A guest post I wrote for my friend Molly Samuel’s California’s Islands blog:
The image of an island that we carry around in our heads was probably formed somewhere around second grade: a crayon-sketched lump of yellow sand in a sea of cornflower blue. Perhaps the little mound is topped with two cartoonish palm trees slouching under the weight of bowling ball-sized coconuts.
As Molly Samuel has been chronicling here on California’s Islands, however, the term “island” is not monolithic. Some islands are indeed surrounded by water. Others are not. Palm trees are hardly requisite. The essential ingredient for an island, it turns out, is isolation. Isolation can result from vast distances, rapid shifts in elevation (and the attendant changes in temperature and precipitation), or impassable geographical boundaries such as swift rivers, wide lakes or ragged mountain ranges.
Aside from the Galapagos and its menagerie of highly adapted creatures, biology teachers often use the story of the Kaibab squirrel to illustrate the evolutionary power of islands. The Kaibab squirrel is a tufted-eared rodent that lives only in the Ponderosa pine forests on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. This is its island. The forests of the north rim are cut off from other forests of the southwest by a sea of high desert and a mile deep canyon. Another species, the Abert’s squirrel, makes its home on the Grand Canyon’s south rim and is a close relative of the Kaibab. It just so happens that the Abert’s and the Kaibab were once a single species. But the squirrels diverged over millions of years, forming distinct subspecies as the Colorado River cut the gorge and drove an evolutionary wedge between them.
The Carrizo Plain – a rift valley in Central California containing the state’s largest parcel of intact native grassland – is an island of a different sort. At 400 square miles (the five boroughs of New York cover 300 square miles), it is an islet of native biodiversity in an ocean of altered landscapes.
The Carrizo’s island-ness is not the result of any one of the factors mentioned before. Yes, the Carrizo is dry, receiving a mere nine inches of rain per year, and its soils are alkaline and poor. But aridity and inhospitable soil alone cannot fully explain the Carrizo’s isolation.
The Carrizo is an island because it lies off the heavily trod path of daily commerce and, more importantly, out of the loop of the state’s extensive water engineering system, which has brought agriculture and urban development to many of California’s dry places.
Geographically, the Carrizo is isolated just enough. You can get there by car, but you’ve got to work a little to do it. The best route is Highway 58, a two-lane road that runs between flyspecks, connecting the San Joaquin Valley oil town of McKittrick and the wine country hamlet of Santa Margarita. The Carrizo is not prohibitively far from major cities. It’s only an hour-and-a-half from Bakersfield and three hours from Los Angeles. But it is a straight shot from neither. Nor does the plain’s flat terrain equate to rapid passage. Highway 58 is a shortcut to nowhere.
Highway 58 is dramatic, but not in the same way as Tioga Pass is dramatic – with its ascent through pine forested mountain valleys and over high alpine summits. Really, 58 possesses none of the usual hallmarks of California’s “great” drives: yawning alpine or ocean panoramas, say, or high exposed positions on serrated peaks, or large crowds milling listlessly at designated viewing areas.
Highway 58’s drama comes from its emptiness, its overriding beiges and grays, its vast and unobstructed sightlines – all rare commodities in a state whose population is rapidly approaching 40 million. I’ve never traveled to the arid, empty ranchlands of West Texas immortalized in the novels of Cormac McCarthy, but I can sometimes hear the author’s words echoing when I’m wandering alone out here. “Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat,” and so on . . .
While a sense of abandonment seems to dwell on these dusty flats, enough people arrive at the Carrizo annually to keep it in the public consciousness as a place worthy of protection. To the chagrin of oil companies that still own hundreds of acres of mineral rights here, President Bill Clinton declared it a national monument before leaving office in 2001.
Reportedly, a few years back, the Carrizo Plain was even short-listed as a United Nations World Heritage Site, a distinction that has been bestowed on only two other sites in California: Yosemite and Redwood National Park. Among such company, the Carrizo Plain would have surely become a “destination” for travelers who base their vacation choices on officially sanctioned lists. But it’s probably better that it was left off. I’m not sure how legions of vacationers expecting “big” things of their natural places – 300-foot trees or 2000-foot sheer granite cliffs, for example – would have reckoned with the valley’s big emptiness.
