Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Post-Natural World: A Theory of Aesthetic Selection

If you look carefully through a full-color nursery catalog these days, you may well come to the conclusion that the future of the horticultural trade has a huge stake in the fertile soil of nature’s weird imagination: the color break, the anomaly, the mutant freak, the lawbreaker and the abnormal individual are essential in the race for bigger, brighter and bluer.  Hortibusiness loves the genetic oddball and, apparently, so do we all.  Can you not almost with unnatural anticipation foresee the day when the first blue Helianthus will nod its cool cerulean head over late summer gardens? 
If such things as blue sunflowers were ever to occur in nature, none of us would likely live to see them.  But aesthetic whimsy aided by advanced genetic engineering produced in a few short decades what might have taken hundreds of years through natural hybridization and careful re-selection, while the most improbable crosses would never have occurred at all without our prurient matchmaking.  Plant breeders have taken evolution into their own hands, leaving little to chance, time and the imagination.  They are directed by an aesthetic, a market driven one to be sure, where the public taste for large splashy blooms, double and triple if possible, is one of many factors.  Today’s flowers must last longer in a vase for the florist trade, stand up to wind and rain to keep their appearance in the garden better.  They must be made of stronger stalks and thicker petals.  Certain qualities like fragrance and intricate markings, which make them irresistible to pollinators are often absent from these new hybrids.  Small wonder considering that many of these hybrids are sterile.  The marketing genius is that one must buy the seed from the distributor every year, or the plants themselves.  Genetics is big business. 
The scientist is no longer an empiricist, who carefully and faithfully observes the laws of nature, the geological record and animal behavior, but the director of creation itself, or at least its manipulator, who has as his creedo “for the benefit of humanity” and “better living through chemistry.”  But better living for whom and what?
What this speeded up evolutionary process may mean is far more startling than a hole in the ozone layer, climatic shifts, and polluted air and water (the “end of nature” as Bill McKibben called it) but the complete rejection of nature aesthetically in favor of a post-natural world.
If the bird (all birds ) should become extinct, and that is hardly outside the realm of human genius (something like 50% of the world’s terrestrial creatures have vanished in the past 40 years), it is certain that flight will not go extinct with them.  It only means that birds will cease to function as our favored metaphor for flight.  We might speculate, that if the scientist should decide that the bird is passé, too bothersome to economic growth to keep around, then perhaps the new masters of evolution will proclaim some flying machine as the ideal, the very essence of flight.  All living creatures may become repugnant to human beings, the way many insects already are—spiders, cockroaches, wasps, beetles, mosquitoes.  In the same way, institutional humanity has tried to denature human beings (not only steeping ourselves in a popular progressive view of homosapiens as an advanced post-natural creature, but also subjecting us to same genetic engineering undergone by plants), so all creatures must be domesticated in our image or perish. 
Science, as the technocracy, might decide that nature is too much of a nuisance after all, and replace all living creatures with more functional computerized, satellite operated models of birds--recycled aluminum owls and hawks that hunt down the remaining rodents and pests that have not already been eliminated.  Or advanced breeding programs will begin to domesticate all wildlife.  Look at the success we’ve had with dogs and cats.  Perhaps natural instinct will be the final frontier of our mastery.
The question this raises is whether there will be enough true science, and true humanity, to prevent the inevitable logic of our post-natural course?  Can we count on scientists who truly love what is wild?  It is hard to be optimistic, when nearly all major research is funded by profiteering corporations and short-sighted economic policies.
For a very long time now, wildness has been viewed as something both virginal and obscene.  We depend on nature for our sustenance, yet at a very basic level we mistrust and fear it.  Whether or not you view human attempts to tame terrestrial wildness in a positive or negative light, our success is quite possibly only an illusion. The poisonous stew of toxic waste that saturates the air, water and soil of our industrial centers is in fact not a controlled substance, but itself a wild force of natural fury, killing off plant and animal life, altering the quality of air and water, even our genetic structure.  If deforestation and fossil fuel emissions are causing climatic changes, a new kind of wilderness may shortly come upon us.  But it might be a lifeless kind of wild—with raging heat, and dust storms, or another ice age.  Wildness is everywhere in the universe, exclusive of life, it is “civilization” that is the exception.
