The year I was born was the year Vittorio de Sica released Bicycle Thieves. I am not claiming to have seen it when it first came out, but when I search Wikipedia for all the movies that were made in 1948, Bicycle Thieves was the one that, when I did finally see it, moved me the most and stays with me the most permanently. 

My birth year was a decent year for cinema. Olivier’s Hamlet won the best picture Oscar; John Huston won best director for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; he also made Key Largo, which I will watch every time I come across it channel surfing, even if I see only the final 15 minutes: It is like a favorite tune you love hearing again. 

Others from 1948: Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair; Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero; Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story; Orson Welles’ Macbeth; Howard Hawks’ Red River; Hitchcock’s Rope; Visconti’s Terra Trema; and the last great screwball comedy, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Myrna Loy and Cary Grant. And, I’m embarrassed to admit, one of the stalwarts of my childhood of TV watching: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

My 73rd birthday is looming and I began to think — among many more important things — about all the movies I have seen in those seven decades. When I was a kid, I saw piles of them on TV, including those that aired 15 times a week on Million Dollar Movie, where I was first introduced to those English “kitchen sink” movies of the 1950s: Look Back in Anger; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; Room at the Top. There were a surprising number of British films on New York’s Channel 9. They certainly gave me a formative impression of the United Kingdom that later cleansed the palate after the Masterpiece Theatre syrup. 

And so, I thought to list the best movies for each of the years I’ve been alive. “Best” is the wrong term, of course: I couldn’t have seen all the movies made. But these are the movies I saw that I loved the most. Taken year-by-year, they make an uneven list: Some years were bumper crops and some were slender picking, but year after year, these were my picks.

When I was 1 year old, Orson Welles dominated Carol Reed’s The Third Man. When I was 2, Jean Cocteau made Orphée, which remains on my Top Ten list (although, I must remind you, my Top Ten list has about 40 films on it.)

1948 Bicycle Thieves

1949 The Third Man

1950 Orphée

The next decade begins with Jean Renor’s The River, although I should admit it is a late addition to my list. The first several times I saw it, it was in a miserable print with scratches, washed-out colors and blown-out contrast. I passed it off as one of Renoir’s lesser efforts. I was very wrong. Since then, Criterion (god bless’em) has sent out a gorgeous print and it would be hard to find a more gloriously beautiful film visually.

I saw Kurosawa’s Ikiru for the first time in a porno theater. I was recently graduated from college and a local film society could afford to rent out the theater for their film series. The posters in the lobby challenged the imagination. 

For 1954, I couldn’t decide between The Seven Samurai and Godzilla. When I was little and Million Dollar Movie ran the Americanized version of Godzilla with Raymond Burr, I thought it my favorite cheesy monster movie. Now that I am grown up and have seen the unmutilated version, Gojira, I recognize it as one of the most heartbreaking films ever made, up there with Bicycle Thieves and Mouchette, and is really an art film about the bombing of Hiroshima. It also has one of the greatest film scores, by Akira Ifukube, that expresses the grief. 

The decade ends with La Dolce Vita, which may top my Top Ten list. Every time I watch it, it seems deeper and more profound. 

1951 The River

1952 Ikiru

1953 The Earrings of Madame …

1954 Godzilla and Seven Samurai

1955 Pather Panchali

1956 The Searchers

1957 Wild Strawberries

1958 Hidden Fortress

1959 400 Blows

1960 La Dolce Vita

Up until 1968, all the films on this list were seen in retrospect, on television or on DVD. I was not a big moviegoer in my youth. There was no theater in my town. But after taking a film course in college, I got hooked and from Kubrick’s 2001,saw all the films when they came out. 

1961 Yojimbo

1962 Jules and Jim

1963 The Silence

1964 Dr. Strangelove

1965 Red Beard

1966 The Battle of Algiers

1967 Ulysses

1968 2001: A Space Odyssey

1969 The Passion of Anna

1970 The Wild Child

Choosing one from many is fruitless. It’s just a game. Take 1975: My favorite from that year is Ingmar Bergman’s version of Mozart’s Magic Flute. But it was a toss-up between that and Antonioni’s The Passenger, which I saw again recently and was even better than I remembered it. 

But how can you choose when in the same year, you could have picked: Jaws; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shampoo; Dog Day Afternoon; Nashville; Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Love and Death; Kurosawa’s Derzu Uzala; Picnic at Hanging Rock; Hester Street; Barry Lyndon; The Man Who Would Be King; The Story of Adele H.; Grey Gardens; The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum; and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves

Lina Wertmuller gave us both Seven Beauties and Swept Away; Ken Russell released two over-the-top biopics on Mahler and Franz Liszt (Lisztomania) — to say nothing of Tommy. Pier Paolo Pasolini dared you to watch Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. And there was The Rocky Horror Picture Show

And 1975 was not exceptional. I could make a similar list for most of these years. 

