|acknowledgement: my phone takes lousy pictures.|
I read Remembering Babylon last week, during a four-day visit to my extended family in Lousville, Colorado (which, incidentally, was a blast). It was one of those books (I think and I hope we've all read them) that seemed to find its way into my hands by divine fiat—a book I opened up when I really needed to read it.
Louisville is just a bounce down the road from Boulder, a city that has held an almost mystical significance to me since my monthlong stay there in 2008. Of course a pilgrimage was called for. But I was less interested in revisiting Pearl Street, browsing dispensaries, and reminiscing at the Naropa campus than exploring the hills at the edge of town.
I've lived in Philadelphia since September; by any analysis I'm happier here than I was in Maryland or St Thomas. I am, I really am—but the exiguity of open green spaces has been eating at me like a rust creep in my spiritual undercarriage. So as I read Remembering Babylon and came across passages like these:
It was as if he had seen the world till now, not through his own eyes, out of some singular self, but through the eyes of a fellow who was always in company, even when he was alone; a sociable self, wrapped always in a communal warmth that protected it from dark matters and all the blinding light of things, but also from the knowledge that there was a place out there where the self might stand alone. Wading through waist-high grass, he was surprised to see all the tips beaded with green, as if some new growth had come into the world that till now he had never seen or heard of. When he looked closer it was hundreds of wee bright insects, each the size of his little fingernail, metallic, iridescent, and the discovery of them, the new light they brought to the scene, was a lightness in him——that was what surprised him——like a form of knowledge he had broken through to. It was unnameable, which disturbed him, but was also exhilarating; for a moment he was entirely happy. But he wondered at himself. A grown man of forty with work to do, standing dreamily stilled, extending his hand, palm downwards, over the backs of insects, all suspended in their tiny lives in a jewel-like glittering. Another time, by the creek, he looked up, casually he thought, and saw a bird. It was balanced on a rounded stone dipping its beak into the lightly running water, its grey squat body as undistinguished and dusty looking as a sparrow's (but there were no sparrows here), its head grey, with a few untidy feathers. He was sitting, himself, on a larger stone, also rounded, eating the last of a sandwich, his boots in mud. But what his stilled blood saw was the bird's beak drawing long silver threads out of the heart of the water, which was all a tangle of threads, bunched or running; and his boots had no weight, neither did his hand with the half-bitten lump of bread in it, nor his heart, and he was filled with the most intense and easy pleasure: in the way the air stirred the leaves overhead and each leaf had attached itself to a twig, and whirled yet kept hold; and in the layered feathers that made up the grey of the bird's head; and at how long the threads of water must be to run so easily from where they had come from to wherever it was, imaginably out of sight, that they were going——tangling, untangling, running free.Pages like these didn't so much make me want to lose myself a bit in a wild place (a real place) as thrust the preexisting need to the fore of my attention.
Not to encumber this thing with literary references, but before I left for Colorado I checked my email and found a message from Therese (wielder of the stethoscope and the leech), pointing me towards her favorite poem: Richard Wilbur's "Digging for China." Partial excerpt:
"Far enough down is China," somebody said.It is implied that this isn't a crazy scheme to escape from reality, but to reality. I read here (and maybe I am projecting too much of my own experience onto the poem) a sense of the same sort of malaise I feel when I'm anywhere there are more cars than trees, or when I squander too much of my time and attention on sturm and dreck from the internet and develop a cramp in the backs of my eyes and a numbness towards and beneath my skull's anterior. I read a thirst for a shot of the Presence, an urgency to overcome the existential bed death that comes to beleaguer one's (necessarily monogamous) relationship with this world, this life.
"Dig deep enough and you might see the sky
As clear as at the bottom of a well.
Except it would be real——a different sky.
Then you could burrow down until you came
To China! Oh, it's nothing like New Jersey.
There's people, trees, and houses, and all that,
But much, much different. Nothing looks the same."
I went and got the trowel out of the shed
And sweated like a coolie all that morning,
Digging a hole beside the lilac-bush,
Down on my hands and knees. It was a sort
Of praying, I suspect. I watched my hand
Dig deep and darker, and I tried and tried
To dream a place where nothing was the same.
Coming from gritty South Philly, being in Colorado and seeing the mountains in the distance and watching the chattering barn swallows zipping and swerving through the neighborhood like it was a playground while I read Remembering Babylon on the back porch—that was what did it. It was time to dig to China, or to something like it. I needed to lose myself a while in what Malouf (perfectly) identifies as "the process and mystery of things." The green.
Our surroundings mold us; when one's environs are straight lines, right angles, efficient causes, and concrete splotched with petrol and overtrodden black gumwads, one's outer behavior and interior experiences are limned by straight lines, right angles, and so on. Preferences vary, but for me it's like being gradually embalmed and buried alive.
