Friday, January 8, 2010

Avatar - The Word for World is Forest...


“The important thing is not the finding, it is the seeking, it is the devotion with which one spins the wheel of prayer and scripture, discovering the truth little by little. If this machine gave you the truth immediately, you would not recognize it,”

- Ursula K. LeGuin

When I was a young man I was stationed in Thailand in 1973, serving with the Air Force. I lived in the small town of Takhli, north and a bit east of Bangkok. I arrived in March of '73, not knowing quite what I was getting into. I was a GI. I went where I was told and pretty much did what I was told.

I worked as a photo lab technician, running film processors, printers and doing copy work of the images produced by the F-111 pilots flying missions over Cambodia. We worked 6 days a week, 12 hour shifts - and there wasn't a lot of down time. When there was time off it was spent sleeping, maybe going to town for a Chinese movie (Bruce Lee!) or if Sunday was the day off we could go to the Takhli Gardens (Tahkli Ga-den) where local bands played rock and roll (sometimes good, usually mediocre to bad) and dance, drink and hang out.

In December of '73 we stopped bombing Cambodia. Suddenly my work went from 6 days on to 2 days on and 5 off. I went native. I rented a small bungalow in town for $25 a month (I think I was making about $200/mo) and spent my time reading, going to Bangkok or taking the bus east into the hills and visiting monasteries, or going to the ruins in Ayutthaya or hiking out into the local rice paddies with my camera and a few of the local dogs (snake alarms).

I spent a great deal of time laying in my front porch hammock, eating and sleeping while I was reading. Just out front of my complex was a kwiteau (Thai noodle soup) stand run by a woman by the name of Nit. Nit made the best kwiteau... I'd eat at least 2 bowls, maybe 3 and I had to be her best customer. I could send one of the little kids down with some money, give them a baht and Nit would bring my soup plus the spices in their little jars, fish sauce and a soda (orange spot!). The traditional kwiteau comes with luk chins, little pork meatballs. The slang for kwiteau with luk chin was monkey ball soup. Made with flat noodles, bean sprouts, green onions and shredded bamboo shoot - and of course monkey balls- it's ubiquitous and pretty standard street fare. And I love it.

But I digress... (again)(still, always)(I think I think and talk with a lot of digressions too...)

Anyone with a television couldn't miss the previews for the new Sci-fi flick Avatar. I went and saw it today with my kids. Wow. Don't miss it if you have a love for good movies.

Before the release of the movie the previews I saw made me think of Ursula K. Le Guin's wonderful classic novella, The Word for World is Forest.

I read the story (a Hugo Award winner) in a copy of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, a wonderful and challenging collection of science fiction and speculative fiction. Ellison is a master and his Dangerous Visions collections were great introductions for me to many authors of the genre. More importantly were the ideas entering my head. Politics, environmentalism, religion, spirituality, science, love, hate...

But Le Guin's story was a standout. It struck a note in me I had never heard. Well, at least didn't recognize...

Life is sacred... it is what is. I mean physics tells us that none of this... this whatever is around each of us, our space, our home, our environment... none of it exists. There is no matter, there is electricity and lots of space - what Michio Kaku calls the cosmic foam (or Custard as some I know prefer to call it) - that seperates molecules in their spinning and whirling dervish existence. But, here we are, tapping on keys on our qwertys, making sense or not. Life is all around us and I'll be damned if it ain't, 'cause it is. And I think we treat our home like shit. And that is the message of Le Guin's tale and of Avatar, the movie.

"We don't get it."

And we are the poorer for that. A disconnect like we have manufactured for ourselves away from the natural world is a dangerous thing. Especially if, as a culture, we are incredibly immature.

In reading reviews today I was looking for others who saw the Le Guin connection. And there are plenty. But there are other influences as well. Avatar is the epic tale, the iconic hero story, with a happy and good ending. If you were cheering for the tall blue folks and their big trees, of course.

That immaturity I speak of? It's plain and simple. We're spoiled. We have too much. We don't share and we don't play well with others much anymore. To those who would say "of course we care you hippie moron!" I can only say that in a world where 30,000 people die each day not from old age but from starvation and malnutrition, we obviously don't care. At least not enough as far as those 30,000 people go.

In Avatar we cheer for the natives and dislike the human invaders. We go against our own.

But not really. What we do by cheering the natives in Avatar is acknowledge humanity's indigenous roots. We have been humanoid for a long time. Like... a realllly long time. We've been civilized (and I truly do use the term loosely) for just a blink of time in our long existence as humanoids.

I've never really understood this arrogance we display... like this... this stuff we have, makes us any different than the us we were when we slept in caves and huts. And that's a scary thought. Not that we're like our native selves but that may have been like we are. Yuck...

