recently Ursula Le Guin. She also became fascinated with everything Japanese a few years ago, from their often bizarre snacks (we get her a subscription for that) to the cuisine, and she went so far as to teach herself enough kanji to get by. This has also included a fascination with Japanese literature, and East Asian novels in general. I suggested she read The Vegetarian and Kitchen, which she loved, and she told me I needed to read this book, A Tale for the Time Being. All of this has meant some wonderful conversations about books and writing styles and cultural stuff. 


 First, a bit about the author, Ruth Ozeki. She is both American and Canadian by nationality - she divides her time between Massachusetts, New York, and a remote island in British Columbia - and spent time studying and teaching in Japan. Her father was Floyd Lounsbury, who is pretty renowned as a linguist for his work with Native American languages, so his name pops up everywhere you see discussions of language families in either American continent. Her mother was of Japanese descent. Ozeki has produced Japanese television documentaries and award winning films in addition to her career as a writer. Oh, and she is an ordained Buddhist priest. She must be quite the force of nature, judging from her bio. 

 

Before I get into the plot of the book, I think it is worth mentioning that Ozeki appears to be a character in the book - as in the actual her as a character, not a thinly disguised stand-in. An author, Ruth, lives on a remote island in British Colombia, with her husband Oliver, who is an environmental artist...and, well, I couldn’t find any differences between the character Ruth and the author Ruth. I imagine this is fully intentional. 

 

Ruth the character is the center of one of the two threads in the book. While walking on the beach, she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up, with a bunch of interesting items in it, but particularly a diary purportedly written by a teenage girl in Japan. That story is the second thread, the story of Naoko. The two threads alternate before eventually coming together in kind of a magical-realism sort of way. 

 

The title is a wordplay, in case that wasn’t obvious. It is a story about the present, about moments, and so on. But “Time Being” is also used in the sense of a being who experiences time. Because we humans live in linear time, and experience it in one direction, we are “time beings,” not to be confused with whatever your concept of eternity or existence outside of time might be. And then there is Naoko, who goes by the shorter version, Nao. Another obvious wordplay. There are others, but those are the once that weave throughout the book. 

 

So, about Nao. She lived most of her life in California, but when her computer programer father lost his job in the dot com crash, they lost their immigrant visa and had to return to Japan, where Nao is mostly lost and floundering. She doesn’t fit in, and is brutally bullied. (As in, there is an attempted gang rape scene.) Her parents aren’t doing much better. Her father is in a deep depression, and attempts suicide three times during the book. Her mother, now the sole support of the family, has become a workaholic, and neglects Nao. The one bright spot is old Jiko, Nao’s great-grandmother, who is a Buddhist nun. After the first suicide attempt, Nao is sent to live at the monastery for the summer, which does her quite a bit of good. However, a return to school and even worse bullying - and another suicide attempt by her dad - convinces her that she will also kill herself after he finally succeeds. But first, she writes the diary, intending to make it a biography of Jiko. She never gets there, however, and when the diary ends, there is no real indication of what eventually happened to Nao. 

 

Ruth, of course, is reading this years later, because the diary (and other objects related to Nao’s family) had to float across the Pacific Ocean. I believe Oliver estimates about 10 years later. So whatever has happened to Nao has already happened, something that Ruth tends to forget as she tries to locate Nao and her family. 

 

So that’s at least the outline of things. In between is a decent bit of philosophy, both Western and Eastern, and quantum physics, and how they fit together. Also, a touching story of an old woman and a young girl, a city girl trying to figure out her life on a remote island, an exploration of the physical and mental decay of aging, a harrowing look at depression - and writer’s block, some history of the kamikaze pilots, the earthquake and tsunami, climate change, and cat named Pesto, because he is a pest. It’s quite a bit, and there are over 400 pages of book, so there is time for it all to unfold. 

 

As my kid and I discussed, there are some decidedly Japanese stylistic quirks to the story. (Although, Ozeki being American/Canadian, the book is definitely a blend.) While she hasn’t read any Murakami yet, I certainly saw some parallels. The non-linearity of time is certainly a common feature of modern Japanese literature, as is the blending of history with the present. It seems as if World War Two looms large in every book since 1940. In a way, here in the United States, so does the Civil War, even though we are in far deeper denial about it. While plenty of books do and always have had elements of bringing the past into the present, it seems that there is something specific about how Japanese literature does it, where the problem of the present and the problem of the past are so interconnected that solving the present requires some sort of “solving” or even changing the past. It is more than just the usual “we must understand the past in order to understand the present” thing, but where an actual re-living and re-centering and re-interpreting the past is a mysterious spiritual requirement for unlocking the present. Thus, the circumstances of Nao’s great uncle’s death as a kamikaze aren’t just important for understanding the family, they literally become the central key to “fixing” Nao’s father. 

