Essay

Zombies in our Midst: A Cultural Analysis

 

SinNight of the deadce I recently finished reading Max Brook’s World War Z, I thought I would post back up this essay that I wrote about zombie culture on my blog.  I wrote it a couple of years ago, but took it down for whatever reason.  Since I finished the book, I thought I would repost my thoughts on the topic.  After all, there is no denying the hype that exists around zombies these days.  In fact, whether looking for a book at the library or scanning the shelves at your local movie rental, these monsters seem to be everywhere you turn.   They are certainly not the prettiest things to look at, either.  By their very nature, they are rotten to the bone and keep getting gorier and gorier with every film.  They used to walk stiff-leggedly through the night, searching for brains, but now, they chase their prey down in mob fashion.  Hollywood keeps making it easier for these zombies to overwhelm survivors who haven’t died yet. One minute they’re limping and moaning, the next they’re running and snarling. They just keep getting meaner and meaner. No surprise really. When you stop to look at a list of movie titles available from Wikipedia, the zombie movie, arranged by year, is produced by the droves annually and has been since film production studios were able to produce films, so they need to do something to keep these slow moving mobs interesting. Budgets usually don’t help either. Earlier films managed to make really scary backdrops with hardly anything going for production crews. According to Zombiepedia (yes, such a website exists), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was filmed and produced on as little of a budget as $114,000. Regardless of the budget or theme, the film industry pushes the zombie movie through the production lines, because it is what most people want to see.  They are high in demand.  But why?  What is the fascination? Because we want to live to tell about it, that’s why.

HvZZombie culture is not just limited to the big screen.  In fact, it is invading college campuses all across the nation.  HUMANSVSZOMBIES is an organization devoted to social networking campus-wide events, where users can label themselves as either human survivors or zombie menace, in order to socialize and roleplay zombie apocalypse scenarios in a real-world setting.  I say campus-wide, but what I really meant was worldwide, as the influence of this organization seems to have quite the reach.  The location finder (Googlemaps) they have on their homepage shows their registered users extending even to remote countries like Kyrgyzstan, located in Euroasia.  So what does this glorified game of tag ultimately mean, in terms of the apparent obsession that people have with zombies?

While a game like this may be “fun” to play when it is not exam time, there are others who take the idea of a zombie apocalypse much more seriously.  Guns and Ammo magazine seems to have picked up on the fascination, as they offer an entire series of blog articles on their website titled “Zombie Nation.”  Their tag line: “When you’re helpless against the zombie horde and their blood lust, don’t say we didn’t warn you.  Get your tips, tactics and gear for zombie defense here” (Guns&Ammo).  There’s something disconcerting about a magazine that advocates second amendment rights, but uses a theme like the zombie apocalypse to inform their readers of “responsible” gunmanship.  One of the articles, for example, is about the Kel-Tec shotgun.  Tom Beckstrand, a demonstrator for the “Zombie Nation” column, advertises and promotes this tactical weapon when he states in the video: “If you’re going to carry a shotgun in the zombie apocalypse, this is a good one to have” (0:24, “Ultimate Zombie Shotgun).  He, then, proceeds to unload the 14-round magazine this .12 gauge pump-action shotgun is capable of holding into a series of zombie paper targets. “Alright, that was fourteen rounds of twelve-gauge goodness,” he concludes the video with.  What a safe feeling it brings to know that such tactical weapons are available on the open market.  Just think, weapons like this are being stockpiled and bunkered in American homes right now for the “coming” zombie apocalypse.

But, I digress.  This is more of a by-product with the fascination that surrounds the zombie, not an explanation for its influence over the American mentality.  Interestingly enough, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the governmental agency responsible for the nation’s immunal security, offers some insight into this fascination for the undead when director Dr. Ali Khan is quoted from a CNN interview to illustrate why they are using the zombie apocalypse theme to promote preparedness: “It’s a good metaphor for where you have complete disruption” (qtd. in Greene). He goes on to suggest that the same level of preparation needed for a pandemic or a natural catastrophe would be the same if the world were to be plagued by a zombie infestation.  It’s a step in the direction they want people to think in when it comes to a disaster, where they want people to survive and fend for themselves when the social system in place is disrupted by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.  In every way, they’re promoting survivalism.  In fact, from their Public Health Matters Blog, the CDC states:

When you walk up to a person and start talking about the undead they have all kinds of preparedness ideas, most involving food, water, and other life essentials which just so happen to be the same items that we recommend people put in their disaster kit. So, the old adage really holds true, if you’re prepared for zombies, then you’re prepared for anything (Zombie Nation).

