Sunday, November 13, 2011

Steel Cup

I didn't think you can love an object. One could be fond of a dish, or a car, or a particular brand of journal, but it is ridiculous to love these things since love can only exist between reciprocating individuals. A dog, a child, a spouse, say, but not a geranium or a gun.

This is wrong, I now know. Because I love my steel cup.

I've drunk out of it, cooked with it, shaved with it, bathed with it, collected berries, hot coals, money. Gallons of tea and quarts of rice have slid from it. In grizzly country I slackened the tie that holds it to my pack so that it would clang as it rocked back and forth and so let me walk in safety. On cold New England mornings, my hands have ached to hold it, as it were the calf of a lover.

I think of the many adventures we've had together in mountains, deserts, and cities with equal fondness of the quiet mornings over breakfast, or in a park, or in front of a mirror scouring my brush and razor. And of course, I remember exactly where and how we met. Ours is a long and conjoined history.

I realize, being an object, and not even an object capable of expression - a ukulele can sing, even a gun says BANG - it will not and cannot reciprocate. But my love is sincere and lasting. I know this for a very simple reason:

When my first love - a sweet, freckle-faced, Vietnamese-American - went out of my life and back home across the continent, I was sad. Many years later, when this time I was the mover, we found out that we were now living within 30 miles of each other. I thought back in a wistful, sweet way on our time together, the way one might think of a childhood Christmas. We exchanged a few chatty messages, but made no effort to meet up. Neither of us even suggested it. We had outgrown each other.

Now, whenever I have misplaced my steel cup, I have been frantic. I have torn apart rooms, questioned passersby, retraced every step of a hike till it has been found, had sweet words spoken to it, and been securely fastened back in its former place.

In more lucid times, I remember to temper my enthusiasm with reality. It's just a cup. A similar one can be found at gear stores and KOA campsites for around $5. Made of aluminum, or titanium, or lacquered steel, this other cup would perform just as well many of the services for which I have become affectionate of my own cup.

But similar is not same. I have never seen another stainless steel cup with the same high sides, which comfortably holds a pint without spilling, that does not interfere with the taste of food and improves the taste of water. It is both ordinary and exceptional, like the best of loved things.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

New York - Violators will be prosecuted

Winter in the northeast. Dawn again, tho the usual progression of colors has not come with the light. Midnight blue to velvet to cream to orange are not there today. The sky is a dirty grey, the sun slowly crawling the far side. And me in a break of old apple trees, pack on my back, frog-marched ahead of three deer hunters. It is not yet gun season.

- Did you take a shit in them spruces?

- Sure, I say.

I let him be right. I camped, built a fire, and slept within them spruces (which, anyway, are firs) but they have not been shat in. Not by me, anyway.

- Didn't you see that?

He points to a sign. A very familiar looking one. One that says 'Posted: Trespassing Prohibited.' I notice that there is no name written underneath to tell who issued this. I dislike that intensely. Anyone prepared to give his word ought to give his name as well, particularly when that word is followed by a threat like 'violators will be prosecuted.' Whenever I've had a marker and come across one of these unsigned postings, I have supplied the missing name. Carlos Salazar. Domingo Sousa. Constantine Zuchanos. Or, my personal favorite, Barnabas Hipplethwaite.

- Yes, I saw that.

- So why'd you go back there?

- All the land here is posted. Wasn't any other kind around.

The man lifts up his hands.

- Not my problem.

He is right, of course. This is not his problem. I did not mean this as an excuse, but only to state a fact. As I might have said 'these fence posts are made of juniper, and those of cedar.' I was not bothered by my trespassing

The US is not a single nation. It is not even a collection of 50 states. It is, rather, a quilted bed of several hundred-thousand petty monarchies. As a resident, it is not possible to walk wherever without crossing the boundary of one of these fiefdoms. In this way, the US is not like the old nations - the Seneca, for example - where citizenship meant the right to go where one wanted over a commonwealth of land. Instead, it is the narrow negotiation borders.

Once, I met a German traveling around the US with his English friend. He had been living here for seven years. I asked him what he thought about his time in the country, what he liked and disliked.

- For a country that calls itself 'the land of the free,' you have an awful lot of regulations.

- Oh? said his companion, And Germany doesn't?

- Ya, we do. But Germany never claimed to be 'the land of the free.'

It is a good point. Land ownership - never an easy concept for one who considers his own only what he can carry away - has reduced the free country. There is so little to move about as the ancestors did. No loitering. No standing. No pack stock. No bicycles. No hunting. No fishing. No trespassing of any kind. Violators will be prosecuted. The road is the only free country left.

- Didn't you see that four pointer? one hunter demands

- No.

But I now know exactly who is going to be blamed if no one among these three gets a deer this year.

- Where you from, boy?

- Washington, I say, tho I am not sure what variant of 'from' this answers. Anyway, I feel like saying it since he feels like calling me 'boy.'

- Jesus, he says, his eyes rolling up to the deity. By the disdain he shows, he probably thinks DC.

I dislike being asked where I am from. I have never liked being asked that. It is a question meant to identify another into one of two groups: one-of-us and not-one-of-us. But there are too many variants in the understanding of 'from.'

A person could be from where he was born, or where he was a child, or where he finished his growing, or where he feels his home to be. In central and western New York, those places are expected to more or less conform to the same brief stretch of geography. This confinement carries the idea of a local factionalism, a centralized patriotism, and an expected loyalty that confuses me.

For a person to be from a place, he should be able to do a few things:

- Know how deep the soil is, and what grows best in it, and how it smells before it is ready to receive rain

- Describe the shapes of clouds that drift over

- Spell the most repeated name on the town graves

- Navigate the streets in the dark.

- Tell of a stream, and into which river it runs, and what are the fish therein, and are they introduced or indigenous

- Trace with a finger where the rail lines go, and whether or not the trains still run, and what they carry if they do, what they carried if they don't

- Name who or where serves the best bread and drink

- Give the length of a summer day

- Have the knowledge of what the place looked like fifty, a hundred, a thousand years ago

In short, he should be able to say what there is to love in this place. To claim a place is to love a place, and to acknowledge that you are as you are because of it. If he cannot do this, then he did not love it, and he is from somewhere else.

And of all those I have met on this trip, I can name with certainty two who were from where I found them - a postmaster in Idaho and a farmer in Iowa. I suspect a third as well - a professor in western New York.

For myself I can name all the many places I could be 'from,' but no one place could stand alone as an answer. So I expand the borders of all till they connect and form a whole. Peculiarly, this one most accurate answer - America - is never sufficient.

Somewhere around the sunrise, to the east and the south, was where I had been a boy. According to some, this is where I am from. My driver's license indicates as much. But that is only because that is where I had been a boy. Entering this world and growing accustomed to it - and likely exiting it too - were all affairs of an elsewhere. Like a spiderling, like the character of a bildungsroman - Beowulf or Siddhartha - I wound up born one place, grew up in another, and then finished it all up somewhere else. Now it is many years since I was a boy and hardly anyone around the sunrise would think of me as anything but. Doesn't seem much reason to go back. And still, somewhere around there is the old home, and inside it my folks, growing old.

- This can't be the first time you ticked someone off coming this far, says one hunter.

- Actually, yes.

My voice is flat, showing neither anger, nor fear, nor shame, nor righteousness, as tho I had been caught in the act of nothing more sinister than answering a ringing telephone.

One hunter glares and re-enters the woods. The second pulls out his mobile and curses furiously. The third - the interrogator - points down the road.

- Get the fuck out of here.

Welcome home, boy.