Category Archives: Books

Read it and weep: Clearcut

Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry.

Clearcut
Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, edited by Bill Devall, published by Sierra Club Books and Earth Island Press, conceived by Doug Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

As readers of Sierra magazine know well, opinions on how to protect public and private forests in the United States are at least as numerous as the conservation organizations that hold them — and no such group, small or large, is shy about articulating its position. The result has been a cacophony of voices conveying an often-muddled message to policymakers in Washington, D.C.

This spring, however, 100 forest activists, brought together by the Sierra Club and representing a broad array of conservation groups, both small and large, convened in the capital to deliver a unified message to key members of Congress and Clinton administration officials: clearcutting is ripping the heart out of America.

The catalyst for this gathering was the publication of Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, a landmark volume from Sierra Club Books and Earth Island Press, conceived by Douglas Tompkins of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. (See “At a Glance,” May/June, page 84.) Activists rallied to hand-deliver copies of the book to decision-makers in the belief that its combination of photographs of clearcuts and essays on forest ecology and politics would show them the folly of forest mismanagement.

Clearcut comes 30 years after The Last Redwoods (Sierra Club Books, 1964), the first book to use images of clearcuts to focus attention on threatened forests. That “exhibit format” book, which used such pictures sparingly, was subdued and traditional compared to Clearcut, a brash, in-your-face display of denuded landscapes that testifies to the spread of industrial forestry across the continent. It stands alone as the first avowedly ugly collectable book.

The 150 photos in Clearcut show a small part of the millions of acres that have been deforested, from British Columbia (where shots depict the wasting of Vancouver Island) to the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park (with clearcuts up to its boundaries) to North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama (landscapes that only General Sherman’s ghost could admire).

The reaction to the book on Capitol Hill was encouraging. Representative Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.) expressed delight with it, saying its analysis of the issues and its deliberately unattractive photographs “make beautifully clear statements.” Representative John Bryant (D-Texas) averred that the book would make a substantial contribution to forestry reform. Even Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), not known for undue sympathy toward environmental causes, seemed “excited and disturbed” by the book, according to Lee Stanfield and Don Duerr of the Sierra Club. “Clearcutting was a mistake of history,” the senator told them. “It’s archaic and ugly. Most people don’t want it.”

Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, however, preferred not to comment on or be seen in public with Clearcut, contending that the Forest Service is already shifting away from clearcutting, so he didn’t need to see any more pictures of it. Yet according to Sierra Club forestry expert Ned Fritz, who was in Washington for the event, Thomas has still not adequately explained what alternative method his agency is embracing. The fact is, says Fritz, unsustainable logging is still the rule on public lands.

Most enthused by the book were the anti-clearcut activists themselves, because it served to unite them on the issue. Too often in the past they have argued over policies. Organizations such as Earth First!, for example, want to ban all logging on public lands, an approach that alienates those who fear this might stimulate increased cutting of private and foreign forests. The Sierra Club prefers a more discriminating approach, opposing all timber cutting in old-growth and roadless areas, but allowing for limited, ecologically sound harvesting on previously logged public and private lands.

Dave Foreman, cofounder of Earth First! and now executive editor of the journal Wild Earth, welcomed the chance to cooperate with people from many organizations, and found the Clearcut education week to be constructive. “We’ve been a dysfunctional family of late,” he says of bickering environmental groups. “But there was a real willingness among everyone in D.C. to make a new start.”

Tim Hermach of the Native Forest Council, a “zero-cut” proponent and outspoken critic of the Sierra Club’s position, agreed. “The event was good,” he says. “It brought me face-to-face with some of the activists I’ve reviled in the past. I found common ground with them.”

Tensions will no doubt resurface among conservation groups as they continue working on many different ideological and political fronts to reform forestry practices. “But during the Clearcut exercise,” says Sierra Club Conservation Director Bruce Hamilton, “a lot of disagreements were put aside. We realized how much we have in common, and how much we stand to gain by working together.”

 

This article appeared in Sierra, July-August, 1994.

 

 

 

A tragic, poetic, adventurous life: Rimbaud

rimbaudRimbaud, by Graham Robb; W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.
The original rebel poet adventurer

 

SAN FRANCISCO, March, 2001:  

 

Many Rimbauds have haunted San Francisco. Once this city was resplendent with Rimbauds reciting fiery, fragmented poems in dingy cafés, drinking and carousing, ingesting all kinds of dope, defecating and puking in alleys on their stumbling way home. The general populace appreciated them for channeling our Bohemian spirit with anarchist fervor and literary zeal. They were our anti-heroes.

Now, in a city that even Beat-era poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti concedes has succumbed to the sludge of corporate monoculture, Rimbauds are scarcely seen or heard outside of the Haight and a few other select neighborhoods that still make room for wretched visionaries and vagabond geniuses. Who here now even knows who the original Rimbaud was?!

rimbaud-premiere
Rimbaud

To loosely paraphrase and embellish upon the latest, most exciting tome in the always churning Rimbaud-studies industry – Graham Robb’s splendid Rimbaud (W. W. Norton & Co., 2000) – he was a teen literary terrorist of late 19th century France who famously sucked up to and came to dominate a married Parisian poet 12 years his senior, Paul Verlaine, who was smitten with the provincial lad’s radical verse, tender body, crude habits, irreverent attitudes, and vast, poetic insights into the nature of humanity, himself, and the written word.

Arthur Rimbaud shredded poor Verlaine emotionally, financially, and poetically (not that Verlaine didn’t try giving as good as he got), turned poetry on its head, gained ill repute as a sodomite, boozer and home destroyer, crossed paths often with the cops, and alienated every other poet and friend. He abruptly said “fuck you” to poetry at age 19 and went slogging around the continent and the East Indies, struggling to find work, constantly destitute, suffering countless indignities and hardships. He eventually made his way to mostly uncharted eastern Africa (Abyssinia/Ethiopia), there to take up trading – of coffee and arms mainly, and possibly of slaves, though Robb takes pains to note that while this latter “commodity” was being heavily traded in the region at the time, and Rimbaud certainly would have had contact with it, no evidence shows Rimbaud’s direct involvement.

_______________

With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.

_______________

In his new career Rimbaud persevered and eventually excelled under the harshest imaginable conditions, becoming one of France’s most infamous explorers and adventurers, a man of extraordinary cunning and ambition, portrayed by Robb as hard-bitten but fair, often reclusive but engaging and even charming in social circumstances, respectful of and perceptive about his African friends, neighbors, clients, rivals and potential enemies, all of whom in turn respected Rimbaud. Though he complained bitterly of his circumstances in plain-prose letters to his mother and sister, he felt at home under African skies, no matter that his hair had grayed and his skin turned leathery. He emerged a master of the incredibly brutal trading game, constructed of the same outlaw mold (judging from Robb’s description) as contemporary American commodities trader Marc Rich, he of the infamous pardon.

Rimbaud, too, was on the lamb – from his pederastic past, from scandal, from anything even resembling poetry, from the draft board he kept eluding, from the clammy climate back home, from his implacable mother, from the sheer miserableness of his life. He had been a superior perceiver; alas, others (save Verlaine) did not share his perceptions, nor even understand them. With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.