Is this what we find fascinating about them?  Because we would rather be survivors than mindless zombies?  Perhaps watching a zombie film is not about watching a gore-fest, per say, but to see how we could potentially survive such a scenario.  As the quote above states, many people have their own ideas about preparedness when they talk about the undead.  Some believe that the possibility, although highly improbable, exists, so these people toy with the idea and concoct a hypothetical strategy for survival against an imaginary foe.  An exit plan, if you will, for when hell on Earth ensues.  As improbable as they may be, though, zombies are still dangerous — not just to the protagonists in the zombie story, but to the American way of life, in general.  They represent a much larger threat; one that is not detrimental to our physical, bodily condition, but a threat that is more psychologically restrictive.  With the violence our culture is often exposed to, both factual and fictional, most Americans like to think they can handle a zombie single-handedly.  But, when it comes to the zombie horde, closing in and cutting off all avenues of escape, liberties are at stake.  A person trapped cannot help but die an agonizing and terrible death.  To make matters worse, that individual rises again to join their ranks.  To this end, it goes against the very notion of being free and living your life the way you want to.  Is this not something Americans pride themselves with over anything else?  Once an individual turns into a zombie, he or she is no longer capable of their own free will, rather they become a part of the mob that makes up the undead.  This scares Americans.  Perhaps this is why the CDC uses the zombie as a means to encourage people to think for themselves in terms of their own survivability during a disaster.  Most people will listen and act when their civil liberties are at risk.

An article written by Stephen Gertz, then a senior English major for the project “An Exploration of Modern Monsters,” headed by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan in 1999, addresses something similar about the notion of free will and the zombie, but he draws his conclusions by looking at the root of the zombie’s origins in Haitian Voodooism.  He declares that “by ‘controlling’ another person and eliminating that persons [sic] ability to make choices, let alone engage in conscious thought, the ‘controller’ has reduced that person to the level of an animal and has robbed him of his humanity” (Gertz).  The “controller” that he is referring to here is known as the bokor (evil sorceror) and the houngan (healer) in Haitian Voodoo, both who are capable of zombification through the use of a powder, where the victim is drugged into a zombie-like state, rendering them as “zombi astral” (Jacobi).  Wade Davis talks about this type of zombie in his widely acclaimed book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, an inside look at Haitian Voodoo and the secret societies that exist around it.  When the poison is used by a bokor or a houngan, the soul of the victim is released and becomes trapped.  He writes, “‘In that bottle was the soul of a human being… the control of which is an ominous power.  It is a ghost, or like a dream; it wanders at the command of the one who possesses it. It was a zombi astral captured from the victim by the magic of the bokor'” (Davis 167).  Clearly, an human being is placed into jeopardy when such a poison has the ability to render a person soulless, but this type of zombie that Gertz and Davis describes is more malevolently created by the hands of a witch doctor.  This is not the same zombie — zombi savanne — that returns from the dead (Jacobi); it is not the zombie that George A. Romero reinvented with Night of the Living Dead.  This zombie rises from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living and is controlled by no one but its own urges.

The zombi astral, then, is in every way the literal theft of the human soul from a poisoned victim, and the loss of free will imposed by such an act is undeniable.  But, does the zombi savanne, the undead corpse that returns from the dead to stalk the earth, still fall under the debate about civil liberties and the threat against the American way of life?  It certainly does.  Death, in the present hypothetical context, is not a release from the throes of life, because the individual who dies is doomed to turn into one of them.  This is what makes the zombie so menacing.  It is not enough that one should be ravaged by a mob of flesh-eating monsters, but that the condition is viral and spreads with each attack.  This is where the power of the zombie narrative exists.  This is what makes for compelling stories of survival.

Books like The Zombie Survival Guide, authored by Max Brooks in 2003, are popular for this very reason.   People want to read about ways in which they can survive a zombie apocalypse.  Afterall, who wants to become a zombie?  The AMC original series, The Walking Dead, is in its fifth season now, because most viewers want to know what happens to the survivors.  Their quest for survival and liberation from the oppressive and ever hostile zombie makes for compelling story.  We watch these shows always from the perspective of a survivor, someone whom we are sympathetic with, because we ourselves want to think we can survive such an event, too.  A book like this offers strategies and tips, all hypothetical, of course, that we can consult, much in the way of a Boyscout Handbook.  Afterall, does not the survivor, pitted against all odds against a horde of flesh-eating zombies, appeal to our gun-crazy, survivalistic, free-thinking society?  If anything, it makes for a compelling and dramatic storyline — the more apocalyptic and dire the backdrop, the better.  WWZMax Brook’s World War Z, a collection of testimonials from survivors of the “Zombie War,” which was very entertaining, given all of the different perspectives Brooks offers.  At one point he even shows what the zombie apocalypse looks like from an astronaut’s vantage point on the International Space Station.  Needless to say, it was a well-thought series of stories about a significant event, which Hollywood had to put on the big screen.  It was adapted and released as a film starring Brad Pitt back in 2013, making it the exact type of plot that attracts viewers.  It is post-apocalyptic and barren — a no-man’s land.  This is the direction that Hollywood film-making seems to be taking us, too.

