Still Life

Les Bergers d’Arcadie by Nicolas Poussin

“…Geologists will sometimes use the calendar year as a unit to represent the time scale, and in such terms the Precambrian runs from New Year’s Day until well after Halloween.  Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas.  The last ice sheet melts on December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the Roman Empire lasts five seconds.  With your arms spread wide again to represent all the time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life.  The Cambrian begins in the wrist, and the Permian Extinction is at the outer end of the palm.  All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history.” – John McPhee, Annals of the Former World

“…And everything is pouring in.  The switching moves of boxcars in that little alley which is so much like the alleys of Lowell and I hear far-off in the sense of coming night that engine calling our mountains…” – Jack Kerouac, October in the Railroad Earth

White man ghosts on the highway tonight.  White ghosts on the highway tonight.  I’m driving south from Portland; Hopalong Bilagáana rides again.  I’m reminded of the train into Gallup, the rolling crests of the red rocks silhouetted dark against the moon’s sky, and the drivers swerving wildly all down Route 40, half a century and one Friday night from home.  I remember the student at UNM who walked in after class to tell me that his grandmother died and that’s why the papers were late and he was going to drop out and join the army because what else can you do, when the whole world just up and shuts down all around you?  I wanted to hang on to that kid until all five-hundred years of tears had left him, then, in the fluorescent lights, and say, “listen: every atom in our bodies used to be part of a river bed, or a star, or a dinosaur, or a trout or something, and not too long from now they’re all going to be something else again, and we’ll still be us, too.  And: there are fifteen billion stars in the sky, and when you look up you’re not really looking up, you’re looking out.  And: kid, we’re all gonna die sooner or later, but since when has that ever stopped anyone being always excellent?”  And I wanted to tell him the story about the man who recorded the songs of hummingbirds and the songs of whales, and when he slowed down the hummingbird songs and sped up the whales’ songs he found them to be the same.  I wanted to say, “listen, kid, don’t join the army, they’re just going to mess you up even worse than you think you are and dump you on your ass in Wingate with a Bible and a pension and a methamphetamine addiction and one more generation of nonsense for your grandkids to unravel.  I know it’s harder than anyone should have it, kid, but there’s no running away from it, this life stuff.”  But I kept it professional- “friendly but not friends” nor mentors, nor uncles, nor neighbors, nor humans- and I let him stumble headlong into the teeth of the Christians’ twenty-first century.  Thousands of miles away, Gallup is still happening.  The skein of memory unwinds, cords of brilliant fabric catching in the wind.

Hold an oak leaf up to the light.  See the branching pattern of the veins and think how each carries the cocktail of enzymes, hormones, nutrients, and water to the flesh of the tree.  From the thick central rib, each vein branches and bifurcates into ever more delicate capillaries.  Every cell is connected, each to each, the electromagnetic force (if you want to call it that) hooking atom to atom as water molecules climb their ladders against gravity to rise from bedrock aquifers into the eyesight of the sun.  Look at the shape of a tree, roots to trunk to summer’s growth.  As above, so below; Alistair Crowley’s rule of thumb for magicians suits orchard-keepers just as well.  Look at an aerial view of a parking lot or an interstate highway.  Look at a coastline, and follow the shapes of inlets and bays to rivers, the rivers to streams, the streams to puddles, to rivulets, to raindrops.

Imagine a computer the size of the Chesapeake Bay, powered entirely by fish.  Every minnow and pike ordered to fit, the careening terabytes of silvery information conveyed lateral line to lateral line, tooth to frantic belly.

