Halloween Musings from the Allegheny Plateau

For my road trip through much of the Allegheny Plateau, I planned to be there near peak fall. A freak late season heat wave prevented practically any vibrant colors from coming out in most places I went to it turned out, but the rest of the journey went off without a hitch and I hit all of my target stops but one.

I had the good fortune to be doing this trip while reading the book (that I am still reading as of now) When They Severed Earth From Sky, which is about how prehistoric and premodern myths often reflect distorted accounts of real world events. Often natural in origin. The book postulates that in a non-record keeping culture, it is easier to pass down information from one generation to another if human intention and romantic flourish is added to the account. This ensures that future storytellers will want to tell it and tribe members will want to hear it.

One of the reasons I went on this trip is to do ‘research’ of a sort. Since 2018 I have been writing on ongoing fiction short story series about a post-United States (but not post-apocalyptical in the environmental sense) future centered around this region and the new cultures that grow up in the void left by the parting of the old society. The technology level is kind of rustbelt modern, akin to the STALKER games, but with a heavy dose of folk horror and sword and sorcery. Given the propensity of people to claim to see strange creatures in this region, and my past experience road tripping in West Virginia, it made a natural choice. Also, around this time the disastrous Fallout 76 came out, which I avoided and whose release time was coincidental with my own development of this setting. But it kind of challenged me to do the region better, as I knew I could. So far, I have used many of the Appalachian cryptids (as well as less modern folklore) to help round out the stories. The overall vibe kind of comes across as a hybrid between something Laird Barron would write and the game Dusk.

Serpent Mound, the only truly ancient site I visited.

One wonders what it is that makes this region so good for spooks and haints. I imagine the deep religiosity (but for a Manichean monotheism) clashes with the brooding forests and broken hills. This is creature country. Not the desert of the Bible. The desire to treat this still very wild land in the traditional sense of the devout English or Ulstermen fails. But the desire to see something memorable and folkloric remains. The failure to take in enough of the preexisting Shawnee mythology leaves a void that the distant and blandly universal god of the Bible could never truly fill when it comes to regional identity. Point Pleasant, at least, has a petroglyph of an Algonquian water panther, though my picture of it is not good enough to bother uploading here. Anyway, they have their own local creature since the 60s and the tourists it draws in has brought the downtown back from the brink.

Mothman statue, Point Pleasant.
Flatwoods Monster, original sighting site in Flatwoods, WV. Now a fast food and ice cream joint.

With the coming and going of coal and industry, the region feels like its slipping back into something premodern. So why shouldn’t it be a pioneer in re-mythologizing itself? Sure, the Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster strike me as large birds, especially owls, seen in low light conditions and mistaken for giant humanoid monsters since perspective and distance were off. But they represent a very real desire for re-enchantment of the world. Not in the generic occidental monolithic religious way we are used to, but in a localized way that differentiates some regions from another. Much like the Jersey Devil does for my current region or the Kushtaka for coastal Alaska. They are mascots as well as something else. Something specific.

If we lived in a world were Carthage had beaten Rome and our western-Eurasian maritime culture had ended up being a Carthaginian-Celtic-Hellenistic hybrid (one can dream) I can imagine two things: 1. more syncretism with the native traditions in North America upon advent of the colonial period, and 2. local shrines and temples to strange sightings. I imagine this is how gods got started in the first place anyway. My favorite thing about being in Japan, second only to heated vending machines, is the localized nature of Shinto temples. Imagine a Mothman or Jersey Devil or Coyote temple, laid out open plan. Multiple buildings built around natural features for a seamless regional experience that reflects the land that myths arise from, as well as the myths themselves.

Seen in this light, the ruins of the region are not just testaments to a past sinking into entropy, but also a fountain for new myths for the future. A reinvigorated folklore for a changing culture could be born here. This is true for many other similar places as well. As Ibn Khaldun teaches us, its often the neglected and sidelined places where solidarity is re-forged first, and thus where the impetus of history can shift towards. This is how a view a future-oriented trek to the adaptations we need to deal with living in the Anthropocene, a process I have previously written about as The Black Longhouse.

