AUGUST 20th, 2017
While I love to write about a variety of subjects, this website will in part be the place where I toss around ideas about writing and, as a corollary, reading. You can rarely be an avid reader without delving into some sort of writing. For my first blog, I will introduce a few scattered ideas about those things. This is in addition to my articles and essays elsewhere here. I hope to add these once a week.
Humans are curious creatures. We are also that group of creatures who possess the intelligence to not only interact with each other but to share experiences which may differ from person to person. This can be in the form of both fact or fiction. Fact deals with the hard substance of existence: what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and the multitude of expressions in our lives from beginning to end. Fiction is a slightly different entity. It deals with our imagination; that invisible part of us that takes us to other places or puts us into a temporary stasis on another plane.
Before I was a teenager, the world of childhood, that is, the world of small farms and fishing villages, was a place full of enormous potential which sparked the imagination. However, in the one-room schoolhouse we attended, the curriculum and the library was not big enough and the resources were limited. High school was better, but I was one of those who became a pest as I plagued my classmates and teachers too often in my quest for a wider view of things. Our librarian, God bless her, loved to see students coming into her domain, but I needed to be strong-armed out of there on many occasions. Life had other priorities. Dropping out of school seemed to be a reasonable answer.
Jobs after my drop-out were boring. Work usually is for the greater part of humanity, but it took a while for me to realize this fact. Eventually, the frontier of the West caught my eye. But even the West is limited in scope; there are only so many cowboys and plains tribes and wild critters. I found myself looking farther afield – at other continents. Frank Buck told us about the escapades of “Bring ‘Em Back Alive”. Then when that geography wore itself out, there was the cosmos.
Hitching a wagon train to the stars was the ticket to new frontiers. One of my favorite authors then was Ray Bradbury, who could weave a tale from the slightest of ideas. I was hooked on exploratory fiction, whether historic, romantic, or speculative science. Every voracious reader out there knows the thrill. The power of the written word is compelling indeed. From Zane Grey to Pearl S. Buck to Robert Heinlein, I wasn’t about to let go.
We rarely get to chose our leisure time because the chores of life get in the way. But I made it a priority. If my seemingly dull life could be interrupted by the fantastic escapades of other lives, so be it. I dedicated part of my spare hours to reading. And (you guessed it), reading leads to a compulsion to write. Lead a thirsty horse to water and it will drink; lead a thirsty reader to the literary frontier and that reader will want to put pen to paper. As Edith Wharton said, we need a room of our own to cross that barrier from receiving words to giving words.
Reading is a solitary thing. It is quite unlike a movie or a TV show. You are alone with the author, allowing yourself to be carried into his or her world. It is that time, alone, when the imagination works its best magic. It is why libraries are quiet places. It is why the offspring of reading – writing – is also an orphaned past-time.
When the reading bug becomes the writing bug, you have no choice. You must surrender to the muses.
If you are too busy to find time to read, you are too busy. Get less busy with other things. God gave you a mind as well as a body. Exercise them both; the benefits are enormous.
Travel gives you vision. It instills a sense of perspective and comparison. Everyone should do some traveling, according to their limits, of course. This gives you tow basic ways to inspire your inquisitiveness. One is physical and the other is mental or spiritual. This of course means that there are two ways to travel. One is the physical act, even if it is only to the back field or forest. It is the act of doing, of going, of using your feet. The other is what we call armchair travel. It is the acct of reading or viewing what others have done with their feet. You fill in with your imagination and you have been there with them.
I bring all of this up simply to point out ways to inspire. The central meme or word on my blog is after all. Imagination. That is what reading and writing are all about. History or fiction, factual accounts or just-so stories, it is all part of what makes up our inner self, our soul. When you fail to exercise that and take it out to air regularly, you pretty much start to go dead. I am not trashing the other various activities you can do or or probably are doing in your slow time. Games and sports, walks and hikes, entertainment and plain laid-back relaxation – all that is good. Are you constantly absorbing your surroundings? Do they vary? Do you sometimes want to do more, to see more? What are your your limitations? The strength of your legs, or the breadth of your mind? It works in both domains.
