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Issue 50 / December 2012

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“Everything is pointless in human life as far as we know. Yet on the other hand, we do make art. I’m an artist, and as things perplex me I try to address them."

T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle's latest novel is a sweeping epic of family, ecology and the right to life - no matter what the fallout. He talks to Mark Reynolds.

With his latest novel When the Killing's Done, T.C. Boyle returns to environmental, animal rights and conservation issues previously visited in A Friend of the Earth and The Tortilla Curtain. While the environmental debate has clearly moved on in recent years, there's still much conflict about the best approaches to averting climate change, habitat and species loss in the coming years. And that conflict is a key feature in the new novel.

"Of course, there are two sides to the issue," says Boyle, "and my job as a novelist is to present them in a dramatic fashion and to engage readers in the story and let them decide for themselves how they feel about these issues - which are increasingly complex. What I'm interested in, in this book in particular, is invasive species - plants and animals introduced to an area where they did not originate - and the consequences of that. Plus of course what the consequences are of our being an invasive species."

Humans as interrupters of natural systems is flagged at the outset, with the epigraph to the novel being the Genesis quote about our "dominion over every living thing that moveth on the earth" that ecologists have long identified as being wrongly interpreted as a green light for the wholesale exploitation of the natural world. So if we as a species are somehow programmed to exploit the earth, and our growing numbers are already beyond the limit in terms of what the planet can provide to sustain us, is it in fact pointless trying to fix the environment?

"Everything is pointless in human life as far as we know," Boyle declares. "Yet on the other hand, we do make art. I'm an artist, and as things perplex me I try to address them. When I wrote A Friend of the Earth in 2000 about global warming I didn't want people to read it and feel everything was hopeless and go out and throw garbage into the streets and shoot the last tiger for its whiskers. I didn't mean to advocate anything like that. I was simply exploring what the issues are, and if I happen to find those issues rather depressing and without any hope, well, that's just my personal conclusion. It doesn't necessarily mean that everyone coming to my work will feel the same way."

Although human nature frequently disappoints, this is hardly conveyed bleakly in Boyle's work, as his army of loyal fans would attest. From his earliest fiction, humour and satire have shone through the pessimism.

"Yeah, we shouldn't talk about the bleakness so much," he agrees. "In fact, what I'm addressing specifically in When the Killing's Done is a rare example of an environmental initiative that succeeded, where the Island Fox - a natural predator - was brought back from the brink of extinction. The absurdist playwrights could not have conceived how we fail foresee what will happen if we add or remove any element from an ecosystem, particularly an insular ecosystem like on the Californian Channel Islands. It happened like this: after World War II, as we dumped DDT into Santa Monica Bay, the indigenous bald eagles, who depend on fish, could no longer hatch their chicks and they died off. In their absence, in flew golden eagles from the coast, who prefer to eat land animals. Now, 150 years ago farmers had introduced pigs and sheep, which became feral after the farmers left. To discourage the golden eagles, we eliminated the pigs, which allowed the oaks to grow back (good), but eliminating the sheep allowed invasive fennel to grow into great thickets (not so good). In the absence of the piglets, the golden eagles began to prey on another precious resource, those pretty little cat-sized foxes. It was only through the intervention of biologists that this chain of events was discovered. And then of course the happy result was captive breeding of the foxes, the trapping and removal of the golden eagle and the reintroduction of the bald eagles on the islands - for which I was present, incidentaly. They're now thriving and the world seems a better place."

California's Channel Islands are a chain of eight islands rich in unique wildlife, of which five comprise a national park, lying beyond the busy shipping lanes of the Santa Barbara Channel. They are an important archaeological site, showing evidence of human seafaring dating back at least 13,000 years. The largest island, Santa Cruz, is about four times the size of Manhattan, and looms large on the horizon from the Californian mainland, yet attracts few visitors.

"I lived eighteen years in Santa Barbara staring out the window at Santa Cruz without ever having been their until two or three years ago," admits Boyle. "I began to think: Who's living on it? What happens there? In a sense I set out to write the novel in order to discover what goes on out there and to evaluate this odd web of creatures and how mistakes were made and how we tried to rectify them."

In The Tortilla Curtain, Boyle's protagonist Delaney moves into a gated community on the top of a canyon in an attempt to be closer to nature. The juxtaposition suggests we may have lost what it means to be part of the natural world.

"The subtext of that book has to do with our relationship to nature," Boyle affirms. "People read the book and initially think it's about illegal immigration, but any ecologist is generally left-leaning politically except on one issue: immigration. Who wants to preserve the environment? A select group of us who are lucky enough to be able to take our sleeping bag, like Delaney, into the wilderness and have a little sleep out there to absorb the joy of being a creature on the planet. I do this all the time: I go to the deep wilderness in the Sequoia National Forest at least once a year. It's very important for me to get away from everybody, everyone except my own consciousness, in a state of nature. Many people do not have this opportunity, of course, and as the world's population increases, fewer will ever have this experience or ever know anything about it."

The radical activist Dave LaJoy in the present book is proudly misanthropic, and makes no bones about being pro-animal and anti-human, which makes the reader think a little harder about the values he or she may hold.

