Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Qing Dynasty Comes to Minneapolis



The featured exhibit currently at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts—the one you have to pay to get into—is devoted to artifacts from the Qing Dynasty. It has drawn widespread interest less for the artworks on display than for the way the items are displayed. Gone are the wordy placards, gone are the chatty headphone monologues. In their place we're left with a single program handout and a lot of nameless things to look at, accompanied by a wide array of piped-in music, unusual wall-coverings, variable lighting, and an unexpected thunderclap or two.

All of these trappings are the creation of Robert Wilson, whom, if I had been asked during a pub quiz, I might have identified as the lost Beach Boy. In fact, Wilson is a renowned theater, dance, and opera designer.

Visitors are lead into the first room of the exhibit in groups and told to sit on a bench in darkness. On the opposite wall, high up on the left, they will see a black vase, illuminated from above by four small bright lights. Some sort of meditative music fills the room, and it's pleasant sitting there in the dark with a bunch of strangers.

I was the first guest in our group to get up and walk over to the vase. It wasn't easy to see, even up close, due to the glare of the tiny lights, and whatever beauty it had was lost to me. It's described in the flier as a nineteenth-century object, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn someone had bought it recently at Pier 1. 

The strength of this introductory room lay in the peace and control it exerted. It was pleasant to imagine that when the doors were finally opened and we were allowed to move into the next room, it would be largely empty. There would be no one pressing in behind us, we would have lost our own anticipatory haste, and we'd be ready to look at things, one by one, with a calm, discerning, and appreciative eye.


Indeed, the second room was as brightly lit as the first had been dark. The room had a strangely pleasant brightness, like a scene from Interstellar.  Arranged in a matrix on shelves in a second square of walls inside the room were all sorts of "Chinese" things—incense-burners, mirrors, hats, pom-poms, religious effigies. I didn't know what half of them were, but most of them looked pretty cool. And as if that weren't enough, there were many more artifacts depicted in a similar matrix on the walls of the room.


The next room contained five exquisite robes. The walls were covered in straw. The next had robes, hats, furniture, and other items associated with women during the Qing Dynasty. The walls were covered in very reflective aluminum foil. I wouldn't bet my life on it, but I think "Tuche de gel sei cinta" from Puccini's Turandot was playing in the background.  

I think you get the idea. A throne room. A Daoist "cave" with scrolls. Especially effective, due to the lighting, was the room with five Buddhist statues.


I'm not sure that the darkened room nearby devoted to the common man was entirely effective. It was large, but contained only a single figurine, maybe 6 inches high.

But the biggest misfire, I think, was the final room, which was devoted to light, as opposed to the darkness of the first room. (You know, yin/yang?) It contained a single pale green jade vase, but was otherwise filled only with the cheery sounds of a British music hall number. That really didn't fit. Yet, it was "light" music. Better, I think, would have been some koro music by Toumani Diabate and the New Ancient Strings.

In short, I liked the show. And reading over the program later, I became aware of all sorts of connections between the rooms that hadn't occurred to me. I'm not sure the exhbit is quite worth the admission charge ... but the rest of the museum is free, for heaven's sake,and you could easily spend weeks exploring its many permanent and temporary exhibits.  

We stepped over a few feet to an exhibit called Boundless Peaks: Ink Paintings by Minol Araki.

Also very good stuff.




Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Deep Library Impact





All sorts of dreadful expressions enter the language simply as a result of being used over and over again by people who don't know any better. But I feel I must protest when an institution of literature, learning, and community outreach—I'm referring here to the public library system—encourages such practices in their widely distributed promotional emails.

I received a fund-raising appeal not long ago from the Hennepin County system in which recipients were encouraged to give money on the basis of a patron's enthusiastic claim that --


 This single remark appears in letters several inches high in the midst of an otherwise standard email. But this was an email from one of the most highly respected library systems in the country, responsible for the vocabulary enrichment of hundreds of thousands of young and innocent readers. I felt that something needed to be done.

I sent a courteous note to the library suggesting that the word "impactful" was a strange conglomerate not worthy of appearing in an epistle designed to solicit money for an institution claiming to serve the long-term interests of its patrons. 

And I actually got a reply.     

