The aptly named Richard Long is an artist I first discovered while working on a walking project of my own. I was making things complicated by including a lot of different media and characters and layers, which I enjoyed. But I also enjoy the minimalism (and stark title) of this piece. I hope to re-read more about Richard Long soon–he made something of a career out of walking as art–and perhaps take some inspiration for a minimalist walk of my own. One word per mile? Then do it backwards.
Here is what the cover of my forthcoming book will look like!
Excited to share this. The book is now with the printer and available for pre-order soon!
From my forthcoming book, How Is Travel a Folded Form?:
Notes on Inscription
An oral epic singer from Tibet named Grags-pa seng-ge who, though illiterate, composes by staring at a blank sheet of paper. S.S.: “It is a bright screen which is part of his singing equipment.”[i]
(Writing cast in many cultures as an act of literal world-making, enacting and calling forth power, not just recording it. The world in the exchange between the pen and the page; without one, the other cannot exist.)
“By cultivating the desert soil, they in fact repeated the act of the gods, who organized chaos by giving it forms and norms.”[ii]
Response to a space seen as empty: inscribe it.
Thinking a sheet of paper was blank, we wrote our names on it. The desert was empty of water; they irrigated it, writing long rows of alfalfa and corn. Thinking the West was empty of civilization, they freely deeded the land to any willing settler, including some whose role was to plant trees in order to make the plains look more like the Eastern forests. Out there, west of Salt Lake City, people spell their names in rocks on the moist white salt flats called Bonneville.
[i] Stephanie Strickland, “Retuning Time and Space in Digital Media.” Talk at Brown University, Providence, RI, Feb. 18, 2004.
[ii] Eliade, 11.
This plant was “discovered” by Meriwether Lewis, or it was known by native Americans in the West who then lived with it as a neighbor, or it was “discovered” by Thomas Jefferson in Lewis’s notes and samples, or it was “discovered” by me in the Monticello garden right before I “discovered” the initials “L&C” in a pretty script on the plant marker there, confirming my suspicion that the Lewis in its name referred to Meriwether. Or it has known itself over millions of years, or it is still discovering how to be itself and grow where it might, including in the garden of an Eastern tourist attraction; or it will be discovered newly, perhaps in new form, by a future primate species we have yet to imagine.
There are two strange little trees, the size of tall people, standing around in our chicken run.
I decided to figure out today what they are, and snipped off a V-shaped sample that included leaves and tiny green fruit, and carried it inside. For quite a while I methodically flipped through the Sibley tree guide, trying to be efficient and skip sections I knew weren’t right (maples, walnuts…) but of course getting caught repeatedly by the beauty of the illustrations, and the range maps, and the sheer spectacle of different leaf shapes that can appear on one individual tree. As always the expertise and brilliance and achievement of Sibley is nearly godlike.
I posited for a while that it was some kind of sour cherry, or chokecherry maybe, but then I got to the hackberry section and knew I’d found it; everything clicked, down to the pattern of leaf veins. It might be Southern hackberry or Northern hackberry, I thought; more research necessary to know for sure.
I told all this to my husband when he got home and he said our two neighbors, both of them natives of this hollow, had already told him these were hackberry trees a year or so ago, one day when they were all standing around.
Ah! I’m sure he passed that on to me at the time, but I totally forgot. That both neighbors knew this information implies that hackberry itself is a neighbor whose acquaintance we ought to cultivate. I felt satisfied and foolish at the same time.
A couple of years ago I wrote an essay about wineberries, an invasive species that is widespread where we live. It poked around at questions of nativism, horticultural aesthetics, ecological emotion, and the ethics of human involvement in the plant world. The essay includes this sentence (which, on its own, is not representative of the whole, but hey):
“When I picture a native plant that I love (let’s say, bloodroot) and imagine it being erased from the biosphere by bullying gangs of wineberry, I can easily tap into the dread that leads to botanical xenophobia.”
At the time I wrote this, I did love bloodroot but didn’t know it that well; I had spotted it only once in the wild, while hiking with an indifferent friend. But this has been my bloodroot year; I have observed it all spring, so that now I could identify it in a number of different forms–shoot, bloom, leaf–and I had it bleed on my hand, a startling and wonderful experience. It’s been haunting my sleep more than I thought a plant species could do. And I took this photo that illustrates exactly what my essay imagined: bloodroot and wineberry, growing in proximity. Wineberry is the three-leaved plant in the very center. The bloodroot, for now, is bigger.
Wildlife centers are interesting. I listened to a presentation this week from one center that has no vet on staff, and thus can’t help injured animals, but only raises healthy orphans: birds, raccoons, squirrels, etc. This center names its animals (we met Autumn, the corn snake) but this belies a tension around the issue of human-animal bonding: “We want them not to like us,” said the young woman presenting. If the goal is to return animals to the wild, then attachment should be discouraged, even with a young animal whom you’re bottle-feeding multiple times a day. (Whom, or that?) A female groundhog, raised and then released, decided to burrow under the center’s front porch, and had to be relocated because as a free animal, she posed a rabies/liability risk.
Another wildlife center in our area is bigger, and fully equipped to treat injuries. The very next day after the presentation, we happened to find a box turtle that had been hit by a car but was still alive, and ended up delivering it to the care of the wildlife hospital in a liquor box. A worker unceremoniously took the box away and I called out “Good luck!” as the turtle disappeared down the hall. I was told we could check on its status by email the next day, and when I did, I received an amazing reply that included a vet’s exam notes. Reading this clinical language inspired empathy in the way that police-report language can sometimes do: “possible skull fracture,” “full thickness carapacial fracture,” “evidence of lung trauma or contusions.” Prognosis is “guarded.”
I am grateful that there are people who can do this work, and choose to do it. I am interested in the fact that this experience engenders a feeling of concern for an individual animal that is similar to the feeling one has for a pet. I am puzzled and interested by the difference between my feeling for this turtle (for that matter, most turtles)–an I-thou feeling–and my feeling for nearly any snake–more like I-it.
On a previous visit to the wildlife hospital, we learned that it does not take in adult deer, since deer are, apparently, classified as pests–but it does help raise fawns.
From my forthcoming book, How Is Travel a Folded Form?:
We keep taking notes: “Metaphor” means bridge. Episode. Late afternoon, Isabella and I get out of the car at the water’s edge. A bridge is a seam. The orange sign is behind us, up the hill; we decided to ignore it. The little river is flooding. Or a river is a seam. Through the young trees, we see the quick dark center of the current, but here where the road just begins to disappear the water is tame and clear. We can’t even tell where the usual riverbed might be. And a bridge is a stitch. Isabella lies down at the very bottom of the flood, head upstream from feet, so she can breathe. A little foam rides the current. Our car is pulled over with the wheels turned for safety. Existing on a bridge makes one aware of the shores’ interdependence.[i] How long will she breathe down there? Her skirts wave in the flow of runoff, lead, heavy metals, clay, cow manure, chicory ripped off its stems, rusty nails, glass insulators from telephone poles, ear tags from cattle, electric bills, antifreeze, and chicken wire. They attend or ignore one another. An old woman drives down the hill; how did she not see the orange sign? One notes the suspension of one’s position. She smiles as she slides over to the passenger seat, lifting skinny legs and moving foam pillows, so that I can turn her car around for her. Afterward, I look back and Isabella is standing on solid ground again and dry. Neither east bank nor west; neither water nor soil. The old woman drives away, still smiling.
[i] “Thus the bridge does not first come to a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.” Martin Heidegger, in “Building Dwelling Thinking”.