Planting beside the water


Behind my house the terrain runs in stripes: a stretch of grass, a narrow road, another stretch of grass, a canal, more grass up a slope, the elevated main road into our village, then the local business park. For some time, we and our neighbors have wanted trees between the narrow road and the canal to deaden the traffic noise and soften the view.

The first intimation that that desire had borne fruit (OK, leaves; they’re willows) was the note through our door. Below the drop-shadow title and the tree-and-tulip clip art, it announced that one of our local councilors would be by for a tree-planting at 9:00 in the morning on Saturday, March 15. “We’re asking for your help on the day. Bring a shovel and a wheelbarrow*. There will be journalists and photographers in attendance.”

The trees were delivered during the week and laid out at intervals on the grass. Pairs of waist-high support stakes appeared. The turf was cut and laid aside. I kept expecting to look over the back fence one day and see all but one symbolic tree in place, in preparation for whatever ceremony or photo-op Saturday would bring. When the tiny digger drove from tree site to tree site on Thursday afternoon, I was sure that was the time, but when it left things looked much the same: each tree on its side, two upright stakes, bare soil, piled sod.

We were out in the back garden on other business this morning when we saw some of the community walking toward the back road, shovels in hand. Reassured that we would not be the dorky foreigners who did the wrong thing, we grabbed our own shovels and joined them. The trees were still unplanted.

Because here’s the thing (and, Dutch readers, please bear with me while I talk this through). We weren’t there for a photo-op, or rather, not for the photo-op I thought we were there for. After some introductory chatting, the Guy Who Knew What He Was Doing took us over to a tree site, where a hole had been dug between the supporting stakes. He explained how best to measure the root balls, how deep the holes should be (and why, with details about how the roots would interact with the water table), how to roll the root ball into place, and why they’d chosen that particular manner of planting.

And then he sent us off, two by two, to go dig our holes and plant our trees.

He went from pair to pair and advised on depth and width, lending a hand to get trees into holes and showing people how to firm the earth around the trunks afterward. The local councilor was there, but he had dirt under his nails when he shook hands. We answered the reporter’s questions while tramping down loose dirt around a newly-planted willow.

When I lived in the Edinburgh, if trees were to be planted on public land near our houses, the council would send a couple of laconic workmen to do the deed. A local councilor might come for a photo-op to dedicate the already-planted willows, but whatever audience there was would not have brought shovels. When I lived in the SF Bay Area, I’d have expected about the same, but we would have brought shovels and stood around the trees for the photographs.† (And I am not denigrating either way of dong things! Different cultures do things in different ways. All three systems produce the two inextricable objectives of the exercise: trees and a picture of the councilor in the local paper just before an election.)

The inevitable jokes about saving money by making the locals do the work were made at the closing speech, when we were all thanked for our efforts. But that’s not what it’s about, of course, not when the soil had been pre-loosened by that digger. The point was much more primal: our trees, our planting. We earned those willows by doing not only the social work of politicking for them, but also the physical work of putting them into the ground. The two are linked, word and deed.

Now, I think of myself as a migrant; I’m in this place but not of it. I expect to be changed by the places I live, but I do not expect to change them. I don’t think I have the right, and I don’t want that responsibility, either.

And yet when I look out my back window now and see the spindly branches of the willow over the fence, I see that I have changed this place. A piece of me is planted here now, putting its roots into the soil I meant to only tread lightly upon. And that’s a very Dutch lesson, too, bluntly questioning my personal narrative of non-involvement. The reality of the engineered landscape (and pretty much everywhere we live is engineered, to one degree or another) is that how we live creates the physical world we live in. People and land are as interdependent as politics and work.

There is no footfall so light that it does not leave a print. The best we can do is choose where we walk, and how.

* The Dutch word for wheelbarrow is kruiwagen. The term comes from the verb kruien, which can mean to shovel things, turn a windmill toward the wind, or walk in the peculiar way one does with a wheelbarrow. In other words, it’s a name based on actions rather than appearances. This is, in a complicated way, neatly symmetrical.
† As the youngest rioter for People’s “everybody gets a blister” Park, I should point out that California does have its own tradition of plant-your-own-tree activism. But I should also point out that Ronald Reagan found that kind of activism threatening enough to fight it with tear gas and live ammunition.

Crossposted on Making Light. Comment wherever you like.

Posted in Things Dutch | 4 Comments

Peter Quince on the Polder

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music.

—Wallace Stevens, Peter Quince at the Claivier


skybranchThe longer I live in the Netherlands, the more I realize that autumn is my favorite time of year here.

This suprises no one more than me, since I have chronic Seasonal Affective Disorder, and we do get long, dragging stretches of grey weather that sap my energy terribly.  There is nothing so grim and oppressive as a dark Noord-Hollands day, when the low clouds press down on the land while the listless light robs everything of its color.

But then comes a day like today, when the clouds vanish and the sun comes out in the southern sky.  Then the oblique light turns the heavens into a vast and depthless bowl of blue and paints everything beneath them with pale gold. By now most of the trees are leafless or nearly so, and the elegant tracery of their bare branches underscores the simplicity of the sky they reach toward.  They confine and define the space above themselves, the way an intricate frame does an Old Master painting.


But although the trees are barren, they’re not drab. From a distance, single-species thickets become broad strokes of color along the horizon.  And when the reeds beside the canals die off and turn golden-brown, while the grass keeps its vivid green, those individual strokes of color combine into stripes.  The land looks almost painted, as though some great abstract artist had dragged a brush across the canvas of the countryside.

As much as the tiny silhouette of human civilisation on the horizon, these great lines, uniform from a distance but complex up close, emphasize and increase the feeling of horizontality all around.  It’s no coincidence that the Dutch word for countryside is platteland, flatland.  Language reflects the landscape it evolved in.

But the element of the polder that has me agog on days like this, more than trees, grass, or reeds, more even than the horizon and the sky above it, is the water.


This is water drunk on the blue of the sky, inebriated with color and depth.  It’s mad and bright and glorious, uninhibited by its own muddy bottom or the faint scum of algae that floats on its surface. It has transcended itself.

sloot1And it’s everywhere, because this is the polder, and the land is interlaced with sloten, the drainage ditches that keep the fields dry enough to walk on but wet enough not to shrink. Every single insignificant sloot is its own essay on the color blue, each one differently, improbably brilliant.

Days like this make me think of Vermeer. He painted light the way a lover paints it, the way the water in the landscape would paint it if water could do such a thing. And his blues reach for the color of the sky reflected in that water. One could lay out the headband of the Girl With The Pearl Earring alongside a field and mistake it for a canal.

But Vermeer’s best works weren’t paintings of vast landscapes. He was a master of tiny details and intimate scenes. And the polder is a landscape for that side of him as well. Notwithstanding its openness and clarity, this is also a place of secrets, of hidden treasures, when one looks closely enough.

A heron stands hunch-shouldered by the waterside, waiting for fish. The first dying leaves of the willow curl up like fingers clenching against the coming cold. Red berries grow in among the bare branches of an aspen, unignorably bright once you spot them. The grass preserves its morning dew, even at midday. Wet leaves disrupt the even patterns of holes on a bench.



In the almost impossibly beautiful sunlight of autumn, each of these things seems like a still life worthy of framing, a masterwork as absorbing and amazing as the great canvas of the landscape itself. And thus it is that what I feel, here in this land, observing it, thinking of its blue-shadowed water, is art.

