Red shift

You know the expression, “I wouldn’t do x if you were the last man/woman on earth”? Well, for some time now I have been haunted by the image of that last woman. The lighting is abundant, and not particularly flattering. Minicams in every corner of the apartment record her as she dictates her thoughts into her audio blog, takes snapshots for her photo blog, writes about her feelings for her poetry blog. Everything is on the record. The only sad part is that nobody’s watching but me; everybody else is too busy doing the same thing.

Her name, I think, is Morn, though she goes by Dust Angel. Her trademark costume is a rather plain, sleeveless red shift. She believes fervently that the unexamined life is not worth living, though she admits that over-analysis makes her uncomfortable. Her favorite color is green. She is a Libra.

What else? Well, she appears to have a lover, a hulking tech support guy without any speaking parts. You might spot him occasionally looming over the mousepad or fiddling with the minicams for better angles – or for poorer in the event of sex, which is somewhat downplayed. Nudity is definitely part of the routine, though it verges on mere nakedness, an attribute of such existential acts as changing clothes, exercising or sunbathing on the floor. Morn does this every afternoon, curling up like a cat on a broadloom rug encircled by snaky electric cables and watched over by an odd assortment of mannequins and dressmaker’s dummies, vintage apparel draped on timeless hip.

The future has arrived, and it is boring. Where now is the vibrating ether so cherished by pre-war pulp science fiction authors? Ancient cover girls in skin-tight space suits now crumble at the touch, tragic victims of an acid overdose. Those child-women must’ve foreseen some such fate: their lips spelled unvarying o‘s of horror regardless of the threat, even from aliens as unlikely as the two pug dogs that live with Dust Angel. The poor things can’t even bark, are too dumb to hump a leg. They were bred to evoke the quintessentially feminine Japanese squeal ka-wa-eeee, which connotes approximately equal measures of lovability and infantility.

And which, in a way, describes the appeal of this particular eventuality, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, here we have all loose ends of the ballyhooed future at last tied up – or rather, cross-stitched. One veil for bride and widow alike, one screen for all media, like Alice’s looking-glass. It’s not like that movie the Truman Show where the guy is an unwitting star of the soap opera of his life, because in the first place there’s no drama per se, and in the second, the “star” is fully aware and in control of everything. She is like a god, really, a child who has the run of the nursery and will never grow up.

The ether alone knows how such harmony plays out among the spheres, whether it can even reach the ever-receding, ever-more-isolated celestial bodies that once made us grasp for something like an outer space, a red planet. At the speed of light, thinking becomes impossible. Time is a terrible gift to do without.

Heart’s Content

My second maxim was to follow resolutely even doubtful opinions when sure opinions were not available, just as the traveller, lost in some forest, had better walk straight forward, though in a chance direction; for thus he will arrive, if not precisely where he desires to be, at least at a better place than the middle of a forest.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

The buzzy songs of half a dozen species of wood warblers accompany my surfacing from the shallow waters of an uneasy night’s sleep. What in the world could possess an otherwise fairly sane human being to spend ten dollars a night for the privilege of sleeping on the ground? It’s 5:30 on an overcast Sunday morning in the Heart’s Content campground of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, “Land of Many Uses.”

I fire up my backpacker’s stove, boil water and, with the help of a cloth filter, turn myself into a percolator machine: drip, drip, drip at about the same speed the coffee will exit my body an hour later. The trees still drip from yesterday afternoon’s soaking rain.

The mostly full campground is quiet. I can’t get over being amazed at how many people, some of them not even active outdoor recreationists, will go to such trouble to get out in the woods on a rainy weekend. I admit that this is a pretty nice spot, as campgrounds go. Though bordered on three sides by a 45-year-old red pine plantation, the campsites themselves are tucked into a maturing deciduous forest, each with just enough vegetation around it to lend an impression of privacy and intimacy. I think about how most of the time that people spend in public lands is devoted to doing fairly simple things: eating, sleeping, tending campfires, walking or driving around, looking at stuff.

