28 February 2017


Ben Kessler. Rivers of Wind: Reflections on Nature and Language. ICRL Press, 2016.

Ben Kessler has written eighteen essays exploring the etymological roots of language and how it impacts on his view of the natural world. That view, according to the book’s blurb, is mostly from “a little hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia” where Kessler lives.
Kessler’s observations are never narrowly parochial: for he extrapolates his thoughts from the local neighbourhood to the global terrain.

He sees the power of words (The English language) to be dying from Imperialist and capitalist intervention and the planet to be suffering death throes from a blight of over-consumption, environmental degradation and our contribution to global warning. Kessler is deeply concerned, caring and passionate about us saving the planet. Unfortunately he throws too many ‘urgent’ questions at the reader with little or no attempt at providing answers on how to carry out the saving.

That’s not necessary a criticism of Rivers of Wind (Many experts are arguing about right solutions, and you have to be aware of competing governments with their own environmental agendas). No, my concern is that Kessler gives us an overloaded list of questions that are no substitute for tough analysis. These questions quickly become cries, then a critical prodding and finally howls of protest. Rivers of Wind is a much too generalised declamation of discontent neatly interspersed with loving descriptions of rabbits, eagles, black birds, flies, the stars etc.

This isn’t helped by Kessler’s rhetorical style. Without ever becoming a polemic or worse, a rant, it does weaken the power of writing that’s both interesting and factually engaging and yet so overwrought to the point of being maddeningly ‘poetic’. I really wish he’d been more of a Thoreau and dispassionate environmentalist than some het up Walt Whitman bombastically wondering how much grass will be destroyed by our crazy exploitation of everything!

However amidst his high flown energy, three of Kessler’s essays are remarkable. Apoptosis is most suggestive on the process of insect metamorphoses, with some sharp ideas about our remembrance of things.
If the mechanism for the retention of all memories across metamorphosis cannot be pinned to a physical structure in the animal’s body, would that imply a non-physical medium for at least some sorts of memory?
'Last Season’s Fruit' describes the site of the ‘diseased’ Chernobyl disaster and provocatively, yet powerfully, links it with the experience of urban areas of ‘healthy’ cities.
Viewed from the point of view of a morel fungus, or a centipede, or a beech tree, urban areas constitute a threatening expanse of dead space, requiring aggressive medical intervention. As the ten-kilometre zones of uninhabitability surrounding Chernobyl reactor is to human beings, so are the thousand–kilometre zones of Los Angeles or Kiev to a wolf or a fern.
And 'Martha’s Heart' is a fascinating piece on the pathologist R.W.Schufeldt who in 1914 extracted the heart from the last passenger pigeon.

Near the end of Rivers of Wind Kessler attempts some new mythmaking of his own. The results are clunky.
And so it came to pass, in the dark days of the strangers, that there arose among the people those who chafed beneath the yoke. Within their hearts they felt not the hollowness of the Only True Way, but an aching richness that seemed to emanate from the ruined forests and blasted hills.
That’s to be found in the essay called 'Tall Stories'. I agree with Kessler about employing myths and reinvigorating language to give us alternative options to daily dystopian news-stories speculating on our future. But bad prose is no substitute for authentic inspiration. A book then for the ecologist, poet, scientist and maybe general reader. But not quite.

Tread carefully round Kessler’s hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains and you will be occasionally rewarded. Though I really wish I could have brought in the sheaves from a more intelligible harvest of ideas and descriptive states. -- Alan Price.

Ben has replied to this review in the Comments, below. Click to read.

1 comment:

MUFOB said...

Sting to the ego aside, this is a well done piece of literary criticism. There are some parts of my book (many, many parts) that I look at and cringe, wishing I had edited them more carefully or cut them out entirely. I fear that Mr. Price and I have similar tastes. I also prefer subtlety to vehement emotional appeal in my agit-prop. That being said, the aesthetic direction chosen for Rivers was deliberately not one of subtle elegance but something uglier, and to my assessment more honest given the subject matter. "[H]owls of protest" is just about right, but it's not protest- because protest assumes an audience empowered to act- just rage and grief.

How a frankly emotional book like mine affects the reader depends, in part, on the degree to which the author's worldview is shared by that reader. To someone who perceives a fire in the next room, yelling and hand-waving and generally carrying-on seems an eminently appropriate activity. To those who do not smell the smoke, or who at any rate haven't connected it with the presence of fire, such theatrics would seem excessive, unconvincing, and in rather poor taste. I'm willing to hazard that we all, no matter how distracted or jaded, feel some twist in the pits of our stomachs when we read in the newspaper that the Great Barrier Reef is gone (or nearly-gone) or that Moken language and traditional shipwrighting are imperiled by Thai government policy, religious proselytization/persecution, and exploitative documentary filmmakers. That pain, however brief and however successfully muffled, at the awareness that something or someone beautiful has not only departed from our world but has been degraded, insulted, and ignored, and died suffering is, I think, significant and worth paying attention to. Why do we react this way to ill news of the world beyond our culture and species, what might that say about our real motivations and deeper concerns, and, more practically, what then shall we do, having finally noticed this? Having smelled smoke I extrapolated a fire, and proceeded to go totally ape all over the page about it. I'd like to say that I did this to convince others to draw similar conclusions, but mostly I was just freaking out.

In all respects Mr. Price's critiques of my prose as overwrought and excessively ornamented (it is) and my habit of asking questions I don't later provide the answers to (it's an awkward habit, but in my defense it started as a deliberate experiment in audience engagement, albeit one that may not have been entirely successful) are honest and, to my own opinion, accurate. I do, however, take exception to one factual error early on in the piece, which says I am supposed to be "deeply concerned, caring and passionate about us saving the planet." I am no such thing. We- whoever that might be- are in no position to "save"- whatever that might entail- anything so beyond our comprehension as a planet, much less the horrifyingly complex overlapping network of ecosystems and individual lives tenanting that planet. I suspect that Mr. Price may have me confused for a caricature of an environmentalist, and all of the faulty logic, wishful thinking, and anthropocentric hubris carried in that stereotype. I am not interested in the quixotic task of "saving the planet", I am more concerned with contending with the observation that all attempts to do so thus far have failed. Life on earth is marvelously, terrifyingly intricate, and I hold few illusions that I will ever understand it half as well as I enjoy it. If the implications in the book weren't clear enough, I will spell the thesis out bluntly here: Life is beautiful and finite; we are doomed. If a temporary engagement in that belief doesn't give you the uttermost heebie-jeebies, I'm afraid no amount of labored prose is ever going to do it.

Good health,