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…For What We Will

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
— Luke 12:34, KJV

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.
— American labor movement slogan from the 1880’s

For Mother’s Day last spring, we went to an amusement park in Flevoland, which is the newest of the Dutch provinces. “New” in this case does not mean “recently incorporated” or “the product of the latest local government reorganization”. It means “newly built”. A century ago, the ground under our roller coasters and go-karts was covered in water. It was part of the Zuiderzee, a salty inlet of the North Sea that was mostly controlled by dykes, but still prone to occasional storm-floods.

Now it’s not only dry land, but beautiful land. Rows of poplars parallel the roads, mirroring long lines of windmills. The trees bend and the blades turn together in the wind, restless as the inland sea they have replaced. In the spring, the fields become long bright strips of tulips, let to bloom before their bulbs are harvested for sale. The only high points in the landscape are the dykes, without which, roadside signs remind us, this land would not exist. It’s a lightly populated place, with open country stretching between the neat and pleasant towns. The province is surrounded by lakes, which were all thick with pleasure boats that day, despite the late rain that kept the amusement park lines sparse.

This is all the product of a tremendous investment of work, money and energy, carried out on a generational timescale. It was built with the kind of expenditure that we don’t think we can make in these days of austerity and economic collapse.

But the bulk of the work of turning the Zuiderzee into the freshwater IJsselmeer and draining some of it to make Flevoland was done in the early Twentieth Century. That wasn’t a fat time in the Netherlands. Although Dutch neutrality preserved her young men from the killing fields of the First World War, no one in Europe was safe from the Depression. Then came World War 2, with the harsh and costly German occupation. And the Hunger Winter, which immediately followed liberation, was unspeakable. A few short years after that, the Watersnoodramp, the great flood of 1953, rendered 100,000 southern Dutch people homeless and soured a wide stretch of still-vital cropland.

Terrible times. And yet, in those terrible times, they chose to spend the extra resources to make the landscape a good place to live. And that was a choice rather than a coincidence, because everything about Flevoland was intensively planned, down to the ways that people would travel:

Contemporary trends had a major impact on the layout of Flevoland. The Northeast Polder is typified by farmland and by woodland on soil unsuitable for crops, and an urban centre in Emmeloord with a ring of ten satellite villages within cycling distance – cars were not a major factor in those days. By the time Eastern Flevoland fell dry, land use requirements had clearly changed. Farmland was still widely available, but outdoor recreational facilities and demand for residential areas and good road links now also jostled for space. There are now four urban centres in Eastern Flevoland, the provincial capital Lelystad, Dronten, Biddinghuizen and Swifterbant.

In Southern Flevoland the polder is no longer just an area of farmland. Together with greenbelt areas laid out for nature, recreation and agriculture, various urban centres make up the town of Almere, which currently has some 186,000 residents. The south-western corner of Flevoland has been designated as an overspill area for the country’s western metropoles. Zeewolde is located where woods and water meet – a fulcrum of outdoor recreation.
—from the English-language Provincie Flevoland website.

We came into the province through that southwest corner, driving by Almere. The city is Flevoland’s contribution to the Randstad, the great conurbation of the western Netherlands. But it also serves as the gateway to the rest of the province, and the land near it is given over as much to recreation and nature as to farming. Indeed, our trip was exactly what the last of Flevoland’s designers intended: a journey for pleasure from the populous Amsterdam area into more open countryside, where there is space for amenities such as an amusement park.

Coming that way, we also passed a herd of concrete elephants by the road, rounded, abstract, mute, and memorable. They’re a Flevoland landmark, something everyone photographs in passing—and no one seems to get a good shot of. We didn’t.


The elephants may be distinctive, but they are not unusual. They stand in a nation where the roadside sound baffles echo Escher and monuments to superheroes with briefcases lurk in business parks. Dutch public art is as pervasive as its water engineering, albeit much stranger. The quiet street where we first lived here is graced with a curving abstraction in blue metal, while a chicken made of horseshoes stands guard over the local toystore. And we are not a particularly art-laden village.

If you ask a Dutch person why there’s all this sculpture around, they may tell you about the law that requires it: between 1 and 1.5% of the budget for every government project must be spent on art, chosen by public consultation. But that’s more of a how than a genuine why. The true, underlying reason is so embedded in the culture that it’s all but inarticulable to my friends here.

Public art is there for the public to enjoy. There is so much of it here because the public are important enough that their pleasure and enlightenment is as worth spending money on as a new road or government building, just as their ability to live somewhere beautiful was worth a portion of the resources spent creating a new province. This is the democratization of the art of the Golden Age: the ordinary people who were worth painting then are worth pleasing and uplifting now. And the privilege of being valued like that has spread from the merchant classes to the entire society alongside prosperity, education and control.

But the fact that Dutch public art is so varied, and so odd, carries yet another message. The public is not just worthy of being pleased; it’s also worthy of being challenged.


Strange public art is an expression of trust that the viewer has the capacity to consider it and judge its worth. It even dares to be disagreed with, disputed, and disliked. It takes the risks of engagement, as with a peer, rather than the privilege of lecturing from above. And the Dutch have, on the whole, risen to the esthetic challenge, embracing visual styles that leave my British and American tastes baffled. I had thought myself relatively educated, adventurous, and sophisticated before I moved here, but now I’m scrambling to keep up.

But the scramble is in itself worthwhile. Living here, engaging with a culture that values its population’s leisure and pleasure—not just with words, but with its resources—is as much a challenge as figuring out any individual piece of public art. And meeting that challenge is reforming me, draining my old unthinking assumptions and revealing new provinces of thought and understanding, new values and things to value.

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Windmills and Pylons

Autumn has come to the Low Countries, and with it, heavy rains. The ground got good and soaked last night, and as the temperatures dropped, the wet land breathed fog. Urban areas, with all of their hard landscaping, still had good visibility. But this morning, the nature reserve near our house was wreathed in thick white mist.  It seemed like a good day to divert my commute and cycle through it, stopping to take a picture or three.


This is the autumn of the Old Masters, spread across a landscape of ochres and browns, creamy and dimmed with the varnish of the morning mist.  And it wouldn’t be the same without the hummocked shape of the windmill in the distance, bare vanes marking the land as inescapably Dutch.

But hang on, here.  Hold the chocolate box.

When you get right down to it, windmills are not intrinsically scenic.  Oh, we treasure them now, transplanting them carefully to nature reserves and tourist parks.  But they’re really industrial equipment, power-generating and water-moving engines, as inherently romantic as an oil derrick or an electricity pylon.


Indeed, it was not much further on my commute that I came upon the most beautiful pylon standing in the pale morning sun. Its clean, simple lines balanced the last lushness of the autumn vegetation.  The grand swoop of its gently humming wires framed the clear blue sky above me, and the pure echo of its form below was a testament to the stillness and clarity of the water beside it.  At its feet the placid cattle grazed…

You’re not buying this one, are you?

But really, what’s the difference between the windmill and the pylon, apart from a few centuries and some unevenly distributed obsolescence?  They’re both part of the infrastructure of the land, the hardware on which the operating system of Dutch society runs.

Indeed, in a few centuries we may be collecting old mismatched electric pylons from all over the country and setting them up in little parks.  Enthusiasts will clean them and care for them, climbing to the tops in almost-correct period harnesses.  Perhaps they’ll string dead wires among them so that school parties can picture the old days of the electric grid.  Gaggles of tourists will take group shots around their bases before heading off in search of ice cream.

But even now, there’s a decent case to be made for learning to appreciate the inevitable artifacts of our technology.

After all, what people loathe, they neglect.  I think about the changing themes of art since the WPA’s celebratory murals of the early twentieth century, and wonder if America’s crumbling infrastructure is not as much the product of a lack of love as it is the straitened state of public finances.

