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.


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


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.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Limit

Years ago, a friend from grad school and I decided to spend most of one summer rambling around rural New England on foot. Sergei had been born in what was then still the Soviet Union and was studying engineering (he later pioneered a mechanism that greatly increased the efficiency of wind turbines). I was studying environmental science but had no clear career path in mind, nor would I for some time thereafter. We both figured that it wasn't going to be long before we got sucked up into some kind of corporate or academic drudgery that would keep us occupied for years, and that this might be our last chance for anything resembling freedom. Sergei wasn't even all that interested in the outdoors, but he had an adaptable character and was equally happy spending his days walking a rural road in the Northeast Kingdom as he was watching television in his dorm room or tinkering in the engineering lab.

We were both agreed that we wanted to avoid the well-traveled trails, even if that meant going out of our way or missing some of the scenic high points. We also took care not to venture too far from civilization, since our provisions were limited to whatever we could carry on our backs. We could go a day or two on trail mix and the like if we had to, but when ever possible we would load up on bread and cheese at some local store in the towns we passed along the way. Foraging wasn't something we had any inclination or background to engage in, although we did eat our share of berries we found along the roadside.

In order to minimize the weight we had to carry we didn't bring a tent, just our sleeping bags and some sheets of plastic that we thought might keep us dry but never did. Luckily it was a dry summer and most of the time we managed to find shelter of some kind when it rained. Here and there we were offered a bed for the night by people we met along the way, but we usually declined. Somehow we managed to wander from western Connecticut up through the Berkshires, across the Green Mountains and through New Hampshire into central Maine, before circling back through eastern Massachusetts and heading home, without getting eaten by bears, bitten by rattlesnakes, or murdered by psychopaths, and we were even still speaking to each other when it was all over.

I'm a lifelong insomniac, and although my symptoms abated a bit under the daily routine of trekking ten miles or more a day, I was never like Sergei, who could plod along from sunup to sundown without ever appearing tired but then for want of a better bed could sink into an apparent coma leaning against a tree when he finally came to a stop. Sometimes I fell asleep easily enough, but after an hour or so I would wake into a miserable combination of exhaustion, anxiety, and exhilaration in which I often lingered until the first grey beginnings of dawn. I would wake in the morning sore and depressed, though I bounced back soon enough once I stretched my legs and had a bite to eat.

One evening, not long after we crossed the upper Connecticut River into New Hampshire, we left the road and went off into the forest a half-mile or so to find a sheltered place for the night, not wanting to be too obvious about it since we were presumably trespassing. We found a little clearing where the undergrowth had been nibbled down by deer and spread our sleeping bags out under the stars, which on that moonless night were as brilliant and abundant as I had ever seen them. It was comfortably warm and the only sound, once we settled down, was the chattering of flying squirrels somewhere high above us. Sergei of course was out like a light at once, and I too fell asleep before long, but I woke a while later — how much later I couldn't tell, as my watch dial wasn't luminous — and at first I couldn't remember where I was. I could hear Sergei breathing lightly a few yards away and eventually I came to my senses, but with a feeling of despair that it was probably hours until dawn and that I was too agitated to return to sleep. I got up and walked around a bit, but didn't stray too far lest I stumble over something in the dark. Had I been a smoker now would have been the time to light up, but I didn't have even that recourse.

I took a sweater out of my knapsack and pulled it on against the beginnings of a chill. I sat on a fallen tree trunk and looked up at the stars and thought about everything and nothing: about the vastness of the universe and my own insignificance in it, about my family and some young women I knew from school, about the future, about a hundred things that seemed to matter at that late hour but probably wouldn't in the light of day. I don't know how much time passed by. I felt a bit drowsy but didn't have the energy to get into my sleeping bag again and wage the struggle for sleep.

From somewhere in the dark, high above, I heard a single brief sound, just distinct enough for me to recognize the hoot of a barred owl, the sturdy night-bird of the many childhood evenings I had spent out of doors. They were common enough where I grew up and often active in the day; I had seen them dozens of times. I listened until I heard the telltale call in full: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Softly, not so loud as to risk waking Sergei, I echoed the call: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? There was dead silence for a long time, then I thought I heard a fluttering not far off. I repeated the call and the owl responded, closer this time, maybe just ten yards away. I held my breath, then gave the call once more.

Immediately, without warning, the owl swooped down and began striking its wings fiercely against my face. I fell backwards off the trunk and as it followed me down I felt its feathertips and the pressure waves of each wingbeat. I covered my eyes with my arm, expecting at any second to feel talons tearing my face. I opened my mouth to yell to Sergei for help but my voice was paralyzed and nothing emerged. Eventually the owl's rage subsided and it flew off as invisibly as it had arrived. I felt my face and my hands for blood but there was nothing. I crawled into my sleeping bag, pulled it up around my head, and lay panting, finally weeping.