By contrast, the official management philosophy of national forests stresses Multiple Use, with a strong bias toward economically productive activities. In the Allegheny, this includes primarily logging (especially of black cherry, a fast growing, first-succession species prized by the furniture industry) and oil and natural gas drilling. The Forest Service also favors high-impact, industrial recreation, especially on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles. Yet statewide surveys show that most outdoors-oriented people can’t stand the noise and (in the case of ATVs) the destruction caused by these machines, which represent exactly the sorts of things that the average forest “user” goes to the woods to try and escape. Surveys also show most people are against commercial timbering on public lands, even though its cessation is currently outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse.

I wonder, as I drink my coffee, whether it would be possible to start a movement to counter Multiple Use that would advocate “no use, just appreciation”? I guess the way to sell people on an alternative philosophy like that would be to emphasize the extent to which wild places should be above and beyond all considerations of utility and profit. Then I remember the unofficial slogan of the Rainbow Tribe, which a few years ago held its annual gathering just about a mile from this spot: “Welcome home,” they say. Imagine if that were written at the bottom of every National Forest sign, in lieu of “Land of Many Uses”!

But the forest is a very different kind of place for humans to come home to. When we try and impose our own aesthetic values, the results can be frightening. Leaving the campground for an early morning walk, I cut through the pine plantation and am able to walk in a perfectly straight line between rows of virtually identical trunks to reach the parking lot on the other side of the road. There is almost no ground cover, only a scattering of star flowers and a couple small patches of hayscented fern. From one patch a fawn leaps to its feet and clatters awkwardly away, visible for many hundreds of feet in this unnaturally uniform, Cartesian space.

I’m surprised to see a total of eight vehicles in the parking lot, which also serves a trailhead for the Hickory Creek Wilderness Area, the only area so designated in this national forest (except for a few, tiny islands in the Allegheny River). It’s a fairly unexceptional stretch of forest; the fact that so many people are backpacking through it on a rainy weekend testifies to the magic of the word “wilderness,” with its implicit promise of ultimate escape.

For me, however, the allure was the 120-acre old-growth remnant at Heart’s Content – and the more than 4,000 acres of old growth contained in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, where we planned to spend the rest of the day. We had botanized happily in Heart’s Content for several hours the previous afternoon; now I simply wanted to discover whether it’s possible to get lost in such a small tract of old growth. It is!

When I return to camp an hour later, refreshed by the rich sights, smells and sounds of a natural forest, I’ll be surprised to find I’ve been sapped of enthusiasm for theorizing about forest values – or much else. In fact, I’ll be uncharacteristically taciturn for much of the rest of the day. I realize I may be a little more impressionable than most people, but once disoriented, I find it difficult to re-orient, even after many hours of hiking and successful pathfinding in the Tionesta. A day later, back on my own front porch, things will still seem a little “off” to me; I’ll be struck by the oddness of the straight line of the driveway against the edge of the woods, for example.

I’ll still be puzzling over how, when I left the loop trail in Heart’s Content determined to “walk straight forward . . . in a chance direction,” I could’ve ended up back on the same section of trail I left – still inescapably “in the middle of a forest.”

But unlike Descartes, I am perfectly happy to be here. “Trees, trees, murmuring trees!” sings the black-throated green warbler. The long and endlessly supple call of the winter wren is a rare treat, and I could listen to the piping of the hermit thrush all day. So whence this nameless clutching in my chest, whence this hollow thudding, this clatter of hoofs?

It’s not over ’til . . .

Today, a truncated post; tomorrow, nothing. I may make a pattern of this. It turns out that reading this blog may be hazardous to your health. Specifically, “‘Toxic dust’ found on computer processors and monitors contains chemicals linked to reproductive and neurological disorders, according to a new study by several environmental groups.” There’s no known preventative action you can take – other than to minimize the time you spend in front of a computer monitor. Clearly, blog-reading, like all addictions, has harmful and possibly deadly side effects.

A couple days ago, Dale over at Vajrayana Practice wrote about another environmental consequence of the computer age – the loss of natural habitat and “open space” in places like the Seattle suburbs where he works. His post about about how it feels to go for a lunchtime walk in this strange, half-built exurban landscape reads like a chapter out of The Martian Chronicles.

I remember an article from a couple years ago on Santa Clara Valley, a.k.a. Silicon Valley – I think it might have been one of Ted Williams’ “Incite” columns in Audubon. It seems that this valley was once famous throughout California for its orchards and truck farms – a paradisiacal wonder, with some of the most fertile soil in the world. Now, it boasts the densest concentration of superfund sites in the United States. I’m reminded of the prophetic words of the mid-century California poet Robinson Jeffers: “Man would shit on the morning star if he could reach it.”

