Walking with whatever

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Moving into a house where I already live is turning out to be more time-consuming than I anticipated. But the beautiful weather lured me into taking a short walk yesterday morning, in between working on a new batch of bread up at my parents’ house. Sundays are always a good day to go walking, regardless of the weather, due to the relative quiet. There isn’t as much traffic on the highways, and most noise-making businesses are shut down. Despite my left-libertarian views, I’m a strong supporter of blue laws.

We’re rapidly approaching the peak of fall color now. Almost all the trees and shrubs in the understory had turned, and shone like stained glass in the morning sun. As I started up the trail, I found myself thinking of a poem by my friend Teju Cole that I had just re-read a couple hours earlier: “The God Walker.” It originally appeared last year in his blog miracle speech, which is no longer online, but was also included in a soon-to-be-published anthology of blogger poets called Brilliant Coroners, of which I have an advance copy. “In the forest near my house / I have taken my god for a walk,” it begins. This is “a household god, / bred for an apartment’s confines,” but by the end of the poem, seduced by the forest smells, he “goes a little wild.”

“Walking with God/Jesus” is one of those clichés that makes intellectual snobs like me keep Protestant Christianity at arm’s length. I like how Teju subverts it in his poem, going out for a walk not with some abstract, omnipotent father-figure but instead with something like a familiar spirit — if not, indeed, Man’s Best Friend (“his wolf ancestors calling to him, / the god flares his wet nose”). “Household god” makes me think of the fetishes — described as “gods” in the King James Bible — which Rachel stole from her father Laban when she fled with Jacob (Genesis 31:19-34). I like the recognition that our images of the divine are limited not only by our own imaginations, but also by the physical environment we associate them with, and our tendency to keep them on leashes. One of my biggest problems with most formalized religions is the way they domesticate and sanitize divinity in the process of making it safe for mass consumption. Usually the trickster persona is the first to go. And once god(s) can no longer legitimately just fuck with people or unleash chaos without having their divinity called into question, you enter the maze known as theodicy, or “justify[ing] the ways of God to Man,” in Milton’s memorable phrase. Aspiring to worship an omnipotent God, we end up instead with one alarmingly subject to human approval, and risk psychological damage in the process by creating a situation where if bad things happen, it can only be our own fault — or at best, the fault of a fallen trickster turned into a cosmic bad cop.

A slightly more conventional but equally creative and whimsical take on divinity comes from another blogger friend, graphic artist Natalie d’Arbeloff in her new book of comic strips, The God Interviews. I bought a copy from her when I was in New York last month, and actually got it inscribed by God, as channeled by Natalie. He gave me two Xs, which I hope represent kisses — if not, I could be in big trouble.

But probably not from this God, who is very much the all-loving sort. He gets out of the theodicy trap in the usual way, by talking about freedom, though with a fun analogy: “You know that thing when a novelist creates characters and they start to have a mind of their own?” God asks. “Yes, but that’s fiction. I’m talking about reality,” says Natalie’s cartoon alter-ego Augustine (no, not that Augustine). “In this reality I’ve given my characters freedom,” says God.

“Freedom to destroy ourselves and the whole shebang?”

“Freedom to reach my destination in your own time in your own ways.”

“And the destination is?”

“Love, naturally.”

Can you really call it freedom, though, if a higher power had to grant it? To my way of thinking, freedom of action is intrinsic to all living things. If it makes sense to talk about divinity at all — and an intuition of “something more” often persuades me that it does — then I think we must be careful not to separate it too much from the way things naturally work. My worldview doesn’t have any room for a supernatural, I guess. The new idea of divinity as an emergent property of complex living systems has definite appeal, though, especially to someone with a strong animist bent.

It’s only fair to point out that Natalie is very much a visual thinker, and the power of her argument is diminished by reducing it to text alone. God is of necessity anthropomorphic — male and brown-skinned, usually barefoot and wearing a t-shirt that says “God,” though his size and sometimes his apparel varies to suit the occasion. So again, as with Teju Cole’s poem, this is divinity as real people experience it, not as priests or theologians or smart-ass poet-bloggers think it should be.

Nor does d’Arbeloff neglect the via negativa. My favorite section, Chapter 12, begins with a visit to a bookstore, which is having a “SUPER SPIRITUAL SALE — All the Answers For the Price of One!” It includes a paean to the power of the imagination reminiscent of William Blake — and given Blake’s understanding of how the prophets could claim to speak for God, that’s probably no accident.

Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

Natalie’s version of this is a little more self-reflexive, and of course a lot funnier. “What do you think of all these people who claim they talk to you?” Augustine asks as they leave the bookstore. “You’re talking to me, aren’t you?” says God. “But I don’t claim to be really real!” Augustine says in a tone of honest indignation.

In the panels that follow, the analogy between artist and divinity is, um, drawn out especially well. The last panel employs a visual quote of the two-faces-or-goblet figure from Gestalt psychology to great effect, with the words “What is really real about you?” inscribed on one of the two, nearly identical profiles, and in the black goblet-space between them: “That which cannot be imagined.”

This was the kind of stuff bouncing around in my head yesterday morning, preventing a full awareness of my surroundings, as usual. When I got to the powerline, I started to hear odd creaking noises from the woods ahead. A flock of blackbirds, I thought, and got my camera ready, figuring the flock would pass overhead at any moment. I stood there waiting for several minutes, but the sound didn’t get any closer, so I continued across the powerline and on up the trail. It got louder and louder as I made my way through the dead and dying mountain laurel, which is so painful to look at now. As I approached the ridgetop, I saw the tops of the oak trees shaking violently, though there was no wind. The sound was all around me, and small flocks of birds began rising from the ground at my approach. They weren’t red-winged blackbirds, as I’d figured, but common grackles — thousands of them, feasting on acorns. This is what a very, very small, outlier flock of passenger pigeons must’ve been like, I thought, and felt the hair rising on the back of my neck.

The awe was short-lived. A moment later I was back to thinking how cool it would be if I could get them all to take flight at once, as icterid flocks will do, with a rush of synchronized wings. I moved purposefully toward what I took to be the center of the flock, but the birds only flew short distances ahead of me, and when I stopped, they flew closer and peered down with their disconcertingly yellow eyes, as if trying to make up their minds to rush me all at once.

I had to get back; the bread needed to go in the oven if we were to have any for lunch. The flock regrouped quickly in my wake, and it occurred to me as I hurried back to the house that the main reason why people don’t have true epiphanies any more is that we’re too damned distracted to recognize them. If the image of walking has such strong sentimental appeal, it’s probably because few people actually make the time to walk any more, or even if they do, like me, they’re too preoccupied with their own thoughts to fully appreciate what’s around them. I probably shouldn’t give away the ending of The God Interviews, but let’s just say that it may well have supplied the inspiration for Teju Cole’s poem. We are all vagrants at heart: “strangers and sojourners,” as God put it in Leviticus 25:23, “going to and fro in the earth, and … walking up and down in it,” as Satan says about himself in his two interviews with God at the beginning of Job.

The bread had risen well. I popped it in the oven, and then spent the next hour moving all my fiction into the dining room, to keep company with my six shelves full of religion books. They were all very dusty. It might be time to give them a good airing out.
__________

Be sure to read Dick Jones’ stunning new poem, God.

Groove

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’m spreading the second coat of varnish, moving the paintbrush to the beat of my old boombox and wondering if that might be just the magic needed to ensure a danceable floor. It already possesses a kind of visual music: a metronome in one direction, since all the floorboards are the same width, but at right angles to the grain, the very shallow grooves left by the floor sander every time I paused it, made visible by the varnish, form a more varied but still somewhat regular pattern: step step rest. Step step rest.

Strange stuff, polyurethane — paint without pigment, its presence detectable only by the gloss and extra depth it imparts to surfaces. Like some people’s idea of God, I suppose. And maybe because I just “got down on my bended knees” myself, my old cassette copy of the song Burning Hell, by John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat, seems like a perfect fit right now.

The appealing thing about the song is that the narrator’s skepticism is wholly focused on the afterlife; there’s no mention of God or devil, though one could certainly argue that their non-existence is implied:

Ain’t no heaven,
ain’t no burning hell.
When I die, where I go,
nobody can tell.

The song is culturally if not theologically Christian, borrowing imagery and a vocal delivery from the charismatic churches. The protagonist asks a deacon to pray for him, and also prays himself, all night long, in the spirit of “help Thou my unbelief.” But apparently it doesn’t do any good: there’s no epiphany, the prayer goes unanswered, and the song concludes as skeptically as it began.

