As I drank my coffee this morning, an odd, almost repulsive idea occurred to me: wouldn’t it be awesome — or something — to interview people who hate me or my work for an episode of the Woodrat podcast?
This is a seep of acid mine drainage (AMD) in the midst of an otherwise gorgeous boggy wetland that my hiking buddy L. and I explored on Tuesday. It’s just below the Bell Gap Rail Trail in State Gamelands 158 at the top of the Allegheny Front, Central Pennsylvania — the same place I visited last October 31 with a much larger group of people, who were unfortunately more interested in hiking than in dawdling along taking pictures (see The Shining Season).
An artificial wetland uphill from the trail is designed to remove the heavy metals from the water through a series of ponds, so things are much better than they could be. But I was struck by the garish beauty of the AMD, that lurid reddish orange, here with an oily blue sheen from (I think) decomposing plant matter. It may not exactly belong, but it is an almost literal red flag, reminding us that the site is nowhere near as pristine as we might otherwise assume. And this is not irrelevant, since L. was actively considering a return visit in a couple of weeks to harvest some of the abundant mayapples and wild strawberries on the site. Would they be safe to consume?
In the wetland and in other spots along the trail, we were treated to a profusion of late-spring wildflowers: starflowers (above), Canada violets, Canada mayflowers, wild columbine, Jack-in-the-pulpit, dolls’ eyes (below), a pink ladyslipper, toothed rockcress, and more. As usual, I snapped way too many pictures, and when I got home and looked at them on the computer monitor, I was disappointed by how thoroughly conventional most of them were. A too-obvious approach to beauty is one of my real weak points, I think.
It was the foliage of the highly toxic false hellebore (remember the poem?) that offered the most visual interest, I thought, both in the flesh and in the resulting photos. Being toxic often licenses extra showiness in the animal kingdom: think of red efts, monarch butterflies or poison arrow frogs. It’s probably fanciful to attribute the flamboyant style of false hellebore to its unpalatability, but who knows?
So with this idea of interviewing people who hate me: what lurid, painful, grotesquely attractive things might emerge from such a conversation? Would conversation even be possible? How would I find such people, and having found them, how would I convince them to participate? What would I hope to get out of it — just some kind of masochistic pleasure, or genuine insight into my shortcomings as an author or human being? Would the results be at all interesting to other listeners?
Yesterday I read the sad story of the decline and fall of Bill Haley (“Falling Comet” by Michael Hall, Texas Monthly). In a way, it seems, it was the adulation of fans that frightened, confused and ultimately killed him, a great performer beset by extreme social anxiety. He kept returning to the stage, mesmerized, and then to the bottle. He obsessed too much about what his fans might want, Hall claims, and was therefore ultimately unable to evolve as an artist.
I am obviously in no danger of ever receiving the kind of adulation Haley did, but still, any bit of praise can be dangerous if taken the wrong way. A wise writer friend recently wrote (and will I hope tolerate my unattributed quoting): “Hype fogs up the mind. This is not about humility. If you believe the wrong things about your work, you won’t grow.”
But words of censure and detraction too can be crippling, as any abuse victim knows. Pace Nietzsche, what doesn’t kill you hardly ever makes you stronger. Why on earth would I want to invite it into my blog? To feed a perverse sense of self-importance, perhaps, by saying, look, see how great and articulate my enemies are? As an exercise in empathy, to try to see the world through the eyes of those who have absolutely no interest in returning the favor? It’s not a hairshirt thing, I don’t think, but I don’t know. Maybe I should ask them…