Saturday, March 28, 2020

Notebook: The Line


Herman Melville:
All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.

Moby-Dick

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Notebook: Sunday



There's a strange calm today, with some cloud cover but no wind, and the street outside has been largely quiet all day. We're keeping to the house and the back yard of our 50-foot lot. When I took the dog out I heard a lone airplane passing overhead, one of the few signs that civilization, though wounded, still exists.


Yesterday afternoon, when it was warmer, I went outside to do a bit of garden clean-up and prepare a bed for a handful of peas I'll plant in a week or so. I found a garter snake sunning itself in a patch of thyme, unconcerned with our troubles. It remained frozen while I circled around it, closer and closer, finally kneeling down a couple of feet away to get close-ups. I went back to my chores but kept an eye on it. Eventually it slithered off a bit and coiled up in some leaves, not quite invisible.

This may be our ambit for a while. We received a food delivery today, enough to tide us over for the next few weeks, barring the unforeseen.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Notebook: The Very Thing That Happens


We've had no face-to-face contact with other people for nine days now, and in New York State, where we live (and which now has the highest coronavirus case total of any state), something like a modified lockdown is in effect. I always work at home; whether there will be work at all next week or the week after is in question. The press is still giving undue attention to the vagaries of the stock market (which mysteriously rises at times, at least fleetingly), and the man at the helm is still an idiot. We have sufficient food, sundries, and pet supplies for the time being (and more on the way), although obtaining fresh produce and fish may be a challenge in the weeks to come. In our neighborhood people with children or dogs are still walking around the block, I hear the train whistle downtown, and the temperature has climbed into the low 70s. Yesterday, in what may be our last outing for a while, I took the dog for a hike after work. Driving out of the preserve I saw two people starting out on a walk with a cat on a leash. (The things one does, to retain a bit of normal life.)

Last night we watched Call Us Ishmael, an entertaining documentary about Moby-Dick and the people who love it. I read a few of the later chapters of Fitzgerald's Odyssey. For no particular reason I pulled out Lorius, a CD by the Basque (but also part-Irish) combo named Alboka (after a kind of hornpipe) and listened to it for the first time in years. One of the livelier tracks is below. It serves, for the moment, to get the Talking Heads' "Life during Wartime" out of my head.

The title of this post is from a piece by Russell Edson, which ends, "Because of all things that might have happened this is the very thing that happens."

Monday, March 16, 2020

Friday, March 13, 2020

Notebook: State of Siege



Major disasters, natural or otherwise, have a way of forcing one not only out of one's routines but out of mental patterns as well. They can reveal a great deal about human character, or (to put it less judgmentally) about human behavior. Camus famously explored this in The Plague, which was the book I instinctively turned to when the first stirrings of the current epidemic (now officially a pandemic) were heard in China. I re-read about a third of the novel, then put it aside for something unrelated I wanted to read, but by the time I was free to get back to it its theme felt too close to home. So instead I went back to fundamentals, first re-reading The Juniper Tree, the superb volume of tales from the Brothers Grimm translated by Lore Segal (and Randall Jarrell), featuring some of Maurice Sendak's most evocative illustrations, and then to Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Odyssey. Neither of these splendid works has much relevance to the present situation (which is, in part, the point), but if matters of life and death bring one back to essentials, then these are about as essential to me as any books I can think of.

In the meantime, I avoid public places, keep an eye on the food supply (holding up so far), and take walks in the woods, which are now (unlike the forest of folk tales) probably the safest place to be.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Enkidu


From The Epic of Gilgamesh:
All his body is matted with hair,
he bears long tresses like those of a woman:
the hair of his head grows thickly as barley,
he knows not a people, nor even a country.

Coated in hair like the god of animals,
with the gazelles he grazes on grasses,
joining the throng with the game at the water-hole,
his heart delighting with the beasts in the water.

Translated by Andrew George

Friday, February 21, 2020

Something else


John Hay:
I think one of the greatest challenges is to watch each bounded living thing with care for its particularity, as far as we can go, to find out we can go no farther. Flower, fish or leaf, child or man — they take none of our suggestions as to rules. Each has a strong language that we never quite learn. No matter how many times I try to describe the alewife by the uses of human speech, or classify its habits, its intrinsic perfection resists me. It is something else. It goes on defying my own inquiring sense of mystery.

The Run
John Hay seems to have been one of those admirable obsessives (think J. A. Baker of The Peregrine) whose fascination with one species (the alewife is a kind of herring) led him to something approaching total psychic identification with his subject. Human beings and their works appear only sporadically in his account of the alewives' annual ascent into the creeks and ponds of Cape Cod — although our dams, overfishing, and pollution in fact constitute serious threats to the species. Other predators — herons and the like — pop up a little more often, but it's the the fish themselves, as they migrate inland to spawn and then, obeying currents and rhythms largely measureless to man, return to the sea, that draw the bulk of Hay's attention. But here and there, in passages such as the one above, one senses, as well, that the book isn't entirely about alewives at all, and that his skepticism extends to, and perhaps arises out of, something rather more fundamental.