Today, you’ll find mostly earth science students and seismologists there, along with leather-skinned ranchers and intrepid hikers seeking stray cattle or blistering solitude. Perhaps the Carrizo Plain is best described as an island sheltered from the tides of human habit.
From Santa Margarita, Highway 58 winds through oak-forested hills before entering a fold in the valley. Once on the plain, the road runs arrow straight over the veldt. The road passes through the invisible town of Simmler, nudging close to the Temblor Range whose sweeping ridges and smooth shoulders run along the northeast side of the valley.
Just beyond one lazy curve, a small lump appears in the pavement. At 65 miles per hour it looks about as threatening as a gumdrop tucked under the asphalt. On my first drive I decided not to tap the break and crested the little roller at top speed, confident that the flatness of the terrain to that point meant more flatness beyond. Instead I encountered a drop of 15 or 20 feet. The front tires levitated a little, and a groan of metal emanated from the suspension as the auto lurched – Dukes of Hazzard-style – over the rise and into the depression. The bottom of the trough was covered with the hieroglyphics of scraping axles, transmissions and exhaust pipes. Before touching down, a vista opened ahead – a stretch of roadway undulating like a sine wave.
I wondered who on earth would have engineered a road like this. And then I remembered: the San Andreas Fault. This stretch of highway runs over land that has been bunched up like a hallway runner by the steady movement of the San Andreas, which is sliding parallel to the roadway at a clip of a centimeter or two per year.
On the half dozen or so times I’ve driven this section, it has been common to go 20 or 30 miles without encountering another car. I have straddled the yellow center stripe for five minutes at a time, the zap of my camera shutter breaking the silence as clouds crested the treeless slopes of the Temblors and dust devils whirled against the silhouettes of the Caliente Range on the valley’s southern edge.
The Carrizo Plain does not always feel like an abandoned atoll. For a few weeks each spring, in fact, it becomes a destination. It is then when an explosion of blooms transforms the sere plain into a desert flower show.
I attended that show last April with my parents, who live nearby in the town of Paso Robles. The hillsides whose arid blankness I had pondered months earlier had become a canvas of yellows, golds, oranges and purples. The Carrizo bloom is such a sought after spectacle that several “Wildflower hotline” web pages have been set up, providing day-to-day updates on which of the valley’s flowers are coming into color.
On that bright April day we came into the Carrizo from the opposite side of the Valley, from the San Joaquin Valley oil town of Maricopa, over a rough, rutted track called the Elkhorn Grade. Tiny yellow flowers spilled down into the steep-sided valleys.
The road brought us into the more remote southern end of the valley. The fine flour of the unimproved road ran out behind us like a jet contrail. We saw no more than five or six cars in a twenty-mile stretch of the lower valley. At one spot, I waded out into a meadow of unbroken orange. The blooms, called fiddleheads, were aptly named, covered with arches of small bell-shaped flowers which stood waist high and tickled the backs of my hands.
We eventually picked up small crowds along the shores of Soda Lake, near the park’s entrance. There we parked and walked a faint trail along the dry lakebed. Wildflowers of a dozen varieties carpeted the salt-encrusted soil. (Later that night, over a glass of Central Coast tempranillo, my mom and I Googled them. “YELLOW-FLOWER-CARRIZO.” We compiled the following list: purple asters, yellow pincushions, goldfields, wooly threads, fireweed, lupine, shooting stars, California poppy, tidy tips.)
As we ventured toward the park’s exit, we encountered dozens of visitors soaking up the final hour of sun and blossoms. The light went from gold to pink, and for a few minutes before the sun dropped fully behind the Caliente Mountains, the ground seemed to glow. Some hunched over expensive looking cameras set atop sturdy tripods. Others sat in folding chairs at the road’s edge, beers tucked snugly into vinyl armrests, flowers lapping at their feet like ocean waves.
-Photos and text by Jeremy Miller
When you’ve moved around a lot it’s hard to get a sense of where you’re standing. I’ve moved a lot lately, four times in the last five years to be exact. New York to Massachusetts, Massachusetts to New Jersey, New Jersey to Colorado, and back again to New York.
That’s a circle of sorts, I suppose. But it’s not quite right. Too elegant. One person I know calls it “pingponging.” That’s better.
