The personal blog of the cultural ambassador to the newly discovered planet of the Ant-people (the Myrmeiods).

Friday, March 30, 2012

Time Goes By

I've been spending a lot of time with Kahe'ni recently. We never really were friends before, not that we had anything against each other, we just didn't talk. Part of it, I guess, is that I won't be able to spend time with her later--it's now or never to talk to her, and I pick now. Part of it is that I don't really have much else to do, besides talk with people, and except for the children, everyone else here spends a lot of time working. Kahe'ni spends most of her time now on an oxygen line, and it's not portable, so sitting and talking is about all she can do. I entertain her, and telling me about her planet probably helps her feel useful.

But she does have a lot of useful things to say. She has seven decades of personal experiences to talk about, and that's probably the smaller part of what she knows. She was telling me something about this country's history--not like she remembers several hundred years of history, but her interests and perspective as the layer of a country-folk has lead have lead her to an almost personal appreciation of it. Today she told me a story somewhat different than the one I was told when I was briefed for my service here.

I was told that when the Imperials arrived here almost six hundred years ago, the land was occupied by several different tribes, most of which lived by small-scale horticulture and hunting and gathering. Most of the tribes were warlike, always fighting with each other. They also fought against the Imperials, but the Imperials had a higher birthrate due to a combination of a better diet, since they ate a high-protein, fish-based diet, and had more effective medicine. As a result, the Imperials could sustain higher losses in war and still win, which they did in areas near the shore and near navigable rivers. The tribes in those areas were ultimately eradicated. In other areas, conquest was not economically feasible, so the Imperials made treaties with those tribes. The colony gradually developed as a multi-cultural society, and eventually fought for and won its independence.

I'd figured out pretty quickly that the coastal tribes were not entirely eradicated; the language of the country folk is not mutually intelligible with any of the languages of the inland tribal peoples, for one thing, nor is it remotely like Imperial in its structure, although the two have many words in common--there's been a lot of borrowing in both directions over the years, apparently. But I didn't really understand what had happened--clearly the coastal tribes did not escape intact.

So yesterday Kahe'ni told me. No wonder she takes it a bit personally; it's not only her people, it's her caste. It's the layers, specifically, who were lost.

All Myrmeoid cultures have the same demographic categories; caste is a matter of biology, and they can't change it any more than...I was about to say any more than we can change sex, but of course that's not quite right. Caste, and the fact that families must unite all stages of life and all three castes, are not culturally dependent, I mean. How families are assembled and how families relate to each other IS culturally dependent.

The Imperials live in large families that function as units with the state. Children are separated from their families as early as possible and educated in groups in order to instill solidarity. The coastal peoples used to have small families organized loosely into tribes. People stayed with their families longer, and only flyers ever moved between tribes. The tribes were at war more or less constantly, but war to them meant little skirmishes over land rights and served to keep each tribe more or less in balance with it's resource base. The tribes had no chiefs, but were knit together politically and culturally by the layers, who were each the heads and centers of their families. It was the layers who maintained the structure of each family and each tribe over time, handing group identity off from generation to generation, layer to layer, since their biology makes it hard for a family name to be passed down through a genetic lineage.

When the Imperials came in, they moved slowly enough to learn something of the local culture, and they learned about the central role of the layers--and they killed them. Better nutrition had nothing to do with it; the Imperials had greater military force because their efficient brutality caught the locals by surprise, and because unlike most Myrmeoid cultures in which flyers are the warriors, if warriors are needed, the Imperials train second-post-pupals and even children for war. Since Myrmeoids can produce babies at a prodigious rate if they want to, Imperials can simply start breeding about fifteen years before they want to attack, and built an army about as large as they like. In all fairness, I don't think they do this anymore, but five hundred years ago they bred children as cannon fodder and swarmed over whole cultures like...well, ants. Their victims, whose warriors did not begin training until their forties, couldn't keep up. They declared the land theirs, and when the layers objected, the Imperials had them killed as ringleaders of rebellion.