1971 Macbeth

1971 Macbeth

1972 The Godfather

1973 Amarcord

1974 Chinatown

1975 The Magic Flute

1976 Taxi Driver

1977 Annie Hall

1978 Pretty Baby

1979 Apocalypse Now

1980 Return of the Secaucus Seven

The 1980s was the decade it all went to hell. The top-grossing films of the decade were E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Return of the Jedi; The Empire Strikes Back; Batman; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (also: Ghostbusters; Beverly Hills Cop; and Back to the Future, all among the top 10). Hollywood knew where the future was and it wasn’t back (“I am small; it’s the pictures that got big”). 

Yet, there are always great movies made. My best of the decade is Kieslowski’s Dekalog, ten short films based on the Ten Commandments — sort of. They were made for Polish TV, and the director made longer cuts of two of the segments, and for 1988, I have chosen A Short Film About Killing, one of the most brutal and truthful films I have ever seen. 

1981 My Dinner with Andre

1982 Fanny and Alexander

1983 l’Argent

1984 This is Spinal Tap

1985 Ran

1986 True Stories

1987 Wings of Desire and Full Metal Jacket

1988 A Short Film About Killing

1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors

1990 Goodfellas

By the ’90s, I was working as a journalist and often functioned as back-up movie critic, and so got to see a lot of films, including a fair share of really bad ones, and so, perhaps, it made me a little more tolerant of those that were good but perhaps not classics to make the AFI list. Still, my list includes some of my all-time favorites. 

Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy — and especially its conclusion, Red, are among the most moving I’ve ever seen, deeply humane. And it changed my thinking about coincidence both in fiction and in life. 

It was the decade I finally discovered Pedro Almodovar. I now own all of his films on DVD and share them with whoever is willing to sit still long enough. He is, with Kieslowski and Jean Renoir, among the most humane of filmmakers. 

1991 La Belle Noiseuse

1992 Reservoir Dogs

1993 Three Colors: Blue

1994 Three Colors: Red and Pulp Fiction

1995 Before Sunrise

1996 Sling Blade

1997 The Apostle

1998 The Thin Red Line

1999 All About My Mother 

2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou

In 2017, some misguided Broadway producers attempted to make a stage musical from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, a film so cinematic it lives in a world of its own. The musical closed shortly after it opened. How could it have been otherwise? The movie has elicited a good deal of hate from those who could only see an impossibly sweet smile and goofy haircut. There’s a lot more going on in it. It was my favorite film from 2001. I loved the color manipulation, the inventive camera movement and the quirky editing. It is a film you can simply sit back and have fun with. How is that any different from Tarantino, other than the violence? 

2001 Amelie

2002 Russian Ark

2003 Dogville

2004 The Merchant of Venice

2005 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

2006 Children of Men

2007 The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

2008 Man on Wire

2009 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish version)

2010 Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

After retirement in 2012, I saw fewer and fewer films, at least in theaters. But I still ventured out for a few selected movies. In 2016, my wife became increasingly ill and I spent most of my time looking after her needs. There are no films for the whole year I can list. It is, until 2020, the only year left blank. After she died, I had little will to leave the house. But I have seen a few films since that I felt were notable. Now, most of the movies I watch are either streaming or from my DVD collection, which, at its peak, included about 200 French films, and all of Almodovar and nearly every drop of Werner Herzog. 

And I thank providence for Turner Classics and the Criterion Collection. 

2011 Tree of Life

2012 Lincoln

2013 Blue Jasmine

2014 Boyhood

2015 The Hateful Eight

2016 Nil

2017 The Death of Stalin 

2018 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

2019 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 

2020 Nil

2021 ?

This is my list. If I made it again, I’m sure I would list different films. I’m sure if you made your list, it would be completely different. Again, it’s just a game, an exercise. It doesn’t mean anything.

Today we enter a year that is a calendric anomaly: Every 101 years, for the past 12 centuries, the year is written in consecutive numbers. This year is 2021; the last time this happened was 1920. 

This stuff is for geeks only. There is absolutely no significance to this peculiarity. But we are a species hardwired to find significance where there is none. I am fairly certain that 13 months from now, there will be predictions for the end of the world on Feb. 22. Why? Because it will be written in the shorthand as 2/22/22. That hasn’t happened since Jan. 11, 1911. 

So, we may ask, will anything significant occur in 2021, other than the misdating of checks for a month or two? In 1920, there were several significant events. Prohibition began in the U.S. In Germany the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or German Worker’s Party, changed its name to Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or National Socialist German Worker’s Party, a rather long and clumsy name soon shortened to Nazi. More meaningful to us now, perhaps: The Spanish Flu Pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people, officially ended. 