Greetings, John,

Thank you for reaching out to us! As always, we welcome all feedback regarding the language used in our materials, and “impactful” can certainly be a word that is controversial in terms of how it is received. Merriam Webster has an interesting article about it here on their website if you are interested in reading it. You are not alone in having strong feelings about that particular word choice! 

Again, we appreciate you taking the time to send us your response, and completely agree that language skills require continual emphasis in today’s culture. We hope that access to and support of our Libraries will help our community members grow in that regard.

Thank you again for your thoughtful feedback, we will certainly take it into consideration in our future writings!

As I'm sure you noticed, there's quite a bit of evasiveness and double-talk woven into the fabric of that cheerful response. In essence, what it says is, "We got your email. Thanks. Follow this link."


Naturally, I followed the link to the Merriam-Webster site, but what I found there did little to assuage my concern. Another light-hearted salvo seemed unavoidable.

Greetings library friend (I wrote),
First of all, thanks for taking the time to respond to my note.
You are going to think me a crashing bore with too much time on his hands, but I find word usage interesting, and have a few further thoughts to share with you if you have the time. Please consider them as speculative and curious rather than in any way haughty or irate.
It's true, as you observe, that many people share my view of "impactful," and the link was indeed interesting, as you suggested. Yes, the word has been around for quite a while. Yes, it's a "real' word. Yes, many people hate it. However, there are good reasons why many people hate it. I'm afraid the article only skims the issues involved without bringing serious thought to bear on any of them.
It touches on the semantic issue by remarking: " Another complaint leveled at impactful is that it's not a well-formed word: -ful means "full of," and impactful does not mean "full of impact."
The authors of the article try to wiggle out of this argument by observing that " -ful doesn't only mean 'full of.' It also means (among other things) 'characterized by,' as in playful and tasteful."
Not true. Playful means "full of play" and tasteful means "full of taste." In any case, impactful doesn't mean "characterized by impact." It actually does mean "full of impact."
But impact isn't a thing. It's actually an event. We use the phrase "point of impact" to describe the place where a projectile hits a target, for example, or where an artillery shell lands. A dent or a hole may be left behind, but the impact itself is fleeting. More to the point, we might also say that a speech or a film has significant impact. But there is little meaning in the notion that a mortar shell, an automobile collision, or a speech, is "full of impact." Such an expression creates the confused impression that the thing in question is "full of hitting something else."
An "impactful" moment during the battle of Ypres
Hitting it for good or for ill? We really don't know. The word "impactful" is value-neutral. I ask you, why would anyone choose such an awkward and imprecise word, when he or she could describe the speech-book-film-institution-whatever as beautiful, profound, thought-provoking, insightful, shrewd, mind-blowing, life-changing, nourishing, and so on.
The authors of the article you mention take up that issue, too, but once again fail to meet it squarely.
We read, “But since when does English like to limit itself? Synonyms abound, and most of them avoid the opprobrium that impactful endures.”
Once again, the issue is being avoided rather than addressed. The problem with "impactful" isn't just that it's widely hated. The problem is that it's inferior in clarity and depth of meaning—and also in sound, by the way—to scores of other words describing the same phenomenon. The best reasons not to use "impactful" are that  it's hard to say, it conveys little meaning, it lacks clarity, and just to round things off, it sounds "dumb."
“The library is one of the most impactful, far-reaching institutions in our community.”
The phrase doesn't signal the end of the world; it's more like fingernails on a chalk board. All the same, libraries really ought to promote clarity of expression and avoid jargon, don't you think?
What Amy meant to say, I think, is that she has personally been affected in a positive way by her visits to the library, and perhaps also by participating in the outreach programs it offers. Beyond that, she has observed that the library has had a similarly positive impact on other patrons.
Alas, that's not a catchy slogan. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Art of the Wasted Weekend



Hilary and I drove down to the Prior Lake Library the other day to say hi to some of her old friends and to hear local luminary Patricia Hampl read from her new book, The Art of the Wasted Day. We picked up some food at the deli of a Byerly’s in Bloomington on the way down, and we sat in the car high on a hill in a park above the lake watching a new generation of kids swing and skateboard and hand-over-hand across the monkey bars as we ate our mediocre meals before the event.

I had imagined that Hampl’s presentation would focus on the “art” of wasting a day—an art of which I consider myself a past master—but the sections she read focused largely on her Catholic childhood and how unhappy she was when she learned that daydreaming was included among the activities listed as sinful in the Baltimore Catechism she had to study for more than a year before her first communion. In another passage, she went on to explain that although the Declaration of Independence celebrated Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, the emphasis usually fell not on the happiness, but on the pursuit.

