effigy mounds fogThe Mississippi River on a crisp fall morning can be very beautiful. Between Wisconsin and Iowa, it is several miles wide and frosted with a thick layer of steaming fog. You can see that the sun is trying to break through, but it hasn’t yet and the trees on the river islands are a silvery gray silhouette; the water is a mirror.

And above the river on the Iowa bluffs just north of the bridge at Prairie du Chien, Wisc., there are relics of prehistoric Native Americans.mississippi river effigy

Effigy Mounds National Monument is a 1,475-acre park that preserves over 200 prehistoric Indian mounds, dating as far back as 2,500 years ago. Among them are 26 built in the animal-cracker shapes of bears and birds, only visible as such from the sky.

Indian burial mounds are found over much of the United States; effigy mounds are found in a relatively small area in northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southern Wisconsin.wisconsin tree beside mississippi

It’s a steep climb from the parking lot to the top of the bluff where the animals are. On a chilly, foggy morning, you breath condenses on your face. There are only the near trees and the wildflowers.

Oaks and maples make up the bulk of the trees, but there are also red osier, basswood and hickory.

The sumac is intense maroon; the maple a neon orange; the oak is the dark, brownish red of dried blood.

The understory is full of joe pye weed, queen anne’s lace gone dry and dark, and the last glories of aster.

The first “animal” you see at the top is a tiny bear, only a few feet long, spread out in profile on the ground with his nose to the left and round butt to the right. If it weren’t pointed out, you might easily miss it in the generally rocky, bumpy topography. But there he is; his function is unknown. It isn’t a burial mound, although those exist, too. He may have had some ceremonial purpose that we’ll never know.Bear Mound 1

Other mounds are simply round, conical mounds from the so-called Hopewell culture. They are all initially disappointing. They don’t seem like much more than bean hills.Great Bear Mound pan

And then, finally, the Great Bear, some 120 feet long, although only three or four feet tall. His outline is quite clear, however: Two legs, a long body with a blunt head at the end.

Yes, this bear is long, but he’s still only a 3-foot-high pile of dirt covered in grass.

We live in a world whose yardstick is produced by Steven Spielberg. If it doesn’t sing and shout or have fireworks, we fail to be impressed. So I sat, for a long time, soaking in the bear and the wet air. The longer I looked, the more intriguing the mound became. Why a bear? And all the other bears look to the left, so why is this single giant bear turned in the opposite direction? Who was supposed to see it? Were there trees blocking the view of the gods then as there are now? And if they had meaning when they were made, what is their meaning now?aerial view 1

There are many odd and inexplicable things in human experience: Whirling Dervishes; the Hindu Juggernaut; the Republican budget. This bear is among them, though in a very quiet way, sitting silently in the Midwestern forest.

I sat for an hour in the woods and didn’t recognize the passing of time.

Our lives are lived in Twitter time, with gnat-like 140-character attention spans. But the things that matter live in a different now, one that moves very slowly and pays little attention to the gnats.

The mounds have been here a long time; the trees even longer; and the rocks even longer than that.

Such a time frame is important to experience on occasion.

coal town wv
The view from the top of the mountain gives you the conventionally Romantic view of the landscape, the long view, closer to heaven and further from the streets. The view is pristine, and the tiny ants below, with their Ford Pintos and 7-Elevens, hardly muck up the scene.

It is the Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, of Frederic Edwin Church, of Albert Bierstadt and the landscape stands in for a kind of vast, sublime Eden.

This is the view of West Virginia promulgated by its official state song: “Almost Heaven.” And it isn’t that such a view is false. It isn’t false — there really is great beauty in the mountainscape of the state as seen from its peaks — but it is partial. Conversely, it is easy to see the bottoms of the mountains as some sort of dystopia: the epitome of Appalachia and its poverty, meth use, grime, coal-mining eco-disaster and educational malaise. coal tipple wv bw

But there is a Romanticism of the hill-bottoms, too. I don’t mean a nostalgia for the black-and-white WPA photographs and the “simpler, old-timey folksiness.” That kind of Romanticism is a refusal to recognize reality. That isn’t really Romanticism, it is escapism.

