“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” —Fyodr Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Last week I read Simon Winchester’s new book Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World. I . . . did not love it. I’m going to refrain from critiquing it heavily here until I’ve thought more about it, but I found it massively flawed in more than one respect, and for Winchester a surprisingly uneven read. For anyone who’s interested in the subject of land ownership, Andro Linklater’s Owning the Earth remains a far better book—more comprehensive, more informative, and it manages to grapple frankly with ownership as a destructive force as well as a creative one. The Post-Its sticking out of my copy of Linklater’s books contain notes about interesting facts, observations, or history; the most common things I wrote on my Winchester notes were “WHAT???” and “Seriously?”
In fact, it irritated me so much that instead of picking up Nick Hayes’s Book of Trespass or Riane Eisler’s Nurturing Our Humanity next as I’d intended, I started on law professor Blake A. Watson’s book Buying America from the Indians, a critical and comprehensive investigation of the 1823 Supreme Court case Johnson v. McIntosh that codified the Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. property law. So far I’m liking how Watson picks apart Chief Justice Marshall’s convoluted thinking as the justice tries to argue that Native Americans have only the right of tenancy on this continent and that only Europeans can exercise the right of possession.
I know that every subscriber to this newsletter has been waiting on tenterhooks to hear if I managed to get my mother a vaccine appointment, and the answer is yes! Because I was loading up her county’s website to make sure it was ready for the following day, which is when they told me there would next be appointments available, and when I refreshed the site after an hour it told me appointments would be released at 4. This day, not the next day. So I kept refreshing and got through and then got an error message after I put her information in, and then panicked and went to Chrome because sometimes I have this problem with Safari and should know better than to use it, and then half the appointments were gone so I was race-typing to get her in (thank you Mrs. Stebbins the high school keyboarding teacher!), and then success. The rest of the appointments were gone in under 15 minutes.
If you have poor eyesight, shaky or slow typing, a sluggish internet connection, or just aren’t tech-savvy enough to quickly discern which text is a hyperlink that will send you to the right places, I don’t see how you could make this happen.
She has an appointment. How many others who qualify were trying at the same time?
On Saturday, after we got home from a midwinter gathering by the beach to eat potatoes and toast my dad’s birthday with vodka, we chopped some wood and started a fire and then for some reason I had an itch to watch Vikings, which I’d watched through Season 4 a few years back but then stopped. (I tend to avoid anything with violence, horror, or themes of betrayal and manipulation, so how I go into the show in the first place is a mystery to me.) Being in the cold and snow must have revived a never-satisfied longing for stories placed in lands that make the discomfort of cold weather inescapable. Vikings is a bit too uncomfortable on other levels, though, so I probably won’t continue. Rereading Waubgeshig Rice’s post-apocalyptic novel Moon of the Crusted Snow is probably a better idea.
It’s hard to find words about winter and snow that aren’t completely overused, but the cliches are true. I’ve lived in places without winter and find myself waiting all year for the time of darkness and fires, of cold and slowing down. The sense of hush and pause that winter gives is something I crave. Permission to rest the mind and senses. To be still. To have the time to chase vaccine appointments online, evidently.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
N. Scott Momaday’s Earth Keepers, which I read as a palate cleanser after Land, is almost like a book of poetry, something to keep by the bedside and dip into for contemplation. After the massive buffalo slaughters, he writes, “The worst of all was that the killers knew no shame. They moved on, careless, having left a deep wound on the earth. We were ashamed, but the earth does not want shame. It wants love.”
Pico Iyer’s memoir Autumn Light is something I didn’t know I needed and slides nicely into the stillness of midwinter. It’s a contemplation on Japan and Iyer’s place in it woven through with the death of his father-in-law and the tensions and affections that grow within families. Also a lot of ping-pong!
I don’t know what it is about this pandemic that has people talking about microbes so much—is it all the sourdough bread?—but this interview on the Smarty Pants podcast with professor and biologist Rob Dunn was super interesting: “When we looked at the bakers’ hands . . . they in fact looked more like sourdough starters than they looked like the hands of other people we studied.”
An essay from anthropologist Manvir Singh in Aeon on what we might have gotten wrong about hunter-gatherer societies and deep human history: “The idea that human nature was forged in a chaos of sundry social environments might be more distressing than a narrative about small, egalitarian bands. But it explains the breadth of human behaviour and the ease with which we live in modern societies.”
Along those lines, this video from writer and professor of Native American Studies and Vietnam veteran Stan Rushworth is a vital reminder of perspective and is one I’ll be listening to more than once. “Individualism is a much more simplistic approach to life. It’s based on fear. . . . Sustainability is not about individuals at all.”
EVENTS: Two of the scientists I interviewed for my book have upcoming events with different organizations: Evolutionary biologist Herman Pontzer, who has studied hunter-gatherer societies to better understand the role that exercise plays in human health, is doing an online event on metabolism for New Scientist magazine. And paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva will be a featured speaker for the Leakey Foundation’s 150th celebration (also online) of the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man. DeSilva’s book First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human is being published in April and I’m really looking forward to it.