The Centre and the Distance of Civilization: Some Research Questions. Please Help!

In May of last year I began researching a book about the philosophy of civilization. I’m almost done; but I’m asking for your help.

I would like to hear from people who, one way or another, have moved “out” of civilization
— or who wish they could. For example, I’d like to hear from ex-urbanites; off-the-grid homesteaders; residents of experimental or intentional communities; urban primitives; residents of small towns or islands, far from major cities; or anyone who thinks there’s something not-quite-right about civilization, whatever that may mean to you, and who has changed their lives accordingly. I’m curious to hear from people whose jobs or livelihoods regularly brings them to the margins or the edges of civilization— whatever you regard those edges to be. I’ve got some questions for you.

    1. What does the word ‘civilization’ mean to you? Or, what is its centre?

    2. What is civilization’s biggest problem? Or, are there many problems, and what are they?

    3. In your life, or in the lives of others close to you, what have you done about that problem?

    4. Why live off-the-grid? Or, why do you live in some way at a distance from the centre of civilization? Or, if you don’t presently live that way, do you wish you could? Why?

    5. Has moving to an off-grid way of life (or planning or wishing to live that way) changed the way you think about things?

    6. What kind of future do you foresee for yourself and that away-from-the-centre way of life?

    7. If you had a chance to go back to the city, would you take it?

Actually I’d like to hear from anyone at all who might be interested in these questions.

Please answer as many or as few of these questions as you like. Take as much or as little time as you like. Post your thoughts to the comments space below, or email me: bmyers (at) live (dot) ca.

Yes, I know some of key words in these questions are not clearly defined. To others whom I’ve already posed these questions, one common automatic answer was “That depends on what you mean by civilization”. I’ve left these key words mostly undefined because, while I’m interested in people’s answers, I’m also interested in how people interpret the questions.

Finally, please share this mini-questionnaire as widely as you can.

Thank you!

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Preparing To Launch A New Game

In my creative projects, I wear many hats: philosopher, researcher, novelist, musician, game designer. About two years ago, I tried to launch a tabletop RPG based on The Hidden Houses, my urban fantasy novels, using Kickstarter.com to pay for editors and illustrators. Back then, it failed. But I remained determined. I’m now gearing up to try again. And this time, I’m laying the groundwork a little more carefully.

For instance, I’m recruiting some help much sooner in the process. Last time, I wrote to almost a dozen artists I knew, and asked them to let me use work they had already created, with the promise that if the campaign succeeded I’d work with them to make project-specific illustration. This time, I commissioned my friend Susanne Iles to create some project-specific illustrations right away. (And I’ll pay her out of pocket, whether or not the campaign succeeds.) I saw one of her rough sketches this morning; it’s going to be great. I also have informal agreements with two other artists to work on the project after the campaign is over.

Because, here’s an image I made 20 years ago, which at the time I wanted to use as the front cover of a different game I made back then:

Two of my old D&D characters, punting on a creepy river

Two of my old D&D characters, punting on a creepy river

And here’s a sketch of “Old Hobb”, one of the characters from my novels, which I made about a month ago:

Old Hobb speaks without speaking. Know what I mean?

Old Hobb speaks without speaking. Know what I mean?

I still like these images, but I’m nowhere near good enough to illustrate an entire 250-page RPG book all by myself.

I’ve also recruited “beta-testers”. There’s about a dozen people now, some friends of mine and some friends-of-friends, who are already playing the game. I’ve asked them to tell me their thoughts about the workability of the engine, the clarity of the world building info, and so on. (And, I’m asking them to help promote the heck out of the fundraising campaign, when it goes live.) In return, they’ll get a copy of the finished product, and an honorarium, of an amount to be determined based on the success of the fundraising campaign.

Add to that, the nonfiction book I’ve been researching and writing since the spring (traveling all the way to Bohemia, Czech Republic, to do so!) and all the responsibilities I’ve taken on as a new homeowner, and it looks like 2016 will be very creative for me.

(Also very expensive.)

By the way: if you are a fan of games like Dungeons & Dragons, White Wolf’s Vampire / Werewolf / Changeling series, and the like, let me know. If you think you and your friends will enjoy a tabletop RPG which is part political thriller, part fairy tale, and part philosophical salon, let me know. Yes, I really can make a game that’s all three of those things. Join the beta-testing team to find out how I did it. 🙂

Besides, I will need the help of a small army of people to plug the Kickstarter campaign when it gets underway.

This game will probably not be a “legacy” project for me; it’s not what I expect future generations to remember me for, if they remember me at all. I certainly don’t expect that the game will make me rich. But it will be fun. And that’s a good enough reason to try again.

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Pictures of my new house!

I bought a house.

