The US Government’s War on Buffalo

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Awhile ago, I wrote about the New Zealand colonists’ attempt to wipe out local species as a reflection of their conflict with the indigenous Maori. While not done as a direct attempt to hurt the Maori people, both the stated intent of making New Zealand “more European” and the result of Maori language, culture and health being threatened mark the use of invasive species as an imperialist tool.

Well, there is another example of humans attacking the environment as a means of attacking another culture, and unlike the plausible deniability the New Zealand government has, this example was done EXPLICITLY to wipe out the religion and culture of a group of people. It was one of the single most dramatic uses of environmental terrorism performed in the pursuit of genocide, and it was only about 140 years or so ago.

An easy mistake for us descendants of settlers to make is the assumption that indigenous history was stable or static until our ancestors showed up. North America was home to hundreds of different cultures and languages (today 566 tribes are recognized today in the United States alone). There was centuries upon centuries of trade, migration, war, immigration, communication and cooperation. Even after European diseases killed off almost 90% of the continent, there was centuries of indigenous history that had nothing to do with settlers. The history of the Kiowa is a great example. The Kiowa people first emerged as a distinct culture coming out of the Missouri River Basin. The Kiowa creation myth tells that the first Kiowa emerged from a hollow log, small in number because most of them became trapped inside, and immediately headed south in search of a new home, arriving in the Black Hills around 1690. Traditionally nomadic hunters who traveled with cart-pulling dogs, the Kiowa would form two relationships with animals of the Dakotas that would come to define their culture: horses and buffalo.

While horses were a recent (but very successful) arrival to the Americas, buffalo had been part of North America for millions of years. While closely related to the European bison, the American bison had undergone a number of significant physical and behavioral changes from their common ancestor, and most of these changes can be explained by the evolutionary success of their greatest predator: homo sapien. Humans came to North America in several migrations, and they were so successful in their ecological niche that every ecosystem on the continent was changed. A number of large mammals couldn’t survive the arrival of a fast, intelligent, social predator like humanity, while others had problems dealing with the changes to the plants and environment that humans brought. The buffalo survived and later thrived by adapting.

Say you’re a solitary, primarily forest-dwelling large mammal that browses on leaves and up until recently was only hunted by solitary big cats and packs of wolves that wouldn’t come near as long as you were healthy and your long, front-facing horns could protect you. Now say a new predator comes that hunts in packs but is also equipped with tools that rival the big cats’ saber teeth and also allow the predator to attack from a distance. Suppose this new predator also has no problem hunting healthy members of your species and is incredibly stealthy. Let’s ALSO say that since this new predator arrived, the forests have been shrinking and the plains have been growing. Not a recipe for success. With the change in landscape and food, bison had to adapt to grazing over browsing, but this put them at a distinct disadvantage when it came to their new predator. Browsing leaves allows animals like the European bison to keep an eye open while they eat. Grazing on grass means your head is down and you’re easier to catch unaware. Grazing also meant that the buffalo’s long, front-facing horns would get in the way of eating, and so over time American bison were selected that had smaller, side-facing horns and lower necks. This took away the buffalo’s traditionally most effective method of protecting itself. These problems were overcome by becoming significantly more social. Grazing in a herd means that you can rely on others of your species to keep an eye on things, and when a predator appears you can join forces. Long, sharp horns or not, a herd of buffalo is an intimidating thing considering how soft and squishy the average predator is in comparison. Of course, having your food source be in a big herd suits some predators just fine, including ancient humans. In the end, the changes suited both species, and while it was a partnership based around one side being eaten, it was a partnership none-the-less. Humans are a species that change our environment just by existing, so being an animal that we like is a REALLY effective evolutionary strategy. Both intentionally and unintentionally, humans would help create a continent that was perfectly suited to the buffalo. That is how the arrival of the most deadly predator in history resulted in a bison population boom into the millions.

When the Kiowa arrived in the Dakotas, the buffalo had long been established, and their herds could stretch for miles. That plus the ability to train and breed horses meant that the wandering hunters now had a steady source of food, which meant that they did not need to wander anymore. The Kiowa settled and became famous for their horsemanship. When over on the east coast, the American Revolution was taking place, further west there was another war going on. The combined strength of the Cheyenne and the Dakota Sioux fought against the Kiowa, resulting in them abandoning the Dakotas and moving further south. This put them into conflict with the Comanche, which later blossomed into an alliance that would give them complete control of the southern Great Plains. The Kiowa were comparatively a small tribe, but their fame and ability as warriors made them feared. Among other exploits, they were famous for their warriors’ ability to fling themselves over the side of their galloping horses and shoot arrows at their opponent while hanging from their horses’ necks. The Kiowa elite warrior society, the Ka-itsenko, only had ten members in the entire tribe. Naturally, when the US government began invading Indian lands in the 1800s, the Kiowa were among the tribes that fought back the strongest and the longest.

The fact that first contact with American soldiers in 1833 resulted in multiple mass epidemics of smallpox didn’t help. A treaty of friendship was signed in 1837, but the following decades of smallpox and cholera (which would kill thousands and nearly wipe out tribes such as the Mandan) put incredible stress on the people of the Great Plains. To add to that stress, the US settlements in the east would drive multiple displaced tribes into western territory. Conflict broke out between the displaced eastern tribes, often armed with long-range rifles by the same white soldiers who kicked them off their land, and the Plains tribes. By 1863, the Plains tribes were fed up with the clearly one-sided “friendship” and the Kiowa, Dakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche and Apache called for a general uprising. The response of the US military was a swift and simple order, “kill every Indian in the country.”

This proved harder for the US government than they anticipated. Even with their opponents’ numbers devastated by disease and with superior fire-power on their side, the US military was facing a force that was highly mobile, intimate with the terrain, and quickly catching up in regards to rifles. So the US military turned their attention away from direct conflict and towards their food source.

While over-hunting by settlers had already begun, the buffalo still outnumbered the people of North America, even as late as 1870. The US government stepped things up and promoted mass hunting of the buffalo. Nine years later, it was all-but gone. General Phillip Sheridan described the effects of the policy, “The buffalo hunters have done in the past two years more to settle the vexed Indian Question than the regular army has accomplished in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. Send them powder and lead, and let them kill until they have exterminated the buffalo.” Lieutenant Colonel Dodge was just as explicit “there’s no two ways about it, either the buffalo or the Indian must go.” 75 million hides were taken and sold between 1850 and 1880, and it is unknown how many more animals were simply shot and left to rot on the Plains. Many of these animals were shot by hunters the US military had illegally sent into Indian lands, one of many direct violations of the treaties the US government would make.