It’s a seamless life Robb vividly portrays, an enormous accomplishment. The great challenge for biographers has been to make sense of Rimbaud despite the distressingly slim documentation of his adult years and the marked difference in personas manifested by Rimbaud in his teens versus his 20s and 30s (he died agonizingly of a cancerous leg at age 37).

Invariably, every biographer comes to the question: Why did Rimbaud give up on poetry? And the answer to that question must serve as the transition from one Rimbaud life to another. Robb’s reply (in part): “Rimbaud’s interest in his own work . . . did not survive the failure of all his adult relationships . . . . Without a constant companion, he was writing in a void. . . . He might have felt in any case that his poetry had crossed the limits of communicability and turned into a simple waste of energy.”

Robb’s intimacy with Rimbaud’s poetry and the field of poetics shines in this work, and those who most savor textual analysis will feel amply rewarded by the book. But Robb’s skills transcend literary interpretation, gripping readers with his delight at historical sleuthing, eagerly filling in gaps with new information and insights and telling us where other biographers have gone astray (he’s particularly harsh on Enid Starkie, one of the first and most famous of Rimbaud’s biographers, who cleaned up Rimbaud’s image to suit Victorian tastes). Robb is both a master researcher and storyteller, having honed his skills on previous, highly acclaimed biographies of Victor Hugo and Balzac. He displays a poetic sensitivity not only to the vulnerable teen versifier but to the rugged adventurer, telling a well-documented tale sure to hold armchair adventurers in thrall with details of camel caravans, Koranic debates, bloody wars, secretive deals, intolerable climates, international intrigue, and daring escapades.

A sense of sheer delight at the subject matter pervades Robb’s Rimbaud. You sense his enthusiasm, and share it. He strips away veils of myth about Rimbaud, who since his death in 1891 has been romanticized to death. Careful not to take too much poetic license (unlike Jeremy Reed’s fabulously impressionistic Delirium, which goes overboard for a wonderful romp), Robb nonetheless breathes life into Rimbaud and all the remarkable characters in his Dickensian life.

From a queer perspective, one shortcoming of this work, as of all speculations on Rimbaud’s life in Africa, is it’s inability to track Rimbaud’s sexuality as a post-poet adventurer. Robb speculates a bit on the relationship of Rimbaud to an Abyssinian woman, Miriam, with whom the trader apparently had a liaison from 1884-86. But any hints of lingering homosexuality on Rimbaud’s part – apart from slim evidence of something between him and his long-time servant, Djami – have vanished. Says Robb: “In fact, there is no sign that Rimbaud had any lasting emotional attachment at all after 1886.”

While that may be true, the conclusion is unsatisfying. It is difficult to accept that the man who as a teenager flaunted his buggery and wrote paeans to the anus now had ceased to be sexual, or at least to take sensual delight in the Abyssinian and Muslim men who constantly surrounded him. Yet Robb, being a responsible scholar, dares not take readers into the realm of speculation, and we must be content for now, until some invaluable, long-lost correspondence turns up to help further demystify Rimbaud, to let Rimbaud remain sexless.

This review originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, March 15, 2001

A Woman’s India

The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri, Norton, 2008.

the_age_of_shiva_manil_suriSoon after I started reading the novel The Age of Shiva by Bombay-born, Maryland resident Manil Suri — in which the fabric of India unfolds from the perspective of a young woman coming of age just after India’s liberation from British rule — I had to double check the author’s name to confirm that a man, not a woman, was the writer. So few men have the knack for conveying the mind, body, heart and soul of women convincingly, and this novel, written chiefly in the first person, convinced me from the outset that I was experiencing India from a Hindu woman’s point of view. Suri’s portrayal of this woman’s interior life pulses with verisimilitude, and his descriptions of the political and religious currents swirling around her afford a gripping, deeply penetrating portrayal of India’s complex clash of cultures. The novel, Suri’s second, following The Death of Vishnu, possesses the same potent combination of exquisite intimacy, vivid portraiture, rich cultural insights and powerful setting and storyline that enraptured me when I read Anita Diamant’s brilliant The Red Tent, which took me deep into the heart of woman territory in the days of Genesis.

Suri’s novel builds its momentum amid events of Biblical proportion as ancient animosities between Muslims and Hindus give rise to turbulent politics, yet Suri keeps his sharpest focus on the tightly regimented world of Meera, growing up in a family that has known too much of wars, mass migrations, and shattered dreams. The cloistering environment, suffocating traditions, and male-dominated society Meera must navigate as she seeks her own independence illustrate the challenges for Hindu women that persist even today. Meera’s family, after fleeing the new Pakistan for old India, must cope with rising Hindu Nationalism, virulent anti-Muslim sentiment, strict religious traditions, and sharply limited options for women. They’ve settled into some form of upper-middle-class normalcy, yet through Meera’s childhood and as she reaches womanhood, the currents of history and tradition sweep all around her, constantly threatening to ruin her life.

“Everyone knows the bride isn’t supposed to return to her father’s house for three months,” Meera’s new mother-in-law tells her after she marries a young man from a poor family and soon regrets being away from the comforts her father had provided her. Her life with her ineffectual, sad excuse for a husband, and her will to overcome the domineering of her father, all drive her to pursue her perilous course in a turbulent world constantly buffeted by Lord Shiva. But she is Parvati, Shiva’s wife, able to overcome the brute stupidity and dull egotism of males while basking in the sweet sensuousness and keen survival instincts of the females in her life.

In this global age of shifting fortunes and cultures, India looms huge on the American horizon, yet we barely know our new cousins. For many here, India is a caricature of smiling Ganeshas, intense yogis, high-tech call centers, Bollywood and Gandhi.  The Age of Shiva gets under the gloss, exposing the heart of India, connecting us emotionally and spiritually with our Indian kin.

The Unspoken Reason: Into the Wilderness

From Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey (Artisan/The Greenwich Workshop; 1995). Artwork by Stephen Lyman. Text by Mark Mardon.
Lyman_Cathedral_Snow
“Cathedral Snow,” painting by Stephen Lyman

The wilderness holds answers to more questions
 than we yet know how to ask. — Nancy Newhall

 

On an especially clear morning in Yosemite Valley, on the north bank of the Merced River, Steve Lyman awakes from a night of slumber and for a long while remains stretched out in his sleeping bag, meditating on the scenery surrounding him. A sublime daybreak, he thinks, especially with craggy old Half Dome already exuberantly awake and busy catching and pitching back the first rays of a new spring sun. It is an image the artist has absorbed again and again on visits to Yosemite—this is his 35th trip to the national park in the last 17 years—but one that, as usual, fills him with an eagerness and anticipation verging on giddiness.

Why the feeling of such elation is hard to say precisely. Perhaps it’s that the monolith’s wise, wrinkled face, beaming down at him, beckons him to begin yet another backcountry adventure, promising myriad discoveries along the way. Or maybe it’s that after too long a period of winter dormancy in his northern Idaho home, he will once more be shedding the trappings of the artist’s workaday life to run and climb free in the wilds, reveling in the majestic Sierra Nevada landscape, testing his mountain-climbing reflexes, regaining his bearings, stretching his senses to the limit.