Without their layers--and without many of their flyers--the families and tribes collapsed. Within a single generation it became impossible for anyone to identify as a member of a family or tribe--everyone lost track of themselves. A lot of the children were taken away to school, further disorienting and disrupting the survivors. This is what they mean when they say the coastal and river tribes were eradicated. They're very sorry about it, apparently--but the children are still taken away to school, according to law. A lot of them never come back.

It's not a racial thing--genetically, everyone's gotten mixed up. If there was once a genetic distinction between the two groups, it's been lost centuries ago, because flyers don't really keep track of who fathers their children, and no one keeps track of where flyers came from; flyers are still allowed to transcend tribe. But family and tribe were never about genetics, they were about group connection to the land and they were about stories. The stories moved between generations and made unrelated people family, binding them to the land and to each other. Just like a flyer could lay her egg in the communal nest and trust the family would take care of it if she took care of the family, a family could trust its children to the land and to the tribe, knowing they would be taken care of, as long as the pattern as a whole was kept going.

When the layers were killed, Kahe'ni says, it was like the baskets of stories fell over and broke, and the stories scattered and shattered and died--this is the imagery she used. She, and many of the other country-folk layers, are trying to re-gather the stories, make and fill new baskets--and it is not finished. Five hundred years, and it is still not finished. She's told the stories she has to many people already, but she also had had many babies. She wanted one more. I guess she wants to retell her stories, too--and I'm a writer. I'm a student here. I guess my job is to collect, record, and retell her stories?

She sits next to her oxygen tank all day now, disconnecting only to relieve her bowels and bladder, to lay her daily egg, and sometimes to walk slowly around her farm in the evening--she breathes with her abdomen, remember, and the tube covers her whole abdomen, so other abdominal functions require disconnecting so she doesn't foul the tube. This morning, when she got back from one of her walks and reconnected--her abdomen heaving painfully and asymmetrically around the cancerous mass--she told me not to feel sorry for her. Or, at least, that's what I thought she said. We were speaking Imperial at the time,since she knows I'm still more comfortable in that language, and Imperial does not distinguish between singular and plural pronouns. They do distinguish between inclusive and exclusive pronouns--one "we" includes present company, the other doesn't. She used the exclusive version, excluding me. So what she said, grammatically, could have meant "don't feel sorry for me, Kah'eni," or it could have meant "don't feel sorry for us, the country folk." Context suggested the latter, since she went on to explain that they have influenced Imperial culture at least as much as the other way around, that they have retained their language and much of their culture, that even their way of life has been changed more by time than by the Imperials. Most of their produce is native in origin, and while they no longer hunt as much, they do raise urdles, which is much the same thing. They're still here.

Maybe she meant both things, herself and her people.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Happier News

Kahe'ni is still doing ok, except that her breathing is getting labored. She says it doesn't hurt, she just feels a bit out of breath. She says this a good sign; how she will die depends on the direction in which her tumor grows and which organ it most seriously presses against. She says the shortness of breath is a good sign, because if it grows into her lungs at least her death will be relatively quick. She said this almost cheerfully. She's not afraid at all, and I don't know what to say to her. I did volunteer to walk to the hospital and get an oxygen tank for her. The things are incredibly expensive, but half the expense is transportation, and I can help there. It will ease things for her.

So why did I title this "happier news"? Because I'm tired of thinking about cancer so I'm going to think about marriage instead. The publisher is totally interested in as many Earth-ritual manuals as I can write, and today I'm writing one on marriage.

Really, it's a great opportunity to talk about how we Earthlings do things--there's sex, love, family structure, religion, and food, all wrapped together. The really difficult part, of course, is that Myrmeoids don't marry, so how are they supposed to go through the ritual?

