Quacking like a duck

Duck Soup — the Marx Brothers’ anarchistic tour de force — isn’t really about ducks. And C.L. Bothwell III’s Gorillas in the Myth: A Duck Soup Reader (Brave Ulysses Books, 2000) isn’t really about gorillas (or, for that matter, soup or ducks) — though, in a vivid sense, this book does embrace all the myriad beasties inhabiting the planet.

Still, the web-footed, quacking fowl in question are not the manic products of Groucho and company’s warped brains — or not directly, anyway. Duck Soup is a multipronged communications undertaking piloted by Bothwell (who lives in the woods outside Black Mountain) over the last half-decade or so. It consists principally of short, pithy essays, variously delivered via radio (during a now-ended, three-year stint on WNCW), print (in publications as varied as Mountain Xpress, Planet Weekly and the Colorado Springs Independent), and the author’s weekly e-publication, The Soupletter).

There’s nothing harder for a writer than crafting a compelling, artfully shaped-yet-substantive argument within the space of 700 words or so. Like a ninja on a night raid, you have to get in quick, stick in the knife, and be gone before the sun first pinks the parting clouds. But Bothwell is a master of this: Pound for pound (or is it phrase for phrase?), these pieces offer more bang for your buck than the highest-flying tech stock reflected in the NASDAQ numbers.

Whether the topic is seashells or toilet paper, MTV or toys for tykes, he offers an informed and reasoned treatment that’s not only original and eminently readable, but that leaves you with plenty to ponder.

Bothwell is, first and foremost, a passionate environmentalist. And most of these essays may be said, in some sense, to address our erupting environmental crisis — and the quest for genuinely sustainable alternative directions.

To be sure, many eloquent voices have been raised in praise of nature, and in defense of our increasingly beleaguered nest. Do we really need another such lament?

One answer might be that, if we’re still this deep in crisis, we need all the help we can get. And Bothwell evokes nature’s mysteries as trenchantly as anyone. Consider these lines, from “The Current Buzz”:

“I look at a katydid, its big-eyed green face as weirdly different from my own as any flying-saucer pilot’s could ever be; its six legs and wings, wiggly abdomen and curved antennae unlike my own body in almost every detail. And yet I hear their music, and I get it. The world is vibrantly alive. We and they are in good company. We and they share this with the angels.”

But Bothwell is no one-note Johnny, and this is crucial. Because, though most of us have been known to retreat to the woods on occasion — ooh-ing and ah-ing in our souls till we return, dewy-eyed and grateful, to our self-constructed cages — if that is all we do, it is ultimately futile. (Indeed, the relentless waves of newly arriving ooh-ers and ah-ers to our region inevitably hasten the decline of the very thing they come here for.)

Bothwell, however, digs deeper. And though his world will seem unfamiliar to many — being one where conventional wisdom regularly gets stood on its head in the name of some deeper vision — this is never done merely for effect. His unflinching scrutiny is driven by a determinedly ethical quest.

And he doesn’t cheat, either: The arguments are there, the chain of logic plain to see.

You may choose to disagree, but it’s hard to accuse him of pulling polemical rabbits from rhetorical hats. Besides, even in the process of deciding that he’s wrong, you’ll often find you’ve been obliged to re-examine some of your own most-treasured (and, perhaps, least-scrutinized) assumptions.

When he critiques the use of incentives to recruit businesses, for instance, Bothwell tells you what percentage of property taxes corporations paid in 1957 (43 percent) and today (18 percent); how much money South Carolina anted up ($130 million, over 30 years) for, as he puts it, “the pleasure of having BMW in their neighborhood”; and how many jobs (about 800) were lost in Moore County, N.C., when Proctor-Silex — recruited there with millions in incentives, a decade or so before — headed south of the border, in quest of a better offer.

In the end, however, what gifted writers give us is less a marshalling of numbers than a voice — an intimate semantic construct as distinctive as a thumbprint. This is art, this is style — and why, even in a post-literate age, all writing has not been reduced to an utterly homogenous commodity called “text” (well, not yet, anyway). And part of what sets Bothwell’s voice apart from those of others mining comparable material is an exceptional commitment to balance — that fundamental Taoist concept enshrined in the tiny yin/yang bullet that dashingly caps each essay. Balanced thinking delivered by balanced writing; solid substance wrapped in attractive packaging. A pretty two-step pairing rationality and passion — as in this passage, from “The Killing Fields”:

“Thinking back to my childhood, I remember picking ripened dandelion heads covered with fuzzy parachutes, making a wish — and blowing with all my might. I guess the idea was that a wish could come true if it was scattered on the wind.

“What do people wish for when they spray Round-Up?”

Like a Zen master firing bull’s eye after bull’s eye, Bothwell bequeaths his readers a marvelous, primordial “Ah!”: Someone else out there feels things that I have felt — and says them, perhaps more eloquently than I might have, myself (which is, after all, the essential task we have forever asked of our bards).

Talk about balm for the postmodern soul!

Then again, one may come away from these pages saying: “Hmmm. Someone out there feels things that I have never felt, or even dreamed — things, indeed, that I am altogether unsure make any kind of sense, that challenge fundamentals I hold dear.”

But isn’t this, too, a kind of blessing? And when (amid this age of frenzied bombast, of battling base-two sound bites) we confront an intelligent, thoughtful view that, however alien to our own, eschews attack mode and doesn’t suggest that our disagreement somehow renders us less than human, less than ethical — isn’t that, in itself, ample cause for celebration?

Still (once we’re through with school, at least), most of us don’t devote the bulk of our reading time to wrestling with the big issues. Instead, we often look to reading as a means of entertainment and escape. If this sounds more like you, the good news is that Gorillas is also a fun book. A gifted storyteller, Bothwell can elliptically evoke, in several sentences, what a more pedestrian narrative might take pages to convey.

Witness the masterly way he sets the scene in the opening lines of “Costing Cookies”:

Yesterday — in between pouring coffee down my gullet (to rally sleepy neurons) and corroborating the intersection of buttons and holes in my shirt (before racing out the door to follow my dashboard to town) — I heard a noise. A tiny clatter.

In the pantry.

Hmmm.

I grumbled and opened the closet door. Silence.

Appointment. Had to run.

When I arrived home in the late afternoon, Susan said, “There’s something in the pantry.”

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