His body is groggy at the moment, not from sleep but from a winter spent tending to work, family, and community. But soon he will rebound as he treks cross-country toward hard-to-reach places recommended to him by Yosemite National Park historian and good friend Jim Snyder, who has explored pretty much all of the park and knows which hiking challenges will earn Steve the greatest scenic rewards.

Within hours after embarking on the trail, he’ll once again become fully alert, attuned to the subtlest natural phenomena: a tiger swallowtail butterfly emerging from its chrysalis after a long winter spent dangling from a twig, newly resplendent in its lemon-yellow and black-striped gossamer apparel; blossoms of dwarf huckleberry livening a stream side, that will soon be yielding sweet berries for hungry black bears; the long, noisy kaaaaa of a Clark’s nutcracker, flitting from tree to tree in search of a mate, its black-and-gray plumage stark against the snowy ground at timberline.

Perhaps the simplest way the artist can explain his high spirits is to recognize his intense attraction to mountains and all the living things that abound in them, like that of John Muir, his spiritual mentor. Through his explorations and paintings of the wild country of the American West, he exults in the variety and depth of feelings evoked by the Range of Light and its rocky kin in Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and other rugged states.

Steve never ceases to marvel at the way a Yosemite landscape can emerge and vanish and re-emerge again as clouds and fog roll in and out of the valley. “It’s rather like a dream sometimes,” he says. “You turn your back, and the mountain’s gone.”

Lyman_Painting
Stephen Lyman at work in his studio.

With his artist’s eye, Steve sees the mountains and valleys as Muir did, vivid in shadow and light.

“Pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white,” Muir wrote of a sunrise in his first summer in the Sierra: “Sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn.”

But even the urge to partake of such visual nourishment cannot in itself adequately explain why Steve so eagerly takes to the heights. It’s that old question: Why climb a mountain? The answer is not something that can be adequately expressed in words. The only way to understand what motivates a mountaineer is to seek out and engage the wilderness, for only in climbing the mountain does the answer becomes clear.

Many people have many ideas about what wilderness signifies. To those with a grasp of ancient history, it is the threatened remnants of the disappearing, primeval landscapes that once dominated this earth–Eden before Adam and Eve. For others of a scientific bent, it is a vast research library, field museum, and living laboratory all rolled into one. Legalistic minds tend to conceive of it as roadless areas undisturbed by motor vehicles, harboring particularly fine scenic or biological values worthy of public protection–areas where, as The Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Mining, timber, and grazing interests eye public lands as a free meal ticket, a commercial bounty ripe for the picking. Certain politicians beholden to those interests see wilderness protection as an outmoded idea, a prime target for budget cuts. Romantics in the tradition of Muir look upon mountains, forests, deserts, prairies, and wild seashores as conscious, breathing entities, sensitive to the way humans and other creatures touch them. This surely gets close to the heart of the matter, the artist nods to himself, else why would so many people run to the wilderness with such a yearning, as though it were their lover?

For Edward Abbey, wilderness represented nothing less than liberation. “It is my fear,” he once wrote in his journal, “that if we allow the freedom of the hills and of the wilderness to be taken from us, then the very idea of freedom may be taken with it.” Thoreau, who Abbey revered, put it even more concisely: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

For some unlucky souls, wilderness is no comforting companion. Nature appreciation is a fine art that requires tutoring. Those who have never experienced the solace and grandeur of such untamed wonderlands as Yosemite, Alaska’s Denali National Park, Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, or any of a thousand other untrammeled places may all too casually shrug off the importance of wild country, or even come to fear it. They may consider undeveloped landscapes to be environments separate from and uninviting to human society, places alien, remote, harsh, and inhabited by fearsome creatures.

Such thinking is as old as civilization itself. The very idea of securing hearth and home from the forces of barbarism came about from people’s struggle with a wilderness vastly more powerful than themselves, that seemed always on the verge of overwhelming them. Prior to the marriage of science and technology in the mid-19th century, which gave rise to the industrial age, humans may have shaped the land–as did the Romans, Egyptians, Hollanders, and even Native Americans, in different ways and to varying degrees–but they never never became divorced from it in pursuit of their livelihoods. As individuals went to work in factories and started consuming packaged products, however, many became estranged from it., to the point that they grew increasingly indifferent to it or even contemptuous of it.

Great writers of that time, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, warned us against our new found sense of superiority over the wilderness, but not against our impending alienation from it. Ultimately, man was an animal and the wilderness a great, untamable beast. Try as we might, it was something we would not overcome.

Technological optimism has changed that idea dramatically. As farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry observes in The Gift of Good Land, until the industrial revolution, the dominant images in people’s minds were organic: “they had to do with living things; they were biological, pastoral, agricultural, or familial.” Now, he laments, people are referred to as “units,” the body as a machine, food as fuel, thoughts as “inputs,” and responses as “feedback.” In such a lexicon, where does the wilderness survive? Ours is a society that thinks it doesn’t need wilderness anymore, that believes people can invent their own life-support systems and artificial environments rather than having to put up with the inconveniences of nature’s cycles.

Yet we are also living in a time when people feel increasingly that something spiritual is missing from their lives, that the natural rhythms and cycles that formerly sustained humanity are breaking down. Correspondingly, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of messengers and their manifestations: Angels, The Light, and even extraterrestrials. Their message, however, is, at the core, always the same: something has been lost, and without it people’s lives can never be full.

To Steve Lyman, once again enjoying the freedom of the hills, what civilization truly needs in order to shore up its crumbling foundation is a universal acknowledgement that wilderness, in the final analysis, may be the ultimate salve for psyches wounded by humanity’s alienation from the nature that gave it birth. Muir himself expressed the notion that wilderness, like poetry, music, art, and religion, nurtures that part of us for which science cannot account. In the mountains, he observed, there are times when a person’s soul sets forth upon rambles on its own accord, without consulting first with mind or body. On such occasions, “brooding over some vast mountain landscape, or among the spiritual countenances of mountain flowers, our bodies disappear, our mortal coils come off without any shuffling, and we blend into the rest of Nature, utterly blind to the boundaries that measure human quantities into separate individuals.

“

To spend time in the wilderness, observed Marion Randall in The Sierra Club Bulletin of 1905, is to touch something vital at the core of the universe:

For a little while you have dwelt close to the heart of things. . . . You have lived day-long amid the majesty of snowy ranges, and in the whispering silences of the forest you have thought to hear the voice of Him who “flies upon the wings of the wind.” And these things live with you long after the outing has passed and you are back in the working world, linger even until the growing year once more brings around the vacation days and you are ready to turn to the hills again, whence comes, not only your help, but your strength, your inspiration, and some of the brightest hours you have ever lived.

