Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Swamps and Black Mana

Stephan Martiniere (Swamp from Ravnica)

When I visited Jason at Earthdance last January, I left my EDH deck with him for safekeeping—not only for the deck's sake, but to ensure that I wouldn't allot all of my money and mental bandwidth to Magic: the Gathering in the months ahead. So when I visited him last week, you'd better believe we stayed up until three in the morning playing EDH games that went on forever. It was great. As an artist of sorts, I take great pride in how my Sheoldred deck functions like the well-greased Phyrexian nightmare machine Miss Shelly would have wanted it to be. (At least in two-player matches, anyway; in multiplayer the best I can usually hope for is to really ruin one person's shit before melting down on myself.)

Wait. Let's talk about something else. I need to think about something other than Magic. Once it gets back in your head, all the grooves of your brain become declined towards collection and cardflopping.

Actually, there's something about the basic premise and system of Magic that has started to bother me these last few years. Just a little, and not in any way that detracts from my enjoyment of the game and my admiration for its designers.

So in Magic: the Gathering, there are five types or colors of magic, which are each fueled by a particular flavor of mana drawn from a particular natural landscape or ecosystem. We all know this. For instance: white is the magic of light, healing, and protection, and is drawn from the sun-drenched plains. Green is the magic of life, fecundity, and growth, and is drawn from old-growth forests. So  far, so good. And black is the magic of death, cruelty, and greed, and is drawn from swamps.

I have to speak out on behalf of the swamps here.

If you're looking for a landscape that represents corruption and toxicity, swamps and marshes aren't your best choices. Few ecosystems are so dynamic or diverse, so rich, so teeming with the raw stuff of life. You can expect the soil to be much richer than that of a meadow, plains, or dry forest. The animal and microbial biodiversity of wetlands are staggering. If you want to see critters, visit a swamp or marsh instead of a dry forest or city park.

Ebony jewelwings, spangled skimmers, great blue herons, green herons, barn swallows, red-winged blackbirds, eastern box turtles, green frogs, northern water snakes—I'm just rattling off the animals I remember spotting during a half-hour visit to Jersey's Tourne marsh last July. There are more I'm not recalling, and certainly many more that I didn't notice.

This is a photograph I took with Hannah's iPhone in November; obviously I'm not used to taking pictures with one of these things. This is the marsh in Tourne Park. I must have known there was no way I could get a shot of it without a decent camera, but I tried anyway. (I took several pictures, but this is the only one Hannah sent my way. I don't know why this was the one she chose.)

What this (and every other) shot misses are the clouds of cattail seed drifting over the clearing. When disturbed by the wind (or by big dumb animals tromping around), tiny airborne seeds are shaken from the cattail seedheads, lifted up, and scattered by the breeze. When we first approached the scene, there was half a moment when I wondered if what we were looking at was a localized snow flurry that somehow touched only the marsh. I'd never seen anything quite like it before.

All I'm saying is that I'm not sure this is the sort of site you'd tap as a resource for necrotic death energy.


It would probably be inapropos to the medieval fantasy setting of Magic: the Gathering's original design, but if Richard Garfield wanted to be realistic, he would have had black mana coming from Wal Mart parking lots. Or warehouses. Factories. Office complexes. Or, hell: just any overdeveloped main street packed with strip malls on either side.

Places where nothing grows. Places with asphalt and oil slicks and overflowing trash bins and great big dumpsters out back where the rats get sick on the garbage and grease trap waste leaks out into storm drains and bleeds into the river with Starbucks cups and cigarette butts. Places full of tumescent ape bodies leaving trails of plastic and carbon as they maunder from Target to McDonald's to Dunkin' Donuts to the Exxon station to the liquor store to the smut shop...

You want landscapes that represent decay and amorality? Forget "natural" settings. Pick an anthropized landscape. After all, concepts like greed, deceit, and perfidy have no meaning in places where there aren't any people. Most every other biome tends towards fostering diversity; landscapes co-opted by human beings aggressively make themselves uninhabitable to anything that can't live on garbage and dung (and such species are often regarded as pests and systematically exterminated as such).

Loathing the ecology that keeps one alive must be a peculiar feature of people living in the modern age. Like a marriage where everything about your partner disgusts and offends you, but the sex is great and he/she is a reliably good cook—and where you can expect your life to become completely and irrevocably upended if you try to file for divorce.

My philosophy of deck construction in Magic has always been grounded in the classic Necropotence deck. On some gut level I seem to accept that I'm sustained by something that operates by sucking the life out of everything with which it comes into contact, myself included.

I need to get the hell out of Silver Spring.

