Return of the Space Bats and Random Thoughts about Storytelling

For those who like to read John Michael Greer’s blog The Archdruid Report, the Space Bats contest has become nearly a yearly ritual. The challenge that John gave his readers was to come up with plausible stories placed in the near or far future showing what life after Peak Oil might look like. Many (including myself) took up the gauntlet. As the readers of his blog tend to be well educated and thoughtful, the submissions have been coming fast and furious, leaving an embarrassment of riches in terms of literary efforts. The rules dictate that there must be no magic or deus ex machina ( which is what the term Space Bats refers to) that would save generations in the future from the consequences of our mistakes. Characters in the stories must deal each in his or her own way with what the world we left them can or cannot provide.

Last December the Archdruid once again issued his space bats challenge, this time asking for stories which don’t obsess over the process of collapse or cling to the cultural myth about the onward march of ‘progress’ which allegedly will lead us to our destiny somewhere out in the stars. Instead he wants stories that show neither progress nor collapse but simply life as it is likely to be; just people going about their lives under the constraints of the legacy we have left them, building homes, having families, quarrelling with their neighbors, etc.

I had already been in the process of writing a story when John laid out his latest guidelines and began tweaking it accordingly. The future world the new story is set in is basically the same future I portrayed in my original submission to the last Space Bats contest. I borrowed elements from the first story and reworked them, hopefully creating a more dynamic tale as the first was in the form of a letter being written to a friend. After I had the new story pretty much fleshed out, I found myself writing a second tale that’s a spinoff though the events in An Even Trade actually take place prior to the events of The Doctor Who Went Over the Mountain.

One element I created and was dying to put into the original story but couldn’t find a place for is Saint Appleseed. How an eccentric pioneer nurseryman, a practitioner of Swedenborgian , later a familiar American folktale figure, becomes transformed into a Santeria Saint is something I leave to the imaginations of my readers. Over the years there have been many American folktale characters; Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, John Henry; some fictitious, others real people with myths accreted to them. They often reflect something about their times. Davy Crockett embodied the efforts of settlers to ‘tame’ the wilderness that they saw. Another, the character Mike Fink, was a brawling, boasting river man who, as a product of the Ohio and Mississippi steamboat commerce of the nineteenth century, flourished briefly but as times changed eventually became largely forgotten except by folklorists. Others like George Washington, our first President, are better known to modern readers. As a significant historical figure Washington attracted any number of apocryphal stories such as the chopping of the cherry tree and tossing a dollar coin across the Potomac. Oddly enough Abraham Lincoln doesn’t seem to have attracted the kind of improbable stories one sees attached to Washington or Crockett. The tales attached to him are more mundane, even homespun. Time may well be a factor here. Leo Tolstoy wrote a moving assessment of the President’s character and gave an account of how Lincoln’s reputation had arrived at a remote location in the Caucasus Mountains and was already undergoing a mythologizing by the local people.

Much of the older tales are outgrowths of the European cultures that set root here over the past four centuries. The growing Latino population has brought their own folklore. La Llorona or El Chupacabra are legends both of ancient and recent origins working their way into American culture. Asian-Americans, African-Americans and Native Americans all have their own tales which have been added to the mix.

Many of the colorful figures we are familiar with, will probably vanish into the past as current cultures wither away or fragment to be replaced by new ones. Others will persist perhaps in a form no one today would recognize. Some of our beloved tales may endure into the future, others likely won’t. Commercial success is no guarantee of durability. The Lord Of The Rings is too large and complex a tale to enter into the pantheon of North American folklore. Harry Potter in spite of his current popularity will certainly be forgotten. But I do think future story tellers will entertain their audiences with the magical tale of how a young girl and her little dog were swept into a mysterious land over the rainbow by a tornado, where they had adventures, made friends with strange beings and battled a wicked witch. Dorothy resonates with us as Harry does not.

Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison, while not folkloric characters for Americans today may well become so in the future as people look back in nostalgia at times they perceive as somehow more noble or inventive than their own. As people struggle with environmental degradation, John Muir, the naturalist and advocate of preserving wilderness, might become a legendary character with a suite of folktales for listeners’ use to guide their own efforts in preserving what’s left. Johnny Appleseed may get refurbished as an agricultural figure representing a more sustainable way of farming. Paul Bunyan, a relatively modern folklore figure, may be reworked into a preserver of woodlands rather than a chopper of them.

On a darker note, figures such as Satan and the AntiChrist may get commingled with more recent evildoers such as Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot by future oral tale tellers becoming transformed into frightening beings people use to represent the darker side of themselves. Corporations might become bogeyman fabrications for threatening obstreperous children with to make them mind. Tales of nuclear weapons and their use will become tales of dreadful sorcery gone badly wrong.

Writers can speculate and write tales about what stories people of the future will consider important parts of their culture. Any future folklore will reflect the times and current concerns, as folklore has always done. The characters populating such tales will likely be famous people whose lives are recalled and embroidered on (Think King Arthur who started out as a minor warlord). They may be people we are familiar with, or people not yet born (depending on how far in the future your tale is set). Since there’s just no telling what stories and characters people will cling to in order to give their lives meaning and order as the downhill slide of current civilization speeds up, the only limiting factor is your imagination.