Also of significance, upside and downside: The 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote; and hydrocodone is first synthesized. Of no significance at all: the East Bengal Football Club was established in Kolkata, India. 

Going back a century and a year, in 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia; Alabama admitted as the 22nd U.S. state; and Princess Alexandrina Victoria was born. In 1837, she becomes Queen Victoria and gives her name to the rest of the century. A less significant event, but perhaps related to Queen Victoria: In 1819, the erotic and explicit wall paintings discovered in Pompeii were barred from view to the public. 

Another lurch backward and A.D. 1718 was the year of Blackbeard the pirate, who in May attempted to blockade the harbor at Charleston, S.C. and who was killed in November at Ocracoke, N.C. by the Royal Navy, when he is hit by five musket balls and sliced with 20 sword wounds. 

The abbreviation A.D., or Anno Domini, is traditionally printed ahead of the date, as opposed to B.C., or “before Christ,” which comes after the date, although this nicety is often abused in practice. And now, it is replaced with C.E. and B.C.E. (Common Era and Before Common Era) which, while less Christian-centric, sound rather more bureaucratic. Perhaps the formality of “A.D.” could be reduced if we used a more modern translation from the Latin and rendered it not as “Year of Our Lord,” but instead as “Year of the Boss.” Tradition lends sanctity to the old Jacobean translations with their “thee” and “thou.” For instance, what sounds important and holy as the Ark of the Covenant sounds reverential if we call it simply “the box with the contract in it.” 

Anyway, this game of sequential numbers really only begins with A.D. 910. Before that, zeros get in the way: 809 doesn’t quite work. We could print it as 0809, but no one does. So, the anomaly starts with 910, the year Alfred the Great’s son, King Edward defeated the raiding vikings at the Battle of Tettenhall in the West Midlands of England. But do they teach that in New Jersey grade schools? No. 

The year 1011, or MXI in the Julian Calendar, Danish King Thorkell the Tall and his army laid siege to the city of Canterbury, taking hostage the archbishop, Ælfheah; Godwine, Bishop of Rochester; and Leofrun, Abbess of St. Mildrith’s. The archbishop was then murdered by being “pelted with the bones of cattle” and then struck with “the butt of an ax.” In other worlds, “Going Medieval” on him. 

In 1112, Otto the Rich is appointed Duke of Saxony by Emperor Henry V. Also Garcia the Restorer of Navarre and Henry the Blind of Luxembourg are born and Vasil the Robber of Armenia dies. In other news, Duke Boleslaw III of Poland has his half-brother Zbigniew blinded and thrown into a dungeon, so, we’re still in the Middle Ages. 

Pope Innocent III called for the Fifth Crusade in 1213. Not so innocent, he had also caused the Fourth Crusade, which razed Constantinople and killed thousands and included the rape of nuns by the crusader army. If that weren’t enough, Innocent also instituted the Albigensian Crusade, in which papal forces massacred about 20,000 men, women and children, heretical Cathar and orthodox Catholic alike (his general said, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”)

Which brings us to 1314, when Jacques de Molay, 23rd Grand Master of the Knights of Templar is burned at the stake in Paris. The phrase “nasty, brutish and short” comes to mind for all these centuries. Also, Robert the Bruce defeats Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn. 

A theme is developing. In 1415, the Council of Constance tries Jan Hus for heresy and then sentences him to be burned at the stake. And, at the Battle of Agincourt Henry V of England defeats the larger French forces on St. Crispin’s Day. St. Crispin is patron saint of cobblers, curriers, tanners and leather workers and was beheaded in the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian. 

In 1516, Thomas More published Utopia, a book describing the perfect society, probably because the real world wasn’t. It was a busy year: In addition, the first national postal service was created by Henry VIII in England, the world’s first ghetto was created in Venice, and — little known or celebrated —  Christopher Columbus had a cousin, Rafael Perestrello, who actually did sail to China and trade with merchants at Guangzhou. 

In 1617, Johannes Kepler begins publishing his theory of elliptical planetary orbits; and John Napier invents Napier’s Bones, the first multiplying computer; and Henry Briggs publishes his book describing logarithms. Science is beginning to win over superstition, except that in Sweden at least seven women are burned to death as witches at the Finspang Witch Trial. 

Which takes us by a commodius vicus of recirculation, back to 1718 and the settlement of New Orleans in New France and the introduction of the white potato to New England. Everything seemed new, including the potatoes. 

And the Panic of 1819, the first major peacetime financial crisis in the U.S., which some historians call the “First Great Depression.” 

