Our friend Rebecca sent over a book she found in the cast-off pile in the St. Albans dump. It is Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver. After dinner, we settle our dog on the couch between us and read her poems. One begins, “a puppy is a puppy is a puppy.” She looks off to the distant kitchen. Our dog has not heard of Gertrude Stein, I can tell.
We try another poem. Here’s how it goes:
Percy by Mary Oliver Our new dog. named for the beloved poet. ate a book which unfortunately we had left unguarded. Fortunately, it was the Bhagavad Gita of which many copies are available. Every day now, as Percy grows into the beauty of life, we touch his wild, curly head and say, “Oh wisest of little dogs.”
Our dog, a little rescue lab not named for a famous poet, put a paw on my chest and said, “When I (unfortunately) ate your new Folio collectable edition of Moby-Dick, you were not so generous.”
When the American president assassinates an Iranian General, Iran lobs missiles at a US army base. No one gets hurt, except for what is dismissed as headaches, as in ‘we can assassinate your hero but you can only cause us a headache.’ But later we learn that 50 troops are treated for brain damage. Moments later, a civilian aircraft on its way to Ukraine crashes just after take off, killing 176, mostly Ukrainians and Iranian Canadians. Iran blames failed mechanics, the airline, Boeing and the US. Thousands of Iranians gather to mourn their General and hate us. Too many, because there is a stampede where people are trampled to death. Meanwhile, a video is released. Here is the plane, here is the missile, here is the impact. Iran says whoops, our bad, egregious error. Now the protesters turn on their own government.
Trump issues statements: we will destroy your culture and the American people love you and want you to flourish. I wonder: what kind of love is it that destroys your culture? But then, videos begin downloading and I am distracted. Australia is burning. Firefighters in shorts cradle Koala Bears wearing hand knit booties over their burned paws. They are wrapped in blankets called Johnny Pouches knit by prisoners. They knit and knit until Australia is overwhelmed. There are billions of animal deaths. My brain crackles. This is a local extinction. And while I sit there, stunned, Puerto Rico is wracked by earthquakes and then a volcano erupts in the Philippines, and somewhere else, people holding babies and blankets make their way through water up to their waists while dogs swim around in circles.
Burning forests, flooding banks. The ground beneath splits like a melon.
Here it is clouds, freezing rain. The landscape waits silently under layers of ice. I sit in front of a fire at a table cubing the meat of an animal who has spent its short, bucolic life in a field eating grass until it is murdered just for me. Under the table, two elderly dogs lie romp-to-romp. I’ve never been to Australia, Ukraine, Iran. but I can imagine. Under the burning brush, new life, although it is difficult to celebrate because, at the same time, we are the burning bush.
“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.
Kavanaugh won. The deficit rose 17 percent. Mitch McConnell says he’s concerned, but no problem, we’ll just pay for it by cutting entitlements.
I’m reading Moby Dick.
In high school, I read to where QQ squatted in a cold fireplace with a wooden doll on his head, causing Ishmael, watching from their shared bed – now there’s a story untod –
to conclude that no religion was more interesting than any other because all was chaos and “it is better to sleep with a cannibal than a drunken Christian.” I agreed with both conclusions and brought the book straight back to the library. Reading Moby Dick was not then cool.
Forty years later, I picked it up on the night of September 11th. This time, I read all the way to the end. Savoring the metaphors, instructions, alliterations, the mood swings. The book obsessed me. Ahab was the fury sacrificing the ship for revenge in swirling metaphors. The imagery was so potent, so contemporary, so driven that I spent the next three years painting them.
My images were of submerged cities where inhabitants sat in restaurants eating at tables while whales watched through broken glass. I have to say no book has inspired me like this since. September 11th 2001 was insane, and so far an anomaly, except for Donald Trump who could be the Ahab of our century.
This time around it occurs to me that Ahab is, in some infernal way, as much the hero of the book as is the whale:
He asks Starbuck, “how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” and answers rhetorically, “To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white wale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun it it insulted me.”
