Where are we now in our ninth year of existence ? The original mission, to document and raise consciousness about species and cultures whose survival is in question, continues with ever-growing. Many of the 56 Dispatches and the blogs are devoted to the tragic decimation of the world’s biocultural diversity. Originally, my son Andre and I envisioned two Web sites : the Dispatches, and Shoumatopia.com, which would be a chronicle of my peripatetic consciousness, for which there is a huge paper trail : 100-some cartons of papers, a few thousand manila files about issues I am following, three computers worth of files, and yesterday I just started my 400th notebook. These journals, or thought-catchers, as I call them, contain 80,000 pages of reflection, travelogue, reportage, on the spot natural history description, poetry and lyrics, research, lists of flora and fauna encountered in various locales and remote corners of the planet, and all sorts of other stuff. My final book– I have just sent out proposals for six– Allah willing will be autobiographical, drawing on this enormous trove of documentation.
Sometimes I didn’t have an environmental or cultural Dispatch to put up, and we had to put up something, so Andre would post one of my old stories, or something that had never been published, which was not directly related to the mission of DVW but was very interesting and worth rescuing from oblivion, so Shoumatopia.com was gradually folded into it, and the mission expanded. The downside of this was that what this site is all about became less clear, and it became more self-referential. But all travel writing is self-referential, as David Reiff points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Graham Greene’s Lawless Roads. A reviewer of one of my books said I “revel in the subjective.” But it’s really more that I don’t see any way out of any writer not being subjective. Even the most rigorously unbiased, neutral, objective hard science has a subjective component. Some factor may be overemphasized, a crucial factor may have been overlooked rendering the data and their interpretation worthless. Or the scientist may be so intent on finding evidence for the theory he is trying to prove that he is blocking out inconvenient truths.
What I liked about making the Dispatches more open-ended was that their cornucopia of offerings convey and celebrate without deliberately intending to do so the astonishing diversity of what is out there, although only a minute part of it, but it is this unfathomable diversity of life and the tragic ongoing accelerating loss of it that drove the creation of the site in the first place. And the reader doesn’t know what’s coming next, from what part of the world, or what the subject is going to be. Much of what they document in loving detail no longer exists, so at least there is a record of it, and that is the primary purpose of writing, as far as I am concerned. So what the Dispatches have become really about is flux. They are a chronicle of flux. Nothing is permanent in this world. One of the first teachings of Buddhism and the ancient Greek philosophers. Least of all moi. Who is really vanishing here, anyway ? I am 63 now, definitely no longer a spring chicken. And the sort of long-fact writing I do is on the verge of extinction. Magazines in general are struggling to survive, because young people go to the Internet for their information and entertainment. Legendary film critics are being laid off, editorial wells are shrinking, my latest story has been reduced to 4000 words. I can barely clear my throat in 4000 words. So I’m kind of like a dinosaur, the last degenerate gasp of the great Russian literary tradition that starts with Gogol (my ancestor) and continues into the New World with Nabokov. The world will survive in one form or other, nature will survive, although many species, including possibly us, will be out of there. As Lewis Thomas wrote in The Lives of a Cell (I used the quote as the epigraph of my book on Westchester County), “But it is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death. We are the delicate part, transient and delicate as cilia.” I don’t really agree with the first sentence, though. Everything is fragile. The last 8000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, for instance, which I’m still trying to get an assignment to write about. By the way, in answer to the question in my last blog, it looks like the ruptured well is spewing 60,000 barrels a day. How extraordinary that the BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg announced that the company is putting up $20 billion help the “small people.” This shows how deeply hierarchical and condescending European society still is. I was going to say British, but Svanberg is a Swede.
With the addition to our small, dedicated staff of Natasha Sniatowski, a hard-score social activist– Tasha has comes on board as our social justice coordinator, the Dispatches are going to take on a more radical activist thrust. Cultural survival is a form of social activism, but there are many other sources of social injustice besides cultural oppression, and some traditional cultures, like the Somali clan system, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali delineates in her book Nomad, are sources of social justice, particularly toward women. Ideally environmental and social justice are on the same page, as with Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement in Kenya. But this is not the case. The relationship between environmental and social justice and cultural survival is fluctuating, like everything, and since this such an important subject, I will go into it in my next blog.