“Angry people are not always wise.” ― Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
I was copy editing a 5th-grade teacher’s manual last week in which one of the unit goals was to have students “discuss metaphors.” I’d love to do that. Let’s discuss metaphors forever. Sometime back in the spring or early summer, when I thought I could really get a handle on the knapweed and thistles in my yard this year (which probably sent their roots laughing at me all the way to last night’s hard frost), I wrote about knapweed as a metaphor for white nationalism and thistles as one for patriarchy, and how inadequate and possibly unfair it is to weight toxic and invasive weeds with toxic aspects of humanity.
Metaphors do feel inadequate. And yet necessary. When we’re trying to meet people where they are, it’s most often metaphor of some kind that makes it possible—not necessarily invasive weeds, or the kind of metaphor used in, say, poetry, but the kinds of equivalencies we use to say, “My experience of X makes me feel the way you feel when you experience Y.”
Maybe that’s as close as we can get. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to turn everything into metaphors anymore: we need them for far more important purposes.
Exactly four years ago, on October 31, 2017, I was on the coast of Norfolk, long out of phone service and extremely anxious about my prospects of getting a bus back from the tiny coastal village of Ostend to Norwich, where I was to catch a train to London and fly back home to Montana the next morning. (The chapter of the book this trip is in has a lot about buses, and what the difficulty of bus travel says about how much, or little, we respect people’s ability to get where they need to go; getting to Ostend was a bit of a mini-saga.) The Norfolk coast was a vital place—not vital as in important, more as in full of vitality, of life, of reminders that nature—life itself, especially water—is long and patient and will always overcome our efforts to control it. Places like this need no metaphor:
“The sea boomed unceasingly, crashing against rotting wooden reinforcements that had been build in 1953 after catastrophic floods, and the light was soft, hushed with gray, reminding me unexpectedly of St. Petersburg on a winter’s day when the light is brief and the air is eyelash-freezing cold. . . . I ran my hands along the black mounds hunched under the silt-and clay-packed cliffs. Knocking on them, they felt solid, like rock, but I wiggled a piece of flint that was sticking out from the side of one, and the black mud cracked and crumbled.”
I still have that piece of flint. It sits on my desk along with a very few other special rocks, including a chunk of obsidian that I’ve had since I was eight or nine years old and attending a week-long geology day camp. It’s from the day we learned (or tried to learn) how to chip obsidian into javelin points. That bit of obsidian has been with me ever since, telling me a story about my life. The shard of flint will, I hope, do the same.
I had come to Norfolk to get as close to the village of Happisburgh as I could, the seaside village where a set of fossilized footprints had been found by a team from the British Museum. The footprints long since washed away—Happisburgh itself likely won’t last much longer before being claimed by the sea—but I wanted walk in this sea-battered place and imagine for a moment the lives of the hominins that had left those footprints behind so long ago that its relation to time is beyond metaphor. The day before, the British Museum’s head researcher had let me handle a block of resin that recreated one of the footprints; I wanted to see its origin location for myself.
“This footprint and its companions were never intended to leave a trace. They weren’t planted or crafted in that lonely cry to the universe, that ‘Here I am!’ that we wish could live for eternity. It’s just a step, and then another, a few minutes of everyday life for an everyday—possibly a family—living over 800,000 years ago. . . . They were walking south, along an estuary edge, putzing around, being human. They gathered, walked, and looked, and they left, unintentionally, this moment of their lives for us to meditate upon.
“They were here.”
What kinds of prints would we leave of our time, our lives, I wondered later? What paths and tracks, what stories in the ground beneath us will humans, if we’re still around, wonder about nearly a million years from now?
The hominins who left those prints are long since gone. Even their species is extinct. But the questions they evoke will never fade. For that, we need no metaphors.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
Xenia Cherkaev in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on the multilayered fractures of trust that keep most Russians from getting vaccinated—through the perspective of a dog catcher dealing with laws that make no sense: “For many people in Russia today, the law is a web of regulations in which they seek loopholes to safeguard themselves and their social collectives from truly terrible outcomes.” (This was really well written; I opened it initially because I haven’t been to Russia in a few years but vividly remember the many packs of stray dogs roaming Moscow’s alleyways and staying warm in the metro stations.)
Author of Blockchain Chicken Farm (which I haven’t read but now kind of want to) Xiaowei R. Wang on the Team Human podcast talking about trust, scale, and tech in farming. (Thanks to Wang for introducing me to the term Metronormativity that “challenges so many binaries, like urban and rural as two disconnected places that have no relationship to each other.”)
I have no idea what Insurance Journal is, but it came up as a link when I was looking for an online version of this story that showed in my local paper about data centers and water usage (just to be clear, this is syndicated—it’s the exact same article that was in my paper). This is an issue I’ve been looking for more information about for years, and have seen very little reportage about. It’s something I think about every time I see someone strap on a GoPro to go skiing or mountain biking (or open Substack to write a newsletter)—what ecosystems are being put under pressure to satisfy our desire to archive our lives? The end of the article has a punch of a question that I suspect we all know the answer to.
Speaking of water, architecture professor Sara Jensen Carr has a fantastic long essay in Places journal on efforts in Honolulu to replace a legacy of heavily engineered water control with watershed management designed with Indigenous knowledge: “This is nothing less than a vision of an emergent watershed urbanism, a paradigm that, if integrated into planning policy, could move towards a reconciliation of landscape ecologies, Indigenous science, and economic justice, in order to assure that even a city like Honolulu can support all its inhabitants over the long term.”
Boston Review tackled a subject I’d love to see more thinking on—who owns our data? And how can we change that? The authors (unattributed) had an interesting approach, categorizing data as being in the realm of a public trust, similar to water and wildlife. I very much love the idea of the public trust, but as law professor Mary Cristina Wood demonstrated at length in her book Nature’s Trust, the idea of it with regards to nature was folded into environmental regulation and then heavily prone to what’s called “industry capture,” in which the industry that’s meant to be regulated ends up writing the rules. Unless we reinvigorate the ancient concept of a public trust to begin with, it’s hard to see how data would escape the same fate. It’s a good piece, though, with lots of reference to Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!
The Smarty Pants podcast reshared a 2018 interview they did with Professor Nick Groom on vampire history. Far from being rooted in ancient mythology, Groom says that vampires were theorized or imagined just when the Enlightenment and its shaping of medicine and science rose into prominence: “[Groom] makes the case that vampires rose from the grave at the same time that philosophy, theology, forensic medicine, and literature were beginning to question what it meant to be human.”