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The battle between local bookstores and mega-seller goliaths like Barnes & Noble has always existed, but the war really hit home when a recent marketing ploy by Amazon.com made national headlines. The strategy was simple, directing consumers to go into a brick-and-mortar store, scan an item for purchase using a new Amazon phone application for comparative pricing, walk out of the store to purchase the item online with Amazon, and receive a five percent discount on the purchase.

Enraged merchants nationwide shared their dismay with the online giant as the competition, which had long sense been a real concern for small town stores competing against ever-growing globalization, suddenly felt the sting up close. The biggest concern: small town stores had become mere showrooms for consumers to browse and find what they wanted only to make their purchases online.

Then local bookstores got a decree of hope on December 12 when author, Richard Russo, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled, “Amazon’s Jungle Logic,” which chastised the online, bookselling monolith and likened the company to the “John Candy character (minus the eager, slobbering benevolence) in Mel Brooks’s movie ‘Spaceballs’ — half man, half dog and thus its own best friend.”

Yet, it was a response to Russo’s piece that struck a nerve with me. It was a column disgustingly titled, “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” by Farhad Manjoo, which appeared in the December 13 edition of Slate Magazine, which made me cringe.

First, let’s be clear. Slate Magazine is an affiliate of Amazon receiving a cut of all sales generated from links to Amazon from their own website. So in some ways Amazon can be seen as some quasi-employer for Manjoo since part of his pay stems from Slate-generated Amazon sales. Yet, it is Manjoo’s utter disregard for the “buy local” mentality coupled with his complete disillusionment toward a small-scale, communal economy that really hits me the wrong way.

In the column, Manjoo goes on a lengthy tirade against what he dubs “cultish, moldering institutions,” the “least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores.” At one point Manjoo even has the gall to say that anyone who prides themselves on promoting a vibrant book industry and thus a literary culture, “should thank [Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder] for crushing that precious indie on the corner.”

Reading those words I could actually feel the heart burn pushing up my throat, my right eye beginning to twitch, my fists clenching, my anger growing to rage, because in those words I could see the mentality that threatens the stores I love: tiny brick-and-mortar, mom-and-pop, locally owned bookstores. In those words, lies the reason why the shops I love stand such little chance competing in a global economy fueled by online sells. The fact is, it has become easier and cheaper to just go online.

But, that’s missing the point.

There’s a reason why the Cashiers Bibliophiles, our local book club, orders all of their books through Chapter 2, and that reason is quite simple: every dollar spent goes right back into our state, our county, and our village. It’s as simple as the need a penny take a penny, have a penny leave a penny philosophy in that as a community and as caring neighbors, we work to be self sustaining.

When my first book was released it was an indie bookstore, Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville, that opened their doors to me for a launch event and treated me like Rick Bass; when I had a reading at City Lights in Sylva, Chris Wilcox and Eon Alden handed me a copy of Daniel Woodrell’s “The Outlaw Album,” because they knew I’d been waiting on its release, and they spoke proudly of me when telling customers I was a writer from right down the road; when I went to Park Road Books in Charlotte for a signing, it brought a smile to my face to still see snow in the parking lot where the bookstore had blown flurries for a snow ball fight for kids when “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author, Jim Kinney, had visited the night before; and this past weekend in Asheville as I walked into Malaprop’s bookstore, my chest swelled when I saw copies of my book in the window during the holiday rush, when the store could have undoubtedly sold more copies of Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” biography.

The reason for all of this is simple: these bookstores, their owners and employees, care. They care about me, they care about our children, and they care about our community. They are as close to me as blood.

You see, that’s the world I live in, Manjoo, and that’s the reason your argument is not only offensive and asinine, but just doesn’t hold up.

I live in a place where the local merchants are my friends and neighbors, where the simple fact of whether or not they have food on their table depends largely on the dollars spent locally. I live in a place where my local bookstore owner can’t wait to tell me about the latest book he’s read, where store owners get a kick out of watching a kid smile when they get their next read, where I’m a lot more likely to see that same bookstore owner cutting his grass than I am to ever see Amazon-mogul Jeff Bezos step off of a private jet into my neighborhood.

And the simple fact is, Manjoo, if that’s not the world you see, if that’s not the world you’re living in then, perhaps, you’ve had your head in a book just a little too long.

(“Behind the Brick and Mortar” originally appeared as a column in the Crossroads Chronicle and subsequently took first place in the 2013 North Carolina Press Association (NCPA) Awards for “Best Serious Column.”)