In post-apocalyptic America, the rules change.  It is the wild, wild west all over again.  Lawlessness and zombie menace make life for survivors difficult and rugid, but they are free from the bonds of social restraint, from the bonds of government.  These survivors are where the appeal lies.  They are not limited by rules and regulations.  They do not live the mundane lives, where routine dictates what comes on the dinner table or what we wear when we go to work six days out of the week.  In fact, the more alone they are, the better.  There are no ties or commitments to be made.  It is simply a matter of fending for oneself.  In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for example, three survivors coup themselves up in a retail mall, where they clean out and barricade themselves inside for protection against the zombies that roam the land.  One of the protagonists, Roger, played by Scott Reiniger, is injured at one point in the film, where he is laid up in the storage room they turned into their home. There, he slowly rots from the viral infection that spreads from the attack.  Peter (Ken Foree) watches the heart-wrenching transformation from human to zombie and shots him once he turns.    This is one of the drawbacks that the zombie narrative plays on its survivors; the protagonists are forced to consider and do things that often go against their conscience, their very nature, in order to survive.  At first, they see the zombies as humans — from a distance — until they are up-close and aggressive.  Once they are forced to defend themselves, their demeanor becomes hardened.  They do not sympathize with the dead and are desensitized by the violence around them.  It becomes easier for them to do the harder tasks, like surviving.

There is a certain appeal to the zombie horror movie that people will acknowledge.  Any way you look at them, they make for intriguing but grisly stories.  We see these people placed in horrific environments, where they are forced to fend for their right to live.  Each turn the story takes leaves us predicting who amongst the cast will be killed and how.  As horrible as this may sound, it is something we are used to.  The exposure most Americans have to violence is commonplace, ranging from the sensationalized evening news to prime-time television,  making a topic like the zombie apocalypse an interesting one for some.  Therein lies the truth to the zombie myth in America: it is the by-product of a culture that thrives and profits off of violence.  We like to watch as the human condition is pushed to its limit.  Just looking at how Guns and Ammo‘s “Zombie Nation” column or the CDC’s “Preparedness 101” blog uses zombies to reach out and peek the interests of people is certainty of this.  Culturally, we are saturated in violence, so we long to sympathize with those who survive situations we would not otherwise want to be in.  It is thrilling, in a way: the anxiety that comes with isolation and the inescapability of death.  Some of us, though, would rather survive and live to tell about it than have our will to live taken away from us.

 

Works Cited

“About HVZ.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies.Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis and Magic. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1985. Print.

Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero.  Perf. David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross and Scott Reiniger. United Films, 1979. Film.

Gertz, Stephen. “Zombie Symbolism.” An Exploration of Modern Monsters. Ed. Eric Rabkin. University of Michigan, Fall 1999. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Greene, Richard A. “Ready for a Zombie Apocalypse? CDC has Advice.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 19 May. 2011.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Jacobi, Keith. “Zombies, Revenants, Vampires, and Reanimated Corpses.” Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience. Ed. Clifton D. Bryant, and Dennis L. Peck.  Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009. 1002-06. SAGE Knowledge. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Poole, Eric R. “Enough Gun for Zombies: Kel-Tec KSG Tactical Pump Shotgun.” Guns and Ammo: Zombie Nation. Intermedia Outdoors, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Ultimate Zombie Shotgun: The Kel-tec KSG.” Youtube. GunsAndAmmoMag, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Zombie Nation: Move Over Dorothy, Zombies are Taking Over.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Health Matters Blog.  19 May, 2012.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Image Source

Romero, George A.  Night of the Living Dead. 1968. Screenshot. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 Jul. 2006. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

“The Humans vs. Zombies Logo.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies. Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

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Houellebecq’s Nightmare

Screen grab of Charlie Hebdo website taken on 7 January 2015

In light of the recent massacre that took place in Paris at approximately 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 06 January, 2015,  over an article about the controversial author, Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, I am reblogging this post by Andrew Sullivan from The Dish, which sheds some light on the reasons why this attack on Charlie Hebdo took place.  Censorship through fear should not be tolerated, nor should a democratic society that values freedom of press or expression give in to acts of aggression like these. Stand behind your values, France.  We stand behind you.  My thoughts go out to the victims and their families.

