“If, on a certain evening about sixty-six million years ago, you had stood somewhere in North America and looked up at the sky, you would have soon made out what appeared to be a star. If you watched for an hour or two, the star would have seemed to grow in brightness, although it barely moved. That’s because it was not a star but an asteroid, and it was headed directly for Earth at about forty-five thousand miles an hour. Sixty hours later, the asteroid hit. The air in front was compressed and violently heated, and it blasted a hole through the atmosphere, generating a supersonic shock wave. The asteroid struck a shallow sea where the Yucatán peninsula is today. In that moment, the Cretaceous period ended and the Paleogene period began.”
The image of us mammals scurrying around the feet of towering, pecking dinosaurs, borrowing for safety for thousands of years, ending with one random hour-long event, is chasing me this morning as I walk around my field, feeling the emergence of what we here in Vermont call spring, which is really mud, watching the water birds staring over the melting ice at the edge of the pond, sidestepping emerging dog turds and shredded toys, my goodness, life is returning. But for an asteroid we might not be here. “We” might be unrecognizable, maybe something with feathers. Remember this, writers, even as we cover the globe with our ridiculous opinions.
The last time I was in NOLA – way before Katrina – I dismissed the city as a theme park. This time, I’m not here as a tourist. I’m in a real neighborhood at a residency established by the people responsible for the first Free Tibet concerts back in 1995, in a little house behind their own.
This is the Bywater, formerly the Upper Ninth Ward. It runs along the river bordered by the French Quarter and Treme. I stand in front of the levee looking up – I am beneath the river! Enormous freighters with names written in foreign alphabets crawl back and forth along the Mississippi. I climb the the steep rusty bridge over the freight train tracks and the levee and come back down to a pretty green walking trail called Crescent Park. The day is gowing hot. People wearing spandex ride fast bikes toward the French Quarter while others, heads down texting, are walking their dogs. Dogs are everywhere and they are lucky dogs because New Orleans has hundreds of dog parks made out of empty lots when the river broke the levees, buildings collapsed and eventually the rubble was taken away.
I ran into one dog today, in a voodoo supply store, a fat hairy dog riveted by something on a top shelf.
NOLA is a bowl in a swamp, where it seems the apocalypse has already happened. The survivors are in various stages of getting over it, standing up and falling down, like a Laurie Anderson song. It is a port – freight trains run along the commuter lines. it is commerce and joy, voodoo and nunneries, community and desolation. People on the street smile, they nod, they say,”how’s your day goin'” and sometimes they stop to tell you how their day is going. The clothes! Prints on stripes, dresses over shorts – this is a city that loves its skin. Po-boys are delicious, gumbo not so much, hipster cafes painted shades of orange behind shutters next to drink dives and one-stops, BMW’s with Jersey plates drive behind construction trucks and Havana Chevys and then there’s the Bark Market that sells pet supplies on one side and art supplies on the other. And the Death, Pharmacy and Chicken museums. An Improv theater in the Healing Center along with the food co-op and trance making supplies.
On my (white) side of St. Claude, soft bellied bearded men sit in cafes eating cake and reading novels, while on the other side an emaciated Haitian rides a stolen bike around in circles. The Quarter is a 20 minute walk away, as is Treme, as is downtown. It is a city of writers. Walter Percy lives on, his old writer’s group still meeting every Friday at a certain bar.
One wonders, where do the people who get pushed out go? Houston? Katrina didn’t do them in, they say, it was the government building substandard levees and infrastructure, the broken pumps; it was America that almost killed them. NOLA, they explain, nodding wisely, is a blue dot in a red state.
The cats, however stayed and multiplied. You see them everywhere, in the stores, on stages, grooming their tails in art galleries, hunkered down on stoops, sneaking out of alleys. Always single, They patrol grocery stores, pose on cafe counters and have serious expressions. On every other porch there is a plate of half eaten food. They don’t need water because, as I said, NOLA is a bowl in a swamp.
My computer pings. It’s a weather alert but not for me: a blizzard is sweeping West to East across Northern Vermont.
We’ve considered him stupid, moronic, evil, incompetent, mad, racist, misogynistic, a pedophile, self-aggrandizing, lying, stupefying, narcissistic, character flawed, disgusting We’ve mocked his hair, his ties, his mouth, his little fingers, his wife, his children , his bone spurs, his deal-making, education, university, his gold leaf, his diet, the elevator, his advisors, cabinet and his lack of a dog. We call him a clown and we make Ubu Roi his avatar, Pere Ubu, Alfred Jarry’s surrealistic joke of a dictator who wants to be the king of Poland. That play so horrified its audience, it closed the night of its premier, but this performance has lasted over 500 days to become a national – no, a global – nightmare.
