Sci-Fi Metaphysics

Now also at www.Urbanwildland.org

We are children of the Big Bang. In a helplessly atavistic recapitulation of the Universe's creation story, Humankind has now developed an algorithm by which the little world that we know on Planet Earth, trapped within its fragile atmospheric skin, is exploding.

It began when woman first planted seed and our species began to farm. The human collective went on to establish local markets with its surpluses, then riverine and subsequently Mediterranean trade. These regional markets, transformed by the Industrial Revolution, metastasized into Atlantic mercantilism and eventually global capitalism. Now, in the twenty first century, this slow burn has resulted in the mineral, animal and biotic resources of the planet fueling the expansionary process by which we blight the land with kipple - Philip K. Dick's term for the material stuff that is exploding across the planet.

In other Philip K. Dick related news, we ask the question,

Does the Elfin Forest Dream of Crystal Rain Drops?

Although the author's prescience in his classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, 1968, (on which was loosely based Ridley Scott's 1982 noir sci-fi movie, Bladerunner) can be seriously questioned, most obviously in the setting of his futuristic tale of hovercars and laser guns alongside of cigarettes, pay phones and carbon paper memos, he nevertheless broaches one of the central questions of our newish age: to what manifestations of Creation can we reasonably extend our empathy, our care and concern? Or, as Dick frames it, what is real?

In his tale, reality, as opposed to the ersatz or cyborgian, is equated with the ability to emote in ways exhibited by a normal, well-adjusted human, and our hero Rick Deckard, employed by San Francisco Police Department as a bounty hunter, is charged with 'retiring' the non-human, but entirely convincing replicants, or Androids, that have escaped from Mars where they are offered as personal slaves to induce emigration from Planet Earth - rendered almost uninhabitable following what Dick calls World War Terminus.

The Nexus-6 android is well nigh indistinguishable from a 'real' person, and in place of their Miranda rights, Rick administers an 'empathy test' which differentiates the human from non-human. Despite its highly sophisticated engineering, the Android does not emote in an entirely convincing manner when confronted with certain hypothetical scenarios concocted by a team of psychologists at the SFPD. Failure to shed a tear when confronted with the scripted suggestion that your dog has died may result in your immediate offing.

How we as a species react to mountain ranges, aquifers or zoophytes and zygotes - whether we can can successfully embrace the non-human with the levels of empathy we customarily extend to each other (and our pets) - clearly impacts our relationship with the biosphere. Can we shed a tear when confronted with the decimation of a plant community or the demise of an ecosystem and generate action out of empathy? Failure to do so may ultimately compromise our place within the biosphere, if not in our species-wide offing.

At Urbanwildland there is a concerted effort to extend the readers' range of empathy towards the natural world via the sharing of my reactions to the local plant community. As your hack chaparral reporter (embedded, with his series 6 i-phone, somewhere on the Wildland frontier) I make no excuses for posting this latest dispatch on my well worn trope of seasonal dissonance in the topsy-turvy world of the Elfin Forest.

'Tis the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness here in the Upper Ojai chaparral. Leaves are turning orange and brown, stalks to straw and seed heads have replaced flowers. Only the doughty, foundational, schlerophytic shrubs retain their full quotient of chlorophyll and amongst them, it is laurel sumac which is putting on the bravest show with a late burst of creamy pyramidal blossom and still, in places, the bright green leaves of new foliage. Chamise is more typical: seeming to hold its breath while the tips of its branches venture into the red-brown spectrum, yet drawing on its phlegmatic resilience to somehow remain in character as an evergreen shrub. Fruits of the holly leafed cherry are ripening and reddening amidst the plant's still shiny green leaves while rust is curdling the milky buckwheat flowers below.

A thin veil of mist this morning, but across the valley, the deep dark of the oaks can still be discerned dotting the meadows, amongst the barns, houses and refined, Italianate fingers of cypress point skyward in the languorous vapors. Beyond, the oak riven mass of Sulphur Mountain looms like a heavy cloud on the horizon. Calendrically, it is high summer, but the local ecosystem is hunkering down for the season most beloved by that most romantic of Romantic poets, Keats.

There are outliers to this general drying up of the sap: tar weed remains spritely with tiny yellow flowers on its antic armature, deer weed is sometimes still in bloom (whilst others of its kind have succumbed to the seasonal desiccation, their stalks turned an orangey, brick-red); Turkey mullein has erupted across over-grazed pastures in white, psoriatic patches and vinegar weed is newly sprouted, along a stoney track up the hill, with its cornflower blue flowers and strong turpentine smell.

Overall, the mood is somber. Sweet, maple-syrup perfumed California everlasting has decayed into a frouzy fuzz of seed heads on mahogany stalks and acourtia bristles with seed atop its kelp-like structure now turned a tobacco brown. Gauzy seed balls of the local clematis are draped forlornly across parched shrubs, while elsewhere in the Elfin Forest poison oak foliage is now carmine. The plant community may have mostly retired for the season, deep in summer sleep, but does it dream of its awakening, come October, with the first kiss of rain?

That question drives us to the heart of Philip K. Dick's sci-fi metaphysics. When we have empathy, we confer on its subject the presumption of sentience - we transmit our feelings to what we believe are potential receivers. To impute dreaming in other beings is to imply sentience. In Dick's world, almost all plants and animals have been destroyed in the nuclear carnage of WWT. The remaining humans crave the company of pets and those who cannot afford the high price of the rare living examples, choose replicant animals such as the eponymous Electric Sheep. Hence the titular conundrum.

Living in a deluge of hyper capitalism that threatens to flood the natural world (in metaphoric augury of impending ice-melt) we can expand the ambit of our inherent anthropocentrism by an imaginative embrace of the non-zoological, far beyond, to the global sum of all ecosystems, the biosphere.

James Lovelock has already pioneered the notion, in Gaia, 1979, that our home planet is a living, self-regulating, sentient entity of which we and our civilization are a tiny part (as ants and their anthills are of the human realm). It dreams, we can dream of it. We can empathize with it; it registers, in some infinitesimal way, our empathy.

Are mountain ranges tickled by the babbling streams that wriggle down their flanks and, do androids dream of electric sheep? Locally: Does the Elfin Forest Dream of Crystal Rain Drops?

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