Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A touch of bark

I am not blind. But if I were I would feel around, the way I look around. I would feel the bark of trees, the down of grass, the cold of pavement, the roughness of a bench. The blue feel of metal would still my hands. The wet of cold. The cling of raindrop on finger. Dampened, my fingers would find the lost feathers of a chickadee, just as they now find lint in every pocket. I would wince when the edge of a metal roof, or worse, a sharp sheet of paper cut the meat of my palm. I can see a chickadee on a bush outside my window right now, but blind I would feel the quiver of the branch as the bird took flight. Then I would bend over and rummage in the leafy duff at the base of bush, in the fallen leaves, in the humus, wet, not slimy but gritty, almost like sand. I would feel the cold oyster breath of air on my face, a growing dampness in clothes, sprinkle of droplets from trees on my hair. Soon, a drop of cold wetness, gift of chilly air, on the tip of my nose. I would follow my own footprints as they padded from pavement to lawn to garden to forest. Twisted path. Uneven surface of rocks. Then I would bend and take up one rock into my hands, a big one, weight of an infant, and toss it up a little, an inch or so, and catch it, the weight of reality settling into my certain hands with rough coldness and just the hint of a giggle. If I were blind I would notice. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

We stopped at the farmer’s market on the way home from a hike at Bent Creek and bought a freshly cut Christmas tree. The young fellow at the stand said his family owned a tree farm in Jackson County. He said the tree we chose had been cut that morning. He had a cheek full of tobacco. I never saw him spit.

He said his family had raised and sold Christmas trees since his grandfather started the business in his own youth. Now, he said, they were thinking of shifting to cattle. “There’s something beautiful about cows in a pasture,” he said. I'd have thought the same about a hillside of trees.

He and his father, who were working the stand together, were friendly in a way that seems rare these days. They threw in some berry-laden boughs of holly, no extra charge.

These days, people all over are cutting down fir trees, standing them in a corners of their living rooms, and decorating them with lights and tinsel.

The tree is obviously symbolic. I cannot think of a practical function, except that a fresh one perfumes a stale house.

It is, of course, a Christmas tradition, though not especially Christian. A crèche would be a more proximal image. Over the centuries, however, the tree has become a focus of attention at this time of year, a stand on which to drape lights, a place under which to display gifts, a spectacle to gaze upon and sing around and enjoy, if only for a few weeks. And then to discard.

I am aware of its European history, the notion that an evergreen in winter represents eternal life. A reminder, of sorts. Just as night seems to be winning its ordeal with day, a sign of light and life. But it’s not just a winter solstice tradition. I’m told the Romans hung fir trees in their halls, too. Isn't it a curious practice to chop down and kill the symbol of ongoing life?

The fact a fir tree is green even in darkest winter is no doubt significant. But more is involved than the greenery.

The tree is, I think, a bit of usually-excluded wilderness that is brought indoors as a metonymy of nature. It is an example of something. A token. At this time of year, when the house is meant to exclude the outside, keep the cold at bay, we bring a representative of what is banished, perhaps as a reminder.

We do the same with mistletoe.

Winter widens the opposition between inside and outside, so bringing the tree indoors strikes a middle way, resolves if only temporarily the real tension between the two locations.

Whence the tension? As much as we must keep the cold away, we must also do business with what is out there in the cold. We cannot after all exclude the outside altogether and live.

Yes, the tree is a symbol of life. But the tree does not so much represent itself – or the forest – as the life-sustaining exchange, or transgression, the interpenetration of outside and inside.

The act of bringing the tree indoors is the significant gesture. Not the tree. The act. That it stands there the corner in splendorous regalia is simply a reminder of that act.

Consider that the tree is not the only item from outside that is, at least in the United States and much of Europe, brought indoors.

The evening after decorating the tree was a cold one, so we built a fire in the fireplace. We sought to take the chill off. We have a functioning furnace. Indeed, truth be told, the chimney sucks more heat from the house than it imparts. The fire, like the tree, is decorative, an image of warmth more than warmth itself. It is symbolic.

Symbolic of what? “Nature” doesn’t quite get it. I suppose the fire is symbolic of a natural force, an element of nature that, safely placed within the hearth, is harnessed, domesticated.

It is our fire.

A fire, like the tree, is symbolic of the season, if not the holiday itself. The standard image on cards and in Coca-Cola advertisements and such includes not only a tree but also a crackling fireplace. With stockings.

Santa Claus after all extrudes himself into the house through the chimney. The fire place is doubly significant.