Another reason to cherish these things is that they’re here to stay.  That pylon is part of a line that brings power from Amsterdam to the next major city to the north.  It’s not going anywhere.  So we who live near it can either look on it with loathing or find some beauty in its lines.

This is something that the Dutch seem to be very good at.  I’ve cycled past lovely homes that look across a river to a junkyard.  Our own very pleasant suburban house has a retail park behind it.  In general, the ways that towns here mix residential, commercial, and light industrial facilities bespeaks—at the very least—a tolerance of infrastructure in the Netherlands.

This is not to say that tolerance is uncritical.  The wires in that picture are high-voltage ones, carrying as much power as the law allows through residential areas.  There’s been pressure to increase the voltage of the line north yet higher, but that would mean removing people from the homes underneath them.  It’s caused a lot of debate in our village. One can appreciate the clean shape of the pylon against the October skies without approving of every use to which it might be put.

When I look at our future (leaving aside the possibility of the collapse of civilization), I see more technological intervention rather than less.  Given that, I hope we can learn to turn our ceaseless thirst for beauty, that common drive that gives us cave paintings, sculpture, and ruin porn alike, toward our infrastructure and the tools we use to maintain it.

I think we’d be happier if we could.

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 15 Comments


She sold everything after her mother died. There wasn’t much to get rid of, just ordinary furniture, drab clothing, cheap kitchen things: all the accessories of a life endured rather than lived. During the cleanup, she’d found no books, no paintings, no mad indulgences hidden in the back of a drawer. She was disappointed, but not particularly surprised. Her mother’s secrets were not the sort one finds evidence of between mattress and box spring.


Her cousin Gabe helped her clear the apartment. He was the only one of the family she was in touch with, but a day with him was about as much as she could stand. She knew how he saw her: thin, pale, stoop-shouldered, the very image of her mother. At least he had the good sense not to say so. That was probably why they were still in contact. But he still thought her odd.

He’d grown more and more restive as the stack of things for him grew, and the bags to be sold and donated piled up, but the box of things for her to keep remained resolutely empty. She was folding the mothball-scented Army blankets she’d slept under as a child when he finally asked, half-shocked, if she was going to keep anything from her mother.

“This stuff isn’t ‘from’ my mother. It was hers. She owned it.”

“But she left it to you.”

“No, she didn’t. She died intestate. The probate court said it was mine, that’s all. And the courts don’t care whether you take the stuff or the money.”

Gabe shook his head. “Girl, you’re not right.” But he did stop asking if she wanted to keep anything. When he piled the things he wanted in his car and drove away, she knew she wouldn’t be seeing much of him any more.

The one item she didn’t sell was the dress she’d worn at the graveside. It had been her grandmother’s before it was her mother’s. It was black silk crepe de chine, so simply tailored that it never seemed to go out of fashion. Her mother had worn it to her own parents’ funerals, to court for the divorce, to graduations and endings of every sort. It smelled of her.

That, at least, had to change.

The man behind the counter at the dry cleaner made her sign a waiver because the dress had no labels or tags of any sort. “We can’t accept any liability if there’s no care instructions,” he said. He stroked the fabric a little, attentively, then looked up at her. “But we’ll be careful.”


Walking back to her car, she passed a real estate agent with an enormous plate glass window. She glanced at her reflection, then started to look away. It was a bad habit, that impulsive look. Her mother had called it vanity and scorned it as she scorned everything unnecessary.

But her mother was dead.

She raised her chin a little higher and met her reflected eyes. Her image looked tired, like a woman who hadn’t slept well in years. Tired and used to being tired, worn out with tiredness.

And then she saw the listing behind the glass: a house in the desert, an old house, all on its own, listed for precisely the sum she’d inherited. And in an instant, on the strength of the coincidence and because her mother would have disapproved, she decided to buy it.

Purchasing the place meant lawyers and taxes, so she did end up paying more than the magic sum. But she had plenty of savings, because spending money is hard when you hear your mother’s voice murmuring waste, vanity, unnecessary every time you get your checkbook out. The house was the first thing she’d ever bought despite that voice: her first indulgence.

raggedIt was a messy indulgence. The place had been abandoned, then squatted in, then abandoned again. The surveyor said the structure was sound and the pipes were still in place, but very little else was usable. The wallpaper hung down from the walls in long ragged strips. The windows were filthy, the bathtub stained, and the whole structure groaned like a ghost when the wind blew.

But the light was good, out there in the desert. The wind that made the house creak also blew the fragrance of sagebrush through the cracks around the window frames. And after dark, the stars spread out across the sky, extravagant, unnecessary, uncaring. She worked hard during the day and slept well at night, for the first time in years.

Out behind the house was a junkpile of sorts, dominated by an old washing machine, a tub-and-mangle affair one step better than a washboard. Around its feet were piled various rusted oddments, some identifiable (a frying pan, an old clock face, a rocking horse, some bedsprings) and some not. She’d found six doorknobs there one morning, just before she’d planned to go into town to pick up three doors she’d ordered. So she was in the habit of going out and digging around whenever she was looking for a tool or an oddment of metal.

One day she was turning over items in the pile, hoping for hinges for a kitchen cabinet. She lifted an old plank and saw that it had a mirror attached to it. The silver was spotted and the glass was cloudy, but she brought it inside anyway. She set it up on the mantlepiece. And every time she passed it, she looked in it, with her chin a little raised, and met her own eyes.


One day as she glanced in the mirror, she noticed something small, round and unfamiliar on the windowsill behind her. She turned around, but the sill was empty. And yet, in the mirror, the round thing was still there. She took the plank down from the mantlepiece and backed slowly up, steering by the reflection.

When she was beside the window, she looked over her shoulder again. No ball. She looked away again and groped around behind her. Her fingers closed on something. It was cracked and rough, and surprisingly heavy when she picked it up. She brought her hand around and looked.

She was holding a ball that hadn’t been there before. She peered at it and saw old continents, faded letters, washed-out seas. It was a globe made out of solid wood, now bleached and split, as if it had been sitting in that window for a long time.

What do you do when you find something that shouldn’t exist? She made herself a cup of tea, then sat at the table with the old globe in front of her. There was no sense telling anyone about it, she decided. She had no proof that the globe hadn’t always been on that windowsill. And who would she tell, anyway? Gabe? Her real estate agent? Some newspaperman or internet researcher? No.

She left it on the table and picked up the mirror. Walking backward through the house, she looked for other things that weren’t there. But she didn’t find anything, so she put it back on the mantlepiece. She smoothed her hair, nodded at her reflection, and went to the kitchen to fix dinner.

Days passed. Autumn came. The house became livable, then comfortable. Wherever she walked in it, she saw things she had chosen, work she had done. It felt full of her in a way no house she’d lived in before had. She felt at home, and found it strange.


In November she found an old dress form in the attic and dusted it off. The black dress fit on it perfectly, so she stood it in her bedroom. She was only going to leave it there for a day or so, because the light would fade the silk. But the days passed, and there was always something else to do than worry about the dress.

One day she bought a new mantlepiece mirror. She brought the old one into the bedroom, wondering if she wanted to hang it above the dresser. She was holding it in place when she caught a glimpse of the dress form over her shoulder.

The dress on it wasn’t the simple black silk, the dress for endings. In the mirror, the form wore something extravagant, white and ruffled. With a shock of recognition, she realized it was the dress from her mother’s wedding pictures, which had all been thrown away after the divorce.