Perhaps the best anecdote Hampl shared was of working at the Minnesota Daily with the editor she describes as “the best I ever had”: Garrision Keillor. She was eighteen, he was twenty-two. One day she was frantically complaining of an approaching deadline and he caught her up short: “Having trouble with a deadline?’ he said in his mellow, authoritative voice. “You’d better slow down.”

Though Hampl is well past retirement age, she continues to teach at the U of M and has won enough grants and fellowships to found a neighborhood bank, yet it seems she still has precious little free time on her hands. Evidently she never slows down. Or doesn’t know how.

I’ve worked on the fringes of the publishing world for several decades now, and have heard nothing but good things about Hampl, whom her friends call “Trish.” More than a few of her blurbs have passed across my desk and onto the back cover of books I’m formatting, and they’re invariably distinctive, thoughtful, quotable. She has obviously spent some time on them. To judge from the autobiographical passages she read the other night, she has difficulty saying no to these and other requests, but also finds it hard extending the generosity she lavishes on others to herself. While her off-the-cuff remarks before and after the reading were witty and insightful, the texts she read seemed a little anxious. Sure, they were leavened with self-depreciatory humor, but such a posture eventually wears thin. At that point it’s time to drop the guilt and indecision and uninhibitedly WASTE A DAY.

Of course, other parts of the book might describe such occasions; Hampl mentioned in passing that one of the later chapters describes a trip she took down the Mississippi with her husband in a houseboat. And as I recall, her early book of poems, Resort, nurses similar themes to a mellow conclusion. In short, the reading did what readings are supposed to do: encourage us to move more deeply into the byways of the book.

Another humorous aside Hampl offered had to do with fans who tell her with feverish enthusiasm, “I read your book last night.” “What?” she’s tempted to reply. “I spent years working on it, and you read it in one night!?”

This book has been a long time in the works. I first heard about it at a book convention in 2014, when  Marly Rusoff mentioned it to me. “Trish is doing a book called The Wasted Day,” she said. “It sounds like something right out of your Macaroni.” 

I was reminded of that remark at the reading, and just a few minutes ago I dug up a few of the earliest print issues of Macaroni from a file cabinet in the basement. The summer 1990 issue is entirely devoted to just such a day.
Reading it made me want to cry. It was written by someone with interests and sensibilities similar to mine, but with a certain naiveté and a lot more daring and flair, as if he'd just been reading Blaise Cendrars or Paul Desnos.
 ***
These last few days have put my own wasted-day artistry to the test. Hilary is out of town, and I have quite a bit of time on my hands. Sure, I have books to edit and a website to update. I also came up with a List of Things I Might Do while Hilary is Out of Town, to wit:
- Reseed the front yard
- build a new planter for the deck
- transplant some hostas and violets out into the fringe of the back yard where nothing seems to grow except moss
- re-attach the spice rack to the kitchen wall
- organize the CDs (an all-day job)


My double-stacked CD mess

But I can't help feeling that I'm spinning my wheels. These expanses of solitude are a rare gift, and they ought to build like afternoon thunderheads into abject torment followed by sudden flashes of insight. 
It isn't happening. Here are a few of my recent "reflections"—you be the judge:
- A pleasant morning picking up some groceries at Cub for a quinoa/black bean salad, some manure and top-soil at Ace hardware.
I just got done transplanting some hosta and periwinkle... Nothing is more fun than that ... and a buckeye tree that returns faithfully year after year that we initially admire and later cut down because it's in the wrong place.
Then I fetched an old copy of Making Things Grow Outdoors by Thalassa Cruso from the basement. Now largely forgotten, Cruso was once considered the Julie Child of the gardening world, perhaps because she had a TV show. When I first read her I admired her style, conversational yet slightly elevated.
- It's a hot afternoon. I'm on the deck with a glass of fizzy water enlivened by a splash of Campari. I played tennis briefly with a friend at noon—horrible courts in Bryn Mawr. Still, it was good to get out into the day.
- A quiet evening. Dipping into a musty copy of Gabriel Marcel's Creative Fidelity that I got in the mail the other day, I come upon this remark:
I think I may say without exaggeration that my whole philosophical career has been devoted to the production—I dislike using that physical term—of currents whereby life can be reborn in regions of the mind which have yielded to apathy and are exposed to decomposition.
And a few pages later:
Philosophy provides the means for experience to become aware of itself, to apprehend itself—but at what level of experience? and how can such a hierarchy be established or defined?...we must distinguish not only degrees of clarification but degrees of intimacy with oneself and with one's surroundings—with the universe itself.

