Saturday, March 26, 2011
~ Kurt Vonnegut
This may be a dangerous idea, but I don't think I am here for any great purpose. To be more inclusive, I don't think any of us are. And I'm not limiting this to humans alone. Humans, horses, centipedes, saguaro, jellyfish, bacteria, mushrooms. None of us.
It is of no greater or lesser importance to the universe whether I - or anyone - spends a life in writing, or learning Russian, or how to play the baroque sopranino, or in making pottery, or graffiti, or in eating peanut butter by the spoonful. It all has about equal weight. That weight being roughly nothing.
But before I get to sounding depressed, or desperate, I should explain by analogy.
Leonardo da Vinci, for all his brilliance in art, anatomy, and architecture, didn't get to live any longer than 67 years. Marcus Aurelius - poet, philosopher, caesar - got to 59. Mozart to 35. Jimi Hendrix to 27.
Now let's compare humans to molluscs. Quahog clams can live to be 400 years old. Some oysters can get close to that. Geoduck clams can live for 200 - a fact that would be easier to remember if they didn't look so much like horse penises. None of these seem to be bothered that in all their centuries they have written no poems, made no art, found neither medicine nor God. For them it's water in, water out; filtering the ocean by milliliter, day after day. I would like to ask an objective observer - someone who has stake in neither humans nor oysters; say, a bactrian camel - which has made the greater impact? What has been the greater contribution? Literature or clean water?
So, I think it's a load of hokum to think that human life holds greater sway in the consideration of the cosmos.
That may appear contradictory for a God-believer. How can I believe that there is no great worth - or purpose - to life and still maintain faith? I once explained that I don't believe in divine forgiveness, people aren't any more special than bacteria, and that I believe in neither heaven nor hell. When I die, I'm not going anywhere. The Earth has been enough for me. Here is where I will stay.
"So how is this not atheism?" I was then asked.
Because my God doesn't have a flowing beard or speak English? Because there is no good or evil to choose between? Because my deity is neither a He nor a She? (I'm aware of no divine genitalia) Well, because I believe things will work out. The Earth has a violent creative history, and though some think that after the 6th day all the making was done, it's still going on. The process didn't stop. And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
The making and the unmaking will continue. We've been around for so little time. Individually, we get so little time. And of all the life there has ever been - whales, redwoods, jaguars, dinosaurs - nearly 99% of it is gone.
I could be a pessimist, but it's all just too gorgeous. So what if at best I'm going to be around for 80 years? (though the track record for dreamers is significantly less) I get to be on a planet with sunsets, and mangoes, and guitars, and ships that sail the sea, and at no other time in the history of the planet could it have been otherwise. Isn't that all the more reason to sit outside of coffee shops, watch beautiful people, and eat Italian pastries?
I may be no more important than an oyster - maybe not even as important. The oyster at least makes a conscious effort to improve the planet. Most of my decisions on that subject have been about what I will not do. But I'm the one with the wedge of lemon. I've got the hot sauce. I'm on the winning end of the fork. And that is cause for gratitude, not guilt, nor depression.
So what if I don't have a purpose? I get to live as though I do. And that is my choice, not my destiny.
Friday, March 18, 2011
A woman opened the door and looked out with an expression that read nothing different in visitors than from the obituaries. She liked to state her purpose in sentences composed of single words.
"Dishes. Silverware. Coffee," she said, swinging her arm in short arcs. "Breakfast." She pointed at a long, unfinished wooden table with a spread of cornbread, hash browns, eggs, bacon, jam, cheese, and juice.
"A lot of company upstairs?"
Her husband, one of those butter-fed farmers whose waistband has outgrown any belt, sat himself down with us. He and his wife used to take stock into the park, leading llama and horse trains up near the Blue Glacier, before storms closed that trail. Since I had just crossed the Olympics, we had something to talk about and took turns agreeing with each other.
They were - the husband and wife - part of the old Olympic mayflower crew. For both of them, their however-many-great-grandparents had come out when the territory was still disputed. Then with the fervor of the newly settled, they had furiously taken to the chores of the peninsula: cutting trees, staying dry, breeding children.
But, this being a land that measures its rain in feet, the first two were never done to satisfaction and the children were always covered in mud.
"They called them stump ranches," he said. "And that's what we've got." He nodded to the window and to a wide pasture below, his dairy herd wandering around the man-high stumps of cedars, cut some time when presidents still had beards.
"Loggers now leave the stumps and leave the branches. Used to have to take them all out since it interfered with salmon runs. But then fish and wildlife changed their minds and said you have to leave the branches, and even bring them back if you took them away. They don't know what the salmon want."
This being around the time when a genetically-altered salmon was being put before the FDA, I asked him his thoughts.
"I don't think they want that either."
I was not, as it turned out, the only one. A Swede, visiting Seattle for a conference, came downstairs. We continued talking about the topics most favored in those parts: logging and rain. I am not necessarily anti-logging so much as I am pro-tree. So I was glad the farmer had no particular loyalties either way - this being spotted owl country - and that roadsigns now read "Jobs grow with trees" instead of anti-owl slander. ("Up to our necks in owls," as George Bush senior had said, " and out of work for every American.")