I started house-hunting about a year and a half ago, when it appeared that my job was secure enough, and that I had near-enough money for the downpayment. I didn’t house-hunt with much enthusiasm; the apartment I lived in was nice, and close to work, and I probably could have remained there mostly-happily. But then I saw a wonderful house along the road I take to walk to work, and I phoned my real-estate agent and asked him to come view it with me immediately. I put in an offer the next day.

It turns out that the sellers had a previous offer already in hand, and so I lost that house. So I bought the one next door. 🙂

In retrospect the “house next door” is the better choice for me. It’s smaller and less “modern” than the first one. Its dominant colour scheme features earth-tones like yellow and red-brown. And aside from its excellent location– close to work, grocery store, Gatineau Hills park, bus route, and so on– I was “sold” by a curious renovation made by the previous owners. They demolished a wall between two of the bedrooms, thus creating a master bedroom that’s as big as most people’s living rooms. That huge room is now my library.

Buying a house was not the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it comes very close. Every time I thought I knew what I was doing, something unexpected appeared which no one warned me about. For instance, the building manager at the old apartment seemed to want to punish me for moving out. I had to scramble for an insurance company when the first one I contacted, the same one my employer uses for group insurance, turned me down. The store where I bought my appliances forgot to send me my stove; I didn’t have a stove in my kitchen until yesterday. Worst of all: a few hours after I delivered the downpayment, the notary phoned me to say that I was short by– well I best not say exactly, but it was a five-digit figure. There was (and still is) no explanation; and my mortgage broker said it made no sense to him either. He stayed up late at night trying to find out where the miscommunication was. For about 48 hours, I thought I was facing complete bankruptcy and homelessness. Eventually I extended my line of credit to cover it. I still have no idea what happened there, but I’m working with the bank and the local chamber of commerce to figure it out.

It’s been about three weeks now (although I spent one of those weeks out of town) and most of that time I wandered around the house and yard, looking at things, touching things, and feeling the weight of the financial responsibility. I am now ten times deeper in debt than I was with my student loan. I’ve unpacked slowly, and often rearranged furniture as I went. I think it was when I first hung the art on the walls that the house felt finally “mine”. I’m mostly done unpacking and arranging things now. I might be cleaned-up enough to receive visitors this weekend.

Until then, here are some photos, at last!

Here’s the house as it appeared on the MLS listing, back in October. Oak tree on the left, maple on the right. (Yes, it’s a clue pointing to where the house is. Please don’t stalk me.)

Bren's House

Here’s the first view of the living room, after you step in the front door. I built that bookshelf myself, around 20 years ago. And I’m the author of all the books you see stacked there. Yes, this is a transparent attempt to wow my guests. I know it doesn’t work. But what the hell.

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The dining room, which is actually an extension of the living room. The painting of the beach on Innis Oir was made by my mom; the table, corner hutch, and sideboard are the same kitchen furniture from the house in Elora where I grew up. This was my parents’ housewarming gift to me, and I can’t imagine a better one.

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Huge, wide, floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room. I need four curtains to cover it at night.

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View from the front windows, today. That’s seventeen inches of snow out there– yes, I got a tape measure and I measured it.

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Here’s part of the kitchen (and a view of Mom’s painting again). The fridge is standing out like that because it’s too tall to fit in its niche. It will be replaced next week. Note also my map of Skyrim. I think it goes nicely with the shelf below it.

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The library.

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Philosophy on the left. Mythology, history, anthropology on the right. (Other categories out of shot).

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Writing and study area. Also, my essay-marking area.

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The back yard. I don’t quite know what to do with it yet; I’ve never had a green thumb and I’m not really interested in gardening. I might just plant more trees.

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The basement. The previous owners, or someone in the history of the house, put a bar down here, complete with fridge, sink, lights, built-in blender, cushioned ledge, 70’s era porno-film carpet, and fake English Tudor timbreframe on the ceiling. As fun as this is, I plan to pull all of this out during the renovations, and install a proper kitchen.

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In fact in February I’m planning a full scale renovation of the basement, because most of it looks like this:

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Basement bathroom. I’ve never seen a urinal in a private home before!

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And finally, I shoe-horned my bed into the smallest room in the house.

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There it is. As I grow more comfortable with this house, plans for it start growing in my mind. I’d like to host music nights with my guitar-playing friends, or salons in the style of the 18th century French philosophes. After the renovations, the basement will have a rentable unit, and a guest bedroom. And, of course, I plan to write many more books here. I think this will be a good home for me, for the next however-many years.

Incidentally, I have about 40 gently used cardboard boxes now. Do you need them for your next move? If you can come and get them, they’re yours. I don’t plan to move again for a while.

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Ecology and Civilization: A sample of the work in progress.

In May of this year I began work on what will be my ninth philosophy book, and seventeenth book overall. I thought you might like to see Chapter One. As you read it, remember that this is an early draft. But do let me know what you think of it. –Bren.