Sunday, December 21, 2014


Haven't updated much this month. Had my hands a bit full elsewhere. A new Sisyphus and Sawtooth strip got started, but got put on the backburner while I work on the long awaited (by somebody, I'm sure) MOTHER 3 writeup for  SMPS. Hopefully I'll have that wrapped up before long. That and novel #2, which I'm going to be self-publishing in the next month or two...

I hope you enjoyed The Descent of Winter, or at least some parts of it. It's a strange piece, unwieldy and inconsistent and undeveloped, but candid and probing. Sometimes there are spicules of the sublime in marginal notes, sketches, incomplete thoughts...

Our own descent into winter concludes today. Happy solstice, everyone.

Maybe it's become more pronounced since Lin Yutang's The Wisdom of Confucius became a regular bathroom read, but over the past year or so I find myself drawn to rituals of observance when the ecliptic approaches its critical points. (Perhaps you've noticed.)

I had a few days off last week and thought it was a fine opportunity to visit Jason up at Earthdance in rural Massachusetts. I leave the mainland in mid-January. All it's done here in Maryland is rain and drizzle. This trip might be the only time I'll have seen and felt the snow and ice this winter.

I have mixed feelings about moving to the tropics. But it's a trip I have to take. Silver Spring is making me crazy.

No—even worse. It's making me sane in the worst kind of way. Sanity as the psychological state described by Celia Green: anthropocentric, emotionally and intellectually captivated by banalities, and possessed of a dullard's logical positivism.

Hence the flight to Massachusetts to visit seekers who never stopped seeking and make myself a little more crooked after four months of getting hammered into straight lines.

It was vivifying to stand outside, to sit in a cold bedroom with the window open and hear, if not silence, only the wind passing through the stripped canopy or the purling of a nearby stream. In Silver Spring I live in a house—in a room that's always ninety degrees for some reason—a house that sits about five blocks from Interstate 495. The Beltway. All I ever hear is traffic.

Over a week ago I received the last of the rejection slips from the last of the ten or so small presses to which I pitched a manuscript in a final, knowingly futile effort to see my second novel published legitimately. And there was a day that I just didn't, I couldn't get out of bed. And a chickadee landed on the awning over the front door, five feet from my bedroom window, and called out once, seven notes, before flitting away. It was like honey on my lips. To hear the voice of a wild, unknowable life instead of the mechanical hum of traffic. And the only stars I can ever see are the winter keystones, but it's always raining here. The clouds in Massachusetts weren't glowing like magnesium flares at night, and the untrodden snow and obstinacy of the stillness have a way of muffling the self-absorption of the urbanized.

But an occasion such as the approach of the hibernal solstice—the day, the moment that the Earth's axis is inclined furthest from the sun—demands a ceremony of observance. And so once again  I found myself in a little wooden shack in the woods with a room that heats up to 180° F when there's wood burning in the stove, naked in a half-lotus, sweating profusely amid the febrile shadows. (Jason prepared a concoction of water, salt, honey, lemon, and ginger to keep us hydrated, and seems to have inadvertently reverse engineered Gatorade.)

And when I got overheated I flung myself outside and stood out in the snow and ice and 25° air for as long as I could stand it, and watched the snowflakes catching the lamplight from the farmhouse and the steam billow from my limbs. Symbolic more than superstitious: a kind of tributary acknowledgement of nature, of the inexorable truth of the cold and the dark, the background of everything, that which bears down against us and every burning star like the shadows pressing against a candle melting down its wick. Feeling that which exists, that which the civilized of us can only survive by shutting ourselves in and shutting it out.

Someone like me, someone who grew up on games and cartoons and now reads and writes novels, is inclined to meet the world almost exclusively though his eyes and ears. But we are tactile creatures. We've built our environment such that we're made to feel the world as little as possible. Air conditioners in the summer. Heaters and humidifiers in the winter. Smooth surfaces. Ergonomic everything. Somatic neutrality.

That's why I want to feel the cold.

And why, during some summer nights when I lived in Jersey, I'd go out into the woods by myself and take off my clothes by the creek, and feel the leaves and twigs scratching and poking at my back and the abrasive wet stones on my legs and rear. Shut my dark-adapted eyes and just feel it.

Sometimes I chew on leaves and stems. And why not? Add taste to the ways in which you experience the world. To know that which exists by more than the light that bounces off it.

No. Actually, I don't chew on leaves much anymore. I've felt a kind of tunnel vision come over me. The tangle outside the straight lines becomes less relevant. If I see it, it makes less of an impression than it did a year ago, even six months ago. Like how you don't notice the fact of the sky's blue unless something directs your attention to it. It gets caught in the filter and shaken out into the ether with all the other bugs and everyday miracles...

And that's why I need to leave Silver Spring, rock gyms and friends and job be damned.

But to the tropics. Damned if I saw that one coming.

