Kij Johnson, “At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees” (2012) & David Quammen, “Natural Acts: A Sidelong View Of Science And Nature” (1985, 2008)

At the mouth fo the river of bees

Many of the stories in this collection feature an imaginary intersection between humanity and the natural – an unknowable, unmovable force that individuals and whole societies build their identities around. Take for example, the longest (and probably best) of Johnson’s stories, “The Man Who Bridged The Mist”, which uses a fantastical and mostly unexplained concept (the titular mist, which isn’t even really mist) to demonstrate the extent of that intersection, as well as the tenacity of human progress – a public works project with both historical and individual significance. The people at the cusp of the mist have formed economies and individual identities based on their relationship with the mist (most importantly with the Ferry family, the names being the most explicit example of how important occupation and trade is in that society, an idea that reminds me of other books), and the building of the bridge will inevitably impact them both positively and negatively. Even more so, when one’s idea of death (as Rasali’s is, informed by whole generations of her family) is determined by seemingly insurmountable cosmic forces, the realization that it can and will eventually be “tamed” is a cultural shock – the full extent of which is only revealed gradually to the titular man, Kit. Most of the story devotes itself to more “mundane” tension of hiring and building, and the dangers that come not from poisonous foam or massive unseen marine monsters, but workplace accidents – and in those moments we see not just the contrast between the human ingenuity we know and the strange world that is established (and it is tense when they come together – the use of dynamite possibly attracting the attention of the aforementioned monsters, for example, even if it is only for a moment), but also how those accidental deaths are perceived by Kit (who assumes a high level of responsibility as the designer) and the locals like Rasali. There is a level of knowledge that comes with living so close to an untouched (or untouchable) natural world, but it’s also shown how an outsider can learn to appreciate it as well.

Characters defining themselves through a fantasy projection of nature is present in other stories as well, such as the title one – showing another unexplainable natural phenomenon, but one that brings willing individuals a “natural” way to handle grief (taking back its own, animal returning to animal, providing true comfort and peace.)The idea of this mysterious animal power being a gift is also present in “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” – it seems that allowing these representatives of the natural world a level of autonomy and privacy proves emotionally beneficial. More like “Mist” specifically, “The Horse Raiders” efficiently establishes a fictional society that seems to be undergoing radical changes (this time instigated not by human development, but by purely unguided changes in the environment), which in this case instigates violence between different groups – but, as with the other story, there remains possibilities for the future. Understanding and working within these dynamic ecosystems is important in those stories, much as they are in the smaller-scale ones.

The intersection plays out a bit differently in “Fox Magic”, “The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles”, and “The Evolution of Trickster Stories….” – the first two being told from the animal’s perspective (both are based in Japanese folklore as well), while the last one includes both human and animal sides of the story. These present whole animal mythologies and societies developed alongside humans, crossing paths out of necessity – “The Cat” requiring human assistance as it pursued its own goals, the “Fox” using its illusions to blur those lines out of love, and the dogs finding themselves outcasts once they learn to think and communicate as we do. While many of the other stories show a notionally optimistic outlook of how we and the rest of the animal kingdom can coexist, only “The Cat” seems to unambiguously fall along those lines – and likely only because its protagonist sees humans as just a part of its world. “Fox Magic” ends in tragedy, as even in love such subterfuge can only be temporary, and “Evolution of Trickster Stories” shows that the relationship between humans and animals they seem to care about can be strained when the terms of that relationship changes, revealing that there have always been grievances we refuse to acknowledge. What seems to be suggested in these is that while humans and other creatures can coexist, it needs to be based on (once again) understanding, and the coercions at heart of existing cohabitation are our primary obstacle.

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Interestingly, many of the columns reprinted in Natural Acts read like precursors to Quammen’s books – some of them are directly referenced (“The Megatransect” is referenced in Spillover, for example, and “The Post-Communist Wolf” covers some of the same ground as Monster of God in a reverse way, too, “Planet of Weeds” is a sort of follow-up to the previously published Song of the Dodo), but in terms of general subject and style they show Quammen’s talents and areas of interest. It’s not simply informing us of some quirky facts about animals or questioning humanity’s part in the natural cycle – Quammen loves context and loves specific, and the longer the columns run, the more he can indulge in both. The first batch of columns are able to quickly establish a unique angle – can a giant octopus be stressed out? How does a butterfly evolve to drink blood? How exactly does hypothermia work? – and in their (relatively) short word count find a sympathetic angle, one that balances the fascinating scientific and human sides of every story. As a regular columnist is wont to do, these stories can involve a personal angle as well – “Jeremy Bentham, the Pietà, and the Previous Few Graying” does this, as one example – but in most cases they focus on others directly involved in the subject in as much detail as the science itself.

There’s an equal fascination with the people who involve themselves in natural studies or who choose to integrate themselves into the wilderness in some way, or even the people on the margins. The articles demonstrate a knack for sketching out the personalities of the people involved – be they interview subjects, travel companions, or historical figures – the people involved are worthy of detail, seemingly independent of their impact on the topic at hand, just so we can get the clearest picture of the scope of each story, the micro and the macro. This goes for setting as well – “Ying and Yang in the Tularosa Basin” finds time not just for the curiousness of the White Sands, but also a local motorcade, the nearby site of the A-bomb tests during World War 2, and the stone art of the mysterious Mogollon people, all of which are important to understanding the beauty and history of the region. “The River Jumps Over The Mountain” is about poetry, a Grand Canyon rafting adventure, the shaping of the canyon itself, escape from a troublesome life, and the strangeness of going away and having the world change in your absence – the scientific, personal, historical, and human interest parts of the story seamlessly flowing into each other. None of these things need to be separate, treated as their own story, even though our need for compartmentalization and efficiency might dictate they be – all of these things inform each other, and one of the joys of Quammen’s writing is that it knows that, and exhaustively integrates the facts and questions of those systems – otherwise, we might not properly understand why these things happen and why we, or someone else, might care.

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