It's time to quit being disappointed by the fact that you're not doing anything interesting with your free time. You can no longer claim it's because you have too many commitments. It must be because your mind is a BLANK!

It's getting dark, a little windy, as if a storm were approaching, maybe a tornado on a hot evening like this. The branches are going a little wild.

- We must not forget how beautiful the trees were up north, pale yellow,  just leafing out. The winding road on the way up to the top of Giant's Ridge. Deep pines, pale aspens. Hints of Colorado.

- Now I hear thunder. Time to shut down and unplug the computer.

- It's raining harder now. Moderately. I've got the door cracked open a few inches. It's cooled off quite a bit out there. Gentle thunder. Deep thunder. But the sky looks lighter in the west. A good rain.

- When I dip into Marcel, I feel that his methods are sound and his conclusions are subtle and valid. When I dip into Kierkegaard, I feel that he's just talking to hear himself talk. He relishes the feverish cleverness, the irony, but isn't taking the issues at hand seriously.
Am I taking the issues seriously? Not really. What are the issues at hand?

***

Up at 5:15. Well, I went to bed at 9. Books at my bedside: Concluding Unscientific Post-Script, William Gass's Tests of Time, Marcel's Creative Fidelity, Everybody's Pepys. But nothing held my interest except the yellowing bookmark I found in the Kierkegaard. "Discount Records $12.99. at 10:41 a.m. on March 16, 1985."

CDs weren't widely available then. Someone bought an LP. Was it me?

Max Frisch might have spun an entire novel out of that receipt. Which reminds me that I never read Wilderness of Mirrors or I'm Not Stiller, though both books are right here on the shelf ...

It rained all night, as far as I can tell. I ought to get out and spread some grass seed on those bare spots. No task seems more futile to me than over-seeding a wretched lawn. But it might be more pleasant to do it barefoot, before the sun comes up. (I have heard that grass seed germinates better that way.)

***

Marcel " "The mystery [of the life to come] is of such a nature that its rejection deprives human life not only of its principal dimension but also, little by little, of its entire significance and depth."

***

A beautiful male cardinal has been jumping around the lip of the bird bath for the last five minutes, warily turning his head in every direction. Just now he took the plunge, splashed around in the pool for about twenty seconds, and then flew off. For myself, I'm warily circling around any number of projects but remain unengaged, unwilling to take the plunge on one thing and give up the likelihood of pursuing something else.

No sooner do I write these words than I leap up with determination to continue work on the wooden planter I'm making to replace the one that rotted here on the deck. The minute I head into the garage to get the lumber the miasma lifts and my life once again has purpose. After sawing through two 1 x 12s, I'm reminded that the last time I did this I threw my back out. That's enough for today.

***

Right around 4 o'clock the mood changes. Whatever you have or haven't done, you're entering a freer zone, beyond tasks or apologies. It's like getting home from work.

***

Marcel again, in delicately humorous mode: "Just when we want an exact statement as to what "spirit" really is, people generally remain vague to the point of impoliteness ..."

Marcel's meditations on death are subtle, but I don't think they would mean much to someone who's actually dying. I'm thinking of my dad, who lost his capacity for speech in his final months. In the end he was reduced to being wheeled around in a wheel chair with a bewildered look on his face, and our job was to do our best to preserve his dignity, to remind him who he had been, and perhaps still was.

Marcel rejects Heidegger's famous theory of "being toward death," arguing that it's based on a primitive and false notion of the relationship between my body and my self. At a later point he observes that "the man of authentic existence in Heidegger's mind is not the man who truly lives with other people, but rather a man 'who knows true life only in dealing with himself.'

Marcel's own views can be reduced to four concepts—attentiveness, availability, participation, and hope—all of which flourish in human company. I was going to say "in society" but society is an abstraction that tends to depersonalize things. Marcel elevates hope to the level of a theological virtue. I suspect he sees it as an attitude or orientation or personality rather than a theory about living to be either proven or invalidated. 

