pioneer cemeteries

A week ago I posted the following photograph of a dirt road leading back into field that held a pioneer cemetery. It sparked a number of folks to ask a perfectly reasonable question: Dude, what the hell is a pioneer cemetery? I asked the same question the first time I came across a pioneer cemetery. I’m here to give y’all the answer.

Road to Sams pioneer cemetery

Let me amend that. I’m here to give a couple of answers. I mean the obvious answer is simple: a pioneer cemetery is a plot of ground where pioneers are buried. But that leads inevitably to the question: Dude, what the hell is a pioneer?

Let’s start there. The term ‘pioneer’ comes from the French pionnier, which originally referred to a type of specialized foot soldier — troops who were furnished with digging and cutting equipment and sent into new territories to prepare the way for an army. The root term is much older, medieval Latin, pedonem, which meant ‘foot soldier’. That’s also the root for the term ‘pawn’. In chess, pawns always move first; they’re essential, but disposable. The same applies to pioneers; they go first, they’re essential, but disposable.

Sams pioneer cemetery is located on the rise by the trees.

In the US, the term ‘pioneer’ has a vaguely heroic connotation. I suppose that’s warranted because it takes a sort of courage — or maybe desperation — to take your family into unknown territory. And that’s what the early US pioneers were. They weren’t soldiers; they were mostly families of immigrants and first generation Americans. At the time, they were called settlers, or homesteaders, or sodbusters. They were families who loaded up wagons with their few possessions and pushed into largely unmapped territories, fording rivers and streams, in the hope they could find land they could farm. When they came to land they felt was promising, they stopped. They chopped down trees and built cabins out of the logs. They cleared trees and stones from the land by hand or with the help of livestock and created fields for crops. They planted and harvested, and they died and were buried.

Sams pioneer cemetery.

Pioneer cemeteries are plots of land, often on family property, that these small, loosely formed farming communities agreed was sufficient to bury their dead. They’re the graves of the thousands of unremembered, ordinary people who turned wilderness into settlements.

We have to acknowledge the pluckiness of these pioneers, but we also need to be aware there was a very deep ugliness in what they were doing. In the US, pioneers were the leading edge of the concept of Manifest Destiny. The idea was promoted initially by John O’Sullivan, the son of an Irish immigrant. He wrote it was the new nation’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” In essence, manifest destiny was a nice way of saying the expansion of white Europeans and their culture across the continent, displacing or killing the native tribes who’d actually lived there for centuries, was not only inevitable, it was also justified by god.

Raridon pioneer cemetery in the middle of a field.

There you have it. The pioneers were intrepid settlers struggling to create a life for themselves. And they were also sanctimonious invaders who were comfortable with the idea of pushing the indigenous people off their land, stealing it for themselves, and killing those natives who resisted.

That’s who the pioneers were — settlers who were almost as expendable as the natives they dislodged and supplanted. But not everybody buried in a pioneer cemetery was an actual pioneer. The pioneers created the conditions for permanent settlements; permanent settlements inevitably bring disputes; disputes require some forum for resolution. That means a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies demand definitions.

The Enterprise pioneer cemetery has only a single marked grave, a simple cross by a tree.

Which brings us back to the original question: Dude, what the hell is a pioneer cemetery? The bureaucratic answer depends on where you live; different states have different legal definitions of ‘pioneer cemetery’. In Iowa, where I live, the law defines it as a cemetery in which there have been no more than twelve burials in the preceding half century. In neighboring Nebraska, a pioneer cemetery is defined as an abandoned or neglected cemetery that was founded or situated on land “given, granted, donated, sold, or deeded to the founders of the cemetery prior to January 1, 1900.”

There is, I think, something weirdly admirable about a bureaucracy making a deliberate decision to recognize and honor the ordinary people who lived and died in small farming communities dating from the late 1700s. The bureaucracies may not care about the individual pioneer cemeteries, but they care about the notion that there are people buried and memorialized in remote, semi-forgotten patches of land.

This pioneer cemetery could only be reached by steep path through overgrown brush under a canopy of old trees. Yet it was beautifully cared for by a local Boy Scout troop.

Most of the pioneer cemeteries I’ve visited are lonely places on patches of farmland or meadowland. They’re generally located on a low hill, most often with a small grove of trees. Some are only accessible by overgrown paths, or by vehicles with high ground clearance. A few pioneer cemeteries are well-tended; most aren’t. Many are overgrown with grass and weeds. Most have gravestones that are damaged, weathered, unreadable.

But all of them are full of stories. There are graves of soldiers — Civil War veterans, veterans of the world wars. You can tell by the dates which ones died in uniform. There are graves of wives who outlived their husbands, graves of mothers who died in childbirth, graves of the children they bore. There are lots of graves of infants, often with the number of months or weeks they lived.