It’s even more difficult to get a sense of your whereabouts when the geographical shifts are accompanied by familial flux: kids born and growing, jobs changing, circumstances morphing – and all this while tracking the ceaseless, open-ended migrations of friends and family members.
One consequence – and perhaps this is a character trait, even a flaw – is that you don’t give much thought to anything that might be deemed “local.” You don’t bother with the community board or the city council or the P.T.A. You beat back the nostalgia that rises when you see the banner on Main Street advertising little league registration. You don’t explore the civic landscape because to do so would concede an intellectual and emotional investment; a commitment to something that extends beyond the terms of the current lease; a making a go of it, here, in this quaint little quadrant where you find your body temporarily at rest.
You like it well enough, but you won’t be hammering down any stakes.
You carry out the vital functions necessary to sustain operations in your temporary camp. You hone your skills as a hunter and a gatherer. You venture out to the grocery store for bunches of bananas, bagged bread and lunchmeats. You furnish your rented domicile with furniture from IKEA and the occasional flourish from Pottery Barn or Williams-Sonoma. Always with a mind to portability. You lead the kids on quick frolics to the park across the street and the occasional foray to the library.
You don’t care much for the chitchat of the librarians – particularly the older guy behind the desk who resembles that small, mustachioed, slightly effeminate actor. What’s his name? He scans the books and movies you heap up on the desk in front of him. Last time, he said, he noticed that you take out lots of books and movies on energy and the environment. He mentions that the library loans wattage meters that can be used to track home energy use.
“You can do your own energy audit,” he says. “It’s pretty eye-opening to see the numbers moving on the meter even when the lights are off and you assume everything is powered down.”
You nod but inside you’re thinking, “Just let me pay the fine, give me the books and let me go on my way.” You don’t like this sort of interaction because it assumes a continuity you’re really in no position to consider. This might be the sort of activity one engages in as an anchored resident, when the forward momentum has been exhausted and the mind can turn without irony to an accounting of the bleeding energy – the entropy – of the home place. But you can’t afford the real estate, and you’re not expecting the heat death anytime soon.
You don’t plant roses either. (I did this once and it’s tough because you must relinquish them to the indifference – or malice – of the next renter.) The roots take a couple years to get established and you just don’t have that kind of time. Neither do you paint because that’s more money and elbow grease than you care to expend in a place you’ll just as soon be leaving.
Admittedly, though, at a certain stage of the game, you would have moved more quickly to remove the pen and crayon marks made by the kids in the halls and closets, driven by the irrational fear that the landlord might stop by unannounced and see his pretty white walls turned into the Lascaux Caves.
You’ve learned through experience that this does not happen, and that the whitewashing of the crude little flowers, the backward letters, the pencil ticks on the doorjamb denoting the rapid yet imperceptible growth of the children, is easily accomplished with a flick of touch-up paint on the day of the move – when the truck is loaded and pointed vaguely in the direction of your next destination.
The Irish folk legend’s take on Woody Guthrie’s classic (and a nice paraphrase of the Steinbeck novel).
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
Excerpts from Harper’s Magazine:
The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily foreseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay, so far, have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such “biofuels” as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that “science will find an answer.” The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves
This belief was always indefensible—the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed—and by now it is manifestly foolish. But foolishness on this scale looks disturbingly like a sort of national insanity. We seem to have come to a collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are “free” to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens. (Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry but—thank God!—still driving.)
The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or as “higher animals.” But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves as limitless animals—which of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define Himself: “I am that I am.”
In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable—a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.
This fantasy of limitlessness perhaps arose from the coincidence of the Industrial Revolution with the suddenly exploitable resources of the New World—though how the supposed limitlessness of resources can be reconciled with their exhaustion is not clear. Or perhaps it comes from the contrary apprehension of the world’s “smallness,” made possible by modern astronomy and high-speed transportation. Fear of the smallness of our world and its life may lead to a kind of claustrophobia and thence, with apparent reasonableness, to a desire for the “freedom” of limitlessness. But this desire, paradoxically, reduces everything. The life of this world is small to those who think it is, and the desire to enlarge it makes it smaller, and can reduce it finally to nothing.