The snowmelt on the rim of Yosemite Valley, Steve observes as he packs his gear and prepares to set out on his trek, has hardly swollen the Merced. The river’s low water line and placid current are what he would expect during summer rather than early spring. But in the wilderness, expectations are often confounded. That’s part of the backpacking allure: the surprise, the serendipitous discoveries. Indeed, Steve has come to understand that the best journeys are often those arrived at spontaneously, without the burden of detailed planning. Rather than plotting every leg of a hike from start to finish and then attempting to follow the route step by step, he prefers to arrive at the edge of the wild country with no clear itinerary, to camp there for a night and let the mountains’ spirit embrace him during his sleep. That way, in the morning, he can embark on a more spontaneous, free-spirited, and fulfilling adventure. The wilderness itself will point the way. He likes to let the mountains be his guide.

__________

 

The Fall of A Mountaineer Artist
Monday, April 22, 1996
stephen_lyman
Stephen Lyman

Wilderness painter. photographer, and philosopher Stephen Lyman, with whom I had the honor of collaborating on the book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey, died in Yosemite in April, 1996, having met with a freak storm and an unlucky fall from a perch in the Cathedral Rocks area of Yosemite Valley. Yosemite has known many exceptional painters — Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith among them — and great mountaineers, from John Muir to David Brower. Steve Lyman ranks among these stellar personages for his love and devotion to the Range of Light, and for his ability to express that love through his art.

Into_The_Wilderness_BOOKAbove is the opening chapter of our book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey. The chapter’s title, “The Unspoken Reason,” reflects Steve’s reluctance to say precisely why he journeyed into the backcountry. Such sentiments, he felt, could never be adequately expressed in words. “The Unspoken Reason” also, I feel, speaks to the question of why Steve, at too young an age, met his end in the valley that held such a claim on his heart.

My gratitude to former Sierra Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jonathan F. King for connecting me with The Greenwich Workshop and Steve Lyman.

Can-Do Strategies for Conservation

World Enough and Time: Successful Strategies for Resource Management, by Robert Repetto, Yale University Press, 1986.

The Global Possible: Resources, Development, and the New Century, edited by Robert Repetto, Yale University Press, 1986.

World_Enough_Robert_RepettoEver since the publication of The Global 2000 Report to the President in 1980, which Jimmy Carter commissioned to be the most detailed study of natural resources ever compiled, those who burn the midnight oil in resource-policy institutes have struggled earnestly to sway the thinking of the powers that be. Typically, the analysts are divided into two groups: the technological optimists (I call them TOs) and the environmental realists (ERs). The former promote progress at any cost, advocating exploitation of all the world’s resources; the latter call for restraint and conservation, seeking to preserve something of nature’s wealth for generations to come.

Global 2000 seemed to be a boon to the ERs because it tended to legitimize their views. “If present trends continue,” it said, “the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically. . . .”  But their satisfaction soon turned to dismay in the face of biting attacks from the TOs, who decried the report as bleak pessimism, flawed in its conception, and a waste of taxpayers’ money.  The TOs said that accepting Global 2000’s conclusions would place a serious economic drag on society. The attack was effective: The powerful were vindicated and the TO worldview became a cornerstone of government policy.

In light of this rebuff, two new publications from the World Resources Institute may have a profound effect on the ER viewpoint. World Enough and Time and The Global Possible breathe sheer light and optimism.  They envision a grand future and point to bold ways in which humans can shape their world for posterity. Indeed, they so alter the usual thinking of the ERs that we may well have to change the acronym to Eos, for environmental optimists.

Not that these books are free of the inevitably dry prose and endless repetitions that characterize institutional studies.  They are, bot be frank, full of such things. Robert Repetto, who wrote the first book and edited the second, has done his best to give them some momentum, despite the inherent weightiness of the subject matter.  It is clear, though, that not even the denseness of the material could obscure the central idea of both books: that sustainable development is possible, and that we can manage resources so our children will have their rightful inheritance. Not only do the books tell us we can do it, they tell us how.

Global_PossibleThis is truly can-do environmentalism. Repetto spells out the possibilities: “Agricultural production can expand to meet all future demands . . . without exerting destructive pressures on marginal lands, water resources or ecological systems”; Economic growth can be sustained with markedly lower energy inputs . . . that do not imperil the climate or the natural environment.”

And so on: Forest resources can be stabilized. Nonfuel minerals can be supplied. Pollution can be markedly reduced. Cities can be made healthier.

All these things and more can be done, given the will of the powerful to do them. And it is clearly the powerful that these books are trying to persuade. The proposals presented here are aimed at motivating decision-makers in private organizations, businesses, the scientific community, international organizations, developing nations and – most important – the governments of industrial nations. These are the ones who can say “yes, we can.”

But there are certain imperatives: transition to a stable population with low birth and death rates; transition to high efficiency in production based on increased reliance on renewable resources; reliance on nature’s surplus without depletion of its resource base; economic transition to sustainable development and broader sharing of its benefits; and striking a global political bargain that recognizes the common interests of all nations.

Not all these possibilities, Repetto says, are expensive to achieve. In some cases they represent a low-cost approach. One example is the 3M Company of St. Paul, Minn., which saved 60 percent ($200 million) in annual operating and maintenance costs by reformulating products and redesigning processes to eliminate more than 90,000 tons of air pollutants, 10,000 tons of water pollutants, a million gallons of wastewater, and 150,000 tons of solid wastes each year.

Very little of what is presented here is new. These programs have been advocated elsewhere for many years. It has been suggested before that materials, credit, and technical support be given to help farmers restore degraded watersheds. Establishing comprehensive protected areas of rainforests to conserve genetic resources is not a new idea. It has been said that the educational and employment opportunities for women should be increased, both to improve their welfare generally and to contribute to a decline in worldwide fertility rates. And yet there is something in the enthusiasm and optimism – the vigor – of these books and their prescriptions for progress that is quite exciting. Hundreds of ideas are explored.

What Repetto and the contributors to The Global Possible have done is to take all the old, stale prescriptions and breath life into them. They have put them into a context that is believable, supportable, and feasible.

With The Global Possible and World Enough and Time, yet another institution has emerged to try to influence the thinking of the powerful.  With the brashness of can-doers, this time the ERs might succeed.

###

Mark Mardon, a director of the United Nations Association of San Francisco, is Sierra’s editorial secretary.

 

This article appeared in Sierra, September/October 1986.

Another Rush for the Ark

The Last Extinction, edited by Les Kaufman and Ken Mallory, The MIT Press, 1986. 

TheLastExtinctionIt wasn’t so long ago that for John Muir and the likes of him, it sufficed to protect wilderness because it was “Godful,” a beautiful “celestial city.”  But modern conservationists, Rutgers biologist David Ehrenfeld laments in his contribution to The Last Extinction, seek to preserve wilderness primarily to protect “a potential source of new drugs to cure cancer, of hydrocarbons and fuel oils from plants, of natural rubber, of genes for insect resistance of crop plants,” and so on, intoning the whole litany of “useful” purposes wilderness serves for humankind.  This is dangerously close to adopting the ideological rationale of the enemy, Ehrenfeld says, echoing the sentiments of the deep ecology movement. One supposes that for him the enemy consists of developers and industrialists, exploiters of the natural environment.

As an alternative to this utilitarian approach to conservation, Ehrenfeld urges us toward stewardship of the planet, an ancient concept that most can be comfortable with.  But in so doing he seems inadvertently to admonish and contradict some of the other contributors to The Last Extinction. Les Kaufman and Ken Mallory have brought together seven authors with conflicting styles and viewpoints in this wide-ranging, uneven, sometimes clumsy discussion of the extinction crisis. The result is a hodgepodge of opinions in a book that never quite hangs together.

