Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"Even small children were adequate to the task. . ."

A widespread Malay custom that persisted well into the late nineteenth century was the tradition of tribute to a macan bumi, the “village tiger.” People took turns leaving meals of goats or chickens at a sort of shrine on the village outskirts, and the offerings were regarded as a kind of tax the tiger levied. European colonial administrators were at once baffled and disturbed by the macan bumi custom. They regarded it as a dangerously foolish superstition that also inhibited the march of progress and the clearing of ferocious and noxious beasts from the jungles. But Sir George Maxwell, writing around 1900, reported that in some Malay villages, even small children were adequate to the task of driving off a tiger that strayed suspiciously close to a herd of cattle.

In the book that resulted from his expansive, ten-year investigation of the place tigers occupied in the Malay consciousness, Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600–1950, Peter Boomgaard suggests that there was a lot more to the macan bumi tribute than mere backwoods mumbo-jumbo. A tiger habituated into the role of a macan bumi was far less likely to carry off villagers or cattle. A village tiger was also understood to drive out other, unfamiliar tigers, especially saucy young males looking to establish their own home territories. That was the village tiger’s part of the bargain, and should a tiger fail in its duties, and a new tiger showed up at a village, the local dignitaries would beseech the new animal to go away. A commentary on just such an event, observed on Sumatra, comes from no less a personage than Sophia Raffles, Sir Stamford Raffles’s second wife: “When a tiger enters a village, the foolish people frequently prepare rice and fruits, and placing them at the entrance as an offering to the animal, conceive that, by giving him this hospitable reception, he will be pleased with their attention, and pass on without doing them harm.” She does not report whether the villagers’ entreaties had any effect.

That's from here.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Where Madness and Material Things Collide

Reading Waiting for the Macaws gave me the queasy feeling I had when I first read Margaret Atwood’s futuristic, dystopian novel Oryx and Crake. Her world gone wrong was based on research available before 2003, and, in it, Atwood’s characters play the interactive web game, Extinctathon.

What Glavin does in his book is illustrate the non-fiction picture from past and present. The two books belong on the same shelf. Glavin shows that throughout history, humans haven’t caused extinction because of “willful rapacity.”

. . .That’s from Kim Goodliffe’s very friendly review of Waiting for the Macaws in today’s Vancouver Sun (not online). Given the company and context Goodliffe provides, I certainly wouldn’t object to having my book on the same shelf with a work of fiction, in this case. But these days it’s especially necessary to separate the genres, and to defend facts from certain other things.

This point allows me to bitch just a bit about today’s Ottawa Citizen, in which Tom Spears is factually wrong about my book, on several points. For one, I did not travel “to a place in Brazil called Curu.” I have never been to Brazil in my life. The Curu I visited, which occupies an entire chapter in the book, is quite unmistakably in Costa Rica. I did not see tigers in a preserve in Singapore. I saw one tiger there. In a zoo. And I did not visit a village in Tibet or find a “traditional culture” there on the verge of extinction. I have never been to Tibet. I didn’t write about Tibet.

And I’m not at all sure what Spears means when he writes that I have put my faith in “the views of the toothless United National Environment Program” or what Spears means when he writes that UNEP “wants us to adopt new models of how societies function.” News to me.

Spears writes: “Glavin's tactic is to put faces on the extinctions, presumably so that we'll care more.” I should give him credit for admitting his own presumption, but a central argument of the whole book is that most people actually do care already, and always have. That contention can be disputed or disagreed with, but just about everybody who’s reviewed my book, like the Edmonton Journal’s Scott Messenger, has got that point quite clearly:

That "human beings belong to a daft and bumbling species" is a point upon which writer Terry Glavin and I agree completely. His claim that we harbour "an abiding affection for other creatures," however, should be easily contestable, given the shoddy physical state of the Earth these days. Waiting for the Macaws, however, his new collection of essays exploring this affection, makes argument difficult. Glavin is a thoughtful and profoundly articulate conservationist whose passion has taken him around the globe to reassure us, and him, that we actually care.

. . . and that the facts matter, I would add.

Despite Humpty Dumpty, words do not mean anything we choose. Facts are still facts wherever they are used, and should be honoured in fiction as in history. The dictionary offers no exemption to novelists. They have the entire range of the human imagination at their disposal. They can play with light and shade, fantasy and magic, dancing free of reality to conjure their tales from the air. But facts are sacred. If writers use them to disguise their fabrications, I call them liars.

That’s what Simon Jenkins had to say for himself in yesterday’s Guardian. Douglas & McIntyre’s Scott Steedman brought Jenkins’ essay to my attention after we chatted at a fancy-shmancy luncheon at Vancouver’s Pan-Pacific Hotel yesterday, where the British Columbia award for Canadian Non-Fiction was presented to Rebecca Godfrey, for her book Under The Bridge.

Godfrey was a fine choice. Any of the finalists would have been. Among them were my chum John Valliant, for The Golden Spruce, and John Terpstra, for The Boys, and J.B. MacKinnon, for Dead Man in Paradise.

MacKinnon’s book is about his dead uncle, a priest named Arthur MacKinnon, the seventh of nine sons of a Cape Breton coal miner. Arthur is remembered among many Dominicans as Padre Arturo, the martyr. He was a mythic figure in MacKinnon’s boyhood imagination, the rebel hero of MacKinnon family lore: a blood sacrifice to the cause of the poor and oppressed.

It’s a great book.

