In the grove

spruce grove 1

I’m sitting with my back to the grove when the sound of heavy wingbeats in the tops of the spruces makes me look around, and seeing nothing, get up and edge my way in between the trees. The intricate skeletons of recently dead boughs snap loudly whenever I try to diverge from the rudimentary path. I crane my neck peering into the shadowy tops of the 40-foot trees which I helped my parents plant when I was a boy. How could they already have grown so full of secrets?

spruce grove 2

The greatest natural disaster-related humanitarian crisis in a generation, and I have written exactly nothing about it. But this is a place for personal essays and poems, and what do I know of Haiti? Everything is second-hand at best: the Haitian woman in Japan back in 1985 with whom I shared a mailbox and some confessions of homesickness; the Anglo-American friend who joined a Vodun congregation in New Jersey and was ridden by Ghede, orisha of the crossroads. A smattering of histories and ethnographies. The vague sense that if Toussaint had never been exiled, Haiti might have kept its topsoil and some of its forests. An immense sense of guilt, as an American, for my country’s share of blame in its immiseration.

A few days ago, I read Newsweek‘s latest cover story, “Why Haiti Matters,” and felt my stomach turn. It did little but recycle platitudes about America as a force for good: Haiti matters, we are led to believe, because it gives us a chance to show “the character of our country.” The author is Barack Obama.

He does at least quote Qoheleth — wisest voice in the Old Testament — toward the end of the essay:

In the aftermath of disaster, we are reminded that life can be unimaginably cruel. That pain and loss is so often meted out without any justice or mercy. That “time and chance” happen to us all. But it is also in these moments, when we are brought face to face with our own fragility, that we rediscover our common humanity. We look into the eyes of another and see ourselves.

O.K., Mr. President, I’ll give you that. I’ve kept my silence in part because I know all too well the moralizing impulse of my Protestant heritage. Try as I might to anathematize Pat Robertson for his ignorant, victim-blaming remarks, I recognize the temptation, even as an agnostic, to make the world make sense, to pretend that life is or could be fair — or at least redeemable. To accept that it isn’t makes us into monsters, does it not? But the view of God or gods as unpredictable and sometimes violent — that Old Testament and animist view that progressives love to decry — comports more easily with observable reality than any pablum about God as infinite goodness. Even for me to put on my secular humanist hat and declare, as I did on Identica and Twitter last week, that tectonic activity is the price we pay for life on earth seems unduly glib, offensive to the memory of the earthquake’s victims. Their deaths were were not some kind of sacrifice. Stop it! Stop trying to explain. Live with the questions. Make your peace with the unknowable as best you can.

sprunce grove 3

It’s a little past 4:00 o’clock, but the January sun is low and just minutes from dropping behind the ridge. The feathery shadows seem full of possibility now, and I see a picture in every direction where before there was nothing but branches blocking my way. This is the way. I steady the camera in the dim light by holding it out in front of me so the strap is stretched taut from the back of my neck: there’s far less tremor in my trunk than in my limbs. Some kind of large owl — barred, great-horned, long-eared — is hiding in these pictures, I’m sure of it. It’s waiting for darkness so it can begin to see.

14 Comments


  1. “It’s waiting for darkness so it can begin to see.” Yes.

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  2. Not just that but this is so deeply felt and experienced I thought I was there. Yum.

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    1. Glad you liked. Kind of a rehash of things I’ve said here in the past, but no harm in playing something “once again, with feeling,” I guess.

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  3. Hmm… haiti seen the worst, now lets hope for the best and join hands in helping then, a part from that I would like to mention that the pics in ya post are really awesome.

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  4. Stop trying to explain….yes, that’s the mantra, if you will (I think that term is overused, and it doesn’t feel quite right here, but it’s close enough) that I’ve been carrying close lately. I like what you said about Obama framing Haiti as important because it gives the United States a chance to show its generosity, its philanthropic largesse of heart. What a joke. If this were true, it would imply that Americans should relish these disasters so we can show off how good we are. Unfortunately, seeing our common humanity seems trickier when people aren’t in crisis. I’m going to look up Qoheleth.

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    1. Qoheleth/Kohelet is the proper name for what English-language bibles call Ecclesiastes, which strikes me as a woefully inappropriate attempt to place a pious fig-leaf on a radically skeptical text (similar to the way in which pious people have seen Job: through the lens of his supposed patience).

      I guess it hardly needs to be said that this president can’t even imply American culpability for anything without raising howls of accusation from the usual quarters, but I still think the article could’ve been framed differently. It’s likely that “Why Haiti Matters” was something the Newsweek editors themselves came up with, though (as my brother Steve pointed out) they had another cover story back on December 19 which was subtitled “People who matter on what matters most.”

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  5. I feel tectonism is a wondrous and under-appreciated and I’m glad you brought it up. Though it is the cause of unimaginable grief, there are growing hints that it might well be the source of all our joys. Tagging it as merely the “price” strikes me as glib mostly because it seems to trivialize tectontism’s authorship, and ongoing sponsorship, of life on earth.

    Dang. I wish I could say that without sound so goddamn full of it, but tectonics is the shit.

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    1. tectontism’s authorship, and ongoing sponsorship, of life on earth.

      That is a better way to put it, I agree. Doesn’t sound at all full of shit to me (but consider the source!).

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  6. picky picky me but…owls’ wing flaps are not usually heard, although you might hear one trying to negotiate a landing among branches and such. I bet it was another big bird, a raptor?
    I put some crutches in a Haiti box today.

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    1. I wondered if anyone would object to that. The flapping was of wings against spruce branches. I probably should’ve found a way to explain that.

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  7. Yet again I come here for a bracing breath of good sense. So much has been written about and pontificated over regarding Haiti, and most of it couched in platitudes and clichés. (Pat Robertson’s insane ramblings sent me for a long hot bath, so tainted did I feel for having watched the clip. Another ghastly example of the dogma of hate!)

    Like you Dave I wish that people would stop trying to explain every damn thing that happens to them, as though God and the Universe is a giant hand either dispensing cookies from a jar or beating the crap out of everyone. As I see it there’s no explanation for existence nor any lasting or meaningful order that can be imposed upon it. Survival, whether on a micro-level or a Universal one, is an endless and ultimately exhausting improvisation. We all have to think on our feet until we’re too weary for the dance and we drop, at which point others will take our places. I find an odd comfort in that, in the sheer bloody relentlessness of it all. From the exhilaratingly wonderful things we experience to the catastrophic, taking in the endless flat territories between those poles, we should just get on with it as best we can, and with as much grace and generosity as we can muster.

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    1. Well, that’s kind of what I believe too, I guess, most of the time (except when I am talking to wise mystics like my friend Rachel Barenblat). I like your description of survival as a form of improvisation. A jazz jam session really is a much better model for living than an orchestral concert, which presumes a composer.

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      1. Oh I’ve just re-read what I wrote, and as usual I’ve mixed metaphors hideously in the struggle to make sense of the inexplicable. But you get my drift.

        I think Marly is my version of your wise mystic, Rachel. I puff and splutter and proclaim my unbelief, railing against preachers and the Pope and all purveyors of cant and dogma, and she writes back gently about the ingenious ways in which God works through my painting. She leaves me absolutely floored, deflated and floundering. It’s hard to stay cross when someone so transparently good speaks straight from the heart. Though we’ve we’ve never met her words leap off the screen and calm me.

        Galloping fast fast fast now as my exhibition deadline looms. I’m not leaving the comments I’d like to here, but I promise to get back up to speed in Via Negativa matters when my mind is my own again come June.

        Best
        C

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