This society is obsessed with the undead, the zombie apocalypse. It’s easy enough to understand; I knew the end times were speeding down the pipeline back in 1999, when the radio airwaves were full of boy bands and rap-rock hybrids, and all the most popular TV shows were “reality television” and talent contests with phone-in democracy. The number one rapper was a trailer trash white dude, the most interesting rock persona looked like a vampire king, and you could buy spikes for your DIY clothing at the shopping mall.
Now here we are almost 20 years later, and the hordes have come. No need to look to the future or to cable TV for the zombie apocalypse; it’s already here, in front of you. Train cars, backyards, dinner tables, night clubs, social gatherings, all full of people typing their prayers into the screen of an electronic device–zoned out, barely conscious, imaginations on life support and ready to pull the plug. Aching for a final, painless escape into the great beyond; virtual reality, come rescue me. When all spiritual power and meaning has been sucked away, processed into consumer goods, and put on sale for the low low price of the never-to-return moments of your life, well… sounds like the end times to me.
No more black lung coal mines for your children; those went somewhere else, now it’s somebody else’s children. No more factory slaves in sight; they’re locked behind bars, or across a border or an ocean. Do we still have farms, or do drones do all the harvesting of genetically modified mono-crops? I saw cows on the countryside up north, some of these folks still have ranches. Somebody must not have told them the score.
“I only watch documentaries.” I know, because–and this may surprise you–I’ve heard it before. Often. What may also surprise you is finding out that even though you think you’re somehow “alternative” (chuckles) or wise beyond the banality of TV talent shows and police porn, you’re actually just tuned into another frequency of channel zero. This is the one where they define history and reality for you, an absolute determination, complete with dramatic music, jump cuts, special effects, and the soothing voices of actors explaining The Way of Things.
Or maybe you really like watching footage of the “animals,” I mean who wouldn’t? They’re so raw, so natural, so free of boxes and technological addictions. And with the safety of the screen and the distance of time and space in between you and them, you don’t even have to worry about smelling them or running afoul of their tempers and flesh-weapons. You can look up a bee’s asshole and never have to worry about getting stung. This culture is nothing if not nosey. Voyeuristic, even. Have you noticed? Maybe it’s just me.
Murder and media re-presentation are ingredients in the most sophisticated chains thus far deployed on a mass scale. I mean, they’re already plugging microchips into dragonflies to control where they fly and what they do, but it might be a few years before they have that for your children, and there’s always the chance we might run out of metal or drown in rising oceans or dissolve in nuclear holocaust before that happens. For now, murder and media re-presentation will have to do the job.
It’s very simple, actually; you kill the thing, then you tell the story of the thing you killed. You’ve achieved a powerful dynamic of control–the thing will never do anything you don’t want it to do, because it’s dead. One of the things it will never do again is speak, in any way, for itself, so now its story belongs to you. You can say it was… well, whatever you want to say. Or you can say nothing at all. What thing? There was never one of those. You must be crazy. Let’s see some ID. Log in with your social media profile, so we can inspect for divergent thoughts.
Rhinos can live forever on screen, or at least till the power goes out. Muskrats and prairie dogs, tigers and butterflies. There’s some nature around, if I drive far enough I can see it, but there’s bugs out there and besides I might have to walk, which I’m far too exhausted to do after selling my time to the lowest bidder to eat and have shelter. My family has been spread to the four corners, but I can see pictures of them and chat with them through the screen. I mostly use it to talk to family, don’t I?
Mad science, babylon science, anti-life science, the event horizon beyond which all meaning is devoured and spirit is a primitive superstition of people who aren’t evolved enough to resist germ warfare or commit ecocide. If I tell you what my ancestors told me, or even better how to talk to your own, can I be your guru? Will you bring me nubile women, can you afford the workshop fee? Be sure to post pictures to promote it; if we can’t transmute experience into a commodity, then what good is it?
Yesterday evening I was sitting on the couch reading the quaint and life-affirming stories of an extinct culture when I heard raccoon talk coming through the front door. It was too early for the raccoon folk to be out among the deadly automobiles and machine people, and the talk was full of urgency and worry. I opened the screen door and stepped onto the front porch to see what was going on; I walked into a spectacle that could only happen in the dense isolation of urban living–there were raccoons, yes, a family; mom and children, I would guess. The kids were about half the size they’ll eventually be. Mom was at the edge of the grass with two of the kids, hollering at someone around the side of my house I couldn’t see. Nobody looked injured. This wasn’t the spectacle.
The spectacle was, a number of human neighbors were standing on the sidewalk across the street, watching the raccoon family like it was Jesus and his band of merry apostles come back for a visit. I’m watching the raccoons, trying to figure out what mom is hollering about–trying to hear–and a woman across the street yells out to me, “There’s a family of raccoons in your yard!” This was a major event for her, which is beautiful and tragic in equal measure. I smile her way and mumble something.
There’s a fence that separates my yard from the neighbors, a whole clan of salvadorans and one lone chinese family all stuffed into a small apartment building. Another junior raccoon finally comes dashing from the side of the house, from the neighbors’ side of the fence. All raccoons are at a low level of panic; they know they shouldn’t be out at this hour, they know they’re in danger under the evening light and the eyes of humans. Mom hollers at junior, who finally runs over and joins the group. They all trot off down the sidewalk, not running, but in the rush of people who know they’re in a neighborhood of trouble. By the way, the sight of a family of raccoons walking down a sidewalk is absurd, if that needed to be said.
I go back inside to the couch and the stories, and after a few minutes I hear more raccoon chirping, this time from the backyard. I went out on the back porch to check out the sequel to the front porch adventure. All the men of the salvadoran clan were on the other side of the fence, looking up at one of the trees in my yard, who was chirping. Or rather, an unseen junior raccoon was chirping. I walked out on the hard earth and dead grass to get a closer look, got tree sap and a thorn in my bare foot for my troubles. One of the neighbors spoke to me, which rarely happens. “Do you see him?” No, but I did notice that when I got close, the raccoon went silent. The young man again, big smile, teeth full of braces and red food coloring stains: “There was a whole family of them out front.” Yes, it’s too early for them to be out, I say. I’m worried for them, I don’t say.
Looks to me like junior got separated from the family. Between the inherent danger of being out before dark and the stress of humans gathering and gawking at them, I’m guessing mom opted to retreat, and one of the kids got left behind. Please (god)(mystery)(power)(spirit)(wholeness)(grandmotherfather) look after them, keep them safe and reunite them.
Later that night, after dark, I’m on the back porch ranting with my roommate about white men’s stories. I hear a telltale scraping sound and look out into the yard; the junior raccoon left the tree and ran off down the edge of the fence, in direction his family went earlier. My roommate doesn’t notice. I smile and save the story for later.