The Joy of Weeding

rainbow panorama

There was a really annoying feature in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, headlined “Backyard to the Future,” about the author’s joy in bathing his backyard with wifi and layering it with networked gadgets—riding mowers with streaming television, surround speakers, yard work robots, and of course the “smart grill.” The image that illustrated the story showed an entire neighborhood of 8-bit sims experiencing the outdoors through a digital frame. It reminded me of the ad campaign the National Park Service did a few years back that used cartoon computer animals to try to encourage kids to check out the parks.

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The American lawn is the enemy of nature, and reprogramming our obsession with it is maybe the easiest possible way we could begin bringing back the American wild—in part by reframing the way we each experience our daily relationship with nature, from holding it at bay to letting it thrive.

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I spent my youth, and a decent chunk of my adulthood, as a servant of the American lawn—that emerald expanse of invasive ornamental turf cut to the length of Dobie Gillis’s hair, an idea we acquired from our earlier Americans who wanted to emulate the pretentious gardens of European nobility (without remembering that what the nobles really loved were their private primeval forests). I paid for my first illegally procured six-packs with money from mowing lawns, as a young slacker drafted into the war against grass ever being allowed to grow tall enough to actually propagate seeds. This job also involved pulling weeds, which in the case of my Midwestern boyhood were probably the remaining native plants trying to survive the ecopocalypse of the tilling of the plains. And in my first houses in Texas as a young dad myself, I kept mowing, and raking leaves—even complying with the ridiculous mandate to put the leaves in big brown bags for municipal haul-off.

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It’s now been ten years since I mowed a lawn. When we moved here to the house we built at the edge of the urban woods, behind some factories, we let the yard go wild. Not quite as laissez-faire as that sounds. The lot was a brownfield and a dump site. It was bisected by a petroleum transmission pipeline that had been abandoned in place fifteen years earlier, and littered with massive quantities of construction debris—piles of concrete and rebar dumped at what used to be the edge of town. It was already wild and unmowed, but mostly conquered by invasive grasses. So after we got the oil company to take its pipeline out, and a built a little house in the trench from that excavation, we put a green roof on the house and reseeded the yard with the plants of the Blackland prairie—the native grassland that once ran in a wide band from north of Dallas to north of San Antonio, 99% of which has been destroyed by agriculture and development. And words cannot really express how immediately this undertaking filled our world up with new life.

Fuck backyard wifi.

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Maybe it’s not for everyone. There are a lot of snakes. As in, coral snakes at the door when you come home from the movies. A big green snake wrapped around the mesquite tree by the path from the car. Occasional biblical infestations of millipedes. Enough mammalian wildlife for the dogs to regularly show up for breakfast with blood on their snouts (sorry, nature). Once in a while a hawk will chase its prey right into the living room window, because it doesn’t even recognize the house—the roof of which looks like a wild field—as a human habitat. Our yard is full of life. Real life, life that is indigenous to this place, mostly, as we actively cultivate an ever-increasing biodiversity in our own backyard. A spring filled with butterflies, baby birds, a menagerie of weird bugs. A human dwelling where wild nature is invited to grow right up to the door, and does.

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This approach to the outdoor garden involves a lot less work than a conventional lawn. There is no mowing. Once in a while I might break out the personal flamethrower and burn a patch. But mostly, come spring, we have to do a brief but intense season of weeding. Because the invasive species are all around us, destructive imports just like us, their seeds on the wind and the bottoms of our shoes and the tires of our cars, and maintaining a healthy balance a mere decade into our effort at developing a self-sustaining successional prairie restoration takes some active intervention. The weeds come in early, before winter is over—the cheat grasses that grow in big clumps, crowding out the native flowers; the beggars lice and mutant dandelions and imitation winecup that, if allowed to propagate, will fill the yard with burrs and thistles and extinguish most of the habitat.

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Weeding is an outdoor activity that gets little respect. As a kid, it is pretty much the most sucky thing you can be ordered to spend your Saturday doing. As an adult, it is generally framed as the most demeaning of labors. Real landscapers wield chainsaws, axes, or sharp clippers. They move dirt, and train trees. They don’t get down on their knees and pull baby plants from the earth for long hours under the hot sun.

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I do, and I love it. Maybe I love it because of the rewards it brings. Because of the way it gets me out there, free from active thought under the blue spring sky. It’s close-up work that lets you get a much deeper understanding of the ecology of your yard, of what’s really going on, how the species interact, compete, cooperate, kind of like the way detailing your car or taking it apart and putting it back together is the only way you will understand what it really is. It is a Sisyphean task, one that will never really be finished. But when you do it, and see the results of letting the species that belong here come back, you understand that it’s the path to a healthy future, more so than any quant-driven efforts to reengineer the house’s patterns of consumption. Wild landscaping generates energy, rather than consuming it. You only need to apply a little labor.

At least around here, more and more people are trying to do similar projects. I hope it spreads. It’s one way to begin to remedy the problem that we are the principal invasive species.  

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RULE OF CAPTURE cover reveal

RuleOfCapture PB hi-res final

I am delighted to share this cover reveal for my new novel Rule of Capture, forthcoming from Harper this summer. Please click through to the Harper Voyager blog for a guest post in which I get to share my more detailed thoughts about the cover, explain why it suits the story so well, and tell a bit more about the story and what we mean when we call it a “dystopian legal thriller.” And if it sounds interesting to you, please consider pre-ordering the book, which will be available in print, e-book and audio formats.

