Tuesday, August 17, 2010

falling through the cracks

There's a bit in the film The Emerald Forest that refers to 'The Termite People.' They're the evil city folks ripping down trees in the Amazon, clearing the forest for development and for the construction of a hydro-electric damn (sic). Folks not-of-the-Amazonian-body. They eat the forest and spit it out... Termite People.

It is, of course, a very crude notion of termites. Insulting even. Think of what termites can do — what termites can build! If we really followed the teachings of termites, we wouldn't even need hydro-electric dams.

All of this came to me a couple days ago when I quite literally fell through the cracks on my deck, all the way through, and was hanging there by my elbows climbing back up from the soft snapped redwood plank I'd stepped right through. Termites! Shit. And yet, you've got to respect them. If you listen to James Lovelock, termites are some of the most productive beings on this planet and critical to the regulation of Earth's temperature within tolerable limits. Together, they regulate the concentration of oxygen in the air maintaining superb planetary homeostatic regulation. Well, that was Lovelock's first book, anyway. By the time he wrote The Revenge of Gaia, we'd disrupted the little critters to the brink of disaster. (Lovelock does have a solution, of course, but nobody wants to hear it).

This is what I thought about when I fell through the cracks.

But Lovelock's thoughts on termites pale in comparison to Scott Turner's work in Namibia. 'Cause it's Turner who's figured out the mechanisms by which termites manufacture their own (if not planetary) air conditioning.

Building on Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype, Turner demonstrates that the skin (so to speak) is not the boundary of our selves. It's not just that termites have a swarm intelligence that transcends the individual, no, it's more grand than that. It's that, according to Turner, the structures they produce are themselves extensions of the organism.

Architecture (at least for termites) is a living extension not only of swarm cognition and volition, but a living extension of every single individual as well. Turner says we should look at those magnificent termite skyscrapers not as structures but as process. They construct what are in effect wind-driven architectural lungs. Why can't we do that?


That's certainly the way I've thought of my own house as well. One giant art project, actually. In constant state of becoming. And (clearly) in constant state of repair. But I've always thought of it as my art project, and also as my house.

And in this, I have been mistaken.

Michael Pollan makes the point in The Botany of Desire. Only he speaks of bees, not termites. We are no different from the bees, he argues, in the way we serve plants. It's a form of co-evolution, in which we unwittingly do the bidding of plants at the same time that we think we're doing for ourselves. Pollan gives four examples of how we humans have been duped into serving the plants we think we domesticated. But no. They've got us so brainwashed, we just can't see it. My favorite example of Pollan's is the War on Drugs, which (he says) from the point of view of Cannabis has made the plant a) more valuable, b) more potent, and c) now cultivated with greater fervor and territorial distribution around the world than ever before. The best thing that ever happened to Cannabis, argues Pollan, is the War on Drugs.

But let me get back to my deck. My fall through the cracks made me look afresh at my own abode. Or what I thought was mine. To a lot of things I don't really want to think about.

First there were the raccoons and possums who thought the strawberries and tulip bulbs I planted in my yard were theirs. The dogs educated them in this regard, and they decided to hang out at my neighbor's instead.

Next there were the rats. And they wanted more than tunneling through the yard. They thought all that insulation in my walls were put there for the express purpose of providing them with cozy nesting facilities. They invaded the walls, and took up residence under the downstairs bathtub until I inhospitably tore the whole bathroom out (call it another art project) and evicted them. They've gone back to tunneling the yard, and building beautiful nests in the bougainvillea. Great view, surrounded by flowers. You've got to respect their architectural choices as well (as you give them notice). PS, the dogs and even the cat seem to be in league with the rats, deciding that they're not their department.

Oh, and spiders! I can't even begin to describe how happily the spiders spread their webs across the exterior walls of 'my' abode. Haven't researched them enough yet to find out what's really going on there.

But now my focus is on the termites. The termites have likely been here all along, (certainly longer than I've been in the house) with me doing absolutely nothing but build a deck for them to enjoy. And until a couple days ago, they were unobtrusive neighbors. But now it's war.

And I'm going to lose. I know that. I'm a realist. (And no, this post is not intended as a parable on the US in Afghanistan).

But I'm going into battle anyway. There's gonna be no compromise in this regard. And I do, I swear, respect their contributions in the production of volitional architecture and organismic air-conditioning. But I'm going to rationalize my all-out warfare on the basis of their methane production. Blame 'em for global warming and destruction of the rain forests. The Emerald Forest, after all, is just a movie. Termites are the real Termite People.

When I now look at my house, and the houses that surround mine, all I see is a vast invitation to all the participants in this little ecosystem of ours. Surely I shouldn't be so selfish about it. Or maybe I'm really petty, and harbor nothing more than revenge fantasies. I fell through the cracks. And more than my ego is bruised. Miraculously didn't break my neck or a leg or two. But I'm still out to get them. When I look closely, I see that despite all these years of paying the mortgage, they're the ones reaping the lion's share of benefits. But not anymore.

Pest Control comes on Thursday. Not to worry. They're eco-friendly, of course.

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