Does the word that just popped into your head show up here? Find out:

30 October, 2014

"I Feel Your Pain," and Similarly Presumptuous, Phony Bullshit

Someone's scorched earth. Avert your eyes.

A week ago, a kid shot his friends, and then himself. I can tell you no more than that, even though I may 'know' more about the situation than you do. This one happened closer to where I live than usual, and when I spoke with family elsewhere, they mentioned it and expressed regret, but did not dwell on it and did not pretend to make sense of it.

On the other hand, another friend who had not been in touch for a while emailed a message fraught with 'concern' for how my own high school daughter dealt with it, seemed to fish for inside info, and mentioned how a mutual acquaintance sorta kinda knew (OK, recognized) the guy who has been arrested in a notorious murder in her part of the world.

How the hell would I know what happened with that kid, even if I knew him? Why would I speculate if I didn't know him? Why would having fewer degrees of separation from the anguish of several families and tribes make me an 'expert'?

Many people in our society play a sick sick game in the aftermath of murders and suicides. News media try to find out why, and adopt variously sensitive approaches to their prying into victims' and relatives' feelings, often as not posting interviews with people the killers and the killed would never have thought would speak for them. People with no real connection concoct one. The unaffected try on trauma to see how it befits them. 'Sensitive' people affect a variety of emotional effects, and in so doing display an appalling insensitivity to what is for someone (but not them) a tragedy.

It disgusts me and pisses me off, for reasons I won't tell you. You don't know how the killers and the killed felt, and if you are not an immediate relative or friend, or maybe a member of the same tribe, you never will. You should shut up and leave them alone until they ask you to say something.

Suicide is the ickiest paragraph of this sick commentary. Like whe Robin Williams killed himself, and every Tom, Dick, and Henry Rollins* needed to express their personal feelings about it. Aside from a handful of humans, nobody had the authority to speak to this, yet we were all besieged by co-workers, family members, reporters, media-friendly psychiatrists, and publicity hungry celebrities telling us why, or angstily telling us they didn't recognize the signs, or some other brand of bullshit. He might not even have seen it coming until it was too late. The people ostensibly bemoaning his loss did nothing productive, saved nobody, and displayed their own self-centeredness by treating tragedy as opportunity.

Mourn the dead if you knew them. Feel sad even if you didn't. But stop acting like death(s) you heard of on TV or the internet or the radio are personal to you. They are not, and it is an insult to the dead and their loved ones to make it personal to you. If some killing moves you to become an activist against guns or whatever, OK, but don't appropriate the souls of the dead to your cause. "He would have wanted..." is one of the all-time most presumptuous, bullshit-infused opening clauses in the English language. If you are just using someone else's tragedy to act sensitive, or publicly wring your hands, then you are full of crap.

Some people go beyond the show of mournfulness and try to figure out why. They won't know, and should cut it out. Killers and self-killers don't necessarily know why, so who is some outsider to waltz in and speculate?

*Former punk rocker and current media whore, who published an essay about how he no longer respected Williams, and was rightly excoriated for saying so.

22 October, 2014

The Autumnal Reader Surge

In the foreground coffeeshop, someone is reading (probably about tattoos).

I don't know about the rest of the internet, but here at MT* readership goes up in the Fall. There must be many reasons why, but I always imagine it's because that's the time of year when people go back indoors.

Bricxellated image.
Part of MT's annual autumnal surge comes from people searching for information about heatilators, the passive airflow heaters installed with some masonry fireplaces. For a while, the heatilator posts were the biggest ones by far, as Recession-pinched households sought warmth and found that I was one of the only people in internet that produced heatilator content. I don't have a heatilator anymore, and cannot tell you for sure it's safe to put a TV above one. Besides, heatilator purveyors have pushed me aside on internet, dominating search results and burying me so far down that not even my ego can maintain interest.

The other Fall readers are people who hate leaf blowers, coming for my subtly titled "Kill the Leaf Blowers" post. Sounds gonzo, but beneath the bluster, it's a pretty sensible policy with benefits for public and environmental health, education, and even national security. The only downsides are for crappy motor factories and cut-throat landscaping contractors. I won't repeat that rant here. Root Simple already did, which led to a bump on my stats this October. More than blog hits, getting rid of leaf blowers would make me happy.

An infinitesimal mote of earth's human population reads this blog, but at this hour there are millions of people reading something, many of them settled down in Autumnal night with eyes on a page, flipping screens or leafs. More than people reading this, knowing that people still read makes me happy.

