Disquieting Vistas

into-the-ruins-fall-2016-coverEditor’s Note: As I continue to work to balance my personal life, my day job, Into the Ruins, Figuration Press, this blog, and my other writing desires, I am finding that keeping this blog going with a significant new post every week may be a bit more than I can handle. Moving forward, it’s likely that I’ll transition to updates more along the line of every other week. In the meantime, though, I wanted to provide something this week and so am including a lengthy excerpt from my “Editor’s Introduction” in the newest issue of Into the Ruins. Want the full read? That’s easy—you can purchase the individual issue directly from Figuration Press, from Amazon, by asking your local independent bookseller to order it, or by subscribing to the journal. Frankly, I think it’s a pretty fantastic issue, featuring five new deindustrial science fiction stories, a good number of letters to the editor, the full essay excerpted below, a new “Deindustrial Futures Past” column from John Michael Greer, and Justin Patrick Moore’s lengthy survey of James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand series. It also has a fantastic cover featuring art work from Jack Savage, as seen at your left.

And if you like that? Well, you’re probably going to enjoy the first and second issues, as well. Frankly, there aren’t too many outlets right now for speculative fiction set in the sort of futures we’re going to get, rather than the shiny, outer-space spectacles so often portrayed as our destiny. I think the more realistic futures as depicted in the stores in Into the Ruins are much more fascinating, much more honest, and well worth your time and consideration. If you aren’t already a subscriber or haven’t checked out one of the issues yet, give it a shot. And read on for a taste of the sort of editorial content that comes with each new issue.

I aim to return next week with the continuation of “An Expected Chill,” and then we’ll go from there.

— Joel Caris, 11/28/2016

In The Geography of Childhood‘s opening essay, “A Child’s Sense of Wildness,” Gary Paul Nabhan makes the observation that children tend to focus on small, micro elements of the natural world. Exploring the outdoors with his own children, he notices as they pay their attention to “the darting of water striders [and] the shapes of creek-washed stones,” and “scramble up slopes to inspect petroglyphs and down arroyos to enter keyhole canyons.” Meanwhile, he observes how adults pay their attention to the macro elements of the natural world, “scanning the land for picturesque panoramas and scenic overlooks,” the sort of scenery we take long hikes to come upon. Reading it some years back, I found it a fascinating observation that rang true, sticking with me as one of those remembered insights that has many times helped me make sense of the world.

As it happens, that insight has helped me once again. One of my challenges in expecting a harsh future lies in my tendency to think of these possible futures in broad, macro terms—as scenery that’s stunning in all the wrong ways. I see the possibilities of economic trouble, geopolitical flare ups, destructive wars, political and social upheaval, domestic insurgencies, and so much more. I imagine how it might feel to be caught in the cracks of a clash between world powers, to not be able to provide for myself or the people I love, to be at the mercy of cascading political chaos or vindictive social reprisals. Since I can’t truly know the future in advance, my imaginings of its trouble sometimes take the form of a certain suffocating foreboding—a general, dark malaise.

It’s a change of pace from other times of my life, particularly when I was young. At that point, I believed in the beneficence of progress and the ability of the onward march of time to provide me a better life. It’s not that that’s what always happened, it’s just that I believed more often than not that it would, even if the current moment suggested the opposite. I considered such dispiriting moments a setback, and little more.

I still sometimes feel that way. It’s an odd discordance that I often expect our collective future to be harsh but still hold out hopes that my own future will be an improvement: stronger and better interpersonal relationships, more satisfying work, modest but comfortable financial success, a sense of contributing to the world in a positive way—and perhaps even having a super awesome weekend. It’s not that I think this is crazy or deluded; such a divergence of fortunes is entirely possible and happens regularly. But I don’t know that there’s any particular reason I should expect to escape the negative impacts of the hard times ahead. A crumbling economy, dark political undercurrents, social upheaval, a major war, and an upending of the current socio-economic order all threaten to impact me. I’m not the most vulnerable person in this country, but I’m far from the least. I would place myself somewhere solid in the middle, and such troubles may have a very large impact on my life indeed.