No, I mean that the soot, the coal trains, the sludgy stream in the mountain cove, the old homes, with their collapsing porches and front yard full of automotive detritus can elicit their own sense of the sublime.

You drive through the valleys of West Virginia coal country, around the impeding hills to the next valley and you pass grade crossings, coal tipples, rusting car frames half submerged in the streams, and lines of houses just up the hill from the road. Next to the road is the railroad track and next to that is the stream, all following the same geography. appalachian plateau BW cropped

The central part of the state, the Appalachian Plateau, is a weathered peneplain, where all the mountains are rounded bumps all about the same height, like the mountains children put into their tempera paintings, one seen in between two others.

It is primarily in these mountains that coal is mined. And in those valleys, crossed with a braid-work of streams, railroad tracks and roads, that most people live and work. Pocohontas wv

In the south, you have McDowell County, a center of coal production country spreading into Kentucky and western Virginia. The collapse of the industry means that the population is one-fourth what it was in 1950, poverty is rampant, and for those men that remain, the average lifespan is the lowest in the U.S. — 12 years shorter than the national average.

In the plateau region, which is what most people think of as “typical” West Virginia, the roads meander through the V-notches between the hills; it is impossible to drive in a straight line anywhere. You are always curving around some mountain into the next valley and around the next mountain.

Until the opening of the West Virginia Turnpike and I-77 and I-79 (work not completed until 1987), traveling anywhere in West Virginia was a slow and tortuous process, and locations not a hundred miles apart as the crow flies, could be more than 250 by car. Aside from the chute-the-chute of the Interstate system, driving in the state is still pretty much a slalom. bradshaw wv

In the small towns, smeared longways along the streams and tracks, the hardware stores and groceries have largely been supplanted by Dollar Stores and coin laundries, and the largest private employer in McDowell County is the Walmart. There are satellite dishes — many dangling and unhooked. The macadam at the gas station is potholed and the store sign advertises prices for cigarettes by the carton.

But, despite this triumph of entropy, the landscape has significance. It has meaning: Just ask any who live there. They may be needy to escape, but if they leave, they pine to return. It is a landscape that gets under your skin, like coal dust gets under your fingernails. keystone wv night coal mine bw

It is a mythic landscape, not a pristine one. It tells us things about the universe and about life.

It is a landscape with its own hell: underground fires that can last decades and at night glow red and orange like the combustion of hell. Some count over 500 such fires in West Virginia. Avernus may be the gate to the underworld for the ancient Romans, but it is West Virginia in the New World. coal train and house

The slow rusting of old refrigerators and Chevys, and abandoned buildings overgrown with weeds and vines, their glass broken out and now enameled with spray-can art, and the closed factories, with lines of smokestacks — these all tally the losses, the sucking down into the past of the present, spinning like water around a drain before disappearing into oblivion. This, too, is sublime. We feel it more in places like West Virginia; it is instantly visible.

Also, because the land is littered with the obsolete and abandoned, you can see them, can pay attention. In suburbia, familiarity has dulled our senses and we hardly notice the clapboards, the street curbs, the cars in the shopping center parking lots, the school buildings, the very trees that line the roads. They are there to be seen, but who actually looks? coal train in rain bw

In this moonscape of detritus, waste, loss and forgetting, the details are burned once again into us, made unfamiliar by rot and decay, so we can see them again. The very “thingness” of each chesspiece on this gameboard of depletion makes them palpable and gives them presence, and presence imbues meaning — significance.

There is a difference between the pretty and the beautiful. Postcard sunsets and green mountain vistas are all pretty enough, but they distract us from the essential facts; they are a magician’s misdirection, keeping our eye from the real thing. As Tom Robbins wrote, “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.” The real thing is our gaze into the eye of eternity, and you get that from contemplating anything bigger, vaster, scarier, more overwhelming than yourself. coopers wv grad crossing

Yes, you can look at the old tires and relic houses and see only a failed economy, but you look instead at the passing of time engraved on those same objects and you see intense beauty.

