Through Woods to See the Wizard

It’s an aspect of the nature of light, because it travels uniformly in every direction from the point of its source, that upon encountering any evenly distributed scattering of objects, it produces the illusion of an enclosing sphere. This is perhaps most familiar in the globe that surrounds headlights seen through a rain-fogged window or a distant streetlamp observed through heavily falling snow.

Early fall reminds me of a slightly different manifestation of this same effect. Overcast light, diffused through deciduous forest canopy, strikes thinning, yellow-green leaves in such a way as to transform trunks and branches into arching pillars and a gold-carpted trail through woodland to a corbeled, green-golden cathedral vault, like the grand passage leading through the Emerald City to the doors of the Wizard’s audience chamber.

Sleeping Bear

Sleeping Bear Dunes

I spent the weekend at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and have returned with the resurgent impression that it would be more fulfilling and about a million times more effective if I laid off writing fiction and computer code and became an angry environmentalist full time. At this moment I literally would rather sit around watching my garden grow than struggle with some story that progresses at an equally glacial pace towards far less bountiful fruition. Nothing I make will be as beautiful as that which no hand hath made. Were all I’ve made to disappear, who would care?

This is not meant to be bleak or mopy. On the contrary. Thank God there is still something other than the internet.

I Took It All for Granted


Months ago I moved to the flatlands. You didn’t hear about it here cause nothing I wrote about it was fit to print.

Recently I took a three-week hiatus back to Western Mass. I walked every day on trails I never knew existed, under (and up) hemlocks and pines I’d never seen, leaped streams and sipped from them without terror of gastrointestinal retribution, looked over cliffs I’ll maybe never look over again. I used to live here. There were days, especially in February, during which every year I’ve been here but this one there’s been two and a half inches of ice covering all the paths and bruises waiting at the base of every hill, when I never left my house. I took it all for granted.

I’ve been reading Thoreau again. I’ve long considered this to be something of a mistake, since pretty much everything he said is what I’ve always already been thinking, with the same flaws, only he said it more eloquently and eruditely 180 years ago. I’m too influenced by him already, and I’ve avoided reading him for years. I loved him in high school to the point that teachers assigned me his last name as a diminutive. I hitched the wagon of my identity to his with no consideration whatever for the consequences, and the failure of a theory of Thoreau to function as a guiding principle for my existence deeply informs my own alienatingly close relationship with hypocrisy, my desperate-to-be-disproven agnosticism and my halfassed hedonism of opportunity. His writing is pretty much talking to hear himself talk, shouting eloquently into the aether to justify his own not-entirely-hypocrisy-free lifestyle choices. What could demonstrate this better than his legacy? Walden tries to sell its readers on the joys of a life of contemplative privation and near-total solitude. Now it costs $5 to park at Walden Pond and its shores are encased in chickenwire and netting to prevent the hundred thousand annual followers in his footsteps from trampling it into lifeless desert. By succeeding so well at making us want to emulate him, he’s made it impossible to do so except in the shallowest fashion.

Still, of late I have found myself in need of him, warts and all: a validation, however guilty, of my way of thinking. I could quote him here at length year in, year out and cease needing to write a blog.

I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for, I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

They who have been traveling long on the steppes of Tartary say, “On re-entering cultivated lands, the agitation, perplexity, and turmoil of civilization oppressed and suffocated us; the air seemed to fail us, and we felt every moment as if about to die of asphyxia.”

I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor firefly has shown me the causeway to it.

Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.

Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature? He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them, transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half smothered between two musty leaves in a library—aye, to bloom and bear fruit there, after their kind, annually, for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding Nature.

I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walking

I should add that, appropriately, I think, Walking is the very first book I’m reading on my new e-ink reader.

Transcendental Gastronomy

What follows are Brillat-Savarin’s rules for achieving the perfect meal. As far as I’m concerned, among the poetry of the rational they ought to be considered on par with The Art of War, Ovid’s Art of Love, and the Phaedo. They open with a solemn invocation to a Muse of Eating invented on the spot, and they close with immortality—but what’s in between is the stuff of everyday, run-of-the-mill happiness.