The loss of the buffalo became part of the US’ diplomatic policy with the indigenous tribes. When General Winfield Scott met with the Arapaho chiefs at Fort Dodge he made it a point to tell them “You know well that the game is getting very scarce and that you must soon have some other means of living; you should therefore cultivate the friendship of the white man, so that when the game is all gone, they may take care of you if necessary.” Even when white settlers and politicians began calling to protect the buffalo, the US government took pains to continue. President Ulysses Grant pocket-vetoed a bill to protect the animal in 1874, and General Sheridan would personally testify before congress and plead that the buffalo slaughter be allowed to continue. Sheridan also argued that buffalo hunters should be given a medal to commemorate their service, a medal featuring a dead buffalo on one side and a dead Indian on the other.

Like nearly all of the Plains tribes, the Kiowa did not just depend on buffalo for food. It was a cultural keystone species, providing countless material uses and was inextricably linked to their religion and culture. Every summer, the Kiowa would come together for the Sun Dance, the single most significant event in their religion. It was a multifaceted ceremony, celebrating warfare, spiritual renewal, connection to the land and the divinity of the sun which could be shared among mortals. The Kiowa version of the Sun Dance was centered around the Tai-me, a sacred fetish representing (or perhaps literally being) the source of life itself. It was kept safe all year by a Keeper, a hereditary position in the tribe, and never exposed to light outside of the Sun Dance. A traditional buffalo hunt supplied the sacrifice required to the Tai-me. When the Kiowa were finally forced onto reservations they were, like the other Plains tribes, intentionally moved to reservations that were miles from any surviving buffalo herds. As a result, pilgrimages had to be undertaken to find an animal for the Tai-me. By the last Sun Dance, there were no buffalo left to send delegations to, and the Kiowa had to make do with old, weathered buffalo hides. Without the buffalo, the Sun Dance could not be complete and the Tai-me could not be honored. The people could not connect to the divine and life itself would wither. In non-spiritual terms, this was also true. Bison were a vital part of the Plains ecosystem, and their loss and replacement with western cattle ranches meant that the Plains would become inhospitable for traditional agriculture. Today’s poor topsoil and freshwater throughout the region is partially due to the loss of buffalo.

On July 20, 1890, the Sun Dance was officially outlawed. Indigenous religion was punished with imprisonment and even death. It remained banned until 1978 and the passing of The American Indian Religious Freedom Act. It should be noted that the Kiowa, like many of the other displaced Plains people, would come to redefine their religious and spiritual connection through a different species. Peyote had long been part of the spiritual practices of Pre-Colombian Mexico, and had slowly been moving north through trade and war. However, it is a relatively recent arrival to North America. In the mid-1800s, it reached the Great Plains, and following the apocalyptic destruction of the buffalo and the loss of their land, its use rapidly grew among the Plains tribes in the 1880s. This movement would become the Native American Church, which would have to (and continues to) fight hard for the legal right to perform its ceremonies.

And so we see an example of a government intentionally wiping out a keystone species in order to make a culture more “pliable” and, as a result, completely screw the ecology of an entire continent. Sadly, this is not even the only case of this taking place on this continent alone. The ensuing narrative of an unchanging people and an unchanging environment then works to protect the perpetrators. Extinction and environmental collapse become “inevitable” and “unavoidable.” People simply “vanished” from history a “long time ago” and the struggles people went through, and continue to go through today, are ignored. Continuity between “ancient times”, “US history” and “today” is lost. The fact that we, the descendants of settlers, are trained and continue to train our children that this history did not take place then gets in the way of addressing very real problems we face today. Want to address the drought devastating California? The ever increasing wildfires across the continent? Why the tiny part of the country I’m in is unseasonably freezing its ass off while the rest of the world is unseasonably boiling? We’ll never be able to do that unless we finally and truly address all the times and ways we launched a one-sided war on nature in order to better destroy other people.

Sources:
Davis, Wade. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Smits, David (Autumn 1994). “The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865–1883″. The Western Historical Quarterly (Utah State University) 25 (3): 312–338

Jawort, Adrian (May 9,2011). “Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars”. Indian Country Today.

N. Scott Momaday. The Way to Rainy Mountain. University of New Mexico Press, 1969

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Legend of Mana

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In 70 AD, the Romans sacked and burned Jerusalem. This was at the end of a several year long siege, which had left the inhabitants dying in the street from hunger and thirst. Josephus, mediator for the Romans, wrote that 1.1 million people were killed during the siege and a further 97,000 were enslaved. The city was sacked, the Second Temple was razed, and after a flood of violence and death almost all that was left was of Jerusalem was rubble. The people of Jerusalem had earnestly believed that their God would never allow them to fail, and yet no one had saved them meaning that either God didn’t care about them or someone hadn’t been righteous enough. Neither were comforting thoughts. For the surviving citizens, the destruction of Jerusalem, the mass death and horror that accompanied it, the fact that no god had intervened, and the seemingly hopeless future that awaited them was a spiritual and philosophical crisis like none had seen before. The effects on the Jewish and Proto-Christian diaspora reached far beyond the remains of the city. Based on these events, poets wrote the Book of Revelations, a highly allegorical story that was not meant to depict the future, but rather to help people of their present understand what had been lost and redefine what their world should become. It is one of the most famous works of post-apocalyptic fiction, though its far from the only one. Today the end of the world is still a common theme in all media, including videogames. Either you’re trying to prevent it or you’re dealing with the repercussions of someone trying to cause it. Very few games capture that idea of the end of the world as a philosophical revelation, instead focusing on the destruction and death. One game which does deal with this side of apocalypse, Legend of Mana, deals with the concept by having the apocalypse happen long before you begin the game.

