Archive for the ‘Volume 8’ Category

How-to: Hurdles for Hobbits

Well, it’s High Summer once again, and you know what that means for we horticulturalists: gardening time! As you might expect, high-quality fencing can really come in handy—for partitioning crops, keeping unwanted critters out, or keeping wanted critters in.
Given the general state of The Mess these days, I feel it’s only appropriate to take a second look at those skill-sets that fell by the wayside in the course of our culture’s drunk-on-fossil-fuels bender of industrialization. Of course, the ‘old’ ways of doing things were—by their comparatively low-impact nature—far more sustainable than the way most do things now, and so are definitely worth checking out.
And so, we’re going to learn how to make WATTLE!

But for starters, what is wattle?

1 a : a fabrication of poles interwoven with slender branches, withes, or reeds and used especially formerly in building.

Believe it or not, ‘wattle’ is one of the oldest building materials known to man. The technique dates solidly back to Neolithic Old Europe, and conceivably could even have been used in the Upper Paleo/Mesolithic (as a very field-expedient fire-reflecting or windbreaking addition to a shelter?).
Although these days, most people’s only exposure to wattle is in a basic history class (where it is paired with ‘-and-daub’, usually in an off-hand reference to medieval peasant building techniques – in the same way that cob or adobe construction might get glossed over as ‘mud bricks’), this valuable skill is luckily still kept alive by village elders in those quaint corners of Britain where petroleum culture never fully caught on or was resisted.

Traditionally in Britain, wattle was built of coppiced hazel and willow, but since I live in the Ohio valley, and strongly believe in using materials native to one’s area, I am very fond of using river-cane (genus Arundinaria). A grasslike relative of bamboo, this wonderfully sustainable resource once choked the banks and bottoms of old Mississippia in the form of nigh-impenetrable ‘canebreaks’, providing a number of valuable materials to the locals. From this one plant can be made such a diverse list of items useful to Mississippian Hobbits like myself: atlatl darts and arrow shafts, musical instruments, drinking straws, needle-cases (and other tube-y containers), bedding, roofing thatch, and our focus today, wattle!

Fresh-cut river-cane

Fresh-cut river-cane

The same quantity of river-cane, with the leaves removed. Stuff an old-time mattress with them!

What you’ll need:
-raw natural materials (hazel, willow, cane, basswood, &c): a big pile of long pieces (~eight foot or so) for the horizontal weaving, and a handful of thicker pieces for uprights (~four foot tall).
-a hammer or post-driver
-a suitable outdoor workspace
-a free hour or two
-an open mind

(Note: While ‘wattle’ is the general name for woven wooden material, our finished unit is known as a ‘hurdle’.)

While most traditional hurdlers will start from a mould-board (a long, slightly-curved piece of wood to hold the stakes), for my quick-and-dirty uses I found that pounding the sharpened uprights about six inches to a foot into the ground works just fine. This leaves about three or four feet above ground for the height of the hurdle. Keep about twelve to eighteen inches between the uprights, and I’ve found that mimicking the slight arc shape of a mould-board works well.
*In my examples, the uprights are either apple wood, or leftover bamboo. If you use something like apple, make sure to orient the stakes opposite to how they grew (the thinner end should be in the ground), as the nubs of pruned-off branches really helps to ‘lock’ each course of material in place.

Note: the benefit of using traditional woods like hazel and willow is that they are very bendable. This ability comes in handy every few rows, when you want to bend the excess length back upon itself to keep the outermost uprights in place. Unfortunately, cane doesn’t lend itself to this tricky maneuver very well, so if you’re doing a cane hurdle you may have to use a row of one of these more flexible materials every now and then.

Once your uprights are in place, there’s really not much to weaving wattle, and pictures are worth a thousand words:

wattle-weaveDIGITAL CAMERA
Basically, just keep alternating weaving your long pieces behind and in front of your uprights, and twisting the ends back upon themselves every few rows. In an hour or two or so, you should wind up with something like this!:

A finished hurdle of apple-wood

Or this!