Appalachian Plateau wv 1I am standing on a peak in West Virginia. It is New Year’s Day and it’s 6 o’clock in the morning; the sun has not quite risen and the moon has not yet set. All around me on the ground, a rime has crusted the brown grass and it crunches under my foot. My breath fogs the air in front of me and congeals on my beard. The cold burns my trachea and numbs the flesh of my nose.

It is an experience that is etched by acid into the neural paths of my brain. It is one of those “peak” experiences that seems somehow more real than real, more alive than the light of day.

As the sun rises in the icy cold, streaking the mountain landscape with long morning shadows, I recognize that this is why I travel.

There is a “nowness” to this particular now that does not attach to any other. A placeness to this place. And my recognition of that nowness is a stronger stimulant than caffeine.

I am a traveler; I have been all my life. When I was a little boy, I couldn’t wait for my father to pull the keys to the ’50 Chevy out of his pocket and ask if I wanted to come with him. When other children slept in the back seat, I was always awake and wide eyed.

As a college student, I took the time between semesters to hitchhike to places I had never been. I wanted to know the planet.

And ever since, I am mad to find where the road goes next.

And the reason is the nowness of it, and the placeness.

You can see pictures in coffeetable travel books and watch PBS travel shows, but nothing compares to the physical, sensuous actuality of being there.

Travel is more than just dates and destinations, more than admissions fees and show schedules. Travel is about being somewhere, and that somewhere is always more alive than the place you have grown accustomed to.

It is the particular neon red color of the dirt in northern Mississippi; the waterfall of clouds over the crest of Table Mountain in Capetown, South Africa; the whoop of a loon on Daicey Pond in Maine.

Each of these is a dart that deflates the complacency of everyday living, which insulates me like a skin, and brings my bones into direct contact with the air.

I have known people for whom travel is a mere change of venue: the same show every night in a different city. For them, getting in a car is like getting in an elevator. They are impatient for the movement to stop so they can get on with whatever task drove them in the first place.

But it is not that way for me, or for anyone else who loves travel. I don’t mean “vacation” and I don’t mean mere tourism, though they may be aspects of the travel.

I mean the buzzing of the neurons that comes from pulling in to Kayenta in the late afternoon to see shadow-black excite the texture and sunlight-red excite the color of the bluffs, so that a small patch of green grass where some horses graze seems electric under the ruddy rock.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is the early morning dew dripping from the pistils of a rhododendron along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia where the path is lined with geraniums, maypops and pinks.

It is also the bus fumes at the 175th Street bus terminal at the end of the George Washington Bridge, and the quickened pace of life in New York City.

Habitual life desensitizes us. We wake, we go to work, we eat and sleep. We wade through a week that is much like the last. Travel awakens us and reacquaints us with the pinpoint accuracy of the now and here.

And being there, wherever it is, is the very point of being alive.

NEXT: West Virginia, Part 2 — At the bottom of the mountain

o'keeffe road to the ranch 2Our eyes are the great nexus between the inner and outer worlds, where the outer existence pours into our consciousness as if funneled through our irises, and where, conversely, our inner selves are projected, like a light-beam, out onto the world. Neither is sufficient of itself, but together, they create our sensibilities.

vision x 1

It is a great “X” where the two lines cross on our retinas and expand outward into the landscape on one side, and inward onto our cortex on the other. Which open angle of the “X” subsumes the larger extent has been the subject of philosophizing for thousands of years.

(This is not meant as a scientific description of the physiology of sight, but a metaphor for vision.)

Andrew Marvell summarized this process, albeit in his witty turn on a once-familiar Elizabethan trope, in his poem, The Garden, where he creates an image out of this “X:” “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find” and then goes on to say how that interchange is always colored by the mind that perceives: “Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

Which is all a long, roundabout way of saying that landscape — the world around us: geology, geography, our neighborhoods, even the interior of our homes — is never neutral, but always has meaning. It is this meaning that makes the land we inhabit so important to our intellectual understanding of the world.