Trester pioneer cemetery

All cemeteries and graveyards tend to be quiet. Pioneer cemeteries are more than quiet. They’re silent. And yet they’re full of stories. Untold stories. Forgotten stories. The first person buried in what would eventually become the Slaughter pioneer cemetery was eight-year-old Hester Slaughter, who died of ‘the fever’ in the summer of 1846. She was buried in a corner of the family farm. There was no lumber mill in the region, so there was no sawn lumber to make a casket. Instead, the family split the trunk of a tree that had been chopped down to clear the land; they hollowed it out, placed poor Hester inside, closed it back up, and buried her. A total of 69 people would be buried in that small plot of land, including three Civil War veterans and a veteran of the War of 1812.

Among them is Bluford Sumpter, who served in the 39th Iowa Regiment in the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War. We don’t know the details of his story, but we know the 39th was active from November 24, 1862, to August 2, 1865. We know they were involved in a great number of battles and skirmishes. We know the 39th helped chase Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (who would survive the war and help found the Ku Klux Klan) into Tennessee and suffered many casualties. We know they eventually deployed with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in his brutal and savage march across the South that essentially ended the war. We assume Bluford Sumpter survived the war (since it was uncommon then to ship bodies home for burial), but there are no dates on his tombstone, so we don’t know when he died. We only know he was eventually buried in the Slaughter cemetery in Jasper County, Iowa.

Slaughter pioneer cemetery in the grove of trees in the middle of a field.

Also buried nearby is William Wimpigler, who has his own story. Wimpigler served in the Iowa 48th Battalion during the Civil War, He was one of the Hundred Days Men — a troop of volunteers raised in Midwest during the final days of the war; they agreed to serve one hundred days in order to free experienced troops for combat service. The 48th spent its hundred days at the Rock Island Barracks in Illinois, coincidentally guarding Confederate prisoners taken during Sherman’s campaign.

Both of those Civil War veterans are buried near eight-year-old Hester Slaughter in her hollowed out log coffin on what was once an unused parcel of her family’s farm. Every grave has a story. But we only know about those stories exist because the graves exist, and we only know those graves exist because some unnamed person in a bureaucracy decided it was worthwhile to officially recognize and record the existence of pioneer cemeteries.

That unknown bureaucrat has a story too. We all do. Few of them get told, but all of them are worth telling.

best purchase ever

Imagine a collection of ancient pottery shards and some twisted lumps of barbed wire jammed inside a bit of stiff, old fire hose. That’s my knees, after years of injury and abuse. They creak, they pop, they snap, they grind, they rasp. They hurt. At some point I’ll have to return them to the shelf and get some new ones.

But mostly, I’m used to them. I know how to deal with them. I can get them to do most of what I want to do. There’s only one aspect of my life that’s been buggered up by my wonky knees. Cycling. Riding a bike. I used to ride a lot; it was my favorite mode of transportation. I used my bike for fun and to run errands. But it hurt my knees. Seriously hurt them. So a couple of years ago, I put the bike away for the winter; hung it from some hooks in the garage ceiling. Never took it down.

Over the river

This summer I bought an electric bike, thinking I might be able to ride it with minimal knee pain. When I say I bought an ebike, I don’t mean I went to my local bike shop, examined a wide selection of bikes, and made an intelligent, informed purchase. I mean I bought a bike online. Which even now strikes me as a phenomenally loopy thing to do. Who buys a bike they’ve never actually seen except in a photograph? Who buys a bike you can’t test-ride, a bike that costs US$1500 (more than any two bikes I’d ever bought), a bike that has to be shipped from Seattle and would require some assembly on arrival? Who does that?

Me and, it turns out, lots of other folks. And I got to say, it’s the best purchase I ever made.

Through the woods

I bought a Rad Rover Step-thru. It’s an improbable bike. Massive. The damned thing weighs about 70 pounds. More than twice what my trusty old Trek mountain bike weighs. It’s a fat tire bike, and when they say ‘fat tire’ they’re serious. Four inches wide. It’s got disc brakes. It’s got a goddamn brake light in back. What sort of bike has a brake light? When I finished putting it together (with the overly enthusiastic help of my brother), I have to admit being a tad intimidated by the scale of the beast. It’s big.

But once I got on it and started riding, that massive beast of a bike became weirdly tame. It rides easily. It’s not what you’d call ‘nimble’ compared to my mountain bike. Because of its size, the turning radius is slightly larger than I’m used to. But it’s rock solid and steady. And surprisingly fun to ride.

They put chairs along the bike paths here.

Best of all? No knee pain. I’d been hoping for minimal knee pain–an amount of knee pain I could tolerate. The notion of pain-free cycling hadn’t even occurred to me. But I’ve had the bike for about three months and I’ve put just over 500 miles on it–and dude, no knee pain at all. That’s because of the pedal assist function. Everything I’d read about ebikes (before committing to the insane act of buying one) talked about this weird techno-magical whatsit called pedal assist. I never quite understood it what it was or how it worked; they just said it made pedaling easier. Pedal assist was the reason I gambled on the bike.