Because we are so steeped in the minutia of our own time, so very conscious of ourselves and of our history, we could never be reconciled to the scale and pace of evolutionary time:  it’s infinite patience, the painfully slow advance and retreat of glaciers, the millennia of micro-evolution that eventually crawls to the precipice, the leaping off point for the inception of wildly different forms.  The rapid changes in the world over the last two hundred years, points to the human consciousness as the new seat of evolutionary intelligence, one that does not work through the processes of nature, but works upon nature, altering, suspending, tweaking natural law into submission at a breakneck pace. 
As living organisms, we have not changed much.  The natural results of our lives on earth are more or less like those of all other creatures: we copulate, bear offspring, or fail to bear offspring.  Everything else we do in life--besides eating, sleeping, eliminating, and dying--is unnatural.  Getting dressed in the morning is perhaps the greatest perversion of natural intent.  In fact, representing socialized behaviors as natural, while presenting natural behaviors as perverted is one of the hallmarks of civilized hubris, and the surest sign that humankind is truly alienated from nature.
Emblematic in labeling of socially unacceptable behaviors as unnatural is the view that same sex love is outside of nature.  It must be said, that this likens it to every other activity, mode of production, or recreation that humans are involved in, besides those few essentials I listed above.  On the one hand, same sex love produces nothing in the procreative sense, beyond the old-fashioned marriage of convenience.  On the other hand, same sex love requires nothing unnatural, no institutional framework laden with economic incentives to exist, no apparatus other than the human faculty and body for its apprehension and enjoyment.  It continues to appear in human society, as it has over and over again in virtually every society across the ages, including many animal species, despite often severe social penalties inflicted for its practice and a strong religious zeal to stamp it out.  Efforts to change it are the product of social pressure and behavioral suppression, the failure of which over thousands of years points to an immutability in this form of attraction indicative of natural origin (at least under our old definition of natural).  Because the effort to punish it and root it out comes from the social order, which is highly mutable over time and place, the efforts of society in this direction must be seen for what they are:  opposition to the natural order.
If there is really only one category of sexual desire, and gays and lesbians are really confused or just perverse heterosexuals deep down, then the idea of choice is a double-edged sword for these social engineers.  For, if sexual behavior can be changed in either direction on a whim or by relational dysfunction, then sexual behavior is either not strictly natural (using our earlier definition of nature as an immutable law or force), or it is not naturally strict.  That is to say it is naturally fluid.
 Of course, our journey to the post-natural world would not be complete without a battle over semantics.  I’m afraid natural, like the word democracy, is used to describe anything deemed to be good, while unnatural, like socialism, has become widely synonymous with anything we wish to label as bad or harmful, despite the fact that socialist democracies are the norm in Europe.  There is nothing empirical, or even rational, about these cultural designations.  
There is a metaphoric ratcheting for control over language and meaning in the battle over the future of nature.  In the world of food production, the battle between political progressives and corporate profiteers goes on full tilt over exploitive and environmentally destructive practices.  The closest most of us come to the front lines is reading the labels on the grocery shelves.  We know about free range chickens, grass fed beef, organic produce, mad cow disease and fair trade coffee. 
Seventy years ago, the so called greatest generation had just finished waging one war, and wasn’t about to start another one over the advent of highly processed foods, even if this new food had little to do with the real thing it had replaced.   Grape flavored, cheese flavored, chocolate flavored seemed like harmless enough designations for the unsophisticated and dutiful survivors of depression and world war.  Flavor is flavor.  People gobbled it up without the slightest qualm that what they were eating was unnatural, possibly antithetical to health and life.  In the language of food production, the word natural only means that a particular product, such as peanut butter, is made mainly of ground peanuts and perhaps salt with no additives; while other kinds of peanut butter not deemed natural may be whipped up with hydrogenated oils, lard, sugar and preservatives that give it a constantly smooth texture and make it possible to store it in the kitchen cabinet rather than the refrigerator.  The existence of this heavily processed food, overloaded with additives and sweeteners, serves both aesthetics and convenience.  It does not need refrigeration, keeps for months, is always smooth, easy to spread, and pleasing to present.  In the fabulously artificial 1950’s this was the metaphor for post-war optimism that reached into every corner of American life.  Even the food we ate had to represent our triumph over all of life’s natural unpleasantness.  But was this kind of unnatural selection, this survival of the aesthetically pleasing, this obsession with appearances, a healthy thing?
