Desert Room, with Desert Gold Star

Yesterday on NPR, I heard a story about a super-bloom of wildflowers in the California desert: a surge of lushness caused by an unusually wet winter. I listened to this story as I loaded the dishwasher, my eyes looking out on our snowy backyard.

Congregating

Flowers in the desert seemed very far away, but that wasn’t the best part of the story. Instead, it was this: the park ranger they interviewed said these seeds had been lying underground, dormant, for decades or even centuries–that in some places now covered in flowers, they didn’t know how long it had been since it had rained.

Right then and there with my wet hands in the sink, I knew who my new heroes would be: faceless seeds, buried and smothered in arid darkness, waiting. “Nevertheless, they persisted”–cotyledons coiled in seed cases, more patient and resilient than any of the rest of us.

Spiny

Trump’s budget has felt like a kick to the gut–so much cruelty masquerading as conservatism. I get conservatism–it’s about values and sacrifice–but Trump understands neither. It’s heartbreaking to think of a party so small-hearted, it would grab food from the elderly, care from the sick, and shelter from the poor. Trump claims to be rich, but he’s the most tight-fisted man I know: a miserable miser who wants to steal beauty and kindness and compassion from the rest of us.

Desert florets

And yet, we are seeds, and we continue to grow and germinate because the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” cannot be denied. Trump’s roots are shallow and his will weak: “Low energy! Sad!” In two years, four years, eight years–however long it takes–we seeds will sprout and flower, a super-bloom of beauty.

Letter to Maezen

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a 2012 trip to Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. The text of today’s post comes from a letter I wrote yesterday to Karen Maezen Miller, who lives in the lushly flowering state of California. Before I sealed that letter in an envelope to mail across the country, I realized it was a letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

Thoreau with replica house

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Henry David Thoreau. This isn’t unusual: Thoreau is one of my favorite authors, and I spent a good deal of my doctoral dissertation analyzing his writing. I have a whimsical portrait of Thoreau over my desk because he represents many of the things I personally hold dear: he was a writer and a naturalist, a walker and a rebel. In a world insistent upon choosing sides, Thoreau was both an artist and a scientist, both poetic and political, both active and contemplative. When I try to imagine a well-rounded, grounded, and self-reliant person, Thoreau is who immediately comes to mind.

Spartan

I’ve been thinking more than usual these days about Henry David Thoreau because of “Civil Disobedience,” an essay published in 1849 that inspired both Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” a lesser-known essay that Thoreau first delivered as a lecture in Framingham on July 4, 1854, after escaped slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston and sent back south. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the Mexican War and its expansion of slavery, and in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he condemns Northern cooperation with the Fugitive Slave Act. In both essays, Thoreau turns his eye with all its acuity on the social ills of his day, as if politics were no less interesting than natural history. This politically engaged way of looking at the world seems particularly helpful in 2017, exactly two centuries after Thoreau was born.

Stove and two chairs

Although the popular image of Thoreau is that of a quiet misanthrope twiddling his thumbs alongside a peaceful pond, Thoreau was outspoken during the most politically tumultuous time in American history. When Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in Massachusetts,” the political debate over slavery was ratcheting the nation toward civil war, and Thoreau was deeply engaged in that debate. Thoreau didn’t just sit back and ignore the political issues of his day; although he cherished his solitude, Thoreau wasn’t an escapist. Instead, Thoreau figured out how to balance engagement and renewal, speaking out on political issues as he was able, but also finding time to unplug.

Desk with guestbook

Ever since the election, I’ve been spending a lot of time following news coverage and political commentary on Trump, Trumpism, and the burgeoning resistance to both. There has been a surge on the left of people trying to learn and understand everything from the demographics of the white working class to constitutional law and immigration policy. While folks on the right raced to buy guns when Obama was elected, folks on the left are now racing to read books. Unlike Trump supporters who shield themselves from “fake news” by plugging their ears to any coverage that doesn’t come straight from the President himself, people on the other side of the political divide have been reading widely and deeply, seeking multiple perspectives in an attempt to stay informed.

Thoreau's snowshoes

This attempt to stay informed, however, can get tiring: sometimes I envy the quiet complacency of the right, who can sit back and trust that America will magically become Great now that Trump is in charge. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, I would have presumably done the same, patting myself on the back for doing my civic duty at the ballot box and considering my job as a citizen to be over. Since the election, however, I find myself moonlighting as an activist, keeping a constant eye on breaking news, receiving daily text messages and emails urging me to contact elected officials on the issue du jour, and otherwise staying vigilant, ready to cancel plans and rush off to protest the latest executive order, unsettling tweet, or constitutional crisis.