Where does memory live?  The shape of a watershed tells the story of every raindrop that ever fell on the place, every downpour and mudslide and shower of pebbles down a canyon wall.  Every agent of erosion, every juniper root and packrat trail, is noted and recorded in imperishable script to be read by those who speak the language of water.  The continent is a turtle’s shell, worn and weathered by the world since the first grandmother descended to the sea on a boat made of swans.  The earth remembers the first handful of mud brought up from the primordial deeps, slathered on the turtle’s back and planted with seeds fallen from heaven.  Every crease and furrow, hillock and ridge tells the story of its ongoing creation by wind and rain and tectonic pyroclastics.  Where does the mountain end and the valley begin?  The geography slides into itself, as the barnacles of so many painstakingly demarcated intertidal zones intermingle inconveniently with all the wrong algae, so the story of the land is told continuously.  The story is told by the movements of life within the landscape, from the percolation dances of raindrops to the leaf-bitten markers of secret caterpillar highways.  The crenellated dome of the continent holds all our stories, and it’s turtles, my dear professor, turtles all the way down.  The Dreaming is not some quaint Aboriginal fiction, but a useful tool for the successful navigation of a much greater mind than our own.

I wake up in the morning chilly, the electricity gone off in the night.  I pull myself from five years old and peering into a pond wriggling with tadpoles to the present moment: the ghost of my breath, hoarfrost on the oaks outside, the dog to be fed.  Memories of who I’ve been are woven into my clothing, and as I dress (pretty-lucky-but-not-the-luckiest boxers, socks with the hole in the left toe from when I sat too close to the fire but not nearly close enough to that girl that time, working pants, working sweatshirt stained with blue paint from the long night in the sculpture gallery trying to get the tongue on the big mask just the right color for final critiques) I remember me into the day.  It shocks me, realizing that every single article of clothing owned by anyone all over the world, since the first necklace or earring, holds a story, and behind that story a memory, and behind that memory real-life people, that anyone could willfully harm another.  We are all so much alike.  It’s a sappy sentiment, I’ll admit, but in that light the burning of someone else’s holy icon or the enforced uniform of a boot camp inmate rises as a deep horror- like a man deliberately cutting off his own fingers.  There’s a fog on the valley that hides the sun this morning, like the fog on the Oregon coast when I camped by the airstrip in the woods and the coyotes talked like a crying woman all night.  In the morning, walking down the raw dirt tarmac to the shore, a deer walked carefully out of the treeline, and walked carefully beside me, and walked carefully into the mist again at the water’s edge.  I bet she still tells that story too.

“The Moken are born, live, and die on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea,” according to Frenchman Jacques Ivanoff, who spent many years living with the pelagic people of the Andaman Sea.  “Time is not the same concept as we have. You can’t say for instance, ‘When.’ It doesn’t exist in Moken language.”  It’s not quite a matter of lacking the concept for past and future- after all, the Moken managed to endure the 2004 tsunami with far fewer casualties than most other cultural groups in the region- as having a much broader sense of the present moment.  We in the Westernized parts of the world speak of time in three parts, and because we speak of it this way, we think of it so:  Time is a river, from the headwaters of the past through the instantaneous riffle of the present moment, to the unseen future just behind the next bend.  Perhaps this sliced dimension we call time operates according to grammatical convention, where every effect is precisely preceded by a cause, nouns neatly engendering verbs across the textbook of the world, but I would hazard that it often behaves less predictably.  Time, as the Moken ‘see’ it, is an ocean stretching out to all horizons.  There are currents and eddies, places where time is shallower or deeper, and through it we all- humans, prawns, galaxies, bathrobes, cherry blossoms- swim.  Understand: to a people who spend their lives surrounded by the sea, whose eyes function more acutely underwater than in air, the metaphor of an ocean is three dimensional.  The sea is memory, dredged from the depths or skimmed off the surface, in which live ancestors and descendants and ourselves.  Sometimes for one of our own riparian people the river of a life widens a little, slows around a lazy oxbow, and we too unwrap and submerge.

The river of memory carries me along, the conduit of I-5 carries me along, the arc of the Willamette Valley carries me along.  Droplets on the windshield refract the light from passing cars, each carrying a someone to a somewhere.  The dream catches, and I remember butterflies and hornets in a Maryland orchard, and the sweet wine scent of fallen fruit.  Three women are picking apples, their brightly-patterned saris rolling in the wind.  Et in Arcadia ego…

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One Response to “Still Life”

  1. Interesting synergy here, Ben. Have driven down to Charlottesville to pick up a painting by our friend, Laura, and the title is Arcadia. Glad to see you writing again.

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