Cover Reveal: RULE OF CAPTURE by Christopher Brown

 

Тропик Канзаса

ToK Russian back cover  ToK Russian cover higher res

Loving this cover (and back cover) for the Russian translation of Tropic of Kansas, forthcoming in April from Fanzon / Eksmo. It really nails the atmosphere of the book. Details (and excerpt) at the link (quality translations welcome—though I love the way the bot translates one passage in the creative copy as “fake smiles are broken in teeth,” and translates the character name Sig to “Whitefish”—then makes an allusive play on catching fish).

Тропик Канзаса

 

2018 Reading

wiener martial law

I’ve been keeping a low profile online lately as I finish revisions on my forthcoming novel RULE OF CAPTURE, but I was able to share some of my 2018 reading over at the Aqueduct Press blog, including some of the weird research I have been doing for the new book—like the curious little handbook pictured above. Thanks to Timmi Duchamp and the folks at Aqueduct for having me back again.

TROPIC OF KANSAS e-book a Kindle monthly deal

This week brought the news that Tropic of Kansas is a Kindle Monthly Deal from now through November 5—$2.99 for the e-book. Thanks to all of the folks who have already checked it out.

This week’s memory feed also served a reminder of one of my favorite squibs on the book, from one year ago in Booklist:

Booklist on ToK 9-27-17

A nice boost as I crank on what’s next.

Recent and upcoming appearances

The fine folks at Malvern Books have posted this video of my recent reading at the store of a very short excerpt from my forthcoming novel RULE OF CAPTURE, currently slated for publication by Harper Voyager in 2019. Thanks to Malvern for hosting the group event of which this was a part. Also up at the Malvern YouTube page are the readings from my fellow Austin writers Patrice Sarath, who put the event together, Jessica Reisman, Stina Leicht, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Amanda Downum, and Robert Ashcroft.

This weekend I will be at Worldcon in San Jose, with a couple of panels and an autographing. Hope to see some of you there.

CB Worldcon 2018 programming

 

Book birthday

Preorder Tropic of Kansas from Amazon

Today is the one-year anniversary of my novel Tropic of Kansas. I have been very fortunate in the reception the book has had, and am deeply appreciative of the support of readers, reviewers, colleagues, and the team at Harper who made it possible. The book’s recognition last month as a finalist for the 2018 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel was the culmination of an amazing year.

If you read the sampling of what folks have said about the book, you’ll find many crediting the author’s prescience, or remarking on the way the book seems ripped from the headlines. The truth is that I worked hard to set the book in a very different version of reality from the one we live in. It was essential to do that, I thought, to take the book where I wanted it to go. I wanted to imagine an America facing the kind of revolutionary unrest I saw people enduring in other parts of the world when I began writing the book in 2012, often as the consequence of our own actions. At the same time, I tried to ground it in realism—a speculative realism that puts a fun house mirror up to the world. So I focused on the parts of America I see out there that we have allowed to degenerate into what we used to call third world, threw in ideas like CEO presidents, corporate mercenaries, flying killer robots, ecological exhaustion, direct democracy, network politics, insurrection, and the possibility of Anthropocene renewal, and played with the mixing board. That my dystopian experiment resulted in a book whose scenes echo in the daily train wreck that is our newsfeed just proves the well-established truism of the Gomi-no-Sensei.

 

 

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Tropic of Kansas is a dark book, as many remarked. It went to dark places in an effort to find its way to a more hopeful future. It didn’t get all the way to utopia, but you could see it from there, out there on the horizon. Tropic of Kansas did well enough that I get to write two more novels that explore similar territory, through the point of view of a lawyer in an America that is experiencing the end of the rule of law— “Better Call Saul meets Nineteen Eighty-Four.” I’m about to turn the first of those books in, which has been a lot of fun to work on. Part of the aspiration, in addition to telling an entertaining story, is to frame a window onto the possibility of American renewal, grounded in green thinking and emancipatory politics. I like to think that science fiction has a role to play in imagining better real tomorrows, especially if it works hard to tell the truth, and that if we do our jobs well we might even fashion a means to actually open a crack in that window.

I appreciate the opportunity, and the support of all of those who have given my work a shot.

TROPIC OF KANSAS a Campbell Award finalist

Campbell finalists 2018

I was honored to see Tropic of Kansas among the finalists for the 2018 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel of the year, especially among such remarkable company. Congratulations to all the nominees, who include many friends and colleagues, and particular congratulations to the winner announced at last Friday’s ceremony, David Walton.

KGB Fantastic Fiction—photos and audio

KGB by Kressel 12-20-17

Matt Kressel shared this great photo he took of me reading at KGB Fantastic Fiction in New York last month, together with the amazing N. K. Jemisin. We had an awesome turnout of folks on a cold night, and both ended up reading stories of revolution and resistance in a bar full of relics of the Russian revolution. Thanks to Matt and co-host Ellen Datlow and Matthew Kressel, to Nora for sharing the podium, and to everyone who joined us in the audience (including some of my New York friends and family).

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Here’s a photo I took of Matt and Ellen, with Henry Wessells just behind Matthew to the left.

Ellen’s photos from the night are now up at her Flickr, including this nice shot of me with my cousin the dancer and choreographer Katiti King.

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And Matt just posted audio of my reading, from the opening of Tropic of Kansas. Thanks to Gordon Linzner for the great recording. It is also available through the KGB podcast at your preferred provider.

Lastly, a very nice photo Ellen took of me and my newly NYC-based son, Hugo Nakashima-Brown.

hugo and chris kgb 12-20-17