 

There is also that interesting kind of magical realism that seems specific to Japanese literature. If I were to describe it, it would involve the way dreams are used. They aren’t just dreams in the sense we Westerners think of them - our version sees dreams as ways that the gods speak to us, portents and warnings and prophecies. Instead, dreams are a way of using the supernatural to affect the real world. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, both dreams and trances become portals to an alternative universe - perhaps the more real, spiritual, underlying world - and the things the protagonist does there become the way he solves the mysterious problems in the “real” world. Very much the same sort of ideas occur in this book. Nao is able to harm her nemesis while in a trance, and she is able to survive her attempted rape and her brief experience as a prostitute by using her ability to leave her body. Ruth doesn’t have trances per se, but does have dreams she can control. She is able to see Jiko in them, and even ask questions. In the big turning point in the book, she is able to go back in time and across an ocean to affect the outcome of the story. It is this kind of magical realism that seems to be distinctly Japanese. 

 

Also of note, as what seems to me to be one of the specifically Japanese or at least East Asian ideas is that of bodily fluids interacting with the magical elements. I am thinking of the use of semen ejaculations in Murakami, and in The Vegetarian, and the use of menstrual blood in this book. 

 

Ozeki’s wide personal experience really shows in this book as well, as she is able to compellingly describe the nuances of culture from various parts of Japan, western Canada, and New England. If one premise of the story is the existence of all moments, even if they are experienced separately by the time being, then the existence of all these places in the one author is surely a parallel. And I think that too is intentional. Just as the stories of Nao and Ruth are only perceived as separated in time, so too are their respective places only perceived as separated in geography. In the mind that is enlightened, all can be perceived at once. 

 

There are a few lines that I jotted down. Many of the chapters have interesting quotes, and two of them were particularly good. 

 

“A free man, that is to say, a man who lives according to the dictates of reason alone, is not led by fear of death, but directly desires the good, that is to say, desires to act, and to preserve his being in accordance with the principle of seeking his own profit. He thinks, therefore, of nothing less than death, and his wisdom is a meditation upon life.” ~ Spinoza

 

Spinoza is one of the philosophers that I find fascinating. I certainly do not agree with everything he said, but I found his practical approach to ethics to be refreshing as a counter to the dogmatism of the fundamentalist subculture I grew up in. Likewise, his early exploration of psychology led directly to later ideas by William James, the pragmatist who most closely expresses my own views on many things. 

 

Next is this quote from Dogen Zenji. 

 

“Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only pasing, then you do not understand the time being.

“To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”

 

The central psychological conflict in the book is definitely Nao’s attempt to reconcile her brutal experience of the world with the idealistic and gracious vision that Jiko teaches her. I think this particular musing by Nao is interesting. 

 

If you ask me, Japan is not so peaceful, and most people don’t really like peace anyway. I believe that in the deepest places in their hearts, people are violent and take pleasure in hurting each other. Old Jiko and I disagree on this point. She says that according to Buddhist philosophy, my point of view is a delusion and that our original nature is to be kind and good, but honestly I think she’s way too optimistic...But I’m still glad old Jiko believes we’re basically good, because it gives me hope, even if I can’t believe it myself. Maybe someday I will. 

 

That’s pretty much where I’m at after the last ten years. Not too long ago, I was in the optimist camp. And then Trump happened. And my mom declared war on my wife, willing to destroy relationships rather than show basic respect. I have found that with so many people I thought I knew, empathy and human decency were not a point of commonality. Like Nao, it really seems like a lot of people take pleasure in hurting others - particularly those outside the tribe. Trump just tapped into what was already there. 

 

The last quote is from Oliver. I am not sure what to make of the relationship between Ruth and Oliver. It seems kind of strained, but yet loving in its own way. Ozeki is pretty hard on Ruth in the book, letting all her warts hang out, so to speak. But Oliver is frustrating too. And they seem so often on different wavelengths altogether. Anyway, they get into a discussion about Ruth’s premonitions as she goes through the diary. Oliver’s response is great. 

 

“It felt like a premonition. What do you think?”

“Premonitions are coincidences waiting to happen.” 

 

This was an interesting book. Ozeki is a good writer, and the story itself is compelling. It was a bit rambling in places, but that wasn’t really a bad thing. There are some disturbing moments, and it certainly is not a kid friendly book, but everything ties in with the needs of the story. I could also see this book as a gateway to Japanese novels in translation. It is just Western enough to feel familiar, but with a good introduction to the Japanese tradition as well. 

 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

 

Last year, we listened to Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, the first spoken word/slam poetry style book we experienced as part of our road trip audiobook selection. Because that one was so good, I poked around and discovered this one, which was also recommended by one of our librarians. Although it did not win a Newbery award, it picked up quite a few other awards. 


 
The Poet X is a story told by Xiomara, a fifteen-year-old girl, born to Dominican immigrant parents, living in Harlem. She is close to her twin brother Xavier (who she affectionately calls “Twin”), but struggles with her parents. And, well, they have some issues. 

 

It turns out that her extremely devout mother wanted to become a nun, but her parents forced her to marry a man with a favorable immigration status, so she could be the first to come to the United States, and eventually bring the rest of them. Her dad was quite the player before - and after - he got married, at least until the twins were born. Their conception was a surprise, as it was late in life and children we not expected, and thus the twins bear the burden of being the “miracle” babies. And thus, their mother believes that they should be impossibly grateful to God for their very existence. Dad gave up the affairs, but instead has essentially shut down emotionally, leaving mom to be the enforcer and try to drag her kids into following her religious preferences.

