memories of some times in the open

This essay appears in the anthology Dark Mountain 17: Restoration

One October day, my husband and I drove out of San Francisco to take a walk in the South Bay hills. It was the final day of Fleet Week, when the navy comes to town each year to attract new recruits, culminating in an airshow by bomber jets called Blue Angels. People flock to see them, crowding the sandy strip of the bay shoreline for miles. The pilots perform stunts of great virtuosity, flying in tight formation, dropping from astounding heights to roar just over the spectators’ heads. The jets scream across the sky with an all-encompassing, elemental sound, as if the sky itself were in pain.

I always looked for excuses to leave the city when this was  happening. I could not imagine the people who came in droves to see the airshow had ever had any personal experience of what the planes could do in war.

There has never been a single day in my life when a war was not being waged somewhere on earth, but those wars were almost invisible to me (and, it seemed, to everyone around me) until I went to live in El Salvador, in Central America, in the late 1980s. At that time, more than one-fifth of its five million people had been displaced, exiled or killed in a decade-long civil war.

In El Salvador, the bomber planes were called push-and-pulls. The US government had paid for them. They were used by the Salvadoran military to fight leftist insurgents who had established strongholds in remote areas and were trying to take power.

In November 1989, the rebels attacked the capital city, San Salvador. They stormed into the slums, where they had many supporters, and the government was unable to dislodge them by sending in foot soldiers. So it used the planes to bomb homes and streets in its own capital. Many residents fled up the forested slopes of the sleeping volcano that towered over the city.

I was living in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac on the mountainside. The family next door were fundamentalist Christians, expatriates from neighboring Nicaragua, which was then socialist. They stood on the roof of their house and cheered each explosion, each distant building collapsing into dust and sooty flames. The boys wore the starched white shirts and dark trousers of the evangelical church; their mother clutched a bible and prayed, eyes closed, rocking on her heels.

The planes climbed higher and higher, with a weird droning sound, then dropped into a breathtaking dive. At the bottom of the dive, a sudden silence. Then a cloud of black smoke would go up from the streets below.

Ultimately, the bombings achieved their objective. The insurgents failed to take the capital, and the civil war returned to stalemate for another two years, until a negotiated settlement was reached. These turned out to be the final years of the Cold War. El Salvador, a ‘hot’ war, was one of its last fronts.

Past the city’s ragged suburban edge, my husband and I drove through a corridor of second-growth redwoods along the ridge-top road, until the land opened into grassy, treeless hills. From one side of the road you could see the south end of San Francisco Bay, hemmed in by chalk-colored squares of housing, industrial areas, airfields. Salt ponds marked off by white dikes enclosed their odd colours, from red and purple to turquoise. On the other side of the road, the hills fell back into thickly wooded land, declining toward the coast, with a glinting promise of sea beyond.

At the trailhead where we parked, broad tracks followed the open hilltops and footpaths led down into forested ravines. The sun was warm and bright, and the breeze was gentle. It was the time of greatest dryness, toward the end of the annual six months of drought. The grass covering the hills was white-gold, making them look like sand dunes against a desert sky. Above the blinding white ridge, a perfect blue.

Years before the Salvadoran war,  I found my way to a Berber tent in the Sahara. There was a sandstorm; I was stranded with a couple of other travelers. A fine grit covered our bodies as we lay on rough rugs of goatskin and wool. The sand seemed to enter every crevice of my skin, sifting under my eyelids, inside my mouth. At first I didn’t really feel as if I was present at all; I’d sent my mind far away. But the place ultimately captivated me. Two red dunes, one star above at twilight, a stone well.

When the storm died down I went outside and poured water from the well over my face and neck. I felt I was experiencing some culmination, even if it was just for the moment I stood with the sweet clear water dripping from my hands.

The Sahara made all other places seem like they existed at some lesser degree of necessity. The desert said it would win over time; it would remain when all other landscapes were lost. When we left after the storm abated, I felt for a moment as if I’d stayed behind and was watching a ghostly version of myself disappear down the almost invisible road through the dunes.

The desiccation of the South Bay landscape was so perfect that every detail of the plant life was preserved, even as all color other than a uniform pale brown had been drained out. The drying seemed like freezing in this way, fixing all the elements of the landscape in place, preserving them completely in death.