Near the end of my trip, I hiked down the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike towards Sidelong Hill tunnel. One of three abandoned hill-traversing tunnels from a section of the highway that was dropped from use in the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, what I found there was a local youth shrine of sorts. Graffiti and messages, many sloppy, some funny, all of them speaking to the power of this place to communicate outside of oneself and for those of certain dispositions to congregate.

I walked deep into the gash in the earth, into the bowels of the Allegheny mountains. At about the halfway point, when both exits were distant smudges of light, I stopped and shut off my flashlight. In the perfect damp darkness I stood. I clapped, hollered, and sang. My own voice came back to me a hundredfold from every direction, amplified and distorted.

Ancient shamans would have killed for a better otherworldly experience.

Happy Halloween.

‘Going Along’ with the Coyote Conquest

The Twentieth Century was not a great time for territorial conquest and overt annexation. The most successful nation of that century engaged in a far more sly method of co-opting its targets, while the next most successful power of the epoch, the Soviet Union, largely inherited its extra territories from its predecessor. The old colonial empires crumbled from their height to nothing in that time. The vast majority of new overt conquests were undone in the course of a single decade. A few outlasted this. Only things like Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara and Israel’s rule over the Palestinian territories, where the power imbalance was geographically immediate and overwhelming, seems to have truly lasting power. And those are still incomplete and contested takeovers. The Twenty-First Century seems even less promising, with few trying and those that do, such as Turkey in Northern Syria and the U.S. in Iraq, entering the most convoluted and embarrassing situations possible. The present disposition of forces has not been friendly to this type of direct takeover since the territorial swapping of League of Nations mandates showed clearly diminishing returns on the annexation project. The largest scale attempts to try to give it another go were touched off by Japan, Italy, and Germany and led to their total ruin.

This is, of course, only talking about the human world. Sure, we all know diseases and bacteria are the same as they ever were with Spanish Flu, AIDS, and Covid continuing in the path of Bubonic Plague, Smallpox, and the like. That is normal and to be expected. But in the Anthropocene, the time of unquestioned human dominance, it is interesting to note the larger animals that are not just succeeding but rising to dominate in a way that they didn’t before. I am not just speaking about the obvious candidates like rats and feral descendants of domestic pets, i.e. animals you would expect to increase in numbers as the human-heavy ecological imbalance teeters from growing cities, suburbs, and more anthropogenic land use conversion. Humans, domesticated livestock, and agricultural crops have become a truly disturbing proportion of terrestrial biomass. And we know the effects of it are extreme losses in biodiversity with resulting negative impacts on environmental sustainability. The general view is that wild mammals in particular, and the larger variants especially, are all on the wane.

But there is a big exception to this. More than one, in fact, but right now I am going to concentrate, as per theme of this site, on the most obvious and most tricksteresque one. The true troll of North America in mythology and real life, Old Man Coyote himself. Since human conquest started slowing, coyote conquest increased. Not only that, but it also seems to be happening at a far greater rate than most human expansion in the prehistoric era was, at least as far as we can tell from archeology. A species that normally stuck to the Great Plains and the Southwest has exploded in every direction, moving to the north and east coast and then down in an inexorable southern march since about 1900.

Taken from here

What is even funnier is that humanity at least partially caused this current colonization. The migration of coyotes out from their traditional ranges was greatly accelerated by attempts from farmers and ranchers to kill them off in huge numbers with traps and hunting bounties. It caused the species to scatter far and wide and adapt to new environments with great vigor. The eastern branch of this migration seems to be diverging from the norm and growing in size, likely due to admixture from breeding with both wolves and domestic dogs. The path of this side of the family tree went up to Canada, where the wolf admixture was likely introduced, and then into Maine. Since then it has been coming southward steadily and now if firmly entrenched in the southeast.

Coyotes set up shop in forests, plains, deserts, suburbs, farmland, and cities. They can ride the metro. They can go from pack animal to solo to small family units and back again depending on circumstance. The eastern ones even provide a valuable service by introducing a large predator to our over-populated deer problem, giving us the first chance in generations to see a proper return to flowers and flora in our stripped-bare-by-the-hooved-menace forests. They can live anywhere, they can live in any kind of social group or none, and they can eat anything. Truly, in a time of accelerating environmental and demographic changes, a species to look up to. As Darwin said, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one most responsive to change.’

