Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Ashes to Stay

Every winter for the last several years, I've had to figure out what to do with ashes.

On a night that's below fifty degrees, I'll build a fire, a crackling dance of light and warmth that fills our home with a primal comfort.  We human beings evolved with fire, and evolved to delight in fire, and the place of the hearth in our lives only changed during my parents generation.  After countless millennia, the scent of carbonizing oak or pine or sycamore has been supplanted by the cool glow and flicker of our screens, the soft time of story and quietness around the open flame replaced with the bingbamboom bustle of one thing after another, scrolling ever downward.

It's a loss, it is, because in our frenetic rushing about we are forgetting things.

Like what ash is, and what ash does.

In our disposable age, we assume that when we have used a thing up, it no longer has worth.  We toss aside teratons of plastic nothings.  We crumple wrappers, we plan for obsolescence, we create a wastestream, a Heraclitan torrent of the unvalued and forgotten.

But ash isn't waste.  Ash isn't worthless.  Nothing God makes is waste, even the greyblack remains of the flame.  It only seems so because we now think in shallow, rushing, wasteful ways, flinging ourselves from moment to moment and missing the whole.  

When I clean out my hearth, I do not discard the ashes.  Ashes are precious to a gardener, rich with calcium and carbon and micronutrients.  Ashes are pitchforked into my compost.  Ashes feed my garlic, plumping the bulbs that have been patiently enduring the winter.  Ashes enrich the soil in which my asparagus grows, and a diet of carbon can keep them yielding for decades.  I'm setting three small beds aside for a new plant this year.  I'm eager to experiment with okra, a plant that is remarkably nutritious, easy to seedsave, beautifully ornamental, and will adapt well to our rapidly warming Midatlantic.  

What does okra love?  Okra loveslovesloves wood ash.

To appreciate ash, one must be unhurried about it.  Over patient years, you learn the richness it adds to the earth, come to know the living things that thrive and grow as they take that ash into themselves.  When you smell the cut garlic on your fingers, snap the first spear of asparagus in the spring, or taste the nutty crunch of fried okra?  

You see the value in what the fire has left behind, and that life has reclaimed and made its own.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Sixteen

 

Chapter Sixteen: My First Argument with Diego


From behind Diego, his cat-faced comrade let out a percussive snicker.


“Excuse me?”  I said, recoiling, my face flushing red with an admixture of anger, shock, and embarrassment.


“You heard me.  What.  The Serious XXXX.  Do You Think.  You’re Doing?”


I was, of course, utterly mortified at the foulness of his speech, and at this appalling breach of basic human decency.  “I am attempting to thank you for effectuating my rescue, and would have assumed that this would be blindingly obvious to even the most…”


“No no no no,” he interrupted, his voice rising in timbre.  “Not that.  Nope.  You don’t understand.  I mean, no xxxx,, of course we saved you, you’re xxxxing welcome, but who the xxxx cares about that now?  We did what we did, you and your bot are here, alive, yay, all that xxxx.  I’m not talking about us kicking some Hammer xxx, either, ‘cause we do that on the regular.  I’m talking about this whole totally bullxxxx thing you’re doing right now.”


I was, in this moment, genuinely at a loss for words, as I felt with certainty that I had never been quite so grievously insulted in all of my life.


“I’m afraid I’m not sure I know of what you speak, sir.  I cannot imagine what I might have done to stir such a cruel reproach upon what is but our second meeting, but I must tell you that I am sorely wounded at your sudden choice to…”


“That,” he said, interrupting again, “that is exactly what I mean.”  He waved his hands in the direction of the air in front of my face.  “The way you talk.  Who xxxxing talks like that?  I honestly don’t know if anyone in all of human history ever actually talked like that.  Is it Edwardian?  Is it Victorian?  Who the xxxx even knows!”  He then glared at Mother’s dress and gesticulated at it in a wild manner.  “And the way you dress!  Is this some psychotic post-collapse Jane Austin cosplay?  Is that a bustle?  Are you wearing a corset?   Here you are floating through a war zone dressed like a xxxxing fairy princess or Mary xxxxing Poppins.  Why?  I mean, you do know it’s not God-xxxxed eighteen ninety seven, and this isn’t England, right?  And then you add in endless xxxxing robots, and bluesky tech…and…and Jesus, what the xxx.  None of us have even the faintest clue why you people even exist, but every day, there you are, floating through the sky like xxxxing aliens or some such xxxx.  I just can’t even…I mean, xxxx.  What the xxxx are you?” 