In another essay Marcel quotes Martin Buber approvingly:
"A philosophical view of the world built on time can never quite convey the same feeling of safety that one built on space can."
The trouble is, we live in both space and time, and our worldview must account for both. Hampl touched on this point during her reading, reiterating a piece of her father's wisdom. There are three phases of life, he told her—youth, middle age, and "You look good!"

It got the biggest laugh of the night, and there's some truth in it.

Many years ago a friend of mine told me: Old age begins at 80. At the time I had no idea what he meant—I would have proposed 65 as a good threshold—but he was a cardiologist and had seen lots of very old people. He merely meant that at that age everything begins to fall apart. It's a matter of physiology.

But be that as it may, "You look good!' is more than mere flattery or dissimulation. When we meet up with someone we've known and loved for decades, our vision extends beyond physiology to encompass a rich history and a glow of enduring affection. It's true. You do look good.

***

I seem to be settling in, in so far as I'm still awake at 9:30. Hoping to keep the "sprit" alive, this afternoon I declined a friend's invitation to sample a few rare wines from Columbia and also deferred a proposal for a round of golf to next week.

***


Saturday. An early morning bike ride around the 16-mile loop at Elm Creek, before the day gets hot. It was almost chilly in the shadowy stretches. The choke-cherries are in bloom. Lots of birds singing: yellowthroats, red-eyed vireos, five or six veerys, an oriole or two, and at least twenty clay-colored sparrows. I brought my binoculars and stopped once or twice to ferret one out—they sit on bushes out in the fields, usually at eye level—but I never saw one.

The next stop on my morning outing was the bridge over Bassett Creek a few blocks from our house. That's where I sample water clarity as a "citizen scientist" for the DNR. I checked the creek yesterday because of the rain, which tends to stir things up, and the reading was terrible: 22cm, one of my worst readings. This morning, on the other hand, it had already risen to the maximum reading, +100 cm. That surprised me.

It has also surprised me again and again, over the years, that as people pass by me on the bridge, they don't seem the least bit curious. Of course, they're often engaged in their own conversations. But if I were to spot someone standing on a bridge with a long plastic tube and a yellow bucket on a rope, I'd be likely to stop and ask him what he was doing.

This morning, things were different. While I was lowering the bucket into the creek, a young man rode up on his bike and stopped. Maybe that's because (as I soon learned) he works as a geologist for the DNR. His name was Ron. He had a long last name that I didn't quite catch.

"Is that Romanian?" I asked.

"Close. Guess again."

"Polish?"

"You're almost there ... Lithuanian."

A minute later his wife arrived pushing a baby in a stroller equipped with an umbrella, from which I deduced that they had not come far. (That also explained why he'd stopped on the bridge.)

"Do you live nearby?" I asked.

"We live in Robbinsdale, just north of here on Wirth Parkway."

"I live up that way, too, by Margaret Mary Church in Golden Valley. Right at the top of the hill." 

Then I said, "Is Robbinsdale getting cool, or what?"

He smiled. "We like to think there are some businesses going in that care about quality..."

"Well, you've got that brewery, Wicked—" I couldn't think of the name.

"The Wicked Wart."

"Yeah, and then Travail, of course." I thought I'd pronounced the name properly, in the French manner, but evidently that's not how you're supposed to say it; he corrected me.

"I haven't eaten there since they started issuing tickets," I said. "The food was good ... but the music was too LOUD."

Ron just smiled.

Just then his wife chimed in: "There's a new place downtown called Nonna's. They have a breakfast bowl that's to die for."


Another couple had come up beside me, and as Ron and his wife headed off and I began pouring the bucket of water into the tube, the man said, "Turbidity."

For a split-second I wasn't sure what "turbidity" meant! I like to think I'm measuring how clear the water is, but I suppose you could just as well put it the other way around. 

"This creek has really gotten cleaned up," the man said. "You never used to see fish in here."

"Mostly what you see now are suckers," I said.

"But there's some shiners down there right now. Do you see those flashes of light near that log? They were never here before. They've cleaned up the creek all the way into Crystal. Do you know about that project?"