She glanced over her shoulder. Black dress. She backed toward the dress form with the mirror and reached out, wondering if she would feel the stiff ruffles of taffeta. But her hand brushed familiar crepe. She pulled a fold of it into her field of view, and it was black. She looked at her hand in the mirror, and saw it holding white cloth.

And suddenly it was too strange for her. She picked up the form and balanced it on her shoulder, still in the black dress, then carried both it and the mirror out of the house. She dropped them abruptly on the junk pile, hearing the mirror shatter as it fell. The dress form landed upright, and she left it there, standing behind the washing machine, facing away from the house.

She was sure she’d sleep poorly that night, but she didn’t. In the morning, she realized she’d been dreaming of her mother in the wedding dress, smiling in a way she’d forgotten her mother had ever smiled. Her pillow was damp with tears, the first she’d shed since her mother’s death.

She got out of bed and realized that she was cold. It had snowed during the night, the first real snow of winter. She dressed and went outside.

The dress form was still in the junkpile. The night’s fall had covered it, and at first she thought the changed shape was just the accumulation of snow. But when she brushed the powdery layer off, the fabric underneath was white taffeta, frivolous and unnecessary.

This story was inspired by photographs I took at Bodie State Historic Park this summer.

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

The voyage of discovery

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
—Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

I wrote, in my last piece on cycling through the Dutch landscape, about the vast openness of the terrain. But I don’t know that I’ve managed to bring out how very different that vastness is than anything else I’ve seen, or why that difference matters quite so much. I have been in other vast landscapes, particularly the California desert and the Scottish Highlands, but when I call them to mind as I cycle through Noord-Holland, they don’t map. They’re not the same thing.

What makes the polder different is not the great blue and white dome above me, nor the flat ground over which I ride. It’s the join between them that makes the landscape what it is: that thing that I described last time as the intricate silhouette of civilization that marks the boundary between earth and sky all around.

The more I go out into the polder, the more I see how that narrow, dark line is the focus of the whole landscape. It gives everything else scale and context. The sky is vaster and emptier against its peaks and curves; the clouds are fluffier for its sharpness. It frames and defines the fields around me. And it surrounds my journeys as well, lying at the beginning and the end of every path. Everywhere I go, I’m heading toward it—though, like a mirage, it dissolves into individual trees, houses and villages as I draw near. But then the ever-varied unified silhouette reappears, reformed, when I leave the settlement and reach the next set of fields.

The line marks the polder as a deeply, inescapably human thing. And the humanity of the land put me off of it for a long time. There’s nothing of the wild there, and wilderness was always my refuge and the reservoir of my peace.

When I lived in California, finding that refuge was easy: drive up to the cabin, camp out in the desert, hike through the forest. Moving to Edinburgh (without a UK driving license) taught me the tricks of simulating wilderness. There was a spot in Holyrood Park, deep in the bowl of the hills, where no sign of the city obtruded. There was a place one could stand by the old Royal High School, one’s back to Princes Street, and see only a single building against the park. The Water of Leith walkway, winding through the north of the city, provided both a visual and auditory escape from civilization. And on weekends, there were always the Highlands, and my in-laws’ place in Perthshire.

Of course, even the wilderness I knew in California wasn’t really wilderness. I’ve never actually walked where no human foot has trodden. The forest of my childhood was old logging land, and its paths were only passable because our neighbors ran cattle on the mountain. The Highlands are an ecological ruin from clear-cutting and overgrazing, now scattered with rectangular patches of row-planted Douglas fir (a New World tree). And the desert has roads, inhabitants, settlements.

But even that illusion is hard to come by in the Netherlands, particularly in the Randstad, the urban conglomeration on whose northern end we live. There’s a nature reserve near our house, which is sometimes almost close enough to natural to give me the feeling of wilderness. But it’s a tenuous illusion. I spent my first years here in a kind of terrified impoverishment, hoarding my approximations of solitude. I visited and revisited the few secret places where one can be entirely away from people and their visible works. I rationed out the joy of taking unexplored paths, knowing there were only so many new vistas of supposed isolation to be found in that constrained, village-bound patch of unfarmed land. I didn’t want to run out of peace.

I know now that I was starving in the midst of plenty. But accessing that plenty required me to learn to see the world in a way that is, with the irony of which only history is capable, one of the great gifts of the Dutch to European civilization. I had to learn to see the transcendent beauty of the ordinary works of man.

To unpick what I mean by that last sentence, we need to go back in time about four hundred years. Ironically, this puts us in the same time period that the Noord-Hollands polder was created. But now we need leave the new-drained fields and venture into the intricate line of civilization.

In the rest of Europe, the 17th century was the Baroque era. Paintings emphasized the dramatic, the historic, and the mythological. Portraitists made their money by painting royalty and nobility. Beauty was the purview of the ideal and the refined, and true art lay in transmitting that to the mortal observer.

But in the Netherlands, that time was called the Golden Age, and Dutch artists were otherwise engaged. With same materials and techniques that Italian and Spanish painters used to delineate the hair of goddesses and the robes of kings, they filled their canvasses with milkmaids by windows and serious merchants.

Nor were those artists out of step with the local taste. The Netherlands was at the peak of its wealth, and the new population of rich commoners commissioned the paintings they wanted to look at. They bought images of ordinary streets, and a girl looking over her shoulder. For an entire century, while the rest of Europe was admiring cherubs and personifications, the Dutch mercantile class was demanding pictures that cherished and valued the reality of their lives. These people had found the real world to be a good place, and saw art as means of celebrating that. And the artists they hired, who shared their culture and values, obliged, creating luminous, transcendent images of ordinary life and normal people.

(In the long term, the Dutch perspective prevailed. Although we have plenty of symbolic and mythological art, a quick glance at Flickr or Instagram shows that what we produce, share, and look at most often is that which takes the ordinary world and makes it memorable.)

As for me, I’ve come to accept that my notion of wilderness was as mythical as anything in a Baroque painting. I was assembling pieces of the world around me to construct an idealized scene: Eden itself, a world unspoilt by human intervention. It’s a powerful image and an easy road to tranquility. But it’s also a profound lie about the real-world elements I was using to build it, and they are luminous enough in their own right and in their own context.

So in the end, that intricate silhouette of civilization really is the heart of beauty, not only in the polder, but in all of our landscapes. I simply had to come here, where it’s visible, to see it clear.

Open landscapes are good like that.

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 13 Comments

And what is this new sense of time?

What is this weight in my mind?
And what is this new sense of time?
It’s the open fields and the friends that are gone,
And I’ve been in the lowlands too long.

—Gillian Welsh, “Lowlands”, who didn’t mean it the way I’m hearing it now.

The sun is sinking behind the clouds on the horizon. The official sunset time on the internet is still about ten minutes away, but the air temperature isn’t going to take account of that nicety. I stop and put my jacket on over my cardigan. It’s not quite enough, but I’m keeping the gloves and hat in my front basket. Sometimes the promise of more warmth later is better than the warmth itself.

This is a good spot. The bike path runs between two strips of water, both bright with reflected sky. To my right is a narrow patch of reeds, its leaves beginning to turn purple-brown with autumn. The last light of the day gives them a bit of its orange, a parting gift of warmth and richness. To my left, the fields stretch out for kilometers, flat and treeless. Only the livestock and the woodwork—bridges and little stretches of fence—break the landscape between me and the outlines of the distant trees and towns. Above it all, the sky is full of light.