It works. It really does make pedaling easier. Or it can if you want it to. It turns out pedal assist is exactly what it says it is. It provides a measured boost to the energy with which you pedal, which makes pedaling more efficient and effective. You can ride this bike without any pedal assist, but it wouldn’t be easy; we’re talking about a 70+ pound bike with four inch tires, so you’d have to be desperate or masochistic to do so. At PAS 1 — the lowest level of pedal assist — it makes riding a 70 pound bike feel pretty much like riding a normal bike (except even then it’s easier on the knees). I spend most of my riding time in PAS 1 or 2. I’ve used PAS 3 for a few steep or long hills; I’ve had no reason to use PAS level 5 yet.

Shortly before the first tornado siren.

I did use PAS 4 once, but it was an emergency. I’d stopped to visit with a county worker who was doing some obscure chore in what will eventually be a new suburban neighborhood. As we were chatting, the tornado siren went off. He checked his phone and told me it looked like it wasn’t a drill. I’m fairly casual about bad weather, and since I was only 3-4 miles from home and didn’t see any of the usual signs of a tornado, I wasn’t too concerned. I headed homeward, but I didn’t rush. Until a second tornado siren went off. Two tornado sirens is serious. So I began to hurry a bit. The sky got really dark. A third tornado siren sounded. I’d never heard a third siren before. I put the bike in PAS 4 and was easily doing over 20mph through neighborhoods.

I made it home about three minutes before the storm hit. It wasn’t a tornado. It was a derecho — a fast-moving straight-line storm with hurricane-force winds. And I made it home without knee pain. Totally winded, but no knee pain. I’m a big fan of pedal assist.

In the river valley.

Something I hadn’t expected: the bike gets attention. People are curious about it. At stop lights, people will roll down their car windows and ask me questions. People on sidewalks and bike paths often shout out questions as I’m riding by them. Sometimes I’ll stop and chat with them. “How does it work? How fast will it go? Does it have a throttle? Can you ride it without pedaling? What’s the battery range? Can you get a good workout with an ebike? Isn’t it cheating if the bike does all the work?”

Here are the answers. I’ve had it up to about 25 mph on flat ground; it can go faster, but I’ve never had the need to do it. Yes, it has a throttle, which is handy at stop lights and stop signs; even with pedal assist, it can be a struggle to get a 70 pound bike in motion from a dead stop. The throttle makes it easy to get started, and that’s all I’ve ever used it for. But yes, you can ride it without pedaling, using just the throttle like a moped. The advertised battery range is 25-45 miles, but I’ve ridden 53 miles through hilly terrain on a single charge and the battery wasn’t quite dead. And finally, you sure as hell can get a good workout on an ebike. The pedal assist allows you to make riding as easy or as strenuous as you want. By the way, if you bike for exercise, folks tend to ride farther and longer on an ebike, which increases the amount of exercise you get.

Me, I don’t ride for exercise. I ride for the joy in it.

Out in the country.

The ‘cheating’ question always throws me. I’m not even sure what it means. How can you cheat at recreational cycling? It’s not like you’re competing with anybody. Using electric pedal assist isn’t really any different than using 21 mechanical gears to make pedaling easier. If riding an ebike is cheating, then so is riding a bike with multiple gears. You’re still using the energy of your body to propel the machine.

That said, I do feel a wee bit awkward about overtaking a cyclist in spandex riding up a hill on a 20 pound road bike. Awkward, but not guilty.

Every so often I’ll go on a ride that takes me by a two-story fitness center. The parking lot, even during this pandemic, is usually full of cars. I know that some of the people who drove those cars to the fitness center are inside on stationary bikes, pedaling in a frenzy. They’re undoubtedly getting a more efficient workout than I am. They’re using their time a lot more effectively than I am. But I suspect I’m happier in the saddle than they are, and having more fun.

In the fog.

I’ve nothing against exercise, but I ride just for the pleasure in it. With this bike, I get to go places. I get to see stuff and talk to strangers. I get to turn down streets and pathways with no real sense of where they’ll take me; sometimes I get to be lost and have the tiny adventure of finding my way back. I get to be harassed by Canada geese and chased by storms.

I did a 30 mile ride a couple of days ago, the last half of it into a stiff 18-23 mph headwind. When I got home, my legs were wobbly from exhaustion. But my knees? My knees were laughing their ass off. I love this bike.

knuckles dobrovic is slightly dislocated

The whole Knuckles Dobrovic thing began in 2013 when I reluctantly and grudgingly realized there was some artistic value to Instagram. I created the Knuckles alias as a way of investigating Instagram without having my name associated with it. I thought it made sense back then, but sounds really silly now. So I started putting a thing on a glass-topped table on the deck and photographing it. It became a project. Things on a Table. I did that for about a year.