First meditation: Why should I return to the city?

I’ve cycled seven kilometers through the forested hills which begin near my front door and continue northwards for what looks like forever. The story in my tourist’s map says my destination is a lookout platform above Pink Lake, in Gatineau Hills national park: a lake with no oxygen in its lowest depths, and therefore home to an unique and fragile ecosystem. The story in my mind, however, says that my destination is the climax of a hero’s quest: a tower in the midst of a deep dark wood, near a magical lake, full of stars on the surface, and monsters far below. The treasure I hope to find at the end of this quest is the answer to a question: why, if at all, should I go back to the city?

Lookout platform over Pink Lake, Gatineau Park. My own photo, August 2012.

Lookout platform over Pink Lake, Gatineau Park. My own photo, August 2012.

Let me attempt to convey why I think this question is important. Behind me on this bicycle path is the route back to the city. Were I to return there, I could take up again my share of the gains of civilization. There’s clean water in my kitchen and washroom. Electricity in the walls to power my computer and other machines. Libraries and museums to enrich my mind. Food that is safe and healthy to eat. Telephones and computer networks to keep me in touch with the rest of the human world. Hospitals to care for me if I am ill or injured. Police to protect me from criminals, armies to protect me from other armies. Every few years there’s an invitation to vote for the people who will take charge of all these things. With these gains come debts and responsibilities. I must find a job, and pay my bills, and respect the law. Outstanding among these responsibilities is the unwritten requirement to ignore, or sometimes to participate in, something I know to be entirely absurd. For instance, when I vote, I might find that all the candidates are incompetent or corrupt: their talents lie– so to speak– in their ability to hide their true selves. The laws I’m bound to obey might prevent me from doing something that harms no one, or they might oblige me to do something that harms myself and others. It might punish people who don’t deserve punishment, or reward people who didn’t earn their reward. The books I read or the films I watch might stupefy me, instead of enlighten me. When I spend money, I might be indirectly helping to exploit or enslave the worker who made what I just bought. Or, my money might help to destroy an irreplaceable natural environment, from which the raw materials came. I might find that other people whom I depend on, be they salesmen, school teachers, religious leaders, or even my friends and lovers, regularly deceive and manipulate me, in order to protect their reputations or assert their influence. In the course of professing commitment to religion or politics, I might attack people who profess different religions or different politics, and I might call that violence my demonstration of piety, loyalty, and integrity.

I arrived at the lookout platform. I lock my bike to a fence post and search for a quiet place to breathe. Suddenly I discover I’m sitting on the threshold of three immensities: the city behind me, the uncovered water before me, the starry sky above me. Here in this liminal place, the question why should I go back to the city?, becomes the question of why, if at all, I should put up with these absurdities. Why, if at all, I should turn back and rejoin civilization?

The Charles Bridge, Prague. An icon of urban high civilization. My own photo, July 2015.

The Charles Bridge, Prague. An icon of urban high civilization. My own photo, July 2015.

Civilization! A word like no other, in any language. It announces every society’s highest and deepest values: it’s the name we give for the most enduring and most glorious of humanity’s creations. It speaks of that which a nation may share in common with other nations. Yet it also speaks of the conquests, colonizations, and oppressions which make that enduring glory possible. It lifts up one society by putting down another; it demands the capture and taming of wild lands and animals; it summons flag-waving believers to war. This book is a quest for the essence of civilization. As we shall soon see, the quest shall take us not only through the usual trails of economics and politics, but also to some of the muddiest fields of ecology, the deepest caves of human nature, and the highest hills of the meaning of life. I find such metaphysics questions inherently interesting, and for me that’s reason enough to ask them. But the absurdities may lead me to some dark conclusions. What if civilization is only “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? What if civilization is nothing but a machine for crushing people? What if it’s a machine that must inevitably break down? To consider these things is to consider the metaphysical perils to human life. At their extremes, it’s not only the destruction of individual people’s lives at stake, but also of the destruction of art, literature, architecture, knowledge, the whole inheritance of history, everything we point to as proof of our greatness, and the very possibility of a legacy for the future: the surrogate immortality of apotheosis. So this book is about the despair that may dwell in civilization’s heart: despair for its essence, and for its future. It’s also about what, if anything, can be done about it. The question, Why should I go back to the city?, is also the question, Why, if at all, should I have hope for the future of humanity?

The 'small picture' of civilization: members of my family, fishing from the dock. September 2015.

The ‘small picture’ of civilization: members of my family, fishing from the dock. September 2015.

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Dating Advice: How Not To Be A Controlling Misogynist Dudebro

In early November, I asked my Twitter & FB followers: “What is the best way to signal romantic interest in a woman without being a controlling misogynist dudebro?” Here, I’d like to share some of their most common, and most interesting, answers. Contributors are identified by their initials.