Nine centuries ago, the Mana Tree burned to ash. The Mana Tree is the spiritual source of all desire, both in its positive and negative aspects. The Mana Tree represents love and hate, empathy and oppression, imagination and greed, creation and destruction. The war that destroyed the Mana Tree was not the last war to touch Fa’Diel. Several centuries of war passed as sages, kings and villains fought for the scraps of Mana. Armies of thousands strong died, wyrms devoured whole cities, people turned against their own families, lands were scorched bare, and holes to other dimensions dragged people away forever only to replace them with horrors. After centuries of war and death, the survivors gave up all dreams and desire rather than continue risking the dark aspects of Mana. Fa’Diel no longer had dreams, desires, stories or thoughts. Nothing could change, nothing could live or die, no stories could be told, and Fa’Diel was in stasis. For all intents and purposes, Fa’Diel might as well not even exist.

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The game begins with your character selecting a tiny part of Fa’Diel to “rebuild.” You receive magical artifacts that, when placed on the map, transform into new lands. At first it feels like you are creating the world, but the more you experience, the more it becomes clear that Fa’Diel already exists, and that you are not so much creating it as revealing it. However, that line is often blurred. It exists because you experience it, and is created through the experiences you create. Every player’s map of Fa’Diel will look different, but at the same time, every player’s Fa’Diel has always existed in whatever form each player was going to create.

The Fa’Diel your experiences reveal is sometimes a sadly empty world, despite its beauty. Villages and cities are significantly underpopulated, a remnant of just how many lost their lives in the previous wars. The world alternates between feeling like a blank slate with no history, and like the sins of the past are hanging over everyone like a knife. Fa’Diel begins as a world crippled by ennui, where everyone struggles to make sense of what has value and how to examine the past and future.

While the creator of the Seiken Densetsu (or Mana) series, Koichi Ishii, was still on hand to direct, Legend of Mana is a radical shift in tone and content. This is almost entirely due to the game’s producer, Akitoshi Kawazu, taking a large and active role in the game’s creation. Kawazu is most famous for creating the SaGa series, and for his games often being intentionally obtuse or confusing in regards to both the gameplay mechanics and narrative. This has made him something of a polarizing game designer, but I find his work incredibly interesting and compelling. Even his failures are interesting because he takes such pain to create new systems and experiences, often informed by ideas from art and stories outside of games. A big theme of Kawazu’s oeuvre is discovery. Specifically, letting the player discover how the game works through experimentation and chance rather than explaining them. This can make the games difficult, but ironically they can be more difficult or frustrating for long-time gamers than for new ones. Almost every SaGa game requires you to learn specific rules and ignore expectations of what a “jrpg” should be. Players who try to force a SaGa game to be a Final Fantasy may give up in frustration.

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Some of the less successful SaGa games punish players for not figuring out their arcane rules, or at least expect the player to be willing to restart and play again from the beginning regularly. Legend of Mana learns from their mistakes, and as obtuse as its systems are, players who don’t or can’t figure them out can still play without worry. A perfect example of this is the item-creation system. Creating and modifying weapons and armor requires learning an extremely complicated system of honest-to-god system simulated fantasy chemistry that is NEVER explained in the game. Learning which chemical compounds react to which and how requires a combination of experimentation and copious note-taking. The reactions are never simply linear either, as certain variables late in an item’s construction may have a different result depending on seemingly unrelated items used early one. You can create insanely powerful weapons with a wide range of magical powers, but only by knowing enough about fantasy magic chemistry to concoct complicated and lengthy recipes and formulas. However, none of it is necessary. You can easily complete the game without making a single weapon. The system is there for players eager to dive into the laws of Fa’Diel’s magical molecular physics, but never punishes players who couldn’t care less. Equally complicated are systems for raising monsters, programming AI for golems and growing odd crops with names that were probably hilarious before being translated into English.

Kawazu’s fondness for handling game mechanics in this manner, and in leaving much of it up to the player to figure out on their own through repeated experimentation, is reflected in the game’s narrative as well. There is no central plot to Legend of Mana, rather a series of smaller quests. Three major story arcs exist, only one of which needs to be completed to reach the end of the game, and there are dozens of smaller stories to learn. Almost none of these stories or quests are about you, the protagonist. Rather, your protagonist often acts as an observer. Your character changes the world by observing it, and while you’re always somewhat removed from the other characters and their stories, your presence is what allows others to trust themselves to desire again. The world reconnects to Mana because the children who inherited a post-apocalyptic fantasy world are allowing themselves to dream and desire. The conflicts in this game are less to do with battles between good and evil and more to do with conflicting desires and experiences.

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Very little of your adventures relate to the destruction of the world. Only a few characters you meet are old enough to remember the conflict, and their own thoughts are focused more on the question of what comes next than on rehashing old battles. Your only real clue into the wars of the past are books of history, which slowly fill up with details as you play through the game. The backstory is complicated and convoluted considering how none of it directly impacts the story. You can read the entire creation myth of Fa’Diel, the history of what destroyed the world, and pick up random facts about the nature of the world which are never brought up in the game. For example, the reason why everyone you meet is some kind of anthropomorphic animal, plant, object, mythical creature, or combination of the four is because humans of Fa’Diel change forms based on their experiences. Everyone you meet is a human, from the penguin pirates to the bartender made of puzzle pieces. They just look different because the post-apocalyptic Fa’Diel is still deciding what it wants to be and look like, and so people’s shape is in flux physically as well as philosophically.

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One of the many optional things you can do in Legend of Mana is return home after each quest is completed and tell the story to your housemate Li’l Cactus. While the cactus at first seems unresponsive and immobile, after you tell it a story and leave, you’ll see a quick scene where it gets up, walks over to its secret diary, and writes its own version of the story it has been told. Like the other mechanics, this will mostly likely be a surprise discovery and require multiple playthroughs to get all of Li’l Cactus’ diary entries. When you read over Li’l Cactus’ version of your adventure, sometimes he’ll get things right, sometimes he’ll have misunderstood, sometimes he won’t believe you, sometimes he’ll get caught up in some small and unimportant detail, and sometimes he’ll just do his own thing. You’re creating the next mythology for this world, and Li’l Cactus is the next generation, interpreting it and deciding what it means to them. Li’l Cactus is providing clues for how the player can interpret the seemingly unconnected events and quests. Your response to each individual quest combine to form your overall reaction to the piece as well as reflect your philosophy.