I grew up with a large amount of Native American folktales in my childhood. The ubiquity of trickster figures in those cycles was postulated by Paul Radin to be a response from the first people to populate North America as they reacted to a land where the weather behaved erratically, earthquakes were frequent, thunderstorms and tornadoes massive, and the rapid growth and melting of ice age glaciers in that migratory period caused sudden flooding and bizarre microclimates. This implied that the gods were mercurial and fickle towards the fate of humanity. Coyote is by no means the only one of these figures, but he is the most common in tales translated into English. And it is the species that inspired him that is currently the most ubiquitous of these trickster totemic animals out in the real world.

Coyote tales are the true chaotic neutral worldview distilled. There are stories which can be within the same tribe’s cycle of Coyote creating fire, saving the world, dooming humanity with mortality, embarrassing himself or getting himself killed due to foolishness, and defeating monsters through trickery and guile. He might boon the human race either intentionally or unintentionally. He might trick a mother into believing he is a reliable babysitter so he can eat her children. He might even eat a talking plant that says ‘He who eats me will defecate!’ on a dare thinking, ‘well, I am too strong, I will not defecate,’ and then be launched into the sky on a rocketing tower of his own feces. This is why the animal that provided a model for the mythological figure succeeds. It rolls with the times but is never merely of the times. Rebellion and adaptability rolled into one. Failures and even death do not seem to weaken or stop it in the long term. In one century, a whole continent fell to this expansion after the U.S. government instituted its most brutal and sustained wildlife killing program in history. It most likely took the first Native Americans longer to traverse the continent. We know for a fact it took four hundred years for the Europeans to become truly endemic across the land. And that’s with steel, gunpowder, compasses, and maps. They were still beaten by The Tricky One.

Coyote is the chaos agent. He exists to remind us that all the planning in the world cannot adapt to random circumstance. Stories about him often begin with the phrase ‘Coyote was going along…’ and sometimes they end with, ‘and Coyote went back to going along.’ Motion is perpetual, but it is not headed to any particular place. The destination might be as random as the outcome of running into such a figure. Perhaps it works because the way to adapt to an uncaring world is to cultivate a sense of bemused aloofness in turn. As Dan Flores, the author of the book ‘Coyote America’ put it:

‘But what, no moral code in these stories? No promise of eternal life, no salvation from death? Coyote stories offer up none of these things…It ought to be said that Coyote stories are not really for visionary dreamers who expect to change the world. Coyotism is a philosophy for the realists among us, those who can do a Cormac McCarthy-like appraisal of human motives but find a kind of chagrined humor in the act, who think of the human story as cyclical…Coyotism tells us that while we may long have misunderstood the motives of our behavior, we’ve also known how human nature expresses itself. And who better to illustrate that than self-centered, gluttonous, carnal Coyote?’

It is theorized that this current expansion of the coyote might not be the first time this has happened. The Red Wolf of the southeast might be a remnant population of coyote-wolf hybrids from a pre-recorded time. If so, it means the east was theirs before. But even if not, it is theirs now.

The part of Pennsylvania which I am currently based has had coyotes for decades now, but you rarely see the signs. My knowledge of their presence until recently was merely word of mouth and indirect indications. But last week I took a walk outside around midnight in this tree-shrouded hill country far from the desert origins of the coyote. Echoing in the darkness from a patch of thick woods around a creek valley not more than a mile to the southeast came a chorus of yips and howls from a pack of coyotes. Their calls bathed the trees in an echo not heard in these parts for possibly thousands of years, if ever.

That particular pack stayed for only a few days as it turned out. But it was obvious that the land is now claimed. There will be more.

The Modern Pandavas: 20th Century Leadership and the Mahabharata

kurukshetra

I recently completed a reading of a condensed English translation of the Indian epic The Mahabharata. This is not the first time I have engaged with a version of the text, but it does happen to coincide with a building desire to write a post on three interesting examples of leadership from the 20th Century.