We can easily misunderstand “meaning.” It does not stand for the equals sign in an equation: this means that; but rather we should understand “meaning” as “significance,” as when we wake up from a dream thinking “that dream meant something.” We may not know what the dream meant, but we are left with the distinct conviction that it had significance. This significance — this meaning — is the electrical power that charges myth and makes it glow from the inside.

The land, as we perceive ourselves living in it, is a projection of ourselves, as much as we are a product of it. robt lee 1

It was the land he grew up in that Robert E. Lee felt compelled to defend in the Civil War. The causes and results of that war are manifold, and the self-interest of slave owners should not be underplayed, but when Lee discussed his motives, it was his patriotism, not for the Union, but for the single commonwealth of Virginia that drove his actions: and it was the landscape he grew up in that fueled that sectional patriotism. (Again, this is not to justify Lee or the Confederacy, but to understand how much the landscape he grew up in defined his vision of what the world was and should be). Yoknapatawpha.County map

The landscape informs almost every important piece of literature, from the Mediterranean upon which Odysseus sailed to the woods of Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner populated, back to the snowy steppes of Russia in War and Peace and forward again to the Pennsylvanian suburbs of John Updike.

It is not merely that the action in a novel or epic has to take place somewhere, but that the land itself becomes a character and influences the lives and thought of all who inhabit it.

The land we inhabit in life has the same kind of metaphorical power that it does in literature. In some ways, we each live in the novel (or epic) of our own lives, and the characters in our personal novels all have meaning to us, including the land we tread.

That mythic force is why we feel the rise in our throats when we sing of “amber waves of grain,” and “purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain.”

Our ur-landscape also provides a model of the wider world, which can influence our thought, emotions and political views, even when that landscape gives us distorted information. If we live in a city, we tend to think of the world as thick with people who have to get along to survive; if we grew up in Wyoming, we are more likely to see the world as mostly empty, and our interactions with others as less important, and often intrusive, and our survival dependent on ourselves alone. Conversely, those interactions in the rural West tend to be understood more personally, while in the bustle of New York, you must create some private space among the throng, and therefore can seem more impersonal to a neutral observer.

In the city, horizons are blocked and the space in which we understand ourselves to be acting is constricted; in the American West, horizons are planetary, and we believe ourselves to be actors in a vast scheme. The mythologies that develop in such places are vastly different.

Manhattan and Wyoming are just two extremes, but each landscape provides its own influence, has its own meaning.

It isn’t a question of right or wrong, but of partial visions, each partly distorted, partly clear. The Georgia farmer and the Maine lobsterman or the Cuban immigrant in Miami don’t merely see their home towns and counties as different, but project those differences out into the rest of the country (there is a reason our so-called “red states” and “blue states” are organized geographically) and onto the rest of the world, including the Middle East, Putin’s Russia and expanding China. It is an unavoidable provincialism. Travel is the cure.

Not merely that travel introduces us to other peoples, but shows us other soil, and other relationships to that soil. Landscape has great power.

It is to seek this power that great landscape artists — whether painters or photographers — make their pictures. It is not to make a postcard of a pretty piece of scenery, but to find in the land a metaphor for thought, emotion or state of mind — or even a political philosophy.

I am reminded of a passage in Hector Berlioz’s memoirs, where he says, “It is like the visitor who go up into the colossal statue of San Carlo Borromeo in Como (Italy), and who are amazed to discover the room where they have just sat is the inside the saint’s head.”clearing storm winter

And one is surprised, looking at Ansel Adams’ Clearing Storm Winter, Yosemite, that the view is as much inside one’s head as it is of the outer world. That is, that the scene feels in some way a perfect metaphor for the imagined landscape inside the skull, including a floor, a valley with borders, a tall ceiling or sky, and lots of weather. “That’s my brain,” I say looking at the photograph.yosemites postcard 1

But, of course, the land isn’t always that dramatic, always that Romantic. Indeed, Adams’ photographs can easily drop into the picturesque, like some supremely crafted post-card image. And it isn’t only the great mountains of the West that have meaning in landscape art.