*I'm gonna stop calling the blog Mojourner Truth whenever I turn reflexive or meta. For one thing, there's a fine, there's no one line between a riff and a ripoff, and there have to be a lot of people out there who'd be pissed off at some middle-age middle-class white guy even sidling up to the likes of Sojourner Truth, much less swapping out a letter for his own benefit. My apologies, but I'm not trying to make money or affiliate myself with Ms. Truth.

l aim for multi-dimensional titles, being such a fan of kaona, homophony, and so on, and her historic personage was one level of many. MT works because it could stand for many things, is too short to look like a government acronym,and will garner me a certain number of lost Montana googlers. I'm sure I'll think of more, retroactively imbuing the name with meanings. Plus, just say it. "M T,...MT,...Empty." Ha! Perfect. Self-deprecation is a good dimenzen for any title to have.

Hopefully, though, I won't have the meta reflex for another year or so. I wonder if I'll remember to call the blog MT?

20 October, 2014

The Communality Garden

It's that kind of garden.
In college, one of my first anthro classes had a focus on community gardens in DC. I was pretty weak on the fieldwork project, not good at walking up to strangers and asking them questions, but the idea of a community garden seemed pretty cool. In Honolulu, I joined a community garden, eventually sponsored by the city but initially a guerilla garden wrought by a nonagenarian local Chinese woman who'd tended it through the years, walking up Punchbowl hill with a bag of scraps from her job at the UH cafeteria. The suburbs comprising the erstwhile GOP powerhouse Eric Cantor's district, where I next lived, were not fertile ground for anything smacking of community, food sovereignty, or any other potentially anti-corporate crap, so I gardened my own quarter acre more or lessa alone. Moving to Olympia may have been my best chance to join a 'normal' community garden.

But instead, I chose one that defies the usual model of assigning each member a small rectangle within which to grow a tiny individual garden. Sprouted by Sustainable South Sound, this garden is a plot to grow food in the neighborhood where it will be consumed. And instead of a grid of little gardens, it's two big gardens, dozens of beds that everyone works on together. We all chip in to buy seed and supplies, spend Saturday mornings weeding and planting, and harvest the results, which are distributed equally. Whatever division of labor that exists is self-sorting, and although some may work a bit more than others, nobody lazily skates by.

Which is what makes me wonder, "Are we being communists?" I mean, "From each according to her abilities, to each according to her share" is how we operate; isn't that a mere paraphrase away from Marxism? I've only ever gotten one garden member to cop to anything left of Socialism, but I have to wonder.

But then I also have to think, "So What?" We're not Stalinists, there's no distant committee committing us to 5-year plans, and the garden has no gulag. We're more like the autonomous collective (not really an anarcho-syndicalist commune, as some would have you believe) in Monty Python's Holy Grail. Everything we do has a mandate from the masses, there's even an Occupy-style blocking mechanism to assure consensus. Far from a Utopian pipe-dream--because I know that's what some of you suspect this amounts to--this system works.

Indoctrinating the unsuspecting youth with corn, oats, squash, and beans.

I'm not much of a joiner, and subjugating my opinions to group-will (especially when it comes to gardening) is not always easy. But the end results are worth it: plenty of good food, cameradrie, and the sort of smug satisfaction that only bountiful locavore collectivism can justify. In Honolulu, I rose to the Presidency of the community garden, and I loved that land the way I do any place where I have time to plant roots, but it was a collection of fiefdoms, and not a communal effort. A 'president' was required to make peace between the cat-feeders and gardeners, Tongans who cooked a dog and the Chinese woman grossed out by the thought, a bi-polar woman with a point about the mission of community gardens and the man growing sesame and chiles for sale, the guy who brought in barrels of toxic adhesive for "irrigation, or something" and everyone who didn't want cancer,...that kind of stuff. "Community" gardens can sprout plots that grow weeds, cat-piss, and strife.

Many Leaves, One Head

So, I am happy to be a part of this communalist garden, or whatever it is called. As we plan for the coming year, uncertain that this piece of land will be available beyond that, it's good to know that this experiment worked for so many years. If this garden cannot remain, it's not because of the people. we'll pop up elsewhere if and when this land becomes something else. Or maybe not. Whatever happens, I am glad that this garden happened, and can walk away knowing that the soil is better than it was when I arrived. For me, that's just fine.

13 October, 2014

Posing Mantis

First, I just saw flitter-flying, like a faerie from Pan's Labyrinth, sunlight on long wings. When it landed, I saw a praying mantis. Not preying as far as I could tell. Just posing.