Now, we know that the word natural does not speak to methods of growing.  These days, we have organic produce that supposedly does not use commercial fertilizers and pesticides in its production.  We have since learned that in order to be truly organic, it must say 100% certified organic.  But to most people organic is a metaphor for “healthy” and in some circles it means “self-righteous”.  Natural, though, is more widely mistrusted in supermarkets as it now has been exposed as a fraudulent claim of healthfulness.  Organic without the proper qualifiers has also been exposed as a deception.  In this highly artificial world, everything is deprived of its explicit, objective meaning in favor of a rapidly evolving cultural relevance, wherein an object holds briefly a transitory value (either positive or negative) in its role as a commodity.  Medical science and big business (the technocracy) is largely responsible for this day to day shift in the relative meaning and value of every day objects.  One day soy products are cancer fighters, the next day a new study proclaims that the isoflavins in some soy products may result in some form of brain degeneration.  More recently, soy has been determined to have estrogenic properties and men should be cautious about over-consumption.  The result is a deep unsettling and mistrust of everything in the objective world, even the very natural and seemingly harmless soybean.  We don’t know from day to day where we stand in relation to a particular edible, an activity, environment or pattern of consumption.  The capitalist/democratic impulse of competing interests has turned choice into a pathology.  Mark that soon Consumer Anxiety Disorder will be heralded as the latest disease, with an etiology of unbalanced brain chemistry in the presence of unparalleled consumer options and internet dependency.  This will lead to a new line of anti-CAD drugs, which with their characteristically paradoxical side effects, will create yet another trigger for consumer anxiety disorder—or sleeping-walking.  It goes on without end.  Will soy save me from cancer, or will it rot my brain?  Will my driver side airbag keep me safe in a crash or will it suffocate me?  Do radio waves from cell phone towers really cause cancer or don’t they?  If I get too little sleep will I fail at school?  If I get too much sleep will I shave 5 years off the end of my life?  This perpetual state of doubt, anxiety and confusion, intentional or not, is proof of our fanatical devotion to technology, and to technology’s whimsical application in the service of commerce.  And the deadly combination of confusion and absolute faith makes further manipulation possible.  For the “true” answer is out there, surely just a matter of more research dollars.  Much like Christian converts, who struggle daily for the assurance that the blood of Jesus has washed away their sins, so the cult of technology wavers from moment to moment between righteousness and sin, joy and weeping, fear and thankfulness, hope and despair.  The technocracy is the author and finisher of our faith.  We are poised on the precipice waiting to take the ultimate evolutionary leap.  The heady flight over the abyss of our own mortality toward a post-natural world.
On the other hand, it could be that our status as living organisms necessitates that our industry also must be considered natural results of evolution’s unconscious choice of consciousness.  In this pragmatic view, the skyscraper and the desert butte are natural results of evolutionary process; the city canyons of New York and Tokyo are just another natural pattern echoing the Grand Canyon; the scientific laboratory is as much the seat of creation as the ecosystem.  Perhaps more so, as we wait, deceptively poised in evolutionary time, in the front car of creation’s roller coaster, able to detect in our limited perspective only the lightning quick jerk of our own unnatural mechanisms, not the slow, infinitesimal grinding of the glaciers, or the turning of planetary wheels.  We are mortal, we are conscious of it, and we cannot wait to see what the next ice age produces.  For we will not be around to witness it.  We must take the wheel out of nature’s lumbering hands and drive, faster toward the amber palisades of the Kingdom, dreaming the world over again as we ride.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Art of Finding (fiction by John Caruso)

            I hear the old man stalking the back yard.  The tool shed door scrapes over the warped plywood floor; the stockade gate thumps.  I know his lips are pursed, his jaw set as he walks toward the house.  The iron bulkhead reverberates on its hinges with the sound Godzilla makes.  Then his steps thud down to the basement.
            I lose my place on the page and let the book sink on my chest like a collapsing tent.  My mother ascends the staircase.  I think I hear the clicking of her knees, but that may be just the old treads. 
            Morning light has passed into something dimmer, not meant for reading.  My room is suddenly close and my stomach cramps, as though I might have to use the bathroom.