Compliment something that she’s worked to cultivate and that matters to her, like her ideas, talents, skills, or conversation. (M.B.B.)

Don’t talk too much about yourself, and if asked, be humble with ur responses. Engage her interest by finding out more about her. (A.L.)

Strike up a conversation and ask her stuff about her and what she thinks about things. Don’t pick stuff that’s too controversial, but just general interest. See what happens. If she answers all your questions, but doesn’t ask anything about you, offer some of your own information. If she still doesn’t ask anything about you, she’s not really interested. Offer her your email/phone number, politely and respectfully bow out, and see if she contacts you or comes to speak with you, expecting that she won’t. If she does, go back to step 1. If she doesn’t, be gracious when/if you see her again. (J.D.H)

Whatever you do, don’t brag too much. So many guys brag, brag, brag and ask nothing of the woman. This makes a woman think the man is not at all interested in who she is but desired only for her looks or a lay. I often joke that a man shouldn’t need to brag because if he is so great or skilled it should be evident. I find what men consider brag-worthy may not necessarily be the same traits the woman admires in the opposite sex. (D.T.)

Listen to her. Engage her in conversation about the things that matter TO HER. Learn what those things are and remember them. Respect her boundaries, but offer a kiss or hug when it’s appropriate — i.e. when you’ve gotten to know her and can talk comfortably with her. If you’ve known her 10 minutes, it’s too soon. If you’ve been going out with her for two years, it might be too late. (P.W.)

Respect her boundaries – yes! Don’t go in for a kiss unless it is obviously going to be reciprocated. (Y.A.)

I’m a bit weird (as Ian likes to point out) but I like people being direct but gracious. Fuck the euphemisms. Don’t say you want to go “for coffee.” Just say “I would like to go on a date. Would that be OK with you?” Don’t hover nervously or get into her personal space. Maintain eye contact and have friendly smile. (E.G.)

Respect boundaries and body language. Listen and don’t make assumptions about her knowledge and experience. Other than that, just relax and have a laugh. (G.P.)

It depends on a number of things- do you know her already or she is a stranger? Approach would be different for those situations. Timing is important- don’t approach if she is wearing earphones or deep in a book. Make sure there are lots of people around when you approach her. Check to see if she looks to be in good spirits, or not (don’t bug her if she’s in a bad mood, thinking to cheer her up) Keep a respectful distance and offer a non-physical compliment, or ask a question about her (if you know her) If she smiles and and answers happily, continue. If her answers are one word and she keeps looking around, move on. (A.S)

If you are interested in her mind and the things she says, tell her that you’d love to talk with her more sometime and ask if there’s a place/time that’s convenient for her and conducive to good conversation. (M.R.)

Ah gesh Brendan, all you had to do is say “hi, wanna grab some coffee?” to me and I’d be all for it. . On a real note: if you don’t intend on being a controlling misogynist dudebro, you won’t BE a controlling misogynist dudebro. Just talk to her. (C.G.C)

Before you ask her out, spend some time on presentation. Shower, shave, wear a nicer shirt. Especially if she knows you, taking the extra effort shows respect. (K.C.)

Don’t show confusion. Know what you want. Vulnerability is fine, but not too much of it. I do not want to feel manipulate to say yes because otherwise you will be deeply hurt. (M.F.)

There were a few suggestions that were mentioned which were immediately struck down for being too creepy. Such as:

Find out if she listens to a radio station and then request a song for her. Something playful and fun, not full-bore romantic. (O.F.)

Buy her books. (L.B.)

Here’s one which, although I am sure the author thought he was being funny, still seemed out of place:

Club her on the head, then drag her back to the cave by the long, blonde locks. (D.C.G.)

But most of my friends are the sort who enjoy irony. So it was immediately pointed out to D.C.G. that:

…It’s Brendan who has the long, blonde locks. (M.C.)

Side note: I had this idea that if I wrote a few good books, I wouldn’t have to club anyone on the head to drag her home. An interesting woman might come to visit me voluntarily.

Another comment that stood out in my mind concerned what to do when one’s expression of interest is rejected. As follows:

I have found that the key is: 1. Respect, 2. If rejected, not being an entitled jerk about it. (V.I.G.)

If you are shot down, be gracious. She owes you nothing and her decision is to be respected and unquestioned. (E.G.)

I’m not sure if you already know this woman fairly well, or if you casually know her, but try this: while in conversation, catch her eyes, smile, lean in towards her slightly. You will use your body language to let her know you’re interested, if she holds your eyes, smiles etc., proceed to asking her out for coffee. If she leans away, avoids eye contact, back away yourself. (D.B.)

