Saturday, September 11, 2021

N: THE FIRE THAT CLINGS TO EVERYTHING - PART 3 THE END

 




-         In 1966, a  campaign against the manufacture of N. began in Redwood, California, a harbor town on the San Francisco bay. Standard Oil Company, the enterprise that had built the test Japanese and Germany structures for the War department in 1942 applied to the town council for a permit to sublease their facility to United Technologies, which plans to produce 100 million pounds of N. there. Protestors gather together a number of professionals – engineers, English professors from Stanford – to block the permit. They fail. However, the protests against N. are widely reported. Ramparts magazine, a leftist Catholic periodical, published an article (January, 1967) about N. used in Vietnam by William F. Pepper,  with color photographs of children among the burn victims.

-         In January 1967, in the Ladies Home Journal, Martha Gellhorn published a report about her visit to hospitals in Vietnam. There, unlike a number of physicians on the payroll of the military, who had been quoted as saying that there was no record of Vietnamese children burned by N., she found them. “N had burned his face and back and one hand. The burned skin look like swollen, raw meat; the fingers of his hand were stretched out, burned rigid. A scrap of cheesecloth covered him, for weight is intolerable but so is air.”

-         “N. sticks to kids…”

-         Other countries, other stockpiles of N., other wars. The 1967 war – Israel and Jordan. The war against Amazonian tribes – Brazil. The war against the campesinos, 1960s – Bolivia. Falkland Islands war – Argentina. Afghanistan – the Soviet Union.

-         “On the afternoon of 1 June 1982, a prisoner of war work detail under the supervision of an Argentine officer and guarded by three British solders was engaged on the task of moving ammunition from near the sheep-shearing shed when there was a loud explosion. A very fierce fire began and although rescuers managed to pull the injured clear one prisoner of war was seen to stagger back into the flames. Attempts to reach him failed and a sergeant of the British forces, who had, over a period of some minutes, been repeatedly driven back by the heat and flames and who thought the prisoner was beyond assistance but still alive and in agony, obtained a rifle and fired three or four shots at the man.”

6.

L., according to family myth, was an angry man during the last years of his life, because he couldn’t sell his gun designs to the Americans. He dictated insulting letters to Woodrow Wilson. My grandmother, his secretary, would take down his words and then throw the letters away. Safest that way. At least, this is one version of family myth. L. was apparently obsessed with guns.  L. made a shot at alerting the U.S. population to its vulnerability – one in a long line of such warnings, all leading to more weapons, better weapons, more research money, more interventions, invasions, coups – on August 22 1915. It was advertised on the front page of the NYT: “We need Unsinkable Battleships: L., Inventor of Famous Gun, Explains New Invention offered to Our Government.” This must have been a sweet moment for L., as the New York Times was in the cabal of those who declared his earlier gun invention “a failure”. He did venture a paragraph that might, in retrospect,  have been intemperate:

“Unsinkable battleships are no mere figment of inventive imagination. Germany has such ships already. I know because I myself furnished the designs.”

L.’s opinion seems to have been that the U.S. should go it alone, arm itself to the teeth and wait to see what was left of Europe.  Instead, Woodrow Wilson “betrayed” him and the U.S. entered the war on the allied side on April 6, 1917. I could imagine that every day after that was a headline followed by an apoplectic fit. He died on June 4, 1917.

- After the war, the family decided that Germany had stolen certain of L.’s designs. The stories that came down to us, the grandchildren, were confusing. Was it the Germans or the American government that was to blame? Did Congress take away L’s patents? Did he really have as many as Edison? Family stories tend to grow murky around the detail’s edge. Only recently have I researched L.’s record. The heirs sued both the U.S. and the German governments for patent infringement. In 1924, the claim that the U.S. government used a technique for processing dried gunpowder using an L. patent without permission was rejected. Then, it  seems his heirs – my grandfather among them -  sued Germany for 100 million dollars. The case failed. According to the International Court, “both prior to and since the World War American inventors have been entitled, on taking the measures prescribed by the German statutes, to have issued to them letters patent protecting their inventions. On the failure the patentees, or those claiming under them, to pay the German Government the annual fees required by these statutes, the rights acquired under the patents are lost.” Judgment recorded, March 19, 1925.