Kaufman, a curator at the New England Aquarium, reminds us that plant and animal species worldwide are vanishing at a rate approaching and possibly exceeding that of the Late Cretaceous, when all dinosaur lineages abruptly ceased. This mass extinction, he says, demands immediate attention as one of the most serious problems facing the world today.

Most environmentalists could not agree more. Just to make sure we get the point, though, the editors include an entire chapter devoted to paleontological evidence of mass extinctions. David Jablonski concludes that the current extinction of species is not only occurring earlier (by half) than it ought to be in the usual 26-million-year cycle, it is also being caused primarily by humans. Good information – but for conservationists, merely an update on old news.

The next chapter, focusing at length on the endangered Amazon, reflects the book’s spotty coverage of its topic, neglecting vast bioregions of the world in favor of an almost exclusively Western Hemisphere approach.  “Just as the Garden of Eden was given to Adam and Eve to use,” Ghillean T. Prance writes about the disappearing rainforests, “the Amazon comprises a wealth of useful species that we cannot ignore.

This is exactly the sort of materialism that Ehrenfeld warns against. Even so, the motive to secure a potentially infinite supply of medicine, food, and fuel plants becomes compellingly clear in light of the vast number of animal and plant species that stand to be lost in the spreading destruction.  The question, then, is how to allow for essential development while maintaining the integrity of fragile rainforest ecosystems. The answer, Prance says, “is not to create a vast biological reserve as a playground for naturalists and rich tourists,” but to practice a balance of conservation and utilization. This means exploring the rainforests to learn “as much as we can from what is left of their indigenous culture.”  It means that botanists and zoologists must conduct an urgent inventory to discover the “useful” native plants and animals: capybara, turtle, deer, tapir, agouti, and others. It means developing sustainable agricultural systems, relying more heavily on trees and perennial crops than on exposing areas of fragile soil to the leaching, compacting power of tropical rains. The emphasis of all programs must be on maintaining diversity. Otherwise, mass extinction will spread at an irreversible rate.

A well-written but philosophically disturbing part of The Last Extinction comes toward the end of the book: a discussion about the role of zoos and aquariums as repositories for genetic material during the coming centuries of habitat upheaval.

In a chapter entitled “Riders of the Last Ark,” Thomas J. Foose of the Minnesota Zoological Gardens observes that the “demographic winter” now settling in will last anywhere from 200 to 1,000 years.  This will be a period characterized by enormous, uncontrolled human population growth, resulting in the devastation of wildlands, the disappearance of wildlife, and the disruption of ecosystems. We will be unable to prevent the destruction of many habitats; so zoos and aquariums, Foose argues, must serve as animal and plant refugee camps. These institutions must equip themselves to preserve examples of animals and plants against the day when their lost habitats can be restored. But since it is neither physically nor economically feasible to keep captive and alive all the species whose habitats are being destroyed, Foose maintains, it will be necessary to preserve them in another way: as germ plasm in a “frozen zoo.” The raw genetic material of as many animals and plants as possible must be preserved.

This is an extremist concept that demonstrates the severity of the extinction crisis, and Foose argues it well. Genetic diversity is vital to the survival of species. Large habitats allow for large gene pools, but “gene pools are being converted into gene puddles.” Already, remaining wildlands have become virtual “megazoos,” islands of unspoiled habitat in an expanding sea of human settlement. These megazoos are important because of the genetic diversity they harbor. This is why the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has developed a “species survival plan,” which has species coordinators deciding which plants and animals may board the ark of survival. When there is not enough space, hard decisions will have to be made about whether to preserve a species ore let it go—a decision Foose and others call euthanasia.

“Many zoo professionals believe euthanasia will be essential if the conservation responsibilities of captive facilities are to be fulfilled,” Foose says. But equally appropriate and less euphemistic would be the war-related term “triage,” the allocation of treatment to disaster victims according to a priority system designed to maximize the number of survivors. This is what Foose and his colleagues are advocating.

Ultimately one has to wonder to what extent this view is wound up with the author’s intimate involvement with and faith in zoos. After all, they are by no means universally accepted by conservationists. To some, the mere presence of zoos encourages the perception that we can safely allow the disappearance of natural habitats while maintaining zoos as our arks. The reassurance this notion offers is deceptive, in that it allows us to be complacent in the face of continuing environmental destruction.

Conservationists will have to face this issue squarely. Have we appointed our zoos and aquariums to act as arks? Can we believe that after a thousand years the “frozen zoos” will be able to release re-constituted species into rejuvenated wildlands? The answers to these questions are based on countless assumptions that must be sorted out. The public must take responsibility for decisions that will shape the environment of the next millennium.

This article appeared in Sierra, March/April 1987.

Still Haunting After All These Years: Arthur Evans

It’s Witchcraft!

Arthur_Evans
Arthur Evans

“My goal in writing Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture was to create a better society,” says activist, historian, and philosopher Arthur Evans of the radical gay history published 20 years ago by Fag Rag Books and still in print today. “Every sentence in the book has a political edge to it. Some people view that as a weakness; I view it as a great strength.”

Evans’ tone on this recent afternoon in his tidy Upper Haight Street apartment, where he has lived since the mid-’70s, is one of both aggressive pride and bold defiance. No doubt he has his critics in mind when he touts his own work’s determined bias and intentional lack of neutral “objectivity.”

Though the first and undoubtedly most famous and influential of Evans’ three books to date (the others being The God of Ecstasy in 1988 and Critique of Patriarchal Reason in 1997), Witchcraft, which painstakingly documents centuries of persecution of gay and lesbian pagans by Christians and others, has never been regarded seriously by mainstream scholars, not even by those who are gay or lesbian.

Not that Evans has ever sought mainstream recognition or praise. On the contrary, he has always relished working outside academia. But operating in near isolation can be a lonely endeavor, bound at times to rankle even the most stalwart misanthrope.

Never has Evans harbored any great love for mankind. Which is not to say that, as an openly gay man, he hasn’t loved specific men, and maybe even certain classes of men (likely those who live up to his rigorous ethical standards, or whose marginalized existence as victims of persecution exempts them from critique). But for men in general, Evans holds a great contempt.

The males of our species, Evans has averred both in his writings and in numerous conversations with this writer over the years, are responsible for most of the ills of this world. The term he utters repeatedly with special contempt is “patriarchy,” generally coupled with industrialism, militarism, and organized religion, especially Christianity.

When such man-made institutions “were used to suppress what was called witchcraft and heresy” in Medieval Europe, insists Evans, they “actually created the grounds for reinforcing misogyny and homophobia in the modern world.

Midnight hags

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Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: A powerfully influential book in the gay counterculture of faeries, pagans, witches, and rebels.

Those who have delved into Evans’ Witchcraft understand very well that the image of “midnight hags” hunched over stew pots, muttering “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble,” is not merely Shakespearean artistic license. Rather, that sort of prejudiced characterization stems directly from the relentless campaign by Christians over the course of centuries to wipe paganism off the face of the earth.

