guest review: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, from Pops

Pops sent me this guest review – unexpected, unsolicited, but very welcome – with the note, “you will likely find it easy to tie this into your own readings.” Certainly; but he had no idea how timely, as I’ve just recently reviewed Jesmyn Ward’s forthcoming The Fire This Time, a collected of essays and poems Ward solicited from today’s minds, to answer Baldwin’s 1963 book. I read Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Go Tell It On the Mountain, and so have some idea of his voice & power, but I hadn’t read this title, so it’s excellent to have Pops’s perfectly-timed review. Synchronicity, we’ll call it.
the fire next time

I recently finished James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which is a strange bird in form as it consists of two essays that are pretty different: a short personal letter to his 14 yr-old namesake nephew, and a much longer autobiographical, contemplative ramble, a sort of musing, largely about religion. My book’s dust cover says it “caused a great stir upon publication in 1963 and landed its author on the cover of Time [magazine]” – while he was on a Civil Rights speaking tour of the US south. (He lived mostly in France beginning in 1948 at age 24.) In 1963 Baldwin was an established author, an “accepted” spokesman for the Black experience. His call in these two essays for integration & reconciliation during the outbreak of angry & nationalist activism is the likely source of that “great stir.” Indeed, the great value in reading these today is in appreciating the issues of that pivotal time in our history.

The short piece has a long title: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of Emancipation.” This is the one recently associated with the book title, compared to numerous other public letters by Black authors to the next generation. (This is a comparison where context is again important, as we are challenged to appreciate the Black Lives Matter movement as it matures.)

Baldwin describes his great-grandfather’s “terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.” This begins a two track theme: an unbridled (almost bitter?) depiction of the oppression & tragedy of racism, with also a sober appreciation of the need for reconciliation & even love. On the former: “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Yet, after more of such clarity, he says, “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them… and accept them with love.” In spite of all, he advocates for integration, “this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

With this in mind, he closes by reminding young James that he is prepared for the future: “you come from sturdy, peasant stock… [who] in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable & monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” This of course ties us back to the essay title; but oh, there is much more.

The words Baldwin quotes in italics are from a traditional spiritual. In fact, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, when MLK Jr. says “in the words of the old Negro spiritual…” he is referencing the same source, a spiritual now generally known under the title “Free at Last!” but also appearing under different titles and with varying lyrics. Here is the pertinent section of an “accepted” version that agrees with Baldwin’s quotation:

Free at last, free at last,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.
The very time I thought I was lost,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last;
My dungeon shook and my chains fell off,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last,
This is religion, I do know,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last;
For I never felt such a love before,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.

Further, MLK delivered his speech on Aug 28, 1963; Baldwin’s essays were published in book form in 1963 but had earlier been published in The New Yorker in 1962. Did MLK have occasion to read Baldwin during those turbulent months? Though I find no record in a quick search, it is quite likely; they ended close friends and Baldwin was widely read in the movement. In any event, I am quite satisfied & comforted just thinking in terms of “like minds.” And this is not the last time Baldwin invokes religious and musical references, both an essential part of the Civil Rights movement.

The second & longer (~90 page) essay is the autobiographical “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” the main title taken from a hymn quoted after the title page. It begins with the author at age 14 (same as nephew James, above) and describes how his abusive stepfather drives him to join a Pentecostal church, where he is successful as a preacher. In long and rambling paragraphs, suitable for exploring those “regions in his mind,” he relates his mixed experience with religion – and racism – up through adulthood, concluding, “the Christian world has revealed itself as morally bankrupt and politically unstable.”

His narrative path arrives at his moment of writing as he tells of his recent audience with Elijah Muhammad, which opens a lengthy account of his perspective on the Nation of Islam and racism as seeks a path to reconciliation, consistent with the first essay. As he does for young James, here again he closes with a measure of hope and a call for action, as he considers the prospect for continued racial strife: “at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains. Well if this is so, then one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate… I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.”