The Dish

Charlie-Hebdo-Secondary2-320The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo this morning coincided with the publication of controversial author Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, which today’s Charlie either lampoons or praises (or both) in the cover seen to the right. Today’s attack was so clearly planned and premeditated that it likely wasn’t a response to Houellebecq’s book or Charlie‘s cover thereof, but there are plenty of parallels between Submission, which critics have derided as an anti-Muslim screed, and the offensive material that made the satirical weekly a target for Islamic fundamentalists. Ishaan Tharoor explains what the book is about:

“Submission” tells the story of France in the near future — 2022 — where a Muslim wins a presidential election against a far-right candidate and presides over the Islamization of French society. Persian Gulf monarchies pump in funds into new Islamic schools; teachers at the Sorbonne are compelled to convert to Islam; women slowly disappear from the workplace; polygamy becomes legally permissible. …

Houellebecq says his book leaves…

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Am I really “reading” an audiobook?

1188223_microphoneWith a busy semester work load ahead of me, my son demanding more of my attention, and my regular household responsibilities — the usual routine stuff — I find that I have little time for some of the more personal pleasures in my life, such as this blog; but, I imagine this is the case with most writers. It is about time management and priorities, after all. If I am not able to create, I can at least consume. Several months ago, I discovered the Overdrive Media Console app, which allows one to borrow and download audio- and eBooks from his or her local library, if such a service is rendered. When it comes to reading, I will always prefer a physical paper or cloth book over an eBook, but the audio format is proving to be most valuable during this busy time.  In fact, these book types are helping to fill what is otherwise a void in my reading habit. With my earphones jacked into my Samsung, I can listen to the audiobook while I do the dishes, for example, or while I drive the car to go to class (a word of caution here, though, as it is easy to be distracted), instead of listening to the radio which offers nothing worth listening to. I have also listened to my audiobook in the evenings, while I was bringing my son down for bed. I have found that there are many moments in my day which are lost to mundane tasks that can otherwise be supplemented with the narrations of an audio book reader. As a result of this discovery, I have read four novels in just under a month, which is quite an incredible feat for me.

But, this begs the question, am I really reading? This is a point I feel I have to ask myself, because it is not the same experience listening to an audiobook as it is to read the words off of the page for myself. Yet, the narrations are read out loud, using vocabulary from the text that is otherwise often excluded from any normal conversation or dialogue, words that one typically only finds in written form, so the narrator remains true to the text of the book. Another point about audio books worth mentioning is that I am just as involved with listening, taking in every word, the same way I would be committed to visualizing with my eyes the words that emerge from the page. The added advantage to this is that I can do other things, tasks that don’t require so much of my mental capacity to concentrate, while “reading” my book. A level of concentration is still needed, though, to register and process what I am listening to. In some cases, I miss certain points in the reading that I have to backtrack to in order to follow along with the narration, a part of listening to an audiobook that I don’t see any differently from jumping back a page or two to reference a point previously mentioned. This is one of the only drawbacks that I am noticing about “reading” an audiobook — that other senses are always competing for my attention, something that you may know from my previous posts can be problematic, what with my absent-mindedness, especially while driving. In fact, I drive a lot slower when I listen to an audiobook than when I do not. I usually reserve the audio book for any type of extended driving I have to do. If I am on the highway, the audio book comes out; it stays off if I am driving in town. The last thing I need is an accident.

The dangers of listening to audiobooks aside, I don’t feel like retention for what I am “reading” is a problem, as I am focused on the book being narrated, the reader’s voice often compelling and pragmatic. I have found myself adventuring with genres of books that I previously invested little of my efforts into. My focus in reading has often been with fiction, but I do not feel the same elation from listening to an audio work of fiction as I do with actually reading one. This is partly because of the figurative nature of literature that I enjoy so much, savoring an author’s use of symbolism and metaphor the same way a taster might relish a gourmet delicatessen. Non-fiction, the books I find myself listening to more, delves into another literary form on its own, one comprising of fact and personal account. While these works can take on creative twists in their own way, the primary purpose is to convey information about their given subject matter, so an author’s tone and use of syntax is arranged differently. I don’t think a book like The Satanic Verses with its fragments and colloquialisms would work as effectively in non-fiction form (or in an audio format, for that matter). After all, the poetic license afforded to a work of fiction like Rushdie’s novel is what gives fiction its unique appeal, something I feel I enjoy more when I have the chance to sit down and explore it more thoroughly, flipping back to previous pages to encounter the beautifully written prose over and over again. With audio books, this is not as easy to do. “Reading” an audiobook is solely for the sake of listening and learning in my opinion. Since the beginning of the year, I have read: two biographies — one about Jack London, the other regarding Carl von Stauffenberg; one band biography about Metallica; and a survey on the cultural history of rabies. The next in line is the autobiography on Gandhi.   All of these books have been easy to read because they are presenting information in more of a chronological manner. Fiction gets easily lost in the mental traps of its protagonists, so much so that it is easy to lose place, especially if multiple points of views are being expressed. I don’t know how an audio work of literature, say The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, would “read” if I were to listen to it. I don’t know that I would want to experience a classic work like this in audio form, anyway.

