Who Will Speak For The Trees

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The forests of my youth are away and gone and with each passing year they grow ever more into memory, that box of forgetting and painterly colours that cannot be trusted. The deep dark woods of story time. The trees of autumn when the old German men still raked leafs into piles they then burned. The ones we climbed. Up higher than before every day.  The one I tried to sleep in after reading Treasure Island and pretended I was in the limbs of a palm off on some island far away.  The ones we didn’t climb since we were just at the juncture in time when the generation of parents didn’t let children climb trees were replacing those who encouraged tree climbing. The trees in the tree pits on the sidewalk. The one tree in the back yard father was always saying he had to cut down when he drank too much scotch. So many trees it is hard to remember them, their condition, the moment they sprout, the time they die.

The first tree I can remember was the one that crashed down almost hitting the house. This was back in 1977 or 1978. I was a kid. Perhaps my sisters were in the car then, maybe not. We were driving back from my grandmother’s house Upstate. The hurricane came in as we were on the thruway. The wind blew and I was in the back seat of the station wagon, the long cold plastic bench seat. Back when they only named hurricanes and not just every cold front, back when women carried the names of storms since people back then understood the power of women but expressed it in the strangest of ways. I remember wondering if we would be blown off the road. The lightening flashed and I could see everything inside the car. Laying down, there was nothing I could do. I remember lightning of all colours. Perhaps I didn’t see lightning of all colours. It was a long time ago to remember.

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Coming home to suburbia and there our house sitter was half frightened to death (this was years before she died of Cancer in Paris). The willow tree came down. Smashed everything in its path. My mother was happy this huge tree missed the house. She hated that tree. She had planted it with her mother when she was a child. She hated her mother, still.  This was a memorable tree.  The stump would remain for years as a reminder of that night of chaos.

In time we moved and we left behind a house in the suburb with several trees and traded it for a property with blistering hot sun pounding what I can only describe as a junky and fallow field. We planted trees. And over the years those grew. And then, in the passing decades, we would lose a few. A new blight from Asia. From some foreign land or another. A new bug would come and eat a certain species. The thick forests I used to play in as a child and wandered or hiked through as a teen grew sparse here and there. A blight took away the American Chestnuts. The Elms were long gone. But then the Ash took a hit and vanished in a season or two. Dead fingers stuck up in the air not only about us, but wherever we traveled. A line of these dead trees marked a fence on a farm. It is strange the things that stick out and become memorable and those other features of the landscape that fade into oblivion.

Last season it was another species. I don’t even know which one. But these were not just the smaller trees this time, but the large hulking markers on people’s property lines, those survivors of logging in the forests, the yard trees too filled with nails and the clasps of clothes lines to be useful for the mill or chopped to splinters to be fed into a wintertide’s stove. One at a time, the bark on each tree turned a strange shade and the tree unravelled in a season or two as the bugs or fungus or mold or bats or whatever ate the tree dead.

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Between the plagues are the storms. The long periods of rain. The stretches of dry hot winds. The strange spring where the air was bone dry rather than cold and damp as had been the usual.  The new instincts.  The new fungi.  It just doesn’t seem like what I remember as the Natural Order.

Perhaps I just remember things differently. Perhaps the forests were not as thick or green as my memories of green assume.

There were two memorable trees of my youth. Two large red oaks. Huge monsters on the dirt farm road that led from my grandmother’s house to what had once been another house but for which just the barns and the landscaping remained. Perhaps it was a crimson maple. These trees marked the place where we knew we had gone too far on our bikes – away from the errant eye of my Grandmother – we were in the fields of the farmer and the strange excitement that my brother and I were exploring the Unknown. Later in life, we came to know these trees as marking the path we took to a hidden field we called the field of dreams, since the way in and out were easily forgettable but when we found it we could let our horses run hard and fast watching only for the groundhog holes.

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In the mountains of the Northwest, as my backyard, there seems to be something afflicting the trees.  True, those varieties that shed their foliage had done so, but it was the conifers that were not green as evergreens are supposed to be.

The majestic mountains were capped in snow. It was silence wherever I went.  In the lower valleys the trees had already shed their leafs and yet here and there some still clung to the branches. There were large groups, mountains, and stretches of pines still green, except for the spaces where they were not.  As I drove these stretches of browning trees carried ever on into the distance and grew in number until the mountains were bereft of standing forest.

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Sections of brown and white and gray.  On some sides of the mountains there were brown patches among verdant pines. In other areas these were entire lines, like strata. At times I drove through mountain roads and on either side were long-dead spires and posts. Trees stripped of their branches by the weather and time and the harsh conditions. I’m not sure what had happened here. A new bug. A fungus. A sign on the road said it was a crime to transport invasive species.

Back home, my parent asked me to remove a few trees that had inexplicably died this year. A cluster of sumac or such. Nothing I would miss. There was a few more larger branches down from the latest wind storm. In checking this out I discovered that another tree dead that will have to be removed. We are told that the forests are in a constant state of change. That new species will come in to fill the areas of missing growth. I will plant a few more trees, perhaps with my own mother.  Other smaller trees will grow to fill the holes.

From a geological standpoint, this is true. But in the meantime, I will hike through thinner, blander, and a less grand forest.

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Take Me Home

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I was again on the train, ridding the rails, this time going back home. This route is familiar as I move from Gothem to Upstate quite frequently in order to patch up some falling chunk of my place and return to the city in order to work. A broken heating element. A failed drain. A board that wont stay nailed down. All require money and with few jobs upstate it keeps me moving about.
I had just been a day or two before in the mountains of Montana. And I had traded all that for the familiar view of the cold river beside the train chugging up a well-worn track. There was no bar car on this train. No glamor at all. No travelers. It is a far ride from the wilds of Gothem for the wilds of The Valley, but these are Power Commuters not explorers sharing this train with me. I was, however, surprised at how excited I was at getting home. The port came in to view (since the rails are on the sunrise side of the river) and the little familiar lights and buoys I use to navigate when I am on the water. I would have to open a mountain of bills. I would have to find out what was broken next on the place. I would have to reorganize the trash cans and pick up several weeks of debris that gets schmeared all over the property (it’s in a rather poverty stricken village of very sloppy people – but that’s another post). Yet, I was glad to be back.

