This week, we’re sharing stories from Abrahm Lustgarten, Lois Beckett, Julia O’Malley, Alice Driver, and Sarah Jeong.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Lizzie Presser, Linda Villarosa, Maurice Chammah, Mike Giglio, and Will Storr.
As a child, I dreaded my family’s annual trip to the plant nursery. Embarrassingly, I cannot tell you a single plant my parents purchased. My sister and I romped through the aisles of the greenhouses, hoping to trigger the sprinklers. Neither of us had a passion for gardening. I can’t speak for my sister, but I still don’t. Nevertheless, I’ve listened to two gardeners speak about their passions and philosophies in the past two weeks: Nancy Lawson, author of The Humane Gardener, and Marianne Willburn, who wrote Big Dreams, Small Garden. I pored over their books, replete with gorgeous pictures of very different gardens and their animal and human inhabitants. While I wasn’t inspired to take up a trowel, between their suggestions for dodging Maryland’s infamous gnats and peaceful coexistence with rabbits, I gained a new appreciation for a dedication to the dirt.
1. “Bitter Greens.” (Mindy Hung, The Toast, December 2014)
“When I was seven years old, my grandparents began a squatter’s garden over empty city land.” So begins Mindy Hung’s essay about bitter vegetables, the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the unpredictability of cruel teenagers, and scarcity versus security.
2. “Arcadia.” (Emma Crichton Miller, Aeon, August 2013)
Psychoanalysts, artists, and poets have long drawn on imagery of nature. The garden, with its chaos cultivated and conquered, is lush with metaphor.
3. “Lessons From My Mother, the Grave Gardener.” (Anna Gragert, Catapult, May 2017)
Not even a childhood spent assisting her mother in tending to gravesides could prepare Anna Gragert for the inevitability of her loved ones’ deaths.
4. “Why Would Someone Steal the World’s Rarest Water Lily?” (Sam Knight, The Guardian, October 2014)
A fascinating, frustrating tale of PLANT CRIME: The tiniest water lily, Rwandan in origin, is taken from Kew Gardens in England, ostensibly in plain sight. But there are no cameras and no witnesses. What’s a conservatory to do? And what’s the end game of the wheelers and dealers on the black market for the world’s most endangered plants?
5. “The Neoliberal Green Space.” (Marisa Mandabach, Jacobin, July 2015)
The Turkish construction boom is eliminating the historical link between Muslim life and working-class gardens, over the protests of the people:
Istanbul’s bostans preserve an alternative model for urban gardening: one that provides a living for professional small farmers, who supply their communities with produce and have relative autonomy over the spaces they cultivate. That this livelihood is being destroyed right as gardens are becoming fetish objects in the urban imagination might seem ironic — but it is perfectly compatible with the rise of the neoliberal green space.
At The Guardian, Samira Shackle profiles Muhammad Safdar, an ambulance driver in Karachi, Pakistan, where religious violence, workplace disasters, and multiple explosions are just another day on the job. The Edhi Foundation’s ambulance service, which refuses state money and donations from businesses it deems unethical, is funded largely by donations from “the common man.” Standard work shifts run between 18 and 36 hours, and drivers earn about $1.30 US per day.
The impact of the explosion sent Muhammad Safdar flying backwards. He looked up from where he had landed and saw that the windows of his parked ambulance had shattered. As he tried to pick himself back up, fellow volunteer drivers working for the Edhi ambulance service gathered around him; it looked as if Safdar was bleeding. But he had not suffered any external injuries. “Human flesh got stuck to me,” he recalls now, as we sit in the ambulance control centre in downtown Karachi. “My friends were checking me for injuries, but it was pieces of other people. I was trembling hard and I couldn’t hear my own voice when I spoke. It sounded juddering. I could only hear whistles.”
Sporting red T-shirts emblazoned with bold white letters reading “EDHI”, these workers are a familiar sight at Pakistan’s all-too-common disaster scenes. Here in Karachi, a megalopolis of around 20 million people, there is no state ambulance service.
