Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Jeb Loy Nichols, “Talking to Hedgerows about Money” (non-fiction) from  Caught by the River 1/13/22

I lived in London, I lived in New York. I moved here to not be there. I came here so I could make a certain kind of art and music, so I could write a certain kind of book. If I lived there I would write about there and there’s too much written about there already. I didn’t want to be rich or successful or fulfilled or content or admired or loved. I wanted to be here….
So now I write books and make prints and release records. I have an affection for a great many things. It’s not good or bad, it’s not noble or corrupt. It is what it is; a life.

Leb Joy Nichols, website

In my intro to this series of posts on Pushcart 2023 material, I said, “I’m still a bit reluctant, and I feel like it’s going to show.” Here’s where it starts showing. I apologize in advance to Jeb Loy Nichols; he seems like a decent guy, and I agree, at least in general principle, with much of what he says. But this piece is a big reason I was reluctant to continue with this project in the first place.

Nichols starts out with a Yup’ik legend explaining how people came to be: they were a mistake.

After thousands of years of peaceful life, the first man was born from out of a pea pod. A raven appeared, raised its wings and said, where have you come from? The man pointed at the pea pod. The raven said, I made that plant and all the others and I’ve never seen anything like you. The man stood up and said, what am I? The raven, who knew well all the makings of the land, said, a mistake, a malignancy, a sickness. The man said, perhaps I am, but nonetheless I’m here. The raven said, you’re my mistake so I shall deal with you. And with that he ate the man, as he often ate slugs or caterpillars. He flew away and the next day had a terrible stomach ache. In the night he died. The next morning his belly split open and out walked the man. He returned to the pea patch where he waited a thousand years for another human to appear. This time it was a woman and together they went forth into the world. From that day to this they have blundered across the land, unable to not be the thing they are, a creeping sickness.

Then he tears into Bruce Springsteen for having too much money – 500 million, in fact, for having sold is catalog of songs. I’m the first to agree that entertainers, sports players, and CEOs earn way, way too much and teachers, nurses, and child care workers earn way, way too little – but, hey, what did Springsteen ever do to you? To be fair, I think the reason Springsteen was chosen was the irony of the whole working-class hero image which Lennon already expressed beautifully. Such irony is supposed to shock us into reconsidering that even those we may approve of – those who were part of our adolescence, our lives, maybe those we looked at as heroes – are also part of the problem.

Eventually he gets around to the more familiar billionaires, particularly the ones who want to commercialize the rest of the solar system. From there, it’s your basic eat-the-rich anticapitalistic rant.

Now, I’m always up for a good eat-the-rich rant, some anti-capitalist rhetoric. But I’d like it to be something unique, something with literary quality or an interesting structure or evocative imagery. I don’t deny that I often miss such things, but I didn’t see anything like that here. In fact, it seemed a bit wide-ranging and overwrought, and somewhat lacking in logical progression.

If people per se are evil, then the writer is also evil. No? So maybe the problem is, the evil people are more powerful than the good, purely by benefit of the fruits of their evil? Or that we’re so willing to shell out insane ticket prices for concerts and orbital space rides? If they lower ticket prices, do you really think Springsteen will get paid less? No, it’ll be the people who clean the stadium, or take the tickets, or print the programs. I haven’t been to a concert in decades, are there still programs?

As for our destruction, I’ve always wanted to get it out there that we aren’t destroying the planet – it’s been here 4.5 billion years and isn’t going anywhere soon – but the ecosystems, and with it, potentially, civilization, which is a fragile thing in this interdependent world. If we destroy ourselves – or allow the Musks and Bransons of this world to destroy us – maybe we deserve it, maybe something better will emerge. One of the few things I remember from my undergraduate days was an anthropology professor declaring, “All life depends on death.”  After all, we emerged from the failure of non-avian dinosaurs to adapt, and they emerged from some other failure. In fact, most life on the planet today emerged from The Great Oxygenation Event that destroyed what was here before and paved the way for… us, eventually. If we don’t learn from that, maybe the next species to evolve will. That sounds pretty hopeless, as though I’ve given up on the human race. Some days, I have.

I can’t disagree with much of what Nichols says. I’d love it if wealth were more evenly distributed, and I vote for those more likely to agree with us both. I can’t say it’s done much good. But I’m with him. Thing is: there are people in the world, in the US, in my state, who would see my standard of living, most likely Nichols’ as well, as outrageously profligate. Who’s rich depends on who you ask.

There was one place where I reacted quite negatively:

I have a friend who doesn’t want to take the vaccine. It is, she says, a pharmaceutical answer to a profoundly non-pharmaceutical question. No one ever addresses the root causes. Frantic global consumerism and exploitation of animals, desperate greed, the swirling cocktail of chemicals and pharmaceuticals and military paranoia, it all goes on and on. Just as the new virus and its army of mutations will go on and on as well. When they develop a vaccine against greed and capitalism and nationalism and growth, she says, I’ll take that. Oh, wait, she says, they already have. It’s called Having Less.

Granted, Nichols doesn’t say he agrees with this person’s point of view, he just uses it as an example of the level of frustration with the status quo. But I’m not sure why anyone thinks that the unvaccinated poor dying of COVID will help matters. Of course, I have my own bias here: after having avoided infection for almost three years, I’m currently recuperating from the illness, which has affected me to a lesser degree because of the vaccinations I got as soon as they were available. Would my protracted hospitalization or death really have convinced any capitalist anywhere to behave with more concern for the community?

I feel real guilt lighting into a singer-songwriter with folk/blues/country sensibilities, my type of music. Is it because I’m unfamiliar with his music? I ask myself: if John Prine had written this, would I have liked it more? No, I don’t think so. But it doesn’t feel like punching up, like when I edit Karen Russell or complain about Wells Tower’s approach to science fiction. It is punching up (he is, I gather, quite successful as a musician, writer, and in other artistic pursuits), but not up enough to make it morally comfortable. I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of the Christopher Guest film A Mighty Wind satirizing folk singers: “But the edge is missing from Guest’s usual style. Maybe it’s because his targets are, after all, so harmless.” Nichols isn’t harmless; instead, he’s harmful against the right things, in the spirit of Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” guitar, and why am I complaining about that? But… I just don’t think this is a good piece, a Pushcart-level piece. Compare it to last year’s “Gutted” or “My First Blood” – a piece that also addressed, in part, how greed is killing us. Maybe the idea is to include alternative voices. If so, fine, but this voice is a miss for me.

At some point I have to decide if I’m going to say what I think, or make some bland comment that can’t be held against me. One advantage of internet obscurity is that only one or two people – people who, like me, don’t really matter in the Blogosphere – will read this. That obscurity gives me some cover, some license, and I’m taking it this time.

* * *      

  • Nichols’ essay can be read online at Caught by the River.
  • Cathryn Klusmeier’s outstanding essay “Gutted” can be read online at Agni.
  • Rebecca Cadenhead’s equally outstanding piece “My First Blood” can be read online at Harvard Advocate.

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