Thoreau's bed and desk

In the aftermath of 9/11, people quickly learned that you can’t remain on high alert forever, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be lulled to sleep. Beth recently wrote about self-care during the resistance: if you plan to be an effective activist in the long run, you have to prioritize and pick your battles. This is, again, where I find Thoreau to be particularly inspiring. Thoreau spoke out against slavery, the Mexican War, and other political outrages of his day, but he also managed to take daily walks, write in his journal, keep a careful chronicle of wild flora and fauna, and tend his garden. Thoreau, in other worlds, figured out a way to simultaneously exist and resist.

Weathered

What Thoreau didn’t do, of course, was stay inside glued to either CNN or his Facebook feed: instead, he was outside and active. A lot of modern-day critics of Thoreau argue (rightfully) that his activism was largely symbolic: the single night in jail Thoreau describes in “Civil Disobedience” didn’t single-handedly bring down slavery. But just because an act of protest is symbolic doesn’t mean it is isn’t powerful, as many of the accoutrements of power are themselves symbolic.

Peace

Donald Trump didn’t magically become a different man when he raised his hand and took the oath of office, but that symbolic action marked a monumental transition of power. Some of the most alarming news items these days stem not from official policy Trump and his administration has enacted, but the tone-setting influence of angry rants and recklessly worded tweets. Words are nothing more than symbols, but that doesn’t mean words don’t matter.

Adirondack Writers' Guild

By writing about his night in jail, Thoreau preserved it for the ages, reminding generation after generation that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” The concept of civil disobedience–Thoreau’s insistence that the government is a machine, and private citizens can strip government of its power by intentionally becoming a “counter-friction to stop the machine”–is not new or earth-shattering: had Thoreau not written “Civil Disobedience,” both King and Gandhi would have found inspiration elsewhere.

Henry David Thoreau's grave

But the fact remains that Thoreau did write this essay: he planted a seed. The tree of peaceful protest would have found some other method of germination had Thoreau never tended it, but he was a faithful servant in freedom’s garden. A solitary and sometimes cantankerous man, Thoreau probably never envisioned the communal movements that both King and Gandhi led: what started as one man spending one night in jail has inspired massive collective movements that have changed the world. Even the largest earthquake starts with a tiny tremor.

February

History is neither a marathon or sprint; instead, history is a relay race. Thoreau did nothing more than pick up the baton of justice and pass it on, and we should expect nothing less of ourselves. It’s important to show up–to engage in faithful, regular deeds, even if those deeds are small–as a way of claiming our priorities. It is not necessary to do everything, but do not fail to do something. As you are able, act. If you cannot act, speak up; if you cannot speak up, listen. If you can neither act, speak up, nor listen, by all means pray. Remain faithful in small things, and trust your acts will be echoed by others, achieving a cumulative effect. We’re in this for the long haul, and there is a need for all sorts of acts and activism.

Stella through raindrops

Winter storm Stella arrived this morning, right on schedule: the tracking of storms has gotten so reliable, we’ve known for days Stella was on her way, bringing with her over a foot of snow and blizzard-force winds. Although local stores were flooded yesterday with shoppers buying armloads of bread, milk, and eggs, I’d done my grocery shopping on Friday, well in advance of the last minute rush. J and I have weathered enough winter storms, we know the drill.

Front walkway

A few days before a big storm, J and I make sure we have a week’s supply of groceries and other essentials: pity the folks who get snowed-in without toilet paper, kitty litter, or aspirin. We check our flashlights and battery-powered radios, fully charge our phones and other devices, and stock up on library books and Kindle downloads.

If a storm sounds particularly daunting, I’ll make sure my car has a full tank of gas in case we lose electricity and need to use a car-charger to power our phones, and I’ll withdraw some extra cash in case ATMs and credit card machines are down. The day before the storm, J will bring the snowblower onto the back porch so it’s ready to clear a path to freedom, and I’ll park my car at the end of the driveway, just in case the snowblower dies and I have to “Subaru-through” to the cleared road.

Midday

The truth is, we’ve rarely needed these extreme measures: when we’ve lost power in past storms, service has been quickly restored, and we’ve never been snowed-in for days. In an emergency, we could probably survive a week or more on the staples we keep in our pantry. But when the wind is rattling the windows and a billowing blur of tiny snowflakes is falling as fine as sifted flour, there is comfort in knowing the cupboards are stocked and the home fires are stoked.

