“Interstellar”: Leaving the farm for the stars

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Erik: Every once in awhile I like to see a big budget Hollywood movie, especially when I think it might be a window into the cultural episteme. I had a hunch Interstellar might touch on some themes related to this blog so I suggested we go.

Kelly: And I went for the popcorn.

Erik: I wasn’t disappointed, at least with the epistemological bits.  The movie itself was a mess.

Kelly: You and your big words. We should tell people who don’t know that this is a science fiction film set in a near-ish future, in the wake of Something Bad happening which causes massive depopulation of the Earth. I think the food supply failed.

Now, everyone left is a farmer, and working hard to keep failing monocrops going. We seem to be living on an all-corn diet. There are no animals to be seen, anywhere. Not even a cat. I’m assuming we ate them. There seems to be plenty of gas left, perhaps because there are so few people. At any rate, things aren’t good–there are constant dust storms and disease threatening the crops. It seems that humanity isn’t out of hot water quite yet.  And our hero, Cooper, who is a ex-NASA pilot forced to play farmer, discovers that NASA still exists, in skeletal form, in an underground bunker. (For Angelinos: The NASA bunker is the Bonaventure Hotel!!!!)  From there the plot turns to “How can we get all of us off this sorry rock before humanity expires?” aka “Space will save us.”

bonaventure

Kelly’s photo of the Bonaventure Hotel: the set for underground NASA.

Erik: Two more big words for you: eschatological panic. To me that’s what the movie is about. That panic is intertwined with, as you note, a profound disrespect for Mother Earth. We screwed up the source of all life, but thankfully we can shoot ourselves up into heaven (through the Bonaventure!). Anyone who thinks otherwise (like the school bureaucrats depicted in an early parent/teacher meeting scene) are cranks.

Kelly:  I think we should spell out that scene with the teachers which Erik is referring to, because it is important to what I’ll have to say later.  In this scene, the hero/pilot, Cooper, goes to a parent teacher conference where his son’s high-school teacher blithely states that the Apollo landings were all a brilliant CIA hoax designed to drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. She believes this as absolute truth, and shows him that it is written into all the revised textbooks. Cooper is horrified. Somehow he has missed the re-education program that came after the big die-off.

This is important to me because it is a good example of the typical, lazy — and typically lazy– thinking about science and nature and philosophy which goes on in popular culture. There is a central narrative which tells us that science will save us, and that science must be protected at all costs from backward thinking nutjobs–whether these be religious zealots or brain dead bureaucrats.

In the world of Interstellar it seems a new sort of political correctness has been developed which privileges some very narrow band of ag studies over all other kinds of learning, and downplays the achievements of science in the past. There are hints that this may be because the failures of science are what got them into their predicament to begin with– this is not clear.

But what is clear is that the only hope for humanity, both physically and spiritually, is abandoning the planet.  We see this played out in Cooper’s adult children: one is a farmer, one is a scientist. The farmer is blind, blind even to the suffering of his own family, while the scientist literally saves mankind.

This dualistic set-up–Science vs. Farming or really, as the story plays out, Science vs. Earth is a very bad model, yet it is the one we are presented with over and over again. You’ve heard the quote attributed to Einstein that says something along the lines of “We’re not going to solve our problems by using the same thinking we used to get into trouble”?  I feel like we are swimming deep in those problematic waters, and this false duality is an example of it.

Erik: Interstellar, like most Hollywood movies, takes the techo-utopian side of that dualism. So does Richard Branson with his plans to sell expensive eschatological roller coaster rides. On the other side of that dualism you have pseudo-science and a kind of rainbows and unicorns denial of the physical plane.

Two things really bug me about Interstellar: first it’s the ultimate expression of suburban flight. We screwed things up here, but thankfully a wormhole has opened and we can (spoiler alert) repopulate a new planet that looks like Joshua Tree. It’s dry but there’s some great rock climbing!

Secondly Interstellar’s denial of the sanctity and beauty of Earth. And, I want to be clear that I’m not misanthropic: I believe in human civilization. I’m saying that there is something special about this planet and that it is our place in the universe. And, practically speaking, the rest of this solar system is inhospitable to life and the stars are so remote we’ll never reach them. We really need to tell different stories than this one.