- L.’s face: a drawing of him in old age, with a goatish beard, hiding behind mad scientist spectacles. The very image of the crankish professor, although to my knowledge, he never had a degree. American inventors in the 19th century did not have time to attend university classes. 

7.

- In the post-Vietnam downer, as the mission wound down and Saigon fell, the military began to realize that N. had become a bad take. The ashy trail it left behind, the photographed, the televised pain, it all became a voodoo curse, penetrating even the buzzcut mindset of the Generals. Even the movies had turned against them! And so one of the great tools of graduated reprisal had to be put back on the shelf, so to speak.

- So to speak – because it turned out not to be so easy to get rid of the stocks of N. that had accumulated during the war. There were 33,800 aluminum canisters [stored] since 1972 at the Fallbrook Naval Weapons Station.” The Fallbrook station had been “commissioned” in 1942, the year of big projects, and was located next door to Fallbrook, at that time “a sleepy agricultural town” in the northwest corner of San Diego County. It was part of the network of military sites that helped drive San Diego in the postwar period, until these sites became a less obvious good – encroachment on potentially valuable real estate.  In 1983, the Navy, with the encouragement of Southern California’s Congressional delegation, began to search for a  permanent disposal of the by now notorious weapon. However, due to N.’s PR – at one time as a uniquely fearful weapon against the Communists (good), at another time as a uniquely criminal weapon that “sticks to kids” (bad) – it was not easy to find a community that would welcome this particular business. In 1983, still not gauging the need to win hearts and minds in America, the Navy contracted with Bud’s Oil Service of Phoenix to get rid of its bad luck. The Navy underestimated the common newspaper reader’s reaction to something called “Bud’s” disposing of weaponry so lethal that we were just a truck accident away from an explosion. It is as if Bud had been called upon to dispose of America’s extra ICBM’s. In the event, Bud could not handle the job. It failed to build a “special system” to break the N. down into its components, stripping it out of its shells and returning it to the Continent of Synthetica out of which it came.

- The battle of Bud’s was the first engagement in a long process of publishing specs and waiting for bids, only to have communities rise up against N. coming anywhere near their kids. Battle Creek, Michigan  didn’t want it. Encinedo County didn’t want it. Chicago didn’t want it. Meanwhile, San Diego Congressmen Ron Packard and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, hawkish down to their drawers, were on the Navy to find a disposer. There was 3 million gallons of N., there. It was leaking out of the cannisters. The evil eye was stewing, stewing in the Southern Californian paradise.

- Finally, in 1998, a peace treaty was signed among Congressmen. Texas congressman Tom Delay agreed to shepherd the process that would bring the N. to Houston – specifically to GNI Group, a Texas hazardous-waste firm. The price had gone up from Bud’s time – Bud had bid 380,000 dollars to take it off the Navy’s hands. GNI Group charged 9 million. GNI’s group intended to take the N. and blend it  “with other industrial byproducts, creating an alternative fuel for cement kilns.”

- “Ain’t gonna study war no more”, sang Pete Seeger. “I’m going to lay down my sword and shield.” L., however, has the last word in this story: in 1916, proposing a flying aircraft, he wrote: “The flying machines now used in war are first rate in their way. For scouting purposes they serve admirably. But aircraft that can really fight are lacking.

They will soon arrive.”

 

 

-

 

 

 

Friday, September 10, 2021

N: THE FIRE THAT CLINGS TO EVERYTHING, PART 2

3.