I drained my coffee and set down my fork. "More?" the woman sniffed. Then, allowing herself an overdraw of words, "The pig gets it otherwise."
"Maybe I'll take some."
She bagged up the rest of breakfast while the Swede got in his car.
"Lunch?" she said, offering me the bag.
"Yes. What do I owe you?"
"I can pay. I've got money."
"Nope." She turned her head.
Sunday, March 13, 2011
“What kinds of movies do you like?” the Frenchwoman asked. We had just finished watching the film Carnivale at the Seattle Alliance Francaise. I had agreed to volunteer for the night, collecting tickets at the door.
“Ones with lots of color and spectacle, good music and pageantry. Each shot should stand alone as a composition. I like the films of Tarsem Singh and Shekhar Kapur, Baz Luhrman and Jane Campion,” then, mindful of the company, “and Michel Gondri and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.”
“I prefer ones of ordinary life,” she said. “For anthropological reasons. In a hundred years it will be good to see and hear how people of the last century acted.”
I have wondered what it would be like to spend a day with every one of my ancestors who shared my last name, tracing back thru centuries till I landed somewhere in a forest in mediaeval Britain. But to be balanced, it seems best to let microscopes and mitochondrial mapping taking me as far as they lead through the matriarchs, beyond any name can say. It would pass thru Italy, but Italians have come from somewhere. Greece? Turkey? Mesopotamia? Ethiopia?
Go back further than families to the collective tale of the Earth, and history reads like the foundation of Greek myth, with its cast of beloved and tragic characters bullied about by time:
Pangaea breaks and divides Tethys into the several oceans. Blue turns to green and the green marches over the land. Seeds split. Cells divide. Trilobites proliferate and disappear, the dinosaurs rise and fall. Life makes space for life. Animals walk out of the sea, then bargain away their legs and slip back. Birds keep their wings and forget flight. Somewhere in Africa, someone drops from a tree and does not climb back up. And out beyond the Earth, stars separate from nebulae, flame, and spin off planets of their own. A unity divides and divides and divides.
The rest is history.
The human life-span is too short to take in the scope of something so great and so ancient as the Earth. We can’t even begin to compare to some of the other organisms. There are oysters that live for several centuries, trees for millennia, and there are lichens that may even be approaching the tens of thousands. (I would like to be indignant that a lichen gets to spend 10,000 years clinging to a rock, but I can’t argue that my scant 26 years have so far been that much more influential.)
And I don’t have the memory of a Bristlecone pine, laying down the years by millimeter till they tally some 4,000 together – fat rings when the summers were good, sparse ones for famine. A tree that old knows how the world has done for itself in all that time.
For myself, though, every event that led up to the year of my birth – and for most thereafter – I have had to go on faith alone to believe. I was not around for any ‘magna-this’ or ‘declaration-of-that.’ I don’t know what a passenger pigeon looks like, let alone tastes. With difficulty, I can imagine all of Canada under ice, or Antarctica a jungle, as the bone-collectors and rock hounds maintain. All of this I had to read somewhere or hear off of someone, or sometimes even watch a movie about it, and believe that the divination was right.
I want to believe and I want to see. I want to see Glacier National Park while it is still worthy of that name, and not believe alone that there had once been ice there. I want to see the space between the mountains before they get mucked up again in some new-fangled way. I want to be a traveler in the grizzly kingdom while its still an unconditional monarchy. I want to see now what people of a hundred years will want to know.
I think now I understand the Frenchwoman’s point. But I wouldn’t care to watch a movie about ordinary life, or to make one, even if it were mine. Especially if it were mine.
Screw the anthropologists.
I'm not interested in leaving behind testament. I’d rather be out, somewhere in the trees, folding little origami cranes and teaching them to fly.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Knowledge of the seasons, the renewal rate of the fallow, and above all ensuring the passage are the values of nomadism. A nomad must move or die, to find wherever the grass or the dollars are. "Land, lots of land and the sky up above. Don't fence me in..." An attack on the journey for any wanderer is an attack on the homeland.The true country is the road.
Abraham left the city of Ur to become a nomad. A winter in Seattle and I can understand his reasons, even without the booming command of a Creator or any attendant promises of fathering nations. I have the good fortune, though, of being nearly fifty years the junior. Old Abe, I believe, had to wait till he was 75 to get the divine green light. All those decades wasted toiling in decadence before he could have his bed of earth and blanket of sky.
But he swapped one routine life for another. The completion of a nomadic cycle (I am aware of no single English word for this act) is a true revolution, so that the nomad ends exactly where he has begun. The snowbird returns to Washington; the mobile bee-keeper to the almond orchards of California, or buckwheat in North Dakota, or wherever the blossoms happen to be. A nomadic life is not a threat to settled society, but a complement to it. In some ways, a reiteration.
The term is sometimes used to mean anyone who travels, but nomads always return to their start to find their beginning at their end. Even a modern-day pilgrimage, to a capital or grave of some influential, is a spiritual nomadic act. It is leaving and returning, and finding ways to leave and return again in small acts of daily devotion - listening to a record, writing a letter, prayer. This is nostalgia, letting one's mind wander around the internal monuments to memories of a worn-out life.