Sunday 17 June 2007
What’s wrong with 99? I just spent a year of Sundays on route 99. And I grew to care about my 4-mile stretch. I grew to care about The Middle Place, the place dead center on the bridge where I wished a wish for the world each week, and the cavity under the overpass where I made a word echo each week, and the lemon-lime Austin Healy in front of the European car repair shop, and the apple tree by the troll that yielded so many apples last year that it toppled over, and the Black Box Gallery which is always empty and so lives up to its name, and the scent of elephants all cramped in their acre lot at Woodlawn Park Zoo, and on, and on.
Route 99 was commissioned in 1926. It was intended to connect us all, from Blaine to Calexico.
It is 1930. The small towns between Blaine and Calexico are suddenly connected. Here you are, here is the rest of America. You are free to walk out your doorway to anywhere. Anything is possible.
It is 1950. The freeway has come to speed things up. Our traveling time is greatly reduced. Our neighborhoods are ruined. You are free to go further than you have gone before, much further than the next neighborhood and the next, but when you get there it will be no better than your own neighborhood, nor the next, nor the next. They have equally been ruined. You are free now to cross America without ever seeing it.
Matt and Luisa of The Fantasticks each headed off to explore the world. Eventually, they were drawn back home, back to where they began, and to one another. When they returned, home was waiting for them.
Much of small town America has no home to go home to. Our small towns are gone or are so badly damaged we no longer recognize them. The neighborhood I grew up in, Exton, PA, is pretty well gone. It’s still there on the map, people still live there, but it’s gone just the same. It’s been so overrun with strip malls and town houses and industrial parks, there’s nothing left to it, nothing I can recall. And I certainly don’t wish to return to it, nor live in it, nor reminisce over it. It’s a deep-rooted loss I can neither express or experience. Nor can anyone from that town or the next or the next. What are we creating?
We start by disconnecting the populations that stand in our way, then we hack through the wilderness to the next place we'll found. Once we stand where they stood, once we have cleared a space in the land, perhaps out of boredom, we begin to disassemble ourselves. It is, by now, second nature to deconstruct our landscape, our community, ourselves.
Is there any chance of reversing the damage, connecting with our story? Is it possible yet to preserve our history? Or will we end up on a freeway clover, traveling faster and faster in a circle. A perfect circle? Hey, we’ve seen this before. And this. And this. A perfect death.
PETRICHOR: The blood of the gods
Mention of petrichor, the smell of late spring, rain on the parched ground. The Wart is a chemist. Things for him are clear, are known. Is this sort of science devoid of wonder?
Clinton wants to drink his wine blindly, without knowing its story, its passage to living. Just give me the wine. I don’t want to know about its overtones or undertones, its legs or body. I just want to experience the wine.
I say learn all you can. Knowing brings you to closer to what you love. With greater intimacy comes depth of love. Dive into a thing. There is more than one way of knowing. Don’t limit yourself to what others have discovered. Once you know what is known, branch out, add your own observations. Imagine each new thing as a fish carcass on the beach, and yourself as a dog.
There is not only knowledge by sight, but ink knowledge and blind knowledge. There is a starved knowledge. Knowledge through movement. Poetic knowledge. Weather-borne knowledge. Waking and sleeping knowledge.
Petrichor. The smell of fear. Oils produced by a plant to help it preserve itself, its reserves of water. Here in the desert, at the window, the fear of death. Here is the making of armor, the last defense.
The Wart gave me a bottle of label-less wine last week. A sailor on my dock tied it to a line and heaved it overboard, to chill it. We opened it aboard his 50' wooden ketch before the sun went down. It tasted like a chardonnay, but it couldn't be. No, that'd be too easy. The Wart tells me, this week, that it was a rousanne, a white grape from the northern Rhone region, one of three varieties of white grape from that region.
The difference between information and knowing, between studying a label and hand-crafting a wine. There are so few things we hand-craft these days, so few things we stick to from start to finish. I ask you, is it really a worry we will learn too much, that we will demystify things with information? Is that really a worry?
LEARNING TO SEE
I think Clinton is talking about pure sensation. Experiencing a thing that has no previously prescribed meaning. Is pure sensation possible once we have quantified and named a thing, once we have constructed a meaning for it? Can we ever truly experience a gentian once we have given it a name? What a loss, to have named that flower! That flower that just yesterday was a purple dress!
In Space and Sight, Marius von Senden recorded what he was learning from patients who had just woken up from successful cataract operations, a new medical procedure in 1932. What did the newly-sighted see? They saw color fields and color bands. And so Faulkner spoke that way and Cezanne painted that way and began to question the eye and the brain. The “eye” and the “I.” How the “I” works.
What does a pure sensation look like? “One patient, according to his doctor, practiced his vision in a strange fashion; thus he takes off one of his boots, throws it some way off in front of him, and then attempts to gauge the distance at which it lies; he takes a few steps towards the boot and tries to grasp it; on failing to reach it, he moves on a step or two and gropes for the boot until he finally gets hold of it” [Space and Sight, Marius von Senden].
“Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.”
For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning. “They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult. . . . The mental effort involved . . . proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. . . . A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair.” [Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek].
THE OBSESSIVE "I"
Has our search for knowledge become an obsessive one? Is our need for more and more education, more and higher degrees and instant information damaging us? Does having more information available mean we know more? Or does it mean we know less? A speaker on NPR this morning suggested that the internet was a detriment to our knowing, to knowledge. There’s no reason to know when information is this accessible. Why learn to spell when Word will correct for you?
What is keeps our knowing from knowing? And is this democracy?
Peterson, of Peterson’s Backyard Birding books has been accused of feeding our frenzy to categorize, to know. "Before being exposed to Peterson's system, birdwatchers could enjoy the charming behavior of backyard birds without feeling compelled to identify them. . . . But Peterson invented an obsessive game. . . . The game, packaged by Peterson to be played by all comers, has become more and more popular ever since. (Gibbon and Strom 300)"
"The birder can say, "I know you." (And I appropriate you in my colonizing, will-to-knowledge act of "ownership.") [Thomas C. Gannon, The New World Bird as Colonized Other. The Ampersand 11: January 2002]
WHAT COMES AND GOES
The starlings have taken the meadow. Six of them, speckled and sleek, jutting through the grass. Their being here has a history we can know. The starling's arrival was part of a project started in Central Park (NYC) in the 1890s by Eugene Scheiffer, a lover of Shakespeare. He wanted to introduce into America all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. Thus the bluebirds and crested flycatchers and red bellied woodpeckers and Northern flickers and tree swallows and purple martins all lost their homes [ASPCA, Animaland]. What is worth of nostalgia?
Martha and Maddy and their friend came twice today, once before and once after their walk. They decided, as they walked around, to recall poems to recite for me. So when they returned, Martha sang Robert Lewis Stevensons' "Dark brown is the river." Their friend recited a poem by Jacquelyn Byrd. Jacquelyn Byrd is her mother. And Maddy recited a poem by Robert Frost, "Fragmentary Blue." "Why make so much of fragmentary blue/in here or there a bird, or butterfly,/Or flower, or wearing stone, or open eye/" Why? Because bluebird's gone. Because bluebird's gone.
It is 4:30pm now and while he day was full of long nice conversation that kept me warm and busy, nothing truly magical unfolded. I was sick this morning and it feels as if the air here has made me well. My head no longer hurts and my muscles are all relaxed. I'm shivering though and ready to walk home and warm up.