Friday, December 29, 2023

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2023, pt. 25: Christopher Brown


Aqueduct Year in Review 2023

by Christopher Brown


The only real vacation we took this year was to South Padre Island the week of July 4, with extended family ranging from ages 4 to 83. An old school Texas beach trip, where you pack your own portable sun shade structures to protect you from the ever more intense local star that radiates the day, as you watch the tanker traffic come and go in the deepwater distance and wonder whether the water is really safe to swim in. It ended up being the hottest week on the modern meteorological record, not just there, but around the world, and you could feel it on the sand, and even in the water. The wetland refuges on the bayside were desert dry, full of folks rampaging across the paradise turned wasteland on all terrain vehicles like the members of some Mad Max recreation club.

Above the kites floated a tethered aerostat operated by the U.S. Border Patrol, a cute white blimp loaded with advanced avionics, scanning for climate refugees and smugglers in the zone where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf. And right along the horizon line shimmered the big rockets of the Space X factory and launch pad, their golden age Destination Moon forms making me wonder if the heat had me hallucinating some waking dream of the spacefaring 21st century my late 20th century childhood had promised. The evident truth was less promising: the richest men on Earth are using the libertarian business platform of Texas to try to get to another planet, now that we have trashed this one to a point where our culture and very survival is threatened. Roll over, Heinlein, and tell Bradbury the news.

Sitting there in my beach chair in our true dystopia, one of the paperbacks I had brought along was an old (1994) Penguin collection of Colonial American Travel Narratives edited by the women’s studies scholar Wendy Martin. It opened with A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, one of the earliest American captivity narratives, a first-person recollection of the author’s capture and 11 weeks captivity by a mixed group of Narragansett, Wampanoag and Nashaway in 1675, during the conflict known as King Phillip’s War. Rowlandson was around 40 when she was taken, and wrote with great command of her story, telling it through a series of removes that give it a curiously cinematic structure, framed with a Puritan Biblical theme that very slowly erodes as her alienation from the people she has been taught to view as unredeemed savages becomes more complicated, and viscerally experienced by the reader through her detailed daily descriptions of the foods she is fed, from a singed seared horse liver to the unborn calf of a doe killed in the hunt—so tender, she explains, you could eat the bones. 

It was the second captivity narrative I had read this year. The first was Fanny Kelly’s Narrative of My Captivity Among the Sioux Indians, recounting the attack on the author’s wagon trail on the Oregon Trail in the summer of 1864, and her five months with the Lakota. The book had been on my shelf for a while, one of the many little hardbound editions I had accumulated over the years from Lakeside Press—the volumes the financial printer R.R. Donnelley used to send to its customers at the holidays every year for most of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first, a series I had discovered as a securities lawyer who got on the mailing list for a while. The books were always classics of Americana, beautifully made, and accompanied by an introduction that mixed historical background with an epistolary business message from management to the stakeholders. They finally killed the series when traditional financial printing became an anachronism and the company was carved up into the remaining valuable parts, but I still keep an eye out for the books, which, in the way of all freebies, have a knack for showing up on the shelves of suburban used book stores.

I found myself binging those sorts of books this year, as intuitive writerly research. After five years of writing dystopian novels, I made the pivot to narrative nonfiction, with a pitch for a book about urban wildlife and ecology, green futures, and the story of my family’s project making a home in a Texas edgeland where industrial land use bleeds into interstitial wilderness. In the way one does after selling a book off a proposal, as I started actually writing it I found myself grappling with what sort of story it really was, and eventually realized what I was really doing was in a tradition most American readers have internalized so completely they forget about its existence as a distinct genre—the tales of exploration, discovery, colonization, conquest and frontier settlement that are the real post-Columbian literature of the Americas. Where we came from, what we found here, how we changed it, how it changed us. The quintessential American narrative archetype, one could argue, and perhaps a variant of the seminal human story—especially as our migratory natures are being reawakened by the climatic changes our permanent settlements have wrought.