His final line provides a caution for those who hesitate at key moments in history, and the title for the book, as he quotes a spiritual, a “slave song” called “O Mary Don’t You Weep”: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in the song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

guest review: Salmon in the Trees by Amy Gulick, from Pops

salmon in the trees

I just finished reading Salmon in the Trees, recommended by a friend in response to my Edfro Creek “Fish in the Forest” essay, and this one belongs right up there with the other fish/forest books. Beginning with her own wonderful introductory essay, photographer Amy Gulick assembled a crew of nine contributors to help narrate the photo-format (with maps!) and it’s a masterful and lyrical collaboration, from writers Carl Safina and Richard Nelson to Alaska “writer laureate” John Straley, a couple of biologists and others. Its narrative focus: “Southeast” (Alaska), 80% of which is Tongass National Forest (largest in the US, 3 times the size of the next largest, 1/3 of Earth’s temperate rainforest but only 1/2 forest, 85% intact, more shoreline than 48 states, more than 5000 islands, more than 10,000 tribal population out of 70,000, approx. 1/2 of its old growth remaining); and the many ways it is special, yet largely overlooked by a US public that should champion its preservation in the face of continued threats. Along the way it depicts a world in itself, including three Salish tribes (Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshian) and their resilient white neighbors who together comprise

a vibrant, sensual brew… a place assembled of mystery & mistakes… wild & also messy… a place where people live with salmon in their streets and bears in their backyards… the big old trees still standing, the bugs, the fish, the bears, and the flawed & saintly people… the modern world has arrived and hasn’t yet broken the circle of life… [but] it may just be a matter of time.

I learned of the ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) that partly restores land rights, including Sealaska, a tribal land corporation; the Haida tale that explains their recurring recessive gene for red hair; the special role of pockmarked sandstone karst in forest ecology; that alder as a nitrogen-fixer rivals salmon for forest nutrients; and yet more about bears & fish in the forest. Gulick does for this region what McAllister does in Great Bear Wild.

(guest) book beginnings on Friday: The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis, from Pops

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Pops has a book beginning he felt moved to share.

Here’s Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders (2009). Both the first sentence and first paragraph (only two sentences!) strike me as exceptional, especially for non-fiction. With this, we not only get a glimpse of the author’s subject & writing style, but also the way he works & perceives. Opening this book I had only spare awareness of his theme, but my appetite was already whetted; with this beginning my cup of expectations runneth over!

wayfinders

Wade Davis is an anthropologist & ethnobotanist. This book publishes in entirety a series of 5 lectures he delivered in 2009 in short sequence (1 month) for a prominent regular program on CBC Radio out of Toronto (CBC Massey Lectures.) That is a unique medium today, both as spoken-word and audio-only; I wonder if that had any influence on his dense & evocative style. I would need to read one of his other books to find out!

One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live amongst peoples who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, taste it in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that, in the Amazon, Jaguar shaman still journey beyond the Milky Way, that myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, that the Buddhists in Tibet still pursue the breath of the Dharma is to remember the central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.

Well, for what it’s worth, Pops, I enjoyed Davis’s Into the Silence years ago, and credit him with engaging writing, although my memory is dim beyond that, I’m afraid. The concept behind this one does sound interesting to me, too, and the format is an especially intriguing detail. We’ll be looking forward to your review!

guest review: Great Bear Wild by Ian McAllister, from Pops

I reviewed this book very briefly, for a gift review several years back. Now, here’s Pops.

great bearMcAllister writes eloquently & sincerely about this amazing place, with confident familiarity from living there for decades; he was a wonderful guide & companion for the all-too-brief time of reading.

The region he describes is also subject of several other books worth mentioning – and reading.

The Fish in the Forest, with its detailed explication of salmon + forest ecosystem interdependence, is significantly based on the research of Tom Reimchen, which documented bears’ role in spreading nutrients from salmon into temperate rainforest. Reimchen’s extensive observation and data collection was based in the Great Bear wilderness.

The Last Great Sea by Terry Glavin (2000) is an exceptional survey of the geologic and human history of the North Pacific basin, from Japan to Bering Sea to California’s Bay Area. Learning of North America’s temperate rainforest in this context illuminates how literally unmatched it is on earth; Great Bear represents the best surviving enclave of this precious treasure.