The other great Adams in photography, Robert Adams, can photograph a street in Los Angeles or the flat plains of Nebraska and find a way — to quote him from his book, Why People Photograph — “to affirm life without lying about it.”Hopper

Telling the truth, however, isn’t the same as reporting the fact. The truth of how land creates meaning is obvious in the paintings, say, of Edward Hopper, where the raking light of early morning gives New York City a glowing loneliness that says something more truthful than merely transcendence in the light or the alienation of the empty street. There is both. The disjunction gives the painting its power.

I remember the first time my wife and I drove out West. We both grew up in the East, with its forests and slope-shouldered hills, with its rivers and streams, its highways and billboards. But as we drove, the landscape slowly became less and less familiar as the trees thinned out and the hills flattened into the billiard table of the Texas panhandle. Then, suddenly, the bottom dropped out of the world, right at the New Mexico border and we descended from the tableland into a land of buttes and mesas in the Canadian River basin. The ground was dun and gravelly and we realized for the first time that the landscape of the Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoons was a real landscape, and that all those tall buttes didn’t so much rise up above the land, as that the land dropped away from the peneplain into vast miles of valley, with the buttes as remnants of the former geology. It wasn’t merely a change in scenery, but a completely different world.
Monument Valley mittensAs we traveled around the country, we kept finding new worlds, and each new world was a new birth for us, a new awareness of the variety of meanings and significances of the planet.

NEXT: West Virginia

Victrola

From the “Preamble” to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art.

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

Really it should be possible to hope that this be recognized as so, and as a mortal and inevitably recurrent danger. It is scientific fact. It is disease. It is avoidable. Let a start be made. And then exercise your perception of it on work that has more to tell you than mine has. See how respectable Beethoven is; and by what right any wall in museum, gallery or home presumes to wear a Cezanne; and by what idiocy Blake or work even of such intention as mine is ever published and sold. I will tell you a test. It is unfair. It is untrue. It stacks all the cards. It is out of line with what the composer intended. All so much the better.

Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, or of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music. 

Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.

frim suit

T. Baxter Frim rode to work on the subway each day, wearing a blue suit so dark it might as well have been black.

It was a heavy, wool suit, with stripes barely visible, and a vest with a watch pocket. He did not own a pocket watch; he would have thought it an affectation. The suit smelled in the rain, but he kept it neatly pressed, with  cuffs.

You might think he was reflexively conservative, but along with the suit, he never wore a hat. And this was five years before Kennedy’s hatless inauguration. Frim was ahead of the world on this one issue.

But this is not a story about the suit, but about a man who would choose to wear such a suit.

Born in Quidney, Vermont, he was trained as an accountant, but found his life’s work as an actuary for the New Haven and Manhattan Indemnity Corporation. When he was 45, he started writing poetry.

It was an unusual avocation for an actuary, perhaps, but none of his coworkers knew about it. The only one who did was his wife, Marie, and she didn’t think about it much.

He had a few pieces published, in “Garden Monthly,” the “National P.T.A. Journal,” the “Melville, Alabama, Weekly Star,” “American Steel Smelting News” and his hometown newspaper, the “Quidney, Vermont, Record.”

Other than that, he had a shoebox full of rejection notices. He kept it in the bottom of his bedroom clothes closet, and popped a new slip in every second or third month.

His life, such as it was, was happy enough. He laughed reasonably often, had a ready pun on occasion, and genuinely loved his wife. His coworkers liked him and he rose steadily, but not spectacularly, at the firm. At the age of 52, he had his own office and a secretary, who we’ll call Hazel.

Everyone who knew him called him Ted. His first name was actually Theophrastus, but Ted seemed to work better.