Therefore, the macro picture is a dangerous one for me—or so I believe. The stunning vistas are disquieting, the picturesque panoramas foreboding. They threaten my comfort and stability. And so sometimes, when I feel as though these panoramas are coming into a disturbing focus, a darkness falls over me. This happened to me recently, as the American election devolved into a toxic stew of bitter anger and betrayal—furious conflicts in interest, values, and worldviews—and I found myself caught in a wary sympathy for many voters on both sides, as well as glimpsing the beginning of a too-close upheaval that I could all-too-easily imagine cleaving my life into too many pieces. From there, I began to expand my view, moving from one dark element of the overlook in front of me to several others, taking a hard look at the chaotic outline of geopolitical reality, the simmering anger against the establishment, the crushing opioid epidemic ripping through this country, particularly within our heartland, and the utter discord and disconnect between the significant chunk of this country that is well off enough to feel an investment in the continuation of some version of the status quo and those who have been so utterly crushed by the economic and political dysfunction in America that, their backs against the wall, they would consider most anyone or any course of action that might bring acknowledgment of their plight and change in the organizing principles of this country.

It took me a few weeks to extract myself from that miasma. I will never claim not to have my bad habits, and I am skilled—at times, anyway—at backing myself into a single-view corner and drilling down into one particular, nagging sensation. I had to make a few messes, so to speak, and make myself crazy for awhile before I finally began backing away from the self-sabotage and recognizing my need to seed some different perspectives and create other foci. Granted, it’s not that I felt my concerns were unfounded or unrealistic, but that it did me little good to maintain such a laser focus on a troubled outcome I had little control over. I could not change that vista in front of me, after all—or if I could, it would be only the smallest chiseling of a tiny point upon one of its peaks, so small that it could never be seen from any sort of encompassing vantage point.

What was missing? Reflecting on it, I believe it was the micro. So caught in my macro views, I ignored the multitude of micro views also available to me. That doesn’t mean that all those views are enjoyable. Some are dark and foreboding themselves, of course, but the detail provides variety. It means that there are joyful views mixed in with those dark ones, even when they exist within the darker vista. It means, as well, that the dark views that remain can still take on a certain palatability, rooted in the small intimacies of human interaction, far too often destructive but just as or more often kind and heartening. We are all too quick to judge and create sweeping categorizations—all of us, across all ideologies—and yet I’ve watched people I admire as well as those I very much don’t act with a kindness and neighborliness toward those in their lives, even when they are humans of strikingly different color (literal and otherwise).

In addition to the complicated tendency of human kindness and human division, there is the encompassing beauty and alleviating grace of the natural world. I have written before of its savings—of shattered ice on river rock, the singing of frogs, the sudden nighttime yips and howls of coyotes—and even at a time of such national upheaval, it provides its daily blessings and respites. Of late, that has taken the form of crows hopping around our backyard, poking at the grass and ground beneath with their beaks, no doubt searching out treats and sustenance, their demeanor steady, alert, and by all appearances happy. It takes, as well, the form of autumn-crazed squirrels, darting back and forth and at times jumping wildly, through no obvious prevarication, digging at various intervals, ransacking bushes, chasing each other in wild abandon, and searching manic for their winter keep. I’ve watched all of this with a steady amusement and low-key delight, thankful each day for these seasonal set pieces . . .

Read the rest of this essay in the third issue of Into the Ruins, now available for individual purchase through the Figuration Press store, from Amazon, or as part of a subscription to the journal.

2 thoughts on “Disquieting Vistas

  1. Hi Joel,
    I got an image of the guy on the stage spinning many plates on sticks, fun to watch but stressful to experience for all concerned. Get your balance and keep writing; you add a lot of value to these times of unbalance we’re living in.
    “Into the Ruins” ROCKS! A little light dispels a lot of darkness.


  2. I walk several times a week along a creek that drains the area where I live.

    At times during these walks I find my self pondering the seemingly dark and tragic future that lies before us – and what to do about it. Then, upon realizing that there is very little that I, as an anonymous, ineffective old-as-the-hills man am able to do to affect such a future, I say to myself, out loud, “be here” and, for awhile, I am able then to notice and rejoice in my immediate surroundings; the creek itself roiling along beside me, the trees reaching up into the sky, the various birds fluttering about in the huge volume of blackberry vines that align the trail (and from which I pick a huge volume of berries each mid-summer to enjoy during the cold and grey time of winter), the singular dragonfly that comes out of nowhere to accompany me for awhile, the ducks and geese abiding on the nearby ponds that I pass.

    All this brings me back to what is real, true and eternal, the ground upon which I am treading, the implacable downslope run of water in its self-made channel, clouds forming and dissipating, the often magnificent rise and set of the sun, a full moonrise above the hills, the turning of Earth in its spiraling journey around the sun, reflecting the great spiral of our galaxy and, perhaps, the Universe itself, and I am suddenly hit with the notion of how small and insignificant I am; how insignificant humankind and its ways are and I rethink about the future, both immediate and far, that this, too shall pass.


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