In travel there is an expanding of one’s experience but there is also a state of forgetting or a suspension of the work-a-day world that allows one to temporarily step outside your life. The intended mode of travel is to explore, but it also is to forget. We travel to leave behind all those things familiar and take on the unknown… even if you peeked using The Googles Maps or found an old Lonely Planet on the coffee table and looked up exactly where we would go, what we would do, the cafe’s menu, whether John Luke was the waiter that day, etc. The opposite point on the compass of travel is, of course, staying home.

We may forget our bills. Leave behind all those sticky connections in life. Those things that hold us back. But, in order to travel, we must come home from time-to-time.

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Leaving and traveling would not be something special if we did not come from somewhere. Have a location fixed on the map from which we diverge. If we did not spend time at home, what would travel be? The constant state of moving sheds that husk of the traveler and one becomes the wanderer. A displaced person.

In travel I have heard traveler stories. Stories about cheep beer. Good Hostels. Missed flight connections. The tips and tricks of travel. Especially back in the days before Tripadvisor or other traveldotcoms.

In those days, sometimes the talk was of other travelers. There have been a lot of stories, but the one that has stuck to me was the stories of The Monk. I think I heard about this in Germany. Or perhaps Austria. I heard about The Monk from a traveler as we drank in the kitchen of some hostel. Perhaps it was Spain and the teller was German. He spoke flawless English so he must have been Germanic.

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The story was of a man who came from an unknown country. It was said he was from Australia, or Canada, or the United States. He was an English speaker and had been working in finance or some other position that allowed him to amass a certain amount of money. Of a sudden, this man’s wife and children died in a car accident. At this time he was at the top of his career but an older gentleman, one who had managed to make the dream so many men have, to have it all to have the girl, the gold watch, and everything. And it was taken from him in an instant.

In the ashes of that life he choose another. He sold all his assets and placed them all in a trust, perhaps managed by someone else, perhaps managed by the very people he used to work for.  He pulled up stakes and took to traveling. At first, as the teller claimed, The Monk said he was planning to travel but a few months. And yet, the loss was not sated, the memories still there and painful and home was a vacuum of loss. The void caused by his grief not filled. So he traveled on. He lived in places for a few days, a few weeks, a few months. Great places. Beaches with nightly party campfires and dunes where dancers served tea, jungles and temple exploring adventures, and mountain forests with yoga health camps, mountain cabins of clean air and pure blue water trickling from glaciers just miles away and hotels in disco sex districts of exotic cities. He lived it up for a while, but then lost interest in the easy pleasures that money can buy and gave up the hotels for hostels, gave up planes for buses, gave up all his identifying documents other than his passport. And for his name, he had given that up too. He said he started calling himself whatever name came to mind. In travel, he lost himself, and yet, he had, at the time he allegedly met the narrator of this story, traveled the world several times, having visited every country in the world – some more than once.

I remember a group of travelers discussing stories in awe. I was at least. It was the goal of so many gathered then and that I have met since. The Irish boys working bar in exotic lands and then moving on when the money is saved to work again when it runs out. The Australians who said that it was so expensive to leave their land they stayed away for years and never again left. The Germans who also travel long and hard. The female traveler who spoke only of being female and traveling. And me. We all were amazed to think of the freedom this money brought but also the sad story. The man who had moved on from being a traveler and became something else. The Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman, the Ancient Mariner, or any number of other cursed travelers come to mind. Yet, the traveler said The Monk had been to nations during revolution and seen sunsets from ancient mountains and sunrises at the temples we see only in magazines or in films we saw when we were children but no longer remember correctly since we have added to the colour and texture to these images. And the Monk had seen it all in-person, or so I was told.

I was never able to corroborate this story. We did not have Uncle Googles back then, nor an iThingamajiggy to immediately look things up. We had only traveler’s tales, and home.

After my latest travel I had myself returned home, to the small port village on the banks of the river. There I retreated to by cabin and unloaded my bags. The antique post cards, strange trinkets, and bits of something I had bought in order to better remember my time out there. I met no other travelers since I do not move in those circles anymore but I do miss those days when I did. Since back then, before The Googles, Tripyahooadvisorplanet and the like, we travelers would gather over beer in the courtyard of the hostel and swap tales and advice, pushing one another to move on and explore more of this gray-green planet, and all would bemoan having to return home in time to resupply, gather money, attend school, go back to some meaningless job, but deep down I am sure we all were glad of being able to return as I was so excited to get back to my horrible humble chunk of home.

It is the state of return that allows one to travel. Were we not so blessed we would join the company of The Monk, refugees, the homeless, and the many lost and shiftless souls forever on the roadaaaa3

Breath From Above

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One striking feature when viewing This Great Nation from the air is that we are everywhere. This is well-documented. At night our luminescence burns and our civilization is a stringy web. Actually perhaps more like a metastasized series of cells which is perhaps a more apt description considering our push for boundless, endless, and unconstrained growth and the new shape of America. Perhaps that is too harsh an analogy, too flip a metaphor, a crude and impolite comparison. Bethatasitmay, that is what crosses my mind when I press my nose against the cool glass of the aircraft and sit in wonder at the miracle that I am flying through the air at hundreds of miles an hour perhaps 30 or more thousand feet in the air. Another feature is the patters seem to be changing in order to fit our new reality, the New Normal.