The Golden Spruce includes both factual narrative and cultural backstory revolving around McAllister’s Great Bear region, with a stunning impact that lays bare the tragic contradictions implicit in human impacts and threats in such a place.

Threats to coastal waters from increased fossil fuel tanker traffic are a prominent theme in McAllister’s telling; beyond that, there were persistent threats from continued logging, hunting and general human expansion in the region.

However, there have been significant developments on these fronts even since the 2014 publication.

The Enbridge tar sands pipeline project was at first permitted by the conservative Harper government. Then in 2015 Justin Trudeau was elected PM, and this year his government quickly denied the permit. Such battles are never “won”; but depressed crude prices are driving tar sands closures, global pressures against further oil extraction are growing and Trudeau faces constant scrutiny to transition Canada away from Harper’s legacy to become an international clean energy leader.

At nearly the same time this year, the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was finally signed after decades of maneuvering & negotiation between BC, Tribes, logging companies and non-profits like Sierra Club, Greenpeace & ForestEthics. The Agreement is broadly depicted as welcome preservation for the region.

Yet, even with that consensus some regrets are inevitably emerging, and McAllister is among those voices. Although the agreement protects 85% of the rainforest from logging, the 15% remaining is in coastal lowlands with remaining old-growth forest – the largest trees; these should be preserved. And although the Agreement “ends all bear hunting”, what it really does is grandfather bear hunting licenses so that hunts will continue at existing levels, at even greater value now, for the foreseeable future.

As with most such efforts since John Muir arrived in California in 1868, conservation has meant compromise; and when humans make concessions on behalf of natural resources, some of those resources are lost. After more than 150 years of this well-intentioned horse-trading, there is little left to bargain away.

Agreed; this is at least a 9.

(Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover is set in BC, as well.)

A different perspective, with background on the political situation. Let me just weigh in to say PICTURES! This is a collection of deeply gorgeous photographs, as well, and for that reason as well is not to be missed.

Thanks, Pops.

guest review: The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant, from Pops

Some of you will recall that I enjoyed John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children. So I am of course interested in his creative nonfiction, as well. Here’s Pops to fill us in.

golden spruce

On its face, this is the true tale of a man who in 1997 secretly felled the genetically & culturally distinct Golden Spruce at the north end of Haida Gwaii – Queen Charlotte islands of British Columbia. But to disclose this shorthand version is not to spoil the narrative, for it only raises questions: Why was this such a compelling and violent act? Why did he do it? Can it be justified? Can we find wider meaning in the tragedy? And there are more.

Vaillant only gradually provides the tale’s factual skeleton, which reveals no satisfying answers in itself. More significantly, he offers us the chance to learn: about the Pacific northwest temperate rainforest that is so special on this earth; about the people who have inhabited the region for untold millennia, with an oral history linked to special places – and trees; about the waves of outsider “discoverers” that washed on meager shores to harvest the land’s natural riches; and about the logging sub-culture that, while professing its love of trees, is dependent on a timber economy that to this day acts to diminish the forest ecosystem while serving an insatiable global market.

It is only after five chapters of grounding that we first meet the disturbing – and disturbed – character, Grant Hadwin. Yet Vaillant continues to serve up nuance and insight as the narrative unfolds in bits and we wrestle with those questions. His tone suggests a colloquial & confident familiarity with facts – a reflection, no doubt, of both keen research and personal observation by this BC-based author. A fine storyteller, his voice is largely dispassionate and unsentimental, floating above temptations to judge or conclude. As literature is a human realm, one naturally expects telltales of an author’s values; here they are mere wisps – candid, balanced, welcome.

Where some details of Hadwin’s mystery are not known, Vaillant does not embellish or needlessly speculate. There are end notes, but few and spare. It is revealing that the story brings the author to mention Ted Kaczynski – but then also Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Scarlet Pimpernel and others. While citing some authority on obvious questions of Hadwin’s mental state, these are not hyper-analyzed. This is refreshing candor consistent with Vaillant’s approach to our limits of understanding.