I guess I answer my question. While I am listening to someone else read aloud what has already been written, I am still encountering those same grammatical forms that distinguish writing from the dialogues of conversation. My concentration is still focused on the material as it is being presented to me, whether it be from the monologues of one reader or the voice-overs of each “character” in the book, much in the same way a radio theatrical production was done in the olden days — a form of reading, I might add, that I don’t really like, nor should the book include any musical score set to fill the space between chapters or to heighten dramatic effect. I prefer a single reader over many — a quietly edited book, if you will — since this is what mirrors my own mental voice as I read a physical book. When I allow my eyes to skim across the lines of words on a page, taking in their meaning and relating these words to one another, I don’t imagine the voices of children or women playing out their roles; rather, their voice is my own. Nor, do I imagine some underscore of violins amplifying the dramatic mood of a scene. The only thing that occupies my mind while I read are my thoughts. I am glad to have this technology to allow me to enjoy a good book, even if I do not really have the time to do so in any other form.

Image source: McNally, Victoria. “Recording your Audiobook, part 1: Setting up.” Bookworks: The Self-Publishers Association. WordPress.com. 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

A Toast to Writing

A Scotch Whiskey Glass from thechoppingblock.com

The purpose of this post is to simply write about anything I want –writing for writing’s sake — to help motivate me to write a bit more frequently, to see what comes from free writing.  Typically, when I sit down to write a piece, I invest myself in the planning, the layout, the presentation; I look up words that I think may make sense in the context I am trying to use them in; I even reverse outline my drafts to ensure that I have catered to some sense of organization.  One article I wrote took me well into a week before I even considered posting it to the public.  To write like this — more openly, more freely, letting loose my thoughts and allowing myself to say what I want — I find, requires more effort.  In all respects, I am not used to chronicling my thoughts on a more sporadic basis, and I find it telling to simply hold up with the challenge I have set for myself to write more.  It’s hard for me to just let go.

Take this post, for instance.  I am writing this for the sake of free-writing my way into this piece.  A motivation piece, if you will.  Yet, I do not feel all that motivated to let go of myself.  I have never felt like the type of person to simply let go of my reserve, always staying in control of my environment, aside from the occasional run-in with a bottle of Scotch.  Perhaps, therein lies a truth to my dilemma for want of a better word.  Whenever I drink, I do it to relax, to enjoy the savory flavors of the alcohol, whiskey being my current poison.  In my youth, I would indulge a bit too heartily into the mirth that comes with social drinking and would inevitably find myself hung-over the next morning with little recollection for the night before.  I have always been a happy drunk early on, then as the fresh air and perpetual motion of the world around me set into place, my head would become the center of gravitational forces my drunken stupor failed to understand.  I almost always became the hopelessly pathetic drunk, a clear sign that I had overdrawn my limit.  Could this be compared to writing in anyway?  Could it be possible to get drunk on words in the same way one gets drunk on alcohol, to let these words — all words — course through me like the first stinging swig of whiskey, settling on the tongue with its oaken and smoked luster?  In finding my muse I would find that same relaxed state of mind that comes after a couple of drinks.

Perhaps this is why so many writers have been known to be raging alcoholics.  To sit before a writing desk or table and commit one’s self to the writing of a novel, to the characterization of memories invoked as protagonists, bringing with their creation the hardships that serves as the basis for their existence, evoked through the need to write something, anything.  It’s in the alcohol that the true work of an artist emerges.  The reserve that comes with sobriety,  of being self-conscious of the world around, of the people listening and watching, of social expectations, of responsibilities — this reserve holds back those who seek to let it out on paper.  In reading Jack London’s biography, he occasionally drank the drinks of men, hitting the saloons along the sea ports wherever he was, whiskey helping to maintain the social call.  Ernest Hemingway, another one of literature’s great writers, was notorious for his love of the drink.  In a letter he wrote to Ivan Kashkin in 1935, Hemingway describes what drinking meant to him, by this point a lifelong admirer of the bottle: “When you work all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?… Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief” (qtd. in Willett).  If these men and many others like them of equal caste, no doubt, were drinking as often as they were and were able nonetheless to produce some of the greatest works of fiction and non-fiction the literary world has known, no doubt there must be some truth to alcohol’s role as a provocateur of men.