- 6.25 – the Korean war. Operation Snowball, named with typical Yankee humor. Going back here to Davy Crockett’s autobiography. Referencing chance of said product of cold weather and children’s hands of surviving in Hell. Snowball, as in. ‘During the early days in Korea it was delivered in 100 gallon plastic jugs that cost about 40 dollars each. During the war an average of 250,000 pounds of N. was dropped each day in support of United Nations troops...”

N. proved its worth in Dugway, then in Tokyo, Dresden, Osaka, Hamburg, and other cities where there were tatami mats and/or children’s toys. It was to prove itself America’s hope and prime weapon in Korea, where it was thought the Asiatic had a particular fear of the thing, or as director John Ford put it, casting an affectionate eye on the airplanes dropping their loads: “Fry em, burn em out, cook em.” The folksiness of the phrase, its roots in American self-regard, the country’s legendary can do, the Indian fighting. N. had gone from being a bureaucratic agent of “de-housing”, stripped of any ethical regard, to the GI’s friend. “N. Jelly Bombs prove a blazing success in Korea”. However, N. was not always regarded from the grunt’s level as a blazing success. “...I’ll never forget the sight. There were hundreds of burned bodies in it. The snow was burned off the ground and Chinese bodies were lying in heaps, all scorched and burned from our N., their arms and  legs frozen in grotesque angles. Our air force used a lot of N. on them, and it is almost beyond belief that they continued to fight in broad daylight, so exposed like that. But what I saw in the draw was only the beginning....” Lynn Freeman, army officer.

4.

Did L., who arrived in the States just after the Civil War, have any feeling about the Germany he left? He made his pile in milling grain – he invented a milling mechanism that made him a fortune, he had a factory in Chicago, a flattering newspaper reporter wrote a profile about how he was always down on the floor, tinkering. It was the Republic of tinkering. L. had children, he built a mansion, he threw himself into various scientific hobbies. Astronomy – he designed a lens for larger telescopes. Rainmaking – he designed a surefire method which involved shooting … into the clouds, he wrote a book about it. And finally, perhaps through meditating on rainmaking, gunmaking. The problem was how to design a long range projectile that would not simply penetrate armor but would, on impact, direct an explosion worthy of the twentieth century. The century of science, and scientific war.  Eventually, unable to persuade the powers that be in the War Department to buy his plans, he sold his designs to the German government. A government that was much different from the one he had left behind so long ago – it was a state, forged by Bismark (there was a force, a force like a projectile stuffed with guncotton!) which could well appreciate a technological breakthrew. And so those projectiles stirred up the mud and knocked down the cathedrals in Northern France.

5.

It was I.F. Stone who reported on the song the helicopter pilots were singing on Flag Day in Vietnam, June 29, 1970

 

 

N sticks to kids, N. sticks to kids,

When're those damn gooks ever learn?

 We shoot the sick, the young, the lame,

We do our best to kill and maim,

Because the "kills" all count the same,

N. sticks to kids. 

 

-         Japan had demonstrated that N. could “trample out the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored.” In Korea, there had been setbacks, in the way of presenting the Freeworld’s case for the American way of fighting the war, but the success of N. was indisputable. By the end, some estimates show 2 million deaths in North Korea. Not all from N., of course, but N. had blazed a mighty path.

-         “It was my intention and hope … [to] go to work on burning five major cities in Korea to the ground” – Emmet O’Donnell, commander of bomber forces in Korea, quoted by Robert Neer. Pyongyang. Shinuiju. Hoeryong. Carthage. Babylon. Would we sow salt on the embers? Would victory be ours? Or would we have to split the difference? “Forward air controllers report that the enemy usually stays in his holes when ordinary bombs are dropped or rockets are fired, but when N. comes anywhere near his position he takes off and runs. The Communists have found that it has a similar deadly effect on tanks!”