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The game doesn’t judge what that reaction is, far from it. Throughout the game we see a repeating theme, that it is better to trust in the possibility of love, empathy and creation than to avoid risking the possibility of hate or destruction, and that it is better to be honest than to deny yourself. Love and friendship will not conquer all, this is clear from several of the quests, but giving people the freedom to choose love and friendship is the only way to actually get that result. The closest thing the game has to outright villains are anyone who tries to force others into a task or belief, or anyone who hides their own feelings and beliefs with convenient lies. Escad hides his jealousy behind religion and socially-acceptable racism, Irwin gives Matilda the freedom to choose her fate and she chooses something other than his exact wishes and he becomes wrathful, Sandra takes away the freedom and lives of others to keep someone she loves alive but caged, Larc gives up his freedom for power and is unable to remain himself in the process, Roger hides his poetry and creative side and forces the Dudbears to work for work’s sake rather than for their own expression, and of course Nunuzac hides the secret to reviving the Mana Tree and almost dooms the world to ennui and entropy rather than risk someone’s desires creating another war. In the end, there is no grand battle between good and evil (the final boss almost feels like a narrative afterthought, a meta “oh I guess we need to have a final boss here” event that only serves to reiterate the duality of imagination), and the only thing that is changed is that the world is now free to continue. In the end, this means our protagonist must leave the world (or perhaps it is just that we leave the protagonist) as Fa’Diel cannot become anything other than what it already was as long as we are observing it. We create a space for new stories we will never be told, and our own story with Fa’Diel ends.

The end of the world is not the end of all things, just the end of a point of view. In our world of nonstop zombie explosions and doomsday fantasies, its easy to forget that apocalypse is defined first as revelation rather than simply destruction. Legend of Mana leaves room alongside its confusing “Streets of Rage meets SaGa Frontier and covered in Jim Henson’s version of the D&D Monstrous Manual” design for players to have their own revelations.

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Screenshots and animated gifs are from the Let’s Play Archive

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Invasive species, invasive culture

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What we consider “natural” is never a static form, but a constantly changing and mutating thing. Even human-based changes to an environment are “natural” and part of an important process. What changes when we add humans to this process is two-fold. One is the magnitude of change, we can easily push a natural process far beyond what the environment was capable of dealing with. The second is our “unnatural” cultural systems’ ability to adapt environmental changes into weapons to preserve the status quo.

Invasive species are such a colonialist weapon. This has been true throughout history, whether overtly with British colonists releasing foxes and hares into “savage” wilds in order to make them more “British” or whether unintentional products of travelers carrying rats and bugs with them as they saunter across the map. Of course, species have moved and traveled since species existed, and there is no innate malice in, say, a new land bridge bringing competitors from North America that wipe out South American marsupials. But one of the most insidious things our cultural systems have learned how to do is subvert natural processes into weapons. Just because an invading species was unintentionally unleashed by a colonial power doesn’t mean that it isn’t an intentional tool of a larger system. After all, one of the most successful ways to subjugate a people is to destroy their environment.

The longfin eel of New Zealand is one of the most fascinating and wildly studied fish in the world. They can grow over 6 feet long and live over 100 years. They have mysterious habits and secret spawning places. They’re also an important commercial product today. But they were not always as well regarded by certain New Zealanders (and those outside New Zealand) as they are today.

The Maori have always valued the eel, as it serves as a cultural keystone species. It is an incredibly important food source, traditionally the main source of protein. The Maori learned early on that the eels could be encouraged to congregate in specific places, and that whenever a single eel mother left to spawn, thousands more would return in her place. As a result, the Maori developed a form of semi-domestication of the eels. Many families would tend to an eel pond, and because of how long lived the eels could be, a single eel could end up being cared for by multiple generations of one family. In the wilderness, the “wild” eel population was carefully monitored, and so the supply never ran out.

As pure speculation, perhaps the eel management techniques were pursued as a direct result of the ancient Maori driving another early food source, the large flightless moa bird, to extinction through over-hunting. Then again, careful management and attention to the eels is reflected in the earliest Maori folklore. The eel is an important mythical figure, and its role in Maori legend is not just as a food source but as the progenitor of other food sources. The giant eel Tuna is killed for his evil actions toward Sina, and as penance promises to reward Sina if she buries his head and visits the grave. From his skull the first coconut grows. In another variant, the eel god Tuna’s body becomes the origin of countless edible species of fish as well as eels. Tuna is a god from Polynesian folklore that predates the Maori, but the shared legend is only found among Polynesian islands where the eel is an important food source. So while the legend came with the first ancient sailors who would become the Maori, it took root only because the longfin eel would become such a culturally important animal.

A stamp showcasing Maui fighting Tuna

A stamp showcasing Maui fighting Tuna

The eel is so important that it is the primary form of the Maori concept of “taniwha.” A taniwha is an intensely personal and spiritual experience to the Maori people. The concept is often translated into English simply as “monster” or “sea serpent” but this is a disservice. Taniwha can occupy a combination of roles including that of guardian spirit or a physical catalyst for divine inspiration. The fact that so many taniwha take the form of the longfin eel is again indicative of how important the eel is to the Maori people.

Everything changed when the British arrived. The British brought many species they released around their colonies to make them feel more like “home.” This is how you get European rabbits in Australia, starlings and house sparrows in North America*, and trout in New Zealand.

*The starling story deserves a quick mention just for how ludicrously goofy it is. A group of wealthy gits known as the American Acclimatization Society wanted to introduce every bird ever written about by Shakespeare into the US to celebrate the bard’s work. They released multiple batches of starlings into Central Park until a wild population finally took hold.

In many cases, the damage done to the local environment by these introduced species is “accidental.” Rabbits compete against local grazers for food, mongooses and rats eat the eggs of ground birds not used to predators, blackberries choke out a native plant species that is a local animal’s main food source, a foreign disease wipes out 90% of the indigenous people on the continent causing a temporary explosion of passenger pigeons, etc, etc, etc. However, sometimes humans continue to take a more active hand in the damage done. In New Zealand, colonists enjoyed fishing for trout as a past time, and so put out bounties on longfin eels which they claimed were eating their precious trout. Eels were also blamed for killing adorable baby mallard ducks, another animal colonists introduced to make New Zealand more European. Eel hunters were hired to go out into the waterways and kill as many eels as possible. Politicians gave speeches about how it was every right-thinking and god-fearing person’s duty to kill eels. These eel hunts and continued up into the 1960s, with the Southland Acclimatisation Society (noticing a pattern in naming conventions?) offering bounties for dead eels. It isn’t hard to see how many Maori saw the attacks on their familiar environment as a thinly-veiled attack on them.