Down there in the woods, are a hundred million light bulbs each left on or a special and different reason. The intersection is dangerous. The neighbors feel saver from criminals if the streets are lit all night. The light went on as the dog pushed his way out a door he is almost too fat to move through. The furniture store wants to make it easy for the police to see in as well as make sure the parking lot remains unused not that there is more than a handful of cars using it during the day now that the big box store down the street opened. Sally forgot and left the lights on again and when grandma wakes up, she will be quite disappointed. Light pollution is not some amorphous thing. Is is the sum total of a million little decisions.

When I land I am in a different city yet as I travel about I am seeing some similarities.

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I was in a Dunken Donuts and the cashier was Hispanic, the man who passed on my order appeared Indian, the woman who made my McWhatever had a large gold ring in her nose and I’m not sure where she was from but she didn’t speak a lick of my mother tongue. About me the patrons were in little clusters – the older men who appeared Mexican and were wearing cowboy hats and speaking Spanish, another group of men speaking Russian or a hard Slavic language, and a few ancient folks sitting each alone not speaking at all – one wearing a large Star of David. I was in a Dunken Donuts in Boston. In Naples. In Houston or New York or Omaha in Wilmington in Albany in Cleveland in Orlando in Sioux City in Columbia Falls in Springfield or any number of places since my surroundings, the establishment, was exactly the same. The offerings. The “food” I ordered. For all our alleged multiculturalism our land is filled with Panda Houses, Outback Steak Houses, Petcos, Walmarts, Kentacohuts and sundry hallmarks of the New American Roadway where anywhere could be somewhere else and all places the same. I have driven past what I call the Kreeping Krud(c) for hours and hours to no end and not just in New Jersey.

In each of these same establishments are people from around the world, the cultural edges knocked off to make them safe, safe enough to serve me the exact same Tatter Tots in the exact same setting somewhere on the edge of a long-dead city in exactly the same way and then offer to me the exact same customer service survey. They live together and yet apart. Balkanized and provided a common culture of the Corporate State, the nodes of existence.

I wondered that to walk such a journey by foot would immediately turn the hardest conservative into a flaming screaming environmentalist – or at least a New Urbanist. For all these new cultures apparently adding to the American melting pot/mosaic, our landscape from Portland to Providence, Chicago to Corpus Christi is so flat and similar as to be like the background to a cheap cartoon where one runs and runs and never changes their position. It would be something out of science fiction however, much of our nation does not believe in science, and this is not fiction.

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Between these strips of land given over to duplicated commerce, the forests, fields, and hills are being slowly covered by cul-d-sac developments, or what I call the nodes. These nodes are often gated communities but even without the gate they are the intentionally cut off, an elegant Lebenstram set aside to ensure that those who can afford to do so can live out-of-contact with those who we don’t know, our neighbors and community. It used to be (for good or bad as all designs have flaws) that there were two types of American towns and cities. The stage run and the grid. The stage run and the grid often grew up at crossroads, but they followed very different developments. The stage run was that series of establishments set along a line. This is very similar to our Kreeping Krud development. However, the run was set by natural factors, the stride of horses, the edges of town, the wild areas outside of town. There was usually a center even to a stage run, and that often was the primary crossroads. A post office. A general store. A something. Then there was the grid. An invention of late this is best seen in our great cities (except Boston). A planned community of lines and coordinates. This allowed for a tighter use of space and a more refined organization of the city or town. Now we have moved beyond that. We have melted the grid and the stage run and created a new feature on the land.

Our commercial areas are along pathways. Stretching out. Even when a plaza or lot becomes again vacant it is tainted apparently since the new development continues somewhere on a field or forest yet put under the pavement. I never can stop being amazed by the number of vacant strip malls, malls, and structures complete with huge parking lots only to then see a new commercial development being created just further out. These strips creep in all directions from whatever historical center may have existed and from off of these develop nodes.

The nodes are the New American Community(tm). The New American Community (NAC) is built to prevent movement. It is a series of dead ends. We don’t need sunset laws we don’t need Jim Crow. Every direction belongs just to those who live there. There is often one entrance and exit and if you are in Houston, this usually has a gate over it or some barrier to prevent the people who you don’t know from entering the compound and mingling with the neighbors you never talk to. From the air these patters send off in all directions from the line of commercial Krap-o-la. On the ground these “communities” present an unfriendly face to the highway the good news being I need not slow down since the gates lead to walls that prevent pets and children from leaking out and my noise of my rig or rented Prius or whatever from leaking in. I need not consider anything, even the most casual and civic understanding.

The nodes are in Houston and Charlotte, Atlanta and DC this is mile upon mile of highway lined by cement blast walls or wooden noise barriers. In Naples they build moats and have bridges leading to the nodes that are paradises of golf courses and retirement communities (I will say this for Naples, they want you to see the community and I’ll take a moat and strategically planted trees over the rude and unfriendly walls of the New City States I see in much of the rest of the land). Perhaps you live in a node or know someone who does.

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If one breaches the security (the gates are often up in the day to let in the people who trim the hedges and bushes and grass and expand the kitchen and change the tiles in the bath since who choose green not me) one does see a very different Amerika. The large houses. Larger cars. The comfort and confidence expected in Modern Life. It is very different from those wastelands outside the gate. The diverse staff cut the grass or build the extension on the already large house. It is the same no matter where I travel. For all the poverty I see in so many communities, shacks and hovels aplenty in this rich land, there are such clusters of large unfriendly houses in places divorced from the rest of the nation.

It is a return to the old medieval landscape, minus the charm of the towers and crenelated walls. The city-state minus the unity of a common people behind a common wall fighting a common enemy. In these quiet citadels each house is indeed perhaps a fortress. A keep set apart from neighbors who could be from anywhere, could be anyone, and are viewed only by security cameras and whispering rumors by the hired help. The poor live outside. Out there in the badlands. The rich are retreating behind the gates or the complex and Byzantine mazes the corporate planners have created – having rid ourselves of City Fathers we have not replaced them with City Mothers, but asexual and immoral immortal companies that lay out the ground not according to rational design but to the specifications of the back of a customer survey card filled out with a golf pencil or online very, very late at night.