The funny thing is that it doesn’t come off as despairing at all, but defiant and ultimately joyful. John Lee Hooker certainly didn’t invent the style of blues known as boogie, but his concept of it was fairly unique: verses of varying length, as much spontaneity as possible in verbal and musical lines, and an overall impression of songs as mere fragments of something essentially endless. Many of Hooker’s songs are more laid-back than “Burning Hell,” but all of them tap into the same, hypnotic groove, for lack of a better term.

I’ve loved that groove ever since I first heard it, which may be as much as thirty years ago, when my older brother first started playing clawhammer banjo. Though now associated with Appalachian string band music, it’s the old, African style of playing, featuring a bum-ditty beat with the thumb hammering out a drone note. Some sort of drone occurs in many, perhaps most, styles of traditional music the world over, especially those influenced by contact with Islam and the muezzin’s call to prayer — certainly the case with most musical traditions brought to the New World by West Africans. Even the explicit focus on drones in Indian classical music dates back only to the Mogul period, though its subsequent popularity on the subcontinent probably also reflects indigenous metaphysical concepts. According to an online paper on the subject, “the function of the drone or tonicizing ground in Indian classical music is rooted in the ancient Hindu philosophies: it is the physical manifestation of OM.”

So while “Burning Hell” celebrates spiritual homelessness, Hooker’s droning boogie guitar groove is anything but OMless.

Given the title of this blog, I’m sure you’d all be disappointed if I didn’t go on to point out that doubt is a very fruitful position. In fact, I do think about this sort of thing a lot, but have moved away from blogging about it because I don’t feel I have too many original insights on the subject. All I know is that for me, affiliation with some spiritual tradition or another is an on-going temptation I feel I must resist if I am ever to learn anything about reality, whatever that may consist of. As I’ve said before, one of my base assumptions is that if some doctrine or dogma makes me feel good, it can’t possibly be true. “Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no burning hell” has the appeal of a good mantra for me, teaching non-attachment to the self — something that most of the major religions also agree is a good thing, though perhaps only in the same way that Marxist-Leninism preaches the ultimate disappearance of the state.

At any rate, despite spending half an hour sweeping and vacuuming in advance of the varnishing, I’m still finding a few stray bits of dirt as I go along — a fragment of leaf, a hair, a small piece of broomstraw. I could get up and carry them over to the waste basket in the other room, but that would break the rhythm, so instead I shove them into my pocket. The really tiny grains of dirt can be pushed into the cracks between the floorboards, where 150 years of accumulated crud has acquired the status and patina of a deliberately applied grout. I’m reminded of the ancient riddle, quoted by Heraclitus:

What we found, we caught and killed.
What we couldn’t find, we brought with us.

The accepted answer is lice, but it could be almost anything. Atheists and believers both could probably take a lesson from it.

Invasion of the swamp things

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

brokeback maple 2

Red maples are one of the few tree species capable of becoming grotesque at an early age. In a way, their highly malleable forms reflect their superior adaptability: they are at home in wide variety of soil types and exposures, and though a first-succession species, can also take advantage of relatively small gaps in the canopy. They are, however, not long-lived trees, so unlike oaks, for example, they must start producing seeds at a young age. It makes sense, therefore, that they would evolve a mutable architecture geared toward short-term reproductive success at all costs.

maple leaf

The one thing red maples don’t tolerate very well is fire, being thin-barked and shallow-rooted. Oaks and hickories, by contrast, are good at isolating fire scars and preventing them from becoming an avenue for infection, and their roots go deep. A hundred years ago, small, low-intensity ground fires were a relatively common occurrence in the drier parts of the eastern forest, and as a result, red maples were rarely found outside of really wet areas. But with widespread fire suppression, the oaks and hickories lost their competitive advantage and the maples, being faster growers, were able to dominate natural and man-made forest openings such as blow-downs and clearcuts. It doesn’t hurt that the over-abundant white-tailed deer seem relatively unenthusiastic about red maple sprouts, and acid rain apparently doesn’t affect them much, either. So what was once a creature of the swamps has virtually taken over the state, and studies of forest composition show that it is now our single most common tree.

ready or not

That’s scary news to anyone who cares about natural forest ecosystems. Maple seeds aren’t nearly as popular with wildlife as acorns and hickory nuts, possessing only a fraction of their nutritional value, and my insect-collecting brother Steve informs me that dead maple trees don’t support anything like the diverse invertebrate communities that populate dead oaks. It’s a good bet their decay doesn’t contribute much to the soil, either.