It was a Monday morning and Ted was crumpling paper and throwing it over his shoulder. One after the other, the rubbish collected on the floor behind his chair.

He started writing again, and wadded up the paper once more.

“It reads like it was written by a committee,” he said to himself.

He was writing his resume.

Since he had turned 50, he had felt the intestinal rumblings of hormonal change in his body. He told himself it was nothing, the way one might say, “It’s only the house settling.” Harry wanted to get out of his job, although he wasn’t sure what he wanted.

He also knew that if he ever wrote the resume the way he wanted it, he probably wouldn’t mail it anywhere.

Ted had felt something like this once before, and quashed the feeling by joining the Army. It was just before Pearl Harbor. He thought a tour in the military might show him a wider corner of the world. The recruiting officer had promised that the Army had need of accountants.

But, instead, they made him a quartermaster and sent him to Kansas.

Just before he left Vermont, he married Marie. They had met at a party at school, and he saw her at the edge of the room, with eyes like a cow’s, looking ready to drip tears. He thought she looked ineffably beautiful.

She was, in fact, in the middle of a trauma that tested everything she had been brought up to believe. She had followed her high-school sweetheart to college when he received a football scholarship. He was the star quarterback and he squired Marie around until their second year, when he came out of the closet.

“I’m queer,” he told her.

“Take some Bromo Seltzer,” she replied.

When he made her understand what he meant, she refused to believe it. She followed him around, trying to figure out how to cure him, and at the very moment Ted had spotted her at the edge of the party, she had spotted her man in a dark corner with his arms around the neck of a young sociology instructor. She could taste the metal of electricity in her tongue, and there was a ringing in her ears.

By the end of the year, she had married Ted and one of her first letters to him in Kansas said, “Great news — I’m in the family way.”

In Kansas, Harry discovered something: a 33 percent markup over wholesale made the wholesale a 25 percent discount. There was never any actual difference in the cost, but it could be like looking into opposite ends of a pair of binoculars. And it meant that when he wrote up his reports, he could use whichever figure, higher or lower, made his case sound better.

Ted had few illusions about the Army.

The Army confirmed Ted’s realism by awarding him a medal for his cost-cutting bookkeeping methods. But it didn’t hurt, he knew, that he was able to supply a certain colonel with his favorite scotch.

(Ted really got the medal, though he never knew it, for running one of the less corrupt units in the war. Officially, though, his medal was for bookkeeping.)

When the war was over, Ted was honorably discharged and returned to see his daughter and wife and take a job at NHMI Corp.

By way of footnote, his daughter will have an interesting life, herself. When she is 16, she will move in with an unpublished novelist who will never be published. At 18, she will get religion and become Presbyterian. That will last a year until she decides to go to vocational school and learn library science. By the time she is 24, she will be running the San Diego city library and all its branches. At 40, she will suffer a one-year marriage to an undertaker. At 52, she will move in with an unsellable painter, also 52. They will live happily for several years. There will be no grandchildren for Ted and Marie.

Meanwhile, T. Baxter Frim rode the subway every day down to 59th Street and walk crosstown to the office. During his lunch hour, he would eat a roast beef sandwich on a kaiser roll, drink a pint of milk and scribble verses on the back of bits of waste paper.

There are stories of businessmen making good in the poetry world, men who rose to vice president in charge of new accounts while transforming the course of English-language poetry at the same time. Ted was not one of them. His knowledge of literature, and his abilities were modest. He liked the verse of Eugene Field and Ella Wheeler Willcox. His own work tended to be sentimental and sincere, and nothing made him happier than to come across a clever rhyme.

It isn’t everyone, after all, who needs to be Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. Not every artist needs to be Picasso, not every musician needs to be Horowitz. There is pleasure enough in small things, performing the rituals of art and poetry, and partaking, in a tiny way, of the giant river of art. The writing was the most satisfying part of Ted’s life, aside from his love for wife and daughter.

