On the Influence of Place on Place

I took a coach bus from Boston to Manchester, New Hampshire. I don’t normally take buses in this country—either I have a car or I ride the train. New England was once my home but is no longer; after only a year, I recognize its beauty as transient; I perceive it as a place existing in contrast to other places: hilly, richly wooded, old. These strangenesses, combined with the impact of ugly fluorescent-on-blue patterned fabric on seats and ceiling, too-cold air conditioning and an uncomfortable narrowness of seats palpably not on an airplane, rendered in me a displacement.

When I glanced up thus detachedly from drowsy study of my lap as the bus wheeled sharply out of a park-and-ride lot in Londonderry, NH, and a low hillside knotted with bleached shrubs spun into view, I found myself for an instant transported to roughly equivalent conveyance pulling out of a dusty motel parking lot on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. In a moment that low stucco wall would appear: the one with the graffiti mural of the feathered serpent. The pickup truck in the next lane would pull away and be replaced with another 30 years older, half its size. The blood in my head would begin to expand from the altitude. And the unconscious potbellied man encroaching on my elbow room in the seat beside me would become, though dressed wildly differently and dreaming in a different tongue, perhaps no less inscrutable.

Manchester is a run-down city, an old mill town. I had considered it an ugly city. Between brown concrete high-rises, gradually, imperceptibly, the empty brickworks refill with boutique manufacturers. Absent windowpanes are replaced with new glass. Massive raised highways, long since displacing streetcars, divide and circumvent.

I disembarked and walked for miles to destinations I’ve visited many times, always by car. Again, the exhaustion, the pack sweaty on my back, enforced a mindset I have previously reserved for foreign lands. Permitted the abundance of time and necessity to traverse the city on foot and at length, I discovered neglected Victorian graveyards, ponds, hillside neighborhoods in need of paint, an overgrown railroad track, bridge abutments enriched with graffiti. Between the Piscataquog and Merrimack rivers I found the city’s old French-Canadian quarter, untouched by urban renewal, the main street lined with pawn shops, barber poles, diners. I visited the library. I sat in empty parks on rusted benches, reading.

The impatience and familiarity of home would have prevented me doing any of this.

All of which is just to say again, I guess, that in order to come home, you have to go away.

Urban Green Man

Urban Green Man is the both the title and intended subject matter of a forthcoming theme anthology from Edge Publishing for which I’ve been invited to submit a story. Considering all this moss that’s been creeping from my armpits and between my toes of late and the details of my living circumstances over the past couple years, you’d think this would be right up my alley, right in my hermitage, so to speak… but for some reason I’m really having a hard time at it.

The below ramblings on nature and the city are the result of an attempt at writing-avoidance aka “brainstorming” in order to figure out what the green man myth could possibly mean in an urban context and in the modern age.


Some variety of blue lobelia, best guess Lobelia kalmii, Franklin Park Wilderness, Roxbury, MA.

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Me and the Thunderbird


Thunderbird, on a 19th-century Cheyenne drumhead, Detroit Institute of Arts.

The co-opting of Native American culture makes me sad. For years I thought a thunderbird was a car driven by greasers and meatheads and Pontiac not a doomed, desperate tragic hero of the Ottawa but a disreputable manufacturer of cars. If it weren’t for the automotive industry, though, would I ever have even heard these names? I guess we owe them for keeping the memory alive, in however twisted a form.

And there are instances of co-opting that make me unashamedly happy. There’s a really nice Mexican lager called Bohemia brewed by cervezeria Motecuzoma Cuauhtemoc in Monterrey which I would never have tried if it weren’t for the portrait of Motecuzoma they use for their logo. I could do without Mel Gibson, but he put native Yucatec Maya speakers in a big-budget film. When I heard Johnny Depp was playing Tonto in an inexplicable remake of The Lone Ranger, I was as annoyed as everybody else until I remembered Dead Man… that long, wordless opening scene, a bespectacled, comically pale-faced young Depp staring out the window of the train at the landscape of the West as the grim faces of passengers shift and fade around him, visions of his own death in the wilderness pass before his eyes, and that brutal Neil Young noise riff gnashes over all. Just thinking about it makes me want to go watch that movie right now….ahh, but I have shit to do. Anyhow–however trumped up Depp’s one-sixteenth Cherokee blood, I give him credit for caring about Native American culture, to the point that I’ll probably see The Lone Ranger.

And so on and so forth, with mixed feelings of reverence and liberal guilt. I am not really supposed to talk about it, being as how I am a white male.

Which brings me to the point of this. I have co-opted Native American culture. Part one of my novella “Death and the Thunderbird”, featuring those lovable, culture-raping centaurs; a locomotive powered by sorcery; and yes, a thunderbird, is live today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #97, opposite the excellent Tina Connolly. I labored long and hard over it and am proud. If you’re a fan of the centaurs, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But I doubt it will win any awards for cultural sensitivity despite my best intentions. By way of beginning to atone for this, I share below a brief bibliography of American culture-rape. As usual, I would almost rather you read the source material than my story. But read the story too, if you have time.

Ok. Must stop myself. Enjoy! Be edified.

Permanently Unlost in the Infinitely Receding Forest

Where I live now, no matter where I stand or how far I walk, it always looks like the woods are just beginning beyond the farthest-away squat little fenced-in company cottage I can see. I can pursue them, but when I get there, they’ve inevitably receded to exactly the same distance as before.

These days the actual forests have barb-wire fences around them and the skulls are decidedly un-mossy, so I dwell in forests of the mind. Justin has recently introduced me to the concept of psychogeography, which I gather basically demarcates any attempt to interpret urban landscape as the product, or the manifestation, of the internal landscapes of its inhabitants. I’m going to bend that a little to fit my own purposes. Or maybe completely ignore it, just fall back on the usual influences—Castaneda, Borges, Freud and Thoreau—under a different auspice.

Outside my office window there is an auto-body shop. It’s ugly. It makes high-pitched metallic noises repetitively. I have undertaken the mental exercise of replacing it with various monolithic elements of natural landscape lifted from my experience: a lichened granite ledge shaped by glacial processes, a kettlehole pond, a field of wildflowers, a hemlock glade, a Yucatan thicket, a colossal zoomorph of the Classic Maya. It works, to a point. There are some landscapes to which that space just won’t lend itself, even in my imagination: the mazelike warrens of thirty-foot boulders populated by owls and deer and Polyporous berkleyii in the woods of Satans Kingdom surrounding the neighborhood where I grew up. Or, you know, any mountainside I’ve ever fallen down.

But it keeps the bats out, if you get me.

Soma

Pardon a short hiatus from the Guatemalan ramblings while I dig myself out from under this pile of work. In the meantime….

The word “soma” came into Sanskrit from some even more ancient Indo-European root tongue. I’ve seen it translated as “flesh of the gods”; it referred to a sacred ritual drink of the Vedic culture in the third millennium B.C. Little is known about it except that it was made from an eponymous and equally unknown plant, but I think it can safely be assumed to have been a psychotic doom hallucinogen of some sort. Occasionally I’ve come across the titillating but unsupported speculation that soma might have been Amanita muscaria. The Olmecs held a certain mushroom sacred too. These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night. Or at least give me interesting dreams.

And sometimes they work their way into my fiction. This month’s Apex Magazine #23, edited by the fabulous Catherynne Valente, features a rather dark story of mine about the beginning of time, “The Eater”, in which soma plays a passing role. Should you care to try it out, there’s a teaser here on the Apex site. Get the whole thing in print through the Apex store or in ebook form from none other than Weightless Books.