And the symbols, fire and tree, are antithetical to each other. One derives from a log, and this from a tree cut up to be consumed by the fire. The other, decked with tinsel, suggesting icicles, the cold forest outside, represents the very conditions against which the fire is kindled.

Something more complicated than the Christmas holiday is going on, even more than northern longings for warmth and light and springtime inspired by winter solstice.

The tree and fire are two examples of an array of elements from outside that people, at least in our society, routinely bring inside: house plants, for one, examples of forest, jungle, and bog. Dogs and cats, tropical fish, and gerbils. Paintings and photographs of landscapes, mountains, and seas.

Consider the taxidermied heads of trophy animals: moose, elk, antelope, and bear. Not everyone has one of these above the mantel but we recognize such as the sort of thing people do, the way they bring reminders of the outside into the living space.

An argument could be made that our national parks and forests (Bent Creek, where we hiked the other day, is in Pisgah National Forest) serve the same function as our Christmas trees and trophy heads: the inclusion (and enclosure) of wilderness within an otherwise civilized state.

It occurs to me that a road sign with a caricature of a fir tree and a fire would be as good a sign as any of a camp site, an example of our inserting ourselves into the wilderness. Camping is clearly the other side of the coin I’m describing, a related transgression of the domestic wall.

In the Euro-American house we might also note an aesthetic that is not universal but is nonetheless traditional as fires and trees: leather furniture, wool carpets, textured drapes, wooden floors and tables – all suggesting rough elements of out-of-doors now harnessed, preserved, domesticated, and brought inside.

Of course they are all domesticated or dead. But they are images of wildness – defined in a sense as anything beyond the doorway. They represent life on our planet that is dangerous to us when undomesticated but, once managed, is the necessary means of life. Perhaps that is the tension I spoke of above: the necessary relation between that which would kill us but also keep us alive.

These fixtures serve functions, yes. We sit on a couch. We pull the drapes. But they also signify. They remind us of our dependence on the life outside.

Perhaps there are several meanings: life, danger, wilderness. But also, it seems, and I am thinking here prototypically of the moose head and bear rug, they represent the successful subjugation of the wild. These symbols are reassuring at some primal level: they signal the possibility of a successful encounter with the dangerous but necessary wild.

Here is further indication that it is not the element, the object, that matters but the act: bringing the outdoor object inside – whether tree or fire or bear’s roaring mouth at the end of a rug – is sufficient sign that the wild has been vanquished. If only for a moment.

Tree and fire and wild animals are symbols that cut two ways: they represent danger and usefulness. The forest where we cut the tree is a source of wood to build shelter. The fire warms us against winter chill. But forest is also frightening, dark, and uncertain. The fire could destroy the house it warms. The fireplace is a space in which to “play with fire without being burnt” (as Clifford Geertz described the Balinese cockfight).

Such symbols are positive images only so long as they suggest control over the elements: the tree, felled and cornered; the fire, safely contained. Even a painting of a stormy sea is placed within a gilded frame, and in that way is tamed and reassuring.

In a way control itself (the act of bringing the tree in, or killing the trophy, or framing the dangerous image) becomes the significant image of life, of something sustainable, protected.

Yet even here the symbol (harnessed danger?) cuts two ways: too much control and safety is an image of death, loss of vitality. The house, walled off entirely from outside, might as well be a coffin sealed and buried.

The thing we forget, but our symbols remind us of, is life requires exchange. We want safety, insulation from the dangerous elements of life, but we also need those elements, require them to keep living. Life requires contact with the world, the wild, the dangerous otherness beyond the door.

In this Buddhists have got it right. Once inspected, there is no abiding difference between self and other, inside and out, for each is predicated on the other, requires the transaction. Shunryu Suzuki described our breathing as a swinging door in space, a door without surrounding wall. We breathe in and the door swings one way, we breathe out and the door swings another. But there is just space, no inside or outside.

We cannot easily fathom this lack of distinction. There must be a me, separate from all else, otherwise there would be no me. The reasoning is circular, but in the West apparently it is persuasive. It is one of the basic certainties: I think therefore I am. There is I, therefore there is not-I, and so on.

Here again an idea that cuts two ways but suggests the two are linked: there is I and Not I, life and death.

What do we do with these elements that cut both ways? We make symbols of them. We offer temporary compromises. We dwell in the threshold, a symbol itself that expresses both inside and outside.

We build walls around ourselves and then invite fires, pets, trees and such inside. These images suggest control over what lies beyond the doorway but also dependence on what lies beyond. These are images of safety and danger.

We asked the fellow who sold us the tree what they did with the spare boughs that they trimmed from the trees. There was a great pile of them on the ground.