****

A memorable fancy: the solemn procession of Ivy League graduates in their caps and gowns, led by the scarlet-robed PhD candidates and followed by the black-gowned undergraduates and Masters. Phalanx after phalanx marches onto the field as the emcee announces the name of each program and college. Cheers, balloons. Finally, an almost-hush falls over the crowd as the president of the university introduces a special guest. Straight off the plane from Papua New Guinea, the commencement speaker makes his way between the columns of students like a general reviewing the troops, eyeing with an anthropologist’s detachment the bizarre accessories with which some students have chosen to decorate their mortarboards, the bird-of-paradise plumage in which the soon-to-be-doctors are bedecked. Naked save for his body paint and the penis gourd fastened circumspectly to the string around his waist, he mounts the stairs, rests his stone-tipped spear against the podium, waits for the emcee to adjust the microphone and then, in a low, deliberate voice, begins to sing.

Chasing shadows

Like a grain of sand added to time,
Like an inch of air added to space,
                                                  or a half-inch,
We scribble our little sentences.

Charles Wright, Appalachia (FSG, 1998)

For some time I’ve been chewing on an old bone of contention between artists and critics: is the image older than the symbol? I think yes. I remember Borges, not too long before his death, folded into his very tweedy jacket and staring sightlessly out at the fawning audience. The auditorium was packed for his evening lecture, which, he had said earlier in the day, he wished to be a discussion – but who was kidding whom? – about metaphor. Funny how an image stick in one’s head, the Chinese graduate student wrote in his spiral-bound notebook. (Penn State got them from the mainland even then; they stood out from other East Asian students with the bathroom slippers they wore everywhere.) Speaking through his interpreter, our honored guest discussed his favorite contention, that Life is a Dream. “But isn’t that itself a metaphor?” one of our more alert members of the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts wanted to know. “No,” Borges intoned to the delight of many, who found said faculty member a little hard to take. “It is the truth!”

This would have been a scandalous notion had it come from anyone but the Great Writer. There was a bit of murmuring, to be sure. I remember murmuring something myself; I’m not sure what. “Freud have mercy!” perhaps, or “Pinch me!” But up spoke another of our champions to ask for an example of a poetic image with no metaphorical function. “Consider Japanese haiku,” said Borges. “‘The ancient pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water.’ Where’s the metaphor?” “Couldn’t you say the entire poem functions as a metaphor?” “You could, but it isn’t necessary. The poem doesn’t have to mean anything.” Japanese – ancient pond, mean nothing, wrote the Chinese grad student in the seat beside me.

I am oversimplifying as usual; you don’t have to tell me that. Symbols and metaphors aren’t exactly the same. But I find it interesting to try and imagine how the brain of an intelligent, social, non-human animal such as a dog or raven actually works, how it might see the world. Because of course the one big difference between us and the others is their lack of a symbolic language. No abstractions! But dreams, memory, emotion, anticipation, basic reasoning power – they have all that.

Well, the image that sticks in my head is of Fred First’s one year-old dog Tsuga chasing – or perhaps attempting to herd – the shadows of butterflies. He also bobs for rocks. There’s something awfully darn metaphorical about a blogger’s dog chasing the shadows of butterflies. Is he a literalist, I wonder, or a skeptic? It is equally easy to imagine him saying: “The Butterfly listeth where it will,” or: “I don’t believe in Butterfly. I know what I see.”

But I’m just being clever, as humans are wont to do. There’s enough meat there already without any help from me.

*

The retriever pup
chases butterfly shadows
even in his sleep.

*

Butterfly’s shadow:
the dog’s nose goes wild
at the lack of odor.

*

Muzzle to ground,
his legs get ahead of him:
herding shadows.

*

Butterfly shadow
on the lawn shrinks, vanishes.
The dog digs for it.

*

Head under water
the golden retriever
keeps his eyes open.

*

On the creek bottom
every pale stone’s alive with shadows.
Delicious!