"Well, I've seen the big signs they put up. There was one right there in front of that willow." I pointed. "And I've seen the embankment rolls they put down and the rock walls they built just upstream from here. On the other hand, thirty years ago that lagoon was full of water most of the time. Now it's mostly a muddy island except during heavy rain."

"Maybe that's the idea," he said. "Water collects there during heavy rain rather than flooding over the parkway like it used to do." Good point.

Just then a spotted sandpiper flew past. He arched back and forth over the creek in front of us several times. A beautiful flier, always keeping his wings low and stiff.

"There's a spotted sandpiper," I said.

"A what?" his wife said.

"You won't believe what I've seen here, three times," I said.

They both looked at me.

"A mink."

I don't think they believed me.

***

My next stop was Eat My Words Bookstore, just across the Mississippi in Northeast. I'd been carrying a box of books in the back seat for quite a while. "Scott will be in soon," his daughter said. "Just put it on the table over there."

I took a quick look around the shop. As usual, the titles that jumped out at me were the ones I recognized because I sold to Scott in the past. Should I buy back that copy of Jerusalem Delivered with the blank pages at the end that I bought in Santa Fe years ago but never even glanced at before reselling? He wants $5. I always considered that blank signature as an inside joke. No one reads Jerusalem Delivered cover to cover. Look at me. I stuck with Orlando Furioso through two thick paperback volumes but gave up two cantos from the end.

My final mission took me to the opposite end of town, to North St. Paul, which might well be considered the Robbinsdale of the metro's East Side. Friends had been telling me for years about an eccentric wine merchant who dealt in "bin ends" that he bought wholesale and sold at a discount at a little shop called BrightWines. But "shop" isn't the right word to describe his business. Wines sit in stacked cases or on home-made pine shelves. The space has no windows and it's dark inside, but that doesn't matter much because prices aren't marked.  

It's a very "personal" operation. Marcel would have approved.

Here's how it works. I step inside and a disembodied voice from the office says "Hello." A tallish man appears with a friendly, squarish face and thick head of hair lined with a few fine streaks of gray. A youthful forty-five? I shake his hand. "I'm on your email list but I've never been here before."



"Welcome," he replies. "I'm Dave."

"I was looking over your offerings, and I'm interest in the Phantom..."

"Oh, the deep, rich, California chardonnay from Bogle. I've got it right here."

"And what about that red from Languedoc you mentioned in the newsletter?"

"Oh, yes. Parker gave in 91 points. You'll love it."

Bottles begin to go into a box. By the time we're through I've assembled a case consisting of Mas Champart Saint-Chinian Causse de Bousquet 2012, Brunelli Poggio Apricale Toscane 2106, Mâcon-Chaintre Reserve des Rochers 2015, Bila-Haut Cote de Roussillon 2105, Clos de Fleur Sonoma County Chardonnay 2102, and the 2016 Bogle Clarksburg Phantom Chardonnay that I mentioned earlier.

If you've never heard of these wines, don't worry. I haven't either. But the hope is that the Rosso de Montelcino will have a hint of the much more expensive Brunello from that region, and that the Mâcon-Chaintre will be a step above the more generic Mâcon-Village.

In any event, they sure sound pretty.  And in case you're wondering, the prices range from 7.99 to 14.99. I might have avoided the Clos de Fleur if I'd known it was six years old. Then again, it was the cheapest of the lot. Take a chance!

Driving through North St. Paul brought back memories from my youth. The village I grew up in, Mahtomedi, is nearby. It had only a single store worthy of the name, Ralph's Grocery, and we used to drive to North St. Paul to get our clothes and shoes at Miller's. Miller's is long gone, but the town's main street now has more trees and perhaps more bars, though it's hard to tell—at age thirteen, I wasn't paying much attention. As I crossed highway 36 I went past the high school, where I was once forced to play a doubles tennis match on hardwood gym floors in front of the entire team. The ball skids a lot more on that surface, but the North St. Paul team had been practicing on it for weeks.

Ah, the humiliations of youth.

***

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Nothing Sacred? Gary Snyder at Forestville


I'm a little suspicious of the word "sacred." It's a peremptory and perhaps, when you think about it, even belligerent adjective. If you apply it to a place, a ceremony, an object, what you're saying is, "This is so important, so powerful, so sacrosanct, that you'd better not mess with it."

Then again, that which we consider sacred is so far "above" us that we stand in awe, not quite prepared to engage or enter into it. The frisson of being near is almost enough.