 

The problem, though, is that Xavier is gay, and Xiomara is increasingly doubting her religion. Oh, and their strict parents are freaked out about any romantic contact whatsoever, so…

 

Yeah, it’s a mess. Xiomara has other things going on too. She is tall and large and curvy, and has been sexually harassed ever since she hit puberty. She has learned to respond with violence, and has earned a bit of a reputation. Xavier is a brilliant student, and as he was born first (and is male), he is clearly the favorite of the family. But he is also effeminate and non-confrontational, so he gets bullied - at least until Xiomara decked a bully that one time. 

 

Xiomara also is a poet - she calls herself The Poet X once she starts participating in events - and uses poetry to express the things she can’t really say to anyone else. Her brother gave her a notebook, and encourages her gifts. As I said, the two are really close, which is why when they both fall in love, the separation that brings about stresses them both. 

 

And, of course, the real shit hits the fan once Xiomara falls in love with her lab partner Aman, and the two of them get caught kissing on the train, then Mami finds the poems and tries to burn them. Yeah, it’s a real mess. 

 

There are some similarities in this story to both Brown Girl Dreaming and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. In each case, there is some tension between a parent (or grandparent) who is devout and a child who has come to doubt. The tension isn’t just about religion. Maybe not even primarily about religion, but more about culture. The loss of a particular culture, as children grow into a different world than their ancestors. The way the parent responds determines whether the relationship will survive adulthood. While we do not specifically find out, this particular one seems slightly more hopeful than in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, but there is still reason to believe that both Xiomara and Xavier will be seriously relieved to get out on their own. 

 

I want to mention a few things I really liked about the characters too. The priest is a decent guy, and not white, which is a bit of a refreshing thing to see in a book (and in real life too.) However, like most clergy in my experience (there are exceptions, but almost never in conservative denominations for obvious reasons), he has no answers to the actual hard questions, and so deflects around them. Ultimately, he is a force for good in the world, but he cannot truly satisfy what Xiomara needs. 

 

Also great to see in this one is a trend in several YA books we have read: young guys who are, how to put it? Decent human beings. And not just in general, but specifically in relationships, and in sexual situations. I already mentioned I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter - in that case, Connor is in over his head (unsurprising for a teen guy with a girlfriend struggling with mental illness and an abusive mother), but he tries hard, and doesn’t act like a dick in the bedroom. Likewise, in The Hate U Give, Chris is a genuinely decent guy, and a role model. In all of these, the sexual experiences are consensual, and positive, even if not always satisfying. In The Poet X, I have to say that Aman is such a gentleman when it comes to the sex scene. Xiomara has just had a most traumatic experience, but wants something sexual. However, once they are naked and he is wound up, she freaks and can’t continue. And guess what? He hands her her clothes, drys her tears, and is a friend to her like she needs. Because that’s what decent men do. For me, the best part of these stories when it comes to sex is that it gives a positive role model for my sons, and encourages my daughters to expect this decent behavior from their partners. 

 

[Side note here: this is so much better than the “men can’t control themselves” narrative that Modesty Culture feeds our kids. Hey, I wrote a bit about that!]

 

The poetry itself is delightful, with a superb flow, and some amazing killer lines. The audiobook was narrated by the author, and she clearly is a veteran of spoken word poetry, because she has it going on. 

 

Since I was driving, I had to go back and search for the lines, but here are some that really stood out. 

 

And I think about all the things we could be

if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.   

 

This is in the context of gender roles and expectations. And, heck yeah. This is a bit of a sore spot for me, as relationships have been severed over the expectation of gender performance. And very, very related:

 

Their gazes and words

are heavy with all the things

they want you to be.

 

And this one, in the context of the story, is perfect. It’s devastating.

 

Just because your father's present, doesn't mean he isn't absent.

 

And this one, flung back as a weapon against an out-of-control mother:

 

“Burn it! Burn it. This is where the poems are,” I say, thumping a fist against my chest. “Will you burn me? Will you burn me, too?”

 

Some of the language and ideas are just breathtaking. Here are my favorites:

 

I only know that learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light. And isn't that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark.

 

It's about any of the words that bring us together and how we can form a home in them.

 

Your silence furnishes a dark house.

But even at the risk of burning,

the moth always seeks the light.

 

She knew since she was little, the world would not sing her triumphs, but she took all of the stereotypes and put them in a chokehold until they breathed out the truth.

 

If I were on fire

who could I count on

to water me down?

 

If I were a pile of ashes

who could I count on

to gather me in a pretty urn?

 

If I were nothing but dust

would anyone chase the wind

trying to piece me back together?

 

My little words

feel important, for just a moment.

This is a feeling I could get addicted to.

 

The Poet X isn’t particularly long, but it is so beautiful, as the above quotes demonstrate. I would recommend reading it out loud, or listening to the audiobook, because the music of the words is what it is about. 

 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Behind the Bears Ears by R. E. Burrillo

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

 

One great thing about the reopening of our libraries for in-person visits is that I can check out the “new or interesting books” displays that our librarians put together. There is usually one with a theme, such as Women’s History Month, but also one with just interesting new non-fiction that a librarian thought might interest people. I tend to come home with random books I did not know existed, which is a lot of fun. 