Indeed, uncertainty of both man & nature is part of our landscape in this saga, as is myth. We are drawn in and encouraged to embrace it. Both natural & human elements of the story’s terrain are informed by the depths of Haida thought and oral history. Vaillant deftly wrestles with the challenges involved, e.g. western “rational” thought ill-equipped for such murkiness; and the tenuous continuity of oral history in a culture nearly extinguished by disease and genocide. He notes: “Time and events are clearly elastic in this version of the story… It is exactly this willingness to host the implausible that makes the islands and their surroundings so extraordinary.”

Logging is treated to a similar reflective treatment, involving our conflicted history of rich benefits, wanton destruction and tragic social dependence. For not the first time, we must glance in a mirror: “in this world, a certain tolerance for moral and cognitive dissonance is necessary.” This account reminds us that, like other chronicles of exhausted natural resources, logging created a culture that also produces human victims, “expendable canaries in the coal mine of resource extraction,” with collective social consequences.

Vaillant’s generous background-telling is no mere regional history or delivery of anecdotes; it can be a gift for those willing to receive – an unusual opportunity to crawl inside forest richness, stretch for cultural understanding, examine our own heritage in new ways and view events from the eyes of others. And the accumulating awareness is not always comfortable, in the way that keen perception often is not: sometimes painfully intimate, sometimes achingly universal, often irresolute and incomplete.

Each chapter opens with a quotation. One is from William Blake: “A fool sees not the same tree as a wise man sees.”

In the end we must recognize this tale is about a tree, not a man. Our young civilization still has much to learn, in the limited time remaining to act; and it is often original cultures and nature’s wonder doing the teaching. In the context of deep time and an infinitely special place, this man’s story is brief and largely complete: he lived, he acted, and he is gone. But as both Haida cultural lore and our lauded science both suggest, the tree’s story reaches far back in time, is inescapably interwoven with the place, and stretches well into the future beyond our knowing.

postscript to yesterday’s guest review

Pops wanted to add the following reader’s afterword to yesterday’s review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

Coates can be seen & heard in numerous YouTube videos. The first 5-10 minutes of this sweeping discussion in Chicago describe significant elements of his writing process and inspiration; later, around 27:00, he speaks directly about the formative legacy of his father, from Philly, whose own father & his two brothers died violently, in a culture where the price of children not following the rules of both Jim Crow and the Streets “is quite literally death.” He also addresses the “Race” frame, mass incarceration, reparations, Obama, and other topics.

Just recently Coates has moved with his family to Paris, for several reasons he discusses on Democracy Now!. Notably, he describes how he is just beginning this journey of seeking to understand Race in western Europe (in the midst of immigrant persecution) and the perspective this adds in the US.

In general, an author’s device of writing to one’s children is a powerful one. For Black authors, see also James Baldwin’s short book The Fire Next Time (1962) – also cited by Coates as inspiration; and Michelle Alexander, who in The New Jim Crow evokes the misery of parents explaining unwritten racial taboos, speaks to her own son in a NYT Op-Ed, “Telling My Son about Ferguson.” Not far afield from Coates’ book’s finish is David Suzuki’s latest book where he describes painful truths about human damage to the Earth, in Letters to My Grandchildren.

Personal trivia: when Coates prepared for his Paris writing fellowship in 2014, he took a French course at Middlebury College in Vermont – a place with many personal family connections. One must imagine that was yet another expansive cultural experience for this voyager. He recently said he would be voting for Bernie Sanders for President in spite of earlier critique of his policies.

guest review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Pops

between the worldPops sent me this guest review on March 4, 2016.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ second book, Between the World & Me forcefully rises to the high standard suggested by Toni Morrison’s full-throated endorsement on the cover. As she says, he fills

the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died… The language… like Coates’ journey, is visceral, eloquent and beautifully redemptive.

And all this in a mere 152 pages.

Published by chance in the heat of a rising Black Lives Matter! movement, he writes of his own 15-year journey, as the painfully concerned father of a son, himself a fully engaged son of 60’s Black Panther activists, the thankful student of a grandmother with instincts of a genius, and as a “damaged” black man and budding intellectual, forced to survive the trials of Baltimore’s mean streets. By writing so artfully and from the heart, as he relentlessly probes his world, Coates provides an indispensably human extension to essential history & analysis begun by Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) and Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow.)