What I did was to draw an analogy between human marriage and Myrmeoid third-post-pupal circles. Virtually all known Myrmeoid societies are organized around families headed by partnerships among third-post-pupals, in much the same way that our cultures usually include some kind of partnership among men and women. How and when circles form, an how big they are, varies culturally, just as our marriages do. Circle members are usually deeply connected to each other, and almost always remain together until death, so they may be able to relate emotionally to married couples.

But these circles have no sexual component. Layers don't mate at all, of course, and flyers, I've noticed, treat sex as something like drinking coffee--an enjoyable thing to do with friends. Flyers may or may not mate with other members of their circle, and since no one but flyers even has sexual impulses, no one else cares who has sex with who. Also, Myrmeoids don't fall in love--they do love, they just don't generally do it suddenly, nor do they have what we call romance. Emotionally, circles are more like business partnerships. They form because people who get along fairly well have a common interest. The love develops gradually, after the fact.

Still, it's the closest analogy I can think of. Here is my rough outline for a Myrmeoid wedding ceremony. It's for a newly forming circle, not an established circle taking on a new member, which is actually quite rare. Obviously, I'm using a Protestant Christian wedding as a loose template, as it's the one I know the most about. If I get a chance I'll do several other versions, too, for other traditions.

Costumes; Myrmeoids don't wear clothes, but they do wear jewelry, body paint, or decorative strings and cloth pieces, so I'm saying layers need to wear white ribbons, plus something "old, new, borrowed, and blue." Flyers wear black or blue decorations. Layers carry a flower, flyers carry a green sprig.

Ritual; I couldn't think of any reasonable person to give away the brides, so I'm skipping that. I also decided to have the layers waiting at the alter, with the flyers processing up the aisle, because there are usually a lot more flyers than layers, and I thought that having a whole crowd waiting at the alter would look stupid.

There must be an officiant of some sort, but I couldn't have this person deliver any kind of inspirational words about what marriage is, because Myrmeoids can't talk to more than one person at a time. So instead I'll have the officiant release friendly, loving, and trusting pheremones, by way of example. Likewise, I can't do an exchange of vows, because no one else could witness it. Instead, I have vows written up ahead of time, and the circle members all sign it. Signing documents is not a Myrmoid custom, but it seemed fairly likely to translate well. Rings are a problem, for various anatomical reasons, so I had them tie gold-colored thread onto each others' left foreleg. A Myrmeoid can stand on any three legs, and needs two feet for most object manipulation, because each foot has only two fingers. So I have them stand in a circle. Each bride/groom uses the first and second foot on the right side to tie his or her neighbor's string, while presenting the left forefoot to the neighbor on the other side.

Kissing is a problem, since they don't and can't kiss. I could have them lick each other, but friends do that anyway, there's nothing especially marital about it. At the moment I'm thinking of doing something with cooperation--maybe if they all pour things into a vat to make a mixed drink? Something they can cooperate to do together quickly, something pleasurable.

The reception can have cake and presents and dancing--Myrmeoids do dance, though not in pairs. It's something like square dancing. They do it without music, since they can't hear rhythm, but they can move rhythmically. Their dancing is all about synchronized movement--not everybody moving the same way, but everybody moving in an organized way, so that you can separate and go through complex independent movements and then come back together and know each other will be there. I wish I could introduce the Virginia Reel, but I'm not sure Myrmeoids can make an arch with their forelegs big enough for others to go through.

I'm totally including the Hokey Pokey, though. Except that it's liable to be a very long dance--I mean, they have six legs, four antenae, and an abdomen to put in and out and shake all about.

I REALLY wish I could watch two dozen Myrmeoids doing the Hokey Pokey.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sad News

Sad news, this week.

Kahe'ni, the layer of the La'helis, is dying. She has a cancerous tumor in her abdomen, and given that her exoskeleton will not permit her body to swell outward, the growth will soon put enough pressure on her vital organs to kill her, one way or another. Surgery is nearly impossible for Myrmeoids, since it means cutting holes in their skelletons. They do have chemotherapy drugs, but they would only give her a chance at survival whereas the crippling side-effects would be a certainty. Myrmeoids tend to have less patience with lingering than we do, and Kahe'ni has chosen to accept only palliative care. She is 73 years old, not ancient by Myrmeoid standards, but certainly old. She says she is tired.