Then the sun disappears and the land goes grey. Time to mount up and ride on. I’m still about forty-five minutes away from my village, and I’m getting hungry.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been out here without a good reason. Six months ago, I was indifferent to this vast, flat, wet landscape. My heart has always been in the mountains and the desert. When I moved to Scotland, I learned to love the terrain by analogy. The rolling hills of the Borders have a lot in common with those near San Francisco1. And the way that the bones of the land show beneath the heather in the Highlands echoes the California desert and its sagebrush. The places aren’t the same, really, but the similarity is enough to make a bridge. It’s enough to find a way to love the landscape.

But there’s no bridge from anyplace I’ve lived to the Dutch polder. This is nothing like anything I have ever known. If my love of California came through the front door and my love of Scotland through the side, this sudden, inarticulate love of the Netherlands is the unexpected guest who appears one day in the living room, ringing no bell and answering no invitation. And yet here it is, and it draws me out of the house and away from the cities every bright day. I go out for half-hour rides and come back three hours later, windblown and bright-eyed.

And the Noord-Hollands polder through which I’ve been riding is the real deal: the unfiltered, unadulterated Dutch landscape, served neat. It’s undiluted by tulips and uncut by the tourist trail. It stretches out northward from the urbanized shore of the IJ to the Afsluitdijk, making up the land between the North Sea and the IJsselmeer. The fields are punctuated by towns and villages: Purmerend, Volendam, Alkmaar, Heerhugowaard, Den Helder, Edam, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Schagen, Heiloo. Straight, elevated canals and swift roads cross them, taking the people and the freight to and fro. But the land between is filled only with a kind of vastness: long, straight lines of pasture under the endless, endless sky.

This land was reclaimed from the water in the sixteenth century, and its first crop was Dutch democracy. The hoogheemraadschappen, the water boards that manage drainage and flood control here, are among the oldest democratic institutions in Europe. 2 They have endured in the face of centuries of authoritarianism, a living assertion that the best way to get a thing done is to empower the people who do it. The landscape here is their mute, stubborn, enduring proof, an irrefutable argument in mud and grass. The water boards are the reason that Dutch political culture, which demands cooperation between fundamentally different points of view, is known as the polder-model. This land was built by people who did not agree with their neighbors, but who worked with them anyway, and the people who live here do not forget it.

But that’s history, and this is working farmland. The old wooden pumping mills have been moved to the tourist attractions and nature reserves. What remains are long, narrow fields, divided by sloten (canals used primarily as drainage ditches3). Just as the Scots make fences from the stones they clear from their land, so the Dutch make them of the water they drain away from theirs.4 Because the sloten are sunken, the only visible fences are the short, gated stretches that prevent the livestock straying along the roads the tractors take from field to field. So the land has an odd, ragged look from a distance, as if some force had destroyed all but three meters of every fenceline.

Apart from the fences, all that stand above the fields are strips of reeds beside the water, wooden bridges carrying bike paths and roads over the canals, and the occasional bench where one can sit and look out over the landscape. I don’t think there’s anything to see, sitting on those benches, but I’m always half-afraid to stop and find out, lest a further undiscovered passion take me and I never get up again.

I’m only half-afraid, mind, because it’s not just the polder that draws me, but the act of cycling through it. Noord-Holland is interlaced with networks of bike paths, all well-marked and well-paved, used almost exclusively by Dutch people. My experience of the landscape is inextricably linked with the little thrums and whirrs of my bike as I ride, the steady progression the of ground beneath my front wheel, and the occasional nods and terse greetings shared with my fellow-travelers. I treasure this feeling of going somewhere, past these indifferent cattle and disinterested sheep, over bridges and beside bright stretches of smooth water, moving always toward the intricate silhouette of civilization that marks the boundary between earth and sky all around.

It’s not a landscape for secrets. You see whom you’re going to meet well in advance, and the prosperity or ruin of the next farm over is apparent at a glance. Even the rain comes well-heralded, sweeping across the open pastureland. I’ve read many theories that the Dutch bluntness and honesty comes from the openness of their land, that it grew alongside the polder-model in these fields. I don’t know if it’s true, or provable, but cycling here, I find it entirely plausible. This clarity and openness gets into a person’s head and won’t leave it. I can’t even imagine growing up immersed in it from birth. This is an area where many of the older generation still do not have living-room curtains, but choose to spend their leisure time in full view of their neighbors.5

And yet, despite that ceaseless visibility, it is a place of surprises: the tiny clover blossoms still showing beside the cycle track; the ruined propeller of a World War 2 plane that came down in the fields, a monument to the crew that bailed out over the North Sea and died; the cable ferries that take me across the broad canal, pulling themselves along on a metal rope suspended above the water6; the honesty-box stand where I buy six new-laid eggs, still grassy, for €1.50. And underneath those lies the constant rediscovery that this land is the work of human hands, and that it is pleasant because the people who built it valued the people who would live there enough to make it so. It is a perpetual gift from the past to the future, and I am perpetually humbled to receive it, like a stranger invited to dinner and fed the best food in the house.

I’m conscious that I’m finding it hard to disentangle my sudden passion for this open land from my steady, growing understanding of and affection for the people who live in it. Indeed, I get the sense that the two are deeply linked, that I journey into this culture the way I cross these open fields, and that the destination of the two is a single thing: home.

  1. Though something in my subconscious insisted that their greenness meant it was always spring, even in the snow.
  2. Making Light readers know that I’ve voted in their elections.
  3. Unsurprisingly, Dutch has a lot of complex technical vocabulary for waterworks.
  4. In the Netherlands, by the way, Robert Frost’s neighbor is right. Good fences make good neighbors here; an un-dredged sloot can endanger all of the fields around it at flood time.
  5. The younger generation do have curtains, albeit usually left open, and self-adhesive plastic that looks like etched glass to blur the view in.
  6. I asked the operator how ships got up and down the canal. She explained that they can loosen the cable so that it lies on the water bottom; they do it twenty or thirty times a day in the off-season, and a good hundred or so during the summer.

Originally posted on Making Light

Part two: The Voyage of Discovery

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 8 Comments

Babylon 5: The Coming of Shadows

Spock: Edith Keeler. Founder of the peace movement.
Kirk: She was right. Peace was the way.
Spock: She was right. At the wrong time.
The City on the Edge of Forever

Somewhere in my gut, storytelling and polyphony are mapped to the same pattern. They both start with a known base state which has some kind of harmony or stability. Then things get complicated: voices move away from one another and explore the melody; characters act. Dissonance, or conflict, occurs. Conclusion is resolution, a return to some kind of harmony.

(It’s an inexact analogy, and probably reveals as much about my ignorance of music theory as it does about anything else. But bear with me here.)

A short story is like a short composition: the voices don’t stray far or for long, because the resolution is coming right at us, counting down from the three minutes and fifteen seconds we had at the start. So false resolutions are rare and tricky things. But a longer piece may tease us with the hope of early resolution and snatch it away, just to show us how deep the dissonance is, and how far we have yet to go before harmony of any kind can be restored.

This is that episode. It’s the demonstration that this is going to be a long, long piece, because even the hope of resolution is a false one. The medium of this message is the story of one of the saddest characters of the series: Centauri Emperor Turhan.

Emperor Turhan wants to go to Babylon 5. His prime minster doesn’t want him to; his health is poor, and the trip will be strenuous. But he’s determined. He goes, leaving his wig behind1: “I will go among them as I am.”

G’Kar is, unsurprisingly, outraged at his coming:

G’Kar: He’s a monster…an aberration…a criminal! His family is directly responsible for strip-mining my world. His father personally ordered the execution of a hundred thousand Narns!
Sheridan: But he himself did nothing. Am I correct?
G’Kar: A technicality!
Sheridan: In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the current emperor has gone out of his way to offer your world concessions and return lost territory.
G’Kar: Stolen territory!