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Watercolor by Thomas William Downes of Maori hunters catching a giant eel

 

As colonists worked to change the New Zealand landscape itself, more damage was done to eel populations. Waterways and wetlands were drained to make room for settlements and farms. Roundup was sprayed on the “unruly” water plants to create “cleaner” rivers, which in turn destroyed the habitat of the frogs and small fishes the eels fed on. Dams built miles from wild wetlands or Maori eel ponds would end up blocking mature eels’ path to the sea, preventing entire generations from spawning.

What changed the New Zealand attitude toward the eel? The discovery that it was a commercially valuable product! Suddenly everyone wanted to protect the eel. Of course, the Maori themselves were prevented from taking part in the eel industry until the 90s, and then were forced to abide by new quotas to protect the eel from “exploitation.” Meanwhile, there was still the issue of habitat loss and dams blocking spawning routes that fishing quotas wouldn’t solve. But as noted above, the eel was traditionally a key element in the diet of the Maori. In the decades they were prevented from fishing for eel, or when the eel numbers were so drastically reduced that they could no longer be a staple, a number of health issues rose in the Maori community.

It may come as a surprise to those used to nutritional “experts” of today telling us about universal diets or needs, but the truth is there is never been a universal human diet. The best diet varies wildly from location to location, and person to person. Cultures adapt diets over years of experimentation and necessity. Eels contain a great deal of oils, fats and chemicals which, among other things, help prevent type 2 diabetes. Today, diabetes is an epidemic among Maori who are unable to eat eel regularly. This same pattern can be seen in many indigenous cultures today, such as Inuit communities suffering from rickets after being prohibited from hunting seals for Vitamin D (both seal species at risk because of non-native over-hunting and seal species that are plentiful but protected by western governments because they are cute). As traditional food supplies get replaced by colonial foods that may or may not provide the sustenance that is lost, new diseases emerge that traditional medicine has never had to deal with. The colonial system then tells people that their knowledge has failed them, even when the source of the diseases is the colonial system itself. In cases where traditional medicine can treat a disease that is new to the colonists (such as quinine to treat malaria) it is quickly adopted into the colonial system and its origins as traditional medicine obscured*.

*This is not to say that ‘traditional” or “scientific” medicine is superior, because the truth is that is a false conflict. In truth, there is no “traditional” or “scientific” knowledge, there is simply knowledge. Knowledge can be useful or useless depending on the context. However, the colonial system has become incredibly good at declaring any knowledge currently useful (or even only perceived as useful) as its own. A western pharmaceutical company getting rich off alkaloids indigenous people knew about first and a white hippie homeopath company getting rich off bogus claims of “traditional healing” are both part of the same system and taking part in the same shell game.

Taniwha, Magic the Gathering

Taniwha, Magic the Gathering (1997)

The reason a Maori community might not eat eel regularly anymore is not just because of the lack of eels. As colonial environmental policies and acclimatization takes place, the native language itself ends up in the crossfire. Colonists introduce their own poetry and stories based on the introduced species, and slowly the idea of what is “the environment” changes. Look here in the US, how many of us consider earthworms, knotweed, starlings and mute swans part of the “natural” landscape? How many natural parks intentionally manufacture “pristine” looking vistas because tourists expect nature to look a certain way*? Meanwhile, people growing up without interacting with traditional species daily simply can’t connect the traditional language and stories to their own lives. With the traditional landscape replaced by a colonial landscape, people are forced to use a colonial language to describe it. The system supports this by the deriding traditional language, stories, culture and religion as old-fashioned, irrelevant and lost. That is how a spirit that brings divine epiphanies gets reduced to another rpg monster even among the descendants of the people who first named it. Cultures neither emerge not exist in a vacuum. They continue to exist because they connect to peoples’ lived experiences. Invasive species become a form of invasive culture, damaging and replacing the human ecology just as much as it does the environment.

*One of my favorite personal examples comes from Acadia National Park in Maine. Tourists who spend big money come to see the leaves change every year. As a small concession, park officials planted some non-native (to the park at least) species of maple along the road. These maple turn a bright red in the fall, and also blocked the roadside view of less attractive, but far more natural, bits of the park. However, native porcupines discovered these new trees and found them incredibly tasty. While native trees had evolved means of dealing with gluttonous porcupines, the foreign maples couldn’t regrow their bark fast enough and died out. Now the roadside was full of ugly, dying trees and standard, non-breathtaking views beyond. This led to complaints to the park from tourists about how porcupines were ruining the “natural beauty” of the landscape.

watercolor of Maori eel weirs

Watercolor by Thomas William Downes of Maori eel weirs

Across the world, the most exciting environmental activism is taking place where intersectional activists meet. A big part of what is saving the eel is a combination of Maori environmentalists and Maori social justice activists. Maori who want to protect the eel draw from traditional knowledge of eel behavior*, ecology and husbandry. They also rely on the next generation of Maori to care about the eel. Social activists in turn rely on the survival of the eel to help support the health and economy of their community. Protecting the environment also provides other benefits to the human community, as it provides touchstones for cultural stories, beliefs and traditions. The connection between a culture and its environment becomes an important tool in helping the next generation value itself and its history in the face of a colonial culture telling them they are obsolete.

*That traditional knowledge of eel behavior deserves a mention. The biggest scientific mystery surrounding eels is how and where they spawn. Eels are unlike, say, salmon that are born in the river, voyage to the sea to grow, and then return to the same river to spawn and then die. Eels are born in the sea, voyage to the same rivers and wetlands their parents lived in, then return to the same spot in the ocean they were born to spawn and die. How eels find this single spot in the open sea was unknown to western science for a long time (hell, we still can’t even find that spot). Maori tradition hypothesized that eels found this mysterious spawning ground by scent, based on observing how eels hunted and seemed to recognize locations and people. Scientists scoffed at this idea, seeing it only as a whimsical story, but it turned out they were right. Eels have one of the single best senses of smell in the sea, and they leave a chemical trail for their babies to follow.

Whether we intend to or not, we each carry with us preconceptions about the environment and the status quo will do its best to use whatever those preconceptions are to undermine both cultural and ecological systems it perceives as a menace or exploitable. One of the best allies the environmental and social justice communities have is each other, and that partnership can only emerge when we carefully examine how we relate to the environment around us and who we allow to define it.

