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Sick days are for reading
Comfort for the Apocalypse, April 2022
I have been promoting this newsletter more lately and note a number of new subscribers as a result, enough that I will be doing another weaving draw - which you can learn more about at the end. Welcome!
Those of you who have been around for awhile know this is the space where I write my monthly essay about some aspect of our changing world, or how we might tend to one another in a time that seems impossible. Sometimes I write about objects and our weird attachments to them, or about meditation practice, or my conversations with trees.
But after two years of being very careful and almost never leaving my small island community, I threw caution to the wind on the Easter long weekend and went to a restaurant in a nearby city. At least that’s what I think lead to a nasty case of Covid-19 which left me in bed for most of last week, unable to do much more than knit a sock while watching television. I did not get the “just sniffles” version, nor did I get the “terrible fever for days” type. Instead I was somewhere in the middle, floating in a lethargic sea with aches and congestion, marathon-watching television and catching up on my Reddit-reading. It was not particularly conducive to productive writing time.
During the downtime, however, I did manage to finish re-reading Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books, first published in 1993 and 1998. In the anarchist circles I used to travel, these two novels–Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents–were passed around as handbooks to the future. It’s been more than twenty years since I last put my hands on a copy of either of them, but because I’ve been writing about dystopian literature (among other subjects) lately, I decided it was time for a revisit of these classics.
Butler, who died prematurely in 2006, was a sci-fi and speculative fiction writer who explored social issues through her work. In the Earthseed novels she projects a world in which the US has broken down into walled states warring with each other for resources. Life is expendable, slavery has re-emerged, and the economy on offer is one of company towns offering protection in exchange for indentured labour. It is here we meet our protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, daughter of a Baptist minister who serves their gated community in Robledo, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Though she is motherless, Olamina carries a trait inherited through her mother’s addiction to a prescription drug–the condition of "hyperempathy", which is treated as a shameful disability in a society rife with suffering. Carriers of this condition (known later in the books as Sharers) share pain with any living human they see. When her community is burned to the ground by looters, seventeen-year-old Olamina barely escapes with her life, later coming to learn that almost everyone she grew up around has died in the attack.
Opening in the year 2024, Parable of the Sower documents the two years leading up to this moment, and the subsequent flight from Southern California, through the journals of Olamina. Not only is she a Sharer, but she has other visionary gifts and receives the poetic wisdom of a new religion, Earthseed, which she chronicles in her journal along with the tale of her trek on the highway heading North. Earthseed is a metaphoric name premised on the life of plant seeds, which may be transplanted all over the earth (and possibly beyond) to grow through adaptation in their environment. “God is change,” Olamina writes in her religious tract of the present and future, leaving behind the past as she travels through ruined landscapes and gathers disciples to build her first Earthseed community.
In the second novel, Parable of the Talents, we are witness to the rise of the Earthseed community Acorn, tucked far off the road in Mendocino County. The US is still in turmoil, climate change wreaks havoc on the landscape, and fascism gains a foothold under the leadership of the Christian America party. This book contains all the torture, child-theft and sex-slavery one might imagine in such a world, but it is not without hope as Butler’s characters save others, resist, fight back, and eventually break free of one another to disperse the Earthseed message. Butler’s characters are not pacifists, but because many of them are Sharers (pain bestowed on another impacts the Sharer with equal force), violence is only ever used as a last resort.
Butler’s books are a departure from the dystopias of the mid-twentieth century, and a harbinger of works like The Hunger Games which came more than two decades later. Sure, the future is bleak, but survival and compassion co-exist, and in fact are co-dependent. They must be fought for together. Authoritarianism might rise, but it is not inevitable it will stand, no matter the technology that reinforces rule and ownership. The key to achieving anything beyond the most meagre definition of life is to accept that all is change. Rather than becoming weighed down out of fear and a misguided sense of what it means to be “secure”, characters must again and again choose their freedom by discarding spiritual, intellectual and physical shackles that would otherwise hold them back.
When I read these books in the late nineties, twenty-something me was deep in the throes of organizing protests in the belief we could arrest the onslaught of global capital on our homes, forests, and agricultural autonomy. From my early twenties and for many years onwards, I worked alongside fellow travellers to make a different world than the one on offer–we marched and sat in trees, organized street parties, and held earnest conferences in community centres. The nineteen-nineties, you might remember, was known in scientific-environmental circles as “the turn-around decade” in which the decisions made would be the “most important in the history of civilization,” given recognition of the growing environmental crisis and its impact on every corner of the earth.*
During these times I travelled often through Oregon and Northern California, teaching computer security at activist gatherings and hanging out on the edges of intentional communities that looked and sounded a lot like the fictional Earthseed community Acorn. Even though these books start two years in the future from now, reading them is like stepping into a past in which it still felt like there was time to change things before they got out of hand. Butler didn’t offer us these novels from a place of hope, but as a warning, one that many people on the margins felt at the time of their publication. Police violence, environmental racism, and a kind of urban fatalism were thick in the air in the United States, and she wanted to bring us to their (ugly) logical conclusion. But she also believed that it was on the margins a new world would be won through all the tactics available to those who found the hope to keep fighting for their dignity and right to exist.