And 1920 and the first great Red Scare, when a terrorist exploded a bomb on Wall Street (very like Nashville), and the Palmer Raids arrested more than 4,000 suspected communists and anarchists and held them without trial (as at Guantanamo) and the New York State Assembly refused to seat five duly elected Socialist assemblymen. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested. Also: The oldest existing movie footage of a professional wrestling match. America becomes America.

And now, 20 and 21. Already momentous: The UK leaves the EU as ethnic nationalism once again begins to show its ugly face around the globe. And the Covid pandemic has caused us to replay much of 2020: the 2020 Summer Olympics are planned for this year, and also the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest. The U.N. has declared 2021 as the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development — and they say the U.N. is too bureaucratic. It is also the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables.

Also expected in XXMMI is Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Fla. And in the U.S. the largest brood of 17-year locusts, called Brood X, will emerge for the first time since 2004. Something to look forward to. 

I graduated from Northern Valley Regional High School at Old Tappan, or NVRHS at OT, which always reminds me of Professor Peter Schickele’s USND at H — University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. (I’ve been to Hoople. There is no university there. There are cows. But then, there was no valley I ever noticed in Old Tappan.) 

In northern New Jersey, our school’s football team played our arch-rival, Hawthorne, and before the big game each year, there would be a pep rally, in which we were inculcated with “school spirit,” and induced to yell, “We’re Number One!” over and over, despite the fact that every fall, Hawthorne trounced us badly. Their players always seemed twice the size of ours and looked more like a farm team for the Chicago Bears. 

Yet, we were “the best high school in New Jersey,” a claim that was patently untrue. (We were a perfectly good school; I’m not complaining. But the other schools were also fine.) All over the country (probably the world) schools are making the claim that they are the best and we should all feel proud of our, what? Accomplishments? We were pimply faced kids, let’s face it. I never did understand the school spirit thing. 

Why should we claim that our group is better than your group. And this goes for nations, religions and ethnicities as well. I never understood nationalism, the metastasized big brother of school spirit. What evidence do you have that America is the greatest nation in the world? “America is Number One!” Number One in what? School shootings?

My point isn’t that the United States is the root of all misery in the world. My country has done many praiseworthy things in the past 250 years. But so have other countries. I have seen no evidence that we are any better or worse — that Americans are any different at all — from other peoples. Yes, there are cultural differences. Germans, Chinese, French, Paruvians all have national cultural tendencies. But under it all, we have the same genetic construction. 

Despite that, nations war, and worse, ethnic groups choose to idealize themselves and demonize their neighbors. And just to make it all just that much sillier, usually these contending ethnicities are almost identical. Ukrainians battle with ethnic Russians. Armenians with Azerbaijanis. Israelis with Palestinians. Croats and Serbs. If one writes the language in Roman letters and the other in Cyrillic, they can claim their languages are totally different, even if they can talk to each other over the phone with no problem. 

When I say we are genetically the same, I suppose that also entails the atavistic gene that makes us tribal. This may have been helpful when humans traveled across the landscape in extended family groups and needed to protect themselves from other groups also seeking the limited resources. But now that we have nuclear bombs, this tendency threatens to be fatal. For the whole species. 

You can’t really have an “America first” without also having a “screw you” attitude to the rest of the planet. And if we do that, where will we get our bananas and computer chips? 

If we wish to think that the United States is better than everywhere else in the world, then why are Danes happier than we are? Why are Cubans healthier? Why are the Swiss better educated? In the most recent rankings, the U.S. is listed as 22 out of 178 countries in economic freedom. Educationally, we rank number 40 in math education, 25 in science and 24 in reading. We are 46th in maternal mortality and 42nd in life expectancy. In standard of living, we are only 13th. In political corruption we ranked 23 out of 198 countries, and that was before the Trump administration. We are only 45th in press freedom. And 21st out of 128 for the rule of law. 

Another place we are not No. 1: Many Americans think we pay more in taxes than anyone else, but actually we pay less than any other developed nation, except Mexico — and that counts Mexico as a developed nation. 

Oh, we have a few titles: We are Number One in child deaths by firearm. And we have the biggest military budget, spending more than the next 10 countries combined. 

Other firsts: The U.S. incarceration rate is 716 per 100,000 population, which is the world’s highest. Even 36 of our states have higher incarceration rates than any country in the world. We’re No. 1 in gun ownership both overall and per capita. We watch more TV than any other nation.

And yes, we are No. 1 in corona virus infections. 

Further, more Americans think the U.S. is the greatest country in the world than citizens of any other nation. We’re even No. 1 in smug self-satisfaction. 