This statement is appalling and yet it is profound. While Ishmael is content to explore without malice a ride on whatever spiritual vehicle he encounters, Ahab is the personification of defiant despair beyond comfort. The whale is his personal personification of evil, to kill the whale is to purify humanity from radical evil. If there be an evil God, then the way to freedom from that evil is to “thrust through the wall” that is the white whale. So his obsession is not only for revenge, but also to learn for himself if God be evil, even if he fails and learns nothing.
And he knows he cannot succeed alone. Like any totalitarian power obsessive, he is precise, and he accomplishes his goals with various strategies, i.e. winning over Starbuck’s “soul and mind” – that is, subjecting the ego to a mob obsession, gathering a military and prophet (Fedullah and friends), pretending his motive is mere capitalism, giving his men heroic significance in his campaign to purify the world of evil. And in moments of rage and sniffle, he demonizes the entire wet world…”Panting and snorting like a mad battlesteed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe” and anoints himself and his ship as the vehicle worthy of plunging into this chaos.
What a line.
This is, of course, the argument of totalitarianism, in the mid 19th Century as Europe headed towards reactionary nationalism that would explode decades later, and is resonant today as our world slips ever deeper and deeper under the weight of kleptocratic oligarchies.
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.
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.
Today I read there are people who net pigeons in New York City and drive them away in minivans. Where do they take them? Here, in the country, the dawn is empty of sound. Now and then, a pair of flycatchers darts across the lake. A robin rests on the lawn studying my next-door neighbor who is riding around on his lawnmower masticating worms, slugs, grubs, grass, frogs, all their eggs and the footprints of his tiny little granddaughter who runs before the machine trailing a balloon. Four Senatorial black crows shoot across the blades, scream off to the beach where thousands more convene. In the evening, the bunnies show up and my next-door neighbor shoots them from his porch. He also shoots the cormorants nesting on the island off his boat dock because they slime the teak on his 1924 Chris Craft Cruiser that he drives across the bay twice a year for dinner. Also, the raccoon families residing close to his garbage, these he catches in have-a-heart traps and carries them off to shoot in the woods. We still have racoons, but my sky fills with bird song. Sixty-eight percent of the songbirds have vanished. I have been wondering about their replacements. I mention this to my neighbor, who has invited me over for a cocktail. My neighbor doesn’t understand why I am pessimistic. No birds were missing at his place, he tells me. Ditto for the bats and mosquitoes. I ask him, how then does he explain the muteness of the dawn? The lack of Birds on the Wires? The lonely morning dove mourning on my roof? Hasn’t he read Ferlinghetti, I ask, smirking, because I know he believes all poets, like annoying animals, should be shot.
They were putting up the statue of St. Francis in front of the church of St.Francis in the City of San Francisco In a little side street just off the avenue where no birds sing
and a lot of old Italians were standing all around on the little side street just off the Avenue watching the wily workers who were hoisting up the statue with a chain and a crane
and other implements and a lot of young reporters in button-down clothes were taking down the words of one young priest who was propping up the statue
with all his arguments and all the while, while no birds sang any St. Francis Passion and while the lookers kept looking up at Saint Francis with his arms outstretched
to the birds who weren’t there a very tall and very purely naked young virgin with very long and very straight straw hair wearing only a very small bird’s nest
in a very existential place kept passing through the crowd all the while and up and down the steps in front of St. Francis her eyes downcast all the while
and singing to herself
My neighbor’s daughter came to my garden to help me pick off the red beetles eating my lilies. She’s hiding from her father because he is teaching her child to step on newborn baby voles. They went for a walk in the woods where he demonstated how to do this. I imagine a giant vole with a mouthful of poisoned teeth scurries up the path to the porch where her father sits drinking gin and tonic. The rodent will climb up his legs, hoist itself on his shoulders and squirt a stream of baby voles up his nostrils.
Then all the songbirds that used to be will open their beaks to sing their hallelujah for everyone in the world but my neighbor to hear.
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.