As his wild, vulgar ranting subsided slightly, I experienced a sudden epiphany.   Diego was quite confused, and that what I had taken at first for a vile and profane insult to my person was nothing more than a wholly comprehensible failure to understand the intricacies of the Peerage, our Society, and the nature of the Crown.  With my own righteous anger diminished at that knowledge, the appropriate diplomatic course of action presented itself: he had asked questions, and it was now my duty as a Lady and a representative of Her Majesty to answer them.


“Very well, Mr. Cruz Campo,” I said, in the tone one might take with a disconsolate and frightened child, “I think I grasp your difficulty, for I can appreciate why you might find our Society and my own presence somewhat unsettling, and furthermore, why the particulars of our distinctive way of life might be so alien to your understanding as to cause such heartfelt and voluble perplexity.  Despite your profane outburst, I shall honour your questions with replies, each in the order in which they were posed; if that is quite alright with you, of course.”


He took a step back, and with a sweeping gesture of sardonic welcome, invited my reply.  “Sure.  Bring it.” he said, as if casting down a gauntlet.


I took a breath, then began.


“Again, in sequence, let me begin.  Question the first: Who talks like this?  I do, and all those around me do, for three reasons:  Question One, Rationale One, it is this manner of speech that shapes our social order, one that centers decorum, robustness of social structure, and a life grounded in tradition; Question One, Rationale Two, this choice of language is both inculcated and chosen, as all who are part of our Society embrace and understand, both implicitly and explicitly, the necessity of carefully considered eloquence, which is of inestimable help in creating a well-formed and nimble mind, and; Question One, Rationale Three, it gives me pleasure to speak thusly, in the same way that one might enjoy performing complex music or a dance of sublime elaborateness.  In sum, it is our culture, it is our choice, and it is our pleasure.”


Diego’s eyes furrowed, which I took to mean he was endeavouring to turn his sharp but ill-shaped wit to the unravelling of my explanation; I graciously gave him a moment, and then proceeded.


“Question the second, is this a Jane Austen cosplay?  No, even if the works Miss Austen are simply lovely, for our choice of attire is not something reflective of an effort to distract ourselves from reality, as in late-pre-collapse decadence, but rather an intentional, sustained, and material reinforcement of a particular set of cultural norms and expectations, all of which reinforce the vigour and stability of our social order.   Question the third, no, I am not wearing a bustle, although that is within the realm of sartorial acceptability in our polite society.  Question the…”


Diego grunted in a most harsh and dismissive way.  “Alright.  OK.  Just stop.  I wasn’t asking you to literally answer every xxxxing question.  You…”


“Christ, stop bullying and let her answer, Diego.”  It was the person of indeterminate gender who interrupted him, their husky alto chiding.  “I know you’re xxxxed off, but you’re always going on about how little we know about The Beautiful Ones, so just shut up already and let her talk.  Don’t be such an xxxhole.”


“Shain’s right,” purred the one who reminded me of Puss in Boots.  “We love ya, man, but you’re being a xxxx.”


Diego raised the dun steel of his alloy hand to his brow, massaging what was evidently a growing headache, as he let out a frustrated sigh.  Then, in a surprisingly chastened tone, he yielded.  “OK.  Point well taken, Raj.  I hear you, Shain.”  He looked at me, a forced smile upon his perfect lips.  


“Rebecca.  Sorry.  Please…continue.”