Eventually I started an Instagram account using my real name, but I’d grown absurdly attached to the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I decided I’d keep that account and us it strictly for photo projects. Because I tend to over-analyze things, I came up with some basic parameters for all future Knuckles projects: 1) it’s got to be simple (which means I won’t have to do a lot of planning or a lot of post-processing), 2) it’s got to be organic to my life (which means it’s something I can photograph during the course of an ordinary day — whatever that is), 3) it’s got to have at least one intellectual component (which is more accurately described as a pretentious bullshit element), and finally, 4) it’s got to be able to keep my interest over time.

After ‘Things on a Table’ I turned to Double Exposures of My Feet on the Earth and then to the Hundred Appropriated Google Street View gig. When that was finished, I felt no hurry to find another project. Some idea would eventually roll up in a ball and get my attention. That’s how these things work, mostly.

Yeah, no, not this.

Then, of course, Covid-19 showed up and parked its fat ass in the center of our society. At some point I decided the next Knuckles gig should reflect the strange new Covid reality. I tried a 16:9 moody landscape concept. Broad landscapes as a way of dealing with an increasingly closed in life. But no. Besides, it felt too similar to the Google gig. I also tried reworking a lot of old unseen street portraits in a high contrast are-bure-bokeh-ish style. The idea was to remember life without masks, but do it with a harsh, garish, blurry aesthetic that was sort of alienating. But, again, no. I really like that style, but no. Not now. Maybe someday I’ll come back to that.

Yeah, no, not this either.

But I kept noodling around semi-randomly. Taking new photos and playing with them, looking at old photos (which is something I almost never do) and smooshing them around a bit. Then one restless night I took an old photo of some lawn chairs in a suburban yard, diddled with the color a wee bit, digitally sliced it in thirds, then re-arranged the pieces.

Okay, this might work.

I liked it. It was a mundane, familiar scene but it felt a wee bit out-of-sync. It felt somewhat disjointed and almost (but not quite) unbalanced. Which is sort of how the world seems right now. So I tried with another photo. A bar that wouldn’t be seeing any customers this year.

Yeah, okay, this is starting to work.

The bar was still exactly as it was before the pandemic, but now it was just a tad off-color and slightly dislocated. Which seemed like an obvious title for the gig. It seemed like the approach would be elastic enough to use for almost any sort of photographic style. Landscapes, interior shots, still lifes, street photos.

Okay, that’s it. It’s a project.

It wasn’t until I took a rather busy photo of last year’s Planned Parenthood book sale, chopped it up, and re-organized it that I became confident the gig would probably work. I’ll almost certainly continue to use some old photos in the gig, but I expect I’ll be shooting a lot of new stuff with half an eye on the Slightly Dislocated idea (but only half an eye; I don’t want to be searching for material). I expect I’ll be stopping my bike sporadically to shoot something like this:

Slightly Dislocated — goal

This project may, of course, turn out to be awful. It may become predictable or repetitive, it could turn out to be dull–for the viewer or for me. Hell, as unlikely as it seems, the pandemic might come to a quick end (yeah, that’s not going to happen) and the entire concept of Slightly Dislocated may become out of date. I’ve no idea how long I’ll keep this up, but for now I’m having fun with it.

knuckles, returned to the shelf

A hundred photographs. A nice round number, and a good stopping point for the Knuckles Google Street View project. I thought about maybe stretching it out until February 18th, which would end the gig a full year from the start date, but…naw. A project shouldn’t be ‘stretched out’ just to reach an anniversary. A project ends when it feels done.

This project feels done to me. Like every Knuckles project, it began primarily as a way to amuse myself. And I mean ‘amuse’ in the older sense of the term: to cause a person to muse about something. To think about stuff. A project, for me, is just a device to engage my interest and attention. A project allows me to become absorbed, to feed my curiosity, to make me think. Granted, the thinking might seem frivolous — at least on the surface — but it’s thinking. Thinking is fun.

The GSV project made me think about a lot of stuff. The practice of curation, for example. I mean, the entire project is, itself, an exercise in curation. We’re talking about ten million virtual miles of highways, streets, avenues, dirt roads, and donkey pathways in eighty-three countries, all dispassionately captured by robotic cameras, each of which has six to eight lenses. That’s a lot of images. I only saw the tiniest fraction of that universe of images, and culling a hundred images out of that number meant some heavy-duty thinking about what makes an image interesting.

It was exceedingly frustrating to have NO control over the elements of composition. I came across a LOT of scenes that would have made a compelling image, except for some distracting element — a trash can, a parked car, a fence, a sign that interfered with the image. Stuff that would be easily dealt with in person. I knew that frustration would be baked into the project, of course. But it was still maddening.