Butler’s vision, particularly in her depiction of a crumbling Southern California and collapse of civil society all over, feels remarkably accurate. And yet there is something dated about the work. The solutions her characters head towards seem too much like those of another generation, particularly Olamina’s push for interstellar colonization, and the promise of science as saviour. Perhaps also, they reflect a hope which seems naive now that we are thirty years since the first of these books was published, twenty-plus years out of the turn-around decade that did not deliver what the future needed. On the other hand, Butler accurately depicts the world of political, religious, and social polarization we currently grapple with. We can sense that the divide between the world she wrote about and the one we are living is a thin one.
Reading abut the rise of Olamina’s Acorn community now gives me a pang of nostalgia for the cabins in the hills of Humboldt County that I visited often on my travels South. I read part of Parable of the Sower in a big claw-foot bathtub set against the window of a living room in one of those homes. I remember looking out across the valley as I soaked and read, watching the occasional DEA helicopter fly over looking for illegal marijuana grow operations, while listening to my friends making a big group dinner in the kitchen. Reading Butler makes me long for all of it, including a world in which the enemy was clearly delineated and survival seemed more plausible. Her storytelling points us to the margins where we might find the new world growing. The seeds that catch in the cracks will break through to reinvention, bringing new possibilities for life to continue after all. More than anything Butler reminds me that to survive, we need stories of imagination and hope, and a clear sense of direction to carry us home.
April recipe: Habitant Soup
I was becoming symptomatic with Covid when I returned home from Easter weekend with a ham bone from our Good Friday dinner, but before I got too sick I managed to make and can a double-batch of this soup. This is a Bernardin canning classic; it can be eaten directly from the stove, or pressure-canned for shelf storage (a good source of go-to protein). I put 9 jars in my pantry, and had soup for the week leftover in the fridge.
16 oz (454 g) dried split peas
8 cups (2000 ml) water
1-1/2 cups (375 ml) chopped carrots
1 cup (250 ml) chopped onion
1 cup (250 ml) diced cooked ham
1 bay leaf
Salt & pepper
Combine dried peas and water in large stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and boil gently until peas are soft, about 1 hour. If desired, puree mixture in food processor and return to saucepan.
Add carrots, onion, ham and bay leaf; boil gently 30 minutes. If soup is very thick, thin with boiling water.
Ladle hot prepared soup into a hot jar to within 1 inch (2.5 cm) of top rim (head space).
Using nonmetallic utensil, remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rim removing any stickiness. Centre hot sealing discs on clean jar rim. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip tight. Return filled jar to rack in canner. Repeat for remaining soup. If stacking jars, place a second rack between layers of jars.
When pressure canner is full, adjust water to level as directed by canner manufacturer. Lock canner lid in place and follow manufacturer’s heating instructions. Vent canner–allow steam to escape steadily–for 10 minutes; close vent.
When canner reaches the pressure appropriate for your altitude* and type of pressure canner, begin counting processing time. Process – heat filled jars – in pressure canner: 500 ml jars – 75 minutes; 1 L jars – 90 minutes at 10 lb pressure.
When processing time is complete turn off heat. Allow canner to stand undisturbed until pressure drops to zero. Wait 2 minutes, and then remove cover, tilting it away from your face. Remove jars without tilting. Cool upright, undisturbed 24 hours. Remove screw bands and check seals before storage.
In the workshop
As my writing picks up, my weaving drops off, but I have some tea towels on the loom that I’m weaving off one pick at a time. I am very close to a milestone subscriber number, and once I hit that (likely in May) I’ll be doing a draw for one of these towels and a book from my collection of end-times reads. If you already subscribe to this newsletter, you are automatically entered in the draw. Otherwise, click the button below to ensure you are entered.
After the Apocalypse: There are a number of books out there with the same title, but I’m recommending the pandemic-era missive by philosopher Srećko Horvat, published a year ago. A highly readable text, Horvat invites us to explore apocalypse as revelation (rather than ending) through a series of chapters that read as stand-alone essays. He argues for wholescale system change, making the case that our alternatives are no longer socialism or barbarism – they are a radical reinvention of the world, or mass extinction. Favourite new philosophy read this year for me.
Severance: I’ve been raving about this show. I watched the whole first season in one day while sick (it’s available on Apple TV). It’s a show about the possible future of work, but also about what much of work is like now - an endless maze of hallways, obscure tasks with no meaningful purpose, and the expectation that we sever ourselves into two different people on the daily. Lots to digest for the worker-philosopher, but also highly entertaining, with fantastic aesthetics and a top-tier cast.
I am in no way advocating for the new Doomsday Alarm Clock written about in this Vice article, but if you want to wake up to sound bites specifically designed to trigger existential dread every morning, that service is now available in app form.
If you haven’t had Covid-19 yet, I’m going to suggest that you work harder to steer clear of it. While I know it manifests as nothing in some people, I know a ton of folks who have had it badly and long-Covid is real (fingers crossed that is not my fate). Two things which made my life immeasurably easier while sick were the fact I always keep a well-stocked pantry (and didn’t have to go out for anything), and that I have strong community ties and many people who I could ask for help. When we think about survival, what we do for each other gives more security than anything we could do alone.
As I mentioned up above, I’ll be doing a tea towel draw as soon as I hit my next subscriber milestone (I’m about 10 subs away from that), so share this newsletter and click the love button to make that happen faster!