The cats and I generally get up for a while about three or three-thirty, an old habit that’s partly anatomical, partly defensive (checking the premises), partly accidental. a habit that means I watch the sun come up in midsummer but not in winter when I’m up, but not the sun. Last night I rose quietly, and Squibbie, who sleeps in the front room in my extra reading chair, didn’t wake up. After Crackers and I’d been back in bed for a while, the Squib suddenly woke up, missed her snack and used her favorite tactic to wake me up, which is slamming the bathroom door. I’d left the computer lamp and a kitchen lamp on. WHAM. And the lights went out. Huh? ALL the lights everywhere were out — the whole TOWN was dark, street-lights and all. Squibbie looked proud. The carbon mono detector was screaming because it’s dependent on electricity. I pulled it out of the wall.
The stars were not extinguished. The sky was clear, the moon was down, and there were a zillion jillion very bright stars. After a bit of breakfast, we went back to bed. Finally we overslept and woke up in a snow squall.
Nassim Taleb fascinates my library friend, which means he forwards clips to me that I wouldn’t see otherwise. Taleb is wrestling with the problem of how to survive black swan events, unforeseen developments that up-end everything. Of course, that’s impossible because human consciousness is always based on a selection from reality rather than the reality itself, which is why we can never know “God.” There is no safety because there is no escape from change.
But it seems worthy to keep pursuing what he calls the issue of “robustness” versus “fragility.” He’s beginning with a financial context, of course, which is what he knows, and he has gone back to his Mediterranean roots for wisdom, which tells him to avoid Procrustes, those particular kinds of template for reality that exclude and distort reality to the point of destruction. He’s trying to escape the mistaken interpretation of Darwin that defines “robustness” (survival) as being the most dominant, powerful, wealthy, etc. Clearly that is not only corrupting, but also unstable because it is uncontrollable. The idea of “red tooth and claw” as a good thing only works in terms of violence. When the terms move to nonviolent resistance, Egypt falls.
As a model of the robust, Taleb describes the sublime phenomenon of dining on fine foods with dear friends full of ideas. The wine and food come from traditions as old as Mediterranean civilization and as human relationships. We’re talking about the model of the Last Supper here. I love it. But if I sat down to eat with Taleb, I would be sent into diabetic shock. The most fragile thing at the table is humans. Fine dining is Procrustean, a product of “civilization” that defines it, thus limiting it.
Now back to my beginning. The infrastructure in the prairie village of Valier is vulnerable. We cannot afford to become dependent on electricity, our water system needs constant tending and upgrading, gas prices are volatile, roads and railways are easily interdicted, storage was toppled in the wind storm Saturday night. Our very shelter was threatened as roofs were ripped off and trees were broken to drop on our cars. The anemometers showed windspeeds up to 114 mph, 140, 160, and maybe above that but we don’t know because the instruments blew away.
We are robust, because we respond. Sunday morning the chainsaws were snarling to clear streets so we could get to church. The ladders were up so we could repair shingles. The people were standing in knots to exchange news. I’m sure the electricity was off this morning for the sake of repairs. And the temp went high enough to strip away most of the snow.
When I first heard about catabatic winds, I talked about them so much that one of my students said he might throw up if I mentioned it one more time. They are winds caused by warm Pacific air piling up against the west side of the Rockies and dropping moisture until they are light enough to cross the barrier. Then on the east side the drier air is released in a torrent. This means the trees, needing rain, grow on the west side while on the east side there is grass made accessible even in winter. In years the pattern fails, the grazers starve.
Taleb forgets two things. One is that we cannot escape Procrustes because there is always winnowing. Extremes are what shape species by eliminating everything that no longer fits the niche, even if it’s not their fault because the niche has changed. What was formerly an outlier at the edge of the most successful, can become the new center. Since we have changed this “niche” we call a planet, we are bound to lose a lot of entities that used to fit. We call them “species” and mourn their inevitable loss.
The other overlooked fact is scale. We tend to look at events in terms of life-times. The last ten thousand years are what count to us. Until we consider the dinosaurs, killed by Procrustean climate forces, while the scampering little mammals ran between the tines of death. The Montana legislature had to pass a law that the history of Native Americans must be taught in the Montana schools, because otherwise the curriculum only went back two centuries, only the “anthropocene” in which we began to change the planet. Then it jumped suddenly to dinosaurs, which have a reassuringly sci-fi aura.
We can’t stop time. This planet is a constantly changing niche, writhing under the barrage of change coming from the star called Sol which is a fusion bomb that will exhaust itself. We know this in a sci-fi way, but the actual fact doesn’t often make it into our template. This little prairie village survives partly by adapting, partly by sacrifice, partly by knowing and partly by not-knowing. The idea of God gives us some way of getting a connection to the overwhelming Shiva of creating/destroying reality, so the Valier churches are full. But the people are often diabetic. Sitting at that table may sicken them.
We have learned now that the really robust are the small, the particulate, the viral, the sidereal. These are the thoughts one has when wakened at 3AM under whirling stars. While the alarm screams. And so one emails a close friend and co-writer. This is what Tim Barrus says in answer:
“My struggle now is how do you take a cogent awareness (rare) like this writing you do and then exemplify it in such a way as to put it into your work that says; yes, there is pain in the world and pain to life, and, yes, it can be far too short, life, your life, but if you are willing to pay the price, you can transcend the scripts culture hands you, and you can have the life you don’t know you want; how (not why) does one put that into one’s work where you transcend yourself simply in the reaching out to them. Not that you always connect. But you do the work and you do the reaching out, and an awful lot of it, certainly the sweat, is up to them, most of them are as sacred [a typo, but I love it] as the people whose lives they turn their backs on. I do not know this to be true but I think it might be true: perhaps years after you are gone from their lives, they will have moments when they remember and in that remembering, they will find small pieces of it that move them forward. It is the idea of moving forward that is actually quite complex because of its relationship to looking backward.”