Personally, I think we're devolving. I think we used to care more, before we discovered stuff. I believe we once loved sunsets more than mirrors, that we knew and respected the beauty, bounty and power of the natural world.

My images of nature are just that for me. For me trying to capture the raw, eternal beauty of this earth, our sole sustenance, is a duty. I remember well the day I stood for the first time in a crowd and spoke on bealf of the wild. I haven't turned back.

I will be reducing the prices on my prints from RedBubble in the next week or so. I'll post a new blog when I do.


“To be matter of fact about the world is to blunder into fantasy -- and dull fantasy at that, as the real world is strange and wonderful.”

- Robert A. Heinlein



Jessica said...

WOW! I love your blog. I too was inspired by Avatar. I have been an environmentalist "hippie" for several years, and I'm glad to see that others aren't afraid to care as well. I was telling my spouse yesterday after the movie of my thoughts on the Garden of Eden, that Adam and Eve were promised paradise as long as they took care of it.....obviously we have not. Not even close. I was struck by his response to my comment too. He said "Could you imagine that before the humans got to Pandora, the entire planet was forest like that?" I almost didn't know what to say except....the Earth used to be an entire forest too, and now they are calling the Amazon Basin a ONCE tropical rain forest. It has been destroyed. Sorry to go on like this, but I will be reading "The Word for World is Forest" thanks to your blog, and perhaps I will start my own! Thank You

Allan Erickson said...

Hi Jessica. Thanks for visiting my humble little corner of the wwweb. Of course there are other books tied into Avatar but LeGuin's is the closest and most noticed - I did a search on the subject and hands down, it's LeGuin.

And yes, blog! Even if for family and friends and yourself. If you write (obviously from your comment you have the skills) or take photos (or any other art) do it. I like Google's blogspot. Nice templates, the ability to modify if you know html, plus you're automatically tied into Google.

Let me know if you start one!

Writers Rap said...

Glad to find you. Been in Coos Bay for 4 months now and though the "world" about it is wonderfully exquisite I am finding it tough to find "thinkers and intelligent artisans". So was glad when I somehow landed on your blog.
RE: Blog on Haiti. Just wanna say, I think it would be interesting to be in a foreign country and hear how they discuss and respond to such an event. I have had the fortune(???) to become much closer to real poverty and at 61 (and an old hippy) have gained a real sense of the American mentality re: materialism and poverty/suffering. Its not a pretty picture. Been very enlightening, but dont wish it on anyone.
Between this new found awareness and my recent past experience in trying to develope an advocacy for post incarcerated youth who came from violence and neglect in the home I have learned that (in response to your question about humanity's consciousness of the suffering of others), action is much more enabled if done in a "socially" structured manner. Having movie stars, big names and money talking about the misery of Haiti, is what is promoting real help. Last night I counted 10 tv stations showing the Haiti telethon (calls received by big name movie stars). Suffering kitties and puppies get alot of atttention via movie stars pleas, etc.
At least in America, I believe that we are so wrapped up in our world of conveniences, we really can't grasp the real sufferings of others and would just as soon change the channel. The closer to home the pain is the more we dodge it. I believe this is a combination of both the human animal and our culture that has no c lue about harsh realities. We are an incredibly materialistic society that often sells its soul for lifes little pleasures.

I, like you, get started and sometimes find it difficult to stop so I will end it here

Looking forward to hearing more from you.

PS wanna check my new blog; "writers rap" on this site?

Elizabeth Rose said...

I have started my blog! It's nothing special yet, but it will be =) You can find me here

Anonymous said...

On seeing the Avatar advertising I thought of both the Le Guin novel and Larry Niven's The Integral Trees, 1985 Hugo award winner. Niven's book is a story of strange floating trees in a free fall biosphere, tribal warfare, and the discovery of origins. It's a great read. The wikipedia entry is a good summary.

Anonymous said...


A very thoughtful and well written review, thanks for sharing. You know, I also read LeGuin's story many years agao, it was when I was a teenager. It is also one of the few stories that really burned itself into my memory; very poignant, very relevant, intriguing & somehow familiar. And when I started watching Avatar I also immediately thought back to that story. Would be a very good story I think for assigned reading of every young person, i.e. at school. I will continue to recommend it to others.

Another similarly memorable tale is John Wyndham's "The Kreaken Wakes". I never read it when I was young, but did so just a couple years ago. Apart from the cause of the melting (that's all I'll say about content so as not to spoil it for those who haven't read it yet) ... how eerily familiar is the scenario Wyndham presents, when we consider the advance of climate change. If anyone has trouble imagining in concrete terms what consequences a suddenly warmer world would bring, this novel paints such a clear picture.