-         The Korean war, it is generally agreed, has been forgotten. Except for the Koreans. American wars are generally judged on their goodness or badness, their memorability or their insignificance, in proportion to their impression on the American collective consciousness. In as much as American media became dominant in the post-war years – the movies -the rock n roll – the American impression of history became history for a whole tuned-in global class. But, stubbornly, those who bore the brunt of the wars refused to concede their history, which caused infinite puzzlement, when it was noticed, among American policymakers. It caused hard feelings, which could be exploited by the communists.

-         The Vietnam war, on the other hand, was infinitely memorable. Everything came together: good and evil, photogenic presidents and non-photogenic ones, hippies and straights, the Stooges and John Wayne, levitating the Pentagon and the silent majority, the RAF and the Green Berets. N. emerged from the specialized magazines (Armed Forces Chemical Journal) and Congressional testimony to stalk the land, figuratively. Its maker, Dow Chemical, became a target of protest, or as Rogue Magazine for Men put it in September, 1969: “In recent months the name Dow Chemical has become synonymous with the Vietnam war, napalm and campus recruiting. There have been bitter diatribes and stinging accusations hurled at this monolithic corporation which, despite numerous and often violent outbursts, goes about Its own business, a mirror of cool Indifference apparently deflecting the barbs.” Also in September, 1969” “Keep your eye on Kusama: Rouge goes to a public Nude Happening.”

-         It was Dow’s baby in the late sixties. N beta was created by adding polystyrene to the incendiary mix. Who did this? Its authorship is mired in muddle. But Dow had employed Ray McIntire, who invented Styrofoam, and so had a sort of elective affinity to N. The super N. was a hotter “fire that sticks”. At the Stockholm Tribunal in 1967, Doctor Gilbert Dreyfus testified about the affect on skin. “If the victim does survive, the dermatological consequences of N. burns are especially serious. After the surgery there exists extreme risk of superinfections. Poor grafting also leaves serious aftereffects. Retractile skin and contraction of scars form huge welts which will require further treatment. Keloid and hypertrophic scars will form to limit and inhibit the normal elasticity of the skin, which in turn inhibits the normal movement of the member.”

-         “Everything ended, as usual,  on a happy, naked note with a highly psychedelic Star Spangled Banner being played in the background.” – Rogue magazine


Thursday, September 09, 2021

N: the fire that clings to everything - part 1

 I've finished the fifth  of my Cold War stories. They are: Crossed Lives; The Curious Case of the Missing Dogs; Double Cross; Almost a True Story; and my latest one, N: the fire that clings to everything. 


I haven't found the illustrations yet for N., but I am going to publish it here in bits. This is part One.



1.

-         “The people in these villages had been told to go to relocation camps, because this was all a free fire zone, and technically anyone there could be killed.”

-         “The materials are excessively simple: 25 percent benzene, 25 percent gasoline, and 50 percent polystyrene, a plastic manufactured by Dow Chemical and others. The point of this mixture is to form a highly incendiary jelly that clings, and so causes deep and persistent burns.” – George Wald

-         Everybody seems to have gotten used to the idea that war, if it comes, will be total, and the lamination of Korea has been received by the populace with fatalism. We have to destroy the enemy in mass, and no matter how, all the rest is sentimentality. Such is the concept openly applied in Asia by the so called civilized nations. – Esprit, 1951

-         « Our combat is disinterested. It is the whole of civilization that we are defending in Tonkin. We are not fighting for domination, but for liberation.» General de Lattre, Hanoi, 19 December, 1950.

On the 15th of January, 1951,  General de Lattre employed a new weapon on the Vietnamese scene: N. It had been delivered by the Americans, and was used by de Lattre on the village of Vinh Yen. The fiery seed was planted. N. would outlast the defeat of the French in Indochina. It would light the way to the defeat of the Americans in Indochina, all those straw roof huts burning in the Chinook twilight.

 

2.