Acknowledging his repentant acquiescence and the kindly intervention of his comrades with a polite nod, I set about completing my reply.


 “Question the fourth, yes, I am wearing corsetry, although it is of a design and purpose that significantly varies from the purely cosmetic intent of classical Edwardian-era support garments.  Question the fifth, of course I am aware of the current date as defined by the Gregorian calendar, and of the rough latitude and longitude of our physical location in the Mid Atlantic.  Question the sixth is implied in your last several questions, and is of a rather more subtle, qualitative, and subjective character, which I would summarise thusly: why do I and my Society exist?  Why, one might ask, do any of us exist, and were I to have a definitive answer to such a profound and unsearchable mystery, I should most certainly be obligated to share it with one and all.  In the narrower, contingent sense mediated by my own self-understanding and that of our Peerage, I might concisely express a response in this way:  We exist to serve the will of Her Majesty the Queen, and to live in a manner that brings honour to Her Reign.”


At the completion of my response, the one whose name was evidently Raj began to clap slowly, a Cheshire grin brightening his countenance.


“That was, unironically, a great xxxxing answer.  Dude.”


Diego glared at Raj, at which Raj’s smile only brightened saucily.


“Fine,” Diego said, tersely.  “I’ve got other questions for another time.  Right now, though, we need to know other things.  Like what the xxxx got you shot down, and what you think is going on.  Meaning, exactly.”  Diego paused for a moment, his eyes distant, as if coming to some significant internal determination, and then looked at me most directly.  “Look.  I’m going to tell you what we know, all of it, and then you’re going to tell me what you know.  Everything on the table.  Yes?”


“That is acceptable to me.”    


“Good.  Last month or so, as I’m sure you know, the Hammer has been on the move.  We’re getting hit harder, everywhere.  They took down the Staunton commune, meaning, total slaughter, had to be, we get one panicked broadcast, then the whole place goes dark.  We tried to get intel, but they’re suddenly able to bring down our drone recon.  An entire motorized platoon of volunteers from the Fourth Republican just xxxxing vanished when the RCC sent them to do a recon in force.  Then today…”


I raised my begloved hand, as I’d briefly witnessed such a gesture being used in the debate over the disposition of the trucks.


“Yes?”


“I’m afraid I am unaware of the meaning of the acronym R.C.C..  Might you please clarify?”


“Sure.  It’s Regional Coordinating Committee.  How we do intercommunity action.  Harvest distribution.  Joint defence and security.  That sort of thing.”


“Ah.  Thank you.  Please do continue.”


“Then today, your robot friend here shows up, tells us they’re xxxxing with you people, asks for help, which was a thing that just doesn’t happen.   Up ‘till now, that was the one can of whup ass that even Caddigan didn’t want opened up.  No one  xxxxs with the Beautiful Ones, not if they want to live to see the end of the day.  It’s a godxxxx rule out here.  I have no idea what it was they did to bring your airship down, but I’ve never seen the Hammer do that before, not ever.  It’s some bad juju, and it scares the xxxx out of us.  So. That’s what we know.  Rebecca.  What can you tell us?”  


Here, of course, I faced a decision of some consequence, for I was in possession of information that gave insight into Our purposes, insight that might in untrustworthy hands prove most disastrous to us.   As a representative of the Crown, and as a member of the Peerage, I must…as dear Stewart had at my importunate questioning…determine what could be shared, and also that which must at all costs be held in the strictest of confidence.


While under most circumstances I would have been reticent to offer up even the most spare account, I was convinced that the threat to Her Majesty here was grave, and the creation of an alliance of goodwill with these peculiar souls was most essential.  I was, as ever, duty bound to take the best possible choice towards the most desirable future.