 

In defense of language

At a recent reading at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville, North Carolina, I was confronted by a question from an audience member that left me stumped at the time and has left me thinking ever since. The question came in response to a chapter I read from my book Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey. In a chapter titled “Wild,” I discuss my desire to revert to moments without cognition, moments driven purely by instinct, when actions arrive by necessity rather than reasoning:

“The wild has no systemic, lingual tongue, only a dialect that can never be fully understood for anything other than what it is: wind on leaves, rustling; unseen birds’ calls echoing off silence; the slight glup of a wild trout rising; water pouring over rocks; phantom animals brushing through rhododendron; my breathing.

“The flowers are still defined by words and the birds still separated by empty syllables, but during brief moments of wildness these confines vanish for me and nothing is left but basic instinct: smell, sound, sight, touch, taste. For animals, there is never anything besides the moment. Primitiveness is not savagery. I want to return to Rousseau’s noble savage: only then do I know that I’m there; only then do I become real; only then do I exist.”

This concept is furthered in a chapter titled “The Liar,” where I write:

“We humans rely heavily on language to solidify our world, and often we completely ignore our sensory perceptions. We look at a tree and see only a verification of the word, but a caddis does not know our meaning of tree. The caddisfly only knows which trees are good places to hide from predators; then they fly there and disappear…I could never fully join the world that I loved so deeply. I was the species that dismantled the world with empty syllables, with metaphors meant to dominate.”

The question asked by the audience member, a friend I know extremely well, was whether or not there was ever any conflict for me as a writer given that I have to use language in order to communicate these ideas, while at the same time I have so many qualms about that very language? While the question would be a stumper for anyone, it was particularly difficult in that I knew the person asking (a friend named Nick); I knew that he was familiar with the writings of Heidegger, Derrida, Saussure, Foucault and the rest; and I knew that he held a very firm grasp on the Deconstructionist theory I was pulling from in my writing.

For those unfamiliar with Deconstructionist theory, I’ll try to simplify it as best I can. In an essay titled, “Plato’s Pharmacy” (one of many on the subject), Derrida looks at the Greek word pharmakon, which holds opposite meanings in that the word can be used to mean “medicine” and the word can also be used to mean “poison.” By pointing to examples such as the word pharmakon, Derrida works to show that language is, in and of itself, flawed.

Because words are metaphors that attach unmeaningful, hollow groupings of insignificant characters to objects, concepts, emotions, and the like, we will never be able to truly know the essence of what these words describe. In the chapter “The Liar,” I’m drawing from this concept when I say that humans “dismantled the world with empty syllables, with metaphors meant to dominate.” Furthermore, since human perception is ultimately defined by language, our thoughts derived through words, then our perceptions are also counterfeit.

What I’m attempting to argue in “Wild,” “The Liar,” and many other chapters in Growing Gills is that because the rest of the natural world has no reliance on such a complex lingual system, that other animals’ experiences are more authentic and in turn true. This belief that the rest of the natural world is experiencing a truer version of life becomes the primary fuel of my misanthropy. I want to revert to primitiveness because I want to experience the world for what it truly is and not what my lingual boundaries define it to be.

Yet Nick’s question still raises a tremendous problem with my critique of language: I’m a writer. I have to rely on language in order to do what I do.

So if I believe that language is fallible, then what am I left with? Can anything that I ever write be true when words are fictitious?

While the question caught me off guard at the time and I gave a response reiterating my beliefs in the tragedies of language and purity of the wild, since then I’ve had time to think about it and to come up with an answer that I can live with.

In the end the answer was as simple as a few words from a children’s story. Dr. Seuss writes in The Lorax, “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.”

My belief cannot be stated more simply.

I think that as a writer, I have an obligation to speak out against the troubles I see in this world. Because I have the ability to express ideas and have those thoughts understood by my peers then I have a duty to point toward what I believe is right and to try and lead in a direction that I feel is just. Whether my truths are valid is to be decided by the reader, but I must speak these truths nonetheless.

As a human being, I hold the power to raze or nurture this earth. We hold the pharmakon, both the medicine and poison, for the world in which we live. We bulldoze mountaintops into mesas and clear-cut forests into stump fields, but at the same time we have the power to protect this fragile earth. The destroyer and potential savior of this planet are one in the same.

Though I will never be able to experience the world as truthfully, and authentically as a trout I do hold the power to make sure that there are riffles in this world for native brookies to swim. The native Appalachian brook trout shoot further and further into stream branches trying to find a place to hide as development fills streams with runoff and while mountaintop removal and coal mining suck the life out of every stream within reach. Can the brook trout go before Congress and give our politicians the proverbial middle-finger or send an email with a simple subject line of “WTF?”