I look at the backs of my hands. Even when I was a young guy, I was always aware of the vein knottiness beneath the skin. I grow old, the knottiness becomes ever more prominent. Under the contour map of wrinkles, there’s a bluish tint. These hands are destined to grub in potato fields or haul away firewood from the pile on a particularly cold day, and not to lounge in a lounge, or to arrange their manicured self around a book, or tap on a café table. I remember my grandfather’s hands, which were even knottier. My iconic memory-image of his hands must be from when he was in his eighties. I remember thinking that they must be cholesterol clogged, the things he ate: enormous slabs of butter on his bread, the liverwurst, all the fatty meats. Yet, he still lived to 99, not entirely compos mentis the last years but able to return from his dream, the long dream he’d sunk into awake in his late eighties, to say the pertinent thing, show he was paying attention.

I remember that he only had beer on his birthday. He loved beer, but by the late eighties it passed right through him. My grandmother wasn’t going to stand for very much of that. Can I blame her?

I think that these hands have been passed from one generation to another – handed on. They bring me close to my grandfather’s father, L., dead in 1917, obituary in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune. “Inventor dies.” “Inventor whose gun was rejected here, sold the fuse to Germany.” He was “often credited with the success of heavy German siege artillery in the present war.”

-         “My invention is this: There is a shell containing 200 or more pounds of guncotton; then a fuse, which is separated from the main charge of the explosive by a barrier or door, and that door is always closed in the handling. It never opens except after the shell is fired from the gun and begins rotation, then the door opens by centrifugal force; then, of course, the fuse and explosive are connected.” – Testimony of L.

 

2.

 In 1940, Fortune magazine published one of the wonderful and prophetic illustrations of the 20th century, entitled the Continent of Synthetica – the continent, that is, of synthetic materials. It floats on a sea of glass, and contains territories such as Cellulose (next to which is the island of Rayon) and Phenolic. “On this broad but synthetic continent of plastics, the countries march right out of the natural world – that wild area of firs and rubber plantations, upper left – into the illimitable world of the molecule. It’s a world boxed only by the cardinal points of the chemical compass – carbon, hydrogen oxygen nitrogen.” The map includes a territory, Acrylic Styrene, which contains “crystal mountains”. This is the territory from which N. was carved by chemists at Harvard, working on creating incendiary weapons in 1942. They wanted a gel, with the power to burn like gasoline while sticking like glue. Optimally, the N. bomb would scatter this gel over a given area, increasing the burn. After experimenting with products from all over Synthetica, they found that a combination of Aluminum Napthenate and a kind of coconut oil, when doused in gasoline, did the trick. Putting it in a shell and making it burn and distribute was the next trick – one ensured by adding white phosphorus. It was tested at Harvard. “The performance, from the start, was most impressive. The high explosive cuts the inner well into ribbons and opens the casing down the entire length. Pieces of phosphorus are driven into the gel, and large, burning globs are distributed evenly over a circular area about 50 yards in diameter. Extinguished with carbon dioxide or water, the phosphorus-containing gel may later ignite.” Quote from Robert Neer, N. An American biography.  

- On November 15, 16, and 18,  1901, at Sandy Hook, my great grandfather L’s projectile was tested against an ironclad Navy Ship. The ship’s plate was manufactured by Krupp. The Navy rejected the projectile, claiming it was no better than projectiles already on the market. Controversy ensued concerning both the observations of the Navy officers and the motivations behind the rejection of L.’s invention.  Scientific American, November 30,1901. “With regard to the L. test, it is our opinion that while the results are not comparable in their effect upon the plate itself to those achieved by the army shell, the effects produced upon the target as a whole were so tremendous s to render the L. shell anything but the absolute failure it is generally pronounced to be. A shell that is capable of crumpling in concertina fashion the plate steel framing of an Iowa and swinging the 12-inch Krupp plate with its steel and timber backing and several hundred tons of sand around, 8 feet to the rear and 8 feet to the left of its original position is certainly entitled to be called something more than an absolute failure.”