And yet I'm naturally drawn to anything described as sacred, because I want to get in touch with the gods, preferably as soon as possible.

The Italian savant Roberto Calasso, in his book Ardor, discusses at great length how ceremonial brick fireplaces were constructed in India during those essentially prehistoric times when the Vedas were being written. Every little detail could affect how well those ceremonial spaces functioned, how well suited (or not) they were to addressing and honoring and propitiating the gods. How sacred they were.

I was sitting in front of a campfire in Forestville State Park near the end of our recent week-long birding trip, reading an essay by Gary Snyder called "Good, Wild, Sacred." In the first paragraph he mentions that he lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and goes on to state that because the aboriginal people in that region died out soon after the Gold Rush, no one is left "to teach us" which parts of the landscape were considered sacred. He adds, "With time and attention, I think we will be able to feel and find them again."

Being the type of reader who is always asking himself, "Is that really true?", I could not help wondering why we should care which mountains and streams were considered sacred to the Southern Maidu Indians. Are they the only people with the perspicacity to identify sacred places? Can't white people like Snyder come up with a few?

I will admit that people who lived off the land here for many generations will have a fairly deep appreciation of its sacred elements. But merely to ape the sensibilities of the Maidu would be an act of sheer laziness, if not outright cultural appropriation. Better to seek out a new understanding, less profound, perhaps, but more authentic and meaningful to ourselves.

A little later in the essay Snyder describes being led by Australian aborigines up a steep hillside on hands and knees, whispering cryptic instructions all the while. When they got to the top, his guides whispered "sacred" and proceeded to crawl nonchalantly back down the hill. It sounds like a scene out of Smoke Signals or Pow-Wow Highway. I got the impression that Snyder's native guides were pulling his leg.  

I guess that's why I soon set aside Gary Snyder, for whom I have great respect, and picked up my yellowing paperback copy of Early Greek Philosophy. These are my people. They don't offer answers so much as poems, questions, speculations about the cosmos.



Yes, I've been to Delphi, and Athens, and Crete. Powerful places one and all. But sitting in my camp chair in front of the fire at Forestville State Park, site #36, it occurred to me that this is my sacred landscape. I know the contours of the land in every direction. Through the trees to the east the land drops rapidly to the South Branch of the Root River, though you can't see the river from here. There are lots of bluebells down there. Also lots of warblers passing through at this time of year, including the bay-breasted and the mourning warblers. A hiking trail runs through the woods on the far side of the river. It eventually cuts across a stretch of open farmland, reminding us of what a special enclave of undisturbed vegetation this park is.

Better to stay on this side of the river, heading south on the gravel road, uphill past the fishermen's parking lot and the camper cabins to the wooded path that leads down to the sturdy bridge across the river. Redstarts and yellow warblers are always darting around in the open meadow down there, and once we saw a scarlet tanager in the woods nearby.


On the far side of the bridge the path continues through dank woods with an under-story of nettles for several miles to a big spring. (We've never gone up that far. Talk about lazy!)

When we first camped here twenty years ago, some of the upland fields sloping down to the river were grassy and open. You could see the steep, forested hills on the other side, and the scene reminded me of rural France. Now the "weed" trees are forty feet high and things are closed in. Elm and ash? Box Elder? What?


We've camped here many times, heard the owls and the coyotes in the darkness and tracked down the blue-winged warbler year after year at the same crossroads. Tomorrow morning we'll do the same. I've already heard his discouraged, wheezy, two-note sigh several times. 

Now an oriole is singing in the trees above our heads, a musical cascade of liquid orange. I've harvested a branch or two from the woods nearby to keep the fire going. Yes, I know: The Gathering of Firewood is Forbidden. But the rangers were at a meeting this afternoon and the firewood shed was locked.

The air is getting cool—just the way I like it. It's probably 8 p.m. The kids down the way have quit throwing the Frisbee around. They were having a pretty good time.

*   *   *

In the middle of the night I was awakened by a squeal. Maybe a rabbit that had just been caught. A second later I heard a loud, ascending feline snarl in the woods nearby. Very loud. I've never heard anything like it before, though I've heard some weird nocturnal sounds in Yellowstone and elsewhere. Bobcat or cougar? Who knows.