I can and I will, and in that simple truth lies the validity of language as an essential tool for survival; not only my survival, but the survival of what I love. For those fish, those creatures that still hold onto truth amidst a world of lies, I will put my pen to paper. Their story is my story. Their story is your story. Their story is all of our story. But only we hold the mechanism to make sure that story is told, and only we have the Q-tips to clean out our ears and listen! And thus I write.

Dead by Morning

It started with flapping, hiding, and a high-pitched holler.

“Shit fire, it’s a bat!” Sara screamed as her steps scraped against grayed porch planks and she took cover behind me.

Flailing against the pine crossbeams was a bug as big as the little brown myotis bats that cut flips through the sky each night when the stars shone, but I knew differently.

“It’s a Polyphemus moth,” I said.

“A what?”

“It’s a moth.”

“I’m going inside.”

Sara ducked and dodged as the moth bounced in Us against the ceiling and tried to find sky. The screen door slapped shut, the oak door slammed, and Sara was inside peering through the window when the moth finally settled underneath the porch light.

I walked over and gently spread the wings of the moth against the cabin to try and see the “eyes” the moth was named for. Beneath the forewings on each hind was a giant eye outlined in black as dark as mascara, with fading gray eyelids, and giant yellow sclerae (normally the whites of the eyes). The image warranted the name: Polyphemus being the giant Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey, the Cyclops that kills and eats six of Odysseus’s men before the Greek’s blinded the monster and escaped on the undersides of sheep. But I wouldn’t tell Sara about Polyphemus, “rapping them on the ground, [and] knock[ing] them dead like pups.”

In reality those eyespots were a beautiful adaptation, one meant to deceive predators into thinking they were looking into the face of an owl, but being a Lit nut, I fancied the Homer allusion more than the evolutional path.

I tried to nudge the moth onto my hand, careful not to rub off any of the colorful scales on the wings, but as the moth’s legs first tickled my fingertips, wings flapped, the moth flew, and this time found air. I watched the giant silhouetted by moonlight for an instant before it disappeared into the forest. I wouldn’t see it again.

***

In Appalachia, we’re lucky enough to have four giant moth species that occasionally wander onto back porch walls: Polyphemus moths (Antheraea polyphemus), luna moths (Actias luna), regal moths (Citheronia regalis), and imperial moths (Eacles imperialis).

Most folks are familiar with the Polyphemus and the luna (lime-green wings rimmed in purple, hindwings tailing into a spiral). The giant moths fly to the glow of fluorescent bulbs, land on the outsides of houses, and are often found near death, barely able to flutter or even crawl, come morning.

The adult moths die shortly after breeding or laying eggs. Perpetuation is the only goal in life, and just as with sunsets and early morning fog, beauty evaporates in an instant. As with most insects, life is short-lived: born to breed, dead by morning.

Such was the case with a luna moth I found beneath the Sterling one morning at the firehouse. The moth had flown in the night before, drawn by lonely lights in darkness, and had landed under the fire truck when its wings could no longer bear its weight.

The moth could barely move its legs or shift its wings when I scooped it into my hand. There was no sense in laying the bug on a limb to wait for sunset. The moth had no use for trees anymore.

But something so magnificent had no business dying beneath tires. I carried the moth into field grass and rested it on the roots of a blooming dogwood, the tips of the tree’s flowers that same shade of purple lining the luna’s wings. It wouldn’t be long now. Soon, death would come.

***

The night after the Polyphemus moth flew from my fingers, I was surprised when I saw a giant triangular outline on the window screen to the porch. I knew it wasn’t the Polyphemus again (the shape a sure sign of another species), but it was a giant nonetheless.

On the porch I found a regal moth, one of the rarest of the four giant moth species, resting against the screen. The regal’s caterpillar stage, also called the hickory-horned devil, is known for eating the leaves of hickories and walnuts, so I knew it had probably flown from the black walnut tree at the edge of the property. Unlike most moths, the regal has no cocoon stage; pupae burrow in the ground and emerge, horned as Beelzebub.

The largest moth species north of Mexico, the regal donned enormous wings veined in crimson, lined with bluish-gray bars, and dotted with dun-colored spots. It was my favorite of the four giants, and all I could do was marvel.

Knowing that adult regal moths have vestigal mouths, incapable of consuming food, and usually die within a week of adulthood, I understood that it was nearing the end. I didn’t want to touch it. I wanted it to pass peacefully amidst the sounds of meadow katydids, to fall in that final hour just as dawn broke the horizon, so I left it there. Come morning, I would place it in the leaves.

Yet, with fog holding tight to the forest floor, dew beading grass blades, and the morning sun glowing yellow behind the pines, I couldn’t find the moth on the porch. I checked around the cabin, looked beneath the porch planks, and found nothing.