I returned to the air to fly over these cities of nodes. After dark the gates close and the help is ushered out and there are no visitors from elsewhere. The people in these nodes are from a diverse number of nations but together they hide from others like them. Together we build a landscape where we travel without moving. The ultimate expression of a science fiction now made science fact. I am flying now as I write this and looking out over the curvature of the earth, the sun setting on one side of the airplane the crescent moon with a star between the horns rising on the other. Below me the sprawl and the nodes just starting to put their lights on.

Perhaps Sally will remember to turn off the lights tonight. Her grandmother worries she won’t grow up to be a thoughtful person. This is not about the pennies it takes to needlessly run the lamp all night that occludes the stars. There is more at stake and her grandmother knows this. She wants Sally to see beyond her little cul-d-sac – the immense and vacant house with both parents out there frantically trying to afford the house the SUV the gates the home alarm system and all other worries of parenthood. Sally may see beyond that still. She may learn to understand diversity is not the golden child that hands you a doughnut. She may see that the barriers to the highway are also walls to create a new Amerikan gulag archipelago. She may not know it now, but we are at a juncture where we can reach that very best of our civilization or slip in to a new and perverse Dark Age. And… with her finger upon that lamp switch, let us hope Sally chooses the right path.

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Blow-Throughs and Stay-Puts

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This was the third time I was to the gate. This time someone was there. The last two times it was still dark, a bitter cold Sunday morning in the wilderness of America and in that pre-dawn world of closed shops and empty streets and there had been no one at the booth. There were envelopes to pay the park fee but I had no cash. So I backtracked to the collection of buildings marking the entrance to Glacier Park, the little more-or-less village of West Glacier, for the ATM in order to obtain some cash and ensure my visit would be legal. However, either due to the off season, the unseasonably cold, the dark, or a Sunday or all of the above, the ATM was nonfunctional. I pressed buttons and attempted to jump it into life, but no luck. In the short time I was out in the elements my fingers started to stiffen and I dove back into my little gas powered car for the warmth and safety it provided me.

I paid my fee to the Park Ranger. “You need any hiking information?” she asked me. No… I told her. No need, I am literally passing through.

The conundrum of travel is always time and resources. Time being the paramount factor. All over the world from sunny beaches to rainy castles I have met the travel who was staying put in order to “really explore” or “see non-tourist life” or if they were in a brown people country, they were staying put to “Live Among The People” a light-skinned region it was “hang out,” and drugs place it was “to relax.” Most of these stay-puts were young. All had some financial lifeline either to a bank account back home or were those crafty clever handsome sorts who can always land a bar gig at a bar or hotel catering to foreigners or locals with Eurofever or they were part of some former Empire and had access to work permits and other needed documents. Since I grew up in a house without running water or a working toilet, I never had much interest in Living Among The People (LATP). I did however always nurture an angry jealousy that burned deeply and I had to mask even while talking to these stay-puts since while I wanted to punch their smug little handsome face in, I also wanted to be their friend or lover – hang out on the beach all day, explore some hidden temple not yet in the guide books, come home to my host family who was teaching me Xplaniese and who had prepared some fantastic exotic dinner, and then work a shift mixing fancy cocktails paid only in hard American Petro Dollars meeting all these travelers from all over the world.

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Oh you don’t know the place until you’ve been here for a few months, he said strumming a guitar playing a song taught to him by a local shaman. I spent three months in Chapatastacarankalora and then I met a few friends and they had rented a houseboat on Lake ChiChiYoMama and had a local that was going to teach them how to weave silk Sham Wows, the attractive blond said, her bikini tan lines showing above the tube top she was crammed into.

I always asked for advice. How did you manage to do this? It was easy, they always replied. How did you get that bartending job? I just faked my way in, was the answer. Were I to dig deeper, sometimes they would slip up. They had experience in hotels, they had a relation in Java, they had skills they kept under wraps – foreign languages they had learned in school, intellectual abilities above the average bird, they were attractive and had that easy personable attitude that comes from being sought after and fawned upon since birth.

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I did meet a few hard scrabble Stay-Puts. These were usually more mature individuals. Divorcees. Bankruptees. Not as dirty and grungy as Travelers (AKA Crust Punks), but not as oiled as the majority of Stay-Puts. Ones with skilled trades and they didn’t need to put on the casual relaxed show. They built boats. They built houses nine months of the year and then retreated to a less expensive country to live above the station they would occupy back home. They had apartments that cost $125 USD a month and looked at the ocean. They took taxis to visit parks and hike for weeks. While there is also the Playboy/girl crowd among these too, I did not occupy those spaces and have not come in to contact with more than a few, while I have heard their misadventures retold and read about their untimely ends in newspapers. I always asked them for advice, but it was simple set of facts that I was not going to casually obtain their skills unless I fully committed to living their life in full, not just the traveling aspect of a life lived building houses, drilling oil wells, welding underwater shit and living in motels.

I was not to be a Stay-Put. I was, and am a Blow-Through. And for this I have blown through a lot. I blew through Europe in six weeks describing an arc from Morocco to Bucharest. I have blown through England in a few weeks from Chopt-On-Wye to the Upper Haggis Islands. I blew through Russia on my way to blow through China and back in a month. I have been Hither, Thither, and Yon. And yet, always have lacked the ability to order my life to allow more than these scant breakneck rides through nations, cities, nation-states, and city-states.

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In my visit to Glacial National Park I was actually working in Spokane and had the weekend. In the matter of two days I traveled over 600 miles. This is a sort of motion sickness, I guess. I was able to touch down on the Going-to-the-Sun Road which was closed for the season at Avalanche Pass and get out of the car to take a few quick snaps. I attempted to walk some down the road after the barrier but a number of factors scrapped that idea: 1) the presence of bears 2) I know nothing about the hibernation of bears… were they awake and super hungry or asleep? 3) Omygoddessesitissocoldican’tfeelmyfeet!