However it came about, this credo of limitlessness clearly implies a principled wish not only for limitless possessions but also for limitless knowledge, limitless science, limitless technology, and limitless progress. And, necessarily, it must lead to limitless violence, waste, war, and destruction. That it should finally produce a crowning cult of political limitlessness is only a matter of mad logic.
The normalization of the doctrine of limitlessness has produced a sort of moral minimalism: the desire to be efficient at any cost, to be unencumbered by complexity. The minimization of neighborliness, respect, reverence, responsibility, accountability, and self-subordination—this is the culture of which our present leaders and heroes are the spoiled children.
Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine. Thus an X marked on a paper ballot no longer fulfills our idea of voting. One problem with this state of affairs is that the work now most needing to be done—that of neighborliness and caretaking—cannot be done by remote control with the greatest power on the largest scale. A second problem is that the economic fantasy of limitlessness in a limited world calls fearfully into question the value of our monetary wealth, which does not reliably stand for the real wealth of land, resources, and workmanship but instead wastes and depletes it.
Thinking of our predicament has sent me back again to Christopher Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. This is a play of the Renaissance; Faustus, a man of learning, longs to possess “all Nature’s treasury,” to “Ransack the ocean . . ./And search all corners of the new-found world . . .” To assuage his thirst for knowledge and power, he deeds his soul to Lucifer, receiving in compensation for twenty-four years the services of the sub-devil Mephistophilis, nominally Faustus’s slave but in fact his master. Having the subject of limitlessness in mind, I was astonished on this reading to come upon Mephistophilis’s description of hell. When Faustus asks, “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” Mephistophilis replies, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” And a few pages later he explains:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we [the damned] are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.
For those who reject heaven, hell is everywhere, and thus is limitless. For them, even the thought of heaven is hell.
I am well aware of what I risk in bringing this language of religion into what is normally a scientific discussion. I do so because I doubt that we can define our present problems adequately, let alone solve them, without some recourse to our cultural heritage. We are, after all, trying now to deal with the failure of scientists, technicians, and politicians to “think up” a version of human continuance that is economically probable and ecologically responsible, or perhaps even imaginable. If we go back into our tradition, we are going to find a concern with religion, which at a minimum shatters the selfish context of the individual life, and thus forces a consideration of what human beings are and ought to be.
This concern persists at least as late as our Declaration of Independence, which holds as “self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” Thus among our political roots we have still our old preoccupation with our definition as humans, which in the Declaration is wisely assigned to our Creator; our rights and the rights of all humans are not granted by any human government but are innate, belonging to us by birth. This insistence comes not from the fear of death or even extinction but from the ancient fear that in order to survive we might become inhuman or monstrous.
Some of us would-be humans have thought too that we should not be free at anybody else’s expense. And yet in the phrase “free market,” the word “free” has come to mean unlimited economic power for some, with the necessary consequence of economic powerlessness for others . . .
It is this economy of community destruction that, wittingly or unwittingly, most scientists and technicians have served for the past two hundred years. These scientists and technicians have justified themselves by the proposition that they are the vanguard of progress, enlarging human knowledge and power, and thus they have romanticized both themselves and the predatory enterprises that they have served.
As a consequence, our great need now is for sciences and technologies of limits, of domesticity, of what Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has called “homecoming.” These would be specifically human sciences and technologies, working, as the best humans always have worked, within self-imposed limits. The limits would be the accepted contexts of places, communities, and neighborhoods, both natural and human.
I know that the idea of such limitations will horrify some people, maybe most people, for we have long encouraged ourselves to feel at home on “the cutting edges” of knowledge and power or on some “frontier” of human experience. But I know too that we are talking now in the presence of much evidence that improvement by outward expansion may no longer be a good idea, if it ever was. It was not a good idea for the farmers who “leveraged” secure acreage to buy more during the 1970s. It has proved tragically to be a bad idea in a number of recent wars. If it is a good idea in the form of corporate gigantism, then we must ask, For whom? Faustus, who wants all knowledge and all the world for himself, is a man supremely lonely and finally doomed. I don’t think Marlowe was kidding. I don’t think Satan is kidding when he says in Paradise Lost, “Myself am Hell.”
