Tabs Open #10: Your Whole Life Would Probably Have to Change

Welcome to Tabs Open! This week: trees that talk to each other, bone-eating deep sea worms, and more.

1. When you think about Wallace Shawn, what do you think of? (You’d know his voice even if you can’t put a face to the name—he was Rex in Toy Story.) Most people would probably say Vizzini from The Princess Bride, and maybe follow that up with the memes of babies who look just like him. But what was news to me recently is that Shawn is also a serious Marxist who writes, thinks, and talks at length about the relationship between capital and labor whenever he gets the chance. At the absolute nadir of socialism’s popularity worldwide, Shawn wrote a short one-man play called Fever that contains such a powerfully succinct and descriptive summary of the whole deal that I feel compelled to share it with you in its entirety here. (You can read the whole play here.)

One day there was an anonymous present sitting on my doorstep—Volume One of Capital by Karl Marx, in a brown paper bag. A joke? Serious? And who had sent it? I never found out. Late that night, naked in bed, I leafed through it. The beginning was impenetrable, I couldn’t understand it, but when I came to the part about the lives of the workers—the coal miners, the child laborers—I could feel myself suddenly breathing more slowly. How angry he was. Page after page. Then I turned back to an earlier section, and I came to a phrase that I’d heard before, a strange, upsetting, sort of ugly phrase: this was the section on “commodity fetishism,” “the fetishism of commodities.” I wanted to understand that weird-sounding phrase, but I could tell that, to understand it, your whole life would probably have to change. His explanation was very elusive. He used the example that people say, “Twenty yards of linen are worth two pounds.” People say that about every thing that it has a certain value. This is worth that. This coat, this sweater, this cup of coffee: each thing worth some quantity of money, or some number of other things—one coat, worth three sweaters, or so much money—as if that coat, suddenly appearing on the earth, contained somewhere inside itself an amount of value, like an inner soul, as if the coat were a fetish, a physical object that contains a living spirit. But what really determines the value of a coat? The coat’s price comes from its history, the history of all the people involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. “I like this coat,” we say, “It’s not expensive,” as if that were a fact about the coat and not the end of a story about all the people who made it and sold it, “I like the pictures in this magazine.”A naked woman leans over a fence. A man buys a magazine and stares at her picture. The destinies of these two are linked. The man has paid the woman to take off her clothes, to lean over the fence. The photograph contains its history—the moment the woman unbuttoned her shirt, how she felt, what the photographer said. The price of the magazine is a code that describes the relationships between all these people—the woman, the man, the publisher, the photographer—who commanded, who obeyed. The cup of coffee contains the history of the peasants who picked the beans, how some of them fainted in the heat of the sun, some were beaten, some were kicked. For two days I could see the fetishism of commodities everywhere around me. It was a strange feeling. Then on the third day I lost it, it was gone, I couldn’t see it anymore.”

2. There’s something enchanting about people who are able to write and speak about plants in a way that accurately conveys the degree to which they are active, vibrant, even violent in their quest to grow and leaf and reproduce. Thousands of gallons of water hoovered from the ground and spread through the body. Leaves arranged by size and shape and color to maximize the capture of sunlight.

Along those lines I was fascinated by this Smithsonian profile of Peter Wohlleben, a German forester whose particular line of study is the network of communication among trees. Wohlleben details at length the ways that trees have evolved communally rather than as lone competitors, communicating through ingenious methods such as fungal networks and chemical transmissions carried on the breeze.

Wohlleben’s emphatic illustrations of the uniqueness and ingenuity of trees reminded me of another writer who does justice to the rich internal lives of plants: Hope Jahren, in her memoir Lab Girl, which a friend was kind enough to share with me a few months ago.

The first real leaf is built using only a vague genetic pattern with nearly endless room for improvisation. Close your eyes and think of the points on a holly leaf, the star of a maple leaf, a heart-shaped ivy leaf, a triangular fern frond, the fingery leaves of a palm. Consider that there can easily be a hundred thousand lobed leaves on a single oak tree and that no two of them are exactly the same; in fact, some are easily twice as big as others. Every oak leaf on Earth is a unique embellishment of a single rough and incomplete blueprint.

Trees…check ‘em out.

3. A poem by Laura Gilpin:

4. One of my favorite journalists working today is Eva Holland. (Back when I used to share lists like this on Tumblr instead of in a newsletter, her pieces on paddling the Yukon River Quest race and climbing the Cirque of the Unclimbables each anchored an edition.) I admire both her commitment to getting the story right—which can mean a lot of things, but in the case of her writing seems pretty clear-cut—and her willingness to embed herself in situations that most writers only talk about.

In that spirit I wanted to share with you a story she published in Outside this past week. Its about a fatal grizzly bear attack, a tragedy that left two people and one bear dead and left a community to mourn. But it’s also about the ways that social media has changed our relationship with grieving, and how the demand for sensational stories in big places makes most outlets ill-equipped to handle sensitive, complicated ones in small places. I think it’s a really important read.

5. Have you ever given much thought to what happens to the body of a whale when it dies out in the ocean? Turns out that “whale falls,” the sites on the ocean floor where whale corpses decay and get picked clean, are their own miniature ecosystems where some of the rarest organisms on earth can be found. I’ll leave the details for you to find in the story, but I can give you a phrase: BONE-EATING DEEP SEA WORMS.

6. Monday was Memorial Day, and I found cause to remember Hugh Thompson, who died in 2006. Thompson was as much a hero as it’s possible to be during wartime, I think. He was the man who, upon witnessing the My Lai massacre from the air, set down his helicopter between the remaining Vietnamese villagers and the American GIs doing the killing. He ordered his men to fire on any of their fellow soldiers who tried to keep butchering civilians. For this act of bravery he was ostracized, shunned, and hounded, especially after testifying against WIlliam Calley and Ernest Medina. (“I’m not man enough to forgive them,” he said years later in the interview I linked above.)

In the final calculation there was nothing particularly convoluted or complicated about the Vietnam War. It was a fucking travesty.

7. To close things out this week, here’s the late poet Mary Oliver reading a poem of hers, “Wild Geese,” with which you might be familiar, but that’s neither here nor there—it’s one thing to read a poem; it’s another thing entirely to hear the person who penned it reading it aloud. I’m not sure if the “death of the author” thing is supposed to extend to poets as well but I feel like they have a better grip on what they meant and where the emphasis goes than I do, at least. (I remember vividly being presented in high school with the text of Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” and asking, okay, what in the world is she talking about. And then after letting us struggle with it for a time our teacher played the video of her reading it at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and I realized that I got it—or at least, it created something in me that wasn’t there before, and I understood it in the way that I needed to understand it.)

Bonus: I’m currently reading Marlon James’ excellent Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Early on I came across a new iteration of a phrase that formed the backbone of an earlier edition of this newsletter—“The only way out is through.” always cool to see this stuff in the wild.

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-Chuck