On being touched, but not obliged, in Northfield, Minnesota

Downtown Northfield, Minnesota. Image: 123dieinafire/Wikimedia Commons.

Since 1998, Phil Smith has been developing the concept of ‘mythogeography’, “a paranoid, exploratory, detective-like approach to space and place”. He published his first book on the subject in 2010.

In this extract from his new book, “Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota”, he writes about “being touched, but not obliged”.

On my first morning in Northfield, exploring on Division Street, I met Helen on the doorstep of the Prayer Room. She caught me obsessively studying the way the step outside its front door had begun to bubble ectoplasmically; the sun or the frost had disrupted its ceramic surface and a new pattern of unhuman forces was brazen.

The praying folk began to descend to the street from their upper room. Deploying my best ‘Khlestakhovian Inscrutability’ – a tactic I use in the street, offering a minimum of response (while remaining polite) so that others can fill the quiet with their own ideas and spaces – I engaged gently in a series of conversations (with one precant it was something about comparing the watches of our dead fathers that we were both wearing) until I was asked in to see the Prayer Room.

I was asked if hands could be laid upon me for a prayer. Although I was clear that I was not a believer, I was pleased to accept the offer. Pleased because I felt all these strangers’ hands on me, without aggression; my eyes were open and I saw the shelves of peculiar videos and books, and I heard the words of the prayer as the leader sought in curling sentences to somehow address the immediate future of someone he knew nothing about.

I was re-imagined in prayer in ways that were fantastical for their ordinariness; so far from my intentions I felt wholly unharmed. Being turned into something like an erudite and caring octopus with a fan of praying tentacles, I was lifted up in the arms of a community within a community. I was 4,000 miles from home and on my first day in town I was held intimately by six strangers in an upstairs room.

Such encounters, when entered into mythogeographically, as part of one’s questing journey to understand and intervene in places that are strange or simply unfamiliar, leave one touched, sometimes deeply, yet unobliged. There is no surrender of one’s nomadic slipperiness, no surrender to the grand narratives that are all around.


Even in places where belief and worldview are strictly codified, the mythogeographical pilgrim presents such a benign ambiguity that even the language of faith struggles to get any grip on the edge of that abyss we all hang onto. In a place that was strange to me, it was a meeting in myth on that first morning in Northfield. I discovered a capacity to shape and hold a kind of void within; around which others had then woven something better than I could.

A void worth sharing. 

There is always an essential ambivalence in such unbalanced but efficacious connections, even when they are very intense. They rely on the mythogeographer paying close, polite and respectful attention to everything and yet being ‘not quite there’; and so able to make a deft, intuitive connection to the big picture beyond (or beneath and within) the big pictures.

When I left Northfield I was more determined than ever to be an evangelist for this mythogeography; to encourage more people to take its path – its pilgrimage, even – beyond the big things, through the small things, to the even bigger picture, the picture before decisions.

So, now there is an obligation that arises from my encounter in the Prayer Room, though not one intended by the supplicants there. My part in the upper room octopus and my stay in Northfield in general have made me aware of how little of the potential, the urgency or the route of the mythogeographical pilgrimage I have shared with others. I am trying to go a little further here.

Rethinking Mythography is out now from Triarchy Press.

 
 
 
 

Marseille and Paris are crawling with rats. But it’s your problem too

A Parisian rat. Image: Getty.

You can very easily have a fine time in Marseille, but it is likely to be interrupted by rats.

The bloated and brazen beasts are so utterly convinced they own the place that they barely register any human presence to distract from their hedonistic excesses – throwing wild street parties, burrowing holes in overflowing bins, and darting in and out of exclusive harbourfront restaurants. We only really intrude when the occasional, blissfully oblivious rat is splattered across the cobblestones by a scooter.

For many residents, the whiskery foes have gone some way beyond a nuisance to represent a genuine menace. Rats have infested schools and taken over canteens. Pest control services claim they have broken into cars and gnawed through cables, which may have contributed to accidents. It is also alleged that they have caused Internet outages by attacking fibre-optic cables – continuing the venerable horror movie tradition of cutting the power seen in Aliens and Jurassic Park. Rats are also infamous and prolific traffickers of disease and have raised the threat of Leptospirosis.