Kelly: Yup. And to be clear, neither of us is anti-science — we just want to look a little more closely at the stories we tell ourselves in this culture.

For instance, why can’t we see a story which tells about people rebuilding after the Bad Thing happens, and being happier than they were before?

Instead, the story is always apocalyptic. In Interstellar they make passing reference to the greed and blindness of the before-times, but the present reality for the survivors is grim. Everyone is “stuck on the farm” and Cooper’s farm house needs a paint job real bad and there’s not much to do except watch for dust storms. Leaving the planet becomes our manifest destiny.  As Cooper says at one point, “I was born on Earth–I wasn’t meant to die here.”

Here’s a different story. In the wake of the bad times, people awaken to their true humanity? What if we let go of materialism and greed  and fear and live in more cohesive communities? We develop a positive, living spirituality and a deep bond with nature,  to which we are now devoted to healing?

What if we celebrated the role of the caretaker as much as we do the explorer?

I know, I know, that would be a boring movie because it would have no spaceships or explosions.

Erik: I can think of some positive examples from science fiction with both spaceship and explosions. First, Frank Herbert’s Dune which values human abilities over machines. Then there’s Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which, among other ideas, explores what happens when we become detached from nature. And in some ways Gravity is the inverse of Interstellar. Gravity celebrates humanity and culture (Remember the radio conversation? See the short the director’s son made about the other side of that conversation with the Inuit man–very worth watching) with a plot about how inhospitable space actually is and how good it is to be standing on the living earth.

Kelly:  All true. But my obsession right now is not with SciFi but with real life. I’m tired of our culture’s hostile and dismissive attitude toward nature. I’m more than tired of narratives which have already given up on nature. This includes the “Let’s get off this rock” narrative of this movie, but it also includes the “Don’t worry, the Rapture is coming” narrative and the “It’s too late to do anything, the planet is doomed anyway” narrative and the related “Humans are doomed for X Y or Z reason and the planet will be glad to see us go” and the most pernicious narrative of all, “It won’t happen in my lifetime, so why should I care?”

I want new narratives. We deserve more. Our children deserve more. Our planet deserves more.

Diyas: oil lamps from India

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[Oops! We accidentally posted Thursday’s post today–Wednesday. Please don’t miss our regular scheduled Wednesday podcast, below.]

As readers of this blog and our books know, I’m a big fan of little vegetable oil lamps–the type that can be easily improvised with any shallow vessel, from sea shells to Altoid tins. If the tabletop aesthetic of oyster shells and recyclables doesn’t quite appeal to you, may I interest you in diyas?

Diyas are little clay lamps used in India. They usually burn ghee, but any vegetable oil works well in them, too. I just found them being sold at our local Indian supermarket. There, the fancy molded ones, like the one pictured above (one of many shapes) were 3 for $1.00. The simplest ones, which are basically teardrop shaped pinch pots, go for 5 for a dollar.

That’s a lot of fun for a dollar, and a good way to light up a party with a hundred warm little lights–if you can keep your guests from catching themselves on fire! (For more info, see my post at the first link above for all the deets on making and using a vegetable oil lamp.)

Also, it occurs to me that it would be a great lesson for kids to make a pinch pot out of clay dug from the ground, and then make some ghee and a wick, and then see how prettily butter burns.  (And whenever I say something would be a good lesson for kids, this means it’s something I want to do myself.)

Camping on Halloween Night

tent in the forest, autumn

I was lucky enough to be able to camp this Halloween weekend. While I love the costumes and the candy and the gentle anarchy of Halloween in the city, I was very happy to be able to spend this Halloween out in nature. My only other nature-based Halloween was many years ago, in rural Ireland, where I wandered the countryside alone at sunset, hoping to spot a ghost or a fairy or a faun.

Maybe it is just the power of suggestion, or maybe it’s something else, but Halloween night has always carried a charge for me–it just feels different, whether you’re on the street with a bucket of candy, holed up in the house with a pumpkin beer or out in the woods. It’s said that the veil between the worlds is thinnest on Halloween night, and I’m willing to buy that, because somehow the air always feels full of potential.