Having scrapped the hike, I opted to return to the Ranger Station and pay my fee (the guilt was growing with each mile I stole from the Forestry Service and you, the tax payer… despite the horrible things I do I make a terrible rule breaker) and attempt to exit the park by a different route.

I traveled towards a village called Polebridge. It was at the end of several miles of icy pavement that finally ended in a packed mixture of dust, ice, and crushed pine tree derbies. The village is not too much, which is exactly what one would expect and hope for. One lone old frontier-style building served as the center of town and only open commerce. Friendly dogs ran about and the smell of the bakery made me at once hungry. Inside the place was a post card wilderness store complete with a Lumbersexual gentleman putting the final touches on a mountain of scones and other delectable pastries. The coffee was on the brew and I grabbed what I expect to be a deli breakfast sandwich since usually in the communities closest to nature there is the least amount of natural things and most amount of plastic surfaces and food. However, the sandwich was cured black forest ham with slices of pineapple wrapped in a fresh baked pocket of dough. I should have expected as much. NPR was playing. I sat for but a moment at the diner table in the back behind the fireplace but in front of the spacious sliding door refrigeration units. Then it was off again.

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Down the road that became ever smaller, ever more gravel and dust and snow and ice. Past the closed ranger station, I was determined to take the road as far as I could push my little rented compact car. And I was glad I did. After miles of very frightening and careful driving I was at a lake. Which one? I didn’t know, I hadn’t taken the time in my haste to read a map. I was just following roads. What was before me was a still and open water, and from the other side arose the Great Northern Mountains (I didn’t look to see their names either). I stopped for some time. Walked about the lake as far as the bitter cold would allow and then returned to my car. And crept down the road. I came upon elk. A majestic herd browsing away. A few deer later came onto the road and walked with me a while. I stopped the car. They would stop. I crept along and they too moved on down the road as if checking the pavement for me. At a sharp turn was a pole cat who skirted up a tree and stared at me as I fumbled for my camera and then just gave up and enjoyed the moment, and watched the critter watch me. Before I knew it I was out of the boundaries of the wilderness and back to the World Of Man, the litter of houses, the highways, the railroads and gas stations.

I drove on and fast since I needed to be in Spokane by sunset for dinner with a client. While I had taken the weekend, and on my own nickle, this was still a work trip and I had piles of emails to respond to before the start of the week as well as a dinner to attend that I needed to look clean, presentable, and not like a Traveler.

While I will crack jokes at the Stay-Puts, I can do the same to the Blow-Throughs. I have always wanted to spend more time in one spot, but the hand I was dealt has me off in another direction. And with this momentum, it is hard for me now to sit still and I am not sure that I could actually LATP without taking a thousand day-trips. I do not recommend one way over another. It is the old struggle of breadth and depth, nature and nurture, time and money, community and freedom, loneliness and company.

I would not have seen what I had were I not to push hard those many miles. Perhaps these snapshots are the scourge of our age of disposable relationships and surface experiences. Perhaps, however, to touch so much even for a short time, is that gift we should take when we can, since we never know if tomorrow will be another day and perhaps life indeed is lived but in the moment.

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Pictures At An Exhibition

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Pictures At an Exhibition is an older tune of sorts. A classical score of insouciant majesty that meanders through a fictitious hall and acts as docent for the listener describing through tone and melody some of the Western Cannon’s great masterpieces. I remember listening to this work on our huge console record player, the one that took up half the room and that we would spray down with Pledge every Friday when we did the Friday Nigh Cleaning (FNC) in order to afford the privilege of watching Saturday Morning Cartoons (SMC). Who would have thought you could listen to as painting but I guess the same as seeing a poem.

Having the Fine Arts instilled in me from an early age, it is no wonder that my habit in travel was to visit many grand museums in each city as I could travel to, perhaps two or three in one day as time and my budget could afford so that I would be able to wander the great halls and marvel at large and dark canvases. I have wandered about halls coffered, vaulted, and rotundaed. Up steps marble, terrazzo, and cement. Sat on benches uncomfortable, slightly uncomfortable, and really unforgettably painful. My feet have ached, my back pounding, my armpits leaking little droplets of musk, my mouth dry and sprouting plaque and gingivitis from fatigue. I have stood in front of huge epic dramas involving Christ, Cossacks, Lions and Bears, fish and fruit on a table, nude women, angels, wars between heathens, wars between Christians, the Virgin Mary, mountains and sunsets, and naked babies a plenty with and without wings individually or all at once until I started hearing voices and seeing angels in the motes and midges and corners of by eyes. I have seen the cacophonous assemblages, shrinking encaustics, and the wrapped in plastic conceptual expressive and recursive decoupages.

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You can’t get anything from visiting a museum, my parent told me, frequently. She had a mantra that if you did not study everything in the museum, each work of art, the history of the masters and apprentices, to know the historical epics each work depicted, one could get but little from the visit. It was useless to travel the world and visit the fabled piles of culture wherever humanity and the muses had squatted them out.

I was also told by this same person that I would be unable to travel to any foreign land not knowing the language. That to visit but one nation, I must also learn their tongue.

After circling the earth more than twice, I have learned two important lessons:

A) If you have hard currency, everyone speaks English

  1. You will never know everything so visit as many museums as you want since the Fine Arts will fall into two categories anyway of:

    2.1 Shit you like*

    2.2 Shit you don’t like*

*Famous shit just looks fake shit.

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Hall after hall, like the Ancient Mariner I have wandered, as Job I have endured artist statements and interpretive labels, and as Thomas I have believed half of what I read on art was a crock of shit invented by some undersexed art maven poseur fob and boo writing whatever dribble they think can make the least sense in order to have the most impact on the bewildered visitor. And, in these deep and dark museums, I have traveled about and seen shit I like, like bronze statues of unabashed naked, and shit I don’t like such as some exhibit of art made from meat and blood and a pile of used tampons rotting somewhere in North or West Adams, MA or perhaps Beacon, NY.