I have often heard that a writer has not really mastered the art of his craft until his muse has taken him over, producing a work entirely uninhibited by restraint.  Giving in to the moment, the writer is consumed in the act of writing, letting his body serve only as a conveyor for the thoughts pouring forth from his mind.  Thought transference at its finest.  Nothing else matters but the moment in which the mind takes over the body and produces a work of fiction, the characters as real as those standing nearby.  Whether alcohol of any sort is useful in evoking such experiences is hard to tell, what with the many variables associated with alcohol consumption and the merriment, melancholy or stupor that often comes with it.  No doubt, though, it is not needed so long as you are able to find a hook, something to pull you into the moment where you stop thinking about yourself and start to focus on the writing you want to do.  Looking back at where I was 170 words into this piece, I see how effective it is to let oneself go for a moment, forgetting about the body and its needs and allowing the mind to work how it wants.  And this, I might add, was done without the influence of alcohol.

Works Cited

Willett, Megan. “In the Post-Script of a Letter, Ernest Hemingway Explained his Deep Love of Alcohol.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc. 02 Jul. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

Longing to read when books keep me from doing so…

Stack of booksBookstores are dangerous places for avid readers.  If you’re anyone like me, then you have a long list of books you’d like to read.  Compound this list with the new books you check out from the library or the books that arrive by mail from your late night online shopping spree, and your monster-of-a-list keeps growing.  I told myself at the start of the year that my resolution would be to read 10 books before I purchased anymore.  I tried, I really did, but I only read 8 books before I started purchasing the next to be lined up.  Like so many others, I face a dilemma.  My problem is not that life keeps me from finding the time to read; rather, my rate of consumption does not match the rate at which books accumulate on my shelves.  You see, I am a book addict.

Sure, I find myself working a lot more these days, now that I have to commute to my place of employment;  I also want to spend time with my family whenever I’m not working; I have to invest into the garden, too, since Spring is upon us; and I have to sleep from time to time.  This last one is usually forced on me, as I find myself rereading a lot of pages from the books I have started just before dozing off.  If only reading worked like osmosis.  But, these are not issues in the same way that other books are.

I always manage to find time to read.  One solution to compensate for life’s callings has been to listen to audio books.  I simply tune in to an audio book from the Overdrive Media Console while on my way to work.  This simple app allows me to download audio MP3 books from the library I check out books from, and I listen to them on my hourly commute to work.  It’s great because I get to read a book almost every week, depending on its length.

No, where the real problem lies is when I finish reading a physical book.  The decision on which to pick up and read first is almost always a daunting process. I can never decide on which book because I own so many.  Quite a few of the books I pick up with the intention to read get placed on hold for more immediate books that I have come into contact with, either from the free BargainBook box at the library or from what I buy at the various bookstores I frequent.  There’s a used book store I like to visit that almost always contains a gem-of-a-book whenever I shop there, which I always feel pressured, self-imposed no doubt, to read once I bring it home.

Some books are more engaging than others, though.  I usually read multiple books at any given time to compensate for those that require more attention.  I like to read short stories, so I’ll read a story here and there (one over a cup of coffee in the morning, perhaps).  I have several collections of essays that I enjoy reading through.  I have been reading The Oxford Book of Essays off and on for well over a year now, but I don’t feel pressured to read it in its entirety.  They’re essays, after all.  Then, there’s the book I read just before I go to bed.  This one takes the longest to work through for some reason.  I have my books I simply want to read to savor and enjoy; my poetry books that I like to read when time permits for such leisurely reading; my books I need to read for work; my books to help advance myself professionally; my books for the personal research I’m doing.  Looking at it like this, I think I need to focus my reading habits a bit more.

But then, there are books like this one.  I am very excited to start reading this one book, the book I ordered from Amazon before I finished my reading resolution for the year.  Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands by Rizzoli exlibris publishing, 2013, finally arrived by post and what a beautiful book it is; so much so that I want to share some of its more enticing features with you:

The book cover is by Thomas Cole from The Voyage of Life: Childhood (1842) located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Eco book cover

The images throughout the book (shown below) are rendered in the most pristine quality, making their colors vibrant and an absolute pleasure to behold.

Eco page example

Here is another example of the beauty this book reveals.  This marvel of a work is from Gustave Dore The Celestial Rose (1867), out of The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, canto XXXI.

Eco page example 2This book will most certainly be a real treat, and I will likely move it up my reading list to start it right away.

I love books like this one by Eco, but they don’t help me make headway with those other books I’ve been collecting over the past couple of months.  No, these books, like so many others before them, will be placed on hold, so that my curiosity about legendary lands, places I’d often read about as a boy, may be sated.  Books like these only further my dilemma, but it is a dilemma I can learn to deal with.  I may be slow and methodical in the way I read, what with all of the other obligations keeping me from working through my reading list; I may also find myself curious about newer books that are being published (or older ones that were once forgotten), but I love to savor a good book, regardless of what life throws my way.  That, and I love to be surrounded by books, knowing full well that there will never be a dull moment in the near future.  After all, there’s always a good book to be read.