And who is to judge Ted’s talent? Perhaps there is more honor in trying than in succeeding. Certainly, there is more satisfaction in the writing than in the having written. If it was a private pleasure, not shared with the larger reading audience, so be it.

At night, after dinner, while the rest of the family watched Red Skelton or Dinah Shore on the Emerson, Ted would transcribe his lunchtime verse and rewrite it, editing it and honing it to the best of his modest abilities.

Marie knew he wrote, but she never bothered him about it, and had never read any of it. He never offered it.

So, when he died, she was surprised by his will.

He had left a condition.

Ted had followed the normal procedures for a will. He left his estate, such as it was, to his wife, with a nice, honorable portion for his daughter.

But he had left the condition.

To quote the document verbatim, it read, “Before the aforementioned party of the first part may have possession of any of the worldly goods left by the party of the deceased part, she will have to arrange for and complete the process of the publication of all the extant rejection notices received by T. Baxter Frim during his long and industrious reign as the laureate of Quidney.”

Her lawyer told her that it wouldn’t take much to fulfill this codicil. That a small run by a vanity press would easily fulfill the requirements, and then she could take possession of the bequest.

But Marie wanted to do right by her late husband, and took the shoebox around from publisher to publisher. No one would take her seriously. Just when she thought she would have to rely on a vanity press, she got a phone call from Viking. An editor there had thought about the problem and believed he had an idea.

The editor organized the contents of the shoebox and later that year, Viking published a volume titled, “The Poet’s Alienation.” It was subtitled, “The Exploring Years, 1946-1965.”

There wasn’t much hope for the book, but Marie was clear for the money.

Then Tom Wolfe reviewed the slender volume in the “New York Review of Books.” He called it “a reflection of our age,” and sales skyrocketed.

All the college professors were discussing a newly found creative genius. The public demanded T.’s earlier writings.

Then came, “The Rainbow’s Eye,” the complete poetry of T. Baxter Frim. With it, “The Collected Letters of Baxter Frim.” Several biographies, ranging from the cheap paperback, “The Passion and the Poet,” to Dr. Everett Bonamy’s expensive hardcover, “T. Baxter Frim and the Contemporary Poetic Situation.”

Marie had many invitations to interviews for famous magazines. Even Ed Murrow called. But she refused all such requests and accidentally created a legend.

She was headlined in all the articles written about her as “the mysterious devoted martyr to the poet’s art.”

Just before she died, three years ago, Marie Frim stipulated in her will that the manuscript of the biography she had written of her late husband should be  burned. She figured that would ensure its publication. It became an instant success and sat on the “New York Times” bestseller list for 28 weeks.

And T. Baxter Frim’s daughter donated his blue wool suit to the Library of Congress.

north bergen to meadowlands

Northern New Jersey in the postwar years was a patchwork of suburban towns and rural farmland. The part just west of the Hudson River is hilly, with a long irregular slope dropping down from the crest of the Palisades and into the valley of the Hackensack River. The larger towns — Teaneck, Bergenfield, Hackensack — were urbanized with a bloom of soot covering everything. My town, Old Tappan, was changing from one of small farms and Dutch-colonial homes to one in which whole neighborhoods of sameness were erupting in tract housing. The population was a mix of old families that had lived there for generations and the bright-cheeked newcomers looking for their own homes and green lawns and an upwardly mobile place to raise their children.

OT bridgeOur house was a one-off — new, but not in a development. It sat on a gentle hill in what had been woods and included a brook. My father built a wooden bridge over the stream and enlarged a bend in it to become a small pool in which we could wade or recline in the water to cool off in the muggy summers.