If the idea of appropriate limitation seems unacceptable to us, that may be because, like Marlowe’s Faustus and Milton’s Satan, we confuse limits with confinement. But that, as I think Marlowe and Milton and others were trying to tell us, is a great and potentially a fatal mistake. Satan’s fault, as Milton understood it and perhaps with some sympathy, was precisely that he could not tolerate his proper limitation; he could not subordinate himself to anything whatever. Faustus’s error was his unwillingness to remain “Faustus, and a man.” In our age of the world it is not rare to find writers, critics, and teachers of literature, as well as scientists and technicians, who regard Satan’s and Faustus’s defiance as salutary and heroic.
To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.
It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.
We know by now that a natural ecosystem survives by the same sort of formal intricacy, ever-changing, inexhaustible, and no doubt finally unknowable. We know further that if we want to make our economic landscapes sustainably and abundantly productive, we must do so by maintaining in them a living formal complexity something like that of natural ecosystems. We can do this only by raising to the highest level our mastery of the arts of agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, and, ultimately, the art of living.
It is true that insofar as scientific experiments must be conducted within carefully observed limits, scientists also are artists. But in science one experiment, whether it succeeds or fails, is logically followed by another in a theoretically infinite progression. According to the underlying myth of modern science, this progression is always replacing the smaller knowledge of the past with the larger knowledge of the present, which will be replaced by the yet larger knowledge of the future.
In the arts, by contrast, no limitless sequence of works is ever implied or looked for. No work of art is necessarily followed by a second work that is necessarily better. Given the methodologies of science, the law of gravity and the genome were bound to be discovered by somebody; the identity of the discoverer is incidental to the fact. But it appears that in the arts there are no second chances. We must assume that we had one chance each for The Divine Comedy and King Lear. If Dante and Shakespeare had died before they wrote those poems, nobody ever would have written them.
The same is true of our arts of land use, our economic arts, which are our arts of living. With these it is once-for-all. We will have no chance to redo our experiments with bad agriculture leading to soil loss. The Appalachian mountains and forests we have destroyed for coal are gone forever. It is now and forevermore too late to use thriftily the first half of the world’s supply of petroleum. In the art of living we can only start again with what remains. And so, in confronting the phenomenon of “peak oil,” we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of “more.” Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity. Of course it makes sense to consider alternative energy sources, provided they make sense. But also we will have to re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.
Certain images, like this one taken of Earth from the Apollo 17 spacecraft in 1972 – depicting a fragile blue marble in a vast ocean of darkness – utterly alter (or should) our understanding of distance, place, proportion – of the human endeavor itself.
Less heralded, certainly more abstract, but no less powerful in its import for our understanding of scale, is the “deep field” photograph taken in 2003 by the Hubble Space Telescope (below). The photograph, a capture of the oldest visible light in the universe, shows a menagerie of 10,000 or so galaxies in various stages of development. The light gathered from a minute slice of sky in the constellation Fornax – the Furnace – is 13 billion years old, generated in the first 800 million years after the Big Bang. (The universe itself is estimated to be 13.75 billion years old.) According to the Hubble researchers who peered through the keyhole of time ,”[the image] covers a speck of the sky only about the width of a dime located 75 feet away.”
To use the hackneyed but highly useful analogy of compressing the age of the universe to the length of a single day – setting the time of the initial paroxysm at precisely midnight – the Hubble image gives a glimpse back to about 1:24am. This is the pre-dawn firmament, the early dance of matter, the first pirouettes of a vastly beautiful and incomprehensibly vast universe.
There are other images that use a different kind of perspective to offer perspective. By juxtaposing the minute and the massive, the known and the partly known, the distant and proximal, these pictures illustrate the small gestures of man played out against the grand backdrop of the cosmos. Take, for example, the images below captured by photographer Thierry Legault, which show the Space Shuttle Atlantis in transit against the Sun with the Hubble Space Telescope in tow.
What to make of these? Perhaps, as some have said, they make visible our dogged quest to understand the precarious place we inhabit in the vast gulf of space-time. Perhaps they are clear renderings of our technological audacity – a small fuselage and wing flicked up in front of an indifferent yellow eye. Perhaps they are an allusion to Icarus (though hardcore science folk will surely dispute such an analogy, saying that the shuttle only appears close to the sun, that it is a trick of optics – a “forced” perspective).