At this moment, his most despicable action is holding hostage immigrant children to get his way – he wants his wall, and Congress is figuring out how to give it to him.
10:45 washing dishes at the sink. I look out the window and see a doe walking slowly across the lawn with her fawn. The fawn runs a few feet, while the mother waits, then the fawn stops and the mother takes a step, In this way they are proceeding across the lawn. I see the dog at the edge of the porch looking at them, but looking in the way she has of not seeing, of seeing over or through what is directly in her vision. So neither of us wants to startle the doe. It is a lovely sight, this obviously bonded family taking a morning stroll across my lawn. Robins are hopping through the grass, a red tailed squirrel suddenly lept off a fence and disappears behind the greenhouse. I’m know the iphone shot through the window will be awful, but I don’t dare go outside, so I shoot anyway. The image is poor but sweet, the washed out colors convey a certain lack of authority, as if it is a photograph of a photograph.
Thursday morning 10:30 out my kitchen window
At 4:45 I take the recyclables to the Grand Island Dump. The huge room is immaculate. All the bins are empty, tons of plastics have been squashed and packed on palettes waiting to be shipped. Two attendants, one who’s a volunteer fireman and the other a selectman, greet me and ask if I want help. I’ve been coming here for 10 years now, but I don’t know his name. I don’t need help. I can’t stop staring at the compacted structures and I walk around, shooting on my phone. The selectman looks amused.
Many years ago, I lived on Canal street in New York City. On Wednesdays, the few small sweatshops left in the neighborhood would bundle up their unused fabrics, drag them out on pallets for the night time garbage pick-up. By the time the trucks arrived, neighborhood artists trolling for found materials would have picked the pallets clean.
It’s interesting, this impulse to reclaim garbage as art, as if by turning our trash into “art” we are doing something for the environment, while in truth we’re only postponing its suffocating release into our environment. It’s a kind of recycling, only not as a useful object, but as a cultural comment, as art. For about a year, I collected every bit of plastic that circulated in my house and studio, and after a year, I had a big closet stacked with tubs filled with bottle caps sorted by color, can tabs, plastic bags, medicine bottles, ties, garden containers, dried contact lenses, packaging sorted by shape, packing peanuts – everything unsuitable for the recycle bins. I had no idea what to make with this stuff. My mind was filled with images of birds and marine life dead on beaches, their bellies slit open, revealing batteries, caps, netting, fuel canisters, milk cartons – suffocated by the litter humans discard in daily life. Reworking those images seemed exploitive rather than helpful, and I wonder what it takes for humans to turn their grief into constructive action. Chris Jordan has already broken our hearts with his images of dead albatross in the Midway Islands, where the birds fly out over the oceans, collecting plastics as food for their young, who fill up with batteries, bottle caps, syringes. What image is more powerful than that of a mother unknowingly poisoning her child.
Another option was to use the garbage, like this Nigerian sculptor to create new art. But his work takes a village and is conguent with the life of that village, and conveys a condition that I have no business appropriating, the bottle caps are the relics of a dark story where liquor was an agent of exchange in the slavery market. I could imagine building reliefs and sculpture, but that would entail additional toxic material, like resins or glues, which would negate anything constructive, so finally, in a grand purge, I throw it all out, with full understanding of my failure and announce, when I get home, that we are never going to buy anything that comes in a plastic bottle. To no avail.
I find this article tracking the Journey of a Plastic Bottle in the Atlantic Magazine.
The refuse associate at the town dump told me that a truck would arrive soon to pick up the pallets. He doesn’t know where they’re going, only that the name on the truck begins with CAN. Canada then? The same Canada that begins 12 miles north of my house on Border Road? It doesn’t seem right that Canada is eating my trash, but then this is the day that my country screws the G7.
So what am I left with? A healthy doe moves across my landscape with her infant at the beginning of the day and at the end, a vision of garbage laden barges plying the oceans.
A painter friend visited a cemetery in Egypt. She was walking with her family when she saw in the distance a robed woman who seemed to be throwing something from a bag on the desert floor. She hurried ahead and saw that this woman, amongst others, was tossing handfuls of ground pigment into a tomb, or maybe into several tombs. The pigment color, a dense, bright blue, was extraordinary against the muted neutral tones of the desert landscape. The photos she took show an open, domed beehive structure, a tholos tomb, the floor saturated with layers of this intense pigment, also with dried corn kernels. In one photo, a man stands to the side with a broom. At one point, he offered my friend the broom; for her to do some sweeping? Or perhaps for him to sweep for her? – she has no idea.