But the impatient reader may ask, how, in this year of grace 1825, must a meal be contrived in order to combine the conditions which procure the pleasures of the table in the highest degree?

That question I am about to answer. Compose yourselves, readers, and pay attention; Gasterea inspires me, the prettiest of all the Muses; I shall be clearer than an oracle, and my precepts will go down the ages.

Let the number of guests be not more than twelve, so that the talk may be constantly general;

Let them be chosen with different occupations but similar tastes, and with such points of contact that the odious formalities of introduction can be dispensed with;

Let the dining-room be well lighted, the cloth impeccably white, and the atmosphere maintained at a temperature of from sixty to seventy degrees;

Let the men be witty without being too pretentious, and the women charming without being too coquettish;

Let the dishes be few in number, but exquisitely choice, and the wines of the first quality, each in its class;

Let the service of the former proceed from the most substantial to the lightest, and of the latter, from the mildest to the most perfumed;

Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travellers due to reach their destination together;

Let the coffee be piping hot, and the liqueurs chosen by a connoisseur;

Let the drawing-room be large enough to allow a game at cards to be arranged for those who cannot do without, yet still leave space for postprandial conversations;

Let the guests be detained by the charms of the company and sustained by the hope that the evening will not pass without some further pleasure;

Let the tea be not too strong, the toast artistically buttered, and the punch mixed with proper care;

Let retirement begin not earlier than eleven o’clock, but by midnight let everyone be in bed.

Whoever has been present at a meal fulfilling all these conditions may claim to have witnessed his own apotheosis; and for each of them who which is forgotten or ignored, the guests will suffer a proportionate decrease of pleasure.

Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin, Physiologie du goût, ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante

It’s hard not to notice: the man’s got an ego on him. But he’s not wrong, is he? This stuff is gold. Interpret some of these things metaphorically, the way I do, say, that line about giants in the bible, and he could really be talking about my local writing group in Noho the other week, a recent weekend with my gaming pals, a night of blissful exhaustion and bisquick pizza cooked over a propane burner on a trail somewhere under the stars, or a protracted dinner with the Homeless Moon. Some of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Appleseed

This is going to be one of those long, rambly posts that touches everything. So you might as well go get a cup of tea. And maybe not come back. I leave that to you.

My first encounter with the myth of Johnny Appleseed was a big white hardcover picturebook which I swear was called The Joy of Giving, but which I can’t find anywhere on the eeenternets, so maybe I imagined the whole thing. It told the life of Johnny Appleseed in the simplest, most sanguine terms, with cuted-up illustrations and a talking inanimate object sidekick (a shovel, I think). He wore a pot for a hat, dressed in muddy overalls, and hiked barefoot, with a big walking stick and two cloth bags slung over his shoulder: apple seeds and oatmeal. He walked until he was tired, ate supper out of his hat, built an orchard, then started walking again. And now we have apples everywhere, in pies and cider and the American dream.

It doesn’t get simpler than that. And when I turned six or seven and graduated from Mac and Tab Are Friends to that, believe me, I was sold. If I could figure out what the heck that story was actually called it would go on my Jay Ridler Top 100 books lickety split. Along with all the rest of the sappy picture book biographies in that series (each one of which had its own unique variety of inanimate object sidekick).

Sappy and cheeseball though it is, it occurs to me that the talking inanimate sidekick thing–at least as used in that series–is actually a magic realist trope. Everything else about the story dealt in a more or less accurate—albeit syrupy-sweet—manner with the real life of some inspiring historical figure. Madam Curie talked to X-Rays, as I recall, and Louis Pasteur talked to germs. It was awesome. And Will Rogers talked to his lariat. No, really. It’s just taking one element of a story and blowing it up to magical stature via hyperbole in order to grab the fancy of a reader who might otherwise be less than interested. This is why magic realists get accused of pandering and their readers of exoticism. But why the hell else would I have cared what happened to the boring old whitebeard Louis Pasteur if he hadn’t been fighting these big germs that looked like Napoleonic soldiers with bayonets?