- The M69 N. bomb was light on its feet. It was tested in 1942 at the Dugway proving grounds in Utah. There, structures were built to resemble a village of German housing and Japanese housing. Standard Oil built the structures. The German structures were designed by architect Eric Mendelsohn, who worked with Gropius at Harvard. The structures were intimate and cozy: “Nothing was overlooked in the village’s design. Brick wood and tile structures were outfitted with authentic furniture, bedspreads, rugs, draperies, children’s toys and clothing hanging in the closets.” The children’s toys were a sort of signature, here. The Japanese houses were designed by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Czech architect Antonin Raymond. Standard Oil acquired “authentic rice-straw tatami mats from Hawaii.” “When the sources of authentic mats (perhaps left behind by interned Japanese families) ran out, Standard Oil used thistle to construct imitation tatami mats.”

The technocrats on the field used the word de-housing. The M69 was just the ticket for dehousing on a mass scale in Japan. Alas, the German houses, made of wood and stone, were a harder nut to crack. This is where children’s toys and other furniture came in: they served as kindling.

 

-  I still have charge – secret charge –

Of the fire developed to cling

To everything: to golf carts and fingernail

Scissors as yet unborn  tennis shoes

Grocery baskets  toy fire engines

New Buicks stalled by the half-moon

Shining at midnight on crossroads  green paint

Of jolly garden tools  red Christmas ribbons:

 

Not atoms, these, but glue inspired

By love of country to burn

The apotheosis of gelatin. – James Dickey, The Firebombing


Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Some bits about Joseph Roth

 

 Soma Morgenstern was a writer and journalist who knew everybody in the 20s and 30s. He knew both Joseph Roth and Theodore Adorno. He knew Robert Musil. He knew that Roth hated Adorno, and had little time for Benjamin and Bloch. Once Soma gave him Lukacs “Theory of the Novel”. Roth gave it back and wrote in a letter: I’m no thinker.  Soma made me pick up a Novel-Theory by Georg Lukacs to read. I did him the favor of trying to read the book. Two pages in I let myself be tortured. And then I was finished with the book.”

Oddly, although Robert Musil was famously envious of other writers, he wanted to meet Roth. Soma hooked them up: they met, they talked in the Vienna Café Museum.

Morgenstern reported some of the conversation:

“I recall,” said Musil, “that you once wrote a preface to a book – I can’t remember the title of the book. But I remember the preface quite well. ‘Now it is time to report [berichten], not to compose [dichten], said the final sentence.  “Yes,” said Roth, “I wrote that. It was the preface to my book, Flight without end. “Do you still believe so much in reporting?” Musil wanted to know. “Why not?” said Roth. “But you are writing novels now,” said Musil. “I also report.” “Don’t you compose them too?” “In my reporting?” “I have to openly confess,” said Musil, “I have not read your reporting. But don’t you compose in your novels?” “Not intentionally,” said Roth, and gave a satisfied laugh.”

Afterwards, Roth said: he talks like an Austrian, but he thinks like a German. Almost like your friends Benjamin and Bloch. Pure philosophers.”

It is interesting to speculate about what Musil expected from Roth. Perhaps he recognized that the anti-philosophical bias was certainly a way to create a novel, even in the twentieth century with its different tempo and cognitive biases, but it seemed to him, evidently, hard to extract it from its nostalgic tendency to repeat the positivism of the 19th century. Roth though did not think philosophically. What he thought was that, literally, the newest thing each day is the newspaper, and the way he wanted to write a novel would take its clues, its m.o., from the reporting – the grand reportage – of the 20s breed of traveling journalist. He was himself one of the best. Of Egon Kisch he wrote that his reporting was a phenomenon of literature because he possessed the grace to report on reality without “wounding the truth”.