Respect it if she is not interested. Please do not push if she says no. (A.H.)

If things are awkward or stilted then respect the fact that you two weren’t meant to be. (J.S.)

And several contributors said that maybe the thing to do is not to “date” at all, but instead to just be a part of someone’s life:

I’ve never “dated” in the sense that I met someone and immediately asked them out or was asked out. What happens for me is that I will make friends with someone, and we start spending an increasing amount of time together, usually with lots and lots of talking, until we just happen to realize we’re already in a relationship, or until one of the parties feels compelled to confess deeper feelings and the other reciprocates. So my advice would be to hang out, do things you both enjoy, and eventually when it feels right tell her your feelings. (S.M.)

My own courtship with my husband was very much like two cats sparring… I am sure we all have seen this, how cats will circle one another… at one point I almost despaired and gave up on him, but on Nov 4 we celebrated our 9th anniversary. (F.G.)

I had complicated reasons for posing this question on my social media feed. One was that I have had a profile on a dating site up since August. I started looking at the men’s profiles just to see what the women on the site were seeing, and maybe get a few hints about how to write my own profile. After too many pictures of shirtless men, and too many profiles written in text-message shorthand, I had enough. Many of the women’s profiles were equally demoralizing: I’m pretty sure I won’t bring happiness to a woman whose dating keywords include “chillax”, “keepfit”, and “YOLO”. Anyway, in four months only three women responded to my ad, so I was feeling like a failure.

I also follow about a dozen feminist philosophers on my Twitter feed, from whom I’m learning the language of contemporary feminism. I follow them because they are smart and interesting; their lives are about something more substantial than “YOLO”. But some of them, or their family and friends, were targets of some vicious online harassment during the “gamergate” and “sad puppies” scandals; or, they were academics who analyzed those scandals. They live in an (online) social environment where they can expect to be punished for drawing attention to basic injustices in their world, or punished for rejecting unwanted attention. How to approach these women and talk to them? I don’t know. So, I asked for help.

This morning a friend passed to me an essay about how scientists concluded that women may actually prefer assholes. It’s a clickbait headline, of course; it’s real argument is the somewhat less outrageous claim that people are strongly drawn to assertiveness, and to a touch of aggression. Still, I feel like the world is sending me mixed messages. It makes me shake my head.

So, dear readers of this blog, what do you think of the advice summarized above? What else should men do if they want to show romantic interest in someone, and not be a controlling misogynist dudebro?

(And as a footnote: don’t you just love the word dudebro? It’s the perfect word for a male narcissist. I use it now as often as I can.)

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My donation to Save Our Water: How did it go?

Early in November, I offered to donate all the November royalties from my novels to Save Our Water, an environmental charity working to protect the watershed of my hometown from corporate exploitation. How did it go?

Here’s a screenshot of the Kindle ebook sales:

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And here’s the paperbacks:

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After excluding the non-fiction titles, I sold 43 books in total. At an average royalty of $2.50 per Kindle title, and $1.50 per paperback, that’s $90.50 that I profited this month. Seeing as there’s still two days left in November, I’m just going to round up my donation to $100 and send the money in.

For a self-published writer, this is a very, very good result: and compared to my usual showing, it’s about four times better than usual.

Other observations: The huge spike in the middle of the Kindle sales graph happened when The Wild Hunt blogged about my donation. This produced what was probably my best social media reach ever: the article was shared hundreds of times, and I received about a dozen private messages asking for more information or thanking me for “stepping up”. Fellwater, the first book in the series, reached its best ever Amazon ranking: it was the 53,459th best selling book that day. Here’s a screenshot:

Best Amazon rank so far

Also, I noticed with interest that among the paperback sales, Hallowstone outsold the other titles, even though it’s the second book in the series, not the first. But in retrospect, this might make sense. As one reader told me this summer, books 2, 3, and 4 make for an excellent trilogy in their own right, and book 1 could actually be read last, like a prequel.

So, there you have it. To those who bought copies of my books this November: thank you. May I encourage you to tell everyone you know about my books, and to please post your reviews to their Amazon pages and on other places, so that some day soon I’ll be able to do another charity run like this one, for other worthwhile causes. And naturally, I continue to encourage you to support environmental protection works, and to care for this good Earth we share, and for each other, in whatever way you can.

Click here for info about Brendan’s novels, and to purchase copies. Ebook and paperback.

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I’m Donating My Book Royalties to Save My Hometown’s Water

I grew up in the village of Elora, Ontario. As a child I knew its trees, flowers, and berry patches, its creatures great and small, and the sharp edges of the river’s stone walls, and I sometimes felt that they knew me. The village was my field of fairy-tale adventures, as was the conservation park to the west, and the abandoned railway line that began across the road from my house and took me to the next town over the fields. As I grew older, that landscape provided the inspiration for my first adult thoughts. One particular spot, a raised ledge that my friends at the time called “Elf-top Plateau”, was the place where I wrote my first songs and stories, and the first place on earth where I perceived something resembling a spiritual epiphany. And in my full adulthood, thoughts of “my land” inspired my doctoral thesis on environmental philosophy. Although I haven’t lived there since 2006, I still think of it as my home town.