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A brief history of weaponized insects

HaveSuBee

We’re an interesting species. Let no one say that, for all our faults, a lack of creativity is one of them. We’ll come up with all kinds of ways to hurt each other and mess things up. We’ll even pull in other species for our shenanigans.

The use of insects in warfare dates back to, at least, antiquity. The Greek general Xenophon wrote of an ingenious enemy tactic that knocked out his entire army of 10,000 soldiers. The general’s army had been feasting on honey plundered from the natives of Colchis (present day Western Georgia, along the shore of the Black Sea). Little did they know that these beehives had been intentionally poisoned by the Colchians. These bees had been fed nectar from rhododendron and azalea flowers, containing a toxin known as grayanotoxin. This toxin was then passed through the bees into their honey. Historically, honey containing this toxin was intentionally produced to provide a “kick” to alcoholic drinks in small doses, but the enterprising Colchians saw another use for their “mad honey.” Symptoms of grayanotoxin poisoning include vomiting, dizziness, weariness, loss of coordination, severe muscular failure, paresthesia, and slowing of the heart. Xenophon’s soldiers lived (grayanotoxin poisoning is rarely fatal), but were out of commission for several days. Similar tactics were used against the Romans in their campaign against the Heptakometes.

Bees and wasps have also been used as more direct weapons. The Romans were recorded as launching hives of stinging insects, that would smash open and release a fury of enraged insects. This tactic would be repeated across medieval Europe. Bee hives have been launched at every kind of army or fortification imaginable. “Bee Boles” were often built into castle walls, so that any army breaching them would be surprised by a colony of  now homeless, and thus intensely furious, bees. Bee hives were even used in naval battles, with Mediterranean pirates dropping wasps on boarding sailors and Greco-Roman ships launching honey bee colonies at each other. Across the pond, the Mayans had used weaponized hives as far back as 2600 BC. One legend states that the K’ich’e Maya lined the walls of their cities with human dummies stuffed with gourds full of insects. The dummies were dressed in full armor, and when they were smashed open the enraged insects would be unleashed. Enemy soldiers approaching the wall would suddenly find the “guards” falling over the side and exploding into an orgy of stinging pain. These tactics even found use in the 20th century, where the Viet Cong booby-trapped giant honey bee (Apis dorsata) hives to use against the invading American army.

Bees and wasps are perfect for weaponry as they are social and easy to raise in captivity, aggressive and territorial when ired, and an entire colony can fit in a small compact space. But while social insects like bees and wasps were an obvious choice of weapon, they aren’t the only arthropods used in this manner. Horsefly bombs and dummies similar to the bee variations above were recorded in Mesoamerica. During the Roman-Parthian Wars, and particularly the sieges of Septimus Severus in 198 AD, the Iraq city of Hatra used clay bombs filled with scorpions to successfully drive away the Roman armies. In Uzbekistan, pit traps were filled with assassin bugs. These pit traps were more commonly used as torture devices, most famously when the Emir of Bukhara sentenced two British officers to such a bug-pit for months before finally beheading them in a public ceremony.

One of the most sinister modern examples of weaponized insects comes from Japan’s covert biological warfare research and development unit, Unit 731. Officially known as the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army” Unit 731 was in fact a place of horrific human experimentation and torture. In one plan, developed during WWII by Surgeon General Shiro Ishii, bombs filled with bubonic plague-carrying fleas were dropped over the Chinese cities of Ningbo and Changde. It is estimated that 200,000 Chinese people died as a result of the plague spread. It was successful enough that the Japanese military planned an operation called “Cherry Blossoms and Night” which would have released more fleas across California, but the plan was never enacted. A similar plague-carrying-flea plot was planned during the Battle of Bataan in March 1942, however American forces surrendered before the fleas were released. After the war, the US agreed to grant immunity and cover up the project (along with many other ghastly medical experiments) in exchange for access to the data. Unit 731 first came to public light during the mid 1990s.

The Japanese were not the only nationality to research weaponizing insects during WWII. Canada was one of the pioneering powers of vector-borne warfare. Kingston’s Queen’s University’s Defense Research laboratory looked into the possibility of mosquitoes, flies and fleas as weapons. Both France and Germany had researched the possibility of using insects such as the Colorado potato beetle (Lepinotarsa decemlineata) to devastate enemy food supplies. In Germany, a test of the potato beetle program backfired, resulting in an infestation of 54,000 beetles. After WWII ended, the United States began using the remains of Japan’s Unit 731 in their Cold War battles. A British study carried out in 1989 found strong evidence that the US used the Japanese biological weapons during the Korean War. While most of the weapons the US may have used were toxins extracted from wheat and rice mold, entomological weapons may have been used as well. There is also evidence against the charge that the US used biological, including insect, weapons in Korea. A cache of documents released in 1998 by the Cold War International History Poject shows evidence that the Soviet and Chinese claims of the US using insects in Korea was an elaborate disinformation campaign. Of course, in that case the IDEA of weaponized insects was then weaponized by the other side, so I say either way it counts.

Regardless of whether the US truly did use insects (or any other biological weapons) in Korea, insects were a big part of Cold War research. The Soviet Union developed techniques to spread pathogens through ticks, while the US did the same with mosquitoes. Both powers used the existence of entomological weapons as part of their Cold War threats, such the Soviet Union announcing they had built an automated insect breeding facility, pumping out millions of disease-filled insect soldiers each day. Meanwhile, the US tested their weapons on their own populace. 1955’s Operation Big Buzz dropped 300,000 yellow fever mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti) over the state of Georgia. These mosquitoes were not infected, but still, gross and creepy. Several other tests are known of, such as Operation Drop Kick and Operation May Day.

The US has also, more recently, been researching weaponized caterpillars. For decades the US government had been dropping pesticides over South America as part of the War on Drugs. The long term effects of this was mainly the evolution of marijuana and coca plants that are completely resistant to pesticides. As early as 1990, the US has funded programs designed to drop ravenous caterpillars on farms instead. By far the most impressive caterpillar research the US military has carried out is the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electric-Mechanical System (HI-MES) which implants computer chips in caterpillars. When the caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis into a moth or butterfly (just an aside, technically all butterflies are moths), the computer chip will allow scientists to remotely control the flight path of the insects. One day this could lead to spy-moths, or butterfly scouts transmitting data over wifi without being detected.