The dead grasses on the hills looked exquisite, although most were not native. Later I found a website mounted by a local man who had dedicated himself to cataloguing the decline of the native grasses in precisely that area, and the advance of the aggressive European species – Harding grass, wild oats, starthistle, snake grass, dog’s tail grass – that were replacing them. The website included a sequence of letters he had written to the county Open Space Preserve, petitioning them to take responsibility for a series of controlled burns that had had exactly the opposite of their intended effect, to allow the native grasses a chance to re-establish themselves. Here is his list of the damages done as of the previous summer:

The exotic weeds that were measurably helped and spread by the five illegal fires were 808,000 Italian thistle plants, 527,622 Harding grass plants, 152,000 yellow starthistle plants, and two million wild oats plants, for example. Those were the taller weeds that spread, plus uncounted shorter annual grass weeds and exotic clovers, also spread and took advantage of the damage to the wildflower fields and native grasslands by the fires.

The fire-killed environmental resources that existed before the fires and need to be restored include 200,000 Sitanion grass plants, 156,000 Nassella pulchra plants that were lost in the fires, 32,000 Melica grasses, 20,000 Festuca grasses, 20,000 Koeleria grasses, 500,000 annual tarweeds, 500,000 owl’s clover plants, 400,000 Layia wildflowers, 224,000 white yarrow plants, 160,000 Amsinckia plants, 52,000 lupines, 40,000 native Plantago, 40,000 miner’s lettuce, 40,000 coyote mint plants, 40,000 California poppy plants, 40,000 blue-eyed grasses, 12,000 popcorn flowers, 12,000 buttercups, and 10,000 farewell to springs.

I was impressed and moved by the rigor of this chronicle of loss. But as we were walking, I had no knowledge of it, and without that history, I was merely delighted by the heat of the sun, the sweep of sky, and the silence, with only the occasional rustle of a fence lizard or garter snake in the dead grass.

I would often amuse myself, on walks in open country like this, by imagining that my husband and I were among the last people left on Earth. I once tried to explain to him: I start walking and I just walk into the future in my mind. I cross a threshold somewhere, and a thousand years have gone by, or maybe ten thousand. I can feel it’s another time… He was tolerant, but  I could see he was baffled, so I didn’t mention it again.

As the years passed this displacement seemed to be occurring more frequently.

A dirt road led down the sere hill to a ranch gate. There we found a little stream, its banks crowded with blackberry bushes and shaded with pungent laurel, like a shout of laughter in a cemetery. We leaned against the rusting gate, eating the ripe blackberries dangling over it, marveling at their sweetness. For an instant I was swept again into my imagined future.

I felt that neither the future nor the past – nor the present with the Blue Angels hanging over the upturned faces of the city’s inhabitants, ready to descend – was as full of menace as it usually seemed. The clouds looked painted on the sky: regal, elegant, and antique as the plumes in a dragoon’s helmet.

It was perhaps the profound stillness that reminded me of a visit we’d made to the Sierra Nevada some years before. At night, we sat on a snow-covered porch, our breath hanging in clouds in the dark air, arc lamps glittering on the blue-white snow crystals on the ground. And my mind was again far away, casting itself out into the emptiness of white stars in a blue-black, frozen sky from which the snow was not falling and could never fall, and pushing away the cold that seemed to enter an emptiness just as vast inside my body, which had become the thinnest membrane around that hollow place.

Another winter had come back to me that night. On the winter solstice, the tenth anniversary of the El Mozote massacre, I stood knee-deep in the tall brown grass of a field where there had once been a town of that name. As many as a thousand people had died there, over the course of three days. The whole town had been rounded up, the men tortured and shot, the women and young girls raped and shot, and the children’s throats slit and their bodies set on fire. A woman who escaped hid crouching in the bushes until nightfall, listening to her children crying for her in terror from inside the church where they’d been locked up while the adults were killed. When darkness came, she fled. The woman, who stayed silent and in hiding for years from fear and shame, had finally come forward.

‘There is no way to live with these things,’ she said. ‘If we remember too much, it kills us. If we forget, we may stay alive, but inside we are dead. We live among ghosts in any case; we are always surrounded by the shadows of the dead.’