I don't see it as a flight to paradise. The hardy penuriousness of the temperate forest or marsh or meadow, even in winter, is fiber to fiber, grain to grain, feather to feather as beautiful as any tropical extravagance. Elegance as the issue of a cyclical famine. The contingencies of evolution: persistence by making do. Beauty as aptness to purpose. An ecosystem must be beautiful or its constituents would have otherwise diminished unto extinction.

Six in the morning. Probably time for sleep. Yesterday morning—around seven—I heard a Carolina wren in the neighbors' yard. I might try to fight off drowsing for a little while longer so I can hear it again. It had been several days since I'd experienced anything around here that seemed like it might be real.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 12/18

Paul Klee, Bust of a Child

   Here by the watertank and the stone, mottled granite, big as a rhinocerous head——cracked on one side——Damn families. My grandfather was a businessman, you know. He kept the ice house in Mayaguez. They imported the ice. He kept it and sold it. My grandmother, my mother's mother, would make syrups, strawberry and like that. He would sell them also. But his half-brother Henriquez, there's plenty of that in my family, would go there, to the ice house, and drink all day long without paying anything, until the man my grandfather had there complained. "You know Henriquez comes and drinks five or six glasses of syrup and never pays anything."He did that. Just drank, lived at the house, took anything he pleased. That's how, as my mother says, she came to know Manuel Henriquez, her half-cousin, better than she did her own brother who was away much of the time studying. Henriquez would never work, help or do anything until my grandfather had to tell him to stop. It was at about this time my grandfather died and this is how my mother came to hate and distrust the Germans. All my grandfather's friends were German, all but a few. "It was a man named Krug. I suppose he may have been father's partner anyhow he was his best friend, I don't know. When my father died, Krug came to my mother and asked her if she had anything because my father owed some money. She had an hacienda in the country that she had since before she was married, her own. She gave that. Then Krug came and said it was all gone, that there was nothing left. After that, he turned his back on the family (the skunk). It was the Spanish druggist Mestre who lent my mother the money to buy a few things and sell them to make a little business. He was a Catalan——they can't say Pepe, like a Castilian but he would call his wife, Papeeta. My mother would send to Paris for a half dozen fine shirts, but fine, fine shirts and a few things like that. My brother was in Paris studying. When Krug told my mother she must send for him, that there was nothing left, she wrote. He answered her that he would sweep the streets of Paris rather than leave. She would send him money she made on her little business. Sometimes, he told us afterward, he would keep a sou in his pocket two weeks so as not to say he hadn't any money. The students helped each other. Barclay, an Englishman, was one of his best friends. He helped him."

   That's why my own mother's education ended abruptly. Sometimes she would copy out letters for my grandmother, child that she was, to send to Paris. When her brother returned a doctor he himself sent her to Paris to study painting. But he married and he began to have children and he never collected any money——he had a wife too. So finally he sent for my mother to go back to Santa Domingo where they were living then. Mother cried for three days then she had to go and leave it all. When she got there her brother told her about his friend, Blackwell. A fine fellow, the best in the world, "pero no es musicante." Blackwell was in the States at the time of my mother's return home from Paris having his teeth fixed.

   When a little child would be bothersome they would tell her to go ask the maid for a little piece of ten te aya.

   When my brother was happy he would sing, walking up and down kicking out his feet: Si j'├ętais roi de Bayaussi-e, tu serais reine-e par ma foi! You made me think of him right away.


Monday, December 15, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 12/15

Henri Matisse, Woman with Amphora

     What an image in the face of Almighty God is she
     her hands in her slicker pockets, head bowed
     Tam pulled down, flat-backed, lanky-legged,
     loose feet kicking the pebbles as she goes



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 12/9

Emanuel Ologeano, Blue City

  Imagine a family of four grown men, one in bed with a sore throat, one with fresh plaster dust on his pants, one who played baseball all last summer and one holding the basin, four young men and no women but the mother with smallpox scars marring the bridge and the end of her nose and dinner on the table, oil and meat bits and cuts of green peppers, the range giving out a heat for coats on the backs of the chairs to dry in.

  Fairfield: Peoples Loan and Service, Money to Loan: and a young man carrying a bowling ball in a khaki canvas case. The Midland and a fern in the window before the inner oak and cut-glass screen. House and sign painting in all its branches. Fairfield Bowling and Billiard Academy. Architect John Gabrone Architect, U.S. Post Office, Fairfield, N.J. Branch. Commercial Barber Shop. The New Cigarette Three Castles. Real Estate and Insurance. Motor Vehicle Agency. Commercial Lunch. Fairfield Home Laundry, soft water washing.



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Descent of Winter: 12/2

Georges Braque, Rio Tinto Factories
at L'Estaque

  The first snow was a white sand that made the white rocks seem red.

  The police are "the soldiers of the Duke." The great old names: Gaynor, Healy—