The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Dream Places

There are some things we can trust, even in dreams. One of them is the dream version of a real place. Little as they resemble the places they represent, in the dream we recognize them, and across dreams we return to them, and find them as we left them. Often they are on a larger scale than their models. For places known in childhood this is explicable. Imagination magnifies and interpolates the facts until they match the impression we retain from when we were small in a place and looked up to it. But all my dream places are magnified, whenever I knew them. Perhaps cinematography is to blame. Many who grow up watching black and white dream in shades of gray; my dreams are wound up to the geographical key of New Zealand. True, I return to dream places which are born of dream stuff, and have no anchor in experience; but dream places, when they are born of real places, retain a cord of connection with them. The change that a place undergoes in becoming a dream place is not lawless: there is a topology, with invariants. The shape of a coast or the path of a river may change, but the waters remain. The dream place has the same palette as its model; no new colors appear. Trees never appear singly, always in stands. New buildings are found, and new features of old buildings, but always of the same stuff as the real ones. Roads widen and narrow, but never change their course, nor whether they turn or go straight. In order of instability the elements of dreams are events, things, people, and places. This is a lesson in the mechanics of imagination: even when anything can happen to anyone at any time, it must still happen somewhere.


The far-voyaging French explorers of North America kept running into one another. One explorer could hardly enter a village without finding another in residence or having just left. They could leave one another letters and expect them to be delivered. In Paris a man could disappear; in the wilderness he had to guard his reputation.

Think of traffic as a force. The canal is the artificial version of something natural – the river; likewise, the road is the artificial version of the path. Roads are permanent; paths, unless anchored by permanent settlements or fenced off by property lines, shift freely. The paradox of the wilderness is that the more open and unobstructed it is, the more traffic converges along optima conditioned by the difficulty of the terrain, the availability of resources, and the use of waterways. In the wilderness all ways are highways.

When we consider ancient or prehistoric peoples and their connections we should not imagine of a web of short links between evenly spaced nodes, news and goods moseying from village to village; we should imagine them swept up into a handful of gigantic, continental paths: stable in their broad geographic sweep, changeful in their fine, local structure. Call them fractal: at ten thousand feet, there is one path; lower there are ten paths; on the ground there are hundreds of paths, routes and reroutes circumventing any obstacle with the ingenuity of flowing water.

The existence of paths on a continental scale does not imply a continental consciousness. In their scale these great paths would have been invisible to those who used them: like the Silk Road (the last great path), each path would have been cut up by jealous middlemen, until one end of the road was a myth to the other.

One can imagine, if not document, a vision of universal history hanging on a set of Great Paths, where it is not migrations that leave paths behind them, but paths that guide migrations. Paths have always been before us: from our beginning, the human race spread not by spilling over from one valley to the next, but by processes that, scaling the lines of least resistance, became the salients of our advance. The ascent of man was not just something that happened; it was a single phenomenon, having its own structure – structured in paths.

April Fools

On the net, an effective April Fools’ joke works like contrast dye – you discover, by following its path, who does and does not read the stories they pass along. April 2nd is a good day to unsubscribe, unfollow, and defriend. We owe to April Fools’ Day some great moments: say, table syrup or the spaghetti harvest. But surely there is already enough deceit and treachery in the world. Why dedicate a holiday to it? It has the significance of certain seeming-perverse religious performances, honoring the hostile gods of death and ruin, recognizing them in turn lest they obtrude themselves out of turn. If we must be fools, if some god of fools will not be spurned, then let us dedicate a day to his honor. And the holiday inoculates us: being an April fool is painful, but it forearms us for when we are made fools out of season.

All The Lonely People

“But tell us, why would you stay?”

“This is my home,” he said, glancing around the café at empty tables, seeing the man with an open computer and the pretty-plain barista who were eloquently ignoring each other. “I may be the only one who knows it, but this is my home.”

He sat at his little round table. (What he let himself think of, sometimes, as his table.) He sat with a man and a woman, his guests. They did not look like people who belonged at his table. They did not look like people who belonged anywhere, except in magazines. They were too well-dressed, too well-coiffed. Everything they wore was contemporary, everything in the latest style – walking fashions. When they first walked in, they reminded him somehow of actors in a costume drama.