As the wind whispered in the dry grass, I attempted to translate the woman’s words to a group of visitors who had come to learn about the war. She did not pause for breath as she told her story. The story lived inside her and expressed itself all at once when it had to be told. So I had to stop thinking about the words I heard, and to speak them as if I were receiving them directly from the other woman’s mind, as if her ghosts were entering my body.

The soldiers burned the empty town to the ground when they left. Only ten years later, the grass had covered everything, and there was no sign that any building, any street had ever been there. The remnants of the thousand bodies – bones, ash, shreds of clothes – were nowhere to be seen. Forensic teams had to come and dig for them to prove that so many people had died in that place. For years the army said it never happened.

Something about forgetting is necessary to inflicting suffering on any scale, from the pain of one person to the murder of thousands, to the assault on the whole web of life. It is necessary to power. You can only wield power over others effectively if they forget something essential about themselves – rights, agency, dignity – in the present, and also about the collective possibilities that existed in the past. You can only destroy the web of life by forgetting you are part of it.

But that was where the ghosts came in; they were insubstantial, belied by the solidity of the physical world from which they had been expunged, and yet they persisted; they were everything that refused to be forgotten completely.

Ghosts – of plants, animals, landscapes, people – may be restored to a contingent life by giving them expression in the mouths of the living. And the living may be rescued from death-in-life by giving their ghosts a voice, unforgetting them. Such witness – not true restoration, which the nature of time makes impossible, but possibly a step towards redress or renewal – is necessary work after great dying, and thus an inevitable task for us now, and still more for those who will come after us.

My husband and I walked the dry hills under the perfect blue sky until we knew the screaming would have stopped. Then we drove back to the city, joining a gathering flood of machines rolling through the twilight along the grey roads.

achieving escape velocity

This essay appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

I grew up with the idea that leaving Earth was inevitable. The Space Age had arrived and the sky was no limit. Per ardua ad astra was no longer a metaphor; it would happen, it was happening. Invisible radiation traveled through the air every afternoon to bring me indelible images of humans in space, benignly, bravely venturing out into the numinous beauty of the galaxy strung with stars, enticingly intercalated with exotic life. A chorus of ethereal voices accompanied their stalwart ship each time, as it boldly went where no man [sic] had gone before.

What it carried with it were clean, comfortably-appointed living spaces where slim, attractive people sported glittery, form-fitting synthetics and teased and pomaded hair that was preternaturally perfect. Mutual respect, affection and humor were their mainstays. There was racial harmony – for humans had united, at last! (Often against other species, but only if they threatened us first. Otherwise, we sought to befriend them.) Artificial intelligences informed, protected and consoled us, but knew their place, like good housemaids. If they overstepped, we pulled the plug. Our marvelous cultural diversity was still intact no matter how deracinated our existence had become, speeding along in a vacuum, light-years from home among the stretched-out stars.

Earth had figured it out. Humans had figured it out. We had solved all the challenges on our home planet, and now – on to the final frontier!

I was so happy in that promised land, as a child. I was happy being Lost in Space or going on a Star Trek, from the safety of the Danish modern sofa strewn with throws and pillows I made into a kind of cocoon. The living room always a comfortable 70 degrees, whatever was happening on the planet’s surface outside. I lived in a space craft, protected from the debilitating atmosphere of an alien world – my own.

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denial, anger, bargaining, grief, acceptance: the five stages of ecocide

This essay appeared on Dissident Voice

“There is hope, an infinite amount of hope, but not for us.” – Franz Kafka

If artists are the antennae of the race, and writers and thinkers are also artists, then a vibration some are receiving and beginning to transmit to the culture more broadly now is new in the history of our species: the world is dying.

The world, not defined as “human civilization,” or a nation, empire, or culture, but the entire living world, which undergirds all those. Not in one region, but everywhere, all at once, and with escalating speed.

The custom at this point would be to cite statistics, summarize recent UN reports, quote news stories, prominent scientists, etc. But I will take it as a given that you have already read those, or are at least aware of them. What I want to get at is how this feels, what the inner experience of this knowledge is: to be living, aging and eventually dying in uncanny lock-step with The Great Dying, the greatest our species has ever seen, caused by us to boot. Is there even a word for this? I choose xenocide: we are killing almost everything that is not us. The antennae of the race are intimating is that this is ultimately suicide, because there is no “other” in the living world; we are inextricably imbricated in it. Ecocide is perhaps the most correct: we are killing our home.