Essentially, G’Kar is offended that the Emperor’s wig is coming to Babylon 5. He’s offended enough to plan an assassination attempt2. But when the man, not the wig, arrives, the conflict in this episode seems resolvable. The Emperor’s mission is to apologize:

Franklin: He wanted to say he’s sorry.
G’Kar: What?
Franklin: He came all the way out here, risked his health and endangered his life, so that he could stand beside a Narn in neutral territory and apologize for all the things the Centauri have done to your people. For all the things his family did. He said, “We were wrong. The hatred between our people can never end until someone is willing to stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry’ and try to find a way to make things right again. To atone for our actions.” He said it was the only choice he ever made in his life. And now that seems to have been taken away from him.
G’Kar: I had…I had no idea.
Franklin: No, I’m sure you didn’t. Maybe that’s the biggest tragedy of the whole damn story.

It’s tantalizing to contemplate what could have happened, had the Emperor not had his heart attack on the way to the reception. Maybe it would still have failed; maybe G’Kar would have succeeded in his assassination attempt, or been killed while trying. Had he been captured but not killed, I suspect the Emperor would still apologize.

(Also, it’s a little irritating that JMS again uses an overt mistiming to rob his characters of useful encounters. I was OK the first time he did it, when Delenn goes into a cocoon before having a necessary conversation with Sinclair. But repeating the technique is starting to feel like poor plotting. It throws me out of the story a little.)

The other mistiming, equally painful, is that G’Kar goes looking for Londo after Franklin has delivered the Emperor’s message. It’s too late for that peace offering as well: Londo has already taken his next turn toward the darkness and called the Shadows in to attack the base on Quadrant Fourteen.

But the truth of the matter is that no perfection of timing would have saved the situation. Suppose it had all run straight: imagine the Emperor had apologized at the reception. Presume that G’Kar had bought Londo that drink before the latter promised Refa that he would do “something extraordinary—something unparalleled—to stand out” from the crowd of people maneuvering for the succession.

The Shadows would still be out there, looking for cracks in the unity and good order of sentient species the way that water looks for cracks in a dam. The anger of the Narn and the pride of the Centauri run deeper than an Emperor’s apology or an ambassador’s acceptance of it can heal. Refa would no doubt use the apology as evidence of the Emperor’s weakness and work to overthrow him, with or without Londo’s help; perhaps one day soon he’d get a dark-haired human visitor asking, “What do you want?”

And Refa has none of Londo Mollari’s virtues.

We’ve been given a promising harmonic between the sopranos and the altos, but the basses’ themes are still anger and war. The B-plot is a potent reminder of this: Sinclair sends a message to Garibaldi (and, at the end, Delenn) explaining that he has agents—rangers—throughout known space. He has his troops in place for the conflict to come. “There is a great darkness coming. Some of the Minbari have been waiting for it for a long time.”

Trying to stand against this, Emperor Turhan becomes an almost tragic figure: the Edtih Keeler of the story. Like Keeler in Star Trek, Turhan is absolutely correct that peace must be made. The Centauri owe the Narn more than an apology, but an apology would be a good start. But also, like Keeler, he must fail, or the darkness that’s coming will overwhelm everyone.

As Turhan tells Sheridan, he’s made virtually no choices in his life:

I have never chosen anything. I was born into a role that had been prepared for me. I’ve done everything that I was asked to do, because it never occurred to me to choose otherwise. And now, at the end of my life, I wonder what might have been.

In the end, he has one intention and one desire. He means to “seize that one last fragile moment” to make peace—but we see that fail in this episode. And he wants to see a Vorlon. That, he does manage to do. But Kosh’s presence is not a comfort:

Turhan: How will this end?
Kosh: In fire.

Second only to the emperor in futility in this episode is poor Vir, still trying to be the angel of Londo’s better nature:

Londo: Find Mr Morden. Bring him here.
Vir: Londo, don’t do this.
Londo: I have no choice!
Vir: Yes you do! Londo, please, please, I know you don’t listen to me, but I’m asking you just this one time, don’t do this. There’s no turning back once you start down that road.
Londo: Do I have to go find him myself?
Vir: No. No, I’ll go, and I’ll bring him back. And someday I’m going to remind you of this conversation. And maybe then—then you’ll understand.
Londo: I understand just fine. By this time tomorrow, we will be at war with the Narn. May the Great Maker forgive me.

There are effective choices made in this episode, and there is hope. Sheridan dissuades G’Kar from his first, murderous impulse to dealing with Londo. Using the information the ranger passes to Garibaldi, he saves the Narn civilian population from death or enslavement in Centauri labor camps.

And although G’Kar regrets his turn toward peace with Londo, it’s a genuine one; what he says over their drink is a foretaste of his own redemption and the foundation of the two’s future complex relationship:

I believed your people capable of only murder and pain. But apparently there is still a spark of decency in your genetic code. It’s not much of a foundation, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a start. I never thought I would be saying this, Mollari, but to the health of your emperor. And perhaps to your health as well.

Over in the tenor section, they’re singing of better things.

  1. From what we know of Centauri society, that’s a significant choice: he’s abandoning status markers in a stratified and competitive context.
  2. Even making, in a gesture that’s more chilling now than it was when the show was filmed, a video record of his reasons for the murder

The next writeup will discuss The Coming of Shadows

Index of Babylon 5 posts

Posted in Babylon 5 | 4 Comments

Babylon 5: A Race Through Dark Places

I will look upon him who shall have taught me this Art as one of my parents. I will share my substance with him, and I will supply his necessities if he be in need. I will regard his offspring as my own brethren and I will teach them this Art by precept, by lecture, and by every mode of teaching; and I will teach this Art to all others.

The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of mankind according tom my ability and judgment, and not for hurt or wrong. I will give no deadly thought to any, though it be asked of me.

Whatsoever mind I enter, there will I go for the benefit of man, refraining from all wrong-doing and corruption. Whatsoever thoughts I see or hear in the mind of man which ought not to be made known, I will keep silence thereon, counting such things as sacred secrets.

—The Esper Pledge, from The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester (1953)

I’ve heard that J. Michael Straczynski is a Dune fan. He—like so many of us—has clearly internalized Herbert’s work as one of the design patterns of our genre. In particular, his use of an organization of the mystically powerful as a sort of éminence grise in the sweeping historical narrative has a rather sandy flavor for me.

But the name of Walter Koenig’s character is a pointer to a more explicit antecedent. Calling him Alfred Bester (and using a cantrip to block telepathy1) is the closest Straczynski can come to assigning The Demolished Man as background reading. I’d read it years ago. But after this episode, where all of the previous strands of narrative about PsiCorps are given depth and context, I figured it was time for a re-read.

Even more than Babylon 5 itself, The Demolished Man is a future of the past. I don’t just mean the casual sexism (“Let’s find a girl and vote her the Monarch Jumper Girl. When a consumer buys one, he’s buying the girl. When he handles one, he’s handling her.”) What really struck me was the pre-Watergate attitude toward institutions and how they work. Consider:

  • The Peepers are a voluntary organization. They have an office where latents are given a chance to identify themselves and join, but no one is constrained to do so. Latents who choose not to come in (for instance, Chooka Frood) are not controlled or hounded in any way; they’re merely left untrained.
  • The penalty for violating Peeper rules is expulsion and shunning, but nothing more. Jerry Church suffers this; he’s desperately lonely, but he’s not dead or imprisoned.
  • Peepers are only allowed to marry each other, in order to breed stronger telepaths. One of the main subplots of The Demolished Man is that Powell hasn’t found a Peeper woman he’s willing to marry. The penalty? Occasional comments at parties.