It’s apple-picking season. In a couple weeks I will drop off several five-gallon glass carboys at my local orchard to be filled with fresh-pressed, unpasteurized cider. The big Mac tree behind my apartment has been producing apace since August; I’ve been eating at least one a day since then and am now physically invincible. As my affair with the cliff the other day clearly demonstrates. Today, I ate three different varieties of wild apple: a kind of Golden Delicious/Macoun hybrid from the tree outside my work at lunchtime, a hard, mild Spy variety from the edge of a field in Graves Farm Sanctuary at the beginning of my evening hike, and a spicy Macintosh variety from the same field at the end.

Mulling over the last one as I meandered back to the car, I thought of Appleseed. His position in the American myth is unique, closest perhaps to Thoreau (at least among its real, breathing representatives, as opposed say to Longfellow’s Hiawatha) in terms both of pacifism and unabashed love and appreciation for nature. Appleseed has a magnanimity towards the human race that, to my mind at least, the other great naturalists lack. On the the other hand, he is completely un-unique as an unconcerned, if well-intentioned, spreader of colonialism.

Still, I don’t think I can deny being deeply influenced by that spirit–and by Appleseed as a hero–even if there is a bit of hypocrisy involved. Little kids are impressionable, I know. As a six year old I was probably equally enthralled with the story of Helen Keller and her talking water pump or whatever. But not nearly to the degree that her legend can rear up out of a country breeze and hijack my head for a couple of hours.

This is where the dangling spider-threads of my newly adopted fake religion, pseudopagan pantheism, make themselves felt. I am irrevocably a creature of New England. If I ever leave here, I’ll still be that. Which means, because of the legacy of Appleseed and those like him in the oblivious colonialist sense, that as deep as my druidy roots ever reach, they will always have been founded upon a tamed and friendly Nature. I can wander around like an idiot falling off cliffs and getting lost in thickets in the dark without a lot of fear of retribution. No wolves, only the occasional wee black bear to go “aww cute” and scare off, and no place to get lost or horribly crippled where a mere half-mile of excruciating crawling won’t get me to a friendly human dwelling with phones and hot running water. Whenever I meet a serious wilderness enthusiast from west of the Mississippi, I seem to end up getting the same gentle ribbing about being so irrevocably enamored of the nurturing-yet-pansy green hills of my home, even to the point of disregard for real wild things like the Rockies, Yosemite, Olympia. And they’re not wrong. But I can’t help it.

I can’t stand new development. I get very angry when trees get cut down and old farmland gets paved to make way for giant box stores I will never enter and couldn’t even dent with a shoulder-fired missile. And yet at the same time I feel, a bit guiltily, that I owe a lot to Johnny Appleseed. He (or his myth) made what remains of the Western Massachusetts wilderness into the Eden that it is, where I can wander around ignoring trail signs and topography, picking apples and taking meticulous photographs of mushrooms with no regard for life or limb. I could probably live for weeks in the woods this time of year just on apples. Presuming I didn’t get gunned down by hunters. Without him, or the spirit of agricultural imperialism he exemplified, that wouldn’t be possible. My whole philosophy of existence pretty much wouldn’t be possible.

If only I were Erin Hoffman, I could distill all this verbosity down into a heartwrenching 20-line poem that cuts to the quick, sell it, and maybe put it out of my head.

Instead I’ll spend the next year or so mulling over the tragic extinction of the American tall tale, how the sterilization of popular culture into malls and box stores and wax-coated, nasty, gas-chamber megamart apples has utterly exterminated any earnest belief in the old kinds of myths, and the only way to resurrect them is in clinical laboratory examinations such as this. And maybe, If I’m really lucky, six months after that, I’ll have written a story that touches on these sad notions briefly in passing and ultimately fails to do them justice.