The elephant in the butterfly net: a fable

From Born Expecting the Pleistocene:

Suppose there was an elephant who somehow managed to get a butterfly net stuck across the front part of the top of his head. Suppose further that the elephant knew that the purpose of a butterfly net was for capturing butterflies. Suspend your disbelief a bit further and suppose that the elephant thought that because it was caught in the net, it was, like a butterfly, trapped, and had no recourse but to submit to the demands of the person holding the other end of the net. And suppose that, tragically, there was in fact no one on the other end of the net.

You are walking through the jungle and happen upon this elephant, which is by this time well on the way to starvation because, being trapped in the net, it has not been able to move from the spot for several days. What would you do to try to save the elephant? Feed the elephant by hand so that it doesn’t die? Inform the elephant that there is no one holding the other end of the net? Attempt to convince the elephant that it is not a butterfly, and thus not subject to the rules of butterfly nets, that a butterfly net is powerless against its massive bulk? It seems the simplest solution might be just to remove the net.

There is one other possibility, however. Since the elephant is already convinced it is helpless and at the mercy of its captor, you might simply grab hold of the other end of the net yourself and start issuing commands.

Brief reflections on the writing process

For me, writing as an art form is very much analogous to sculpture. Generally speaking, there are two main (and not mutually exclusive) methods employed when “sculpting” a written piece: build-up and chip-away. During build-up, I begin with a general idea and then, to the degree possible, I let the structure evolve organically as words and sentences are added (although I do a fair amount of mid-sentence editing along the way). During chip-away, I take what I have already written and then bend it, balance it, shape it into a clearer, crisper form—here the added texture and fine detail change what I have written from a blankly stated idea to a meaningful expression: a reflection of a small part of my mental and emotional topography as it relates to the subject at hand. Word choice is a major focus during the chip-away phase, but crafting the right syntax is equally—if not more—important. Syntax can add subtle shades of meaning, giving a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole section a flavor that mere words cannot carry.

I enjoy both parts of the process, but the chip-away phase leads to the most satisfying experience of “flow.”

What I lack is a more general top-down organizational schematic that could somehow serve to regulate and coordinate the direction of these two phases of the process. This is intentional on my part: having such top-down control interferes with the creative impulse. But because of this, I will occasionally write myself into a corner where I am forced to make a painful choice. In terms of the sculpture metaphor, imagine that you have sculpted a highly textured and most beautifully detailed wing, where each feather is perfectly placed and folds seamlessly in with its neighbor, but then you discover that the overall form is not that of a bird after all, and that from the beginning you have really been sculpting a horse. At this point it becomes very tempting to keep the wing and change directions completely, to abandon the terrestrial horse you started with and go with a Pegasus instead. I have found that the best solution in these cases is to put the wing in a box to be taken out sometime in the future when I know that I have a more avian goal.

Although, truth be known, it can sometimes be very hard to let go, and I have amassed a sizeable collection of hideous and unpublishable chimeras over the years.

Dead wolf selfie

The visceral effect was immediate and without prolog. I almost doubled over. The caption in black and bold font beneath the image on my screen was “No it’s not a bear. It’s a 152 pound wolf!”

The creature’s head faced the camera at an angle that was not quite right. It was like one of those Victorian age death photos: a daguerreotype showing the corpse of a young child seated on her mother’s lap with her eyes taped open. Only it was a high definition digital color image and the dead emptiness of the wolf’s gaze was unmistakable. Kneeling on the ground behind its enormous lifeless black-furred body was a puffy-faced young punk decked in Walmart camo and leaning against a high-powered hunting rifle. For a brief moment, I wanted someone to shoot him with his own gun, I wanted to see the bloated pride drain from the shit-eating grin on his face as he bled out on the ground next to his trophy, I wanted to see a faded sepia tone photo of his body propped against a tree with his eyes taped open and staring blankly at the camera.

OK, so maybe for something more than a brief moment.

The civilized human approach to predation is in many ways the antithesis of that practiced by other predators. Other predators go after the weak and the sick. It is the lame deer that the wolf pack shares, it is the sick wildebeest that the lion pride tackles, it is the slow fish at the tail end of the school that is eaten first. But civilized humans go after the strong and the healthy. We throw the puny fish back and keep the strong mature ones. We shoot for the largest buck with the most antler points. These two predation strategies—take the young and the weak versus take the mature and the strong—impact prey populations in dramatically different ways. When you take the weak and the sick, you have removed their ability to propagate their weakness and sickness into the next generation, and the population as a whole becomes stronger and healthier. When you take the strong and mature, you remove healthy breeding adults in their reproductive prime and leave behind the small and weak and the reproductively fragile, which interferes with the natural replenishment of the species. The result is a population that as a whole becomes physically smaller and weaker, and population numbers can decline precipitously. Or perhaps the developmental progression is altered. For example, in response to industrial fishing, heavily harvested ocean fish have evolved to stay small and to mature more quickly so that they can reproduce before the fishnet removes them from the gene pool. The average adult cod is considerably smaller than it was even a couple decades ago.

But the dead wolf in the image was not a victim of predation. Civilized humans hunting for sport are not predators, at least not in the way that that term applies to wolves or leopards or sharks or rattlesnakes or spiders—or to uncivilized humans hunting for food. A predator hunts out of necessity. Although I have witnessed crows killing ducklings for what looked to me like sport, predators typically hunt as a biological imperative. Killing for food is one thing. And hunting deer or elk for their meat can be a potent way to reconnect with essential parts of our authentic humanity that have been hidden beneath the asphalt and touchscreen circuitry of the modern world. But sport hunting—killing an animal simply for the enjoyment of the act itself—is a response to psychological deficit. Civilized humans kill for sport in response to their lack of wholeness. They hunt in response to a powerfully felt sense of personal deficiency. Ten thousand years ago, killing a bear-sized wolf would have had profound spiritual significance. It would have been an event worthy of reverential reflection by the hunter and calm circumspection by his friends. Today it’s a selfie-worthy photo op in attempt to placate an insatiable ego; a pathetic attempt to fill an emotional vacuum—a psychological blank space that results from living a shallow and inauthentic life.