If these stories of plague-flea-bombs, potato beetle terrorism and cyborg moths sound like completely unfeasible science fiction scenarios you’ll never have to worry about, be very thankful that most people today with the power to invest in bug weapons think the same thing. Invasive arthropods may be one of the most sinister weapons you can unleash on a country. In the late 1980s, an eco-terror group known as The Breeders claimed responsibility for releasing Mediterranean fruit flies (Ceratitis capitata) into California. While they cannot be the only source for the flies, the evidence shows SOMEONE helped make the infestation as bad as it was. The medfly infestation cost California billions of dollars in crops and manpower. The flies reproduced faster than they could be sprayed, leading to the government switching to releasing sterile male flies as an alternative in the 90s. Even so, the invasive flies weren’t eradicated until 2008. Today the sight of a possible medfly will shut a port down and spark a frenzy of investigations. A well-timed invasive species would be almost impossible to detect and could disrupt or even destroy an economy, to say nothing of the damage to the region’s ecology and biodiversity.

Actually you could very well argue that colonialism has ALREADY weaponized invasive species, as I’ll go into in more detail in  my next ecology post. Colonial powers have intentionally released animals and plants across the world, not only destroying local ecology but also destroying indigenous food supplies, medicine, even music and religion! Tune in next time to learn how people have used trout to kill cultures.

If you want to read more cool stories about gross things we’ve done to bugs and gross things bugs have done to us, I can’t recommend Amy Stewart’s Wicked Bugs enough.

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Clione, Chapter 2

Kiwitest

The first chapter of Clione was made in Twine. Since I do not really know much CSS, I am trying something new for this second chapter. I made it in Construct 2. I’m interested to know which (if either) format readers prefer.

Chapter 1 – In Which Clione Prevents a Drowning
Chapter 2 – In Which A Toucan Is Justifiably Angry

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Clione, Chapter 1

Now for something a little different. This is the first chapter in an ongoing, serialized Twine story. Clione is inspired by years of reading the Moomins, Bone, Pogo, Uncle Scrooge and other comics and stories that mixed whimsical cartoon worlds with adventure. I’d like to release a new chapter every week or two.

You may recognize Bucky from my recently released game Bucky’s Poem Adventure. The story of Clione can be seen as something of a prequel to Bucky’s Poem Adventure.

BuckyClione

 

Chapter 1 – In Which Clione Prevents A Drowning

If you enjoy my work and wish to help support this and future games, stories and blog posts, please visit my Patreon.

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A Guide to Monster Love

Valentine’s Day is approaching, and that means young fancies invariably turn to thoughts of love. Of course, “love” can mean many things. This Valentine’s Day, many will turn to literary sources of romance. Of those people, many will turn to romantic monsters. Of those monsters, many will be undead creatures rather than just abusive humans written by people with weird ideas of intimacy. But if you are one of the many people drawn to the allure of the monster, what does it really mean? How can you be sure monster love is right for you? Well, like all fantasies, monster fantasies are inherently selfish. What monster you want inside you says a lot more about you than about the monster.

sotn-predracVampires
What is a vampire story REALLY about?
Vampires are parasites in every sense of the word. They live on the blood of others, but are also parasites in other ways. Vampires are inherently aristocratic. The first romantic vampire was a COUNT for a reason. Vampires surround themselves in finery stolen from the lower classes. Vampires produce nothing, and take everything. Vampires will even rob you of your free will if it suits them. Oh they love to play the victim, to cry about how misunderstood and lonely they are, but that is because they are narcissists. A vampire is ALWAYS the victim in their own mind, and therefore they are always justified in what they do. Kill someone and drink their blood? Oh, its just an example of how tragic THEIR life is. Vampires are the monstrous representation of the fear of the aristocracy and privileged.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a vampire?
Vampire romance is invariably a fantasy of being “uplifted” from your class and being gifted with power and control. It is a story not of true love, but of class conflict. Vampires never give up their status to become “common” humans. Rather, it is the select few “chosen” humans that get to raise in status and join their betters. To long for a vampire is to long for someone to give you power and status. You are merely fetishizing the aristocracy, and revealing your desire to attain social rank at any cost. Will you really become a parasite, feeding on the blood and production of your own class, just for love? No, you’re not doing it for love. You’re doing it for the power and prestige that comes with your dream partner’s family. Sure, you’ll justify all the horrible things you do by telling yourself that you DESERVE that blood more than the rabble do, but enjoy it while you can. You will be first staked against the wall when the revolution comes.

sotn-zombies Zombies
What is a zombie story REALLY about?
Zombies are a mindless horde. They are an unwashed mass that exist only to overrun everything we have built, or to be convenient targets for gun-filled power fantasies. Zombies represent the fear the establishment has for the masses. The fear that everything you have “earned’ can be taken away in an instant if those people you don’t ever think about or acknowledge suddenly revolted. More often than not, zombies are disdained more than feared. They’re “weak” monsters as well as mindless. They’re both the fear of losing your identity in the constant deluge of mass-marketed homogeny and the fear you have that those pop songs you despise might actually be fun and catchy. They’re the “sheeple” who don’t realize they’re all the same while YOU are unique and special. They’re what every bigot believes immigration or multiculturalism is. They’re humans robbed of humanity for your convenience, and you know that if they all woke up and came at you at once you’d be screwed.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a zombie?
Like the vampire, the zombie is really a monster of class. Your fantasy is not just a romance, but a revolution. A world where everyone is united with a single purpose, but still love and individuality exist. You and your partner are proof that the fear of what zombies bring is unwarranted. The elimination of class is not the end of the world or of individuality at all, not as long as you can love and bring out the love in your fellow undead paramore.
Or maybe you just want to fuck a dead body, I don’t know. Weirdo.