This is the definitive experience of our generation. But there are reasons why most of us living today seem unable to comprehend it, and live (or die) accordingly. Thanks to civilization, we had already largely lost the living world before we were born, and now what is dying is something we barely knew existed. You might call this Big Yellow Taxi syndrome.

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the fires this time

This essay first appeared last September on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. – James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The wildfires may be out of the headlines, but they are not out. Visual images seem the only way to comprehend the scope. The cluster of little flaming circles indicating active fires, crowded over interactive maps of the Western U.S. and Canada, covering their landmasses like an infestation of cartoon bugs, and with NASA’s hallucinatory satellite imagery color-coding them among all the atmospheric wildness in Gaia’s Revenge this summer: smoke, fire, dust, deluge, typhoon. However, the sheer acreage burned requires a return to the numerical: there’s no way to capture it in a single image. And yet whatever those numbers are, they still seem utterly disconnected from the Dow Jones, or the price of eggs at the supermarket, or flights to Spain, and so they are still inadequate.

But in Canada, with 550 fires burning last month in British Columbia alone, and smoke coating the west from border to border and beyond, someone thought to write about the mental and physical anguish of being surrounded by wildfire and its consequences, watching a familiar landscape, once vibrant, benevolent, be transformed into something fearful and toxic, in which you are trapped. When the suffocating smoke covers a thousand miles for weeks on end, where is there to run?

The article mentions the concept of “solastalgia,” a word coined to describe the experience of longing for a lost place when you are still in it—when you haven’t changed location, but it has changed character, for the worse. Uprootings, migration, exile: these, and the trauma they cause, have been endemic to civilization from the get-go, because civilization has been sustained by warfare. But to see your home place transmogrified by chthonic forces into an alien and hostile environment even as it still surrounds you—this is a sea change. (Literally, for some communities.) It means, among other things, that something is happening on a scale whereby the privilege of not being uprooted by merely human imbalances of power is no longer worth much.

There is a fearful sense that “thinking globally” will always require solastalgia now. That we are, Big Yellow Taxi-style, discovering the importance of places in our lives, and of the biosphere we grew up in, even as we lose them, forever.

The Meaning of 1968

It is also exactly half a century since the “fateful fork” year of 1968. We have just passed the anniversary of the bloody police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy are already assassinated, Paris’ May uprising quelled and its energy disintegrating, the Prague Spring crushed. The final phase of the Tet offensive ends with no general revolt and staggering Viet Cong casualties, preparing the way for years of mass slaughter in a military deadlock, the U.S. defeat already inevitable, the Vietnamese victory Pyrrhic. Still ahead that year: the murder of hundreds of student protesters and fellow marchers in Mexico City in October, to make Mexico safe for the Olympics. In November: the triumph of Richard Nixon, successfully playing on the fears of Southern racists to get them to abandon the Democratic Party.

We have never escaped the shadow of that year of disenchantment. Not with the formal decolonization of Africa, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the election of a neoliberal black man as U.S. President. In the ensuing 50 years, only one revolution has had the kind of cumulative, irreversible, touching-all-lives effect that we used to mean when we used the term: the technological one. Information, communication, and the means of production have been revolutionized, without in any way diminishing alienation, systemic violence, or exploitation. “Everything has changed, except the mind of man [sic],” said Einstein after the atom was split. The second half of that sentence ought to be tagged on every time the first is used nowadays as well.

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a rapture of distress: auden’s augury

icarus

This essay first appeared on The Dark Mountain Project website.

I was born into an age and circumstances in which the idea of prophecy was highly suspect. My father, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, was an admirer of the philosopher John Dewey and the scientific method. According to him, science had shown us that the only way to predict the future successfully was to identify the correct mathematical equation underlying a given relationship or activity in the physical world. The rest was blind superstition, and through the universal provision of modern education we would ultimately leave it behind.

At the edge of our town there was a flickering neon ‘Psychic Readings’ sign in the cracked window of a decaying clapboard house. I learned from him to read this synecdochically: fortunetelling practiced by hucksters was all that remained of the seers and prophets whose utterances had once guided whole societies.

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the third world war

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

Was undeclared. Exactly where and when it began is debatable. Most would say there had been low-level conflict for millennia, but it only became a world war toward the end of the 20th century CE. Some choose the symbolic date when we ran that tanker, the Exxon Valdez, aground in Prince William Sound, because its cargo was the secret weapon that had brought the war into this new stage.