“We take them home and burn them,” he said.

“Will they burn when they’re green like that?” I wondered.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “They burn right well.”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Presence of absence

One salient experience I have with place is walking my dog.

We have several routes, variations on each other. We typically leave the house and turn right, or north, along Pearson Drive. On occasion, when we’re feeling radical, we turn left.

These walks, over days, weeks, months, and years, have introduced me to the wider neighborhood. Each walk is at least a mile, several are two or three.

We know the dogs. Rita knows them by their odors. She stops and sniffs at predictable trees, bushes, fire hydrants, and walls.

We both know the dog owners, if not by name, at least by face. We know which ones have treats, which are friendly, which cross the street to avoid us.

We know the fortunes of households, which have grown shabbier than before, which have gotten overhauls.

There is a new garden on Panola. The chickens were loose on Cumberland. I know several back yards with bee hives.

A pair of Cooper’s hawks patrols the northern corner by the urban forest along Broadway.

There are service berries along the green way. In spring we stop and gorge. They’re a bit like blueberries but watery, not so sweet.

I know the sites of homeless camps in forgotten woods. I know the benches where the drunks sleep it off.

The neighborhood is rich. Here and there are pockets of poverty. One old man I know used to ask me for spare change with which to buy booze until I convinced him that I hardly ever carry money. Now he just shakes his head and laughs with me when we pass. Once I found a five dollar bill on the sidewalk and gave that to him. It was good day for both of us.

I’ve known trees, some large and admirable, like senators. They’ve watched the fortunes of the neighborhood rise and fall and rise again.

Being projective and empathic, I like to imagine what those trees have witnessed, what they feel. Over time, I come to know them (though it is more myself than them I learn, which be true of all we know of others, but that is another story).

So when one of the old trees falls, or is felled, I mourn its passing.

One that stood on Zillicoa across from the big yellow mansion and above what the neighbors call “green cove,” was a wide oak.

The ground around it was otherwise clear, and must have been for a century or more, for the tree spread out as far or farther than it rose, and it rose pretty high. I always felt embraced by that tree.

It occupied a great deal of space. One of its lower branches reached out across the grassy slope that fell away beside the tree. I used to jump up and swing on that branch.

I remember how it eventually seemed dead, for it lost its leaves, and I wondered whether it would hold me. And then, after a year or so, I quit swinging for fear its arm would crack and drop me to the ground. I don’t think my swinging killed it. I think I gave the tree company.

But I am not an arborist. The tree came to be my friend.

Then one day after we'd returned from a trip, Rita and I went for a walk, and coming up the hill through green cove, we found the tree had been flattened to a stump.

I don’t know what happened. Perhaps it was dead and decayed and the owners put it down like an old dog. Perhaps it fell in a storm and they cleared the corpse away.

Two years later the tree remains big even in its absence. Each time I come out of the grove of walnuts at the bottom of green cove I look up to see the tree and see its absence instead.

That’s what I see: absence. Curious thing. One can see the lack, an emptiness where once was substance. It is the ghost of the tree.

A place doesn’t need to have a presence to be present: the missing oak is there in mind and memory. And it is gone in my mind and memory. The space it occupied, a great big cloud of extended green branches in summer, gnarly arms in winter, remains, glowing.

Places have unnoticed dimensions that are part of their presence even if we are unaware of them.

Perhaps only a few dog walkers and tree lovers have noticed the absence of the oak. There are all sorts of aspects of familiar places we overlook.

Yesterday, blessed with a new pair of binoculars, I walked Rita and looked for birds. They were singing in the tree tops, nearly impossible to see for the leaves. I wondered if I would even see one of the warblers that I knew from their singing were up there.

Imagine my pleasure then to discover, unseen like the taken-for-granted roof inside a circus tent, the wind-born bustle of the tree tops.

We live a sort of short-hand experience, catching outlines, broad brush strokes, missing specific details: Not just perfume but lilac or an English rose. Not just a bird but a towhee with white flash amid black and orangish brown. Not just a shrub but the euonymus and abelia.

And then there are other dimensions. I confess I overlook much of what sits below four feet and above eight. Beyond that in either direction, not so much. And yet when I do notice, much is there.

Like the blowing tree tops, dancing beyond notice.

This makes me wonder about the space of wind itself: how the landscape is made up of wind as much as anything else, but how heavy things like us hardly notice it.

Surely wind has shape. The birds and insects must notice and attend to it. They know the flow of wind, its currents and eddies, the still pockets behind obstructions – such as the old oak, the house, the pine. The free runnels of air in open fields. These are as much a part of a place as its horizon, a crossroad, and yonder hillside, but they are for the most part outside our consciousness.