Like other Edhi ambulance drivers, Safdar is technically a volunteer and works for a basic salary of 4,300 Pakistani rupees a month (£33). A private driver would earn 10,000–15,000 rupees. This basic salary covers the high-risk rescue work; the easier “patient services” jobs – moving people between hospitals and transporting corpses – incur a small fee, so drivers receive a commission of around 100 rupees (76p) per trip. Sometimes patients tip. But clearly, money is not the motivating factor.
I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…
At The Guardian, George Saunders reflects on his writing process. The magical, romantic notion where fully formed art leaps from the author’s brain on to the page? It dishonors the writer, the reader, and the work. In reality, it takes “hundreds of drafts” and “thousands of incremental adjustments” to form a story into a “hopeful thing.”
If you love George Saunders, check out the Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit and see what it’s like to take a literature course with Mr. Saunders, for yourself.
We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.
The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.
How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.
The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?
The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.
And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.
Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be—almost surely is—a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system. But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.
The family had learned to be bullish about the passing of their pub from one lofty brand to another. It never much affected their lives at drip-tray height. In the eyes of their regular customers, the Murphys were the Golden Lion. Their hands were on the taps of Guinness and Guinness Extra Cold, they signed the orders on boxes of Tayto crisps. The Murphys brushed down the pool table before evening league matches and heard the grumbles of anyone who had lost a pound or more in the flashing Dream Machine. They had hosted parties for weddings, christenings, communions. One regular, his photograph kept afterwards on a shelf above the till, had been served a last pint by Mary Murphy before dying on the pavement outside; his wake took place back indoors.
The Golden Lion is a local landmark, a towering red-brick building with a double-peaked roof and a high, pronged chimney. Seen from a distance along Royal College Street, the building looks a little like one of those Chinese cat dolls that wave. Closer, the exterior reveals fancy adornment, carved stone, colourful glazed ceramics, Dutch gables – showy work done when the Golden Lion was pulled down and rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. Its owner back then was a Victorian businessman named Will Hetherington. He put an advertisement in the parish newspaper at the time to boast of his expensive refurbishment, inviting locals to make use of the Lion’s “comfort and convenience”. In a century of successive ownership, the Golden Lion remained always a locals’ pub, used for the most part by those who lived and worked within a few hundred metres of the front door.
Under the Murphys’ stewardship, carpets, curtains, and horsey wallpaper were removed over time, leaving a clean, pale-walled interior with bare wooden floors. The family brought in a jukebox, a dartboard, later a pair of flatscreen TVs, mounted at either end of the saloon and kept tuned, as a rule, to sport, quiz shows, or (on weekend evenings) talent contests. Benches outside were taken up, even in winter, by smokers. In the men’s loo a passing Arsenal fan had felt-tipped a crude club badge above the sink and Dave Murphy, an Arsenal fan himself, had not yet ordered it to be washed away. John Murphy, after decades in charge, had retired for health reasons, and Dave was now responsible for the Golden Lion’s overall management. Though he no longer lived above the pub, Mary did. She still served behind the bar every afternoon and evening.
During their meeting with the Admiral rep, the family were told the Golden Lion had been sold on once more. Not to another pubco, but to a private individual. Dave Murphy remembered the Admiral rep being sympathetic and, speaking candidly, she told them that the man who now owned the Golden Lion “was notorious for shutting pubs down”. After the meeting, Dave Murphy rang around some friends in the business. He read out the name he’d scribbled on a piece of paper: Antony Stark.
Had anyone heard of him?
“I was told, this was it,” Murphy remembered. “The Grim Reaper. That if he knocked on the door of your pub, well … it meant the end.”
Tom Lamont’s exhaustive 2015 deep-dive on the death of pub culture in England for The Guardian is worth re-reading, considering the role a bar plays within a community — as watering hole, a place to meet up, or merely where you go to enjoy a book on a summer afternoon — as you raise a pint of Guinness, Smithwick’s, or Bulmers.
If you enjoyed Michael Finkel’s 2014 GQ story about Christopher Knight — the North Pond Hermit — you’ll be interested in knowing Finkel’s turned that story into a book.