Our global forces were still divided into two antagonistic camps at that time, but both were at war with the greater enemy. The eastern camp had already killed the Aral Sea and poisoned 180,000 square kilometers of land with nuclear radiation (although this action was a Pyrrhic victory, resulting in more drastic consequences to us than the enemy). Shortly thereafter, we declared a truce of sorts between the factions, so we could make further gains in the great war, ostensibly without so much damage to ourselves. For the remainder of the last century, our forces were on the march everywhere, and the enemy fell back.

But in the early years of this century, some unseen fulcrum began to shift. Rather than the widely and randomly interspersed events we experienced in the relatively mild regime we grew up with, we saw destructive actions that escalated in their scope and frequency until they came to seem like calculated responses.

The waves of heat and cold. They caught us off-guard with their new intensity. Then the storms, to which we continued to give bland, suburban names: Mitch, Dennis, Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Iris, Maria. At first mostly a threat to the growing legions of the unprotected poor, they soon showed themselves a match for our largest cities. And beyond that: whole provinces, countries were paralyzed for days, weeks, months. And then the fires – early on they were far from where we lived and breathed, in the still-vast northern forests, but then they came closer, filling the skies of our cities apocalyptically with drifting ash and smoke, and finally, audaciously, striking at the sprawling cities themselves, taking thousands of buildings in a single attack.

Our initial casualties were so small – a few tens of thousands a year against all our billions. We published the tiny body counts for each incident, as if nothing else was of consequence. But overall, we took little notice, because we killed ourselves with friendly fire in vastly greater numbers. And against the enemy, we unleashed a holocaust. Total war. We took no prisoners. It was xenocide; we were willing to exterminate not just individuals but whole species to win our freedom. Thousands, then tens of thousands of species began to fall.

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the end of the enlightenment: a fable for our times

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

Literary scholar and critic Walter Benjamin said that for human social progress to occur it was necessary to “dissolve myth into the space of history” but he was wrong. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, myth is back, and badder than ever. It is the ultimate Ghost in the Machine of the Scientific Revolution. And I’m going to suggest that not only will we not rid ourselves of the mythic worldview in any conceivable social formation that might actually be thought of as progress, but that it has been a great mistake even to try.

Benjamin applied a profoundly poetic insight to the critical appreciation of imaginative literature, one of the major narrative traditions that emerged from ancient myth. But he was also a follower of Marx and thus a materialist. As such he was a late product of the European Enlightenment. If any records or scholars to analyze them survive in, say, three hundred years, I believe they will determine that the Enlightenment ended sometime around the turn of the 21st century (and Benjamin’s quixotic life and death under the shadow of European fascism may provide an interesting sidelight to its demise).

The Enlightenment was thoroughly and inevitably Trumped (a term that – for now – has the resonance of a fable) largely by the unintended consequences of the work of three of its final, and greatest, heroes. Perhaps a Ragnarök analogy is not out of place here.

What I’m about to do is present our recent history to you as a mythic fable. Bear with me, and at the end I will tell you why.

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make it new!

When the past is lost, the roots that bound you to the soil of your childhood dug out by your own hand, or withered in a drought of affection and interest and smothered in a surfeit of capital, what else is there for you? They are so far away, in their boardroom fortresses of Higher Education, Solid Investments, lawyers and luncheons and lawns that still glow green and cropped when weeds have long choked the empty lots across the tracks and crept up to surround the strip malls. Their pools still filled with water, as if it weren’t disappearing forever from the other cities Elsewhere, seen from above like eyes of turquoise set in bright green girded by the curving concrete bands of cul-de-sacs. I could never breathe there, and as the decades passed i realized they weren’t anxious to have me back anyway.

Make it new! ordered Ezra Pound, the old fascist.

So i did; with mild and distracted amity i cobbled another family of cast-offs: vivid, self-absorbed, not-quite-artists, aging divas, failed revolutionaries, people who were or would have been big but it was the pictures that got small. We lived together on the edge of nothing, carving a center for ourselves out of sheer talk, minutely attentive to the movers and shakers among us, subjecting them in our endless conversations to intelligent and detailed appraisals which would have meant precisely nothing to them, while we ourselves made nothing move or shake. We recollected heroic pasts, our proximity to history, those times in our youths when we were caught ever so fleetingly in its glaring searchlight and then passed over. Equally brief and inconclusive encounters with the sublime. And then the ongoing gripe with fate; lost jobs, lost loves, lost chances. It all came out around the table, over bottles of cheap wine and yesterday’s bread.