It was at that point, dear reader, that I presented in detail all of the evidences that had come before me in conversations with both Father and Stewart; these are conversations to which you have already been privy, and which I therefore shall not again present in detail.  Encapsulated, my disclosure included the following: the increase in Caddiganite attacks on the Her Majesty’s servants; Father’s insights into the evident purpose of said attacks; the implicit attempt to purloin the advances of the Royal Society; the mysterious cargo carried within Her Majesty’s Ship the Firedrake; and my personal fears that with the felling of that noble vessel, said cargo might pose an unspeakable danger should it be discovered and turned to Caddiganite purposes.


Upon the completion of my sharing, the room was oddly silent for a moment.


Diego’s expression had changed most profoundly, and the umbrage that had to this point seemed his default state of being was no longer in evidence.  His golden eyes were now honeyed with a fathomless pathos, his brow furrowed not in consternation or annoyance, but something quite the opposite.


“Thank you,” he said, his voice huskier, heavier.  “That was…thorough.  I…” 


Here he paused, regarding me with a sympathy which I had heretofore not seen upon his visage.  


“Rebecca.  Your…father…was on that airship?”


“Yes.”


He turned and looked at his comrades, and then back to me.


“You watched…your father…die today.”  


It was not a question, but a statement of the most terrible fact, one that had unexpectedly cut him to the very quick, his voice thickened as some deep hurt of his own rose upon the wings of compassion; it stirred in me a great upwelling of well nigh unbearable grief.  I felt myself on the verge of collapse, most literally; my legs weakened beneath me, and it was as if my entire person, body and soul, was on the precipice of an implosion.  


I could not let that be, not now, not here; though my face tightened and trembled with the effort, my eyes welling such that a single tear escaped and tracked its course of sorrow down my powdered cheek, I was able to say, simply:


“Yes.”


xxxx.  I had…no idea.”


Having spoken his profane but genuine condolence, it was clear he had no idea what to do next, nor did I; we stood together, in the deep pall of an awkward silence, for a time that felt like forever.


Chapter Seventeen: Of Plunder and Planning (forthcoming)

Friday, February 9, 2024

The Issue I Will Have with the Superbowl

It's not Taylor Swift.  I don't care about Taylor Swift.  I mean, not at all.  I follow her in the same way that I follow Jai-alai.  When the cameras inevitably switch to her for a reaction shot, it may as well be to a shot of any other random entertainment billionaire in the fancy one-percenter boxes.  Eh.  So what?  Big deal.  

But there is something about the upcoming Superb Owl that is going to bother me, and bother me a whole bunch.  Because something has changed, and changed for ill, both in football and across the country.

I was recently walking through my home "town" in the Northern Virginia suburbs, where I passed a little laundromat.  In that laundromat, something caught my eye.

It was filled with day laborers, more than a dozen able bodied men, because that stretch of Little River Turnpike is where such men gather for whatever work they can get. They were all staring intently at the one wall not lined with washers or dryers. Against that wall were three huge vertically oriented screens, each of which were splashing the room with a shifting array of bright colors and the simulated spinning of three sets of numbers and symbols. They were Slot Machines Two Point Oh, and all were transfixed. Three men gambled, and a room spectated, entranced by the game of chance. 

Is that legal in the state of Virginia? Not really, although as our society continues to move more and more away from the Bedford Falls of George Bailey and slouches towards the crass brassy clatter of Pottersville, I’m not sure anyone cares.

In my neck of the woods, there’s also a push to drop in a casino in the Tysons Corner area, because development business growth revenue something something. Mostly, it’s because gambling is a wildly profitable business, and gambling is happy to feed the political beast with donations and the promise of lazy, predatory revenue. This is a fat season for American gambling, as anyone who pays any attention to sports at all will know. Since the Supreme Court sided with New Jersey in a case five years ago, sportsbetting has exploded. FanDuel, the most successful of these businesses and a subsidiary of the Dublin-based multinational conglomerate Flutter, saw a 600% increase in use and a similar increase in profit between 2019 and 2022.

With FanDuel, you can gamble from your phone, gamble all the time, bet on every play in a game, never ever stop gambling, dopamine hit after dopamine hit until you’ve maxed out all your cards and drained every account. It’s wildly successful, virally successful, a perfect storm that “leverages the synergies” between gambling’s addictive qualities and the operant conditioning techniques that corporate clinical psychologists have woven into contemporary app design.