Antique instruments

Last week, J and I went to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert:  the last of three such concerts we’ve gone to this season.  The program featured a symphony by Sibelius and a piano concerto by Busoni, two composers I wasn’t familiar with.  The soloist who played the Busoni piece, Kirill Gerstein, was amazing:  the concerto was long, fast, and complicated, and Gerstein performed it without sheet music, committing more than 70 minutes of emphatic, keyboard-pounding music to muscle-memory.

I don’t know much about classical music, and during any given concert, my mind sometimes wanders.  But I’m always inspired by the mastery both regular symphony members and visiting soloists demonstrate as they perform long, intricately orchestrated pieces.  I’m not a musician, so playing an instrument seems difficult enough, and playing an instrument in unison with an entire orchestra of others seems downright miraculous.

Antique instruments

My favorite moments in any concert are the quiet ones, when all eyes are on the conductor and you can almost hear the musicians holding their collective breath.  These expectant moments thrill me in a way the dramatic crescendos and flourishes do not.  Playing loudly seems easy enough:  even I could make a lot of noise with a horn or drum.  But it takes talent and a well-tamed temperament to ride the crests and troughs of a well-written concerto, the music and surging and subsiding in unexpected and ultimately satisfying ways.

 

Ouroboros

Last week I briefly browsed a new exhibit at the Mazmanian Gallery at Framingham State University: Ouroboros, a set of works on paper by Jacquelyn Gleisner. The exhibit is colorful, with folded paper cones congregating on the floor and a long paper scroll unwound along one wall. On the facing wall is a shelf displaying filled watercolor books–sketchbooks like the one A bought me for Christmas–filled with paintings made over traced outlines of human hands.

Sketchbooks

Beside these finished books was a blank sketchbook set out for visitors to trace their own hand, which I immediately did. Gleisner will, presumably, use this book in her future work, but that’s not what enchanted me about it. Instead, I was excited to realize I could easily use that sketchbook A gave me to make my very own “handbook”: tracings of my own human hands filled in with color, a one-of-a-kind, personalized coloring book.

Ouroboros

That is, I think, the best effect an exhibit or work of art can have: not the bitter accusation “Even I could to that” but the awed realization “Even I could do that!” There’s no reason you should leave an art exhibit feeling dispirited, as if the act of inspiration is over and done. Instead, you should leave an exhibit feeling inspired, your view of the world and its possibilities expanded. If any given artist can transform the lifeless stuff of paper, pen, and paint into something interesting, why can’t I do that, too?

Ouroboros

This is why I like to walk up to the fourth floor of May Hall during my office hours: it’s a chance to see what anonymous undergraduates are doing in their art classes. It’s heartening to see beginners–many of them non-majors who don’t claim to be artists–exploring new media. It’s like watching nestling birds stretch and flex their wings. You know these fragile creatures will range far and wide once they fledge and fly, but for now, their promise hasn’t yet earned its feathers.

Ouroboros

A large part of the appeal of any artwork is its tactile quality: it thrills me to recognize the works of human hands. Writers and artists share paper in common: we both fill notebooks, and we both know the smudge of pencil-lead and ink. I like the idea of an art project that involves the filling of pages, as that is something I’ve done as a journal-keeper for years upon years. Slowly, I am compiling a library of works made by hand: filled journal pages, and now, perhaps, sketchbooks filled with paintings and drawings and doodles. Filled notebooks are tactile things made by human hands, brimming with the intimacy of pen and pencil on paper.

Teatime

I often take macro shots when I’m feeling uninspired: the act of zooming in to look closely at something feels like an antidote to ennui. I think this traces back to the quizzes I’d sometimes see in children’s books in the dentist’s waiting room, where ordinary objects were photographed in microscopic detail and you were challenged to guess what you were looking at. These quizzes always pointed to the utterly alien nature of even the most mundane objects, a toothbrush or human hair becoming fascinating when you looked at it closely.

Witch hazel in bloom

My fascination with macro shots is also a carry-over from my days as an amateur botanist, when I spent a lot of time looking closely at wildflowers. Most flowers are prettier up-close than they are from afar, the intricate structure of petal, pistil, and stamen being revealed only upon close examination. Some wildflowers are so delicately detailed, you can accurately identify them only with the assistance of a jeweler’s loupe, the four apparent petals of an enchanter’s nightshade, for example, revealing themselves to be truly two only under magnification.