This comes with the realization that three of my favorite state leaders and revolutionary cliques from the 20th Century-a century that more often than not resembles an utter breakdown of leadership and the most dramatic examples of state failure-all share a similar journey to the Pandava Brothers in the Mahabharata.

An incredibly brief summary of the political-military main story arc of the work follows. Two branches of a royal family reigning in the ancient state of Kuru begin to struggle for the future of the throne. The treacherous and decadent Kauravas use a variety of clever (but sometimes too-clever-by-half) schemes to attempt to murder, and then exile the Pandava branch. The Pandavas, humiliated, wander in the wilderness where they acquire numerous allies, weapons, and skills during multiple adventures. Most importantly, they acquire the patronage of the god Krishna. When the Pandava’s return to claim their kingdom, they begin with negotiations. The Kauravas refuse to give an inch, quite literally, and declare war. Given the greater levels of empathy and thinking the Pandavas have learned in their exile, they, especially Arjuna, have a crisis of conscience on the eve of the battle. Is it worth it to fight in this rotten world? But Krishna, serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, gives him a pep talk about duty and dharma (the Bhagavad Gita) about how he is involved in forces far greater than himself and his family connections (among other things) and has no choice but to act. He is here now with a job to do. You can always renunciate when the job is done. A massive battle is fought leading to immense slaughter and the eventual triumph of the Pandavas who claim back the kingdom entirely.

The implication is that the kingdom is now better and more justly governed. After several decades this golden age fades, it is the last gasp before the Kali Yuga, the age of degeneration which, by implication, recorded history belongs to. The heroes of old are gone, and they leave only their examples until the cycle begins anew.

If you want a more interesting summary see Wes Cecil’s excellent lecture on the philosopher’s view of the text.

The three state leadership cliques this most resembles in the 20th Century follow in chronological order:

1. The founding of the Turkish Republic:

ataturk secularistprop

At the end of the First World War the defunct Ottoman Empire became a puppet rump state with most of its territory going to be carved up between the victorious Allied powers. Though hardly bothered by the loss of the rebellious Arab provinces, the well educated clique of military officers that had been long advocating reforms of state saw even the chance for a Turkish state to survive start to vanish. Britain occupied Istanbul and the surrounding straits, France took Iskenderun, and Greece wholesale invaded hoping for massive territorial annexations in Anatolia and Thrace.

These officers, under the command of Mustafa Kemal, the best Ottoman general of the war, organized a rival government in Ankara to the puppetry of the Sultan in Istanbul. They hoped to gain at least a guaranteed territorial integrity for the Turkish homeland of the state. But when the Sultan declared them traitors they declared a rival republic from their new base. Kemal halted and then decisively crushed the Greeks, swept west to cause the British occupation to flee along with their puppet government, and moved to abolish the Sultanate-and soon after-the attached caliphate as well. What followed was a new reign that swept aside over a century of Ottoman decay for a state that prized development, education, and modernization. Anatolia and Turkey, about to be obliterated in 1919, had bought itself a new lease on life against the odds.

Then of course the Kemalists, Turkey’s Pandavas, left the stage and Erdogan eventually arrived, ushering in the Kali Yuga.

2. Communist Yugoslavia:

 

TitoHinduGod

Fortunately for everyone a few months ago I made this picture of Tito as a Hindu God for no particular reason and now its suddenly perfect.

The state of Yugoslavia was also formed in the aftermath of World War I, though it was originally a monarchy. The fragile new state was an attempt to unite all Southern Slavs who had been traditionally been divided by the Austrian and Ottoman Empires and their traditional sectarian divisions. When this state faced joint invasion and occupation by Axis Italy and Germany it was quite literally carved up and under German influence, the Croatian Ustasha embarked on a massive genocide of Serbs and Bosnians. Surely, such a young and weak state could never be reformed now?