But, she has a distinctly Myrmeoid last wish; to have another child. Since Myrmeoids care for children communally, there is no worry about bringing an orphan into the world, and Kahe'ni is still laying an egg a day anyway. All she has to do to have another child is make sure an egg is kept, and the egg she layed this morning will be. It will hatch in five days. I gather Myrmeoid larvae look rather like stuffed socks--I used to stuff one sock inside the other, so they wouldn't get separated, until I noticed the kids were stealing them to play "house" with. Now, I guess they can play with a real larva. Beginnings and endings.

I don't know Kahe'ni well. I know she is the family accountant, and that, like most layers, she is central to her family, something like its heart. Myrmeoid families are, by definition, a partnership among all the castes, and while families can have multiple layers, the La'helis have only one. They'll have to bring in somebody new, and Kahe'ni is talking about who the family should look for as calmly as if she were simply retiring. I guess it will be hard for them to lose both their engineer and their accountant at the same time, but Kahe'ni says they should look for a botanist next. I don't know how she's regaining her composure.

She's a lot bigger than the flyers. Her exoskeleton is a glossy black, though visibly scratched in places, and her abdomen is long and heavy. Myrmeoids don't turn grey or get wrinkled when they get old, but they do slow down, and Kahe'ni walks slowly and rests often.

She's walking even more slowly now. I can't really think clearly.

Friday, March 9, 2012

A very Merry Birthday to All?

An odd thing has happened. Remember that birthday party I threw for Dan two or three weeks ago? Well, it's become the most exciting thing anyone's done for a long time. Everyone wants to have Earth-style birthdays; it's the new "in thing"!

I had written up a booklet for all the attendees, so everyone would know what to do and why during the party. I expected the booklets to become keepsakes, or just get thrown out afterwards, but instead it seems everyone in the area has read a copy, and every week someone has a birthday party. No one else has done ice cream, as it's too hard to make--they seem to be gravitating to pudding instead, and a lot of them are developing no-bake cakes, but the Ra'heli family--they're bee-keepers and candle-makers, mostly--are doing a brisk new business in birthday candles. Most people can't blow out a candle, so they use snuffers, so I hear. I don't think most of them are even waiting until their birthdays to have birthday parties--they just want to have the party.

This is incredible--and also a little scary. I was worried, at first, that I might have done something to damage these people's culture. I was thinking about the history of missionaries on our planet. Dan says not to worry; he expects contact with Earth to change his people's cultures in some way, but has pointed out I'm really not powerful enough to change anything the people don't want changed. After all, there is only one of me. Thanks for the ego-boost, Dan.

But really, for most of them, I think the birthday parties are less about adopting a cultural practice and more about experiencing Earth in some way. It's like how, when I was a kid, we had to dress up like Pilgrims and Indians in school before Thanksgiving--they can't see Earth, so they're trying to get a sense of it by pretending they belong to its culture. Just today, I've been asked to write more of these things, for other ceremonies--weddings, funerals, Bar Mitzvah's, retirement parties--a major publisher is interested, and they've already agreed to start printing the birthday booklet.

I'm really excited about this. I'd been worrying a bit about my job--there isn't much mass-media here, so I can't do anything like a talk-show circuit, and I've been wondering how much of an impact I can really make--how I can represent my culture when I only really interact with a few hundred people on a semi-regular basis. This is how, I guess--I can write these celebration manuals. I'm psyched.

It's getting hot out. It's only a few hours past dawn, and already I'm sweating just sitting here. I guess the summers here are real scorchers. The La'helis don't care, much. Myrmeoids have three different body temperatures, and they can shift to whichever temperature is closest to the temperature of the air and stay pretty comfortable. I wish I could.