The project also made me think about culture — how culture spreads through the world, and where it spreads from. I saw business parks in Illinois that looked like business parks in Turkey that looked like business parks in Japan. I saw a town in Indonesia that was jammed with US military surplus Jeeps transitioned into local utility vehicles. I saw a statue of a baseball player on a pedestal in Japan, and basketball courts in Slovakia. I saw American-style graffiti everywhere.

In fact, ‘America’ was everywhere. If you followed the project, you may have noticed the majority of the images are located either in the countryside or in small villages. That’s because so many cities — or large areas of the cities — were indistinguishable from each other. Aside from the signs, a city block in Uruguay looked very similar to on in Romania or Indiana. And they were all dull. The oldest neighborhoods of the oldest cities, on the other hand, were often very distinct. Unfortunately, the streets in those neighborhoods were almost always so narrow, so cluttered, so visually busy that despite how interesting they were, they simply weren’t amenable to a good image.

The project made me think about architecture. Not just the obvious architecture of buildings and homes, but also the architecture of infrastructure. Bridges, power lines, bus stops, sheds, fences. Rural mailboxes in Scandinavia look different from those in rural mailboxes in Canada, which look different from those in rural Indonesia. Telephone poles in former Soviet republics and telephone poles in Mississippi are distinct from each other. It was sometimes easy to tell what part of the world you were in simply by looking at the local infrastructure.

Local infrastructure reflects local attitudes. I mean, consider tunnels. You need to build a road through a hilly or mountainous landscape, what do you do? Some nations will build tunnels; other nations will just level the landscape. That approach tells you something about cultural attitudes.

I was also surprised by how many animals I saw on Google Street View, though I don’t know why that surprised me. We live in a world of animals, don’t we. Pets, livestock, wildlife. Dogs, goats, birds, horses, cats, cattle, sheep, chickens. And, of course, people interacting with those animals. Walking dogs, herding cattle, feeding goats and chickens, playing with cats. These were often the most frustrating images, because there’s something strangely emotional about the way humans interact with animals. But this is another of the problems of relying on a robotic camera; robots have no interest in decisive moments. Nor do animals. Animals move. People will stop and stare at a Google Street View car, but to a dog or a donkey, it’s just another car. So the vast majority of images of animals interacting with people (or other animals) were blurry and useless. Except for those of sheep and cattle. Those guys just stand there.

This has been a fun project. It’s been frustrating, of course, but it’s been interesting. And now it feels finished. It didn’t work out quite the way I’d expected (or hoped), but it did work out in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I hadn’t expected weather to be so important. I hadn’t expected cloud formations to be such a factor. I hadn’t expected telephone poles or trees to play such a prominent role. I expected people to be a more critical element.

I like the fact the project didn’t take the shape I thought it would. I like its final shape. I’m satisfied and pleased. And ready to be done with it.

With the final photo today, Knuckles Dobrovic is going back on the shelf. Not forever, obviously, but for a while. One of the things I’ve learned from the Knuckles projects is how much I like the structure that’s necessary for a project. I like the restrictions and the constraints that impose a certain discipline on me. I enjoy pushing against those restrictions and constraints. But this road ends here.

At some point, I’ll take Knuckles back off the shelf. At some point in the future I’ll cobble together some semi-lazy rationale for a project to distract me from all the other stuff I ought to be doing. Until then, if you’re interested in seeing all the photos — or any of the various Knuckles projects — you can find them here on Instagram.

EDITORIAL NOTE: It’s been pointed out to me that I neglected to include links to the origin of the project and the halfway point. I’m a putz. Fixed it, though.

like a girl

There’s a lot going on in the world right now, isn’t there. We’re only twenty days into the new year and we’ve already had our 16th mass shooting. Australia isn’t as much on fire as it was last week, but it’s still burning and giving the world a preview of the coming climate apocalypse. In Richmond, VA, the home of the traitorous Confederate States of America, a lot of ‘gun enthusiasts’ (seriously, I read a news thing in which all these white, overfed, camo-clad, body-armored, armed-to-the-teeth, MAGA fuckwits who are threatening a new American Civil War if they’re limited to buying only one handgun a month were called ‘enthusiasts’ instead of ‘terrorists’) are gathering in order to express their opposition to terrorize any legislator who might even consider a law to limit their access to firearms. And tomorrow we’ll be starting the Senate hearing in the impeachment of Comrade Trump, the sitting President of the United States, for abusing his power and obstructing the Congress trying to investigate his abuses of power.

That’s a full day, right there. But today is also the birthday — well, okay, not the actual birthday since she’s a fictional character who therefore was never really born, but it’s the fictional birthday of the fictional character — of Buffy Summers. You know, the Vampire Slayer? She’d be 39 years old today.

“Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer.”

BtVS was the reason I bought a VCR. Not just to tape the show if I wasn’t around to watch it, but so that I could watch the episodes again. This was the first television show in my experience that I wanted to watch more than once, that rewarded the viewer for re-watching. It was that good, that clever, that charming, and that meaningful.

I mean, sure, at it’s heart it was just a story about high school as Hell. Literally. And yeah, it was also the first show that turned an entire genre on its head. The silly blonde cheerleader — the traditional victim of choice of demons and monsters — is actually the being that demons and monsters need to fear. It was the first show (in my experience) that was layered and textured with meaning that went beyond slaying the monster. It wasn’t just a show that entertained (although it sure as hell did); it was a show that encouraged you to think. About politics, about sexuality, about religion, about gender, about the uses/misuses of science, about hypocrisy, about the roles of women, about power relationships, about the ways myth and legend shape culture, about music, about alienation, about love, about loss, about death, about suicide, about narrative structure, about…no, really, narrative structure. I’m not just bullshitting here. This show actually encouraged you to think about narrative structure.

Look, BtVS wasn’t the first show to mix comedy and drama. But it was, I believe, the first show to refuse to separate comedy and drama. In most shows, you’d have a dramatic scenes and you’d have comedic scenes; they were always separate and distinct. BtVS destroyed that notion. They’d toss a funny line into a dramatic scene without damaging the drama. They’d drop a dramatic line into a comedic scene, and it would hang there for a bit, then the dialog would return to the comedy because it was the only way NOT to scream. Because actual life is full of comedy and drama and it’s usually all mixed together. Actual life is so often about finding the strength to do what you need to do — what you’re supposed to do — when you would really rather not do anything at all, and still being able to have a laugh now and then.

That was the thing about BtVS — it never shied away from the ugliness of the world. It never promised that everything would turn out just fine. It was always about finding ways — usually through friends and family — of dealing with a world that didn’t turn out just fine. It was about doing what you can do to make things better, even if it was almost certain you’d lose. It was, in the end, a show about taking responsibility for your place in the world, it was about showing up and doing your damned job, it was about being strong when strength was required, it was about getting over yourself and doing what needed to be done, it was about claiming your space and fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

“I’m beyond tired. I’m beyond scared. I’m standing on the mouth of Hell and it is going to swallow me whole. And it’ll choke on me. I’m done waiting. They want an apocalypse? Well, we’ll give ’em one. From now on, we won’t just face our worst fears, we will seek them out. We will find them, and cut out their hearts, one by one.”

It was a show about refusing to accept things being the way they are just because that’s the way they’ve always been. In the final episode, Buffy even casts off her role as ‘The Chosen One’. She says”

“In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who might have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. There are a lot of metaphoric vampires, demons, and forces of darkness that need metaphoric slaying. Buffy is a singularly apt role model for this world. We’re all living in Sunnydale now. We can all…well, I’ll let Buffy and Angel explain it.

Buffy: My mom said some things to me about being the Slayer. That it’s fruitless. No fruit for Buffy.
Angel: She’s wrong.
Buffy: Is she? Is Sunnydale any better than when I first came here? Okay, so I battle evil. But I don’t really win. The bad just keeps coming back…and getting stronger. Like the kid in the story, the boy that stuck his finger in the duck.
Angel: Dike.
Buffy looks at him.
Angel: It’s another word for dam.
Buffy: Oh. Okay, that story makes a lot more sense now.
Angel: Buffy, you know there’s still things I’m trying to figure out. There’s a lot I don’t understand. But I do know it’s important to keep fighting. I learned that from you.
Buffy: But we never…
Angel: We never win.
Buffy: Not completely.
Angel: Never will. That’s not why we fight. We do it because there’s things worth fighting for.

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. We all need to show up, stand up, speak up, and fight like a girl. So happy birthday Buffy Anne Summers. You saved the world, a lot.

the best sporting event in the world

The FIFA Women’s World Cup begins today. I have to keep reminding myself of that. No matter what other ugly shit is happening elsewhere on the globe, the very best international sports event in the world begins today.

Yes, yes, FIFA as an organization is Trump-level corrupt. And yes, yes, they are also Trump-level misogynistic, and Trump-level cheap as possible. This year the prize money for the WWC is US$30 million. That’s spread out over all 24 teams (the winning team gets four million). It sounds like a healthy chunk of coin — and, in fact, it’s double what the women got for the last World Cup. But the men’s World Cup held last year in Russia? We’re talking $400 million. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s fucking infuriating. Fuck FIFA in the neck.