The people who came to be called witches in Medieval Europe were believers in pagan gods. They practiced ancient agrarian rituals and celebrated human sexuality, including homosexuality. For this affront to the monolithic, sexphobic, and harshly intolerant Christian church, according to Evans, they paid a dear price.

“The term ‘witchcraft,'” says Evans, “originally derived from ‘wicca,’ a word that meant knowledge of craft or skill. A witch was a woman, or sometimes a man, who was skilled in the craft of communicating with the powers of nature, of conjuring them up. This could be good or evil, depending on the intentions of the practitioner. However, from the Christian point of view, it was all evil. They viewed it as a form of heresy, the hankering after false gods.”

_______________

“Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality.”

________________

Particularly repugnant to the Christians was homosexuality, adds Evans: “A lot of the people accused of heresy were accused because of their sexual practices, not primarily because they were advocating heretical dogmas.”

In a time when conservative gay Catholics like Andrew Sullivan hold sway in the gay community, preaching the gospel of assimilation while an adoring gay choir sings the virtues of Puritanism, writing about witches in relation to queer people still sounds, well, radical, and radicals these days are an endangered breed of political animal.

Yet, a surprisingly large number of queer people have not only read Evans’ book, but taken to heart many of its historical lessons. So profound has been the volume’s influence over the years, Witchcraft has assumed a place of primary importance in the annals of gay and lesbian history.

By the time Evans started work on Witchcraft during his first years in San Francisco, he had already established his radical gay credentials as an activist in New York City. He joined the radical Gay Liberation Front soon after the Stonewall uprising, where he and friends formed the Radical Study Group to examine the historical roots of sexism and homophobia.

“We didn’t have queer theory in those days,” says Evans. “We had something better: gay activism. I’m not a queer theorist, I’m a gay activist, and proud of it!”

Soon after, Evans and others founded the militant Gay Activists Alliance, where they engaged “zaps”- non-violent, face-to-face confrontations with homophobes in positions of authority.

 

 Sodom and SF

Eventually Evans wearied of urban life and politics, so he and his second lover, Jacob Schraeter, left New York in 1972 to live in a small wooded settlement outside Seattle that they named New Sodom. After two years in the commune, Evans and Schraeter moved to San Francisco, where Evans was to make his most lasting contributions to gay culture.

“In 1975 I helped create a group in this room called the Faery Circle of San Francisco,” says Evans. “We held rituals, trying to evoke the pagan sensibility of nature and sex.”

As he soon discovered, similar gatherings were taking place – by coincidence – across the country, with queer pagan groups in New Mexico, Washington state, and Texas.

“For the most part we were independent flowers popping out of the soil,” Evans laughs. “It was a really wonderful spontaneous outburst.”

Participants in the Faery Circle were the first to buy and read Witchcraft when it was published in 1978. The book got a further boost after 1979, when Harry Hay and friends formed “a gathering of radical faeries.” Soon, large regional faery gatherings were taking place around the country, with Evans’ book being widely read by the participants.

“The book reaches far beyond faeriedom,” says Evans, “either my early vision of it, or Harry Hay’s. The central theme of the book, and one that I think makes it relevant to every generation of lesbian and gay men, is its insistence that being gay is not just an isolated fact hanging in the air. Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality. That is the cornerstone of everything I’ve ever written.”

***

A celebration of the 20th anniversary of Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture took place at 3 p.m. Saturday, October 24, 1998 at A Different Light Bookstore, 489 Castro St. in San Francisco. Evans encouraged those interested in queer history to first read The God of Ecstasy, a re-working of Euripides’ The Bacchai, which details the persecution of gays and lesbians in ancient Greece and Rome.

 

Arthur Evans died Sept. 13, 2011 at the age of 69 in his apartment in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. 

Hardest of the Hard: William Burroughs

Word Virus cuts close to William Burroughs’ granite core.

Word_VirusWas there ever a writer more hard-bitten than William S. Burroughs, either in person or in prose? Genet, a close contender, by comparison was flowery and sentimental. Raymond Chandler’s detective stories? Not nearly as crusty. Burroughs’ writing, as metallic and riveting as the bullet casings he left littering his real and fictional paths, reflected not only his ultra-cynical worldview, but his own emotional straight-jacketing.

Lise so many others enamored of the Burroughs mythology, I’ve read a few of his novels (Queer, Junkie, the third installment in his “Red Night Trilogy,” The Western Lands), digested articles about him, seen him in a few films, discussed him in literary circles, observed punk rockers and art fags idolizing him, heard his gravely recorded voice droning on about filth, drugs, boys, corruption, disease and death, and imagined him as the height of cool. But until recently, I’d never had a chance to dig underneath the myth.

So I welcome Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Grove Press; $27.50, cloth; 1998), edited by James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg. As the only anthology reflecting Burroughs’ entire literary output, from his teens into his 80s, the volume lets readers trace the evolution of Burroughs’ style and preoccupations over the course of nearly 50 years. Burroughs himself, shortly before his death in 1997, approved the final selections in Word Virus., thereby stamping the anthology with his imprimatur.

The excerpted writings, however, while showcasing Burroughs’ brilliantly caustic mind at work and fascinating in their enormous variety — the selected passages range from a previously unpublished collaboration with Jack Kerouac in 1945 to Burroughs’ Yagé letters to Alan Ginsberg in 1953, his alternately acclaimed and reviled novel Naked Lunch in the late ’50s, his experimental “cut-ups” from the late ’50s and early ’60s, his monumental “Red Night Trilogy” from the early ’70s to the late ’80s, and, near the end, his most sentimental writing – about his cat – from the mid-’80s — do not by themselves offer a satisfying grasp of Burroughs’ enormously complex motivations.

For that, readers need some backgrounding by the editors. Fortunately, adding immeasurably to the volume’s strength, Word Virus includes extensive biographical commentary by Grauerholz, Burroughs’ long-time editor, manager, and close friend (co-editor Silverberg, also a close friend from the early 1980s on, who served at times as Burroughs’ publisher and personal publicist, provides only a brief but illuminating editor’s preface). These reflections, largely journalistic and objective, at other times personal, cast considerable light on Burroughs’ state of mind as he moved from phase to phase of his career.

The commentary is also, simultaneously, adoring of the man. Grauerholz seems to want to humanize Burroughs, but he never really gets at the man’s emotions. He seems cautious, respectful, even over-protective. He and Silverberg were, after all, members of Burroughs’ extended queer family. We’re assured Burroughs had many deeply felt, long-lasting friendships and affairs, yet despite Grauerholz’ efforts, Burroughs still comes across as the stiff, coldly intellectual, emotionally crippled figure of popular imagining.

Shedding further light on the man, at the outset of the anthology, is a brief but excellent introductory essay by writer/scholar Ann Douglas, who analyzes Burroughs’ literary legacy and situates his work in relation to that of his peers, most notably his fellow Beat Generation progenitors Ginsberg and Kerouac.

“Cool, even icy in manner, acerbic in tone,” Douglas writes, “Burroughs once remarked that all his intimate relationships had been failures-he had denied ‘affection . . . when needed or supplied [it] when unwanted.’ He had not responded to his father’s sometimes abject pleas for love nor visited his mother in her last years in a nursing home.”

