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My eighth entry in the self-portrait marathon

Meanwhile, there are entire towns where nothing terrible is happening for an hour or two, where parents are caring for children with remarkable tenderness, where nurses are tending patients, mail carriers are delivering packages, and at least one man who owns a small business is taking off work early to coach a girl’s soccer team. Terrible things will continue to happen in those places, which the best efforts of such people will not be sufficient to prevent, but their bursts of gratuitous kindness are the mustard seeds from which healing bushes sometimes grow. They constitute the alternate reality that I want to live in, even if it means limiting my exposure to other kinds of news.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “What’s new?” The Christian Century, May 30, 2006

As I sat on my porch this morning drinking my coffee around 6:30, I watched a lightning bug fly past with its lamp extinguished and decided it was time to do another self-portrait.

I don’t know what kind of play the self-portrait marathon is getting in the larger blogosphere, but I doubt it’s attracting the kind of breathless attention devoted to the latest Supreme Court decision, or whatever fresh horror is emerging from Iraq or the Occupied Territories. And perhaps that’s as it should be. But if you haven’t stopped by lately to check out the gallery, you should. You can view it as a Flickr slideshow, too.

While it’s easy to be cynical and dismiss the self-portrait marathon as nothing more than an outlet for bloggers’ unflagging tendency toward self-absorption, I think that misses the real story. Over 75 bloggers, from amateur shutterbugs like me to professional portrait painters, have committed to taking a prolonged, in-depth look at one subject — a subject that Agatha Christie once described as “perhaps the greatest mystery of all: ourselves.” And as the galleries attest, many of the results have been quite striking.

The blogosphere has been billed as an alternative to the mainstream media, but in many ways, it’s just as superficial. The emphasis remains on speed rather than accuracy, sensationalism rather than nuance, and two-sided conflicts rather than the full complexity of life as most of us experience it in our daily lives. Even for us non-political bloggers, there’s a great temptation to simply post our latest snapshots, with a few accompanying sentences of breathless prose, and move on to something else. To try to see anything more fully, to observe it attentively and then take the time to describe or depict it with as much care and effort as we can muster seems almost counter-cultural. But if the bloggers I tend to read have anything in common, it might be precisely this, that they are dedicated to documenting what Barbara Brown Taylor refers to as “alternate reality.”

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Twenty-eight great-
spangled fritillaries
on one small clump
of butterfly weed

lifting & settling
to pivot on the un-
steady dust-devils
of their tongues,

their wings rocking
halfway open for
balance, orange
against orange.

Ezra Pound famously described literature as “news that stays news.” Fine. But what do we mean by news? Isn’t there something inescapably sensationalistic about the practice of selecting and highlighting certain phenomena, pushing the rest into the background? Well, perhaps so. But barring enlightenment, how else are we to see?

It occurs to me that this definition, “news that stays news,” captures pre-modern and non-Western attitudes toward elevated language, as well. Consider, for example, the song cycles that once accompanied all-night circle dances of the O’odham, or the spontaneously generated, loosely linked verses of one of the old-time blues poets like Son House or Bukka White. From one perspective, such lyrics employ traditional folk material, and therefore must be the opposite of news. But if words are treated as living, ephemeral beings rather than marks on the page, and therefore must be re-created for every performance, how can their inspired production not constitute news?

So in that sense, I think the ephemeral and fairly spontaneous nature of the blog medium should help nudge us away from our usual Western attitude toward art as something static and eternal, the realization of some bullshit Platonic Ideal. I think the non-Western view is closer to reality. All art is inherently messy and imperfect, a moment temporarily rescued from the ceaseless flux. Whether its subject is the world without or the world within, a good work of art is nothing more or less than inspired journalism.

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When I wrote an email to some family members yesterday, I mentioned two things I thought were newsworthy: the twenty-eight fritillaries, and the discovery of a nesting solitary vireo (A.K.A. blue-headed vireo) less than a hundred feet away from the nest I found last year. I can’t claim credit for this discovery, though. Two biology students from Penn State Altoona, who are working on a research project up in our woods, told me about it when they stopped to admire the fritillary-covered butterfly weed on their way back down the mountain. They were abashed they’d never noticed the nest before, and so was I when I went to look. It’s about eight feet off the ground above one of our most frequently traveled trails, right in front of one of the gates to our three-acre deer exclosure. How in the world could we all have missed it?

The vireo let me walk right under the nest and snap pictures from two feet away, her head swiveling to follow my movements. Since the nest is wedged into a small fork on a witch hazel branch — the favorite tool of water dowsers here in the Appalachians — I wonder whether the eventual fledglings will be gifted with the ability to locate hidden springs? Will the healing properties of witch hazel make the nest’s occupants somehow less vulnerable?

At the beginning of this post, I quoted Barbara Brown Taylor on “healing bushes” (a phrase which, taken out of context, might seem to have a certain political resonance!). Her focus was on the Bible’s Good News, but this quite literal healing tree with its avian occupants — not an “alternate reality,” but the real world as we all too seldom remember to see it — is gospel enough for me.

10 Comments


  1. This is such a beautiful post, Dave, and a superb entry for the self-portrait marathon. And on this visit I have to skim it through as I have a visitor arriving any time now! I am keeping it current on Bloglines though and I will return to re-read it and give it the attention it deserves. Thank you.

    Reply

  2. Thanks, mary! Since you say you haven’t really read it yet, I am grateful for this vote of confidence up front, like applause at the beginning of a concert. I feel like (ahem!) the Concertmaster.

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  3. Nice to see BBT here, Dave, as a thoughtful introduction to this excellent post. I think the alternate reality of a single nesting vireo is the real reality, frankly, and it is certainly the one I am putting my faith in. You remind us of this every day.

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  4. I don’t do real realities, but the vireo reveals a wonderful one, I’ll go as far as that :-) Terrific photos. & self-portrait. & poem. (Dust-devil tongues? There must be something I don’t know about fritillaries?)

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  5. beth – I thought you might be a fan of hers. I do enjoy her pieces in the Century – quite the best of the “Faith Matters” contributors.

    dale – Thanks. (I was trying to suggest the way in which proboscisces bear a superficial resemblance to twisters. But “proboscises” is such a cumbersome word, and “twister tongues” just didn’t work, so…)

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  6. “All art is inherently messy and imperfect, a moment temporarily rescued from the ceaseless flux”

    Yes, but some rescued moments are better than perfect; your poem and photographs here, for instance.

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  7. Thoughtful post, Dave. I’m in blog paralysis, I think, or writing slump. So photos and a few sentences to accompany are about all I can muster right now. It’s not especially satisfying, but I feel like at least I’m getting myself dressed and showing up at the party. And I’m enjoying everyone else’s explorations.

    Love the vireo photo, and the idea that fledglings may be able to locate hidden springs.

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  8. Ah, patry, you do me too much honor! But I’ll take it — what the heck.

    Thanks, leslee. I’ve enjoyed your recent posts … though I admit I’ve been wondering when conditions would be right for Leslee to write poetry again! C’mon, don’t make me beg.

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  9. This was, indeed, a wonderful post. … I like thinking of the bloggers I read as part of an “alternate reality.” I see a lot of quality here in the blogosphere: it’s not just one-liners and fluff. Thank the Lord.

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