It is an odd opposition. One might think that reporting on reality was measured by fidelity to the facts – to the truth. But reality and the truth, for Roth, were evidently on different planes.  And the tempo he saw in the reporting of the time, that way of balancing ersatz generalizations against the potent anecdote, could be transposed to what Claudio Magris, in his book on Roth, sees as an epic. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the Lukacs book that feel from Roth’s hand after two pages begins with the epic. Perhaps Roth even read it, in spite of pretending not to. Certainly Lukacs pinpoints the problem of writing epically, in the hard dry manner of the reporter, about the intensely emotional borderlands to which his novels tend – in particular, of course, Radetzky March.

I have searched, but never found in Roth any remark about Martin Buber. I and You is undoubtedly a philosophical work – although Borges claimed it was one big poem. Buber’s work is about the encounter as a primary moment of existence – whether the encounter is with a tree, a stranger, or a lover. The encounter both recognizes borders and dissolves them – or, to be more precise, recognizes their ultimately liquid quality. There is a lot of border-jumping in Roth’s work, but one has a sense that often, the protagonists have somehow missed the moment, failed to recognize the border – which, though plastic, is never to be disregarded. It comes back like the repressed and bites you on the ass.

 

 

 

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Why we need a firefly party - from 2018


« Reality stare

s at us with a look of intolerable victory: its verdict is that all we have ever loved shall be taken from us forever. »
Pasolini’s most famous essay is entitled: “the power vacuum in Italy”, although it is more often referred to as “The disappearance of the fireflies.”
Pasolini, with his hybrid of Catholicism and Communism, his deep sense of peasant culture and his sexual alienation from same, was one of the great post-war observers. To observe is to synthesize. He noticed the hardest thing to notice – because the hardest thing to notice is the change that happens all around us, and not at geological speed either, but in human time. For instance, he noticed the death of a culture that went back around 4,000 years. Rural idiocy was replaced, rapidly and completely, by techno-idiocy. And its effects were to move mountains, literally. We no longer have to have faith the size of a mustard seed – mustard seeds are definitely obsolete. We just have to have faith in our ones and zeros, our synthetics, our gene splicing, our Glyphosate, Atrazine and Lambda-cyhalothrin, our Parathion, Malathion, our Chlorpyrifos.
The price we pay is to lose any sense of the longterm. The memory palace has been looted. The ancestors have fled, and we all calmly accept that our grandchildren will be living near dead marshes, sunken cities, on a planet that has heated up, in spots, to Martian temperatures; a planet in which the Gulf current is extinct; a planet in which the glaciers no longer store our fresh water, and we have no substitute. The short term is now fully incorporated into the get-it-now economic system, and that is that. We’ve signed in blood.
In his essay, Pasolini used, as a central mark of the changes that had been wrought in Italy during the Demo-Christian era, the disappearance of the fireflies:
“At the beginning of the sixties, the fireflies began to disappear in our nation, due to pollution of the air, and the azure rivers and limpid canals, above all in the countryside. This was a stunning and searing phenomena. There were no fireflies left after a few years. Today this is a somewhat poignant recollection of the past—a man of that time with such a souvenir cannot be young among the young of today and can therefore not have the wonderful regrets of those times.
The event that occurred some ten years ago we shall now call the “disappearance of the fireflies’”.
Since Pasolini’s murder, in 1975, the disappearance of the fireflies has become a recognizable trope. Sciascia’s famous polemic on the Aldo Moro kidnapping begins with a reference to a firefly that Sciascia sees – and his memory of Pasolini as someone who understood the massive corruption of power in Italy. In 2009, Georges Didi-Huberman wrote a book, the Survival of the Fireflies, that took up the political meaning of the exaggerations of Pasolini, and makes the case against the apocalyptic turn.
Well, in 2009, it might have seemed like the Occupation moment would surely lead to something. In 2018, that looks less likely; this is why I found this article on a recent survey of insect life in Germany so interesting not only in terms of our seeming inability to stop ourselves from destruction, but also our inability to even see it. 
This alarming discovery, made by mostly amateur naturalists who make up the volunteer-run Entomological Society Krefeld, raised an obvious question: Was this happening elsewhere? Unfortunately, that question is hard to answer because of another problem: a global decline of field naturalists who study these phenomena.”