I hope that you can see where I am leading you with all of this. Grow your mind through the sedentary and the active things in your life. Last time, I talked about the limits of the frontiers in front of us in early life. But barriers to our imagination can be crossed if we try. Some of the greatest naturalists have started their imaginations by looking under rocks, in small ponds, around gardens. Alexander von Humboldt started by collecting plants, shells and insects. It culminated in a career that today continues to astound the world. Other renowned scientists have poked around in the local wilderness and have come up with intriguing inventions. George de Mestral went for a stroll in a British forest and wondered why cockleburrs stuck to his dog. Examining the natural structures, he came up with the artificial fastener we call velcro. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin when he noticed that a mold had formed around a Petri dish containing staphylococcus. The mold resisted the bacteria, and became a tremendous tool against infections. All because Fleming was both observant and imaginative. He was knighted for his efforts. All of these men and others like them had open eyes to their surroundings. This included women like Mary Somerville who wrote The Mechanisms of the Heavens about astronomy, chemistry, physics and mathematics, simply because she was astute and observant of the world around her.
Because we humans have a high level of communication, using all of our senses, we probably have a sense of wonder and imagination which the lower animals do not have. We have intelligence to put it all together in the bigger picture. While the bee can sting you when you get in the way, and the wolf can kill you for food with the aid of its pack, neither can come up with weapons that improve their ways. None of the animals under us can record their stories or pass them on as we can. In the next session, I want to talk about those interactions between those animals and us. It touches, after all, on my upcoming novel, School’s Out.
Okay, I’m slowly leading up to my animal novel which I mentioned last time.
So … humans and other creatures. The history of animal husbandry has fascinated us ever since we took up the first pet dog or cat, or since we used that first ox to pull the plow. The Egyptians worshiped cats and birds. In India, it’s rats and snakes, and the monkey is a god to some Hindus.
I suspect it has a lot to do with the usefulness of these animals. But let’s not forget the closeness. If you live with a pet pig or cow, you give it a name and it is part of the extended family. You know its habits, its likes and dislikes. Invariably, this leads to a slow investigation into the personal life of the creature. What does your dog think? Why does your cat react the way it does? They are after all the two most popular pets that we cling to. Yet they couldn’t be more unlike each other in their lives with us. The story is told about the family dog sitting at his master’s feet, looking up in adoration. He thinks: “He feeds me, he pets me, he washes me, he talks to me, he plays with me. He must be a god!” Meantime, the family cat sitting on the windowsill, contemplating in the sunlight, thinks: “He feeds me, pets me, cleans up after me, talks to me, and I do nothing in return. I must be a god!” The social pet and the rebel pet.
In our curiosity (and man is by far the most curious of the animals), we cannot help but ask ourselves about their lives. What makes them tick, what drives them, how much do they know. What might they want to share with us, if anything. Our written history is full of animal tales, both real and fictional. Some are endearing, some are scary. No matter if they are the beasts of mythology – dragons, indomitable snowmen, krakens – or the whole range of critters from the intriguing termite with its air-conditioned towers to the largest creature ever, the blue whale, which feeds on the smallest creatures. Their lives charm us, we are moved by their escapades, we are motivated by their characters.