I reread Cabeza de Vaca’s journal of his years among the indigenous peoples of Texas and northern Mexico after washing up on the coast following a shipwreck in 1528, and Haniel Long’s remarkable poetic riff on that narrative, An Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca. I read translations on university websites of Cortes’ letters to King Carlos reporting on the wonders of Tenochtitlan, as smallpox began to winnow the local population and he effected his conquest. I re-read Bernal Diaz’s first person account of the same events, The Conquest of New Spain. On my mother’s shelves, I found Audubon’s memoir of his childhood and early life as a kid who always gravitated toward the wild spaces, in the form of a manuscript found by his family in a barn on Staten Island, and published by his granddaughter Maria along with his nature journals in 1897 as Audubon and His Journals, a text that reads like a letter to the author’s children at the same time as it encodes, from its first page’s account of his mother’s death in the successful Haitian slave uprising, the way so much nature writing situates ecological diversity as a private estate of white privilege.


I tracked down volumes of the strangely esoteric histories of American highways that are out there, like Milo Quaife’s 1923 Chicago’s Highways Old and New, revealing how the engineered routes of our automobiles and Internet cables often follow the paths of pioneer trails made from Native American trails, many of which had their origins as the trackways of migratory megafauna we have mostly banished from existence. I read the bizarre annotated journal of The Expedition of Zebulon Pike, the young Army officer dispatched by Aaron Burr co-conspirator General James Wilkinson in 1805 to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi following the Louisiana Purchase, as edited in 1895 by the naturalist, surgeon and Madame Blavatsky protegé Elliott Coues, who fills most of the pages with rambling footnotes riffing on the weird ways the collisions of languages express themselves through the ever-morphing names of places and peoples in the North American landscape. I discovered William Bartram’s journals of his trips into the southern swamps of the 1770s, Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1840s saddle trip across Texas, and re-considered Thoreau’s Walden and the illusion of solitude it constructs like some paradigm of the view from nowhere.


I read pioneer settlement accounts, like John Woods’ Two Years’ Residence on the English Prairie of Illinois, and similar stories of the first generation of colonists in my home state of Iowa. I reread pieces from John Keene’s brilliant Counternarratives, published by New Directions in 2015, which repurposes such narratives in stories and novellas that conjure a more honest and emancipatory window into the pan-American past and present. And I dug out the copy of Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality some 70s stoner high school teacher assigned us, and freshly examined what was really going on there.


Through it all, I found windows into the continent that was, and the one we have made. The journals of early travelers like Pike, Audubon and Bartram into the wilds reveal a natural ecology we have mostly erased under plow and pavement, and a diverse and complex human ecology that reflected millennia of habitation of and movement across this land. I devoured material on the Pleistocene extinction and the curious ecology of common American plants co-evolved to be eaten and dispersed by animals that no longer exist, in books like Connie Barlow’s fascinating The Ghosts of Evolution.

I started to see the newer stories we tell, including the science fictions that fuel the interstellar yearnings of Gen X technobarons to lord over their own new worlds, through the prism of those narratives of colonization. And to wonder how, through narrative inversion and interrogation, we might reinvent those operating systems of identity in a way that starts the process of decolonizing the world, and ourselves. I started to see many of the new books arriving through that prism, including, in the spring, my editor Makenna Goodman’s powerful and incisive first novel The Shame, and at the end of the year, Ed Park’s epic Korean-American literary alternate history Same Bed Different Dreams, and I look forward in 2024 to exploring what other new work I have been missing while bunkered down on my own.



Christopher Brown is the author of the novels Tropic of Kansas, Rule of Capture and Failed State. His climate memoir The Secret History of Empty Lots: Field Notes from an American Edgeland, which draws on the same material as his popular urban nature newsletter Field Notes, is forthcoming from Timber Press in the fall of 2024.








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