Around us all now (including the movers and shakers, who keep on basking in the world’s gaze even when the real story is clearly elsewhere) everything is burning or washing away; towers rise and fall and rise and will go on rising and rising until they all fall. The ocean creeps toward the dunes. The animals retreat, buffeted by too much hunger, too many deaths, blind suffering. The living world around the once-unbounded globe shrinks to backdrop, playground, or staging area. I have no footing in the unbuilt world, and yet i still feel it falling away. Generations back, i must have belonged to it, just as i must have had a family somewhere in time.

So in the clatter of ecosystems crashing, all i can do is try (and try) to make it new! My little space of breath, molecules moving together before they dissipate at last. My attention to the wild that survives, the birds that still find their way, the people in the shadows of all the great things that will still die. Some little place that thrives, home in its intimate layered depth of existence, not backdrop. The clockwork overhead, that won’t miss a beat if this blue ball goes brown and black. Unless that’s not true

Among the greatest dying in the story of this species, make the smallest, humblest, most contingent new!

This is that: to make nothing but words that vanish almost as soon as they are uttered.

what were the last good days like?

I.

In the morning i drank coffee, black from a blue mug, and stood at the back door in the eastern light. Birdsong peppered the flowering shrubs. There was no sound of cars in the street.

In a beach chair in the yard, at noon, i dozed under the whispering cabbage palm papering the ground with dead leaves, and two sparrows fluttered down to sit at my feet.

In the afternoon i walked to the top of the hill and watched clouds of fog drift in from the sea.

In the evening we ate roast potatoes with spinach and drank from our last bottle of red wine.

At night, with Alice Coltrane on the last jazz station, i lay on the sofa in the lamplight and read my grandmother’s copy of Conrad’s Youth. “Pearlescent prose,” she had written in pencil, in a perfect hand, in the back of the book, 1922.

II.

In the morning i drank coffee, black from a blue mug, and listened to Cal Tjader on the last jazz station.

At noon, i went out to the beach, sat in the dunes, and looked out at the shining sea. They weren’t any ships. Wind-tossed seagulls careened above my head.

In the afternoon, i went to the last café and had an Italian soda, peach. I read the poems of Rilke.

In the evening, i had a long talk with an old friend who was far away. Things were still okay there. They’re okay here too, i said. See you again soon, she said. There was something that sounded like a crash in the distance as she hung up.

We had a salad with bits of fresh orange and walnuts, and finished the last bottle of red wine.

There wasn’t any news.

At night, the moon hung in the window like a gigantic pearl.

III.

In the morning i drank coffee, black from a blue mug, and stood at the back door. Smoke from the fires was blowing the other way; the air was clear and fresh.

In the beach chair at noon, i dozed in the yard till sirens woke me.

In the afternoon, i got the last loaf of bread from the last market. Then it closed.

In the evening, i read old letters from dead family and thought about burning them.

We ate the bread and a rind of good cheese. A few friends came over with a bottle of wine and we sang some old songs.

At night, there were faint stars in the smoky sky. I read a book of Auden’s poems by lantern light …that must have seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky…

The radio went dead at midnight.

 

 

sanctuary

In the garden are eloquent primary and secondary colors now, punctuating the green background like signal to noise, attracting others to instruct us: a hummingbird, a dragonfly, a fat gray spider. Waltzing moths, honey bee, jay. If one day they didn’t come?

It’s the eve of that day.

Once i placed planks over a clump of grass to kill it. I lifted them up days later to find a cluster of dead newts, suffocated by that incomprehensibly total and sudden roof. One was alive; with utterly articulated glacial purpose it moved away over the rough ground now open to it solely, somewhere or nowhere. Pathetic fallacy suggested a tragic reserve, but it was just following the physical imperative of doing all that it could do. Another life visibilized only in aftermath to the dull giant by another earthquake of blindness.

There was so much life once, you could kill and kill and still it flooded back. Like trying to kill the waves of the ocean, they said.