Momentary digression: a note on the topic of anthropized spaces as tombs—I always found it interesting that Joseph Conrad pointedly and repeatedly characterizes the city of London as a sepulcher in Heart of Darkness:
I flew around like mad to get ready, and before forty-eight hours I was crossing the Channel to show myself to my employers, and sign the contract. In a very few hours I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt. ....To resume:
I had no idea why he wanted to be sociable, but as we chatted in there it suddenly occurred to me the fellow was trying to get at something——in fact, pumping me. He alluded constantly to Europe, to the people I was supposed to know there——putting leading questions as to my acquaintances in the sepulchral city, and so on. His little eyes glittered like mica discs——with curiosity——though he tried to keep up a bit of superciliousness. ....
No, they did not bury me, though there is a period of time which I remember mistily, with a shuddering wonder, like a passage through some inconceivable world that had no hope in it and no desire. I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams.
Boulder's Chautauqua Park boasts one of the most impressive trailheads I've ever seen. This isn't saying much; I grew up in the Northeast Megalopolis. Four days in Colorado isn't enough to recalibrate one's sense of distance. What "open space" means on the East Coast isn't what it means in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains. The mountains and their foothills appear much closer and far smaller than they actually are; you're amazed when it takes twice as much time as expected to gain the butte or grove up ahead.
The soil, climate, and altitude aren't conducive to dense arboreal formations; where there are trees they give each other room, and the groundcover is similarly sparse. Where there is soil but no trees, the grass, shrubs and weeds grow in profusion and shimmer in the arid alpine breeze, resonant with ringing crickets, the thumping tack and and thrum of sprung grasshoppers. Honeybees attend wildflowers, flies gorge on coyote scat. Pleasing fungus beetles investigate dead and peeling ponderosa branches while pipping and song sparrows, spotted towhees, and robins call out from the verdant boughs above.
It was quiet. Not quiet enough, not for me. I happened to visit on a Saturday, the first weekend that properly felt like May. The hikers were out in hordes. None came alone. The plodded up the trail in rows, focused on each others' faces and bloviating noisily about the freshman fifteen and the office and TV serials and gadgets and gossip and all the talk of the town, literally, carrying to the hills the air of the sepulcher from which they presumably took to the hills to get away for a spell. (This is why I prefer to hike alone.)
When I veered onto the thinly forested mesa at the fork in the road, the crowds dispersed considerably. But even there were still people in pair and triples, chattering towards each others' faces or into Bluetooth devices, carrying on with as little sensitivity to their environs as they would have been on Pearl Street, walking through the space, not in it. The ecosystem beyond the pounded dirt might as well have been situated behind a glass partition, or the painted walls of an open-air passageway.
I am being judgmental, I know I am. And I know I shouldn't be: really, who am I to prescribe how the rest of humanity should conduct itself in a public open space?
But more importantly, more damningly hypocritical, is that I'm grousing about these people when I myself am hardly any less of a muddling, maladroit interloper.
The average person raised in the West surveys the contents of a "natural" space like he might skim a Wikipedia entry on a scientific topic. He may apprehend some small fraction of what he views—but everything beyond that, the intricacies and specifics, the profound and abstruse whole, remains beyond his ken and completely inaccessible.
In Remembering Babylon, Malouf indulges in speculation (well-researched, no doubt) as to what it might be like to be in a wild (unanthropized) environment as one who lives in homeostatic interrelation with said environment:
So when [Gemmy] and the minister, half-crouching, pushed in under the overhanging boughs of a gully or trudged up a rocky, sun-scorched slope to where they could see, north and west, all the country he was at home in, he was moving through a world that was alive for him and dazzling; some of it even in the deepest shade throwing off luminous flares, so that he had to squint and cover his eyes, and all of it crackling and creaking and swelling and bursting with growth; but he cast the light only in patches for Mr Frazer, leaving the rest undisclosed.Once more: it is as difficult for a person raised to the tune of a post-industrial Western lifestyle to imagine the perceptual depth of the "savage" understanding of a "natural" ecosystem as it would be for the layman to conceive of manipulating the concepts and calculus of particle physics. (I use quote marks in acknowledgement of my language's deficiencies where these concepts are concerned.)
Once or twice in these outings her saw blacks who were unfamiliar to him standing frozen in the brush, every muscle alert.
He made no obvious sign to them, none anyway that Mr Frazer would observe .... but very gravely, in passing, acknowledged the water's claim, and they accepted and let them pass ....
Mr Frazer saw nothing at all .... Puffing and singing odd little songs to himself, and fanning away flies, and calling for Gemmy to notice this or that, he went barging through; and Gemmy did not enlighten him.
As for what the blacks would be seeing, Gemmy knew what that was. He himself would have a clear light around him like the light that contained Mr Frazer's drawings. It came from the energy set off where his spirit touched the spirits he was moving through.
All they would see of Mr Frazer was what the land itself saw: a shape, thin, featureless, that interposed itself a moment, like a mist or cloud, before the land blazed out in its full strength again and the shadow was gone, as if, in the long history of the place, it was too slight to endure, or had never been.