So if you’ve been around for more than a few decades, it’s not your imagination: the fall foliage really is getting more spectacular with every passing year. Whereas oaks are fairly temperamental, going straight from green to brown as often as not, and being fairly monochromatic by species when they do color up, you can count on red maples every year for an array of bright reds and oranges as variable as their architectural forms.

Knowing what I know, how can I still admire their colors and their grotesque shapes? But I do. Hell, it’s not their fault they’ve become so goddamn numerous. I love red maples the same way I love people, come to think of it.

Don’t forget to submit links to the Festival of the Trees by October 26 for the special Halloween-themed edition.

And yes, I have written about red maples and fire suppression at least once before, so Google informs me.

After

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

lath

Remember this?

new bookshelves

The fine craftsmanship of Mike Nicely, general contractor. These particular bookshelves will soon house my poetry collection, but first I have one day more of touch-up work, including a final coat of varnish on the floor. And I must admit a certain reluctance to move all my stuff back in — or even the bare minimum of stuff necessary to make it habitable: chair, table, footstool… The room will never again seem as starkly beautiful and as full of possibilities as it does right now. Or as echoey.

[audio:http://www.fileden.com/files/2007/1/5/600283/Reelin.MP3]

Direct link to the MP3

Diagnostic

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Certain ticks found on deer harbor the bacterium in their stomachs. Lyme disease is spread by these ticks when they bite the skin permitting the bacterium to infect the body. Lyme disease can cause abnormalities in the skin, joints, heart and nervous system.
MedicineNet.com

I sat on the ground because
that’s what the boulder was doing.
It seemed only right.

I laid down on my back in the leaf duff
so I could join the giant oak tree
in tracking the sun.

But this was a woods with
a clear view beneath the canopy,
everything but the rocks & ferns reduced
to telltale pellets.
I should’ve kept my distance.

On the way home, three times
I felt something on the side of my face
& couldn’t dislodge it.

Hours later, at supper,
a tiny, red & black barnacle of an insect
dropped from my collar & began inching
across the table: a deer tick.
My thumb came down

& crushed it against the smooth white wood.
Clear views are dangerous here.
Only a sick forest can harbor
such distances.
__________

UPDATES
10/30/07: Lines subtracted from last stanza, and different lines added to third stanza.
10/18/07: Lines added to last stanza in response to reader comments.

Living large

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

cirrus

I went for a walk this morning along the portion of the property line that runs straight down the Bald Eagle Valley side of the mountain. A scrim of cirrus softened the contrast between light and shadow without actually blocking the sun, and thinned out as the morning wore on.

pine snag

Just off the crest, a 15-foot-tall, fire-scarred white pine snag glowed in a private sunbeam as if spotlit, and I stood admiring it for several minutes. The longer I looked, the more impressed I became, until finally I had to back away: this thing had power.

bent rock oak

I avoided the open talus slopes as much as I could, though the wooded portions of the upper slope are just as rocky. The thin soil is enough to keep most of the rocks from tipping underfoot, though. I renewed my acquaintance with several outlandishly crooked rock oaks.

big rock 7

Why go to all the trouble of picking my way down to the base of the mountain? Well, for one thing, this corner of my parents’ land contains the largest rock on the property. It’s about five feet tall and ten feet long, and forms a cluster with two smaller companions. They’re probably the remnants of a single boulder that calved off the ridge crest during the last glacial epoch, as a result of the intense freezing and thawing that also gave us the open talus slopes.

big rock 8

I sat with the boulder for a long time, trying to block out the roar from the other side of the property line. There’s a reason why I don’t come down here very often.

I-99

No matter where you are in America, a Wal-Mart truck goes by every twenty minutes. I’m convinced of it.

big tree 2

A hundred feet up-slope from the biggest rock on the property stands the biggest tree. It’s a red oak, well over 200 years old, I would guess, and close to five feet in diameter at breast height (sorry — I never remember to pack a tape measure). At one time, there was a small grove of giant oaks here in this corner — maybe eight of them in all — but the line wasn’t surveyed very well, and our neighbor to the south along the mountain laid claim to most of the grove and put it under the chainsaw about fifteen years ago. The one other giant on our side was split down the middle in an ice storm, though the standing half still lives.

big tree 3

It’s a bit of a mystery how such big old trees could’ve survived, given that they adjoin an old charcoal hearth and haul road dating back to 1815. I can only surmise that some early settler had fenced the area for pasture, sparing it from the collier’s axe, and left a scattering of oaks for shade. That would also explain their big, spreading crowns, which are atypical of forest trees. The grove might also have been much bigger before the construction of the highway in 1970; we didn’t move here until 1971, and didn’t acquire this portion of the property until the mid-80s.