 

This book happens to be one of these suggestions. It also happens to be one of my new favorite books for the year. 


 

R. E. Burrillo is an archeologist and writer - he started off as an English major, then took some time off before discovering southern Utah and going back to school to major in archeology. This combination means that he has a knack for telling great stories as well as an amazing knowledge of the history of the Bears Ears area. 

 

Probably most people, including myself, had no idea what the Bears Ears were before President Obama designated a national monument containing and named after them. This was followed by The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named taking the unprecedented step of shrinking the monument by executive order - leading in turn to a series of lawsuits which have still not been resolved over whether that was even legal. As it turns out (and the book details), this is just the latest in an ongoing war between the giant (and often foreign) corporations in the extractive and cattle industries who essentially own Utah politicians (Orrin Hatch looks very much like a bought-and-paid-for shill), and the environmental and archaeological communities and the indigenous peoples whose history and land continues to be stolen and looted. 

 

Burrillo, because of his expertise and writing skills, ended up taking a significant role in the proposal that eventually led Obama to designate the monument, and his research forms part of the evidence at issue in the subsequent lawsuits. In addition to all the archeology stuff, Burrillo is and has been an avid hiker, and his knowledge of the backcountry is part of what I love about the book. 

 

Behind the Bears Ears is a pretty epic look at what we know of the history of the area, located in southeastern Utah. Of course, to talk about one area is to talk about the entire surrounding area, because Bears Ears is merely the center of a vast homeland for several people groups, and the epicenter of arguably the greatest archeological area in North America. Surrounding the monument itself are better known ruins, such as Mesa Verde, Montezuma’s Castle, Chaco Canyon, and so many more - just to list the protected sites would take over a page. I have seen a few of these over the years, but I have just scratched the surface. 

 

The book starts with the earliest known history of the area, which literally goes back thousands of years - we have some remaining evidence that dates back to close to the time humans first entered North America. From there, Burrillo looks at each era (although as he points out, eras are arbitrary and connected to tangible objects, which is a strange way to analyze human culture in a way…) In each chapter, Burrillo also discusses the indigenous stories and culture that shed light on the era, as well as the later (white) explorers who unearthed the evidence of past occupants. Over and over, Burrillo makes the obvious (but often forgotten) point that the people who made the ruins and baskets and pots and things we work with in archeology didn’t “disappear.” They still exist. The stories and culture and ways of life and memories still very much exist - despite the attempts of whites to extinguish all of the above. 

 

I should mention at the outset that Burrillo is very much a Millennial, and part of the fun of this book is that it is written with unabashed Millennial values. It is far from the stodgy, academic language often found in non-fiction. He is delightfully snarky, refuses to pull his punches, has no particular reverence for things like Manifest Destiny, and is willing to call out bad actors by name. He makes no pretense of being “balanced,” whatever that can mean when it comes to environmental and cultural destruction for profit anyway. He is openly on the side of preservation, and against destruction, pollution, exploitation, and extraction. Some will find the book irritating for that reason. But make no mistake, Burrillo knows of what he speaks, and the book is filled with thoroughly researched information. He eschews extensive footnoting, but the bibliography (and his informal citations throughout the text) is solid. From my own limited knowledge, gathered over a couple decades of visits to Utah and the surrounding area, the stories he tells line up well with the official archeology (some of which he created…) that the NPS uses for its own materials. A bit of poking around also revealed that he is well respected both by archeology sorts and by the indigenous tribes he has worked with extensively in the quest to protect the Bears Ears. 

 

I ended up making a lot of notes, mostly because there are so many good lines. Let’s start with this one, from the introduction. 

 

To my knowledge, no other science has to contend in the public realm with monsters as formidable as Indiana Jones, Ancient Aliens, and religious and ideological “interpretations” that span the gamut from annoyingly appropriative to awesomely racist.

 

In particular, he calls out the racist idea that the ruins we find must have been built by someone else, not those “savages” known as the Native Americans. Hence “maybe it was aliens” and the Mormon myth of white “Israelites” who did all the building. Gah. The whole intro is great, by the way, and it draws one into the book. 

 

Next up is Burrillo’s invocation of “Betteridge’s Law”: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’” Burrillo advises “anytime you see the clickbait-y headline ‘[blank] could rewrite history,’ put your money on ‘but probably not.’”

 

He also does a pretty epic takedown of the earliest “archeologists” - wealthy treasure hunters looking for baubles for their collections. 

 

These were hobbyists rather than scholars, who amassed collections of historic curios for display in their homes in much the same way as modern hunters with their taxidermy menageries, and today we wouldn’t call them antiquarians so much as goddamn thieves.

 

Although things improved eventually, there are still far too many stories of yahoos out trying to do some digging. I loved his contrast of the John Fremont expedition (which was well planned and executed) with the catastrophic one organized (which may be too strong of a word) by Illustrated American. Fittingly, all records were destroyed in a fire a few years later. 

 

My favorite part of their epic journey is the one where they tried to boat the Animas River down to its confluence with the San Juan in a poorly constructed wooden boat. This was a publicity stunt that would put both PETA and Putin to shame: a group of hand-wringing gentlemen from the big cities of the East Coast - with, again, no physician in attendance - attempting to run the maritime equivalent of a jalopy down an unmapped and hardly known stretch of river through an area literally famous for its rocks. 