The Elora Gorge. My own photo, July 2014.

The Elora Gorge. My own photo, July 2014.

I set my fantasy fiction series, “The Hidden Houses”, in Elora and its environs, although I renamed it “Fellwater”. In those novels, a faction of villains work to control, or else destroy, a magical water well. In early 2015, Nestlé corporation submitted a proposal to extract and bottle water from the aquifer that feeds the village, and other communities downstream. (A curious case of life imitating art, perhaps; although I’m sure Nestlé’s intentions are merely capitalist, and not the same as those of my antagonists.)

This proposal was protested by local residents, who made three main demands:

1. Nestle should monitor local wells for two weeks prior to its main pumping test, in order to provide better groundwater baseline data,

2. Municipal and provincial authorities should impose a three-year moratorium on consumptive water-taking in the Grand River watershed, and,

3. Municipalities in the watershed should be granted the time they need to complete their Water Supply Master Plans and their Tier-3 Risk Assessments.

Protest marchers rally in Elora, 2015.

Protest marchers rally in Elora, 2015.

I think these demands are very reasonable, and I’d like to help give them some publicity. To that end, I promise to donate all the royalties from the sale of my novels, for the month of November, to Elora’s Save Our Water campaign.

Elora’s rich, diverse, delightful, and bountiful watershed, the very flowing heart of the real-world fairyland that I still love, is clearly threatened by industrial water extraction. The company plans to take 1.6 million litres of water every day. That’s almost as much water from the aquifer as the village itself takes; effectively doubling the demand on the ecosystem. Yet where Elora residents pay $2140 per million litres, Nestlé will pay only $3.71 for the same volume.

This injustice stirs in me a hazy mixture of rage and despair. But what can I do, sitting here at my desk in west Quebec? This much, at least: I can help promote the cause. I can ask you to visit the Save Our Water website to learn more on your own. If you find their demands reasonable, please support the cause by talking about it with your friends. You can donate money directly to the group through its web site, of course. But if you would also like to experience a little bit of the magic that I felt, as a child and a young adult, living in one of Canada’s most inspirational ecological wonderlands, then you can read my novels. And my profit from the sales of these books, for the month of November, will all be turned over to the campaign. Every penny.

The four titles of The Hidden Houses main series.

The four titles of The Hidden Houses main series.

Naturally I hope you like my books: click here to find out more about them. I hope you will share this blog post to all your friends, as well as the SaveOurWater.ca web site.

Let me give the last word to one of my novel’s heroines, chieftain Miranda Brigand:

“The world turned its back on us a long time ago. We know that. In fact we accept that. Even we ourselves don’t believe that dancing around the Maypole will make bad weather go away. But when the world left us behind, it also left so much more as well. The idea of the heroic life! Adventure, courage and strength. Generosity, friendship, and solidarity. Where are those virtues now? And what has the world embraced instead? Pop celebrities instead of heroes. Politicians instead of leaders. Teachers that promote conformity instead of knowledge. Law courts where justice goes to whoever has the best paid lawyer. And the people who work for change are ridiculed, ignored, sometimes attacked. Oh, we can see the nightfall of the earth, just as much as anybody can. But we are looking for the sunrise in the right place. That’s what Fellwater Grove is about! We don’t want to rule the world. We just want to live better lives. We’re all just people here, that’s all, just people. But people who care about friendship, and music, and all the things that really matter. We built this place to protect these things, and to make sure they don’t die. The world might want them back some day.”

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Space Exploration and Survivalism

Don’t get me wrong– I think space exploration is exciting. I think that when it’s at its best, it is intrinsically optimistic. But there’s also something desperate about it. Here I shall attempt to explain.

This past Samhain, an asteroid flew very near the earth, prompting (as often happens) a hand-wringing discussion about the likelihood that some day another asteroid will strike the earth and destroy human civilization, just as an asteroid once destroyed the dinosaurs. As I write these words, NASA is tracking 1591 “potentially hazardous objects”, meaning an asteroid with “potential to make threatening close approaches to the Earth.”

