Issue #13: Lighting the Wick
Comfort for the Apocalypse, January 2020
Reading Saramago during the collapse
I hadn’t picked up a novel by Jose Saramago in a long time, perhaps since he died in 2010 not long after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Before that, we read his books avidly in our house, and my partner Brian still purchases new titles as they are released by his estate. I, on the other hand, have lost heart as I often do when an author I love dies. Once a writer can no longer respond to the world around them, I feel the distance of their death and struggle to continue on with them as an artifact. This isn’t true for authors I discover who are long-deceased, it only really counts for those I read while they were alive and then lost in the process.
But lately, and perhaps because it is winter when my thoughts are frequently submerged in the rain and fog that persist from November 'til February, I’ve been reading The Stone Raft again which begins thus:
When Joana Carda scratched the ground with the elm branch all the dogs of Cerbère began to bark, throwing the inhabitants into panic and terror, because from time immemorial it was believed that, when these canine creatures that had always been silent started to bark, the entire universe was nearing its end.
The Stone Raft is premised on the Iberian Peninsula (home to Spain and Portugal) breaking off from Europe and floating out to sea. While governments attempt to respond to this unlikely and unprecedented event, the five main characters (brought together by chance) embark on a road trip to understand the state of cataclysmic affairs. The characters represent symbols of a world turned on its ear, as does the dog which accompanies them on the journey in which they witness the near colliding of the peninsula with Gibraltar, and then travel on to the site of the crack which has forever changed their collective geography and the geo-political relationships of their countries.
Over the years I have thought of this novel, and Saramago’s writing more generally as one continuing response to the crisis of existence and the potential end of things as they are. Even so, his most famous work Blindness, is the only one characterized as “apocalyptic fiction” in reviews. This is because it is the work most obviously about a crisis (a virus turns almost everyone in society blind in a matter of days) and the ways in which humans respond to an upturned world–horrifically in some instances, admirably in others. Works such as The Double (a man discovers his double and upends his life as a result), The Cave (a man loses his livelihood and as a result discovers evidence of Plato’s cave in the subterranean tunnels of a shopping mall), and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (what do you do when you’re the son of God but have not much interest in being so?) pit characters against their changed circumstances and open a door into the nature of being alive during conditions and times we do not choose.
If you were born in the seventies as I was, then you entered the world at the beginning of the current crisis. That is, at the height of the first modern recession and energy shortage, not to mention growing awareness of ozone layer depletion and human-caused global warming. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter gave a speech to Americans telling them that the time had come to do with less, and that energy conservation should be seen as a national and patriotic project to which to apply themselves in the name of freedom and democracy. What Carter was asking of people, in a round-about and not-very-radical way, was to get a little introspective about the causes and conditions of the energy crisis. To get curious. To examine how one might join with others to do something to stem the tide of excess material goods that had replaced the morale their society once had. He was asking people to look at the cracks before they became a chasm.
This was not a popular message, and rather than heeding it, the people chose to elect the anti-Communist Reagan, who along with Thatcher and Mulroney turned our gaze towards the Cold War and the Middle East. Rather than allowing people to think too hard on any solution that might cut against the "free market," leaders swiftly diverted the attention of millions in a “nothing to see here” approach. That attitude among our political leadership persists today of course, where despite mounting evidence of threats to existence, we are turned towards a reality television president and the latest iteration of the same old war. Threats such as the current viral outbreak are blown into international health emergencies with all state forces marshalled, while at the same time countries such as Canada report on the death of our oceans without so much as a change in oil pipeline policy. Despite everything we know, we continue on in times of distraction and denial, and 2020 is not shaping up to be a paradigm-changing year so far.
Reading The Stone Raft in the context of our ongoing crisis, I think I know what Saramago is trying to say to his readers. He shows us the great panic as people try to return to mainland Europe via the airports, a gathering of people dressed in traditional clothing returning to encampments along the shores of Spain, and demonstrations of impoverished people who enter the cities to take over the hotels as tourists flee. But his protagonists join in none of these throngs. Instead they take the chasm at face value, understanding that once the thing is done, there is only the odyssey to attempt an understanding of what the new world looks like and who they are within it.
Literature helps us see the world through different eyes, and try on the responses of others, which is one of the reasons I have long had a fascination with "apocalyptic fiction". In most versions of the end of the world, characters take some kind of action to protect themselves–whether that is taking up arms, hitting the road to find survival elsewhere, or heading deep into the forest to escape the declining and dangerous society. Rarely do characters respond to calamity with curiosity. Saramago gives us a different response to try on as we stare down loss of biodiversity and massive forest fires. He asks us if it is possible to get curious about it instead of distracting ourselves from the problem at hand. And I've been thinking on that over the last month. Is it possible to dial down the 24-hour news channels and get very quiet so we can really hear what the land and people around us need? Are we willing to suspend the life we expected for the life the world needs from us? In The Stone Raft it is clear that most people cannot help but be caught up and swept along by the events, that it takes very particular individuals to stand slightly apart and even then they can't quite understand what's happening. And though I raise these questions, I'm pretty sure I won't find this remove in myself as the climate crisis continues to unfold. But this novel inspires me to imagine that I'm one of those souls who can take a road trip at the end of the world to figure out what's really going on. That curiosity is as valid a response as any other. In my studio, I have a small statue of Kanzeon (also known as Kannon, Guan Yin, or Avelokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. According to tradition, shrines to this Bodhisattva are placed near or facing towards the sea so she can hear the cries of the world. As 2020 has been off to a bit of a rough start, I look to the sages for guidance. This visage of Kanzeon helps remind me daily to approach myself, my work, and the world with compassion.