In any case, I won't soon forget it.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Prom Night: Beyond the Warbler Wave



"What brings you to this neck of the woods?" said the woman behind the desk at the Country Inn in Two Harbors.

"Birding," I replied.

That isn't exactly true. Hilary and I have gotten into the habit of taking a week off at about this time of year—my birthday also happens to fall conveniently within the range—to roam the countryside exploring new sights, revisiting old favorites, eating a lot of cheese and crackers, and camping or sleeping in motels, depending on availability, whim, and weather.

But the fact that many species of birds are passing through the state on their way to nesting grounds farther north—birds that we haven't seen in their prime, if at all, since last year's migration—makes the trip that much more interesting.

We usually head south down the Mississippi Valley, but this year the forecast in Preston (south) was 46 degrees and rain, while in Duluth (north) it was 65 degrees and sun.

The question was, had the warblers gotten that far north yet?

"Birding," I said to the woman behind the desk, then added, "But there aren't any birds!" That wasn't precisely true, either. We'd seen some very fine little creatures, including one spectacular close-up of a magnolia warbler, during a hike through Banning State Park on the drive up.

After getting settled in our room we drove down to the harbor and were surprised to find that the parking lot was full of cars. It looked like a wedding event, but the gowns were so diverse and the vehicles so many that we soon rejected that idea. A woman sitting on a bench told us: "It's prom night. Everyone comes down here to take pictures."


Indeed, there were lots of teenage girls in fancy dresses, lots of shoulders exposed and midriffs covered by sheer garments. The poor girls were probably freezing.  The boys, as usual,  wore a less imaginative (but warmer) array of suits and ties. Parents, friends, and siblings were also present with cameras. I even took a picture myself.  

Then I saw a yellow bird fly into the single leafless bush between the mass of teens and the breakwater. A Nashville warbler! Beautiful white eye-ring.

While I was looking at it, Hilary said, "Look. There's a horned grebe." It had just popped up from the depths of the harbor. (see above)


Just then I noticed a Lincoln sparrow sharing the bush with the Nashville warbler: beautiful breast, a band of pale gold under the sharp dark streaks. 
 
We headed off across the slabs of rock and I soon spotted a sparrow hopping around in a clump of last year's tall grasses. He had a yellowish wash in the streaks above his eye: a Savannah sparrow. That's a common bird, but I rarely see one.

We made our way along the shore keeping to the shelter of wooded fringe above the shelves of rock. It was cold, and there wasn't much activity, but as we rounded the bend we noticed a group of twenty-odd ducks pretty far out to sea. Long-tailed ducks?


Yes. And one of them, off by himself, had drifted fairly close to shore, from which point we could see his exotic plumage clearly.

By the time we got back to the parking lot the prom-goers had dispersed, leaving behind a few young boys and old men trying to make the most of the fishing opener by casting from shore.

Weddings are joyous events. Prom night? Perhaps slightly less so. How many couples will last the weekend? The next two years? Right now it doesn't matter. Who will become mayor, who will move to the Cities, who will find herself folding clothes at the local Laundromat to make ends meet? It doesn't matter. It's the excitement of the moment, the sense of participation, the drama of the social group and the expectation of a long, wild, and perhaps romantic evening ahead.


But maybe the long-tailed ducks have an easier time: find a mate within the floating mass of chattering kindred spirits, raise a brood in the Arctic, spend the winter vacationing together—a package tour—on the open ocean. Repeat.

I ought to say something more about the beautiful hike we took along the Quarry Trail at Banning State Park. There were few leaves on the trees, and that made it easier to see the warblers, which included not only the magnolia warbler but also several black-and-whites, palms, and myrtles. The trail follows a ridge above the Kettle River past an abandoned sandstone quarry. We took a spur farther downstream to the top of the whitewater at Hell's Gate.

Buddy Snow, a member of my Boy Scout troop, lost his life there when I was in junior high school. He was canoeing with his dad, it was early spring, the water was frigid. Buddy was older than me, I didn't know him at all, though I knew his sister, who was in quite a few of my classes all the way through high school.


As a teen I felt there was something awful and mysterious and somehow sacred about the event—the evident finality of it all. That might seem too obvious to mention, but when you're a kid such feelings are rare. And that lingering feeling lent a somber, almost metaphysical quality to the dark and fast-moving yet strangely beautiful and unruffled water we were looking at now, a half-century later.