Cutting Wood with Robert Frost

Original Photo of Wood Pile.  Photographed by Andrew LangSpring has finally arrived, and the past couple of days have been kindling some old memories.  Alfred, a friend of the family who happens to be a local farmer, cleared out some small trees along his fields last week, to which the equivalent of eight cords of fire wood needed only be picked up from the wood line where they laid.  Riding on the back of his tractor with a trailer attached, we spent the past couple of days cutting fire wood.  Being outside among the wide-open fields, gathering wood for next year has only heightened my senses toward the act of cutting wood.  Sawdust and its potent smell flying through the air as the chainsaw literally chews its way through the log, the hot smell of oil and exhaust mixed with the loud, obnoxious noise of the motor as the saw works under the pressure of the hand wielding it, the vibration of holding the log in place to keep it steady for the clean cut: all of these elements combined have brought back memories of splitting wood for my grandparents back when I was younger.

At least once, sometimes twice a year, my father would take my sister and me down to my grandparents for the day, so we could cut wood to help them prepare for the winter.  They lived in a housing addition along a recreational lake, where dense foliage went straight to the water’s edge.  In fact, I fondly remember running up and down the gorges and through the woods surrounding that housing addition, pretending to be Davie Crockett or some other hero-type.  We would often visit my grandparents from both sides of my family, but only my grandma and grandpa from my father’s side had a fireplace to burn wood in.  Since we lived so close, only an hour’s drive, we would help out when they needed wood cut.

Cutting wood for them was laborious and meant that we’d be there the whole day.  They often had twenty plus cords worth of wood stacked twice as high as I was tall (back then).  Starting was always the hardest part because it meant establishing a working rhythm.  My dad would run the splitter, a hydraulic press with a wedge welded at the end of an iron beam.  He would man the lever, controlling the pressure the press would give, its loud sputtering exhaust bellowing out under the burden of its load.  My cousin and I would prepare each of the logs for my uncle to lay on the splitter, where we’d watch the first log split apart under the force of the hydraulic press.  The crackle as it split was always loud and sharp, the wood being resistant to the force being placed upon it; nevertheless, the press always prevailed, even when big knots in the logs placed it under more strain than usual.  Once the logs fell off to the side, my uncle would load the next one onto the beam, and my dad would press the lever forward, splitting it in two so that my cousin and I could throw them onto a pile to be stacked down by the house later on.  The longer we worked, the more we were rewarded with time outside, something my cousin, my sister and I didn’t mind so much.   We often explored the wood pile and the surrounding wood line.  We were still young after all, so we would help only when it was needed.  The things we would discover in the wood pile!

The Art of Cutting Wood

Woodcutters in the forest - Carl LarssonCutting wood like I have been the past couple of days with Alfred and from those times with my family is quite different from the way it was done in the days of yore.  Trees were felled with cross-cut saws, large and cumbersome blades with teeth the size of fingers that often required two men, as logging was a man’s business back then, to wield them.  It took effort to cut through a tree with a blade such as that.  Being synchronized with your partner was half the trick to using this saw blade.  This style of cutting has even become a marriage custom here in Europe, where newly wedded couples are to work together to cut a log in half, the point of this menial labor being clear; it takes two to work through the problem.

The other alternative, depending on the diameter of the tree, was to wield an axe.  Cutting with an axe, much like using a saw, required technique and skill.   You couldn’t simply swing until the tree fell down; you had to cut wedges out of certain points in the tree trunk, especially if you wanted the tree to fall in a certain direction.  Once the tree was down and the limbs had been removed, the log would need to be cut into segments just big enough to fit into the fireplace.  If you cut them too large, then the logs wouldn’t fit into the oven, and you’d be left with an awkward-shaped log to stack on the pile.  Cutting the log to just the right size took lots of time and lots of effort.  This doesn’t include splitting those logs into smaller parts — halves, mostly — for the benefit of evenly stacking them in a pile.

After we finished cutting wood along the treeline, Alfred, Peter and I rode back to the house on the tractor and had lunch.  While we were eating, Alfred heartily told me an old German proverb: “You will sweat three times when you are dealing with wood — by cutting it, by stacking it, and by burning it.”  This saying couldn’t be more true.  Stopping to consider all of the effort that goes into preparing wood for the winter, for providing warmth to a household during the cold, bitter months when Jack Frost is outside playing, this forces one to appreciate a saying such as the one Alfred told me.