I was there to introduce MacKinnon and to say a few words about his book and about the importance of the genre he works in, and which the award celebrates. So this is what I said:

This is an age in which relativism and an uncritical Pavlovian acceptance of received ideas have combined in such a way as to become a corrosive influence in public debates. The great questions of our age cry out for the kind of examination that relies upon the universal virtue of reason; the liberating methodologies of rational thought. These questions cry out for the kind of storytelling that is undertaken with an insistence upon the discernment of fact from fiction, faith from belief, and the real world from the world as it appears in propaganda and in wishful thinking.

In such an age, more than ever, facts matter. History matters. The truth matters: the truth as revealed by facts, as discovered by curiosity, by wonder, and by a consideration of the multiplicity of perspectives from which facts are seen. The real world matters. Honesty matters. And storytelling matters, because that is the way, as human beings, we have evolved to comprehend the universe around us. It is the way that great and grisly thing known as the truth is revealed to us.

It’s for these reasons that the vocation in which Jimmy MacKinnon works is so relevant today, and why this genre – literary non-fiction, creative non-fiction, belles lettres – is increasingly prominent in literature today. It is a genre that requires of its practitioners a deep and abiding devotion to the stuff of the real world, of real people, in all their flesh and blood and stupidity and magnificence and beauty.

The place where the real world intersects with myth is a haunted crossroads, fraught with great peril. It is the place where great poetry occurs, where wars begin and end, and where madness and material things collide in dizzying and disorienting alignments of narrative. It’s not a place for the lazy or the faint of heart. It’s a dangerous place, and Jimmy MacKinnon strides through that place bravely in this book of his, Dead Man in Paradise.

A bit overwrought, maybe. But I had to get it off my chest.

As you were.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Going, Going, Gone With The Wind

It turns out that all the fancy digital imagery that accompanies television weather broadcasts is still assembled mainly from raw data cobbled together from hundreds of little balloons sent up into the sky, twice a day, from far-flung weather stations. And there really is some truth to that old saw about how the smell of things is more noticeable just before a storm. As it happens, scents are released in conditions of low air pressure.

It also turns out that sand borne by winds from the Sahara causes fish-killing algae blooms in the waters around Florida, and that clouds of pollution have been found to contain human dandruff, flakes of skin and fur fibres. Some wind-savvy albatrosses sleep during flight and circumnavigate the Earth twice a year, and Gerry Forbes, the head of the Environment Canada station on Sable Island, likes the lift that gales give him when he runs along the beach. They let him leap 10 metres and more in a single bound.

That’s from Marq de Villiers’ new book, Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather. I review it in the Globe and Mail today. Nevermind my minor quibbles with it; Marq (that's him in the picture) takes great delight in the wonders of the real world, and he tells a fine story.

Among other things, Windswept allows me to become ever more entrenched in my conviction that the real world – the world that consists of facts, examined with an acceptance of the now-nearly-heretical notion of objective reality – is a sufficiently wonderful and horrifying and astonishing place without resorting to to this kind of crap, or this, or this. And this is not an honest retraction.

These people put the case better than I ever have. Read this while you’re at it, and then take heart:

We’re number one!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

With Socrates at Dooney's, Before He Left for Berlin

TORONTO—On a sunny afternoon at Dooney’s Café on Bloor Street, in the neighbourhood known as the Annex, Stan Persky, Vancouver’s Socrates, was sipping a coffee and holding forth on the affairs of the world and on the meaning of Dooney’s Café.

Dooney’s is something of a literary fulcrum in this city, but quite apart from the writers known to frequent the place, what is just as important is that Dooney’s proprietor, Graciano Marchese, is quite possibly the warmest, friendliest man in Toronto. On this point Persky insisted, but he quickly returned to the case he was making for the decline of literary discourse in Canada, the withering of the journeyman’s art of copy editing, and an overall rise in cultural illiteracy, all the while conceding the possibility that what was really going on was he was just becoming something of an old crank.

No way, I says to him.

“I have a sweet temperament, and that saves me from a lot of pain,” he responds. “But I’m mildly resigned to despair about the circumstances.”

So Persky is perhaps not quite as jolly as he once was, but there is, nonetheless, a stubborn happiness about him. Despite his insistence that humanity must be seen in its darkness as well as its light, Persky, at 65, is nothing near cranky.

The rest is here.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Could This Be The End of Soviet Canuckistan?

You’ve got to hand it to the Americans.

Half of them think Canada is just a nation of extras in a Michael Moore documentary. The other half calls us Soviet Canuckistan. Still, one way or another, they all tend to get what they want from Canada, no matter what we do.

That’s put crudely, of course. But if you want to understand anything about what’s happening in Canada these days, you have to take into account what the United States wants.

You also have to know that in 2004, just when Canada overtook Saudi Arabia as the US’s major foreign supplier of crude oil, a right-wing party from Alberta’s oilpatch engineered a coup within Canada’s venerable but enfeebled Conservative Party. And in the January 23, 2006 federal election, fewer than a quarter of Canada’s registered voters picked a Conservative candidate – about two-thirds of us chose center-left parties instead. But because Canada is a multi-party democracy with an antiquated first-past-the-post system, the Conservative Party won. . .

The rest is here. It's from my Adbusters essay this issue.

Despite all that, I can still say this, without hesitation: "The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions."

Besides, there's dear old Times Square's favourite bard. . .

And this monument to heroes. . .

. . . which would be enough, by themselves, to qualify the United States as a member in good standing of the UN, I reckon. Damn but I love New York.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, Brian and Stan have been busy at Dooney's, and it turns out I've inspired a comic strip by the great Gareth Lind, in the pages of eye magazine.

And I'm glad to be home at last.