This is all not an attempt to denigrate my home country. After all, we’re a long way from the bottom of most of these lists. But it is to counsel modesty. It is to say we’re not exceptional; we have good points and bad points. Yes, we had slavery and we had a national plan of ethnic cleansing toward Native Americans, but we also had the Marshall Plan, and a long history of accepting immigrants and refugees (this last has always been in danger from the “America Firsters.” Trumpism is not all that new; we had “Know-Nothings” in the 19th Century.)

As has been pointed out, those who believe America is the best country in the world probably haven’t been anywhere else. 

And my main point isn’t to make the case for or against the U.S., but rather to decry the universal tendency for human beings to think what they have, what they do, and what they believe, is better than anyone else has, does or believes, and further, is willing to kill them over it. 

We have had what has been called the longest stretch of world peace in the earth’s history, from the end of World War II until now. But that is true only if you don’t count the myriad regional conflicts and minor wars that have been constant. Wikipedia lists more than 75 armed conflicts since 1945 (counting them is a bit inexact — which are separate and which are just phases of continuing conflict). And even this moment, there are wars in some 20 countries, the major ones in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Turkey, Somalia, and Libya, and all through central and northern Africa. 

We are Israelis and Palestinians; Sunnis and Shias; Ukrainians and Russians; Azerbaijanis and Armenians; Armenians and Turks; Muslim Kashmiris and Hindu Kashmiris; Tamil and Sinhalese; Tutsis and Hutus; Burmese and Rohingya; Hatfields and McCoys; Republicans and Democrats. Us and Them. 

 I get it: We are more comfortable around people with the same values and habits. And we may be put off by the folkways of others. We don’t eat a lot of snails in the U.S. But is that a reason to condemn those who enjoy a bit of the old escargot? We worship different gods (or the same by a different name), but that shouldn’t be an excuse for killing them. One religion crosses themselves with three fingers, another with two. Get the scimitar! (My favorite was the Albigensian Crusade, where the besieging general was asked how to tell the heretics from the believers, said, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”) 

I am put in mind of the plea of Oliver Cromwell to the Church of Scotland (“England’s Canada”), “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

A little humility goes a long way to helping us recognize our commonality. Our essential humanness. But humility is in short supply. 

“Knowing this and that better cannot be had, know then why old men should be mad.” Or as my late wife used to say — frequently — “We are all just dumb monkeys.”

In the summer of 1853, painter John Everett Millais and writer John Ruskin traveled to Brig o’Turk, a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands, with their friend Sir Henry Acland and Ruskin’s wife, Effie. The purpose was for Millais to make a portrait of the writer in the rugged landscape. 

While Acland held the canvas steady on the rocks and swatted away midges, and Millais painted al fresco, Ruskin himself took to drawing rock formations along the freshet where the painter worked. The large drawing of Gneiss, With its Weeds was the poster art for a 1993 Phoenix Art Museum exhibit, “The Art of Seeing: John Ruskin and the Victorian Eye.” I fell in love with the drawing on sight. 

It had everything I respond to: texture, detail, close observation and an attention to the world as it is that is as close to love as is possible to hold for the inanimate world. Ruskin was an astonishing draftsman and many of his drawings and watercolors are part of the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford University. I much prefer his visual art to his writing. Ruskin was probably the most important and influential art critic of the 19th Century, and I find his writing truly insightful, but I would rather crack gravel in my teeth than have to read his prose, which is the heaviest most tedious sort of Victorian fustian possible. Sentence by sentence, lightning flashes; paragraph by paragraph, he is soporific; chapter by chapter, he makes you want to point a pistol at your uvula. 

Here is a chapter opening from his Stones of Venice:

You better rehydrate after reading a paragraph like that. Best to take Ruskin in wee small doses and think him a genius. His shorter sentences can be memorable — in a good way. 

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless: peacocks and lilies, for instance.” 

And rocks. Stone carved and molded, left striated and torn by time and weather. Many of Ruskin’s drawings are of stone, or rocky outcrops.

“It is not possible to find a landscape, which if painted precisely as it is, will not make an impressive picture,” he wrote in Modern Painters. “No one knows, till he has tried, what strange beauty and subtle composition is prepared for his hand by Nature.” 

Ruskin believed that close attention paid to the things of this world reaped benefits intellectual and spiritual. That a minute inspection of a piece of turf, such as Durer painted, contained all the seeds of a spreading universe. Indeed that questing after spiritual rewards through oneiromancy, divination, crystal ball or thumps under the table, would lead away from the genuine sense of transcendence available from simply paying close attention to the here and now. 

He wrote in Modern Painters: ”The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, — all in one.” 

Hence his willingness to spend weeks on a simple drawing of an outcropping of gneiss in a watercourse clumped with weeds. 