The Wood Pile

Ironically, this proverb reminds me of the poem, “The Wood-Pile,” written by Robert Frost and published in his collection of poems North of Boston in 1914.  Quite often actually, Frost would write about his experiences in the woods, talking about the paths one often encounters or the thoughts one often has while walking through the woods.  This one poem stands out from many of his others, in my opinion, for reasons that Louis Untermeyer clarifies as “lines… bare of image-making and speculation, stripped clean of everything except perfect observation…[and] in the heightened description of a woodpile, a person emerges” (125).  In this poem, it is not the narrator, driven by wanderlust, lost among the trees, who Untermeyer is referring to, but a man who has abandoned the fruits of his labor.  The poem places us immediately within the “frozen swamp one grey day” (Frost line 1),  the narrator we know is “just far from home” (line 9).   A bird chirps to him from its hiding place — “He was careful / To put a tree between us when he lighted” (lines 10-11) — as if to tell the narrator that he is someplace where he doesn’t belong.  This little bird is what draws the narrator’s attention toward that which the poem is about.  “And then there was a pile of wood for which / I forgot him [the bird] and let his little fear / Carry him off the way I might have gone, / Without so much as wishing him good-night” (lines 18-21).  No longer intrigued by the bird and his protests against this would-be intruder, the narrator takes a moment to describe for us the pile of wood, “measured, four by four by eight. / And not another like it could I see” (lines 24-25) — this being the only pile of wood, the only vestiges around, to suggest that anyone else beyond himself had ever been in this part of the frozen swamp, but it is more in what the narrator takes note of about the “cord of maple” and its overall condition that peeks curiosity: it is rotting in the middle of the swamp.

It is from this observation that Frost’s craft as a poet becomes recognized.  This ordinary situation, a man standing in a swamp analyzing a cord of wood, becomes something more than that moment we are reading about.  As Untermeyer’s commentary suggests, a person emerges in Frost’s poem:

                                          I thought that only

Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks

Could so forget his handiwork on which

He spent himself, the labour of his axe,

And leave it there far from a useful fireplace

To warm the frozen swamp as best it could

With the slow smokeless burning of decay. (Frost lines 34-40)

And so ends the poem.  As the reader, our attention has now been drawn away from the simple, rotting wood-pile to whomever it was who abandoned that cord of wood to the swamp. For what reason would someone leave “the labours of his axe” in the swamp to rot “from the slow smokeless burning of decay”?  I cannot help but ponder the circumstances surrounding this individual, the wood cutter.  Perhaps the cutter is as the narrator suggests, someone who is quick to turning to fresh tasks and has simply lost track of this pile of wood in the swamp?  Or perhaps something more dire and sinister has happened, the reason for the cutter not returning being some serious ordeal that has befallen him?  Whatever the case may be, my thoughts have always returned to the possibilities left to the imagination, a testament to this poem’s lasting impression and to Frost’s ability to create something so compelling out of something so simple.

The Fruits of Labor

The stories a pile of wood can reveal to us.  The way Frost forces us to think about that wood-pile, left to rot by whomever set it, allows the imagination to wonder.  From my own experiences, I can imagine someone, axe in hand, chopping tree after tree down for the sake of setting it to dry.  The meticulous effort of measuring each log and cutting it to fit within the cord, four-by-four-by-eight, only adds to the mental image of this hard-working man.  This imagery sets me thinking about how my grandparents were given warmth year after year because of the wood we cut for them.  I think about the relationship the cutter never has to his wood-pile,  especially when I look at the pile of wood we stack along the back of the house and how we benefit from it every year.    I think about the circumstances that left that cord of maple to rot in the frozen swamp and how the wood-pile behind my home would never be subject to that.  After all, it has already been gathered and set in its place, ready for use.  I think about the freshly cut wood, waiting in the driveway to be split and stacked like the rest of the logs waiting to be burned.  Unlike the wood-pile that Frost describes to us, left to warm the frozen swamp as best it can,  the wood stacked behind our house has not been abandoned to the slow inevitability of decay.  No, my family and I will know the fruits of my labor next season when the first killing frost takes hold of the earth, placing its icy grip on all that would die during the winter months.  And like Frost’s words, my wood-pile will help to warm my body and soul, to keep the icy grip of winter, decay and death at bay.

Works Cited

Frost, Robert. New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems. New York: Washington Square Press, 1971. Print.

Untermeyer, Louis.  Commentary.  New Enlarged Anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems. By Robert Frost.  New York: Washington Square Press, 1971. Print.

Image Source

Original Photo of Wood Pile.  Photographed by Andrew Lang on 13 Jul. 2013.

Larsson, Carl. Woodcutters in the forest. 1906. Painting. Wikipaintings, n.d. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.