werewolfWerewolves
What is a werewolf story REALLY about?
While there have always been animal people and shapeshifters in folklore, the modern werewolf has a specific origin in literature. Medieval romances such as Bisclavret portrayed the werewolf in a sympathetic light. They were penitent humans trapped in bestial form for various sins, but capable of overcoming that to win love or help knights. Wolves weren’t the only animal forms these cursed heroes took either, as in the case of Hans My Hedgehog. But as medieval theology developed, the stories took on a darker form. Rather than stories of humans overcoming their bestial urges, the satanic werewolf was a human who gleefully wallowed as a beast. Modern werewolf stories try to combine the two, making for violent sociopaths who we’re supposed to sympathize with because they feel kind of bad about the horrible things they do. So in other words, like nearly every other fictional pop culture figure, only they also are a wolf sometimes. Look, werewolves are actually kind of boring these days, ok? Once we studied actual wolf behavior, it turns out werewolves don’t even act like wolves anyway! Did you know the alpha wolf thing turned out to be bs? Or that wolf “packs” are amorphous societies that individual wolves wander in and out of all the time? Basically most werewolf stories are the transgression fantasies of a witch but wrapped up in the aristocratic fantasies and justifications of the vampire.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a werewolf?
You fear or hate something inside you. Maybe you’re scared of hurting someone, maybe you’re just scared of what people will think. What you want is an excuse to let it out. A scenario where you can take all that pent up emotion and let it explode out onto the world in an orgy of beast metaphors. But you’re not REALLY ready to either take total responsibility or to completely ignore what the world thinks. Your fantasy isn’t about fucking and becoming the Incredible Hulk and having no limits or remorse. Werewolves are pack animals with their own rules and societies, and since wolf packs don’t look anything like what we assumed they did when we created werewolves, that means werewolf packs are a lot more like human societies than any hippie dippie “be like nature” crap. You wouldn’t WANT to return to nature anyways, you just want a society and family where it is ok to either cut loose or give in without hating yourself. But when that cutting loose involves preying on those “beneath” you, lycanthropy just puts a fuzzier face on the aristocracy of the vampire. You don’t just want to run wild, you want a world that justifies you doing so. You want justifications, and you want a lover that will give you plenty of them.

Akmodan2Mummies
What is a mummy story REALLY about?
Mummies were never monsters until Europeans came into the picture. Mummification was just how you honored and prepared the dead. When the British burst into the pyramids, eager to rob the dead AND the living in the name of their empire, the mummy became a representation of what they feared: that one day they’d find something their mighty empire couldn’t beat. Even after the sun set on the British empire, the mummy remained a monster in the mind of every colonial power. The mindless mummy, a reanimated corpse powered by nothing our science could understand and filled with a rage none of our clever words could talk it out of. We convinced ourselves that the people we conquered were “primitive” and “savage” and so their knowledge and ways of life were beneath acknowledging, much less understanding. For our hubris, we were rewarded with a monster fueled by that same knowledge we disdained, and impervious to everything our own knowledge could throw at it. We can’t reason with it, we can’t understand it, its going to destroy us, and if we had only not committed cultural genocide there might be someone who could help us.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a mummy?
Unlike the previous monsters, being intimate with a mummy doesn’t end with you becoming a mummy. As the mummy is a monster representing the empire’s fear of those they have conquered and abused, to love a mummy risks fetishizing and othering a culture for your own gain. Are you drawn to the mummy just because its power is “exotic” and ancient? Are you hoping to conquer through love what couldn’t be conquered through colonialism?

thecreature Frankenstein
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a Frankenstein?
Either it means you’re attracted to nebbish academics with little common sense, or you’re actually talking about fucking a golem made of reanimated flesh. See, the monster wasn’t named Frankenstein, he was always just called “the creature.” Am I being pedantic? Perhaps, but this is an article about the politics of monster fucking so I kind of have to be. If you meant the reanimated flesh guy, see ‘Golems’ below.

automatonzx26 Golems
What is a golem story REALLY about?
Whether its the original Golem of Prague or a modern day robot, golems are the fear of what we think and create. This can be a fear of science gone too far, as in the Frankenstein novel, or a fear of art destroying the artist as in Galatea or Dynamite Headdy. Perhaps it is even a fear of the future and our own offspring and legacy. As a monster representing the act of creation, the golem can be created in any form needed.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a golem?
Perhaps you are something of a narcissist, like Dr Frankenstein or Pygmalion. Your fantasy lover is a creature of your own creation (or even worse, you lazily pine for a mass-produced sexbot or creation of someone else that you can still program and dominate). You are fantasizing about an aspect of yourself it is possible to love without being just masturbation. Don’t fuck your golem, that is gross. If it is someone else’s golem you fantasize about, remember that its a being itself. You don’t get props for remembering that either, its just basic common courtesy. A lot of gross people assume they are owed robot sex just because they treated the robot with respect. You’re not owed sex for being respectful of a sentient being, that is what you should do normally. The biggest irony of the golem fucking fantasy is that even when you fantasize about a romantic relationship with someone else’s creation, the act of fantasizing about it MAKES it a product of your OWN creation. Moreover, this technically makes ANYONE OR ANYTHING YOU FANTASIZE ABOUT FUCKING A THOUGHT GOLEM. But if you go down THAT road you’ll start wondering if every thought or creation is therefore a golem and if you actually have any thoughts of your own of if each one is just spawning a separate metaphysical entity and honestly that’s not going to do you any good. If you want to fuck a robot so much, just remember that its ok to love yourself AS yourself. You don’t need to create an excuse to love yourself.

witchWitches
What is a witch story REALLY about?
Witches exist to transgress. The label of “witch” is political. Who gets labeled a witch? Those that society deems too smart, too powerful, too learned or too intriguing. Magic is, by definition, the changing of reality, and so those who wield magic are a threat to those who do not want to see reality (and the political status quo) changed. Those who live outside the community, who know enough about the world to live and thrive without everything society tells you that you NEED to live, they are called witches to keep you too scared to learn from them. Of course, witches CAN threaten the status quo through means such as eating babies, brewing poisons and cursing people. Still, you should always question what the person declaring someone a witch has to gain.
So what does it mean if I want to fuck a witch?
You’re interested in the taboo and the powerful. You don’t mind having a partner stronger, smarter or more sensual than you. Either you don’t care what society thinks about you as long as you’re in love, or you specifically want to give society the finger through your choice of loves. You see your dream partner as someone who can remove you from your station in society, but unlike the vampire fantasy you don’t want to just be elevated above people you think should be beneath you. You want someone to take you out of the entire system. You want to make love at the outskirts of civilization, feel the eldritch power of things beyond your understanding burn away everything you once were but never should have been, transform into a car so your lover can drive you off into apocalypse. Ok, so there might be some overlap with other fantasies, but you get the gist.

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