A little later, Douglas quotes a Burroughs’ line from Queer: “I don’t mind people disliking me. The question is, what are they in a position to do about it?”

The whys and wherefores of Burroughs’ tough shell are related, to some degree, by Douglas, Grauerholz, and Burroughs himself through his writing, which all focused, ultimately, on himself. We learn details about his accidental (if wildly irresponsible) killing of his wife, Joan, by gunshot; his rebellion against his privileged upper-white-class inheritance (he was grandson of inventor William Seward Burroughs, who perfected the adding machine); his first experience with morphine, when he was a mere 13; his fascination with hoboes and gangsters; and similar such details, all of great interest and a welcome contribution to Burroughs scholarship.

In this respect, to the extent any single volume can simultaneously magnify and dissect an author’s legacy, Word Virus proves moderately successful in penetrating the hardened Burroughs mystique.

Still, I can’t help feeling there’s much more to be said about why Burroughs comes across generally as such a desiccated crank-case. Even with this book, Burroughs’ psyche remains shrouded in mystique. Has his pop-culture persona been built on a foundation no sturdier than the bamboo scaffoldings Burroughs must have stumbled past often after drinking all day and shooting up nights in those crumbling Latin American cities he once haunted?

Perhaps Grauerholz, as both intimate friend and executor of Burroughs’ literary estate, could not or would not expose the innermost feelings of the man he so obviously reveres. Then again, he would know as well or better than anyone whether there was something to be exposed. Whether Grauerholz held back or not, the casual reader has little way of knowing.

What remains to be written, it seems, is a memoir about Burroughs that looks into the man’s eyes and asks squarely: “What did you feel? ” The problem is, maybe Burroughs never supplied a straightforward answer.

The Sonnet Bites Back: Lord Alfred Douglas

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‘Bosie’ Author Douglas Murray
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‘Bosie,’ aka Lord Alfred Douglas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As popular imagination has it, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie, was a faggy, foppish British poet at the turn of the 20th century who suffered – and largely brought upon himself – a disastrous and highly public fling with literary giant and big queen Oscar Wilde. Bosie came to regret having been a flaming homosexual at a time of harsh Victorian prudery and persecution, and did a dramatic about-face after Wilde’s death, turning Catholic, marrying a woman and fathering a son, denying any unwholesome dalliances with Wilde, and zealously denouncing and/or litigating against anyone associated with Wilde or Wildean vices.

For this betrayal of his kind, other practicing homosexuals never forgave him. Though he enjoyed a modicum of fame during his life, he remained an odd duck in the literary world, a sonnet composer who never adapted his formalist style to the loosening poetics of the era. Bosie left but a minor literary legacy, his personal star forever attached to and outshone by Wilde’s supernova.

To British biographer Douglas Murray, Lord Alfred has been pissed on too much by an ignorant public. The social/political upheaval surrounding Bosie’s life all but guaranteed Bosie’s early, defiantly gay poetry would not receive a fair reading or assessment in his day, nor even his more mature, Catholic poems. Young Murray decided years ago to rectify that sad state of affairs, which has resulted in his captivating biography, Bosie.

“I intended originally to write a book about poetry,” says the sunny 20-year-old author, casually attired in a white linen suit over a pale button-up T-shirt as he sips a beer at the Top of the Mark on Nob Hill, fresh from a live, on-air interview at Berkeley’s KPFA Radio. “That was one of the first things that kick-started me, finding a copy of one of his poems that hadn’t been taken out of the library in 50 years, and realizing they were bloody good. I think some of them are.”

He was a mere 15 at the time, a student at Eton prep school, and little did he know that within five years he would be one of the darlings of the book-publishing world, zipping around the globe, promoting a book published by Tina Brown’s latest enterprise, Talk Miramax Books, an imprint of Hyperion Books.

“I took a year out between Eton and Oxford,” explains Murray, asked how he managed as a student to produce such a well-researched, well-written book. “In England it’s very common. I spent my time teaching. My contemporaries did as well. And in my spare time I wrote the book.”

Douglas_Murray
Douglas Murray. Photo by Marc Geller.

No doubt marketing decisions factored into Brown’s interest in Murray. He presents at media ops just the sort of sophisticated, sexy young face and engaging personality cameras and tape recorders love to record. As important, and as enticing, is the book’s literary merit, which earns high marks. Murray stubbornly set out to show Bosie wasn’t the complete villain he’s been made out to be, and that he deserves recognition for his literary accomplishments. “I think he should be regarded as a good minor poet,” declares Douglas. To convince skeptics and lure new Bosie fans, Murray traces the intricacies of the relationships among all the key players in the Bosie/Wilde saga with dispassion, thoroughly but clearly and engagingly delineating and speculating on the facts and issues, clearly siding with his principal subject, but never a died-in-the-wool Bosie apologist.

Murray describes Bosie is “an antihero, a tremendous lesson in how not to live your life. . . . The great problem with Bosie, always has been and always was, from the beginning of his life he makes a mess of enemies.”

It may be life imitating art, but Murray himself now attends Magdalen College, Oxford – the very college Bosie attended when he had his first affair with Wilde, when it was still a haven for “schoolboy business.” Clearly Bosie was happiest in life at that time, before homophobia destroyed their love.

The key incident that almost completely unhinged Bosie was Wilde’s apparent betrayal from beyond the grave, where he was untouchable. Wilde’s seeming animus toward Bosie rose up in the form of an infamous, accusatory letter addressed to Bosie, given to one Robbie Ross to deliver, but which Bosie claimed never to have received. When that letter’s contents were read aloud in court, Wilde’s hostile words stabbed him, destroying any traces of his former carefree innocence, turning him into the ogre he became until his autumnal years.

It’s almost a Romeo and Juliet affair where letters are crossing “and don’t arrive in time, absolutely,” Murray agrees. “It’s a terribly tragic story, really two. One tragedy, although it’s the short version in the book, is the tragedy of Oscar Wilde, and the other one is the tragedy of Alfred Douglas. I have in many ways so much more sympathy with Bosie in this.”

Bosie can be admired as a fighter of enormous resolve, committed to his cause, central to which is figuring out, over many years, what exactly transpired in net of his relationship with Wilde, and to seeking redress for many and varied grievous insults he felt he had endured.

When at last in his later years Bosie allowed himself to relax, reflect and find forgiveness for himself and others, he once again regained some semblance of the brave poet who so boldly penned the words, “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” But in truth, that flame had long since expired, the torch taken up by others more true to their natures.

While Murray’s sympathies are with Bosie, his scholarship allows readers to make informed judgments. Admirers of the sonnet will, indeed, find much to admire in Bosie. He wasn’t half bad. Readers who find no mystery in a gay man going straight, on the other hand, will find no problem with Murray’s failing to cast a sufficiently critical eye on Bosie’s apparent transformation. Murray seems reluctant to criticize.