An Artist’s Tools

One of my hobbies is drawing. I primarily use pencils and charcoal and have experimented with pastels (with mixed results). Eventually I will branch out into water colors and oils. It is a hobby that gives me a great deal of enjoyment particularly when the results seem to confirm that I actually have some talent.

 Mazey_1  Landscape1

I even like to just simply color and am delighted that a former guilty pleasure of mine has gone main-stream with a recent surge in coloring books for older people (not just kids).

All artists use tools of one sort or another to achieve certain effects with their artwork. Pencils, pens, paints, crayons, markers, brushes, palettes, erasers, blenders are likely the ones most familiar to people. Gridded sketchboards, wooden mannequins, erasing shields, sandpaper, rulers and compasses are all part of an artist’s toolkit along with oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels, charcoal, graphite and whatever the artist prefers to use as a medium. Color wheels are used to help achieve proper mixing of colors. Innovative artists experiment with unusual media or tools in an attempt to develop new or intriguing works of art.

Artists of previous centuries endlessly experimented trying out different techniques. During the Renaissance, breakthroughs in perspective and how colors are affected by lighting led to an increased realism in paintings and sculptures. At the end of the nineteenth century, many artists began to break away from realism to produce abstract works of art.

Changes in styles of art are always controversial of course. Howls of outrage have frequently followed any departure from the convention of what to depict and how to depict it. Usually though this involves the art itself. The use of tools is rarely singled out for criticism.

An interesting exception to this came to my attention when reading a recent issue of Astronomy Magazine. Now one wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see anything about art and painting in a science periodical devoted to studies of the planets, stars and distant galaxies. But the writer, Jeff Hester, in his article entitled A False Dichotomy was expressing his puzzlement over an issue that had cropped up a number of years ago in the art world.

In 2001, an English artist, David Hockney, devised a theory in which he postulated that a number of Renaissance painters including the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer had used optical devices in order to achieve the photorealistic light and details in their paintings. However when he presented this theory to scholars at the New York University, the reaction to it was comparable to the reaction produced when someone noisily breaks wind in a crowded elevator. The idea that famous painters might have used lenses and mirrors derived from the scientific breakthroughs of the times rather than rely on pure unassisted talent was vigorously condemned rather than intelligently discussed or debated. Mr. Hester wrote that he was profoundly baffled by the attitude that the use of scientific devices in art somehow debased the paintings and that no artist worth his salt would ever stoop to using them. As he wrote:

“The notion of a gulf between science and art would have puzzled Leonardo da Vinci. He and others moved beyond received wisdom – and invented modern science – precisely by applying an artist’s creativity and careful eye to questions of how the world works.”

Mr. Hester himself has good reason to write in this vein. As an astrophysicist he was part of the team that helped restore the flawed Hubble Space telescope and along with Paul Scowen created the iconic Hubble photograph titled The Pillars Of Creation.


He speculates that many people today are put off by the perception of science as something tedious, dry, implacable and anything but artistic. One would think that the Hubble image would flatly contradict that.

Evidently not. The idea of optics being used in painting is still apparently controversial even today. Mr. Hester’s article describes a recent film called “Tim’s Vermeer” where a computer animator Tim Jenison became fascinated by the idea and tried to see if he could indeed create a painting using an optical device to duplicate the type of lighting and realism found in a Vermeer painting. The film was produced by the stage magicians Penn and Teller, chronicling his efforts to accomplish this.

While the film received widespread critical praise, it also attracted the same crowd that howled in protest when the theory was first suggested. Critics such as Jonathan Jones  mercilessly lambasted the film (though Mr. Jones grudgingly admitted it was possible Vermeer might have used optics). Reading the criticism leads me to think that the real issue is not how Vermeer did his painting but the perception that members of the hoi-polloi (in the forms of an obviously untalented inventor and that execrable pair of entertainers, Penn and Teller) would dare (DARE!) to poke their unwanted noses into the sublime august hallways treaded by art critics and historians and offer a demonstration of how Mr. Vermeer might have produced his painting. Mr. Jones seems to have missed that Tim wasn’t trying to create a work of art; he was just trying to duplicate the technique Vermeer might have used.

The use of tools, scientific or otherwise shouldn’t really be a controversy, for heaven’s sake. If it is, then am I in trouble if I use a mathematician’s compass to draw a circle? (Math and art? Eww-icky-poo!) Should I use a coffee can lid instead? If I use a ruler to draw a straight line, will the art police burst out of the woodwork to snatch it away and start smacking my hand? (Bad artist! Bad! Bad!)

Nobody knows for sure if Vermeer actually did use optics, and we probably never will. But if he did, it doesn’t mean he was a humbug, just that he spared no efforts in producing the best work of art that he possibly could. You certainly don’t need to be an art snob to appreciate the results.

Oh, yes, and remember the old adage: Those who can, do; those can’t, criticize.