(And weeks not paying attention to Effie, who received her attention from Millais, who also made numerous sketches of her. He painted her sitting beside a waterfall, or quietly sewing, with foxgloves tucked into her hair. He also helped Effie with her own drawings, took long walks with her in the evenings and sheltered with her under a shawl, waiting for the rain to stop. In turn, she read Dante to him. She eventually left Ruskin and, after an embarrassing annulment, married Millais. Embarrassing in that it turned out Ruskin had never consummated his marriage and was actually panicked, on his wedding night to discover that his bride had hair “down there.” His beloved Grecian marble goddesses did not. Ah, but they were stone. As for Effie and Millais: They had eight children.)

But back to that 24-by-28-inch drawing. It has stuck with me for all these years. There is something about that smooth-weathered gneiss that ticks a sympathetic spot in my psyche, purely sensuous. I can feel its surface in my imagination, its hardness and texture. The roundnesses of its protuberances. The very temperature of the stone under my fingers. 

And in my own work, I have often attempted to mimic its sense of texture and quiddity. I have photographed many a stone face. 

Actually, I have been photographing rocks for long before I saw the Ruskin drawing. Some of my earliest remaining images are of rocky landscapes, and the first show I had, almost 40 years ago, was titled, “Rock Water Green.” 

At first, when I was young and ignorant, I wanted to make stunning landscape photographs. Inspired by the work of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro, I wanted to capture the sublime in black and white. 

But over time, I became much more interested in using the camera to focus, not the lens, but my attention, and more often, on details rather than grand compositions. That aspect had always been there, but now, it became predominant. 

But, because I was working in silver and chemicals, almost all of it was in black and white. The advent of digital gave me an opening to a different way of seeing — in color. Color and black-and-white are completely different things; monochrome emphasizes form and texture while color almost makes you forget the form. Shadows are the jewel of black-and-white and the bane of color — they can leave shapes impenetrably confused. It took a while to become comfortable with the added dimension and new way of seeing. (I haven’t given up black-and-white, but now use them for different purposes. I still love the range of grays from glare to inky black.)

And the new dimension changed my approach to photographing stone. At first, I sought out the garish, like these rocks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stained with iron rust.

And I had the 20th-Century prejudice towards lining things up parallel with my picture plane. I thought of the rock faces as if they were abstract paintings. 

These are from Schoodic Point in Maine. I have always been attracted to the textures of the rocks, even when thinking of them as if they were paint on a canvas. 

But visiting the Mendenhall Glacier north of Juneau, Alaska, I found the rocks to be, not paintings, but sculptures. The shapes advanced and receded, jutted and sunk, rounded and jagged. And I found myself spending the better part of a morning making a series of images emphasizing their three-dimensionality. 

And, instead of the garish color of the rust, I delighted in the subtle blues and grays of the stones, cooler and warmer shades of the stone. 

And the texture, wrinkled or scratchy, matte or glossy, is something I don’t only see, but feel, as if on the tips of my fingers. Shelley wrote: “The great secret of morals is a going out of ourselves,” and art, even so minor a one as my gleanings on the surfaces of stone, is a form of sympathy. When I watch dance, I feel in my muscles the twisting of the dancer’s legs. When I hear the swelling of strings in Brahms, I feel it in my chest. When I see the colors in a Monet waterlily, I recognize the world I inhabit. It is not enough to see or hear the art as something separate from oneself; one must not merely recognize oneself in the art, but rather one must feel the unity.  

This rock I photograph is me. I don’t mean that in any vague New-Age way, but in the real sense that the shapes and colors we share are the stuff of my own realization of myself as part of the cosmos. 

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see.”

Click on any image to enlarge

“What have you seen that was the most beautiful,” she asked. A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. That third order gives not just pleasure, but transcendence. Below is the last of three parts.

At the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, there is a free-standing room, a box, with two doors: an entrance and an exit. When you go through, you find yourself in a sealed black room filled with tiny LED lights suspended on wires from the ceiling, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of them. All the walls, the floor and ceiling are mirrors, and so the universe of lights is visually infinite. It is completely disorienting. You are meant to walk through and go out the exit, but the first time I went, I walked in a straight line from the entrance and came out — the entrance. You can not avoid getting lost. 

It is an art installation by Yayoi Kusama called You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies and is one of the most popular pieces in the museum. Kusama is a 91-year-old Japanese-born artist who has lived for the past 40 years by choice in a Tokyo mental institution. By one survey, from 2005, she was the most popular artist in the world. Her work is easy to enjoy. Perhaps too easy. 

It is always some manifestation of her obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it is also fun. In an otherwise dismissive review in The Guardian from 2018, Jonathan Jones complains of another one of Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored  Rooms,” that it is on “about the same artistic level as a lava lamp – or an infinite number of lava lamps,” but nevertheless, says, “I was as blissed out as the next idiot.”