We’ve been given glimpses of how monstrous PsiCorps is before: when Jason Ironheart tried to leave it; when Ari Ben Zayn expected Harriman Gray to be corruptible because he was a member; when Alisa Beldon considered joining it; and when Matt Stoner appeared to have escaped its grip. Both Susan Ivanova’s and Talia Winters’ backstories have given us a look at how its influence distorts the lives of anyone who comes in contact with it.

But those were just traces. This episode pulls these threads together to give us—and Talia—a fuller picture, so we know what we’re dealing with in the story to come. To do that, the episode systematically violates each of the key points of Bester’s Peeper society.

  • PsiCorps is not a voluntary organization. The law is that every telepath has to register with them. We already know that people with telepathic abilities are given a choice: join the Corps or take a mind-deadening drug for the rest of their lives.

    We discover in this episode that there’s a third choice: there are relocation camps (said to be “no better than concentration camps”) where people who will neither join the Corps nor take the drugs are sent.2

    Nor does PsiCorps leave the people who choose not to join alone, not really. Not if they’re being awkward.

    He took the sleepers. They shut off his talent, but didn’t stop him from speaking out against the Corps. He wrote the Senate, the media…got interviewed by ISN. Until one day when they came to give him his injection. He closed his eyes, and never woke up.

  • Leaving the Corps—or disobeying it—entails more than ostracism. We saw what happened to Ironheart when he tried to escape, but more ordinary telepaths can’t get out either. The underground railroad that is the focus of this episode shuttles both undiscovered latents and former members to places the Corps can’t reach.

    And Bester will lie, manipulate, and kill to stop it.

  • The Corps doesn’t wait for telepaths to fall in love. We knew already that Talia Winters was paired off with Matt Stoner, and that that marriage was a disaster. What we find out now is that she was lucky.

    My talent woke up when I hit puberty. The Corps took me in. Said I was a P11: as high you can go before they turn you into a PsiCop. After two years, they picked another P11 and said I had to marry him. They wanted to increase the odds of breeding a P12 or higher. I refused.

    One night, I woke up. Heard voices. Something soft over my face. Felt hands lifting me out of bed. The next morning they tried to tell me it was all just a dream. Four weeks later I discovered I was pregnant. When she was born, they took her from me. As soon as I could walk I escaped from the hospital. I never saw my baby again.

Bester’s character is also a far cry from The Demolished Man‘s Lincoln Powell. He’s a well-portrayed monster (Koenig does a fantastic job, and he’s given very good material to work with.) When he kills the telepath at the beginning of the episode, there’s a hint of real pleasure in it for him. And he’s adept at turning every occasion into another lever to use on the people around him.

Sheridan: What about Talia?
Bester: As far as I know, she got out.
Sheridan: You mean you haven’t heard from her since the attack?
Bester: No, but I’m sure she’s fine. It’s me they were after.
Garibaldi: Unless they took her only to get to you. Has that ever occurred to you now that you’ve managed to save your own skin?
Bester: It won’t do them any good. She doesn’t know anything that could hurt me or the Corps.4
Garibaldi: Doesn’t get it, does he? Hey! wake up! It doesn’t matter what she does and doesn’t know! She could be dead right now!
Sheridan: Garibaldi!
Garibaldi: You should have told us she was missing as soon as you called in.
Bester: If you’re this worried, Mr Garibaldi, I suggest you double your efforts to find these people. You’ve got two bodies to start with. Make the best of them.

Bester is remniscent of those concentration camp guards who had lovely family lives outside of working hours. And again, this is an impression we’re led to by the scriptwriting. Tellingly, just before the narrative of the woman forced to have, then lose, her baby, Bester gives Garibaldi this touching little family scene.

Would it interest you to know that I’m married, Mr Garibaldi? That I have a five year old daughter. That on Sundays when I’m back home we pack a picnic lunch and go out under the dome on Syria Plena and watch the stars come out? Hardly the description of a monster.

Nothing and no one in The Demolished Man comes close to PsiCorps and Bester.

In among these dark visions of a significant institution, we do also learn a lot of details that are relevant to the story to come. Ironheart gave Talia more than just telekinesis, and Bester can’t read her. Talia turns to Ivanova when she’s troubled, and Ivanova is glad to see her. And Delenn and Sheridan…well, that dinner was clearly the start of something.

And Ivanova gets a good line, the first she’s had in a while:

Bester: They must be getting desperate, to try something like this. They know we’re onto them. Why else would they try to kill me?
Ivanova: Is this a multiple-choice question?

But what’s important in this episode, more than anything else, is the clear and unsettling portrait of PsiCorps. Regarding that, let me close with three relevant quotes: two for contrast, one for parallax.

Ellery West: We’re born in the Guild. We live with the Guild. We die in the Guild. We have the right to elect Guild officers, and that’s all. The Guild runs our professional lives. It trains us, grades us, sets ethical standards, and sees that we stick to them. It protects us by protecting the layman, the same as medical associations. We have the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. It’s called the Esper Pledge. God help any of us if we break it…

Alfred Bester: This is unnecessary, you know. If you just give us the information we need, we could stop this. We don’t blame you. You fell under the influence of outsiders. They used you and abandoned you. You mean nothing to them. You were raised by the Corps. Clothed by the Corps. We are your father and your mother. Don’t force us to do this.

Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam: We have two chief survivors of those ancient schools: the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. The Guild, so we think, emphasizes almost pure mathematics. The Bene Gesserit serves another purpose.
Paul Atreides: Politics.

  1. Eight, sir; seven, sir;
    Six, sir; five, sir;
    Four, sir; three, sir;
    Two, sir; one!
    Tenser, said the Tensor!
    Tenser, said the Tensor!
    Tension, apprehension,
    And dissention have begun!
  2. This information is, tellingly, conveyed by someone who looks Native American.3
  3. While the African-American character runs the underground railroad.
  4. A nice blind spot, that ego of his. He never conceives that Talia could be a threat, not because of what she can tell them, but because of what they can tell her—and what she can do about it. He doesn’t make many mistakes, but this one is significant.

The next writeup will discuss The Coming of Shadows

Index of Babylon 5 posts

Posted in Babylon 5 | 15 Comments

Babylon 5: Soul Mates

This is an episode about the relationships we choose and those that we choose to abandon. Not just for Londo, though he’s the most overt example; two other characters spend this episode deciding among relationships.

But let’s deal with Londo first, because his story is the trellis on which the other subplots grow.

We’ve always known that under his genial surface, Londo is a deeply lonely man. That’s why he falls for Adira in Born to the Purple. And he mentions in The War Prayer that he’s married to “Pestilence, Famine and Death” (an oddly human metaphor for a Centauri to use)1. Before this episode, he struck me as a somewhat less sexually continent version of Mr Bennett from Pride and Prejudice: unhappy in his marriage, unable to respect his partner(s), using sarcasm and general unkindness to cope.

But he turns out to be a much less pleasant person than Mr Bennett. When the Emperor grants him anything he wants for the thirtieth anniversary of his ascension, he asks for a divorce. Unable to rid himself of all three wives, he arranges the emotional equivalent of a cage match to choose which wife to keep. His wives like him much less than Mrs Bennett likes her husband, but they’re financially and socially dependent on him. They’re fighting for genuine stakes while he watches and chuckles: the fourth Horseman in the set. War.