            "Joe?"  My mother knocks.
            "Yeah," I answer, sitting up, putting on my shoes.
            She cracks the door.
            "Maybe you could give your father--"
            "I'm going to," I say, before she can finish.
            "Okay," she says, giving me the tight smile she makes when you try to take her picture.

            This is what happens next.
            I either go out front to the driveway and wait for him, or I go down to the basement, which seems more enthusiastic, to report for duty.
            This time I drift toward the open bulkhead.  Odors of chemicals, paint, grease, metal filings and cool concrete seep into the outside air, spoiling the smells of fresh cut grass and spicy weeds.
            Tools clatter in the cellar.  High whistling, like moments of song through radio static, rises above it.  Whistling is a good sign.  I step down into the dim workshop, ducking a funnel web that winds out of a crack in the foundation.  There's a vice on the scarred workbench and a drill press I have never even touched.
            He looks up at me, for a second, almost as if I were a sound he'd heard, and then he sets a wrench down and opens another drawer, whistling again.
            I don't recognize an actual tune.  The song could be anything from before my time, some tender WWII ballad, vibrato sweetened.  I listen for a phrase to repeat, but there's nothing to hold onto.  Maybe the old man doesn't remember how it goes, so he makes up parts, or he hears the tune in his head and just can't make it come out the way he wants.
            So I stand there, picking lint out of the deep corners of my pants pockets with my fingertips, waiting for him to tell me what to do.  He turns from the bench and walks past me up the steps.  I follow him.
            Once we're outside, he stops on the sidewalk, looking toward the shed.  His mouth opens and closes once before he speaks.  His upper lip, peppered with the hard stubble my mother hates, puffs out from a silent burp.
            "There in the shed," he says, "get a piece of that brown carpet to lay under the car."  He stops and turns.  "Get that foam mat instead."
            I hesitate.  I'm thinking foam: white, soft, thick.
            "The foam?"
            He knows I'm not seeing it.
            "It's standing up against the wall against the tarp."
            Now, I remember.  I saw it this morning when I went for the lawn mower, only it was rubber--black rubber--not foam.
            "Oh.  The rubber one."
            "Yeah, get that one."

            The silver Chrysler is jacked-up, blocked under the wheels so that it won't roll. 
            "Feel the grooves there?"  The old man moves his hand away, so I can feel it.
            "The shoe's scored.  We've got to sand down the grooves."
            He shows me how to fold the sandpaper into a neat three inch square that measures the width of the brake shoe, and then how to sand, butting the paper into the crease and keeping even pressure.
            He sands for a few minutes before he gives me the paper.  I try to do exactly what he does, try to hold it the same way, but the angle I'm at makes my motion side to side instead of up and down.  So I sand, slowly, pressing harder as I get in rhythm.  After a minute, my stare goes blank and my eyes cross.  The paper slips out of my hand.
            "Oops."  My ears burn.  I pick up the sandpaper and try it with my right hand.  The angle is easier.  That's how it is with me.  What I do naturally never works.  Once when we changed the oil, I turned the filter wrench the wrong way, and the old man said I did everything backwards.  Then he'd added, like a consolation, that maybe it was because I'm left-handed.
            "Hold on," he says.  "Let's take a look."
            I'm glad to stop.  My fingers feel stiff and the pad of my thumb aches.
            He blows the gray filings away and feels the silver shoe for grooves with the three fingers of his left hand—its index finger lost two years ago to the lawnmower.  Then he looks up, as though he can see right through the fender.
            "In the cellar," he begins, and I know what's coming.
            Now, it starts.  It always comes to this.  I feel like I have to go again.
            "The old cellar?"  I take up the ritual.  Sometimes I think he knows, before he even sends me, I'm not going to find what I’m looking for.  But he sends me anyway.
            "The new cellar," he says, slowly now, making diagrams with his hands.  "In the second drawer--"
            Second from what?  As if they're numbered.
            "--You'll see the sandpaper.  See the 120 on the back?" he unfolds the one we're using and shows me the number.  "We need a coarser grit.  You follow me?  See if there's a sheet of 80 grit.  I think there's some that's been used.  Bring that."
The new cellar smells of sweet, dry sawdust.  I pull on the metal chain and the front half of the room lights up.  This is where my father does woodwork.  The table saw stands in the middle of the floor like a steel butcher's block in one of those modern kitchens.  