This Halloween night, I was camping at 6,300 feet in the Angeles National Forest. The weather in Los Angeles has continued depressingly hot and clear and dry, despite the arrival of autumn. On Halloween evening, though, clouds gathered in the sky, obscuring the relentless blue. Around twilight  those clouds dropped. They just fell straight down from the sky, as if someone cut their strings, and they turned into a sort of high fog with feathery, creeping tentacles exploring the tops of the pines and the cypress. And those creeping clouds drifted ever lower as the light faded, and a breeze kicked up, which sent the golden leaves on the ground a-dancing. I sat by the fire, looking down a long path lined with swirling leaves, shivering bushes and tendrils of fog and waited to see a fairy, or maybe a Black Rider.

Then the daylight vanished abruptly, like someone turning out an overhead light.  Fifteen minutes later, I couldn’t find my hand in front of my face. Darkness swallowed everything whole.  We read scary stories by the campfire and ate apples baked in the coals.

Late that night, after I was safely tucked in my bag, rain started to fall. The first significant rain of the year, the first significant rain in maybe 9 months or so. All night long the wind in the trees roared and boomed–it sounded like waves crashing on rocks. The rain sheeted down on my tent while the wind shook the sides.  (A five year old tent which has never been tested in the rain–that’s SoCal camping for you!). It did not leak, thank the Great Pumpkin.

I have to say, I have never been happier on any Halloween.

At dawn I woke up to a world soggy and remade. The rain had carved deep channels and rivulets in the hard-packed soil. The scrubby, hard-bitten plants eking out their living on the granite slopes shimmered in the morning light, free of dust for the first time in months, revealing their true and gentle colors.

I heard water and ran to the stream bed. The day before it had been dry, now it ran with water. I knew it was a temporary flow, but the sight of running water after a long dry summer brought tears to my eyes, and I remembered that Halloween is the Celtic New Year. It’s a time of darkness, and a time of death (the traditional time for slaughtering stock), but in death there is renewal, and I felt that renewal in the moist loam beneath my feet and the cheerful dripping of the trees, and I heard it in the water, and I gave thanks for the rain.

And an hour later, it began to snow.

snow on pine trees

A murmuration of starlings

I’ve discovered that there is an entire subgenre of YouTube videos on starling murmuration. This one that I’m sharing with you is short, has an exciting raptor cameo, and David Tennant, but it was hard to choose among them. I highly recommend getting lost among the starlings today.

As the poet Mary Oliver wrote in “Starlings in Winter” by (Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays), “Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us.”

And murmuration–isn’t that a fantastic word?

A new spice sensation in the Root Simple kitchen

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Last night, while looking for something to spice up some roasted pumpkin seeds, I made a happy discovery:

Korean red pepper flakes + ground sumac (plus lots of salt) = delicious!

These two geographically unrelated spices share shelf space in our cupboard, but I’ve never thought about combining them before, perhaps because they come from different food families, so to speak. So many wasted years! Now they’re going on nuts, seeds, popcorn…maybe as a fish crust. Oh, the things we shall do!

Gochugaru, Korean red pepper powder (also referred to as red chile flakes), is a deep red, coarse powder or flake. Its flavor is spicy, smokey and a little bit sweet. It’s easy to fall in love with this stuff all on it’s own. Gochugaru is the primary spice in kimchi and it’s also the primary flavor in our favorite tofu dish.  You can find it in Asian markets which stock Korean items. Look for it to be taking up a good section of an aisle, and being offered in many sizes–all the way up to big, pillowcase bags of the stuff. No other spice gets this much attention! If you can’t find it, just as for kimchi spice.

Sumac is a a tart, lemony spice you can find in Middle Eastern markets, also a deep red color. It’s great on salads (it’s always on fattoush, for instance) and fish, and both tasty and attractive when sprinkled over hummus and other dip-like things. I often use it to add lemon flavor to food when I have no lemons.  And yes, while I don’t know exactly what kind of sumac is harvested for commercial spice production, it is related to our wild sumacs–it’s from the Rhus genus. So if you want to be all Grizzly Adams about your hummus, you  could forage edible sumac berries and grind them to make your own spice– just be very careful with your identifications.

The combination of the two at about a 50/50 blend makes something warmly spicy with a little lemon kick. It’s snacking gold!