But hey, let that go for now. Because starting today we’ll get to see women playing brilliant futbol. I’m of the opinion that women’s soccer is more fun and more interesting to watch than men’s soccer. The women are less arrogant, have fewer divas, fake FAR fewer injuries, focus more on teamwork, and play with more fierce joy than the men. There’s a delicious aura of liberation in women’s soccer — strong women hurling their bodies about with speed and fluid grace, unencumbered by all the ‘nice’ bullshit they’ve been saddled with for centuries. They’re focused on the ball, of course, and the play, but you get a sense of how good it must feel for them to be able to call upon their body to run flat out and perform some complex athletic task. It’s wonderful to watch.

Okay, it’s just sports. In the grand scheme of the world, I’ll agree that a bunch of folks kicking a ball around doesn’t seem terribly important, even if they’re doing it in France in front of an international audience. But it still matters. The WWC matters. All women’s sports matter, and yes, they matter more than men’s sports. Because women’s sports are watched by young girls who’ll grow up with fewer limits and more hope and bigger dreams because of the women we’ll see on the pitch today. The girls who watch the 2019 WWC will be the ones who eventually kick FIFA in the balls and make futbol fair, and they’ll take that attitude and confidence into every aspect of society — and society will be the better for it.

One last thing. Nike. This is an advert. It’s deliberately manipulative and intended to convince you that Nike cares about…I don’t know, something. It’s a marketing thing. Watch it anyway.

All the ugly shit in the world will continue to take place while I sit in front of the television. I’ll give it due attention. But for a few hours every day for the next few weeks, I’ll be ridiculously happy and weirdly emotional because women will be playing soccer.

I may even go buy a pair of Nike sneakers.

 

yes, it suits her

I have thoughts about Mr. Justice Kavanaugh, and Mitch McConnell, and the bloated carbuncle currently occupying the Oval Office — but I’m holding them in abeyance for a few more days. I don’t want them to corrupt the joy I feel about Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor.

I’ve written about the Dick-free Doctor Who Debate already, so I won’t repeat any of that, except to say there were people (and by ‘people’ I mean ‘men’ and by ‘men’ I mean ‘astonishingly stupid childish misogynists’) who were upset by the notion that a woman could be the Doctor. We’ve moved on from that now; it’s a reality.

In a very real way, it never mattered to me whether the Doctor was a man or a woman. I mean, I’m glad that the folks who run Doctor Who decided to cast a woman. It needed to be done, if only to demonstrate the reality that gender was never a defining aspect of the character. The Doctor didn’t have to be a ‘daft old man who stole a magic box and ran away.’ The Doctor just had to be a daft old being who stole a magic box and ran away.

Let me repeat the important bit in that last paragraph. Gender was never a defining aspect of the character. When Christopher Eccleston appeared out of nowhere and took Rose Tyler’s hand, telling her “Run!” he wasn’t being a Doctor Who for boys; he was just the Doctor. When Jodie Whittaker fell through the roof of that train, she wasn’t being a Doctor Who for girls; she was just the Doctor.

Here’s something Steven Moffat, the Doctor Who showrunner for a decade, said about the character:

Heroes are important. Heroes tell us who we want to be, but when they made this particular hero, they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-Wing, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help, and they didn’t give him a superpower or a heat-ray, they gave him an extra heart. And that’s extraordinary.

Let me add this. They didn’t give him a penis, they gave her curiosity.

When the new Doctor Who was introduced on Sunday, the most surprising thing (to me, at any rate) was that Jodie Whittaker was immediately the Doctor. I’ve always been sort of slow to accept a new Doctor. I tend to put them on emotional probation until they’ve earned my trust — because Doctor Who may be a sort of cheesy sci-fi show on the surface, but the character of the Doctor is complex and nuanced.

“Right, this is going to be fun!”

Jodie Whittaker hit the right notes straight from the beginning. In her first scene she’s still coming to terms with the regeneration; she doesn’t know where she is, or what she’s doing there, or who she is, or even what she is, but she knows she’s there to help. That mix of confusion and certainty, peppered with the visible joy she experiences when she learns something new or remembers something from before, was convincing and totally natural. When she learned she was a woman, she treated it like a mildly interesting fact. She asks, “Does it suit me?” but she’s not hanging on the answer, because it’s simply not that important.

And yet, the fact that she’s a woman IS significant and important. Not for the character, but for the viewing audience. A woman Doctor doesn’t change the character of the Doctor, but it changes how the audience experiences the Doctor. It gives women — and more importantly, girls — a protagonist they can better identify with. A girl who wants to dress up as Doctor Who for Halloween no longer has to dress like a man. That’s a big deal.

So here’s the thing: the fact that the 13th Doctor Who is a woman is simultaneously completely unimportant and incredibly important. That’s about the most Doctor Who thing ever.

my ongoing relationship with phytoncide

It’s pre-morel mushroom season in my part of the world. Pre-morel season is that brief period before the brief period of actual morel season; it’s that interval when common sense, experience, and science all agree that it’s still too damned early for morels to appear, but you go hunting for them all the same because hey, you never know and why the hell not. Actual morel season probably won’t start until — who knows? Later this week? Ten days? It’s a damned mystery.