A finished hurdle of river-cane, with the leaves left on.

Or this!

A finished hurdle of river-cane, with the leaves removed.

As you can see, attractive—or at the least, utilitarian!—wattle hurdles like these can be assembled quite easily with only a little time and effort, and they make great ‘primitive’/’traditional’/’rustic’ accents to a garden plot or small livestock paddock.
However, as easy as they are to make, the one thing required for building them which most folks might have trouble finding would be the raw materials themselves! For those of you in the States who don’t have access to a private woodland, you might start by asking around at your local greenhouse or nursery.

The Hunger Games™, Franchise-Branding, and Rebellion

As part of an April fundraiser at my school, I paid a dollar to ‘dress down’ one day, and wore my homemade stenciled mockingjay t-shirt:
mockingjay stencil, by me.While a number of kids (though far fewer than I’d hoped) commented on it, their comments were kind of troubling.
The loud, popular, Type-A kids would usually ask me, “Do you like The Hunger Games™ or something’?”, as if they’d forgotten our society’s penchant for using t-shirts to proclaim to others the things which one enjoys.
The ‘geeky’ kids would usually just announce that hey, they liked my shirt (at which point I would try to drum up some business by offering to make and sell them one of their very own).
What nobody said, however, was “Hey, nice mockingjay shirt” or “Cool! District Twelve, represent!”(we are in Kentucky, after all).

(at which point the addition of a D12 salute would make me giggle like a schoolgirl)

In other words, because ours is a culture which believes everything has a price (and can therefore be bought and sold), even something as simple as an encircled-bird-holding-an-arrow ceases to be a symbol of hope and resistance against tyranny, and instead simply becomes a logo representing a profitable franchise.

ADDENDUM: I wore the same shirt to a first-grade classroom a few weeks later; a couple of kids saw the shirt and declared, “The Hunger Games are bad.” Indeed! The question then becomes: what changes in how our youth view the world in the years between first and eighth grade?

Because I spend a fair amount of time in a public junior high school, I see a fair amount of ‘Hunger Games’ merch, and I’ve yet to see a single item that hasn’t been emblazoned with the name of that franchise in big, flaming letters. Now, maybe it’s because I approach my various internalized fandoms from in-universe perspectives, but I find such branding—and most of the merch, for that matter—to be pretty generally disgusting.
(Especially tasteless is a movie tie-in booklet going by the title “The Hunger Games Ultimate Tribute Guide” which is little more than a collection of glorified headshots (literally, a pocketbook that allows teenagers (the franchise’s target demographic) to examine the faces of murdered peers, 70% of whose names we never learn).
For the record, let’s remember that The Hunger Games themselves are a yearly event in which two dozen children are coerced by the threat of starvation into fighting to the death for the entertainment of their society’s elites. So, my question is…do our youth believe they have no choice in how they are able to express their enjoyment of this franchise, save going online or to the mall and purchasing—and then wearing or carrying—branded merchandise which is essentially advertising for such a deplorably transparent, blood-soaked system of control? Why the hell a thinking person would possibly want to do this is completely beyond me.

Thankfully, however, the answer is Yes, they do have a choice, but most don’t see it. The first step in breaking the chains of consumption is, as always, to UN-COOL it (in this case by pointing out the ugly truths we’re not supposed to see/think about), and then DIY it (like by making your own mockingjay shirt, as I’ve done above). Personally, I’d be on cloud nine if a teen counter-emblazoned her The Hunger Games™ backpack with a big, red “FUCK”:

(I’d settle for “F— THE”, since our hypothetical activist is probably in junior high, and such profanity generally runs counter to dress-code decency rules)

(though I’d settle for “F— ”, since our hypothetical activist is probably in junior high, and such profanity generally runs counter to dress-code decency rules)

Can you imagine? Or think: if kids took copies of glossy Hunger Games™ movie tie-in ‘books’ and added stickers drawing attention to the non-fictional plights of actual child soldiers, coal miners, and trafficked humans—to say nothing of top-down wealth inequality, unsustainable resource extraction, or the coercive, oppressive nature of pyramid-shaped prison societies, &c. (as in most dystopian fiction, when the society in question is just Ours turned up to eleven, there is no shortage of applicable parallels to be drawn). Just think of it!