I have also found that art museums are a lot like hotels….

Yes. I thought that.

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At first I was shocked too. Like the realization that time feels sticky like taffy sometimes. Or you hate the taste of water since it reminds you of a colour that frightened you as a child. Or you are afraid of the dark because you know you can’t see the wind. A thought that motels and museums are the same is somewhat odd if not a sign of a psychotic break of some gentle kind. It is not that we can pile them up against each other and compare as we did compare things as children – that this one thing is different than the other. That the hard texture of the block is not the same as oatmeal or that oatmeal is swishy through the fingers as is mud and grits. This is no such relational construct. I was standing in the thick of FINE ART in Houston (of all places and which has a polite yet Oil Money collection), when I realized that my hotel and the hallowed halls of FINE ART were much the same. And to this I sat on one of those dis-comfortable museum benches and pondered quite sober and then returned to my airport hotel and somewhat inebriated on my uncomfortable and rickety bar chair and thought and pondered yet more, and still I could not dispel this strange and dangerous theory of mine…. or perhaps it is more a notion, not yet a full idea, less than a concept and perhaps nothing more than a fancy. The feeling that there is some connection between these two worlds that needs further exploration, that there is perhaps a role each play or a spirit of sorts that we cannot see but were we of old we would name a Saint for each and that Saint would be the same figure.

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As said, this cannot be distilled to a compare and contrast type of analogy as found in various clickbait sites or The One Weird Trick, or Omaha Drivers Mad They Did Not Know This Simple Rule, or the Top 25 Ways Hotels and Museums are the same complete with GIFs that drag down your wireless connection on your iThingamagiggie. I think this is a deeper sort of impression one that is emotion, not rational, not of the first order of thinking but something you have to feel out, to listen to what you are seeing.

Then again, it may be that as I age my brain is turning to putty and a wet brain coming on sooner than the doctors predicted. The impressions of travel that had been carefully written in notebooks now are only impressions since my ex-partner tossed out a file cabinet with all my early writing and art. When one travels one visits several museums and marvels at the items collected, stays at many hotels, some pensiones, a few Youth Hostels one is too old for, rents a cabin here and there depending on the exchange rate, flops on the street or in a park if need be. The museums may be in former palaces, castles, keeps, oubliettes, fortresses, Cultural Palaces, universities, former monasteries as may the hotels, motels, hostels, and sundry other places of refuge. Perhaps my standing in the halls of an unknown museum and my standing in the vast halls of some anonymous hotel had reached into me and pulled at some primal sort of memory not having to do with my personal lived experience but encoded in my genetic experience, the muscle memory passed down from generation to generation.

Or perhaps it was shifting about too many time zones in too little time and the night before trying a drink called the “angry badger” which made me more sad than angry.

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The hotel I was at had plenty of “art.” All sorts. Hotels all over have art. Some shit hanging on the walls. In the expensive places this may be prints from the 1880s or actual works of contemporary art, in the less expensive places this is the sort of art that spiritually broken political prisoners of foreign dictatorships [People’s Republic of China par exampler] make all day and is sold by sad little gray men in dank places, but usually in banquet halls in Long Island or strip malls in New Jersey. Hotel art is something to wonder at. In the halls. It is in the common areas. Even the Knights or Scottish Inn has some semblance of art, even a dirty poster hanging in the entryway and those places serve the indigent and lost souls of Amerika.

I had scored a corner suite high up in the air at some hotel in Philly. The art was not just in the lobby, there were several works in the room. Original somethings that a painter had added paint too and then signed some name or mark. “Contemporary Art,” so if I spilled [whatever gets spilled a great deal in hotel rooms] it would be no loss. I pondered the fate of these works. Do they rotate about, as strippers do, the entertainment that once it grows too familiar to the paying audience or ingrates, gets sent to another region. Or was this a collection of things that is then resold to the lower orders, things that one out of fashion are sent to brighten the peeling and dismal halls of the Knightscottishinns of our Great and storied land. Or are these things consigned to the Dust Bin of History, which in this case is a very real dust bin, a tip somewhere at the edge of town?

I wandered the halls of yet another anonymous museum. Donors quick and dead I would never know, some retrospective of an artist I never heard about, a show from Chicago I had to pay $22 USD to see before it was sent to Denver. The trinkets at the give shop. The towels with well-known paintings. The floral prints that reminded me of carpets in hotels in the Old East Europe before it became all Democracy.

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I tumbled the ice in my empty drink, at the museum or hotel bar. The patrons were from foreign nations in just for the night and catching come glamour if not just for the evening or killing time before a connecting flight. On the walls was the shit I liked and the shit I didn’t like. I had been to many of these halls, in several cities and I perhaps my parent was right. I cannot know anything having not studied everything so I cannot fully appreciate what I am seeing. Or perhaps my own sense is true and I need to stand by, to reengage with wonder so that when I see something I bring no previous baggage but can appreciate the experience, can marvel if indeed it touches me, or laugh off the attempt if the work falls short. I can look up everything today using my iThingy anyway, but perhaps that is robbing me of both the knowledge, since infotainment is digestible and what can I learn from reading the reviews of former visitors, and that experience of walking into a great hall, and having my breath taken away. To be in the same place, apart and yet close to others even if the shared experience is but fleeting and casual, an insouciant encounter with a much deeper Truth.

I marveled at a work of art for a moment on the wall and I was close enough to count the brush strokes, and I then slid my key card into the door for the reassuring click. Click. The green light flashed. I wondered what marvel would be hung above my bed. Who I would talk to tomorrow over breakfast. I struggled to remember all those other places I have been, and softly shut the door for the night.

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Wild Kingdoms

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The old black and white TeeVee sat on top of the even older bullet refrigerator. The thing was an antique when I was young. A real monster of a machine, weighed a ton, I am sure, or at least the kid me thought so. I was told it was in the house since 1957. May as well have been a million years for my kid mind, I didn’t know 1957 except that it was eons ago.