For those who have read Pasolini, there is something eery about the way articles such as this one illuminate the double loss that he raged about: the loss of the Holocene and the loss of the sweetness of human life, up to an including the knowledge of nature. Not knowledge simply as an act of monetizable genesplicing - knowledge as love for its object.
Pasolini’s poetic-literary approach brings together natural and human history in one enormous stroke. The disappearance of the fireflies is not simply a fact of concern for naturalists – it is a fact that has a bearing on memory, on the bonds of one generation to the other, and even on the enormous invisible losses that come with ‘creative destruction’ and that refuse to be registered by the political forces that express themselves day after day, and now minute after minute, in the media. By noticing the fireflies, Pasolini breaks out of the parochial discourse of blame and offense in which both the hegemonic party and the oppositional movements in Italy were stuck, like flies to flypaper.
Pasolini’s words became famous, but the signal he sent out died. Nobody ever formed a firefly party. The machine did not stop. The treadmill of production and consumption continued to roll over the planet, producing the routines that make it really impossible to notice that there are no fireflies, that you can’t see the stars at night, that the elms are disappearing, that there are no bluebirds in the garden. Making it impossible to see where you live and what has changed.
Perhaps just as the disappearance of the fireflies marked a cut in the Holocene humanness of Italy, and the disappearance of insect diversity in Germany marks the end of an environment that has existed for the last 14,000 years in that part of Eurasia, we can also mark the appearance and population explosion of other insect, animal and vegetable species, who, like humans, are cleaning up in this short period of time. For instance, the bark beetles in North America.
The bark beetle has a pretty simple lifecycle. The adult beetles dig into the bark of trees, and lay eggs there, as well using the cover of the bark to survive the cold weather. Many of the pupae that hatch from the eggs die off, due to cold temperatures. Some, however, survive, enough that another generation of pine beetles will again lay its eggs.
This simple lifecycle has been sped up by the last Conquista – the conquest of the atmosphere. In terms of the lifecycle of the European movement outward, the first conquest was that of the Americas, the second the partial conquest of Asia, and the third that of Africa. The fourth seizure is of uninhabited atmosphere, which is “free”, and which has been laid claim to by Western industry and now global industry. Just as the conquest of the Americas was accompanied and made possible by a mass dying – the mass dying of the Amerindians, due to the diseases carried by the Europeans – the conquest of the atmosphere is also leading to a mass dying, from which the descendents of the Europeans are averting their eyes.
The devastation extends worldwide. The great euphorbia trees of southern Africa are succumbing to heat and water stress. So are the Atlas cedars of northern Algeria. Fires fed by hot, dry weather are killing enormous stretches of Siberian forest. Eucalyptus trees are succumbing on a large scale to a heat blast in Australia, and the Amazon recently suffered two “once a century” droughts just five years apart, killing many large trees.”
The natural history of the Americas and the political history of the moment are, it seems, joined in ways that are a mystery – or rather, that are made a mystery. We actually register these things, but out of the corner of our eye.
And this is the political party we need to form: a corner of the eye party. A firefly party. An aspen party. The treadmill of production is deafening, but perhaps we can plug our ears enough to look around. Look around and recognize that the unemployment we face and the massive inequality of wealth that has seized the developed world with the implacable and mechanical force of a bark beetle infestation and that infestation itself are all parts of one thing: the politics of the Holocene. These are the stakes. And if we lose the Holocene to the hedge funders or the coal plants or oil companies or offshore money, we lose everything.
“But for the natives…God’s hand hath so pursued them as, for three hundred mile’s space, the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox, which still continues amongst them. So as God hath hereby cleared our title to this place…” John Winthrop

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...