I was glad that it had flown, that the gorgeous moth was on the wing, that its beauty would grace the bows of trees scattering the mountainside for at least another day.

Still, there was a beauty in knowing that it wouldn’t last. There’s something spectacular in things that are gone in an instant, and I smiled, knowing that I had been privileged enough to be there when it passed.

I can still remember lying lengthwise on an old ratty couch, woven wool fringed and stained, in my parents’ living room when I was a kid and listening to Robin Leach describe, in some British jumble of syllables, the extravagant lives of movie stars.

As the English host detailed 10,000-square-foot homes, indoor swimming pools, helicopter pads, and private islands, I’d fantasize about the day I’d make it big (as an Atlanta Braves pitcher no doubt). I was sure of it at the time, that one day they’d have me, Sir David Allen Joy, as the headliner for “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Truth told, some 20 years later, not a whole lot’s changed in terms of the way I’m living. There’s still a cast iron skillet on the stove, a mason jar of bacon fat in the fridge, and when I’m lucky enough to have a fried bologna sandwich and some red Kool-Aid, I consider myself in high cotton. But what has changed is that those wishes of billion-dollar bank accounts just don’t seem so appealing anymore. Sure I’d like to have financial security, but the bottom line is that a man like me just ain’t cut out for high society and that whole idea of “financial security” is as big a fallacy as the American Dream.

This whole idea came about a few weeks ago when I was talking with a local business owner about the down-turned economy, and eventually the conversation turned to talks about potential collapse and what-if scenarios of some global economic meltdown: when banks fail, money’s gone, jobs are meaningless, and all that’s left is basic survival. At the end of our conversation, the man said, “Well, I guess you’ll be all right. At least you know how to fish.”

I think I quoted some Hank Williams Jr. song on my way out the door, something along the lines of, “A country boy can survive,” but ultimately that whole conversation got me thinking of where I come from and what my roots enable me to do.

Two generations back my family farmed cotton. I grew up on stories of flour sack clothes, hunting squirrels for dumplings, and growing vegetables year round. Those tales were usually chewed over cold cornbread and a glass of milk, but looking back now the most nourishing parts from those early morning meetings in my Granny’s kitchen are the work ethic she instilled and the belief that a man can and should live off of the land as much as possible.

Though I’m not nearly as self-sufficient as I should be, I try to do everything I can for myself in my own backyard. Last week I built myself a gun rack out of rhododendron, because I needed myself a gun rack. I canned dilly beans till the vines were empty because come this winter those beans won’t be dangling off the poles.

I know folks around here with enough canned meat (bear, deer, hogs) to last them years. I even know someone who told me they could tell if it’s going to rain by watching the fat rise and fall in the jar. There are hunters on the plateau that could shoot a flea off of a tick at 100 yards, folks who could catch a stringer of fish in an afternoon, and plenty of people with enough collards and kale to last till spring.

I had an old timer from Tuckasegee tell me one time that when he was little his daddy would make him catch salamanders, what he called spring lizards, from the creek to sell to fishermen for a nickel a piece. That same man told me that when he’d come down with the crud his mother would feed him groundhog grease as medicine. His father would shoot a groundhog, his mother would render the fat, and he’d have to eat it. When I asked if it worked his only response was, “Yeah, it worked. But you stunk to high heaven for a week.”

What emerges from stories like that is the self-sufficiency that has allowed generations to survive with little to nothing. Ultimately, poverty seems to serve as a catalyst for survival. I don’t worry so much about America’s debt ceiling, Wall Street ripping at the threads, or the rise and fall of foreign bond rates because I don’t have any money to begin with. Never have and never will.

What I do have is a nice Henry rifle, a room full of fishing rods, a garden lapping over with beans and collards, and an attitude that no matter what the day may bring, I’ll be all right.

The Dow dropped 634.76 points, its sixth-largest point loss, last Monday, August 8, but I never even thought about it. In all honesty, I’m not even entirely sure what in the world “the Dow” is. I do know that there’re a whole lot of dandelion greens growing out behind the Chronicle office and some pokeweed in the woods. So if the Dow drops again today, I might just have me some poke salad.

There’s a certain safety in simplicity. Though Robin Leach still isn’t knocking on my door, I’ll be all right because I always have been. Money comes and goes, stock rises and falls, businesses start and go bankrupt, but for someone like me, with a little hard work and dirt under the fingernails, money turns out to not be of much necessity anyways.

Until next time, moonshine wishes and livermush dreams!

(This is a column written for the Crossroads Chronicle.)