In those olden days there was only thirteen channels and something called UHF (maybe it was VHF) which was all the channels that made all kinds of loud noises that differed with the type of snow on the screen. I think once we got in a channel on that station and were freaked out. It may have been a religious network.

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Switching channels was not a simple task. Not in those days. One had to manually turn the nob. This was made more difficult as the TeeVee was on top of the fridge and we little ones were… well… little. So we had to move one of the metal chairs we used in the kitchen in order to climb up and switch the channel.

I grew up watching that TeeVee. I didn’t see a colour TeeVee until I was ten. Not that they didn’t exist but we knew a lot of families who either didn’t own a TeeVee or watched them when we weren’t there since back then, when company came over you didn’t have the TeeVee on and back then, you had to schedule your watching according to certain times. It was a frightening time when you could actually miss your stories if you got caught out somewhere else.

Of the stories we watched, I remember we were forced to watch a lot of things on the public channel.  Educational things for adults  Learning things for kids.  And frightening things about space.

We also had our Saturday Morning Cartoons (kids ask your parents what those are). And Saturday night was also a sacred part of our viewing since it had quite a line up.

First there was Dr. Who. We always missed that and always said we would watch it next week, but being kids and not having any adult in our life who didn’t also live in a blur of existence, we always forgot but always remembered in order to catch the last few mysterious moments and then the frightening worm hole credit sequence (kids, ask your parents what a credit sequence is). Later there was In Search Of. For those who don’t know this programe, use The Googles and see if you can view it. Best 1970s trash TeeVee ever. It had Mr. Spock who played Leonard Nimoy, an older man in a turtle neck sweater and dark suit who said things like “ this series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture the producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations but not necessary the only ones in the mystery we will examine.”

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It is from this show we kidos learned the Facts of Life: Oh shit, ghosts are real! Shit if you are a biracial couple you will be abducted by aliens (1961). Oh shit, Big Foot, Nessie! I am never going in the woods or a lake again. UFOs! They could be anywhere. Invisible teeth biting people! Teeth! You can’t see! I think the show was sponsored by Con Edison since we kept the lights on more than we needed to in order to make sure we weren’t abducted or otherwise brought into the Unknown. We kiddies didn’t know the word “schmaltz” nor did we understand the complex words of the disclaimer at the beginning of each and every show. We ate it up every week however.

M.A.S.H. ended our Saturday binge of morning and evening stories. We always liked the opening song, but after that… Booooooorrrrrrrriiiiinnnnngggg.

Now, wedged in this binge of cartoons and programes to frighten stupid people, was Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

Of all the shows we watched this may have had the most impact. True, it did not lead us to turn on the lights at night, but it was a very solid show, very safe show, there as something reassuring about the structure, the nice grandfather zoo guy, the other guy who could have been our father, and that format from opening act to the closing thought which was always something depressing like…

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And yet, man’s encroachment is forcing the [cute little animals] to [basically up and die] but we can always learn more and restore this habitat so that despite [the post colonial civil war or ethnic cleansing or poaching since the Chinese thought the penis of the animal cured Beijing’s smog problem] this magnificent creature will be preserved for generations to come.

Yes, we had yet to learn about the Western Curriculum, or White Privilege, or Imperialism. To me, to us, it was a kind zoo keeper, just him, his strong handsome friend, and cute and amazing animals out in their wild kingdom. In ignorant bliss there is some modicum of safety and comfort. Children enjoy the predictable and we didn’t know we were being made children forever, by the Imperialism of grandfather and the manipulation of Mutual Of Omaha.

….is people….

… people you can count on and depend on and trust… or something like that.

While it took years to learn how far we had fallen from the wild kingdom of Eden. How in my lifetime we would not solve those environmental issues but see worse ones. How we would lose almost 40% of our wildlife and habitat since I was born. How I would be taught in college to hate those Great White Hunters/Zookeepers for their racism, sexism, anti communism, homophobia, hetro normativism, exoticism, middle classism…. Etc. &c….
Despite my education, I continue to have a very soft spot…. nostalgia actually. For Wild Kingdom.

So here I was. Finally in Omaha. I knew nothing about the place other than it was where Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (MoOWK) came from. I didn’t know that the show had such an impression on me. Like the strange sexual proclivities that may arise from a chance encounter in childhood, seeing an erotic advertisement… catching a friend naked for a moment…. watching WGBH’s Nature program and seeing conception from the egg’s eye view… yikes…. I had a strong attachment to a city I’d never been I had ideas about what it was like based on no actual knowledge other than the memories of a teevee show so long ago.

So MoOWK had made a deep impression on me as an environmentalist, a lover of animals, and a respecter of Omaha. While I did not go into zoology or science, I did for a time try to be a learned person….
I did the academic thing before I failed out. But, I still respected those professorial people.
I expected Omaha to be full of those people too. I figured it was a city of Martin Perkinses and Jim Fowlerers all tall and fatherly and honest and rational and deeply committed and official and practical and honest. Things my parents could not offer me.

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And on the streets of Omaha I am sure all those things once existed. However, I have seen the Omaha after man’s encroachment has forced the [Dead White Male] to [basically die] but we can always learn more and restore this habitat so that despite [the Chinese making cheep shit and our ruling class selling out the middle class in toto] this magnificent [city] will be preserved for generations to come. Or can it.

I enjoyed my time in Omaha. Perhaps dealt with a few of my ghosts and issues more to do with my own personal memory than any deficit of the city. Which, as a city is fine. Quite nice, perhaps. The Warehouse district has food and drink and company. The other areas have their own charm, of sorts. However, it is another hollow Amerikan city, the type I find where at 7PM one could lay down on the main street and nap for perhaps an hour before having to move from oncoming traffic and the sidewalks even more vacant.