With that context, space exploration seems prompted or demanded by a kind of survivalist thinking. We’re exploring space so that we can build colonies on other planets. The idea is that if Earth is struck by an asteroid large enough to destroy the ecosystem, then human life would continue on the colonies. For example, in a discussion about a large asteroid that came perilously close to Earth in early 2014, physics professor Brian Cox said “There is an asteroid with our name on it and it will hit us.” (sorry for quoting a tabloid as the source here, but I haven’t found a better source yet.) Similarly, Stephen Hawking, the well known physicist, said that space exploration is “life insurance” for the human race: “it could prevent the disappearance of humanity by colonizing other planets.” And here’s a third example: Elon Musk, founder of the private and for-profit space exploration company SpaceX, has said many times that the reason why it’s important to build permanent colonies on other planets is to become an “interplanetary species”.

“It’s the first time in four and a half billion years that we are at a level of technology where we have the ability to reach Mars… The sun is gradually expanding. In 500,000 million years—a billion at the outside—the oceans will boil and there will be no meaningful life on Earth. Maybe some very high temperature bacteria, but nothing that can build rockets.”

Elon Musk, quoted in Elien Blue Becque, “Elon Musk Wants To Die On Mars” Vanity Fair, 10 March 2013

This argument for space exploration worries me for several reasons. One worry is practical: it has to do with what is almost certainly a deeply disproportionate alarm directed at a very remote threat. The expansion of the sun will not be a problem for us for many millions of years. Regarding the threat of asteroid impacts, NASA itself agrees the threat is negligible. “No one should be overly concerned about an Earth impact of an asteroid or comet. The threat to any one person from auto accidents, disease, other natural disasters and a variety of other problems is much higher than the threat from NEOs.” The threat from near earth objects becomes significant only “over long periods of time.”

My other worry is philosophical: it has to do with the nature of the logic of survivalism. There’s a striking similarity between the views of the high-tech space colonizers and the views of the low-tech “dropouts” (I do not intend this term disparagingly); that is, people who have decided that civilization is not for them anymore. So they gather friends and family with whom they can build sustainable eco-communities or religious communes or the like, and move as far as possible “away from the things of Man”. Both groups imagine that they possess the essence of humanity: one group regards that essence as having to do with simple, honest, back-to-the-land or back-to-God living; the other regards it as nothing more grand than the ongoing persistence of humanity’s population. Both groups often imagine they are on a mission to save that essence of humanity, either from corruption, or from destruction. My philosophical worry stems from my wish that the purpose, the goal, the objective, of human life, and indeed human civilization, should be something rather more ambitious than mere survival. Survivalism seems to me to denote a disturbing lack of imagination on the part of those who can conceive no higher and no more worthy a goal than the mere perpetuation of the physical existence of our species, or the mere perpetuation of a certain very specific or very narrow way of life. The good thing about living in a dynamic and progressive civilization, is that it is an attempt, even if a stumbling or a suspicious one, to do something more than merely survive.

Just a thought.

“Why do humans do science? Why do they do art? The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.”

~Savas Dimopoulos, scientist at CERN. From the film “Particle Fever”.

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The Autumn Forest

On most good-weather days, and in all seasons, I go walking in the Gatineau Hills Park. I do it because we human animals are made for walking; because forest scenery is good for stress-reduction and mental health, but mostly because it’s beautiful and that by itself is reason enough for me.

Here are some photos of my trek into the hills today. The autumn colours are in full bloom; the wind was chilled but not cold; the leaves fell about me as if quietly mourning the passing of summer; and it was a good day.

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Just around the corner from my building is this entrance to the park. I often tell people I live next door to a forest; that statement is a slight exaggeration; but I do love that this view of the hills is there for me every day as I walk to work and back.

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Just inside the park entrance.

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Much golden light.

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A carpet of gold leaves.

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A meadow in the shadow of a cloud; a hill in full sunshine.

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One of the many stony cliff-edges along the Gatineau Hill parkway. I love the birch tree here, clinging to the cliffside. It seems to say something about the tenacity and precariousness of life.

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Here’s a sort of raised causeway through a swamp, with a hill full of colour on the other side.

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Birch and juniper along the gravel path.

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I didn’t go all the way to Pink Lake today, as I usually do. So this photo and the ones which follow were shot about three weeks ago. Here’s a lovely swamp full of dead tree trunks, on the way to the lake.

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New life from old.

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The good Pink Lake itself. Note that it is not pink. In fact, although this photo doesn’t reveal it, the lake water is actually somewhat green. (The name comes from the name of a family that once owned a farm here.)

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At the water’s edge.

Finally, here’s a video of what it’s like at that meditation-place by the water’s edge. (1 minute 29 seconds). Watch it with patience; I’m building an argument here.

So, there you have it. The city of Gatineau, or the edge of it where my neighbourhood lies, is a comfortable place. But it’s far from my “home” and most of my friends and family. The more I walk this forest, the more I feel that I belong to this land and that this land belongs to me.

At least for a while.

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The Absurdities of Civilization: A Straw Poll.

I asked friends of mine to describe what they think are some of the biggest absurdities of modern life. Here are some of their answers.