Sidebar: And since I’m already talking about unthinking franchise patronage, let’s remember that this isn’t an issue unique to The Hunger Games. I’m still completely unable to grasp last year’s petition—signed by over 34,000 people—for the US government to build a Death Star. Yes, that really happened! So, I guess people will just turn off their brains and click ‘Like’ for anything that even vaguely relates to whatever their profitable geeky franchise of choice is? I shudder to imagine these people’s thought processes: “Oh, hurhur, Death Star. That mean Star Wars. Me like Star Wars. Hurhur. <sign petition>.”
Even though the White House comically vetoed the petition, their explanation neglected (most troublingly) to mention the fact that the Death Star program— and the Tarkin Doctrine it represented—was the end-result of an evil empire of FUCKING SPACE-NAZIS!?!

So, anyway. When the teaser-trailer for Catching Fire came out about the same time, I was already kind of grumbly and had these things on my mind (because I always have these things on my mind!).

What I found especially telling was a line from Woody Harrelson’s character Haymitch, breaking the news to our newly-victorious heroine Katniss that “[her] job is to be a distraction from what the real problems are.
Boy, that about sums it all up, doesn’t it? In a nutshell, that’s a pretty good reason why I have a really hard time passively watching professional sports, sitcoms, televised ‘talent’ shows, big, loud superhero blockbusters, NASCAR, and other such mainstream bread-and-circuses (the panem et circenses from which Collins took the name of her novels’ dystopian nation):
I know what the real problems are, and I don’t want to be distracted.

In the course of the teaser, the obligatory title-cards flash up and inform us that “Every revolution … begins with a spark”. While I guess that’s true, wouldn’t it be amazing if (for once!) we saw through the age-old story of plucky, ragtag rebels fighting against the System, and stopped living vicariously through the pictures on the screen and took it to the streets?
I’m really hoping against hope that Catching Fire’s release this November will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back (glad to see I’m not the only one) and bursts the dam holding back all of our simmering anger and frustration—that people will finally WAKE UP to recognize the hidden workings of Our Culture—because what we need isn’t a Revolution, but a Revolt.
I say that because unfortunately, the ‘revolution’ depicted in Collins’ trilogy is the classic definition of that word—a purely political shakeup whose outcome is not breakup of power or a cultural evolution, but simply a change in leadership (“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”), maintaining the status-quo notion that we’re all incapable of governing ourselves and need someone at the top of the pyramid to tell us what to do. If people get riled up and start doing something about it (which would be good) but model on THG (which would be bad), we’ll just be right back where we started.
At this point, however, I’d be completely overjoyed if Woody Harrelson (a self-identified anarchist, let’s remember) started throwing inflammatory, expressly political, apocalyptically-minded comments about Our Culture’s systems of control into every obligatory late-night-talk-show appearance or press junket he did in support of this film!

ADDENDUM: This is a good start:

On ‘Children of Men’

I often describe this film to the unfortunate folks who haven’t heard of or seen it as “2007 turned up to 11” (actually, I think I did read an interview with the art director (or someone?) who explained that the future of the film had to be “like the present, but more so”). In that way, it’s like the cinematic equivalent of James McMurtry’s 2005 We Can’t Make It Here Anymore, a song that similarly captures the turned-up-to-11 bleakness of the Bush years:

Basically, it’s all the worst parts of the Oughts, where if you watched the news it looked like a possible war with Iran, climate change data was coming in and being disregarded, bird flu was on the horizon, Somalia was imploding (again), and it was gray and rainy for like, a month straight. Well, add a pandemic of infertility and throw it all into a blender with some beautiful cinematography and a very interesting soundtrack and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men is what you get. In other words, because its roots are solidly in the actual present, it’s an entirely plausible (and thereby cautionary) future.