On the table, centered between three coffees – two of them cold and untouched – his laptop sat closed, fan blowing softly. If he opened it now, he knew, he would see nothing – nothing but the winter-scene desktop and the carefully arranged dock. He would not see again what they had shown him there, a few minutes ago, stealing his screen with a snap of the fingers. He would not see this city as it would look ten thousand years from now, under its dome, its old buildings stasis-locked beyond decay, its new buildings smooth, swooping, imperishable. He would not see the thin ribbons of dark green park that had once been streets. He would not see The War. They called it that – just The War, against The Enemy, waging ten thousands years from now.

“We don’t like to let it come to this,” said the man, “but you need to understand. Our records are very detailed. We know all about you. We know what happened to your parents. We know about the divorce. We can read your emails. We have your instant messages laid down in diamond dust. Your friends were her friends. They took her side. Nothing is holding you here.”

“So what? So I should give up? Run away? Run ten thousands years away to fight for people I have nothing in common with against an enemy who never did anything to me. This is my time. This is where I belong.”

Now it was the woman’s turn. “Understand, we know. We know everything that happened to you from the day you were born to the day you died. It is a matter of historical record that your life was meaningless. From now you will always be alone. You will never love, you never be loved. You will never meet anyone, you will never make a friend. You will never go anywhere. You will never accomplish anything. There was a phrase we learned in orientation…”

“ ‘Waste of space,’ ” the man supplied.

“That was it. Yes.” She drawled it. “Waste of space. You were a waste of space.”

He grabbed his laptop and stood up. “Fuck you. Fuck you both. Fuck your war and fuck your human race. I hope—”

“We’re not finished,” the man said, and snapped his fingers.

His legs went numb under him. He flopped back into the chair and hugged the laptop to himself.

“Now, here, you are worthless,” the man said. “But you are invaluable to us.”

“Valuable,” the woman said. “He means you’re very valuable.”

“They mean the same thing, I think,” the man said. “Invaluable and valuable. Like inflammable.”

The woman shrugged.

“We’re recruiters,” he said. “You know that already. But only certain very special people meet our standards. We need people who will not be missed. We mostly used to do corpse shuffling. Take a genetic sample, send it downstream, get a body back, swap it out for the original moments before an accident. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. Too many people come into contact with the bodies. It’s only safe when the injuries are too gruesome or the body count is too high. And then some of them say no, even after we save their lives. All our efforts go to waste. I spent—”

The woman interrupted. “We found a better way. It turns out that people like you are more common than we thought. People who at a certain point in their lives just give up, shut off. People who can be lifted out of history without affecting anything. We come to them and we make an offer. Come with us, ten thousand years downstream, and we will give you a purpose. We will give your life meaning. Ten thousand years from now all the silent and lonely people who ever fell through the cracks of history are gathering to fight the last battle of the last war. All you have to do is say yes.”

“I won’t say yes. Why don’t you just take me? Snap your fingers?”

“Your weapon needs your consent. All you have to do is say yes and it will take you where you need to go. It will teach you what you need to know. It has been prepared especially for you. No one else can use it. It was made with your records. It knows you more completely than anyone has ever known you. It loves you perfectly and unconditionally. It is totally devoted and infinitely patient. It lives to wait for your answer.”

The man took over. “You don’t have to answer now. You don’t have to answer this week or this month or this year. Our devices are watching you. They will watch you for the rest of your life. From now on, all you have to do is say yes, and wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your weapon will come for you. Like she said, your weapon is patient. Say yes tomorrow. Say yes thirty years from now. Say yes on your deathbed. Your weapon will come and restore you and bring you to the fight.”

The man stood up. The woman too. On the way out the woman snapped her fingers and he gasped at the pins and needles prickling his awakening legs. He held onto his laptop. The heat from its racing chips burned his stomach.

“Hey, are you all right?” It was the girl, the pretty-plain barista. “Are you OK? Mr. – I’m sorry, I know your face, but I don’t know your name.” The boy with the laptop looked up, looked away, typed furiously.

A man left his home, and in the silence that came after he left, he was not missed.