When the Superbowl is broadcast from Vegas...and there's a reason it's in Vegas, honeychild...there’ll be a great onslaught of ads telling us just how much fun it is to gamble. 

My Scots blood helps inoculate me against this siren song.  I’m cheap as dirt and have more than a wee bit of lingering Calvinist cynicism about bright lights and shiny objects.  

I can’t, however, miss the impact it has on those who get hooked on false hope and dopamine, who can’t afford to lose the money they bet, the people who’ve hit bottom, who are driving a 100% increase in calls to addiction hotlines over the last two years.  The flacks for the gambling "industry" swear up and down that this is because they include that little warning in their ads, but c'mon.

We're not idiots.

I'll enjoy the game, although not as much as I would had either Detroit or Baltimore made it.  

But every time I see an gambling ad...for DraftKings, for FanDuel, or MGM...I'll recoil.


Wednesday, February 7, 2024

The Outlaw Car I Desire

It was an evil looking car.  

I rent fun cars for fun on the regular, because I am old, of a generation that still thought cars were cool.  Convertibles. Sports cars.  Luxury cars.  All of the vehicles that I find delightful, but that I lack the resources or desire to own.  I'll request contributions to my rental car fund for birthdays and Christmakkah, and on a beautiful weekend, I'll get one for my pleasure.  

This last weekend, it was a 2017 Dodge Challenger T/A 392, rented through a service from an utterly friendly dude who lives nearby.

Menacing.  A little too obviously criminal, the sort of vehicle driven by a villain in a slightly dumb but entertaining movie intended for the undiscerning masses.

Dark as night, the wheels similarly blackened, what is now typically called "murdered-out" in the car community.  The engine, an immense eight cylinder, each bank of the vee larger than the straight-six under the hood of the perfectly quick BMW I last rented.  The exhaust note ranged from a growling rumble to a snarling, vicious roar, and unlike the blatty falseness of so many "performance" exhausts, the bite was as deep as the bark.  Four hundred and eighty five horsepower gets you going real fast real quick.  Or it lights up the rear tires.  Get too hard on the throttle in a turn, and it sends you sideways.  Zero to sixty comes in the low fours, with a top speed of over a hundred and eighty.  

This was the sort of car that would have gotten me into some real trouble when I was seventeen. 

It radiated "outlaw," and I found myself very much noticing every single law enforcement officer I drove by.  The engine growled and spat as each patrol car passed, though I drove as gently as I could.  Because people...and cops...do make assumptions about such a car.  Why drive one if you're not planning on doing something extralegal?  

Rumbling about in the beast for a few days got me thinking again about a car that is actually an outlaw.  To possess this car and drive it on American roads is actually against the law, a criminal act, one with all sorts of penalties, including confiscation.  

I desire it.  In fact, I desire it so much I'd own one.  

Here it is:


Radiates menace, doesn't it?   It's a Honda N Box, which one pronounces En-uh Bock-su if you're a total weeb.  

It's a kei car, meaning a teeny tiny vehicle designed for Japanese cities and roads.  It comfortably seats four six footers, has all wheel drive, and all the modern safety features.  It's easy to get in and out of.  It is astoundingly practical, perfect for in town errands.  It gets over fifty to the gallon.  Though it's tiny, it has been designed to accommodate a wheelchair.  It's capable of puttering along all day on the highway at between 60 and 65.  It gets to 60...gradually.  Top speed?  Maybe eighty five, assuming you're going downhill with a following wind.  It costs, brand new, under twenty grand.

It is exactly what I need.  Not just want, because it's cute as a button, but need.  I don't need more car than this.  Most of us don't.

It is also illegal in America.