Together, this film and Max Brooks’ World War Z have probably had the biggest impact on my outlook of a postapocalyptic world; since both futures draw inspiration from histories past and present, both reinforce the fact that almost nothing happens in a vacuum: waves of refugees can result from distant wars (“Africa devastated by nuclear fallout” a background newspaper reads), rising sea levels (Maldives, anyone?), crop failures (don’t even get me started on totalitarian monocrop agriculture), &c.  It’s a good exercise—I can look at a scenario in one of these works and see how it might have come to be, and then pull back farther to see how it relates to what’s happening now.
By extension, these two properties have also played a huge role in influencing my philosophy on our idea of ‘survival’ in its current form, doomsday-ism, &c. As both are essentially topical, applicable, and political (as opposed to the apolitical, purely-entertainment ‘Zombie 2.0’ media wave), I don’t worry about The End of the World; I’ve always found it more important to focus on The End Of The World As We Know It (aka The End of Our Culture’s Unsustainable Way of Life), I educate myself on the key shatterpoints in play (and their root causes), and then imagine (or find in history) sustainable alternatives to embrace.

On a superficial level, this is also one of the few films where I see or pick up on something new each time I watch it (ditto for reading WWZ). I would love to see an annotated version of the film that takes time to point out all the little shout-outs (everything from Banksy’s art, Pink Floyd, and T.S. Elliot to next-gen military hardware and the use of oranges as foreshadowing a la The Godfather, &c.).
Actually, that might be a fun future post

Finally—and people always look at me like I’m batshit insane when I say this—this is my Christmas movie. Why? Best let me deconstruct it:

Our story takes place in December.
A man and an expecting woman travel together, going through many obstacles.
The woman is with child, but not by the man.
The woman’s child is the result of a miraculous conception.
The child will apparently redeem humanity.
The protagonist goes through his journey wearing sandals.

Now, did I just outline Cuaron’s Children of Men, or the story of the Nativity?

shanti shanti shanti!


I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s still a valid point.
Say what you will about it (haters are gonna hate regardless), AVATAR is the perfect film for our times, and it’s very telling how it’s had practically zero lasting cultural impact, aside from becoming a punchline. Unlike “I’m the king of the world!”, “Hasta la vista, baby”, or “Game over, man!”, you probably won’t hear anyone saying “I see you” non-ironically.  Which is too bad, because the recipe is pure James Cameron genius:

*Take a troperific love story (don’t forget the James Cameron Strong Female Character™!),

*Place it in a larger Takers-versus-Leavers conflict (to make it applicable and let us draw comparisons to every single run-in between Our Culture and the less-civilized since the Neolithic):
Contact*Set it in the future (to showcase dressed-up guns, power loaders, and other geeky hardware),

*Highlight an inherent preachy message to warn society of its faults (they won’t do anything but bitch about how heavy-handed it was),

*Dress it up with absolutely cutting-edge, will-not-age, had-to-be-invented-for-the-film special effects,

*And then rake in the dough when every person on the planet (statistically speaking) sees it, twice, in 3-D, and doesn’t take anything away from the experience besides, “Gee, Dave, that place sure was purty!”

Like I said, pure genius!

On ‘The Matrix’

So, my favorite movies.
Tied for number one are Star Wars, AVATAR, and The Matrix, because they’re pretty much the same film: a Hero Journey set alongside guerrilla warfare against a System (hey, I like movies with subtext!).  Also, groundbreaking effects from all three.  So (because I have a bit more written on it than the others), I’ll begin with The Matrix.