            I look around the room for drawers.  There is the antique cabinet where the Simonize and Turtle Wax wait nestled in cheesecloth for the autumn polish.  There is a single drawer below the lattice doors.  I search there for the sandpaper, though he never said anything about the cabinet.  It's something I do instinctively--looking in the odd place before the obvious one.  I don't know why I do it.  Of course, there is no sandpaper in the drawer, only rags, dowels and long forgotten tools, parts that sink to the bottom like stones in water. 
            Back when I was eight or nine I found a washer in the ocean and wondered how out-of-place things got to be where they were.  Then I tossed the shiny disk into deep water.  I thought about its fall to the sunless bottom, that it might never be found again, when finding in itself was so miraculous, and I’d wished I hadn’t done it.
            All of a sudden, I feel I've been down in the cellar for an hour.  I go across to the desk, catch myself going for the left-hand drawer.
            "It's the second drawer you want, stupid," I say aloud.
            Still, I feel a little flutter in my stomach as I pull the handle.  Sandpaper lies in staggered piles throughout the drawer, some creased and worn, some in crisp new rectangles.  I shuffle through one stack looking for the number 80 on the undersides.  The touch of it sends a shiver through my neck and shoulders.  There are two brand new sheets of the 80 grit, but no used ones.  I take one and close the drawer, tug the metal chain.
"There weren't any used ones," I tell him, presenting my find, letting him know I hadn't forgotten what he'd said.
            He folds the sandpaper, takes out his Swiss army knife and cuts the paper in half down the crease.
            "Go inside and see if you can find my work glasses.  These are the wrong ones," he says, handing me the case with his reading glasses.  He had the wrong glasses on also the night he lost his finger.
            The problem is the old man has four or five pair of glasses floating around the house.  There's always one in the Chrysler, wedged between the crack in the front seat or clipped to the driver's side visor, at least two on the kitchen counter beside his chair, and one more, along with the occasional empty decoy case, down on the new cellar bench.
            "Not the safety glasses?" I ask.
            "My work glasses.  You know, the bifocals."
            I decide to check the kitchen first.  My mother is in the living-room reading the Bible, her mouth tucked in at the corners, as though she's trying to siphon invisible sustenance from those bone-dry pages.
            She looks up and asks, "What are you looking for?"     
            "His work glasses," I tell her, cheerfully.

So far I'm three for three: the rubber mat, the sandpaper and the eyeglasses.  We finish sanding down the shoes on the left wheel to the old man's satisfaction.
            We replace the tire, lower the jack and move to the other side of the car.  I fit the tire iron over one of the lugs and give a good pull.
            "The other way.  The other way," the old man shouts.  Blood burns in the pores of my face.  I stop and try to turn the nut the other way, but it won't budge.
            "I can't--"
            "Give me that."  He yanks the wrench out of my hands.  I flinch, thinking he might hit me with it.  He doesn't.  He hasn't hit me in years.
            "You stupid bastard.  Can't do the simplest thing," he starts making his speech to the world. 
            I picture an invisible cloud bank where all his cursing gathers in the air, a kind of pollution that circles and settles down, not into rivers and soil, but in the ears and heads of sons.  It falls on you as you walk, on your spirit, in sudden, unexplainable bad feelings.  You are fine one minute, and the next you feel sick and worthless.               
            "Go in the shed and get the WD40," he orders me, gritting and yanking the tire iron.  "If it's not there, look in the cellar."
            I go quickly.  It makes me shudder to turn my back on him when he's angry, as though his eyes, like the blade of his army knife, might savage my spine.
            There is no WD40 in the shed.  I've looked on and under every shelf three times, looked until I don't trust my eyes to see anymore.  I just keep scanning.
            "Damn it.  Where are you?"
            I give up and run across the yard and down the bulkhead stairs.  I really have to use the bathroom now. 
            There's a can of WD40 on the top shelf.  I reach up and pull it down.  It's much too light.  I shake it and spray, but nothing comes out.
            I curse and start to ramble.  "Why does this always happen?  Why?  If it's here, why can't I see it?"
            I spot another can on the counter above the trays of nuts and washers.  I take the can and run up the stairs.  In the light I see that the nozzle is broken off.