Jules Verne wrote about the giant squid which tormented the sailors of the Nautilus, a nuclear submarine whose power wasn’t always great enough. Melville told us the tale of Moby Dick, the great white whale who tracked down the crew of the Pequod for revenge against its domineering captain, Ahab. I said who, for Moby Dick was indeed a character unto himself. Sometimes we are taken up into the seeming ‘humanity’ of creatures. When Jack London wrote his classic novel The Call of the Wild, he was not just giving us a frontier story set in the north. He was offering us a morality tale about the conflict between the wilderness, represented by the renegade wolf Buck, and the man John Thornton, who represented the human invasion into the Yukon but who respect the wild. It is a bitter-sweet story about reconciliation for both of them. Buck was no underdog and Thornton was no over-bearer, and that pleases the human psyche. As for that frontier of my teenage imagination, those western cowboy stories took me out there to delve into the ‘domestic wilderness’, as it were, of a new land bristling with cattle and horses. Especially those horses. Who doesn’t love the relationship of a cowboy and his horse?
We are, beyond a doubt, intrigued by the animals around us. And it may not be just the critters that fascinate us; by way of association, the landscapes and environments they live in invite us in. We want the stories from there. But this time around I am focusing on the animals. They are the blood and flesh of this realm of close associations. Chlorophyll just doesn’t cut it on its own.
When I return, I will introduce you to the idea of animal stories. One of them is of my own making, and it takes us into the oceans because it is my novel about dolphins.
SEPTEMBER 17, 2017
We humans have engaged in stories about animals for a long time. That is probably because we have the habit of choosing a few animals and making them our pets, not just a very familiar critter. Near the top of that list is the dog, a creature that has amazing social habits which appeal to us. The cat is a close second in popularity. And domestic livestock are often held in a kind of fondness that causes us to place a special hand upon them.
Then there are the animals, not pets, which bewitch and fascinate us. Exotic birds with their colorful plumage and unique dating rituals. The sleek, silent, wild cats. The noble and spirited horses. The elusive predators and their tragic prey. And, of course, the creatures of the sea. With the oceans making up about seventy percent of the globe, there were bound to be animals out there which would grab our interest. After all, here is a watery realm which is full of all the drama of the land, and three times as expansive, not to mention more mysterious, because it is largely hidden from us.
When I took a particular interest in sea mammals (the breathing, warm-blooded creatures of the sea), my attention was drawn particularly to the whales. In that very big family are the dolphins. We have held some of them captive and studied (we think) their habits. We discovered that dolphins have personalities, and that they are every bit as social with us as are our dogs. So it’s inevitable that we would ponder about their intelligence. Just how smart are they?
It turns out they are very smart, or at least extremely clever. If you’ve ever seen an aquarium performance in which dolphins perform synchronized swimming, you’ll know what I mean. Even sheep fleeing from a sheepdog cannot perform like this. But what about the world outside the aquarium?
I toyed around with a story about dolphins being so intelligent that they intentionally chased after humans with the purpose of having intelligent fellowship with us. I assumed (in my story) that dolphins want our knowledge in exchange for their knowledge. It would start with their huge database of the oceans and end with instructions to us about the problems which both our societies live with when dealing with the world’s biggest environment. The dolphins would teach us about that, and we would help them solve the problems. Once, of course, the teaching sessions were over over with. I called the short story “School’s Out”, remembering what it is we all should do with the knowledge gained after graduation. Over a number of years, the short story became a full-length novel, one which will be published this year.
Although it is possible in the literary sense to ascribe high intelligence to another animal (we do it quite often, actually), it is another thing to give such an attribute in the real scientific sense or the anthropomorphic and social sense. Similar behavior does not mean similar intelligence. I do not consider animals to be ‘intelligent’; rather, they are instinctively clever for their own survival, or they are great mimics if that is what it takes to to interact with us in a positive way. True intelligence, at the human level, would result in great technology and recorded (ie written) cultures. School’s Out is my attempt to suppose, in a fictional format, that dolphins are not just very clever, but very intelligent as well. The chore I set before me was to try and explain (in the fictional sense) of how and why.
In my next blog here, I wish to lay out the steps I used in my attempt to portray a world full of very intelligent dolphins and what it is they are up to. It is all speculative fiction, mind you, but it tickles that very special fancy we all have in associating ourselves with creatures living next door to us who (yes, who) are as smart in most ways as we are.