Given the repressive social atmosphere of his time, it’s not surprising Bosie proclaimed himself straight and allied himself with the Church. He had to survive. He was tired of insults, jails, rumors, and his status as social outcast. He wanted to be embraced, and for that he turned to his own aristocratic class for solace and comfort. He got but a modicum of it. One thing seems certain: had gay liberation occurred on his watch, you can bet Bosie would have jumped right in, conversion be damned. After all, the best times of his life were as a happy pervert. Bosie once wrote to Wilde from Biskra, North Africa, says Murray, “saying that he’d had a new lover and that they had sex once or twice a day, and that he was so young that the milk of his mother still hadn’t been wiped from his mouth. This boy was only I think 13; Bosie was 23.”

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, August 10, 2000

‘Out in the Castro’ — Eureka!

The old guard of San Francisco’s gay liberation movement reunite in Winston Leyland’s Out in the Castro, 2002.

 

out_in_the_castroSAN FRANCISCO: A charming reunion, fit for the history books, took place in early December, 2001, at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro. An assemblage of mostly old-guard GLBT writers, politicos, activists, photographers, preachers, journalists, editors, and artists cozied up to the lectern to proudly unveil their new work, Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism (Leyland Publications, 2002; $24.95, paper). Editor Winston Leyland, the local publishing legend, was present in the flesh, presiding over his book’s contributors like a literary hen clucking over her brood.

The place was packed with spectators, old and young and in-between, all greeting one another like family. In the newly refurbished, nicely re-arranged bookstore, it felt homey – perfect for deep immersion into the rich cultural and historical life of that part of town we call Gay Central, the nexus of queer life in San Francisco, despite its increased commercialization and tourist-centered businesses, and the squeeze put on low-income residents.

For those of us who’ve lived in gay San Francisco a while, and those just joining us who want to get a sense of where we’re all coming from, Leyland has performed a great civic service. In inviting essays and art from the likes of Anne Kronenberg, Jewelle Gomez, Frank M. Robinson, Harry Britt, Susan Stryker, Jim Mitulski, Sister Dana van Iquity (aka Dennis McMillan), N.A. Diaman, Rink Foto, and many other stalwarts of the local queer scene, Leyland has rounded up a priceless bunch of colorful, inspiring characters for our boundless enjoyment. Not everything they have to say is profound or poetic – but much of it is. Not in every case were the contributors lead players in local politics and culture – but very often they have been and still are. These are the very people who have recorded and shaped our core culture for decades – not just in the Castro, but city-wide. They have been our friends and neighbors, co-workers, teachers and leaders on many fronts. To bask in their glory at a reading or through their printed words and images is to be warmly welcomed into the bosom of gay San Francisco.

In the book, when poet/essayist Justin Chin grumpily declares he’s outgrown the Castro (in “Death of the Castro”), he reflects a sentiment common to many who’ve lived to experience the neighborhood’s changes, and disapprove. Yet despite his ho-hum assessment – “The Castro has become a few blocks of expensive T-shirt and clothing shops, juice bars, yuppie eatery chains, and trendy neighborhood shopping and dining. Thrilling, huh?” – clearly the Castro has ingrained itself in his poetic psyche: he longs for the place to be the way it was in March 1990, when he alleges it still had the power to dazzle.

Since Chin is relatively young-guard, and his tattooed style at odds with the prevailing sweater/Gap esthetic in the ‘hood – and since he didn’t appear at the reading – it was left to older, not necessarily wiser heads to more generously tout the Castro’s virtues.

Former Supervisor Harry Britt, looking every bit the statesman, started off by apologizing for a less-than-stellar essay, a piece about Harvey Milk that had been written for another publication. That’s okay, Harry: you made up for it by noting that San Francisco has become (to use a phrase by writer Hakim Bey) a Temporary Autonomous Zone – a secure place where queers can enjoy a fair amount of freedom to be themselves. Some might say that’s just another term for gay ghetto, and they might be right. But as Britt noted, it was in the Castro ghetto that Harvey Milk rose to prominence, becoming a symbol of freedom for lesbians and gay men world-wide.

Solid settings for Milk’s saga are provided by historians Susan Stryker (“How the Castro Became San Francisco’s Gay Neighborhood”), and Jim Duggins (“Out in the Castro: Creating a Gay Subculture, 1947 – 1969”). They do an admirable job of tracking the evolution of Eureka Valley (aka The Castro), from its working-class Irish Catholic roots to its becoming the focal-point for a revolutionary gay-rights movement. Leyland opens the books with their pieces, giving readers ample preparation for the more personal perspectives to come.

Harvey Milk is central to Anne Kronenberg‘s recollections (“Everybody Needed Milk”), since she personally experienced the stresses, strains, triumphs and tragedy of working alongside the “Mayor of Castro Street.” So, too, was Frank M. Robinson (“Castro Street, That Great Street”) up front and center to the spectacle – and his account, among all of the contributors, is one of the richest in detail, colorfully capturing the hippy-ish flavor of the Castro in the 1970s, during the heyday of gay lib. It is from him that we learn of the large role played by hippies in the development of the Castro – that Harvey Milk was, in fact, a hippie from New York City. Robinson, who’d worked as a reporter for the underground press in the Haight Ashbury, got caught up in Milk’s campaign and the subsequent euphoria – and tragedy. His personal perspective puts us vividly up close and center in those heady, extraordinary times.

Things get even more personal in the reminiscences of Blackberri (“Andy’s – Center of the Universe”), who moved to the city from Nebraska in 1971, at age 21, and ended up working at and eventually owning Andy’s Donughts in the Castro, before going on to buy a leather bar, The Bootcamp, on Folsom Street. He was friends with Cosmic Lady (aka Janet Planet), and personally experienced the cosmic presences of the Cockettes, the Angels of Light, Divine, Sylvester and a host of other queer notables. [see correction]

Also on the scene from the late 1960s on was writer/artist N.A. Diaman (“Living in the Castro: A Gay Writer Reminisces”), who tellingly remarks that when he first moved into the Castro, the total rent for his flat was $140 per month. It’s a time long gone, but his descriptions of establishing a gay household during those days is not all that far different from today’s ordeal.

Among the young-guard contributing to the book is Katie [Zak] Szymanski, assistant news editor for the Bay Area Reporter, who profiles a member of the old-guard: her boss, Publisher Bob Ross, noting that he “anchored for good in San Francisco” in 1956, fresh out of the Navy, and joined with the throngs of gay men who would cruise his corner at 20th and Castro. The concise story of his creating this newspaper, and its 30-year history at the center of gay politics and culture, is one you won’t find anywhere else.

Photography holds a prominent place in Leyland’s Out in the Castro – with spectacular results. The images balance and illuminate the text, making the book a joy to browse or read straight through. If you’ve been here very long at all, you’ll recognize the faces, places, and events. The photographers include Rick Gerharter, Rink Foto, Freddie Niem, Greg Day, Crawford Wayne Barton, and Marc Geller, all of them first-rate and well known for being in the thick of things, capturing images that by now have become legend. Even the surprising absence of images by Daniel Nicoletta – undoubtedly the most acclaimed queer “scene” photographer in San Francisco – and Jane Philomen Cleland does not diminish this book’s powerful impact. It’s a reunion in print well worth attending.

 

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.