Inside the house are the last bohemians. We have failed at everything: jobs, family, love, art, but we cluster in the shrinking air space of the disrupted old house as the weight of the age presses down. We eat a dinner of scraps on a ragged cloth and laugh warmly or bitterly depending on the words that come to our lips. We assess it all acutely, raucously, but add or subtract nothing, change none of it. We’ll disappear without a trace. Occasionally I descend

to pick mint and strawberries for our table. We drink our wine with tears as the sun leaves the garden in shadow, still breathing.

It’s the eve of that day when the sanctuary falls. Hummingbird, jay whistle or sing, not waiting.

happy 4th

I went out looking for nothing but couldn’t find it.

At one edge of the hilltop park is a sunny cove of grass,

Sheltered, somewhat, from the wind.

I’m sitting there this afternoon, because of the way the sky promenades

Cerulean over that place

Like a solid block of glacier bisected by the roof and walls of the

Old peoples’ home, with its shadowed portals like exhausted eyes.

From time to time,

A great crow settles on the roof corner.

 

People and dogs pass and don’t look up or speak, except to one another.

I look skyward, trying to capture sunlight and turn it into

A brighter sensibility. I fail.

Every so often a bomb goes off in the distance. The war is always louder on this day.

The air is clear, the breeze is cold. Nothing to look forward to now.

I balanced all, brought all to mind…

 

One man passing turns to me with a smile,

Happy 4th, he says, pleasantly, as if I were a friend met by chance, and I

Thank him. Or maybe it was you. I don’t know you, but…

I watch him go and then I leave in the opposite direction. The sound of sirens rises and falls in the invisible streets far below.

Here the streets are empty, lush with bright silence. I surprise a woman coming out of her home. She says:

There usually isn’t anyone walking here!

Far below, the sirens rise and fade away.

The wind rises with them and keeps on rising.

three utopias

The Island

Trying to escape one time from The Most Beautiful City, where we lived like some 21st century equivalent of lotus-eaters, we traveled around until we thought we’d found another place. We drove up a slow straight gravel road from the little seaside town, past open fields and fences and ranks of tall dark firs that all said, “Welcome Home.” The sunlight danced on hedgerows of berry bramble and plots of tassled corn. The sea had the sheen of tarnished silver under a big gray sky swept with darker clouds. On all sides the sea glinted through the trees, two lines of snowcapped peaks towered across the narrow straits, east and west. Our home was an island. We had never been there before.

When we arrived, the people said, “Welcome!” Then we discovered there were many others coming in before and behind us, all following the same road: fields, firs, mountains, water, sky. Yet it was a different road for each. And the place they arrived at was different for each. When they started to speak of it, we looked around: we did not see what they saw, hear what they heard, feel what they felt.

Some began chanting, “Home, my home!” The chant grew louder and louder, till the word was nothing but a moan, a kind of anguish – home was dying in their grasp as they clutched it more tightly, pieces of it crumbling through their fingers – toppling the groves, covering the denuded earth with hardscape. They began to tear what was left out of one another’s hands. The people who had lived there for generations stood quietly looking on, or turned away in despair.

The Cornucopia

Traveling on and away back south in the Northwestern spring, we drove through torrents of rain and slashing winds to find a place to spend the night. Someone told us you could camp for free at the Indian Casino. When we got there, we found it was true: there was a special parking lot where you were allowed to stay in your vehicle overnight, no charge. On the oily cement under the arc lights, with the enormous neon-lit palace looming over us and the air heavy with mist that made its brilliant, pulsing colors soft and dreamlike, we camped.

We went up to the casino to eat. Inside the glazed doors, we were absorbed into a total environment that stormed the senses. Dark caverns filled with noise and three hundred scintillating shrines, each with a single acolyte. A seamless, mazelike Temple of Luck and Pleasure. No defined edges: all the corridors sinuous and circular, leading you back to the omphalos: the slots, the gaming tables, the Keno screens.

There was nothing living visible in there but people. There were some representations of wild animals – along with superheroes, sea monsters, zombies and other totemic beings. Over the bar, there was a fiber optic display that looked like a waterfall.

It was Saturday. It was very crowded. It was hard not to remember Hunter S. Thompson saying that Las Vegas was how the whole country would spend Saturday night, if the Nazis had won the war. The perhaps uniquely post-modern aspect was the atmosphere of Family-Friendly Vice: big tables in the restaurants loaded with kids, who, forbidden from gambling, drinking or smoking, can still eat, play video games, and buy.