The history of the color is intriguing. It was developed around 2600 as an alternate pigment to the rare and expensive mineral lapis lazuli, made from sand, copper, and sodium-carbonate, CaCuSi4O10m, a testament to the skills of the chemists of antiquity who understood how to control the temperature needed for successful synthesis. Amazing too was its consistency over time until it was “lost” during the dark ages. Lost and found again, when in 2009 it was discovered that Egyptian blue shows exceptional luminescence (it has since been made into a crayon), indicating its possible use in imaging devices.
But here’s what really intrigues me: new research shows that Egyptian blue produces infra-red radiation like that used by TV remotes. In other words, when compressed into infinitesimally thin sheets and compressed, the infrared quality of Egyptian Blue makes it a communication device.
So, back to the modern Egyptian women spreading layers of artificial blue pigment embedded with corn kernels in desert tombs. Assuming my friend hasn’t happened on a performance piece, maybe we can consider this scene a ritual having to do with decorating a tomb as Pharaoh’s was decorated and also providing the dead with what it needs in the next world, in this case, the color blue, which we now consider a medium for communication. And isn’t this a universal desire, as witness, for example, my dog Bandit buried under a tree with his bowl.
I also like to think that in some cellular way, the ancient world understood that this exquisite color is capable of communicating through layers of existence.
I brought home a dog from the pound. He was large and dreary, with a matted coat the color of slush. We lived in a border town, on a long dirt road.
The dog’s name was Oscar. The town was at the edge of the ocean. A Dollar Store, some second hand clothing shops across the street from the rocky, littered beach. A desultory craft fair had set up under a tent. Oscar trotted along with me, ignoring what few people or other dogs we encounter. When we arrived at the craft fair, he stopped, composed himself in the grass and fell asleep on his back with his feet in the air.
So I thought, better get him some exercise. We went down to the beach to swim. He seemed to like swimming underwater, rising up now and then to look around. One time, he came up, paddled over and started talking to me. For awhile, we’d bob along discussing Kierkegaard or Samuel Becket, cooking shows or dress making, When the conversations lulled, we would swim, and when we ran out of things to say, he would disappear under water, staying there for longer and longer periods of time.
The last time he came up, he had turned into a turtle, also named Oscar.
As a turtle, Oscar had little of interest to talk about. Mainly eggs. I found it hard to follow and soon lost interest. Then he started shrinking. I grew worried, and brought him ashore. On the beach, an Israeli couple were setting up a concession with some jewelry and parts of computers. They called me over, quite agitated; they knew my turtle and were concerned for his well-being. By this time, Oscar had shrunk to the size of my palm. The woman said she could fix him, so I handed him over. He kept shrinking. First his flippers fell off, then his body fell out of his carapace and he was gone.
I’m not a mean person. I don’t wish misery, but this morning, after a night of terrible dreams searching for ways out of crumbling places, after reading this mornings news – The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, NY Mag, The Atlantic/Republic/Vanity Fair, after following David Frum on Twitter, listening to his interview on National Public Radio, following the Lit Hub link to Rebecca Solnik. I wished Donald Trump off the face of the planet in the most humiliating way possible.
Yes. Let it be broadcast on CNN.
I’m reading Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich in Leningrad. The city was brought to its knees by its own leader, clearing the path for the German army to finish it off, to break its neck and snuff its soul. I used to think of Trump as Hitler, but that was selling Hitler short, for wasn’t Hitler the genius manipulating Stalin to purge his military and weaken the people? Which Stalin proceeded to accomplish, out of his narcissism, his flaming death love, his cultural stupidity, his lack of curiosity, his arrested development – thereby weakening his people and his army? Is this not stupidity? Trump,we have just been told, is not stupid, for he has correctly identified a picture as that of a camel; he can draw a cube and a clock face set to a particular time. Wow. I bet Stalin would have done well, too.
But is Trump dangerous? America in 2018 is not Russia before WW2. We have never been oppressed under Tsars; we have always been the oppressors. The government hasn’t starved out the opposition, vanished millions of people, executed by decree, commanded people switch professions, ghettoize entire communities, forced confessions, closed off the borders, made the press the enemy of the people. Except for Native Americans, African Americans, Jews and Italians under former immigration quotas, women. Muslims, Mexicans, and children (by ruining the public school system.)
Dogs however are doing well, although we have to be watchful as Trump doesn’t seem to like them.
Witness the packing of the courts, the erasure of the opposition, the equation of truth with fake news, gerrymandering districts, voter restrictions, demonizing minorities, encouraging the far right, erasing regulations, stripping health care, denying science, ruining our coasts, denying aid for the poor…But our people aren’t passive. We have Our Revolution, the ACLU, Indivisible. We have mayors and corporations taking the place of our country at the Paris Accord. We have Barack Obama, bless him forever, in the best of shape.