Written as a letter to his 15yr old son, his tone is direct but his narrative voice is not simple or simplistic, as he avoids established and inflammatory rhetoric. Instead, he employs the unusual device of creating metaphorical coding for concepts he develops with challenging and sometimes changing meanings. These multiple and interlocking codes begin with the title itself, taken from Richard Wright’s poem of the same name. The World is Coates’ evolving perception of a life entirely outside his own, defined by a concept of Race that is itself parsed and examined in some detail. Coates’ book describes his life’s quest to understand all the implications of that vast space between the World and his own experience.

Wright’s work is quoted at the book’s start with only the first stanza, but a full reading of the poem reveals the raw visceral meaning: for Wright, that space perniciously encompasses the breadth of Jim Crow experience, evoked in verse as a quiet forest, the scene of a most hideous lynching, which rises to threaten the observer’s own Body (which is yet another code Coates uses.) Both title and poetic source are well chosen for Coates’ book.

The World apart from Coates’ own experience is constructed by Dreamers, who are “White – or believe themselves to be white,” as America’s vaunted, inclusive melting pot is exposed to be a muddy “anything but Black” with no cultural identity of its own that is not associated with power.

Race is a convenient contrivance enabled by this insidious fallacy about whiteness, in one of the most demographically and culturally diverse nations in the world. It is a frame that is based in the power relationship of oppression. The Dream is the ideology of that World apart, evoking prosperity, security, possibility – promoted by images that are everywhere around him: TV programming, advertising, schools, churches; the Dream does not appear on the Streets in his Baltimore neighborhood. This entire construct serves to threaten his Body in every moment, as it has for centuries, as the Streets’ death rate rises, infecting his mind and very existence.

The Mecca is the promise he does find – in knowledge, in books, in a vibrant and diverse Black culture, in his father’s radical heritage, in Malcolm X – fully bursting to fruition with Howard University in D.C. (a many-branched family tradition.) His exploration is unbridled, the evolution of his thought continuous and insightful, always delving deeper. A studied understanding of the 1960s overlays his parents’ own experience, becoming almost contemporary for him. (Here, the recent Black Panther documentary is also relevant.) He examines the history of slavery and its neverending web of consequences.

Coates’ concept of community expands steadily as he observes Howard’s international palette of “black.” In one extreme, he is dismayed to find gay & lesbian culture is an accepted part of this Mecca, so far from his Streets. His young family moves to New York City and he is staggered by the spectrum of cultures, from opulent Dreamer Broadway to Harlem, yet some black faces pretend to jump the gap. He takes his son on visits to Civil War battlefields as he seeks to understand. He spins out of his urban northeast orbit with a visit to Paris, and his mental landscape shudders again; yet still there is that space “between the world and me.”

The book begins and ends with the Black Body metaphor, which includes a complex relationship with his father and reoccurs throughout as his existential fear jumps between himself, his son, his friends and his people. When an affluent Howard acquaintance is later murdered by a black cop, the fear is crystallized and colors his perception.

Some years later, his visit with the friend’s mother is compelling and unwinds into a staggering 3-page finish for the book. Above all, with the death of her son in spite of her life’s efforts and “success” at providing him every opportunity, she wishes only that the entire Dream that produced his death fail in some “national doom.” Coates reflects on his culture’s age-old hope that the Dreamer plague would somehow be punished, an idea encouraged from Marcus Garvey to Malcom X. But his outlook has become too expansive; “I left the Mecca knowing that this is all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sewn, we would reap it right with them.”

His maturing eye spans a wide view of Dreamer destruction, now-unbridled:

[progress] freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors rising with the seas.

So what of the future? For a capsulized message to his son, one may well look earlier in Coates’ story, to this statement of purpose directed to his son:

The [Dreamers] who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and wonderful world.

Between the World and Me – and Coates’ singular literary voice – are indispensible for those interested in the ever-unfolding lineage of African-American commentary and literature. He does not provide answers; he challenges us with new ways of seeing our heritage with eyes wide open, even as his own exploration continues. He is only now 40 years old and there is no sign his seeking is complete, so we may expect more from him.


Pops’s rating: 9 revelations.

I don’t know about you, but I want to read it now.

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