The Native owners were not in evidence. White working class people served the drinks, and white working class people bought them. The eyes of each were equally masked with fatigue.

Yet what we had entered was actually another utopia, of personal desire infinitely unleashed. The Cornucopia: The Promise of Something for Everyone.

Outside, the imperfect mountains rose behind, clutching the mist. The shredded wild still clung to them in some distant place, but we could not see or touch it.

The Utopia of Oil

A song from the 1970s is on the car stereo, with extended guitar solos, a melody that appears and disappears in wild, driving riffs, the musicians locked into their instruments, dueling with one another to take the song to a farther, deeper, wilder place, and we are driving south along the California coast now with the blue sea a brilliant promise and it builds and builds as the sunshine explodes till everything is sunshine and we are back in the days when we first heard the song and in our adolescent imaginations roads opened up, endless roads, and we were whirled along them and there was joy in the feel of the wind and the scenery sweeping by like a banner unfurling and the possibility that the journey was endless the moment was endless and the song rises up and up until everything is perfectly balanced, flowing – guitars, hills, road, wheels, wind, sky – and as long as it keeps on rising and building toward some ultimate ecstasy, we can almost forget what we’ve learned in all the downward-drifting decades since: that all roads eventually end or circle back on themselves and our journey had no destination anyway so really we were going nowhere at all.

walking, writing, reading

When I walk, things and their meanings seem to flood my mind simultaneously. Because the meanings are made of sense and emotion and intellect; it’s all of a piece. When I am back in a room, trying to type, I lose so much. I lose thousands of the impressions that fire a billion brain cells on a short walk, and retain a tiny handful, drying up like reeds when you pull them from the stream. Then of the few I retain, I lose either the things or their meanings; I can’t hold on to them both. The things become pictures: empty, flat. The meanings become abstract, word-work, sentences forming an architecture of the non-living entirely in my mind.

James Joyce tried to capture that mottled flow of things, sensations, ideas; even he, all synapses firing with syphilitic genius, couldn’t do it. But he created a simulacrum that has its own life. The purpose of art is to make something alive, said Henry Green, who wrote in Joyce’s shadow.

That’s what our much-lauded creativity comes down to doesn’t it, though? The desire to hold on, to capture, to dominate a temporal reality with our minds and extract its temporality, like choking off a spring of fresh water. To persist, when all of life says you must die, you must not persist, because if you did the world would fill with ghosts and ash.

Only the very best can create something that persists and still flows (Proust’s dream of the roman fleuve), and even that thing only flows because it intersects with our minds, and they re-animate it, re-impose upon it the temporality that is the source of all flow.

Signatures of all things I am here to read, said Stephen Dedalus as he walked on the beach. And yet we are narcissists, as he was. We read things only to look for our own reflection. We write them only to create our own image. What would it be like to disappear, to step aside? What would the literature of humility, the collapse of otherness look like? Would there be one? Or only silence?

the first thanksgiving

This story first appeared in the late lamented LiP Magazine, and appears in Tipping the Sacred Cow: The Best of LiP Magazine.

No, really, it isn’t any trouble at all. I’m thrilled that you’re interested, because I love to tell the story of this place; I feel the story is part of its healing quality, you know, and that is why you’re here, why we’re all here. And it wasn’t always like you see it now—by no means! We had to work at it; we really had to create it from nothing, but we did it because we believed in what we were doing, and you know, when you really believe, the universe makes a way…

I think it helped that we were all, the group of us who started it, of truly like mind. We’d been meeting at conferences for years; we’d been talking and thinking and hearing about all these wonderful ideas for a sustainable life, as things kept getting worse and worse — you know, the wars, the destruction of nature, and the terrible violence in the cities — and we were all thinking the same thing: there’s got to be a better way! We need to stop talking about it and actually start to live it. For the sake of the planet!

So our minds were definitely starting to form a gestalt; we discovered we all agreed on the basic ideas, and finally it was simply a matter of when, not if.

(Of course the other thing it turns out we all had in common, which some of the others who tried to “do” sustainable living around the same time didn’t, was investments. Which we were also savvy enough to liquidate before the Crash—that’s the “creative class” for you, I like to say!)

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