"Sure, Dave has a lot of sympathy for the animals, but not much for his fellow human beings. It's an interesting conundrum. For instance, over here, about 15-20 years ago, we captured all the remaining California Condors - this gigantic vulture which was going extinct because of our interference (in part because its main prey, large animal carcasses like the American bison were no longer available). We spent enormous amounts of money, millions of dollars per animal, to recover them and reintroduce them to the wild. In the meantime, one third of the people in the world today are starving to death, the next third are just getting by, and the final third are living as we do in Western civilisation. What is the value of a condor as opposed to, let's say, a baby in Calcutta with diarrhoea tonight? Who is to make those judgements? What about our domestic pets for instance, and how we baby them and overfeed them and so on, when members of our own species are dying in the streets? All these questions are of great interest to me, especially as regards Dave LaJoy and his kind of misanthropy. Enough already with 7 billion people! We all get impatient with each other. We are too crowded. In the past, in America, at any rate, if you were very wealthy a show of conspicuous consumption would demonstrate this to everyone: that you had the big automobile and the big estate and so on. Today though, I think the very wealthy want one thing only, and that is privacy: space, land, property, fences, walls, gates."

The impact of human civilization has clearly affected the planet, yet there are eco-activists who advocate reintroducing grizzlies to California - grizzlies being the symbol that appears on the state flag despite having gone extinct a hundred years ago due to human intervention.

"This is one of my longstanding jokes," he laughs. "This would not work, practically, but I am very much in favour of the reintroduction of predators into ecosystems. The introduction of wolves into Yellowstone has proven successful in a resounding way. One of the books that informed A Friend of the Earth was Alston Chase's book, Playing God in Yellowstone. Yellowstone is this enormous park set aside by Teddy Roosevelt, in which we've had a hundred years of managing an extraordinary wilderness and keeping people out of it. The result is a complete disaster because park managers felt that park visitors would want to see the magnificent elk and deer and moose and so on, and so they killed off the predators. The result was overgrazing along the stream beds, the streams flooded, the beavers were washed into oblivion, everything was impoverished and the herds began to die. So, it is impossible to manage any sort of ecosystem, but in the absence of any direct human agency I think they're best left alone. And in the case of Santa Cruz island and the Island Foxes, the foxes have now been released into the wild and in some few years, even though this will cost some biologists their jobs, all of this radio collaring and tracking and so on will be done. And the island will have been returned to the state it was in prior to our interference when we introduced the pigs and the sheep. But as Dave LeJoy makes the argument in the book, what is the baseline? When you are restoring an ecosystem, what period to you want to bring it back to? Sabre-tooth tigers? This is another conundrum of the environmental movement."

The 2000 novel anticipated the world in 2025 at which point habitat loss led to widespread extinctions, and global food crises as human populations continued to rise. In the decade or so that has passed since publication, how has Boyle's vision for the future changed?

"I was far too optimistic. I think we're there right now, as the weather in England and New York last winter attests. I had a lot of fun projecting what things might be in that book, which is a very colourful book in a dark way, and I think an enjoyable one, that I hope was able to engage people beyond its own confines to think about what is happening. But of course, I don't believe fiction should be for advocacy or for politics. It's a seduction, a work of art, a place to engage you. I really don't feel that fiction should do anything except provoke and seduce. There isn't a lot of good news on the environmental front. The only good news is that our species cannot expect to survive that much longer - certainly not in the way in which we now have infinite consumers and infinite products just to keep the economy going. But if we could agree, as a species, throughout the world - no cheating by the way - to abstain from sexual relations for one hundred years, the problem is solved."

So should we humans simply shuffle off the stage and let nature take its course?

"My position is, I guess, that I am a friend of the earth. But it's a kind of hopeless position because what will happen, will happen. 95% of all creatures living in San Francisco Bay are alien species, invasive species, most of which got there through ship ballast from around the world. We call the Channel Islands "the Northern Galapagos", thinking they are some kind of bounty of nature. And what's happening in the actual Galapagos right now? They're battling to eliminate shipwrecked rats that threaten the native ground-nesting birds and iguanas. Everything in this global age is mixed, our languages are dying, our customs, everything is becoming homogenised. And so too with the animals of the world. We will finally have just very few species, that are commensal with man, like the rat for instance, that are - like man - able to survive in a great variety of environments. This is neither good nor bad, it's just different."

Also different will be Boyle's next novel, in which he is exploring further stories from the islands now firmly fixed on his horizon.

"I'm about two-thirds of the way through a book called San Miguel, also set on the Channel Islands. I've never done anything like this before. It's not a sequel in any sense, it's just that when researching the islands, I found that it was so rich, I discovered two other historical stories on San Miguel, the farthest island from the coast, and so I'm exploring those. This is a totally different sort of novel. It has nothing to do with environmentalism except peripherally. Yes, there is sheep farming, yes the environment has been very much destroyed over the years, but it is simply a straightforward historical novel. I've never done anything quite like this before. I mean, I'm the guy who wrote Water Music to stand historical novels on their ear. But I just want to see if I can do this. So it's a straightforward, non-ironic, historical tale of two families who lived in different periods alone on this particular island, the farthest one out, the most wind-blown, the most difficult. I had a lot of difficulty with it at the outset but now it seems to be clicking along fairly well, so we shall see how it turns out."

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When the Killing's Done is published by Bloomsbury.

Mark Reynolds is literary editor of The Drawbridge and project manager of Hard Rain Project, whose latest environmental exhibition, HARD RAIN: What'll You Do Now? opens at Kew Gardens on 14 May.

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Thursday, 24 March, 2011

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