Two dueling partisan bands formed, the more conservative Chetniks and the left wing Partisans. Josip Broz Tito’s Partisan’s turned out to be the far more clever and tough of the group and managed to eventually convince both western and eastern Allies to direct the lion’s share of aid to them. Once they had undermined the Chetniks enough to be secure, the Partisans began retaking the hills and outlying regions, leaving Axis forces increasingly in isolated urban areas. They had in fact liberated most of the country by the time the Soviets arrived, who helped clean up much of the remainder of forces around Belgrade. This success meant that Yugoslavia would not become a satellite Soviet state and retained a large degree of independence from the beginning.

Tito’s partisans became the new government of a socialist Yugoslavia, which rose like a phoenix from the ashes. The state made enormous, if unfortunately ephemeral, gains in reconciliation after thoroughly purging fascists from the war. Considering the context, this was no small matter in one of the most devastated states of World War 2. It made far more lasting gains in the realms of female empowerment, human development, and making a previously minor country a major diplomatic player on the world stage which held influential sway in the Non-Aligned Movement.

But just a bit over a decade after Tito’s death the old and ever-present tensions would tear the state apart again. With the coming of Slovene and Croatian separatism as well as Serb chauvanism, the Kali Yuga would descend upon the Southern Slavs.

3. Post Genocide Rwanda

On the sixth anniversary of the Liberation of Kiga

To say that Rwanda spent most of the Twentieth Century as an incredibly troubled nation would be to barely scratch the surface. Colonization by Germany and then Belgium, who both propped up an unsustainable system of built in ethnic strife gave the nation an already bad hand after independence. The revolution in the 60s removed the Tutsi aristocracy from power but did little to remove still existing tensions. The new government made many enemies and the Rwandan Patriotic Front became an exile army and government which made allies with Uganda and served in the Ugandan Bush War.

Meanwhile, back home, the crumbling situation took the government in famously genocidal directions. Like the Croat Ustasha, the Hutu radicals took to ferreting out rumored weak links by waging a no-holds-barred campaign of extermination against the Tutsi minority and anyone opposed to their rule. But while they bloodied their machetes against the defenseless, the RPF, battle hardened and unified by their exile, swept in and against the odds disposed of the government.

Since that time tiny Rwanda has made enormous strides in recovery, development, and re-orienting its foreign relations. It has become arguably the most powerful state in Central Africa and one still working hard to abolish official ethnic division. Time will only tell what the real results will be, but the fact that they have made it here from the 90s is nothing less of a miracle.


What are the recurring themes of these (and more) examples and the journey of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata?

1. In-group solidarity (such as Ibn Khaldun’s assabiyya) is made in adversity and exile, and can be a more effective tool of revenge than numbers. All three of the above real life examples were against the odds and against entrenched power. When Krishna was approached by both sides of the coming Kurukshetra War he could not deny either, despite his preference for the Pandavas, for he can deny no one that seeks his aid. He offered himself to one side and his army to another. This makes him much like a symbol for the vagaries of fate and power. But Arjuna chose wisely, and chose Krishna himself over his armies. This would be the linchpin of victory in the coming war.

2. The only way to stave off political degeneracy and reactionary ossification, at least awhile longer, is to have a political upset in the form of a dramatic upheaval or bloodletting. The necessary reforms and re-organization of the ruling classes can only occur with the extermination of the miscreants, be it through exile, prison, or death. This may include fighting former friends and allies. No doubt, Kemal, Tito, and Kagame all had moments where they, like Arjuna, paused before taking the necessary action. But the balance of forces were moving in games more relevant than individual feelings and there was no choice but to see it through.

4. Women too will get their revenge. Much like Kaurava rule in Kuru, where they tried to humiliate and denigrate Draupadi only to have her enthroned and washing her hair in the blood of her enemies, the women of these three former reactionary regimes would go on to have an elevated position in the new governments. The Turkish government made enormous strides in female education and enfranchisement, as did socialist Yugoslavia (where women had fought with the partisans as equals of the men). Rwanda in turn has gone on to surpass all other nations of the present in percentage of female lawmakers.

 

All of these lessons and more are worth keeping in mind as we enter into an era of ecological catastrophe. After all, those of us who live in the Anglo-American sphere of things have been dwelling in the Kali Yuga for many decades now insofar as leadership is concerned.

tragedyfarce