January Recipe: Crispy Duck
In honour of the recent Lunar New Year celebrations I'm sharing one of the staple recipes at our house. Not only does it make a delicious dinner, but by following this method you will harvest at least one cup of duck fat for your future cooking needs. I slow-roast a duck every month for this purpose alone; when I have enough I use the fat as my main source of cooking oil. It is the secret to Yorkshire puddings that always pop and the best risotto you'll ever eat.
Crispy duck is all about method, and while it takes a few hours in the oven, there is very little work to this dish. Prep time is twenty minutes, cooking time four hours and twenty minutes.
1 whole duck (preferably not a Muscovy duck as they don't have much fat on them)
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup honey
orange juice from one large orange
2 tbsp Red Rooster chili sauce
Preheat oven to 300F.
Prep the duck by removing the gizzard and package of innards (if left in the cavity), rinse and pat dry. Trim extra fat and skin from the top and bottom end of the bird (the removed fat and skin can be rendered into cooking fat in a small sauce pan with water simmered until the water evaporates).
On the breast side of the duck cut a crosshatch pattern into the skin only. Do this by holding the knife at an angle and cutting crosswise into the skin 4 or 5 times one way, and then 4 or 5 times in the other direction. You don't want to cut into the flesh of the bird, but simply score the skin.
Rub the duck all over with salt, truss with baker's twine, and then place on a rack in a roasting pan breast side down. Put in the oven.
After one hour, remove from the oven and poke the bird all over with a very sharp knife. This helps the fat drain during the cooking process. Flip to breast side up and put back in the oven.
After one hour, remove from the oven and poke the bird all over with a very sharp knife. Flip breast side up and put back in the oven.
After one hour, remove from the oven and poke the bird all over with a very sharp knife. Flip breast side down and put back in the oven.
During this last hour make the glaze on the stove top by combining the molasses, honey, orange juice and chili sauce in a saucepan. Heat until bubbling and then simmer until it's thick and reduced by half. Set aside.
After the final (fourth) hour of cooking, remove the duck from the oven.
Turn oven heat up to 425F.
Lift the duck on the rack off the roasting pan. Drain the fat from the roasting pan into a heat-safe glass jar (mason jars for the win).
Return the rack with the duck to the roasting pan and baste duck all over with the glaze you made in Step 8.
Return the duck to your heated-up oven and cook for another 10 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before carving.
In the studio
I have been focused on a studio clean-up for the last month, with a goal of getting everything out the door that doesn't pertain to my current areas of interest (garment sewing, weaving, knitting). I've given, sold, and recycled away quite a number of items and bags of raw fibre in the process which gives my studio a feeling of lightness it hasn't had for awhile. Even though I have a large studio, it doesn't mean I can accumulate all the things!
One thing that went out the door last month was the subscriber prize I had on offer when I reached 150 subscribers. If you recall, that was a jar of rhubarb ketchup and a handwoven tea towel - which you can see pictured above. These might be my favourite tea towels of all time and I plan to use this pattern again.
Since I reached my subscriber goal for 2019 - I am starting a new contest this year, which you can read more about at the bottom of this mailing.
The first of my recommendations this month is Paul Kingsnorth's Savage Gods which is a ramble and reflection on the difficulties of being alive in these times, of rootlessness and desire for belonging, of literature and ways in which our words and actions might just be meaningless. A very Zen read (in the spiritual sense, not the pop-cultural sense) from a writer who I feel some kinship with.
As for other books on my shelf, 100 Skills You'll Need for the End of the World (As We Know It) by Ana Maria Spagna (author) and Brian Cronin (illustrator) is a charming guide to things you may not have thought you needed to know including "identifying mushrooms", "porch sitting", "shelter building" and "memorizing". Each skill is accompanied by a brief description and a (sometimes amusing) illustration. This is not your standard survival guide! I enjoy leafing through it every once and awhile to remind myself of the skills I ought to know now in order to create a life closer to the ground.
And, in case you missed this, last week the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published its annual Doomsday Clock report, titled "Closer than Ever: It is 100 Seconds to Midnight" citing the continuing threats of nuclear war and climate change in its lengthy missive. Though it got some press coverage, it didn't get as much as previous years, probably owing to the fact that the world doesn't need any more bad news than we've already got right at the start of a new decade. I'm not sure I recommend reading this as it might give you nightmares, but I do think it's worth knowing about.
I took a bit of a break in December, but I'm back with the monthly newsletter again for 2020 - so thanks for sticking around!
One of my goals this year is to double my reader-base so I am holding another contest to encourage you to share Comfort for the Apocalypse with your networks. Here's the deal: Once I reach 250 subscribers I will do a draw for *two* lucky winners to receive a copy of Paul Kingsnorth's Savage Gods as well as a handwoven tea towel. If getting to 150 subscribers is any indication, it's going to be a few issues before we get to 250 - so share widely and often!
In between newsletters you can find me at http://red-cedar.ca or @comfortfortheapocalypse on Instagram. Thanks and see you in February!