At dawn I crawled out of the sleeping bag and looked around; there wasn't a feather in sight or any other indication of the incident, and except for a bruise on my elbow where I had fallen back I could have dismissed it all as a dream — but I knew it was not. When Sergei began to stir I told him what had happened. He didn't understand at first — I had to repeat the whole story — but I think in the end he believed me.

When I try to think back on the incident in a reasoned manner the encounter still baffles me, but I think I understand now that I had somehow violated a sacred boundary. It wasn't my physical presence in the clearing that had crossed a line, or even my pretending to be an owl and calling out in the dark in a language I didn't understand. It was something else; I had transgressed, if only for a second, a margin where the domain of the human reached its terminus. The owl and I could exist in the same space, but in every other way our worlds were mutually impenetrable. I could no more understand the owl's behavior that night than it could understand the road maps we carried or the pop songs that were stuck in our heads.

Sergei and I made it safely home and finished up our studies the next spring. We still drop each other a line every now and then.

NB: The above is fiction, except for the insomnia.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Causes of Monsters

Ambrose Paré:
The first is the glory of God. The second, his wrath. The third, too great a quantity of semen. The fourth, too small a quantity. The fifth, imagination. The sixth, the narrowness or smallness of the womb. The seventh, the unbecoming sitting position of the mother, who, while pregnant, remains seated too long with her thighs crossed or pressed against her stomach. The eighth, by a fall or blows struck against the stomach of the mother during pregnancy. The ninth, by hereditary or accidental illnesses. The tenth, by the rotting or corruption of the semen. The eleventh, by the mingling or mixture of seed. The twelfth, by the artifice of wandering beggars. The thirteenth, by demons or devils.
(Quoted by Leslie Fiedler, Freaks: Myths & Images of the Secret Self)

Saturday, January 18, 2020

On William Bullard

Portrait of David T. Oswell with His Viola, about 1900
William S. Bullard was an amateur photographer who lived in Worcester and Brookfield, Massachsetts and captured more than 5,000 glass-plate images in the course of a twenty-year period that ended with his suicide at the age of forty-one in 1917. His negatives were carefully preserved, first by his brother and then by a postman, and over the years some of his photographs were included in illustrated volumes of local history. After the plates were acquired in 2003 by a local collector, Frank Morrill, Bullard's output gained additional significance, for Bullard, who was white, had lived in an ethnically-mixed neighborhood in Worcester, and Morrill realized that among the photographer's subjects were hundreds of individuals belonging to the city's small but vibrant African-American community.

Countless professional and amateur portraits from the same era are floating around with little hope that the sitters will ever be identified, but Bullard used a logbook to record many of his plates and identify his subjects by name. The numbers in the logbook can be matched against numbers on the plates, and diligent digging by a team of researchers has been able to illuminate the biographies, connections, and in some cases living descendants of those pictured. In 2017, an exhibition devoted to some of these photos opened at the Worcester Art Museum under the title Rediscovering an American Community of Color. I missed out on it, but luckily a fine catalog is available under the same title.

Portrait of Angeline Perkins and Her Children Nellie and William, 1900
Bullard had no studio and did most of his work out of doors. Forswearing hackneyed props and costumes, he shot his subjects in their own surroundings and with their own clothes and belongings (though no doubt many put on their Sunday best). He occasionally sold a few prints for modest sums, and at one point he was employed as a school photographer, but whatever ideas of making a living from his hobby he may have had (and it seems he never made much of a living from anything else either), in the end he apparently just did it all for the love of it.

Portrait of Reuben Griffin Seated against a Tree, about 1901
Portrait of Raymond Schuyler and his Children, Ethel, Stephen, Beatrice, and Dorothea, about 1904
We evidently don't know much about Bullard. We know the particulars of his family, his birth and death, little traces here and there, but apparently there are no accounts by people who knew him, no writings in his hand except the logbook (which includes a poem or two), and so ultimately it's hard to say what made him tick. But in a sense, we have something much better: we can see through his eyes. We know that at specific moments in his life he stood in certain spots and talked to particular people — people he no doubt knew as neighbors and quite probably as friends. We know their names, we see their expressions and what they were wearing.

Portrait of Eugene Shepard, Sr., Seated in a Railcar, about 1905
Portrait of Richard and Mary Elizabeth Ward Wilson, about 1902
Darryl Pinckney once lamented, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that "in the US, white people are able to conceive of black people who are better than they are or worse than they are, superior or inferior, but they seem to have a hard time imagining black people who are just like them." Bullard seemed to have no such difficulty. He didn't treat his subjects as minstrel-show caricatures; he treated them as they saw themselves, as people who rode bicycles, joined fraternal lodges and women's groups, went for outings in the park, and cherished their children, just like white Americans. Worcester wasn't a paradise for black people — the color bar largely denied them factory employment — but it had a living black community of individuals who embodied fundamental principles of human equality, dignity, and fallibility in an era when too many white Americans, in places like Wilmington, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma, seemed determined to snuff all that out.

For more information: Rediscovering an American Community of Color

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Dover Beach (Matthew Arnold)

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.