            This is it.  I go through the porch to the hall bathroom.  I sit on the toilet and push, but nothing comes out.
            "No, he can't remember the time I found his keys in the bushes," I mutter.  I think about the time I found that pair of glasses he lost burying leaves in the garden, and that little spring I found in the grass, the one that popped out of his hand.  You’d think he'd remember that?
            I hear my name screamed in blood choler from the front yard.  By the sound of his voice, you'd think the car had collapsed on him.
            When he lost his finger he'd hardly made a sound at all.  There was a gasp of surprise.  He said, "Oh, my finger."  My brother and I, working beside him on that lousy green and red junk lawnmower, both looked up to see him holding a slurry red stump of skin and pulp in the air.  He kept us calm and he knew just what to do.  He had my brother make a tourniquet and drive him to the hospital, while my two sisters and I searched the front lawn on our hands and knees for his finger.  We covered every inch of that yard ten times over, under bushes, in the flowerbeds, every inch of ground until dark.  I wanted so badly to find his finger for him, but the only trace of it was a fine splatter of blood on some grass near the sidewalk.  We figured the rest of it was paste stuck to the underside of the mower.  Nobody ever looked.         
            My mother calls me.
            "I'm in the bathroom for God's sake," I shout back.
            Mom unlatches the front door and calmly relays my message.  I pull my pants up and kick the bathroom door open, so that it smacks the wall.  I rush downstairs.  I'm going from cellar to cellar, cabinet to shelf, workbench to table searching for a simple working can of WD40, but all I see is Krylon spray paint and Swish.  As a last defense I grab the can with the broken nozzle and a clear plastic bottle of the red machine lubricant that looks like cough syrup.  I bound up the steps two at a time.
            The old man has gotten out from under the car by the time I get there.
            "One can was empty," I start.  "And this one has a broken nozzle."
             He glares in disgust.  A stream of sweat runs down his temple.  I hold out the squeeze bottle, but he doesn't take it.  He stomps off around the corner of the house, cursing up another invisible cloud.
            "Good for nothing, know nothing bastard..."
            He calls me something in Italian too, his favorite expression in the idiom.  It means "waste of bread".

            When I hear the return of his boots on the sidewalk, I'm idling in front of the car snapping little shoots off the yew bushes.  I need to be doing something.  I can't let him see me standing here.  I toss the yew, poised toward the corner of the house like I'm heading somewhere, maybe to see what's keeping him.  At the last minute I turn back, sit down beside the front tire.  I pick up the lubricant and squeeze some onto the lug nut, rub it around with my index finger.
            He rounds the corner.  Another shiver ripples down between my shoulder blades, as though I'm shedding skin.  I move aside.  He lowers himself with a groan and uncaps a new can of WD40.
            For the next minute or so I stare at a white pebble caught in the tire tread.

            I take a scoop of the dry powder soap from a number ten tin in the old cellar and come upstairs with it, scrub my hands in the bathroom sink.  I like the industrial strength, invincible fragrance of this stuff.  It's the only thing that really takes off the grease.  The old man comes in and starts to scrub his hands and forearms there beside me.
            "Those brakes will be good for another thirty thousand miles," he says, working a slimy gray lather up to his elbows.
            "Yeah," I say, shaking my hands off and drying them.  If the car lasts that long, is what I think.
            "Supper's ready," my mother says as she goes out to the porch with the electric skillet--the kind you cook and serve out of--full of sausage and pepper.
            We sit down to eat: the old man at the head of the table, my mother and me on either side.  It’s just the three of us, now that all my brothers and sisters have left home.  We fill our bulky rolls with sausage and peppers.  I add a slice of provolone cheese.
            "Pass the salad, please," the old man says.  His face is still sweaty and he's happy and hungry.  He mounds his plate with salad fresh from his garden, holding the bowl in his
four-fingered grip. 
            The gulf between his thumb and middle finger makes me wonder how it must have felt for him to lose a part of himself.  Does he think of it as a lost tool, as something he’ll always miss, something irreplaceable, like the old cement trowel that was his father's--the one he claims I threw away while cleaning out the cellar?  I try to imagine losing him one member at a time:  fingers first, toes next, then hands, feet, eyes, his tongue.

The End