It went about how you’d expect.

 

I also can’t resist quoting his snarky commentary on how eras are named. In this case, why he hates to use the word “formative,” along with its implication that somehow history is a story of progress. It’s amusing, but also pointed. 

 

I’m also choosing to jettison the term Formative, because to me it smells problematic. I always tell people that the Formative years of my own adulthood were spent in New Orleans, between the ages of approximately eighteen and twenty-three, because during the preceding years I was a total putz and afterward I was less of one. There was actual progress, of a sort. Indigenous cultures, on the other hand, were just fine as they were before, during, and after the so-called Formative era, or between approximately 1500 BC and AD 1492.

 

In discussing the first farmers in North America, Burrillo takes time out to discuss the problems of monoculture. (A bit issue where I live, by the way.) Several pages are worth quoting, but I’ll stick with just a bit. 

 

Diversity is a safety strategy. That’s why nature invented it in the first place. It buffers against unexpected impacts with devastating effects on narrow targets, what biologists sometimes call stochastic shocks, by variegating the targets. A chestnut blight in a diverse forest is crappy for the chestnuts, but the forest itself endures. A chestnut blight in a forest full of nothing but chestnuts is an arboreal apocalypse. And the same is true of social, cultural, psychological, linguistic, and sexual diversity.

 

This one really hit home. The faith tradition (and the political tradition) I was raised in is in the first stages of an apocalypse - it is rapidly aging and dying out, because of an utter failure to adapt. And the reason it lacks the ability to adapt is that it is - by design - a monoculture. Systematic purging of diversity has left it without the people or ideas to find a way forward. 

 

Speaking of adaptations, the discussion of the changeover from atlatls to bows is interesting. Burrillo notes that the bow is actually not really a superior technology, in a number of measurable ways. The biggest disadvantage is that, at least until modern high-tech compound bows, they are significantly less powerful than an atlatl, which can be driven deep into a tree. Miss a deer’s vitals, and it will escape a bow. Hit it with an atlatl, and you knock it down hard. Additionally, bows are more difficult to make, and more likely to fail. However, the one major advantage that the bow has is ease of use. You can go from dreadful to good enough, as the author puts it, in a lot less time with a bow. 

 

His explanation of the various forms of ceramics throughout the book are likewise fascinating, from kiln techniques to clay ingredients. Here is one of my favorite lines. 

 

The characteristics - particle size, organic content, cohesiveness, and so on - that make certain clays singularly sticky are legion in the geology of southeastern Utah. You can investigate these properties yourself by driving there during a rainstorm. 

 

Oh yeah, I have been on dirt roads in the similar Navajo Nation, and yes, the stickiness is epic. 

 

I also highly recommend the sections on the history of Federal law protecting the archeological resources. In addition to giving the president the power to designate national monuments, the Antiquities Act was the first to make it illegal to collect archeological items on public land. It is difficult to overstate what a major change that was. Part of this discussion led to the issue of Theodore Roosevelt, both a hero to many of us who value conservation, and an uncomfortably racist man. Burrillo details some of his evolution, however, from the younger man who considered indigenous peoples subhuman to the older man who, if not exactly an ally, considered them Americans, and took some steps to protect their heritage through legislation. 

 

Another passage was also perceptive, and really distilled down the history of ritual. We live in an era when a lot of the rituals of the past are being reconsidered, leading to a rather vicious culture war. Clearer understanding of how rituals arise and why they linger could be helpful in defusing a lot of that. 

 

[P]racticality usually precedes ritual. We first start doing something because it makes sense to do so, in other words, and then the practice becomes ritualized - sometimes enduring long after it has ceased making sense. 

A handy example is the taboo some cultural groups have against eating port. Through modern eyes, it is purely ritual; there is nothing particularly unhealthy about pork as compared with other animal meats, and nothing about pigs that makes them particularly well- or ill-suited as food providers compared with other animals. But that wasn’t always the case. Wild pigs aren’t any more prone to infection than most other animals, but living in artificial pens without access to a natural menu turns them into the pathogen equivalent of waterfront property, especially for trichinosis - a vicious and occasionally fatal tissue infection. And pigpens were invented long before sterile kitchens and the concept of the “temperature danger zone” (between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit) that nowadays gets beaten into every restaurant worker. Trichinosis was therefore given a big head start in the historic arms race between productivity and pestilence, with predictable results. [Footnote: This particular lesson from history is one we seem hell-bent on failing to learn. Some of the most virulent of modern outbreaks, including AIDS and COVID-19, have their roots in woefully cavalier treatment of animals during their journey from feral to feast.] Modern methods of cooking and refrigeration took care of that problem, for the most part, but the taboo endures. 

It used to make sense, in other words, and what remains is a vestigial behavior that hasn’t been entirely jettisoned because it doesn’t really need to be. Not yet. But when famine starts kicking down doors, you’d better believe pork is back on the menu - as has happened in numerous other cases. 