I did not see even one singing warbler yesterday. I did see a couple of marvelous blue birds. And I saw the wind in the leaves.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Conversations are inherently unstable. Even old-fashioned correspondences via the post office. John writes Mark a letter. John has given Mark a gift. Mark now owes John a letter. Being a decent fellow, Mark writes and posts a return letter.

Now they’re even, don’t you think? Each has given the other something. The slate is clear.

But wait. Mark has asked a question. "How are you?" Or he has indicated an interest in John’s work or hobby or family.

So while the material exchange is even – each has sent and received a letter – there is now an outstanding query. Mark, anyway, feels the expectation of a response from John. He awaits it.

If John is attentive (and wants to continue the relationship), he understands the expectation, feels the tug of its obligation.

In this way, the exchange is unstable, demanding another volley, another note. The same is true, it seems, of ordinary conversations, phone calls, emails, or texts.

Hence, the salutation, “Later,” as in “We’ll pick this up again later.”

The fact of instability could be discouraging.

On the other hand, it also keeps relationships going. Just think of what would happen if John and Mark were ever even, fully square. They’d feel no need again to write, to talk, to visit.

I wonder whether this perpetual incompleteness of exchange has anything to do with the Freudian separation-attachment problem.

We all begin life attached to our mothers; indeed, in the beginning we are our mothers.

But to be the persons we are we must have separated from her, not only left her body but left her sphere, grown up, matured, fledged.

Then again, as separate beings we must retain some attachment to others, some connections. But the connections cannot be complete. For if they were, we’d lose ourselves, we’d dissolve into the other. We’d cease to be.

In this way, the separation-attachment problem, like the perpetual incompleteness of exchange, propels human experience, gets us out of bed in the morning, moves us out the door into the day.

And it gets us to return to home at the end of it.

We are thus caught in a negative-feedback system, constantly oscillating somewhere between the poles. And isn't that like the exchange between John and Mark? The two flirt with resolution but never achieve it. Perfect resolution would end the relationship. If there is a relationship, it must go on.

Completing a cycle of exchange is a sort of separation: if it is even, we are done. But like an actual separation from our caregiving mothers, such a break produces anxiety. That moves us to return. So we add a message, offer another gesture, keep the connection alive.

Each message is a return to attachment, each answer a bid for separation.

And each sortie is both. John sends a note in the interests of connecting but also of liberating himself from the obligation, which amounts to attachment. He responds to Mark for the same reason. Each missive is an effort to connect and distance at the same time.

In inventing our own humanity – by which I mean the requirement as a species of cultural information to complete us, the necessity of prolonged childhood, the need for others in our lives even as we need to be independent of them – humans have crafted a sort of paradox, built into our sociality a basic contradiction.

The tendency in rational thought is to regard contradiction as a problem, a flaw. In this case, however, the flaw is perfection itself, at least in terms of our humanity, for it enables our being.

How else would we do the on-going work of culture? How else would we continually enter into the necessary exchanges that complete us as human beings, even as they perpetually create our sense of being incomplete, of needing always to send yet one more message?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wild within

Today is my late brother Scot’s birthday, and as I usually do on this day I went for a long walk.

In past years I’ve taken these walks in remote wilderness areas. But unavoidable commitments made that impossible this year, so I went instead to the Biltmore Estate, which is closer and has several long trails that, if not through wild places, at least give the illusion.

As I drove onto the estate, I thought Scot would have rolled his eyes. He’d have thought a walk there overly tame. Scot sought out wild places in life, which is the reason I usually do for walks in his honor.

The schism between where I walked today and where I think Scot would have liked me to walk got me thinking about the divide, imaginary or otherwise, between wild and tame, outside and inside, natural and domestic.

It is more difficult to define these differences than I thought.

The Biltmore Estate was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead, who laid out Central Park in New York City and other famous and highly cultivated places. He had a knack for making a managed parkland seem like a wilderness, at least after a hundred years of growth and grooming.

The long approach road made me feel like I was driving through a wilderness: huge trees, streams, waterfalls, stone outcroppings, ferns, bracken. The road twisted back and forth like a mountain trail.

I noticed however that the forest beside the road displayed not just itself, for I could see and enjoy it plainly, but was also trimmed and tended so that it revealed the forest twenty and more yards beyond.

The near forest was in fact a parkland, there not just for itself but also to suggest the forest beyond. It was open, cleared of understory. Beautiful itself, it nevertheless revealed the darker more natural forest beyond.