The Matrix is one of those films that occupies a strange place in the public conscious.  On the one hand, geeks and kids taking Philosophy 101 dig it, but in general it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons (like most of Shyamalan’s oeuvre, which I also really enjoy). For most people, three things come to mind when you bring up The Matrix.
First are probably the ‘bullet-time’ effects, which (even though there were only four of these shots in the film) were parodied or ripped off ad nauseum and therefore showed up in just about every movie that came out for the next few years.
The second is probably a vague sense of the bloated ponderousness of the sequels that followed (see the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise for another more recent example); maybe you never even saw the sequels, but just learned through pop-cultural-osmosis that they were kinda slow and unintelligible (even though that’s really just Reloaded).
Third, due to an unimaginably unfortunate example of bad timing, this film was released just a few weeks before a coupla latchkey kids went tragically mad and ruined guns and black trenchcoats and Marilyn Manson for the rest of us for a good long while.

That’s what most folks will think of when you mention The Matrix.  Which is too bad, because it’s an incredible film.  Like most things I love, it works on a number of levels.  Yeah, it’s trendy and mind-bendy and full of badass visual and storytelling tropes, but it’s the subtext most people seem to overlook that really gets me.  Take this scene from the first act:

… You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
The Matrix?
Do you want to know what IT is? The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
What truth?
That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch…
A prison for your mind.

Or how about this even more transparent monologue?:

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around. What do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

Thankfully, the idea of ‘the Matrix’ isn’t just some pseudo-philosophical mumbo-numbo in a popcorn blockbuster, it’s a metaphor for the culture we live in. In one form or another, it’s how the world has been—for an increasing majority of humanity—for about the last six thousand years. The first Mesopotamian god-king city-builders laid the foundation for the Matrix. The Egyptians lived in the Matrix. So did the Romans. In today’s all-but-conquered, global, industrialized capitalist world, 99.999999% of people live in the Matrix. It’s really a testament to the genius of the Wachowskis that they were able to package these rather heavy-handed, dangerous ideas in such an entertaining, marketable format  through their use of allegory (a la James Cameron, more on him in a bit): the average viewer won’t pick up on the film’s anarchist subtext because it’s about hackers and robots and people covered in plugs.

Sure, the film is violent.  But, as brother Cornel West explains, it’s “intellectual violence”.  The film’s heroes aren’t fighting individuals, they’re fighting against the system itself, for the opportunity to show humanity a better world. In fact, the speech that closes the film sounds like something straight out of Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam:

I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

That’s what’s so worrisome about the Matrix sequels.  Metaphorically, if the Matrix is our status quo civilized world, and the ‘real world’ is the fulfilling life outside the System, the second and third films’ suggestion that the real world is just a Matrix Within a Matrix* would suggest that even rebellion against the System will leave one still within the System…which is pretty much true.  As the PBS Frontline program Merchants of Cool put it:

The cool-hunt ends here, with teen rebellion itself becoming just another product. … The battle itself is packaged and sold right back to them…welcome to the Machine.”

*Yes, I know that’s not what the Wachowskis say, but when the official explanation is a hand-wave and ‘Fuck you, dear viewer’, I’ll take the one that actually encourages discussion.

Why I Do What I Do.

We interrupt our regularly-scheduled programming…
While I normally reserve my non-television-related posts for the off-season, I have to share this while it’s still hot off the presses.

A great bit of weekend reading is just out from Robert Jensen, taken from his recent print publication and entitled “Rationally Speaking, We Are All Apocalyptic Now“. It’s a tight, less-than-1,000-word essay, and it’s absolutely spot-on.

‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’, indeed.
This is the reason why I continually espouse the genius of Max Brooks’ WWZ. This is why The Matrix is one of the most unappreciated blockbusters ever. This is why I just wrapped up a 12,000-word project on Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs (and I’m just getting started). This is why I read Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings is apocalyptic to its core: epic Life-affirming adventuring against Industry threatening to bring about the End of the World). This is why I have a very hard time listening to most music, watching most TV, or reading most fiction—I don’t like to turn off my brain; I like to think, and I like to think about these kinds of things ^ because they’re important.