Pretend: you are standing in the woods. You are among trees, bushes, and grasses. You see each separate variety of plant distinctly and can name them all. You identify them not only visually but know them somatically, by their textures, scents, and tastes. On a personal and intellectual level each is invested with a particular significance from the roles they have played in your own life, and from the anecdotes, histories, and myths in which you have been steeped since youth, as seminal to you in this strange life as the TV shows, comics, movies, advertisements, records, and video games are to your familiar self reading this now. You see where and how the vital transfer pathways of this living network cross and braid and merge together—"nothing exists but in relation," says A.N. Whitehead, and an ecological community is an object lesson in this aphorism. Here you have a plant: under what conditions can it sprout and live and reproduce? Which other constituents of the community (plants, animals, or other wise) influence those conditions? Which other constituents rely on it? Which events in its life cycle are concurrent with events in other constituents' life cycles?
One would require a practical knowledge of ecological synergy in order to live as part of the composite organism such an environment without jostling it out of its equilibrium—and to do so without relying on machines and tools one couldn't fabricate without other machines and tools fabricated by some other party, composed of materials extracted and refined by yet another party with machines and tools fabricated by another, etc.
Some months ago I confessed an adolescent fantasy of mine: to disappear into the woods and never come out. It was jejune middle school frippery, for sure. But as an adult I sometimes indulge in a similar fit of whimsy: going into the woods and never coming out, but also losing myself—meeting the wild on its own terms, wholly and unconditionally. Throwing off my clothes and sinking into the dirt and brush as part and parcel of dirt and brush, burning and starving my fat and frivolous thoughts away until what's left is a sinewy rudiment knowing itself only to the extent that it knows and can navigate the inarticulate sprawl and shuddering growth and rapacious hunger of the green. A leaner, rougher, and far shorter life, for sure—but one lived with considerably greater verve. Depression, boredom, and existential angst are modern inventions, side effects of civilization, mechanization, anthropization.
It is no less ridiculous than the first fantasy, or than any other slob's daydreams of riches, glory, or superpowers. I might as well wish I were a bird.
Penultimate literary reference: from William Carlos Williams's "Raleigh Was Right," which we've looked at before:
We cannot go into the country
for the country will bring us no peace
What can the small violets tell us
that grow on furry stems in
the long grass among lance shaped leaves?
Though you praise us
and call to mind the poets
who sung of our loveliness
it was long ago!
long ago! when country people
would plow and sow
with flowering minds and pockets at ease——
if ever this were true.
On the Chautauqua mesa I spotted a meadow some fifty yards off the trail, sunlit and teeming with golden banner blossoms. As I went to check it out, I was piqued by an old whim: events during my first trip to Boulder convinced me, in half-baked hippie kind of way, that one can't know a place at all until he's felt the ground there with his bare feet. So I left my shoes and socks on a fallen tree trunk and headed for the clearing. It took much, much longer than it would have if I'd been wearing shoes. Every step, one after the other: "Ow." [Pause.] "Ow." [Pause.] "Ow." [Pause.] "Ow." [Pause.] The pinecones, twigs, and brittle dead stalks stabbed into my soles. This is not to say it was a dumb thing to do, or that there wasn't a kind of bodily thrill in experiencing an unfamiliar part of the world with a part of myself that usually only interacts directly with cotton socks or hardwood floors—but my god, why should it be that I'm virtually incapable of walking on the real and living Earth with my own real and living feet?
Our return flight to the East Coast landed us back in Jersey, so I took a few minutes to revisit my old haunts before returning to Philadelphia. I wanted to see if the damselflies were out. Unfortunately, they weren't, not yet—but soon. But the water snakes were sunning themselves in the brambles by the pond, like they do every summer, and the wood thrushes' songs echoed from the tall trees deeper in. The garlic mustard and wild azaleas were in bloom, and it's that time where one has to keep an eye on one's feet, and their proximity to poison ivy leaves. It was nice. It was a taste of something I'll never have, not realistically. I'll never not be an outsider in places like these; I can't do much but gawk and galumph and interlope for only a few hours at a time.
Final literary reference: Allen Ginsberg, "Transcription of Organ Music" (linked somewhere above):
And the Creator gave me a shot of his presence(Ginsberg was instrumental in originally bringing me to Boulder. Funny.)
to gratify my wish, so as not to cheat me of my yearning
Point: in this life one must happily take what he can reasonably get, and never for granted. At Chautauqua I paused a moment while descending the mesa and heard a peculiar whistling and felt a rapid buzzing vibration less than a foot from my left ear. A hummingbird had dropped in to stick its beak in the flowers of a nearby chokeberry bush, and was evidently surprised to discover I wasn't a bush myself. When I turned my head, all I saw was an iridescent greenish-grey and pink blur shooting up the slope to safety. An emissary of the primeval. A shot of the presence.
But really: maybe I should consider moving to the mountains.