In this way the Olmstead forest was both itself and something else, a park and a forest, a collection of carefully placed trees and shrubs designed to suggest a virgin wildnerness, but also a window, a shaded framework there to show off the darker, gloomier, seemingly more dangerous and distant landscape.

Thus, at once, these woods revealed but also distanced.

I suppose the Olmstead forest is a buffer, a sort of liminal space, neither entirely domestic, for the trees and ferns do suggest wild nature, nor entirely wild, for they are so obviously cleared and managed.

The staged forest reminds me of a museum diorama, the elements of which are carefully positioned to suggest natural profusion without hiding anything.

In some ways, the juxtaposition between park and forest at the Biltmore replicates within the estate the relation between the estate - an elaborate artifice made to seem like nature - and the great Pisgah National Forest just beyond the estate’s boundaries.

Indeed, it is in Middle Prong and Shining Rock Wilderness areas within the Pisgah Forest where I have usually gone to walk on Scot’s birthday.

The relation between park and forest at Biltmore got me thinking on my walk about our family’s interest in wilderness in the first place. It began for us children on walks led by our parents through farm forests and meadows. These were Sunday afternoon affairs along dirt roads and well-beaten paths, across dairy fences and pasture brooks.

Thinking back, those walks were through an agrarian nature, hardly wild. And yet to us kids, they were wildness itself. I remember imagining us as Indians and Explorers trekking through remote territories, hunting bison and white-tailed deer, wary of ambush at every step.

So the farm fields of youth, like the manicured forests beside the Biltmore approach road, opened us up to wild places, planted an interest in remote nature even as it was more a wood lot beside the pasture the other side of a hill from the barn.

The farm forest was wilderness to two young boys, and wilderness itself became an idyll for the grown boys. And now that wilderness, for me, was replaced for a day by the Biltmore woods, for they reminded me of remoter places, at least for the little while as I walked and remembered my brother.

The domestic forest was transposed into the wild forest, then transposed today into a domestic forest. Today’s walk wasn’t so wild. Parts of it were within ear shot of the interstate. Parts were within sight of the Biltmore mansion, a castle of grace and overindulgence. Other parts, however, took me past trees three- and four-feet in diameter, tall and dark and carpeted below with thick moss and lush bracken.

Here and there I emerged into a meadow buzzing with the playing-card-in-the-spokes sound of grasshoppers and dragon flies.

The estate evoked the wild, at least for a couple of hours, much the way the farms of my youth evoked the American frontier. I thought at several moments along the way that they were not so neatly divided from one another: each participates in the other. Even Middle Prong Wilderness is a wilderness by definition, by some national decree, and in that way it too is domesticated.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Folklorist: Space Not Place

On some mornings, the dog and I walk to feel ourselves move.

Well, I don’t know about the dog. I suspect it’s true for her. Sometimes she just walks. Doesn’t bother to sniff.

When I walk to walk, as I did this morning, I allow myself to enroll in the pace of the march, to go forward, and in that way to become entranced by the rhythm of walking, like one of those dancers on the desert. He sang until he lost his mind, or found it.

I suppose sometimes I walk to lose my mind. Or find it.

That’s crazy talk, I know. But walking through space, along streets and lanes, country paths, without aim or destination, is a way of relating to place by annihilating place.

It’s Zen. The place of no-place. Walking for movement, for being.

Movement in space without sense of place. Presumably I’m passing through places. But places themselves require attention, demarcation, here not there. Movement without this sort of attention is different.

A teacher once told me that “awareness” was not the same as “perception.”

That lesson confused me. I’d thought the two words synonyms. I thought that I was cultivating awareness, awakeness, by paying attention to my perceptions: what the eyes saw, the ears heard, the nose detected, the soles of my feet felt.

I thought that these perceptions pulled me into the present. But they also managed to draw me into place and away from space.

I’ve pondered what the teacher said for years. I’m still unsure. But I’ve come to think awareness when sitting is analogous to the trance "awareness" I experience during certain forms of walking.

Space itself becomes the focus rather than the places along the way.

“Place,” like “perception,” involves separation, a pulling something apart from the whole, distinguishing this from that.

Zen on the other hand seems to invite simple awareness of undivided being.

Every perception, every place, involves foregrounding and thus backgrounding. These are conceptual activities, a sort of analysis, requiring cognitive steps, priorities, temporal desires, laser focus.

Sitting, or walking oneself into a trance, involves something more global, awareness of all these things at once without preference, without picking and choosing.

These anyway were the musings of an old man on his return with the dog to the coffee pot this morning.