Wooden coffee stirrers

I like the way macro shots force you to look closely at a single thing, the larger context being cropped away. Instead of an entire forest, you can contemplate a single leaf on a single tree, reality reduced to a solitary thing full of hidden complexities. I tell myself that if I can focus on something small, I can understand larger phenomena through extrapolation; the focusing, after all, is the skill to be honed. William Blake’s suggestion that you can “see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower” is deeply comforting to those of us who were bookish children, accustomed to traveling the world from the safety of our bedrooms, the pages of a book being larger than life.

This is my contribution to this week’s Photo Friday challenge, Macro.

Double arch stone bridge

I spent the weekend with A (not her real initial) in Great Barrington: a weekend visit to last until summer, when traveling to see one another is easier. On Saturday, we did a great deal of walking–along the Keystone Arch Bridges trail in Chester in the morning, and along the trolley trail in Housatonic in the evening before dark. On Sunday we spent the day on more contemplative pursuits: writing, reading, and sipping tea over long conversations.

One of the things we talked about was ideation: A’s temperamental proclivity toward big ideas. It turns out that A and I see the world in different ways, or at least from different angles, and this might be the secret to our friendship: our personalities are complementary, not merely compatible.

Waterfall

A is sustained by ideas; she is a woman of concepts and cognition. I, on the other hand, am a person of experience and actions, preferring tangible things to thoughts. It’s not that I dislike ideas, but I need to come upon them indirectly: I need to sense a thing in order to conceptualize it. I am a person who lives and dies by William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things”: to understand an idea, I need to somehow touch it.

This is, perhaps, another way of saying I’m a modern-day Transcendentalist. In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that every idea has its antecedent in nature, the natural world being a grand dictionary of symbols. For Emerson, human language is an abstraction rooted in nature: words are powerful only if they are tightly tied to the tangible phenomena that exemplify them.

We missed this clearly marked turn

Emersonian idealism tends to minimize nature, reducing the natural world to set of signs that exists primarily to satisfy humanity’s cognitive needs. But in my mind (and in, I’d argue, Thoreau’s), there is another sort of idealism that gives nature the ultimate primacy. The natural world can survive (and probably would be better off) without humans, but humans need the tangible stuff of nature to make intellectual sense of the world.

The Keystone Arch Bridges trail wends along the West Branch of the Westfield River, and the dirt road A and I followed was alternatively icy and muddy, a ridge of hard-pack snow sliced by muddy tire ruts. We had to pay close attention to the ground underfoot as we walked, at one point focusing so intently on our footfalls, we missed a clearly marked trail junction.

Waterfall

The mind is elusive, but the body undeniable. The best ideas, in my opinion, aren’t rooted in the fragile neurochemistry of the brain but in the muscular strength of the gut, the rising and falling diaphragm, and the perpetually beating heart. Or, as the character of Japhy Ryder said in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, “The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”

A keystone arch bridge is as material as it gets, each block of stone weighty and substantial. The railroad bridges in Chester were constructed in the 1830s without the use of mortar. Marvels of engineering, keystone arches are pieced together so that the pull of gravity holds each stone in place, weight being distributed across the arch and down its legs. Locking this structure in place is the keystone at the arch’s apex: the last stone set is the one that holds everything together.

Double arch stone bridge

When you are hiking on treacherous trails, you have little time to think; with so many things to pay attention to, you have little energy for discursive thought. This is one of the things I like about hiking: whereas walking down a smooth, level path is an invitation to thought, the literal balancing act required when you walk a treacherous trail pulls you out of your head and back into your body. Hiking isn’t a spur to thinking, but an antidote to it.

Like Whitman, I’m not interested in ideas that “prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds, and along the landscape and flowing currents.” The mind is a creature that wanders into illusionary realms, but the body is a concrete thing that exists nowhere other than here and now, in the tactile world of water, rocks, and trees.

Waterfall

In The Dharma Bums, Ray Smith falters while hiking the Matterhorn because he fears the things that might happen: he might fall, he might get hurt, he might fail to make it to the top. Japhy, on the other hand, is as unselfconscious as a mountain goat, hopping from boulder to boulder without a thought of risk or danger.

“The secret of this kind of climbing,” said Japhy, “is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen.”

Double arch stone bridge

This weekend, A and I took turns being Japhy, one of us staying stable and upright whenever the other wavered or wobbled. This is one of the benefits of befriending one’s complement: you have a buddy to back you up.

The dictum “No ideas but in things” is itself an idea, and any one of us alternates between ideation and action, these two modes working best when they move hand-in-hand. Ideas are the right foot; tangible objects the left. Step by step, each in turn, is how we move forward, whether slow and faltering or steady and sure.