Whatever symbolic dressing we care to drizzle upon them, these images are literally about human virtuosity. Legault, the photographer, had an eighth of a second to capture these photographs. Indeed, he used an excellent telescope and camera, along with some fancy software to carry them off. But to me, a layman-in-awe, the challenge seems no less daunting than capturing a dust particle in my living room as it meanders across the face of a streetlamp burning across the street.
But Legault’s images are more than a technical triumph. They are images stripped to essence – light and shadow. They are a pure expression of space and time.
They are art.
The perspective offered in these pictures reminds me of nothing more than the view you get on a clear day driving from Denver International Airport toward downtown. The Rockies tyrannize the western horizon. One must strain to pinpoint the edifices of the Denver skyline – barely discernible at 600 and 700 feet tall. From this distance they are little more than brief metallic flickers on a dry plain running to the ramparts of the Front Range. As you fix your gaze on the mountains (which inevitably you will because, let’s face it, the dusty, relentless sprawl of Denver intruding into the foreground is a stark and confounding sight and is certainly not something to be reckoned with while driving), the 8,000 and 9,000 foot peaks, the “foothills” of the Front Range, rise in true relief against the Mount Evans massif and the Inidan Peaks, which jag upward to 13,000 and 14,000 feet.
Reliable perspective requires distance – spatial or temporal. From closer up, say, downtown Boulder, the tippy-tops of the high peaks are barely seen, obscured by the smaller summits before them. (In the same way that, from a certain vantage, the moon might be obscured by the nose cone of the Space Shuttle as it stands erect on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.)
But from farther back, true scales become evident. The Flatirons are small swoops of blue, green and rust – a little more than half the height of the snow-topped ranges beyond.
The view of Denver, however, is different. Though perceptible in its totality (which is to say in its sprawl), it is microbic in its action, unknowable in its particulars. It is a centerless agglomeration of synthetic galaxies; a lurching system, half-living, half-dead; a cluttered whirl of a hundred thousand disjointed parts; a cosmos of speed, desire and consumption; a wing of the universe as remote as the one rendered in Hubble’s “deep field” images.
A literary career should be not a career but a passion. A life. Fueled in equal parts by anger and love. How feel one without the other? Each implies the other. A writer without passion is like a body without a soul. Or what would be even more grotesque, a soul without a body.
There is a middle way between subserving the mass market and pandering to our Jamesian castrati literati. You do not have to write endless disquisitions about computer science professors seeking God while pursuing faculty wives. You do not have to write about male mutilation, lesbians in bearskins, Toyota dealers, or self-hating intellectuals longing for hierarchy, to work and live happily as a writer in America. God bless her such as she is.
You do not need to be analyzed, psychoanalyzed, Rolfed, e-s-t-ed, altered, gelded, neutered, spayed, fixed, acupunctured, Zenned, Yogied, New Aged, astrocharted, computerized, megatrended, androgynized, evangelized, converted, or even, last and least, to be reborn. One life at a time, please.
What is both necessary and sufficient – for honest literary work – is to have faith in the evidence of your senses and in your common sense. To be true to your innate sense of justice. To be loyal to your family, your clan, your friends and – if you are lucky enough to have one – your community. (Let the nation-state go hang itself.) Among the Americans, read Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry Thoreau, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, B. Traven, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, Nelson Algren and Dr. William Carlos Williams. For example. Emulate them until you find others emulating you. And then go on.
Why write? How justify this mad itch for scribbling? Speaking for myself, I write to entertain my friends and exasperate our enemies. I write to record the truth of our time as best as I can see it. To investigate the comedy and tragedy of human relationships. To oppose, resist, and sabotage the contemporary drift toward a global technocratic police state, whatever its ideological coloration. I write to oppose injustice, to defy power, and to speak for the voiceless.
I write to make a difference. “It is always a writers duty,” said Samuel Johnson, “to make the world better.” I write to give pleasure and promote aesthetic bliss. To honor life and praise the beauty of the natural world. I write for the joy and exultation of writing itself. To tell my story.
Why do I write today?
The beauty of
the terrible faces
of our nonentites
stirs me to it:
old and experienced—
returning home at dusk
in cast off clothing
old Florentine oak.
the set pieces
of your faces stir me—
in the same way.