Some outlaws are bad.  And some outlaws are outlaws because the law is bad.  You'd think we'd know the difference.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

A Fox Among the Squirrels

I do a great deal of work from my kitchen table, which is a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by.  In the mornings, the bay windows fill the room with light, and in winter, I watch as a parade of birds flutter about our feeder.  Assuming, of course, that the squirrels aren't taking over the joint.

Here in the wilds of the suburban wasteland, squirrels are a birder's nemesis.  They're resourceful, relentless, and astoundingly agile, and for much of this winter, they've hogged most of the seed we've set out for our avian visitors.  They do much the same during the growing season, particularly with my tomatoes, which they delight in plucking and partially devouring.  They'd found a way to the feeder, as they almost always do, and were knocking down large amounts of seed.  The birds were getting barely a taste.

Recently, though, we've had the aid of an ally in our battle against the Eastern Grey Squirrel.  Ours is an older and inner suburb, in which there are spaces between homes that nature fills with tall trees and brush.  It's a great habitat for foxes.  We've got at least one extended family of foxes who grace our neighborhood, trotting serenely down sidewalks, rustling through the woods, utterly composed and obviously intelligent.  I'd feel differently about them were I raising chickens, but I am not, and as a gardener, I consider them a welcome sight.

On its morning patrol through our yard, one of the foxes recently stopped to inspect our bird feeder, which was empty after another assault by the squirrels.  

He was a handsome and self-possessed creature, as healthy foxes are, and his keen sense of smell had alerted him to the regular presence of plump and well-fed prey.  He sniffed about.  He nosed about some more, then, after a pause, marked the bird feeder pole with a little spray of urine.  He did the same in several other places around the feeder, then ambled gracefully away with a typically vulpine insouciance.  

Huh, I thought, watching him.  Why do that?  That seems uncharacteristically dumb.  Sure, you've claimed your territory.  But now the whole area will smell of fox, a scent that prey animals know to avoid.  Why set off alarm bells?  Odd.

The squirrels did come back, because that's where the siren song of easy food summoned them.  There was real caution at first, as I watched them approach, then retreat from the feeder in alarm.  Fox!  Run!

But soon that caution vanished, because for a day there was no threat.  Just a false alarm.  No fox here.  They soon returned to gorging on the sunflower seed.

The next afternoon, my wife told me that there'd been a great ruckus at the feeder, a rush of red and grey fur, the panicked scream of a mortally imperiled rodent, followed by a wild crashing in a nearby bush, as she'd watched a squirrel barely escape with its life.

I realized then that the fox was smarter than I.  

Of course the fox knew what it was doing.  Foxes always know what they're doing.  It wasn't marking that spot for other foxes.  It was marking that spot for the squirrels.  It was carefully, purposefully getting the squirrels to let down their guard.  It was masking its scent by leaving its scent, not turning off the olfactory alarm that rings in a squirrel's sharp little brain, but leaving that alarm on just a little, until it became nothing more than background noise, nothing to worry about, this smell is totally normal.

Nature has so much to teach us, if only we'd pay attention.

Friday, February 2, 2024

On the Writing of Conservative Science Fiction

I dropped briefly into Threads a few weeks ago, which I don't tend to do often.  I already get more than my fill of picayune performative outrage on Ex, thank you very much, and the algorithms on Threads seem not to recognize that I have no interest whatsoever in that ish.

What Threads wanted me to see that day, apparently, was an argument about conservative science fiction.  

On the one hand, there were the Trumpy Neofascists howling about how "woke" and lefty sci fi tends to be lately.  On the other hand, there were the Triggered Neojacobins shrieking back with accusations of racism, sexism, LGBTQIAphobia, and the like.  It was the usual tribal cyberchimp poo-flinging festival, and not really worth any time or engagement.

It did make me wonder, though, about those two concepts.  Can sci fi be conservative?  

It's typically forward-thinking, after all, because of course it must be.  But does that mean that it must by necessity be progressive?

It does not.  Again, of course not.  Why should it be?