Updates

Here are two updates, or rather amplifications, on topics I’ve blogged about here. Both links come courtesy of my brother Mark; I haven’t been able to do much reading in the last two weeks with family visiting (especially a certain hyperactive niece).

ZERO TOLERANCE. Tom Hayden wrote a lengthy article for alternet.org about the war against street children and gang members in Honduras.

In the past five years, over 900 kids, 18 and younger, have turned up dead in the streets, ditches, or dumpsters of Honduras — in terms of the nation’s population, that is roughly equivalent to 45,000 fatalities in the U.S. Honduran officials estimate that 20 percent of the victims were killed by police or private death squads who prowl the streets in station wagons with tinted windows and no license plates. Most of the victims — usually deportees from Los Angeles — were identified as gang members because of their tattoos, although a majority had no criminal history.

The prisons themselves have become the scenes of mass-scale killings. On Apr. 5, 2003, 68 inmates affiliated with the 18th Street gang were killed in a prison massacre near La Ceiba, in northern Honduras. Initially, prison officials blamed the inmates for causing the fatal fire, but a government-appointed commission later concluded that 51 of the dead prisoners had been summarily executed by police officials, who then set the fire to cover up the killings. No one has been charged for these murders.

The latest fire catastrophe on May 17 was in a prison near San Pedro Sula, the center of maqiladora employment in northeast Honduras. Police officials blamed the blaze on faulty wiring, but human rights observers are skeptical — and with good reason. . . .

The government policy . . . is to sweep the trash off the streets, then burn it.

BLUE DEVILS AND THE LEGEND OF ROBERT JOHNSON. From LA Times writer Ellen Barry, via Yahoo! News, a story called Bluesman’s Son Gets His Due:

Pulled out of school every year to work in the fields, Claud dropped out for good in the sixth grade and found satisfaction in work, long hours of it, sometimes at two or three jobs. He sold barbecue from a pit beside his house, worked at gas stations and a car dealership; his wife waited tables at a local diner.

Claud saved enough to buy his own gravel truck — a machine so crotchety that he carried a tangle of cables and four extra batteries in order to start it, Kitchens remembers. Often Claud drove it for 18 hours a day. In this way, he and Ernestine put five children through college.

His grandparents’ stern influence had served him as a rudder, steadying him throughout his life, he said.

“It learned me something about life, growing up that way,” he said.

Then, in his 60s, the heirship case opened a view into a second Mississippi: a place where, in moments of glamour, young people ducked the narrow rules of sharecropping life.

In testimony, Claud’s 79-year-old mother and her friends would describe the dark clubs where the field workers gathered, laughing, in the half-light of evening.

They described his father: a man known for slipping out without saying goodbye, for traveling under aliases, for sleeping in boxcars and emerging with pants that looked like they had just been steam-ironed.

They described performances where Robert Johnson sat alone with a guitar and held them all still. They described what happened when he met up with 17-year-old Virgie Mae Smith on her way to school.

In the end, the crucial testimony came from Virgie Mae’s closest friend, Eula Mae Williams, an 80-year-old midwife with pure white hair, who recalled an evening walk she took with her fiance and Virgie Mae and Robert Johnson.

To the shock of the assembled lawyers, who had to pause during questioning because they were laughing so hard, she described how both couples made love standing up in the pine forest, watching each other the whole time. . . .

“I’ve always known all my life who I was and whose son I was,” [Claud Johnson] said. “Never got angry over it. Like I said, my grandparents they always told me Robert Johnson was my father.”

Already, he was a solitary, careful man.

Claud, a church deacon, has had such a lifelong fear of poisoning he did not eat at his mother-in-law’s house for two years after his wedding.

Even at home, if he gets up from a meal leaving a half-drunk glass of water, he will not touch it on his return.

“I’m just curious that way,” he said, with a slow smile. “It just sticks in the back of my mind what happened to him.”

With all these people talking to him about Robert Johnson’s music, too, he’s had occasion to wonder about a few things.

He remembers the guitar being lifted from his hands that time long ago. He says that he has a nice singing voice.

One after another, people from outside Mississippi have come to Claud to tell him the effect Robert Johnson had on their lives: Magical, haunting, almost godlike.

He wonders what it would have been like if his father had stuck around.

And he wonders, from time to time, if, in that alternate version of his life, he would have played the blues.