Trails and Fires

Lately, there's a lot more going on at the photo blog than here, and the dominant subject has been fire. This shot, for instance, appeared there. But tumblr's not the place to get into too much depth, and it ends up with a bunch of pretty pictures, scrolled through too fast to tell a story.

Like in the shot above. The dark line up the middle? It's a single rut, a foot or two wide and stretching across the meadow, where a controlled burn consumed an obscuring mantle of grass. Tomorrow, I head back to the office, where I'll see whether this rut matches up with a trail mapped in the 19th Century, which pretty much matches up with the route that Wenatchi people have always followed. Of course, the rut might be more modern, or just used by elk, or a meltwater channel. None of which, it should be noted, is mutually exclusive of a horse trail, and before that, horseless human trail; culture and nature meander and mingle.

At some point, I'll post about the (f)utility of post-fire archaeological survey in terms of finding artifacts, but for now just let me say that fire sure lights up larger features like trails. The above tree is obviously odd, growing gnarlier than a Ponderosa pine should. But in a lot of situations, foliage obscures the the blazed bark or modified trunks that mark historic and ancient trails. After a fire, the unusual trees stick out a much greater distances, and survey becomes easier. If you're really on a trail, you can often see the next marker. If you're really on a trail, you should not be seeing a bunch of similar tree-forms off to the sides. Last week, I followed what seemed to be a trail marked by a series of big stumps that survived the fire.

Many stumps do survive wildfires, and one of the most eye-opening things about doing survey in fire's wake is that the intensity can vary so much. Entire trees up in ash here, forests reduced to black spars there, but somewhere else the fire skipped along lightly. Like in this shot, where a grassy slope has islets of burnt bushes and spot fires, but the game trails where vegetation is tramped down failed to burn. Or the next shot, which shows vehicle tracks running through another controlled burn area.

Archaeologically, these glimpses snatched from the flames inspire and depress. We can see so much, but it will be hidden again in months, dragged back into obscurity in a few growing seasons. Though the weather will wash away down hill some of the traces, though creatures will stir things up, yet still will traces of trails remain sandwiched in soil. Today, I can discern cowpaths among a lace of deer trails. Today, I can tell where the engine trucks were deployed, where the pick-ups parked, and where the ATVs ranged during a controlled prairie burn. Tomorrow (in archaeological time), it will be impossible or insanely expensive to dig up that kind of information.

Meanwhile, I'll scope out what I can of fires both intentional and wild, looking for trails and the places they went to. Probaby the most common sights are bottles, cans, and campfire rings, all of which prefer to hide under plants and leaf litter. Sure, a lot of these sit right next to roads still travelled, but keep in mind that some of those roads follow older trails. The empty beer bottles in the fire pit along a road long abandoned can give you a good idea of when the road was in use. The obvious glint of glass might also lead to less visible but highly informative artifacts, objects that pinpoint the period or tell tale of activity beyond drinking and hunting. There is almost never anything that a non-archaeologist would value in any way, but camp-trash can help trace trails, especially when fire intervenes to lift the veil.

When under that veil lies a trail, I feel like I've found something worthwhile. Archaeology, learning about how people have lived on the land (rather than the treasures they accumulated that may be more interesting on a photo blog or National Geographic), benefits from mapping where they traveled. And fire helps archaeologists salvage from the devastation more than they normally could.

06 October, 2014

Unwritten Rules of Archaeology. Version M.0

This summer, the blog Archaeology In Tennessee posted an invitation for archaeologists to submit the "Unwritten Rules" of the profession. I not only procrastinated posting anything, I also failed to follow up and see what Rules were published until linking them just now. Instead, I pecked out a list of my own, and didn't even post anything myself until now. This post is going to be long as hell, and there are no images to delight and distract, but it's about Rules, so what did you expect?

Unwritten Rules of Archaeology
Who They Think You Are...
Most people think you dig for dinosaurs or gold. You can educate them, maybe. You will chuckle or sneer about them with other archaeologists, later. But try not to be mean to them, for they know not what they do.

In the real world, there are usually people with far less education than you who know a lot more about a particular place, or how people used to live there. Learn from them before you go telling them about their past.