Rat populations are fiendishly difficult to quantify, given their nocturnal lifestyle and that many live off-grid in the sewers; but by some estimates they now outnumber Marseille’s human inhabitants. Distress calls from the public to the city’s sanitation department and pest control services have increased, and the unofficial fifth emergency service has expanded its operations in response, laying poison traps and sweeping the gutters.

Several factors have contributed to the rat supremacy. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate has always been hospitable to rats, and a series of unusually warm summers – often passing 30°C – have made it more so. (Rats tend to stop breeding when it’s cold.)

City officials also bemoan the wanton waste disposal habits of their citizens, which have allowed large and easily accessible piles of appetising trash to accumulate. Marseille’s councillor for hygiene Monique Daubet recently complained the city has become a “five-star restaurant for rats”.

Others have suggested a series of strikes by garbage collectors gave the rat population a turbo charge it barely needed. A single pair of brown rats can spawn more than a thousand descendants within a year.

That formidable birth rate is one indicator of what the city is up against: the urban rat is almost a perfect predator. Millennia of human ingenuity has failed to remove them from our midst or negate the threats they pose. Rats are supreme survivors – scientists marvel at their survival on nuclear test sites – and they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. They can eat practically anything, but are neophobic, meaning they shy away from all but the most devious poison traps. The rodents are intelligent, resilient, and their ability to colonise new habitats rivals our own.

Faced with this adversary, the local authority has assigned more resources to the fight, through both the city’s sanitation department and the private extermination service A3DS. Both are reluctant to discuss their tactics and whether they are having an impact. But officials are also taking a tough line on public responsibility, insisting that residents dispose of trash after 7pm in sealed bags or face fines. The city has also proposed measures such as mobile dumps and new model bins that rats should find harder to access.

The Marseillais are also keeping a close eye on events in the capital: Paris’ rat problem may be even more severe, driven by flooding from the River Seine that has forced the rodents to seek higher ground. In recent years, rats have overrun the Louvre and forced the closure of public parks, as well as starring in viral video nasties that do little for the city’s image as the capital of romance.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has sounded the alarm and invested millions of euros in a campaign against rats, which has seen thousands of raids in hundreds of parks and buildings, as well as the introduction of more secure bins, and fines levied against people accused of feeding the enemy. Her administration has also despatched an envoy to New York to study the city’s approach to its own notorious rodent community.

An international approach makes sense given that rats are on the march all around the world. Reported sightings have shot up in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. One study estimated that rats inflict $19 billion of economic damage each year in the US alone. London has also seen an increase in reported sightings. Leading rodentologist Bobby Corrigan says the same patterns are playing out in the major cities of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

And for much the same reasons. Contributing factors include “too few resources allocated an organised program for rat control,” says Corrigan. “Also, more people in our cities means more refuse, more overloading of the city’s sanitation budgets, less thorough removal of the kind of food shrapnel that escapes typical garbage collection. Each rat only needs about 30 grams of food per 24 hours to thrive and reproduce.” A warming climate also plays a part.

Poison traps and culls can only go so far, says the rodentologist, arguing that a holistic approach is required to head off the growing threat. “The best measure is a city organised in addressing the rats across all agencies,” says Corrigan. That means mobilising departments of sanitation, parks, housing, health, and sewers, as well as mayoral administrations themselves.

Society-wide civic participation is also essential. “Controlling rats takes everyone: every homeowner, shop owner, restaurant, grocery store, airport, and so on. Not to do so invites the risk of a “new and/or highly virulent virus” developing among our old enemies, he adds.

Research into sterilisation programmes offers some hope of a new weapon to repel and reduce the rodent hordes. But not enough for us to evade responsibility while rat populations grow and the threat increases. “If we don’t work together as the wise species we claim to be and present a scientific, multi-faceted organised effort against this very smart and organised smaller mammal, we can have no hope of defeating it,” says Corrigan. Time to man the barricades.