  1. Wealthy people who praise the value of the “rustic” and “simple” life, and who claim to want such a life, but without sharing the burdens of poverty nor empathizing with the suffering of actual impoverished people. Marie Antoinette running her own hobby farm at Versaille Palace, for example.
  2. Excessive displays of social status and prominence: rich teenagers photographing themselves in a bathtub full of Perrier water.
  3. “Dozens of people sharing a city bus, but none of them sharing a conversation with each other.”
  4. Food which is saturated with processed sugar but does not actually taste sweet: the sugar is added to give the food a superficial texture, a ‘weight’.
  5. the huge variety of pre-packaged or frozen food available in grocery stores, which are not in fact a variety of real food choices but are only a variety of brand names, packaging graphics, and minor differences among the additives. These give the illusion of freedom of choice, but actually make the consumer less free (to say nothing of how the loss of the ability to cook for oneself makes one reliant on the choices made in advance by food-tech companies, and again therefore less free.)
  6. Religions whose doctrines promote peace, charity, and neighbourly love, but whose practitioners actual behaviour involves violence, racism, and unquestioning obedience.
  7. “That civilization dupes us into thinking we are somehow better for abandoning our ‘base’ instincts in favor of contrived and often damaging social constructs and social rituals.”
  8. Pocket-sized, mass-produced, and cheap-to-buy computers, each more powerful than those which helped put twelve men on the moon, and able to access without delay the sum of human knowledge through the internet, but which are used to play time-wasting games or to watch videos about cats.
  9. Consumer products that save no one any time or work, which create no new possibilities for human life and action, and which are designed to be thrown out after very few uses. Shaving cream, for example. (A totally pointless product; all you need is hot water.)
  10. The entire “war on terror”, in which the United States and its allies fights an enemy it indirectly and perhaps accidentally created.
  11. Plentiful government money for war-fighting and for monuments to commemorate past wars, but little or none to care for wounded, dismembered, or psychologically traumatized soldiers returning from the wars.
  12. Political slogans or jargon words which mean the very opposite of what a first-glance, out-of-context impression would suggest. “Right to life”, for instance, is not a blanket obligation on all persons to abstain from murder. It actually means government regulation of a woman’s use of her own reproductive organs. “Right to work”, as another example, doesn’t oblige employers to hire anyone, but does prevent workers from going on strike to protest their badly-paid, health-destroying, and mind-numbing jobs.
  13. Bherlin Gildo, a Swedish man standing trial in Britain for terrorism, had the charges against him dropped when it was revealed that British intelligence agencies were supporting the same force Mr. Gildo was accused of joining. In the words of his defence lawyer: “If it is the case that HM government was actively involved in supporting armed resistance to the Assad regime at a time when the defendant was present in Syria and himself participating in such resistance it would be unconscionable to allow the prosecution to continue.” (Source.)
  14. In June of 2015 a terrorist bearing the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa stitched on his clothing entered a church in South Carolina and murdered nine Black people. Nevertheless the governor of the state, Nikki Haley, declared that “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” (Source.)
  15. The 1970’s anarchist punk rock band, The Sex Pistols, recently licensed artwork and graphics related to their brand for use by a line of credit cards. (Source.)
  16. The global industrial and economic dependency on petroleum as a fuel source for almost everything, despite the fact that it’s non-renewable and that there will be none left in the world by or about the year 2048. At the same time, efforts to introduce alternative sources of energy are deliberately suppressed by major players in the oil industry. (Source.)
  17. In a society full of opportunity, wealth, comfort, political freedom, widely available education and medicine and (let us admit it) distraction, nonetheless many people find suicide a preferable alternative. 2,728 Canadians took their own lives in the year 2011. (Source.) By contrast in low-tech, pre-civilized societies, suicide is exceedingly rare.

These examples perhaps say as much about the priorities of the people I polled, as they do about modern society. (The last five, the ones with the web links, are my own contributions to the list.) But I’m sure you see the point. Life in an urban, organized, technologically-intensive society involves accepting and even making private peace with inexplicable, unintentionally comic, and seemingly self-contradicting situations like these. I might accept them if I imagine I will benefit from them, or if I fear that those who benefit from them will retaliate against those who criticize. Or, perhaps people accept them using a kind of personal cost-benefit analysis. They’re willing to put up with a city mayor who regularly gets drunk in public, utters racist slurs against his own constituents, and who ignores a police investigation against himself, so long as he cuts taxes. They’re willing to put up with a government that arrests people without charge and imprisons them without a fair trial, so long as the same government keeps the trains running on time.

Friends, I invite you to suggest more examples of absurdities like these. Yes, this is serious philosophy here. 🙂 And I invite a conversation about how best to explain them, and what, if anything, can be done about them.

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