I understand conservatism, in its best sense, to be defined as "holding on to what is good."  Change is not always positive, and the embrace of change...for the conservative...comes only after it has been carefully considered.  Does it lessen the grace in the world?  Does it diminish us, or dominate us, or break us?  Then it is to be avoided.

Much of the greatest science fiction explores this theme.  

Fahrenheit 451, for example.  Or Brave New World.  Or Parable of the Sower.  Or A Clockwork Orange.  Or The Lathe of Heaven.  Or War of the Worlds.  In each of these seminal narratives, the world has changed, but in a way that threatens something fundamentally good about humankind.  Literature.  Liberty.  Not being gassed to death on the regular by Martians.  Those things.

In sci fi as dystopia, the assumption is that the timeline has arced in a maleficent direction, and these stories challenge both the present and the future against the creeping depredations of decay and decadence, fascist brutality and mechanistic inhumanity.  It is a critique of both a possible future and the bitter seed of said future in the present.

As an author, many of my novels explore this.  My postapocalyptic Amish fiction, for example, explores the place of a deeply-held and authentic faith as a bulwark against the collapse of the saeculum.  My AI uprising narratives...those that haven't already been dated by the great onrush of AI these days...explore how a culture that does not provide purpose and meaning can prime us for totalitarianism.  My current work in progress, which fits neatly into the Cyberutopian Regency Action/Romance genre?  Its core theme is the necessity of tradition and discipline for the maintenance of cultural and personal integrity.  

These are conservative things.

The issue, I think, is not the writing of conservative science fiction.  It's the publishing thereof.  Traditional publishers...and particularly the publishers of science fiction...have no interest in a conservative perspective these days, as the signs they have posted on their virtual doors so clearly indicate.  Literary agencies have, for the most part, followed suit, because they must follow the industry, anxious and fading though it is.

That is, of course, entirely their right.  Publishers may publish what they wish, and writing has always been a pauper's profession.  Whining and complaining about it is meaningless and unworthy.

If you want to read conservative science fiction, write it.

It's really quite simple.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Ravens, Conservatism, and Neophobia

Coming to the realization that I am conservative hasn't been easy.  

Conservatism, after all, was always something culturally associated with oppression and reactionary tendencies.  Conservatism is fusty and drab and dull.  It's not young and vibrant and wild.

Then again, neither am I now.

But I feel like I must be the same person, because how could I not be?  I still harbor many of the same thoughts about life that I did when I was less creaky and wrinkled.  All of the things that delighted me or offended me when I was young still generate the same reaction.  How can I still think as I did when I was filled with life's running sap, and not be progressive?  

Yet I am not, as my offspring so often remind me.

As I think about it, I suppose I have always been conservative.  Like, say, my spirit animal.  

I have, for years, felt the strongest affinity for the common raven, whose winged form ascendant adorns the battle flag of my Scottish ancestors.  Ravens are the largest of the songbirds, notable for their unusual intelligence, complex vocalizations, problem-solving ability, and tentative sociality.  Unlike their cousins the common crows, ravens are only quasi-social.  They form lifelong pairs, and move in small family groupings, but they don't gather in large murders, mobs, or hordes, as crows do.  They prefer to be alone, or together with only a few trusted intimates.  Groups of ravens are called "conspiracies," because they're just that kind of bird.  They croak and whirr at one another under their breath, and they often seem to be up to something.  They are creatures of deep woods and shadow, of deserts and great empty places.

Ravens, as I discovered the other day, are also what ornithologists call "neophobic."  Meaning: they don't really trust new things.  They're curious, resourceful, and adaptable, but if something arrives in their forest that is incongruous or unexpected, they steer clear of it, because...as the brightest of the birds...they know that new things require wariness.  Newness means possible trouble, and requires caution.  Sure, it might smell good, but why is it there?  Sure, it might be shiny, but what does that mean? 

It's an evolved behavior, but it's also a learned behavior of a corvid whose brain to body ratio is similar to our own.  

Ravens, in other words, are conservative in the way that I am conservative.  Or so I'd like to think.