 

A couple of comments regarding this. First, it has been distressing to see that many of my right-leaning friends and family continue to fail to learn the lesson from history. They went straight to anti-Chinese or anti-Asian bigotry with things like “kung-flu” and memes about eating bats. In reality, the 1919 “Spanish” flu certainly did not originate in Spain, and while we will never know for sure, there is some evidence it originated in a slaughterhouse associated with a Kansas military base. Our factory farming system is every bit as dangerous as anything the Chinese do - the next deadly flu may well originate here. 

 

Second, when I moved out of my parents’ house, one of the first things I did was return pork to my diet. When our family got involved with Bill Gothard, we gave up pork. As I have discussed often on this blog, Gothard and other “Theonomists” believe that ALL of the Bible is an instruction book, and that all of the rules (well, except for the pesky teachings of Christ about loving one’s neighbor, or embracing immigrants and stuff…) apply now, including the dietary taboos. Yes, this contradicts 2000 years for Christian belief, etc., etc. But whatever - anything that gives that warm self-righteous feeling is good, right? 

 

This discussion takes place in a section on the food of the Chaco Culture era. What is fascinating is that the evidence is that agriculture succeeded on about once every three to five years in any given spot. Wait, what? And how did people not starve? Well, they pulled a Joseph and stored grain. In fact, most of the architecture in the area is actually granaries, not housing. These people stored food, and used the storage for the whole community, smoothing out the difficulties of growing food in a desert. We could learn a lot from that. What this meant in practice is that people only had to move if a drought lasted longer than seven years, which is what appears to have happened numerous times, which is why populations moved around regularly in the Bears Ears area. 

 

Again, Burrillo returns to his theme that separating things into eras is problematic. The fact that people moved away from a drought-stricken area to another is a fact, not a break in a civilization. 

 

Perceived discontinuity can become especially troublesome when it falls into the hands of people with an agenda. At an open forum on public lands that took place in Bluff in 2016, one of the attendees testified that modern Native American perspectives on the landscape of Bears Ears shouldn’t count because the ones who’d built all the pretty cliff dwellings and rock art that people come to see are long gone. I’ve encountered that same sentiment in op-eds and the ravings of individuals innumerable times through the years, and it always follows the same patterns. And with the same purpose in mind. 

 

It couldn’t be those Native Americans that built all that stuff, right? 

 

They don’t think buildings the size of the Roman Colosseum and intricate social networks that spanned half a continent. 

 

For World Literature, my older kids studied a plethora of creation myths from around the world. Two of them are presented in this book, and I found them fascinating. First is the Mayan one (relevant because of the cultural exchange with Mayans that left symbols and stories in the Bears Ears area - and apparently the colorful parrots whose feathers appeared in Utah a thousand years ago.) Apparently, the gods tried several times to make sentient beings. First was a mishmash of elements that had no memory, so they were sent out into the world to become the animals we know. Second, they tried mud, which resulted in fossils. Third, they used wood, which was close, but resulted in the non-human primates. (Interesting, right?) The fourth time was the charm.

 

Finally, Plumed Serpent and Heart of Sky succeeded at making human beings out of masa or cornmeal, underscoring the sacredness of maize in Mayan culture and implying that human beings are really just sentient tamales (which sounds fine to me.) 

 

The other story is that told by the Zuni. 

 

They, like the Hopi and Dine’, view this world as the last (or, at least, the latest) in a series. When this world was created, it was covered with water and wracked with earthquakes. The earliest people were amphibian in nature, as all the first creatures were basically slaves to the water, so their own version of the hero twins - the children of the Sun - used lightning and fire to dry out the land so that all creatures could step upon it and dry out. But soon the predatory ones grew to immense sizes, with great gnashing teeth and even wings in some cases. The twins stepped in once again, blasting the land with lightning and fire from the sky until the monsters were all gone, setting the stage for humans and the animals we know to spread across the surface of the world. 

Anything about that story sound familiar? It’s an almost literal reading of the geo- and paleontological records that are laid bare in the stratified canyons of the Colorado Plateau. It starts with the lifeless stone of the lowest Precambrian strata, moving upward to the marine fossils of the Cambrian explosion that occur in the mid-level limestones of the Grand Canyon (including the crinoids that people have long used as naturally occurring stone beads). Stuck into the next layers up are the great beasts of the Triassic and Cretaceous periods, followed by what we now understand to be an asteroid-induced vanishing act by same, and followed in turn by the bones of more recent and recognizable upper-Pleistocene creatures. The Zuni have taught this scientifically accurate interpretation of this stratigraphic record for over a thousand years. 

Meanwhile, it took until the mid-1800s for European scientists to officially agree that things get older the further down you go.

 

Just another reminder that “Western” knowledge isn’t the end-all of human achievement. 

 

Another cultural blind spot that Burrillo points out is that we seem to assume that Native Americans were - and are - humorless. Having spent a bit of my teens volunteering on the Navajo Nation, I can attest that this is malarkey. All humans use humor. Except maybe the worst religious bigots and the ultra-rich, who only have mocking people “below” them. In fact, those most oppressed need humor to survive, which is why so much of the best stuff comes from people who have to laugh rather than cry. (See, among others, Oscar Wilde…) Burrillo quotes from Smoke Signals, in a classic moment. 