Who You Think You Are...
We belong to what the social anthros call affinal kinship groups (or used to, before several jargon changes), and can trace our lineages back through crew chiefs and academic descent; we recognize families accreted around certain projects of yore.
  • Corollary 1: Be careful when dissing the founder of a school of thought, for the person you're speaking to may belong to that lineage.
  • Corollary 2: Be careful when exalting an archaeological ancestor above all others, for it makes you come off like a zealot.
Unless you are in a field school or surrounded by people with little experience, limit yourself to a single field school story within any given work group. Mostly, these stories show how little you've experienced, and they become tiresome. If you participated in multiple field schools, best keep mum, lest you be branded Dolt or a Dilettante.

As in all anthropological endeavors, listen first and talk later, especially when there are experienced elders involved.

Archaeologists can be real backbiting bastards, but as far as I know that strategy proves maladaptive outside of the shrinking niche of tenured academia, and maybe won't even work there. Criticize all you want, with the understanding that you must either pledge fealty to a strong camp or risk not getting work in your area.

Join your state or regional archaeological society, attend its conferences, and give papers. Archaeology is not the same everywhere, and you'll learn more that is of practical value by meeting and listening to your local/regional peers than you will in several years of national conferences; it's also beneficial to your job prospects, from shovel bum on up to principal investigator. Once you've given a few papers, people think you're an expert, or at least aware enough to be more desirable than the person with a fancy degree but no local reputation.

If you are a young archaeologist enamored with the latest technology, try not to dismiss archaic fieldcraft. When the satellites don't cooperate or the batteries go dead, tech savvy gets you nowhere. Besides, sometimes the old tech works best, which is why the best maps in Hawai`i are still made with plane tables and alidades.

The digital camera may be the greatest technological innovation in modern fieldwork. Take lots of photos to remind yourself of what you did all day. Shoot overviews, mid-range, and details. Take a shot of your GPS screen (see Redundancy). Get photos of flora and fauna for reference, and of anything that will look cool on your archaeology blog.

"Write in Rain" fieldbooks have their limits. Among these: too much rain, rainless but very high humidity weather, the inks of certain pens, and of course those ink-impervious clay smears on the paper. For pencil devotees, remember that after an erasure or two, you may not have full functionality.

The tool you buy needs to be modified. Unsharpened shovels and trowels are are the mark of an oaf. Grab a sharpie and draw a scale on your fieldbook, McGyver up a tool from things you can afford on perdiem (bamboo skewers have no equal in some situations, and stand in just fine for a handful of others). Watch and listen to the vets, but don't assume that they figured out all the best hacks.

Redundancy is your friend, and its value increases in proportion to the distance of the project area from your office. I know that the GPS unit stores coordinates, but writing them down in your field notebook will one day save you the pain and humiliation induced by lost or malfunctioning GPS units, not to mention software glitches, sunspots, EM-pulse warfare, whatever.

You will find things where you least expect them sometimes, but you never know which times. So stop whining and finish the transect.

After a long day of survey, or at the end of a project, be prepared to find something while walking back to the truck.  If at all possible, plan on a half day on the last day, to allow time to record this find. The worst case scenario is that you find nothing and have enough time for a few beers or maybe even a shower.

Don't pretend to be more precise than your data merits. I cut my teeth (shins, really) on dry masonry field stone features, and measuring these to the nearest centimeter is not only more effort than it's worth, but is fakery. 10 cm increments are fine. Most of the time, think millimeters for artifacts, centimeters for depths, meters for site areas, …
  • Corollary: Larger increments (rounding off to 5s or 10s, for example) can alert readers to uncertainty or imprecision they should be aware of in an honest report.

Unless you are a historic archaeologist working in a Commonwealth, use the metric system. (In the US, this trick mystifies the general public and our stature as scientists is enhanced.)  Be ready to be conversant in feet and tenths thereof when the engineers and project manages show up, though. Also, be aware that when they talk about "1:100," it's inches:feet, which is 1:1200 in like units (this is a trick engineers use to confuse and cow the populace).

The observation so obvious you didn't need to write it down will be the one you forget. (I phrase this truth thusly because the brilliant wording of my initial realization was not written down.)

When writing reports, stick to the facts for the most part, and relegate interpretation to a short section near the end.
  • Corollary 1: However, you should speculate frequently and in depth while in the field, drinking beers when the day is done, and drinking more beers at the local archaeological conference. This can help you discard the ridiculous and discover the creative, although it can end up the other way around if the drinking goes on too long.
  • Corollary 2: Be extremely careful when speculating with non-archaeologists. Off-hand and joking interpretations may be later repeated as facts by people who put a bit too much stock in archaeologist's words.

And Finally,

The Written Rule of Archaeology

It's spelled with two A's. Archaeology, not archeology. Don't be an idiot.