Where is the rule that says art, to be good, must be difficult to understand? Besides, it is more important to have an experience than to be told what something means. Kusama’s installation is an unforgettable experience. It is also a reminder of experience: the daily encounter with the infinite we live through but don’t see. Once in a while, we may look up at the night sky and admire its vastness, but most of the time, we just shut the door and turn on the TV. 

Giving in to the infinite — or the emotional experience of it — is the source of the third level of the beautiful. It can hit you whenever you are open to it. Not necessarily seeking it, but nevertheless open to it. Most often, we spend our lives closed, trying to make sense of the everyday things that take up most of our time. But there are moments when it all breaks in. These moments tend to stick in our psyches, to be brought back in memory to refresh our lives. 

In May of 1972, my second unofficial wife and I (seven years of living together must qualify as something), hiked up Rock Castle Creek near Woolwine, Va., to an abandoned farm, known as the Austin Place. 

It took about 40 minutes to climb the trail to the farm. The noise of the creek stayed with us as we went past fields of Virginia creeper and forests of fallen chestnut. We crossed the creek three times on hewn logs.

There is a rise at the end of the trail, and a field gone to seed. At the other end, at one corner of the field is a collapsing gray weathered barn with many chinks, fallen doors and cracked windows to let the sun ricochet in abstractions inside. Past the barn is the house, two stories and old, chipped and dirty paint, balusters that are no two quite the same — having been twisted or replaced or fallen — A second floor porch with crusty hammock hooks, a green tin roof and cherry trees garnishing the facade. We climbed the old concrete steps to the porch and sat our burdens down.

As we looked out over the front lawn, it was weeds, then the rapid stream with a bridge that looked like a fallen ladder over it, more weeds beyond that, then a sharp rise and embankment with an apple orchard above it, all going feral. A bit further than that, the trees started climbing nearly straight up. The mountain took off like a precipice and climbed 1,000 to 1,500 feet.

I found an unlocked window leading to the pantry and got myself into the farmhouse and opened the front door. The day was idled along contentedly. We wasted all of it with the productive waste of happiness. 

We brought out a hammock and lay in that for a while. We cooked a stew for dinner. Near the end of the day, we lay together in the hammock on the second floor porch, looking out at the beauty, listening to the stream and smelling green leaves and budding flowers, feeling the warmth of the sun. We dozed, then held each other some more. We watched the brilliant crowns of the trees as the sun narrowed to a shaft behind the ridge and illuminated only their tops. The incandescent crowns grew smaller and more precipitous on the head of the trees.

Against the dark of the trees and hillside a billion flickers burned thick as stars as lightning bugs made Fourth of July for us. I have never seen so many at once. And the moment stood still and I felt the old Faust plea: “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”

Kusama’s installation brought back that day, the points of light in the dark, and the feeling of infinite awe. 

There is something about a crowd of points in an undifferentiated field that speaks of eternity: It is the stars in the black of midnight. The motion of the tall grass in the prairie curling in the wind, animated, as the Lakota say, by Taku Skanskan — the life-giving force of nature. The swaying tips of trees against the sky on a breezy day. The self is forgotten and I become a universal witness to a universal transcendence. 

The Little Bighorn National Battlefield in Montana is a quiet place, with the hiss of wind in the grass and the buzzing of grasshoppers. The road through the park continues for about five miles, past the congested visitor’s center and along the high ridge of bluffs and coulees over the river bottom to the location where Custer’s subordinates, Reno and Benteen, held off the Indian siege for two days.

Most people hang around the monument on Battle Ridge, where small white crosses mark the places where Custer and his men fell. But if you drive to the end of the pavement, you can walk out in the grass, which curls in the breeze like white horses on the sea swell, and hear the phoebe’s song among the seedheads, and watch the approach of an afternoon thunderstorm with its dark clouds and flickering glow of distant lightning.

I had the experience thrust on me in the late 1960s at Gaddys Pond, near Charlotte, N.C., which was then a privately owned lake that was a stopping place for Canada geese on their migrations. The geese, the brants, the crows that hung around, all made an amazing din of squawks. You could barely make out any individual sound, because the buzzing was everywhere. It is one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. There must have been a million birds on that pond. Points on a ground. 

Sometimes, I will take out my old Peterson cassettes of bird calls just to play the part of the geese — the million-geese squall of honks. It satisfies as much as a Bach fugue. 

In eastern North Carolina one winter many years ago, millions of blackbirds descended on Scotland Neck. The bare trees were leafed out with them and periodically they would rise up the the tens of thousands and swirl in a great murmuration — a twisting cloud of tiny dots against the iron-gray winter sky. You had to involuntarily suck in a great breath of frozen air for the sheer admiration and beauty of it. 