But let’s face it, for a lot of us, there’s no meaningful difference between pre-morel season and morel season. We find the same amount of mushrooms in both. In other words, none at all.

I’m okay with that. Finding morels is the other reason for hunting morels. The primary reason, for me at any rate, is to get out into the woods. Deep into the woods. As deep into the woods as possible, because the deeper into the woods you get, the more the world becomes slow and quiet. Not silent — just quiet. Between wind and wildlife, the woods are rarely silent. It’s just that the sounds of the woods are subtle and usually indirect.

If you spot one morel, there are usually others nearby.

Subtle and indirect — that’s how you find morels in the woods. You walk slowly, scanning the ground for small disruptions in the pattern of the dead leaves. You walk for a couple of minutes, you stop and search for a couple of minutes. It doesn’t necessarily matter where you walk. There are dozens of tips suggesting the best conditions for finding morels — near dead/dying elm trees, old creek bottoms, south-facing slopes, areas of mottled sun, areas of bright occasional sun, shady areas — but the difference between spotting a morel and missing one is often just a matter of a few feet in one direction or another. So you sort of meander semi-aimlessly through the woods, guided by 1) the wisdom of your morel-hunting ancestors, 2) the terrain itself, 3) maybe a deer track, and 4) a sizable dose of bullshit folklore.

dead elm in an old creek bottom during actual morel season

Hunting morels is weirdly meditative. That’s why folks who talk about hunting morels sometimes sound like students of Zen. Be aware without concentrating, be focused without any objective point of focus. Morels can be masters of camouflage; you can carefully study a few square feet of woodland for a couple of minutes, suddenly realize there are two or three morels right there in plain sight, look away to tell your friends, and then struggle to find those same morels five seconds later.

But here’s a true thing about hunting morels: you can find them just about anyplace. Abandoned lots in town, roadside ditches, suburban yards, in sand, in mud, along farm fields and pastures. Another true thing: a morel you gather from a rural roadside is just as tasty as a morel you gather from the deep woods. One more true thing: there’s always delight in finding a morel anywhere at all.

Actually on a south-facing slope

Still, most of us hunt them in the woods. The tick-infested, thorn-ridden, spiderwebbed, bramble-thick woods. That’s partly because the odds of finding a morel are somewhat better in the woods. Not a lot better, but better — just like the odds of winning the lottery are only slightly improved by buying a ticket. Still, I think most of us hunt them in the woods because getting deep into the woods is…well, it’s nice, isn’t it. It’s pleasant. It’s deeply relaxing. It’s…I’m going to say it…therapeutic.

I’ve seen lots of online references to ‘forest bathing’ lately. That’s a notion developed in Japan (where it’s called shinrin-yoku) back in the 1980s. Forest bathing sounds silly, but it’s become a rather trendy form of therapy. I recently read that it can increase a person’s “capacity to communicate with the land and its species.” I’ve no idea what that means, but it doesn’t sound any less absurd that some of the medical claims in support of forest bathing. For example, this:

[M]any trees give off organic compounds that support our “NK” (natural killer) cells that are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer.

Completely ridiculous, right? Well, actually, no. It turns out trees and plants actually do emit compounds called phytoncides. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with the violent death of phytons. Phytoncides help prevent trees and plants from rotting or being eaten by some insects and animals. And hey, when you go into the woods, you breathe that shit in. And guess what? It turns out, it’s actually good for you.

This what pre-morel season looks like — nothing but you, some ticks, and an invisible cloud of phytoncides.

Seriously. A few years ago the New York Times acknowledged studies demonstrating that walking in the woods for a couple of hours can actually increase a person’s white corpuscles (those ‘NK’ cells mentioned earlier) for up to a week. There have been a number of highly respected medical researchers writing in highly respected medical journals all highly agreeing that despite its absurd name, forest bathing (and therefore morel hunting) is good for you.

This video is from a couple of years ago, during actual morel season. It may look like a lazy stroll down a deer track. But no! In fact, this is me madly forest bathing and soaking up phytoncides like a damned sponge.

I’m always a tad alarmed to discover that something I enjoy is good for me. I suspect I’ll now be accused of hunting morels for my health, which would take a great deal of the fun out of it. Well, it would — except that, as I said, finding morels is the other reason for hunting them. Sometimes the point of morel hunting is coming home with a sack (mesh, naturally, so the spores can be spread) full of morels. I don’t mind doing something healthy if it delivers the occasional mushroom.

So for the next few weeks — once pre-morel season morphs into morel season — I’ll be out there as often as I can, forest bathing like motherfucker. I don’t care if it’s good for me or not. I’ll be looking for shrooms; my white corpuscles can look out for themselves.