Because I grew up there, this patch of planet became for me my umwelt — my inner picture of what the world looks like — it was normative. The wider world I knew stretched from upstate New York along the Hudson and down to the Jersey Shore along the Shrewsbury River. The landscape included such landmarks as the accordioned oil-storage tanks along Route 36 in Keyport, the Pulaski Skyway that crossed over the New Jersey Turnpike, and the three-lane Route 9W that skirted Storm King Mountain along the Hudson. It included forests and streams, and it included heavy industry, a web of highways and the shopping malls of Paramus. pulaski skyway

The center and anchor of this landscape was Manhattan — the gravitational center on the other side of the George Washington Bridge. It was where, as a teenager, I wanted to spend all my time. Museums, bookstores, subways, Central Park, Chinatown restaurants and the great cheap ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

When the family went to the city for whatever reason, and we came home at night, driving up the brand-new Palisades Interstate Parkway, the lights of the city across the river were stars burning in the blackness, outlining the vertical thrust of the skyscrapers, while a thin line of burning beads moved continuously along the West Side Highway providing a baseline. When I was 7 years old, it was the most beautiful thing I knew. nyc night skyline

The landscape of our childhoods is embedded in our minds and memory the same as the language we learn without trying — it is absorbed whole. It shapes the mirror that reflects back everything we live through afterwards.

“The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,” wrote Andrew Marvell in The Garden.

As an adult, I have lived in each of the four corners of the nation: the Southeast, the Southwest, the Northwest in addition to my green years in the Northeast. But no matter where I have gone, outside that comfortable nest of the Middle Atlantic, the landscape remains a novelty. I have enjoyed, even loved living elsewhere, but deep in the folds of my cortex, normal is New Jersey.

That same process works for wherever you grow up. It is Mississippi for Faulkner, Brooklyn for Henry Miller, Concord for Thoreau, Ohio for Sherwood Anderson, Missouri for Twain, Lowell, Mass., for Kerouac. You can find Paterson, N.J. in William Carlos Williams and Asheville, N.C. in Thomas Wolfe. The axis mundi.

Leonardo took northern Italy with him when he went to France. Durer took Germany with him to Italy as much as he brought the Renaissance back north. Beethoven never left Bonn even when he lived in Vienna, and the provincial towns of Czechoslovakia chime over and over through the symphonies of Mahler in the military marches and SchrammelmusikRiver Street, Madison NC.

My wife grew up in Madison, N.C., on the banks of the Dan River. “The river and the creek in the back yard are the back of my brain, the inner part I draw from. The front of my head looks out to the town.”

That is the crux: the part we draw on, waters of life from the inner well.

Childhood creates the fixed inner sense of the world, depending on where you grew up: the flatness of northern Indiana, the short-grass prairies of western Nebraska, the leaden skies and perpetual drizzle of Seattle in winter.

But it isn’t merely the look of the landscape — as if it were a painting — but an entire sense of the physical world and our place and size in it. That includes a paradigm of distance — how far is the horizon, how long is a street before it curves away from your vision, how tall are the trees. These measurements are as set in the forming brain as are our names.

So too are the seasons we live through. In New Jersey, there were four, with deep snow in winter and muggy heat in summer. The further north, the more winter and summer vary in length of daylight. In Arizona, there are two seasons: unbearable heat and relief from unbearable heat. In San Diego, there is barely more than one season. If you move from one place to another, you never quite get used to the missing or added seasons.

That umwelt includes the quality of light we know as normal, the feel of air and its humidity against our skin, the way sound carries or doesn’t carry as it is muffled by woods or snow. It also includes the food, the ethnicities that surround us, the accent we speak in and the population density. All create a “normal” in our minds that we never lose, even as we expand our horizons as we grow. bergen co to nyc

There are those who believe we try as adults to recapture our childhoods, but I say instead, we can never escape them. They are there engraved in our synapses.

I have traveled widely in North America, through all the states save Hawaii, and all the Canadian provinces save Prince Edward Island. And all those states many times. The landscape — not landscape as art, but landscape as the planet your drive or walk through — gives character to each location, as if each location were not just a tract of land, but an entire culture.

The land has meaning.

I am going to try to describe over the next series of blog entries a variety of distinct American landscapes and find in them meaning beyond the picturesque. I hope you’ll come with me.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,638 other followers