As I walked the streets I could only look to the the towers of the city. To think of the old power of MoOWK and the Men who once ruled the earth. Who worked at zoos, who traveled to Africa, who warned us, so long ago that we had just so many wild places in the world and it was up to us to preserve these… or live in a quieter and flatter earth. For all the faults of those Dead White Men… Martin and Jim had a message that should transcend our Post Modern and Post Post Modern disagreements.

We could all use a little more wonder about the world. As we had as children. And we should all have a little more urgency at Man’s encroachment. And our saving those magnificent creatures. Because while Mutual of Omaha is people who you can trust. They can’t always be there at all times to save the earth.

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Siouxlander

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So many of the settlements out in this part of the world had once been but outposts, forts built of sticks and stones, and stopping points with muddy water on a trail for Westward Ho and the Birth Of The Nation. Most of these settlements perhaps were made by mistake, the wandering of a few cattle.  Most perhaps were not meant to last and were considered refugee camps for travelers rather than new and eternal cities.  The movement to claim as much of the land during the Age of European Empires pushed on, like a slow moving riot, and those places with to stop and rest, grew up a few tents filled with provisions, perhaps from wagons that broke down.  Then came those who built shelters for the dry goods.  Then a fort to protect the money and transactions.  Then a Post Office to communicate with the world.  Then a city was born.

At once point Sioux City was just a campsite for the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804. Later the city was not more than a fort back when the new comers angered the locals who attempted to murder them before being murdered by them. This must have been such an outpost for so long after the 1804 Expedition of Discovery.  Perhaps again it fade into the grown, fall into the river, and again be a campsite for future explorers.

At one point Springfield OH was the setting off point into the wilderness and perhaps then there was not much more out here than a few canons and an assembly of lonely souls.

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In time that changed. The west as won and the railroad brought more people and allowed more riches to be extracted. Then the highways came bringing more people. Then airports were built or expanded and people showed up from strange places the world had forgotten. Somilia, Yemen, Burkino Fasso. With them they bring their own tribal animosities and haughty disdain for the locals as once was imported to the region from the Old World and projected on the then locals.

The last century saw expansion and increased opportunity for many. This was the time of corn palaces, expositions, and fairs. It seems strange to think that there was such positivism being rampant. It is documented that there was indeed horror, privation, and struggle by the newcomers who starved, froze, and died of the diseases both social and pathogenic they had brought with them from the Old World or even from Back East. This sense of opportunity is reflected in the civic buildings still extant as it is in the houses, at least those able to rise above shack, of which there still stand many houses that ualify as not more than a shack. This was the world of rugged individuals and tight knit communities. This individualism appears more humble than the bravado of Texas, harder working than the get-rich-quick of California, and certainly less religiously peculiar than Utah. Perhaps it is the Germanic influence since they appear to work together. Again, unlike Texas (sorry, you’re too big not to pick on), the roads make sense, the communities are not walled off, and the chit-chat at the bar went beyond any common pleasantries and turned into actual conversations. Nevertheless, it is not a secret that the residents of the Sioux City area pride themselves on individuality and “values,” the sort of values I guess much the rest of the nation does not, cannot, or refuses to possess.

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Which is strange for the situation they seem to be in today in Siouxland. Today the positivism and unity does not appear so much. Less so the individualism. There is an apparent lack of industry in many of these quarters. Not just the old factories of the century before, but several that appear from late in the last century are shuttered or being removed by time or by small machines. Shattered pasts and former activities of those old settlers and those early agro-industrialists who struck it rich little the landscape and cluster in the downtown. Entire neighborhoods have had their private homes replaced with shoddy apartments, Amerika’s answer to the Khrushchev Crackerboxes. Private small-sale businesses have been replaced by the Familydollartreestore and Kwalmart. Collective enterprises no more connected to the local fabric of the community than was the British West Indies Company, Hudson Bay, or any SOVIET endeavor. For all the individualism, there seems a loss of private enterprise – I guess the wild west once one, can only be consolidated.

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In other sections of the landscape there is too much industry. Piles of cement being fed into machines I can only assume to produce dust clouds. Sections of tracks crisscross the land carrying strange and silent cargoes hauled deep into the night and to other such depots across the nation. We hear from the comforts of our homes about Heavy Industry, but to see it. That’s another thing…. however, it builds those tanks under our BBQ and fills them with fuel.

At the casino I talked to two gentlemen from Oklahoma. Mostly they talked up the bartender, a young lady who spoke of her kid, her divorce, and a date who got fresh with her at the Floyd Needle. They worked in foundry work. One did injection sanitary inspections the other worked with creating molds. This was not pencil and paper work. While there was some of that, too, it was hard work of actually getting inside systems, taking things apart, putting them together and watching as hot molten materials were turned into whatever they were turned in to. They worked for a large company based in wherever.

Of course there is a casino in the center of the city now. Many failed states and cities and city-states have turned to gambling as a way to boost revenue. Or crime. Or both. For a Tuesday the place had more life than I saw in the rest of the city. It as the same life of any casino. One lungers, red-faced winners, sallow-faced losers, the smokers, the drinkers, the rest.

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Outside of town, huge machines lumber across the landscape. It is the corn harvest. I was told that fewer acres than ever are in private hands as more farmers are pushed out and bough up by corporations. The story is that this kids don’t want to farm. That is the story we are told. Just close to the city are large tracts still under cultivation. Tractors seem to grow ever larger, ever meaner looking. Where once there were horses and villages in the field for the harvest there were a few alien craft, all lights and spewing dust and chafe and smoke. Each machine may be costing the farmer a million dollars. More, with interest. These machines dwarf all else and seem more fit for some warfare than creating food (or corn syrup and ethanol).

In all my wanderings about Siouxland did not provide me with much more than impressions and certainly none of those have colluded to form any life-long-lessons, givebacks, or even a strong opinion or two.  Perhaps that is the best lesson of all is that somewhere on those streets is the new individuality, the new frontier.

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