 

In one scene, main character Thomas Builds-the-Fire is relating to his friend Victor Joseph a humorous story about a fry-bread-eating contest, and Victor rebukes him for it. “Don’t you even know how to be a real Indian?” Thomas admits that he supposes not, so Victor decides to instruct him. “First of all, quit grinning like an idiot,” he admonishes. “Indians ain’t supposed to smile like that. Get stoic.”

 

Burrillo’s relation of the story of Christopher Columbus was pretty good too. Including his explanation for why the Italians turned his proposal down. (“[it] involved no small measure of risk and was, moreover, headed up by a guy well-known for being a raging scumbag.”) But he also notes the historically obvious:

 

Every educated person in Columbus’ time and place knew the Earth was round, ever since it was proved by the Hellenistic Greeks in the third century. Ironically, there are more imbeciles in America today that believe in a flat Earth than there were in fifteenth-century Italy.

 

Another great quip is in relation to the 17th Century battles between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples of the Bears Ears area. One of the local heroes, Pope’, ordered his people to purge themselves of all things Spanish or Christian. Unfortunately, this meant the return to the “old ways” included getting rid of the horses, sheep, cattle, and tools and weapons. 

 

And then, finally, the followers of Pope’ relaxed. And had a good look around. And realized that they were now completely surrounded by other tribes that were heavily tooled-up with the Spanish horses and steel that they no longer possessed. 

This is an important lesson for all my reactionary readers, out there. You cannot go backwards. Not unless everyone goes with you. 

 

I really wish the reactionary right wing in America understood this. You all ain’t going back to the 1900s, no matter how much you think you can. 

 

Burrillo also has a perceptive and amusing take on the Wild West, particularly in areas like rural Utah. It wasn’t the daily Hollywood-style shootouts. 

 

Instead, people worked the land, ranched and drove cattle, did their level best to ignore John Wesley Powell’s stern warnings about water management, and grumbled about Indians and government. With minor adjustments in terms of culture and technology, that’s basically still true.

 

Heck, that’s true of rural Kern County here in California - they now just whine about the “Mexican” version of indigenous Americans…

 

The last few chapters are somewhat depressing, because of the continuous and ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans by our government. So little has changed - we are still marginalizing those voices, even in areas where they are the majority, like the Bears Ears. One of these interesting and sad incidents was the internment of the Dine’ (the Navajos as we call them.) After this internment, in 1866, the negotiations finally began for the return of the Dine’ to their homeland. And things got...interesting. 

 

The negotiations staggered, at first. It was fierce please and encouragement from Dine’ women that kept the process alive, just as their knowledge of weaving and genius methods for keeping their heart Navajo-Churro (or four-horned) sheep alive had helped keep the people themselves from perishing during their internment. Little mention is made of this in most history books, chiefly because patriarchal hierarchy was another piece of the “assimilation” package and federal officials would therefore only deal with men.

 

This still remains true - many indigenous peoples are far less patriarchal than white Americans. Imposing gender hierarchy on them was part of the attempted destruction of their cultures. 

 

Another facet of the cultures that Burrillo found interesting and talked about, is the arts and crafts/trading post culture. I ran into some of this during my own time on the Navajo Nation, and while there are the non-indigenous bigwigs that run the big commercial places (selling mostly pretendian crap), there are the real ones, and being part of that culture and network is a rather different thing altogether. It is a true community, and run on very different terms than we capitalist-American sorts tend to assume. 

 

The biggest and most enduring lesson was that it’s all about relationships rather than commerce. Mainstream capitalism teaches that if you aren’t willing to minnow into bondage with scumbags, you’ll lose the game to those who are. Indigenous artists and craftspeople of the Southwest, on the other hand, are apparently far more willing to take a financial hit to work with a lower-income trader who also happens to be a kind and respectful individual. Which should kick the door open for sociopaths who excel at pretending to be kind and respectful just to take people for a jolly ride, but it doesn’t. I guess they’re more strongly drawn to places like Wall Street and Washington, D. C.

 

Also, perhaps, we white people - particularly Evangelical sorts in my experience - are worse at recognizing sociopaths. 

 My favorite bolo, crafted by a Dine' craftsman who attended our gatherings.

Speaking of horrible, sociopathic white people, how about Orrin Hatch? It is hard to imagine (at least before Trump), a more loathsome and disgusting human being. This post is too short to detail his extensive corruption, utter lack of morals beyond graft, and raging bigotry. But here is at least a little - and some unintentional humor. 

 

Hatch drew considerable attention with a public comment in 2017 to the general effect of “Indians aren’t smart enough to know how to properly manage land,” which sent many non-bigoted people into an understandable rage. He finally retired at the end of 2018, prompting the Salt Lake Tribune to name him 2017 Utahn of the Year in satirical recognition of all the awful stuff he had accomplished in his forty-two-year stretch as a result of “his utter lack of integrity that rises from his unquenchable thirst for power.” 

Senator Hatch, who apparently didn’t read past the headline, promptly shared the news story on his Twitter feed along with a heartfelt thanks to the Tribune. Always read past the headline, kiddos.