At The Guardian, read an excerpt from The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Finkel’s book on the man who simply walked away from the modern world into the woods of rural Maine in 1986 without any real plan for survival. Living alone for 27 years in a makeshift camp, Knight survived by stealing food, clothes, and provisions from neighboring camps and cabins. Knight committed over 1,000 break-ins during his self-imposed exile — stymying law enforcement and homeowners alike for nearly three decades.
Christopher Knight was only 20 years old when he walked away from society, not to be seen again for more than a quarter of a century. He had been working for less than a year installing home and vehicle alarm systems near Boston, Massachusetts, when abruptly, without giving notice to his boss, he quit his job. He never even returned his tools. He cashed his final pay cheque and left town.
Knight parked the car and tossed the keys on the centre console. He had a tent and a backpack but no compass, no map. Without knowing where he was going, with no particular place in mind, he stepped into the trees and walked away.
The cabins around the ponds in central Maine, Knight noted, had minimal security measures. Windows were often left open, even when the owners were away. The woods offered excellent cover, and with few permanent residents, the area would always be empty during the off-season. A summer camp with a big pantry was nearby. The easiest way to become a hunter-gatherer here was obvious.
And so Knight decided to steal.
To commit a thousand break-ins before getting caught, a world-class streak, requires precision and patience, daring and luck. It also demands a specific understanding of people. “I looked for patterns,” Knight said. “Everyone has patterns.”
He perched at the edge of the woods and meticulously observed the habits of the families with cabins along the ponds. He watched their quiet breakfasts and dinner parties, their visitors and vacancies, the cars moving up and down the road. Nothing Knight saw tempted him to return to his former life. His surveillance was clinical, informational, mathematical. He did not learn anyone’s name. All he sought was to understand migration patterns – when people went shopping, when a cabin was unoccupied. After that, he said, everything in his life became a matter of timing. The ideal time to steal was deep in the night, midweek, preferably when it was overcast, best in the rain.
This week, we’re sharing stories by Sam Knight, Rick Perlstein, Ijeoma Oluo, Keziah Weir, and George Saunders.
Three years ago, filmmaker Kyrre Lien became curious about what drives people to make hateful comments online. He pored over 200 online profiles and traveled the world to interview internet trolls in person to uncover why they say the things they do. Kyrre’s look into the bowels of humanity is at once absurd and terrifying — proof that hate and those with “illogical beliefs” may be living right next door. Watch Kyrre’s troll documentary at The Guardian.
Norwegian filmmaker Kyrre Lien began researching online commenters on Christmas Day 2014. “I became fascinated by how much hate and ignorance people were writing in the comments section of a news site,” he says, “so I began looking at people’s profiles, trying to work out who they were. Many seemed quite normal. They had families and looked like nice people, but the comments they were writing in a public space were so extreme. There was a disconnect.” And so began Lien’s three-year journey into the lives of some of the internet’s most prolific online commenters, now the subject of a documentary, The Internet Warriors.
Lien’s research took him across the world – from the fjords of Norway to the US desert – meeting people of extreme, “often illogical” beliefs: the racists, the homophobes, the slut-shamers. Lien initially researched 200 potential subjects. Half said no when he approached them. It was then a process of elimination: “To find out what their motives were, who they were, and why they held the views they did. In a way,” he says, “I became an investigator.”
Kjell Frode Tislevoll used to spend hours debating online. “Like when I commented on an article: ‘What we need in Oslo is a sidewalk for those with dark skin and a sidewalk for those with white skin. That way, we won’t be attacked or mugged.” He got 20 likes. Eventually he decided to apply a filter on Facebook, so he’d no longer see posts about immigration.
But things are changing for Tislevoll. Last year, a refugee reception centre was built in his home town, and he slowly found he was becoming “less sceptical of immigrants”. It coincided with the arrival of a Muslim man at work. “He’s OK,” he says, “so my issues with immigration are going away. If I met my former self in a discussion forum now, I’d probably get into an argument with him.”