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Longing to Belong

In Poisoned Justice, I used a murder mystery to walk the line between vengeance and justice—a most difficult philosophical problem. One can read the book without worrying too much about whether the anti-hero, Riley, has crossed moral line. But for those with an interest in what makes an act right or wrong, the story works at this deeper level.

My next book in the series, Murder on the Fly (tentatively titled), includes mysterious deaths, dark motives, and conflicted characters—along with another conceptual challenge. What does it mean to belong somewhere (whether you are a Mediterranean fruit fly, an Irish immigrant, or a Native American)? Riley feels that Potrero Hill is his home, but he’s challenged by a romantic encounter with a woman of American Indian descent and the arrival of an Iranian family to his neighborhood.

In college, I had a friend who used to check the "Native American" box, although he was a European mongrel like myself. He contended that he was born here, so he was native. Technically, he wasn’t wrong. But equating birth and nativity doesn't seem quite right. Today, where you are born may have more to do with your parents' travels, the location of medical facilities, and the vagaries of employment opportunities than a meaningful tie to the land or a human community.

As I discovered in teaching a course on biodiversity at the University of Wyoming, being born in a region does not mean that one knows the land, flora, or fauna. For several years, my co-instructor and I asked the students to name three native plants, vertebrates, and invertebrates. Typically, only a third of the students from Wyoming could name a native plant, about a quarter could name a native vertebrate, and less than one in twenty could name a native invertebrate.

We ought to name our valued concepts with great care. The word I seek is indigenous—the quality of "having originated in and being produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment." It seems to me that one can "originate in" a place without having been born there. And so, Riley struggles with which insects and humans belong in San Francisco and the farmlands outside the city. Although he solves the murder mystery, solving the problem of belonging in (or to) a place turns out to be even more difficult.

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