 

Uranium mining gets a bit of play in one of the chapters too. This is interesting to me in part because my wife’s father grew up in Price, Utah, during one of the uranium booms there. I got to see his father’s ancient and quirky Geiger Counter once - they never found anything of particular note, but did spent a fit of time dabbling. By the way, this is one of the horrid things Hatch was involved in - making sure the big uranium mining companies didn’t have to bother with either environmental controls or cleanup afterward. Hey, but he got paid! Another person, Cal Black, is described in the book as the person who “In all those years, he probably did more than any public official not named Orrin Hatch to fan the flame of environmental destruction in Utah,” at least got some comeuppance in the end. He wore a chip of depleted uranium around his neck - to show those sissy hippies and other tree-hugger types it was harmless. He died of a tumor on his lung…

 

The final chapter is all about the negotiations to create the national monument, and thus has a lot of first-hand information. Burrillo marvels at how the various tribes were able to come together for a common goal. As he notes, the history of the US government playing tribes off of each other and stirring up resentments in order to better exploit them is long. To get that many sovereign nations to work together was an accomplishment. And then there is this:

 

The second is a remarkable ethnolinguistic curiosity, one whose existence I hadn’t even realized until UDB cultural resources coordinator Angelo Baca pointed it out. In the different languages of all the tribes involved in the Coalition - and, presumably, numerous others - Bears Ears is known as Bears Ears.

These aren’t just different languages, although that alone would be enough. They represent entirely different language families, some of them as distinct from one another as Latin and Mandarin. Hence presenting my snapshots of regional tribal history in terms of linguistic affiliations. The Athabaskan-speaking Dine’ and Apache people, the Numic-speaking Hopi people, and the Zuni-speaking Zuni people (their language is entirely unlike any other in the known world) have different names for every other area, landform, waterway, animal, vegetable, and mineral in the region. But they all refer to those twin sandstone formations by their respective term for the ears of a bear. I know of no other such case, anywhere. 

 

Ultimately, two presidents have had profound effects on the creation of the monument. First, The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named was elected president. Then, President Obama, before leaving office (peacefully, unlike his successor…), finalized the designation of the monument. While it wasn’t as big as some wished, it did contain far more involvement for the indigenous tribes than any federally protected land (unless you count reservations) had ever had. There would be a dedicated Bears Ears Commission, which would include an elected representative from each of the five Coalition tribes, and an advisory committee comprised of various local and tribal stakeholders. 

 

Of course, soon after Trump took office, being the fucking racist asshole he was, he not only downsized the monument dramatically (along with Grand Staircase Escalante, created by President Clinton 20 years prior) in ways that perfectly matched where the big mining corporations wanted to dig, he nearly eliminated all tribal involvement in the management, relegating a mere two tribes to largely decorative roles. Because, well, that’s Trump, and that’s Orrin Hatch, and that’s the GQP’s approach to preservation these days. (Prior GOP presidents tended to expand, rather than reduce protections. Conservation is conservative, after all, but there is little conservative about the modern American Right Wing.) Knowing full what was coming, the Coalition had the lawsuit prepared before Trump took action. It appears that Trump was taken completely by surprise. (As he was about so many things - one of his deficits as a narcissist was anticipating how normal, decent people respond to things.) 

 

Madeline McGill from the Rural Utah Project offered a pithy take on this legal strategy when she learned about it a few years later: “I doubt [the Trump administration] was ready for that sort of unity. My impression of those people is that they think everybody thinks like them, in terms of the things that divide everyone. The idea of a unified group of Native Americans with white scientists and corporate businesspeople probably scared the shit out of them.” We certainly hoped it would…

 

The eventual outcome of the suits is in doubt, although President Biden appears willing to restore the tribal involvement in management at a minimum. (The book was published in 2020, so none of that makes it into the book, for obvious reasons.) 

 

I think I will close with a bit from the end, in which Burrillo makes a case for multiculturalism - something he has shown was a hallmark of the Bears Ears area - the borderlands between cultures, where they all came together and cross-pollinated. 

 

This type of community is a scary idea to some people. It’s often the basis of what we nowadays call identity politics, where people vote or otherwise get political in sole accordance with perceptions of their own and/or their favored candidates’ cultural identity, and it’s almost always a defensive reaction against manufactured illusions of invasion. At best, that’s how you get segregation. At worst, fascism and genocide.

The thing is, being members of a community doesn’t require a whole lot of sacrifice, and it certainly doesn’t require sacrificing one’s own cultural identity. On the contrary, a diverse array of individual and cultural contributions is exactly what makes a community great in the first place. The alternative is like a stew with just one ingredient. 

In that sense, I suppose, the United States of America is itself the backwoods of everywhere. The borderlands phenomenon writ large. Far removed from the geopolitical capitals of England, Peru, Ireland, Africa, Italy, Spain...a community built from episodes of cultural collision and coalescence, like those of Bears Ears, with pizza for dinner, and Theobroma cacao for dessert. 

 

This book as a bit for everyone. If you like the great expanses of the West, if you are fascinated by human history and culture, if you want a counterargument to the jingoistic civic education, you probably received in school, if you appreciate humanity and snark instead of academic distance, or if you just enjoy well-written and compelling non-fiction, you will likely enjoy this book. In fact, I am considering purchasing it for my own library. Give it a try.