The lower flank of the mountain is dotted with small seeps and springs, so even though it faces northwest and doesn’t get much sun, trees grow a lot bigger down here than up on the dry ridgetops. Running northeast of the corner, paralleling the highway, there’s a ten-acre stand of mature oaks and other hardwoods that would seem pretty damn big if they didn’t suffer by comparison with the last of the giants.

See the whole photoset from today’s walk: Down in the corner.

UPDATE: For the conclusion of the story, see the next post.

Refugee

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Picture a hungry brood of talons making a sudden appearance beside you as you sleep in the cedar tree, beaks without mouths grasping, stabbing, and missing their meal by millimeters. Imagine your blind flight into the dark.

10 p.m. A thump against the window. I open the porch door on a panic of wings.

Higher education

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

truncated

The locksmith’s daughter had beautiful bones that cast long shadows on her skin. She wanted to be thin. Cell phones were dwindling; why not those who pressed the sleek clamshells against an ear, as if to listen to the ocean’s test signal? She fasted, draped in hipster black, and learned to love desire for itself. Her hips grew sharp as blades of grass, and she trembled in the least breeze.

turkey tail tree

The doctor’s son wanted to be tough; he made the team. But then he began hearing voices, and thought it was the coach. They said that this was Olympus and the gods were near — take off your clothes. He took his chew out of his cheek and threw it on the ground. “To hell with you!” he shouted, and walked off the field with the scorched outline of his former life trailing behind.

acorn on a stick

They crossed paths on the cemetery hill, and stood smiling wanly at each other.

“Eat something, you stupid goth bitch.”

“Grow a brain, you dumb jock.”

But that isn’t what they said. And a good thing, too, considering how soon they would be sharing a bottle, a needle, a pipe.

“I can’t get the coach out of my head.”

“I know exactly what you mean.”

mudra

She didn’t know, of course — she had no idea — but it was, as in mathematics, a serviceable assumption to begin on.

Old news

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

“Old news,” they say scornfully, as if the apparent oxymoron speaks for itself. But as far as I’m concerned, old news is the best kind. And no, I’m not talking about literature, which Ezra Pound famously defined as “news that stays news.” I mean honest-to-god, newspaper news. I only read one daily newspaper with any regularity, the Christian Science Monitor, and I read it two to four weeks late. Granted, that’s because I have to wait for both my parents to read it and pass it on, and they only pick up their mail once or twice a week. But I’ve come to appreciate the many subtle, often bittersweet flavors of a well-aged news story.

For example, at breakfast this morning I read a carefully researched piece from September 21 about the role of racism in criminal sentencing and whether or not racism is in decline in America, which, though written in response to the “Jena 6” march and demonstrations, had an additional resonance for me because of the ugly racist incident at Columbia University that I had just seen a mention of online. Then at lunch I read all about the Burmese monks, how they were taking to the streets in protest for the third day in a row. It was the kind of cautiously optimistic international coverage at which the Monitor has always excelled, and my knowledge of what would happen next gave the story a depth and pathos which I’m sure I never would’ve felt had I read it on the day it was published.

Imagine if you could go back in time, knowing how things will turn out, but remaining powerless to change them: that’s what reading old news is like. One gets to smile indulgently at the hot issues of the day — and then turn the page. Because, let’s face it, a lot of old news is pretty out-dated, superseded by more recent developments, and that’s one of the main benefits of reading the newspaper two to four weeks late: it saves a lot of time. Time better spent reading, well, literature.

I suppose it’s not a healthy approach, and I’m quite sure it isn’t a very responsible one. How can I be a good and productive citizen if I don’t follow the news more closely, especially as the presidential election season closes in on its final year? Can I really in good conscience sign all those online petitions and send all those emails to our public servants without a strong grasp of the issues at hand? I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this: I sleep pretty well. Instead of pointless agitation and dread, I am plagued only by sadness and resignation, which rarely interfere with a good night’s sleep.