Daggair (Pestilence) is the kind of woman that Mean Girls grow into if unchecked. She’s entirely selfish, and seems unconcerned about the means of any path to her ends. She’s game for a threesome with Mariel if complaisance will increase her chances in the contest. She’s willing to take credit for Mariel’s gift to Londo (before it turns out to be deadly), and she points out to Timov that Londo’s death would serve his wives better than his survival. She takes no blame for what she’s become, either.

I am what I was made. By my father, by Londo, by society.

Mariel (Death, aptly), is also a caricature, one that goes back to Mata Hari: innocent-seeming, beautiful, clever, and deadly2. She acts like beauty is her only asset, but she’s more than she seems. Her parting crack to G’Kar in his quarters, as she leaves the extremely compromising meeting with him (why is he in his dressing gown? Wait. Forget I asked.), reveals a lot more wit than she lets others see.

G’Kar: I warn you, Mariel, do not be overconfident. If I can figure it out, so can he. If I were married to Londo Mollari, I’d be concerned.
Mariel: G’Kar, if you were married to Londo, we’d all be concerned.

That quick intelligence makes me think that G’Kar is correct. She didn’t buy the artifact innocently; she either recognized it for what it was, or (more likely) knew that it would be on Babylon 5. (More on that later.)

Of the three wives, the writers clearly favor Timov (Famine, again apt: too little affection) from the start. She’s the only likable one, the only one with any independent principles and admirable motivations. She refuses to be anything other than ruthlessly honest with either her husband or her co-wives. Also, she gets even more good lines than Ivanova:

The secret of our marriage’s success, Londo, is our lack of communication. You have jeopardized that success, and I would know why.

Daggair: Oh, Timov, Timov, why do you always try to draw me into your little verbal fencing matches?
Timov: Because I don’t have a real sword handy.

Timov: Do you seriously expect me to become involved in your sexual Olympics?3
Londo: They’re merely expressing their feelings for me.
Timov: I can do that. (slaps Londo)

What Timov really has that neither of her co-wives do is a value for herself as a person, at least as great as her desire for her goals. There are things she disdains because indulging in them will damage her. In the end, she saves Londo’s life because it is beneath her dignity and her principles to do otherwise. And the way she does it shows that she also has some value for her relationship with Londo, however deeply buried:

Timov: It may interest you to know that Londo and I do have one thing in common: the same blood type
Franklin: Well, why didn’t you tell me this before?
Timov: I was deciding what to do about it.
Franklin: He’s dying.
Timov: We all die, doctor, sooner or later. As for Londo, after everything he’s done, I would take some small pleasure in letting him die. But whatever you may think of me doctor, I have some principles that even twenty years with Londo cannot erase. I do not like to win my battles this way. I find it vaguely…unsatsifying. So you may have your transfusion, Doctor, on one condition. He must never know I did this. I don’t think either of us could stand the awkwardness of false gratitude.

In the end, Londo chooses Timov because she is the only one of the three of them who is honest, however unpleasant. In the light of his ongoing entanglement with Morden, it’s hard not to see this as the flailing of a drowning man, grasping for anything solid as he goes down. I don’t recall what happens to Timov as the story progresses, but I don’t sense that she’s destined for a long or happy life. Not even her iron will is likely to stand long against the Shadows.

Talia, too, has to choose between relationships that have included emotional manipulation and abuse, forced her to compromise her principles many times, and still threaten to interfere with every attempt to make any kind of lasting connection with anyone outside of them.

Her choice is between PsiCorps (which, much like Daggair with Londo, will use her to its own ends without caring what it costs) or Matt Stoner (the Mariel of the comparison, adding sexual attraction to the toxic stew). In many ways, it’s a worse set of options than Londo is faced with: despite Garibaldi’s obvious affection for her, there is no Timov, no third way.

The bigger difference is that there isn’t really a second way, either. When PsiCorps intervenes to rescue Stoner from Babylon 5’s brig, it becomes clear that he’s never really left the organization. The escape he offers Talia is really just a way into the darker side of the Corps: Bureau 13, as was4.

The fact that Stoner is the vector for the statuette that Mariel uses to try to assassinate Londo invites a whole different level of speculation. Perhaps he brought it onto the station just to sell, without any further purpose in mind. But it seems like a staggering coincidence that two sets of sinister covert forces should be passing such a deadly item from hand to hand in entire mutual ignorance. It’s more likely that Mariel either commissioned Stoner to supply it or was sent it with orders to use it.

If she commissioned Stoner, then there’s still a chance that PsiCorps is not working with some faction of the Centauri political classes. But that doesn’t fit in with his secondary mission, to ensnare Talia by any means possible (reignited attraction, promise of escape, sheer mesmerism)5. If, on the other hand, they are involved in the attempted murder, that’s a much more interesting piece of information. It would mean that they are not under the control of, or even allied with, Morden’s employers.

In the end, Talia also makes the best decision she can, staying as close to truth and integrity as her circumstances allow.

Stoner: I can’t believe you’re throwing away your chance to leave PsiCorps.
Talia: I am what I am, Matt. I don’t want to carve out a piece of myself.
Stoner:I just wanted you to come with me. I didn’t want to pressure you. I wanted it to be different this time. I was certain that if I told you about the cure you’d want to come of your own free will.
Talia: I can’t walk away from who I am or what I am. If you take away my talents, I don’t know what would be left. You can understand that, can’t you?

It’s unclear whether she’s genuinely mesmerized by him at the end of that scene, or whether she’s acting. In either case, this is clearly her choice when her mind is clear and her will her own.

The third relationship choice in the episode serves to underline how profoundly dysfunctional and damaging all of the other ones are. It’s the point when Delenn chooses to ask a human, Ivanova, to help her with her transformation from Minbari to whatever hybrid she is becoming.

It’s one of the more memorable images in the episode: Delenn, hair ratted, wrestling with her brush and snarling. She’s so vulnerable to Ivanova at that moment that one can almost forget who she is: one of the most powerful members of a species that was, only a few years ago, in a fight to the death with humankind. She has declared war, and tortured men; she has commanded commanders and rejected the call of the Grey Council. Asking for help is a profound gesture on her part.

We don’t see what happens between the time Ivanova accepts the proffered hairbrush (and trust) and Lennier’s arrival. But somewhere in there, the two have become what neither Londo nor Talia have with any of the people they must choose among: friends. The warm glance Delenn shoots Ivanova as they discuss Londo’s ascension contains everything that’s missing in the other two plots.

But Delenn’s choice, however healthy and joyous, has a downside as well. She’s clearly been relying on Lennier to help her with the various difficulties of her transition. Now he’s an outsider, so baffled by the curlers that he almost forgets to bow as he leaves the room. I see a lot of what’s to come in his tentative gesture to the top of his bald head.

  1. Indeed, according to the Lurker’s Guide, that was very nearly this episode’s title.
  2. But in this case, it’s not a frame-up.
  3. Another Terran-culture reference. I find it jarring when the writers do this.
  4. That level of duplicity and manipulation exposes Daggair as a mere amateur. Or, perhaps, opens up a line of possibilities about her relationship with Mariel. But there’s no real evidence for that.
  5. Assuming he’s doing that particular piece of work on the clock. I suppose it’s also possible that he’s obsessed with her, and is trying to re-ensnare her using all means at his disposal, figuring that he’ll make it right with his employers later. Although it seems unlikely that he’d let his feelings get in the way of his potential advancement, if he did have feelings, they’d be just that kind of creepy ones.

The next writeup will discuss A Race Through Dark Places

Index of Babylon 5 posts

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