In the late 1970s, when I lived in Seattle, I spent many unemployed days at the aquarium. Watching fish in the window of the great tank was relaxing, but something more akin to the murmurations of birds was the salmon run. You could stand underneath it and look up through its glass bottom and watch the hundreds of fry twist in circles above you, and like the birds, seem to move as a single entity instead of a million commas or apostrophes darting through the fluid. 

There is something about these swarms, whether fireflies or salmon, that seems both utterly random, yet, carefully organized. Very like the night sky, governed by some relatively simple physics, but so immense as to be indistinguishable from the infinite. 

This sense has, in the English-speaking world, been labeled “the sublime.” It is not simply the beautiful, but the beautiful that is overwhelming. “It takes your breath away,” is too easily said, but seldom actually encountered. But when it does, you enter a different reality. Time stops, eternity begins. 

It was an anonymous author known as Longinus (we don’t actually know who he was, other than his name) who wrote the treatise, “Peri Hypsos,” or “On the Sublime.” 

“Nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all, the Ocean; not to turn our wandering eyes from the heavenly fires, though often darkened, to the little flame kindled by human hands, however pure and steady its light; not to think that tiny lamp more wondrous than the caverns of Aetna, from whose raging depths are hurled up stones and whole masses of rock, and torrents sometimes come pouring from earth’s center of pure and living fire. … “

“When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of a human’s existence. … Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but the mind often overleaps the very bounds of space.”

That may sound a bit hyperventilated, but if you have once experienced it and left your corporeal existence behind to join with the cosmos for that brief second and know that eternity is not simply a very long time, but something without time at all, then you will have experienced beauty in a new way that has nothing to do with something merely being pleasing. Yes, it is only a psychological experience — I’m not making any great anagogic argument here — but it is a glory. 

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A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. That third order gives not just pleasure, but transcendence. Below is the second of three parts.

At the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, his aging hero looks out on the world with a note of satisfaction. “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”

That is exactly how pianist Lang Lang played the slow movement of the Chopin E-minor piano concerto with the Phoenix Symphony when I heard him in the fall of 2008. He lingered over the larghetto, stretching its already vague rhythmic drive down to a near halt, and stopping the audience’s breath with it.

Each phrase seemed to pour forth spontaneously from the pianist’s fingers, followed by another seemingly thought of on the spot. No two phrases were played at the same tempo, and each tempo seemed perfectly expressive.

It is a rare performer who can risk such an arrhythmia, and who can use it to make the music express poetry and longing, dreaming and anticipation. It was one of the best performances ever given by a soloist at Symphony Hall.

That the pianist felt so expressively free comes as a surprise: His recording of the same concerto is rather dull and literal-minded. His Phoenix performance was a poetic night to his recording’s washed-out noonday glare.

Even Lang’s stage demeanor was less like the reputation that preceded him: While he certainly emoted while playing, there was less of the rocking and eye-rolling that he has engaged in in the past. His most obvious physical “dance” came during that slow-movement, when he leaned back as if he were in a recliner, with his arms stretched out straight in front of him barely reaching the keyboard, and his head aimed straight at the ceiling, where he seemed to find the notes he was playing. He found the right ones and time stopped for the duration. 

That sense of time standing still is, for me, the practical definition of “transcendence,” the sense of being pulled out of conventional reality and given a glimpse of something even more real. 

One goes through a lot of perfectly decent if unexceptional concerts waiting, hoping each time for such a performance — one that makes time stand still and matches the notes of the music to the interior needs of the listener — the music and the hearer become a single event and you feel to yourself, “This is me, this is the mirror of my soul.” 

Of course, when you have an experience like that concert, the cause is not simply the performance or the music. The listener must be receptive. It is a two-part event: the message and the addressee. Perhaps others in the audience did not dissolve in rapture; and I’m sure there have been concerts I sat through inert during which other audience members wept. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

But not the way it is usually meant: For most, the cliche simply means de gustibus non est desputandum — all a matter of taste. But that is not it, at all. Beauty of the kind I’m writing of is not something solid and unchanging in the music or the artwork or poem — or in the green forest or towering thunderhead. Beauty is an event, not a thing. A verb, not a noun.   

Beauty is your active participation in the perception of the things of this world. The music is capable of being felt as beautiful and we are capable of perceiving that as beauty. But the two things are one and come together in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. Unless they arrive at the same moment, there is no beauty. To become part of the event, you must be awake, aware, alive. You must see or hear of feel more intensely than you do in the ordinary world of driving your car or tying your shoelaces. In such moments, the world becomes transfigured. 

I can picture the north rose window at Chartres cathedral in France. There are three such windows, but the one at the north corner of the building is the one that rivets my attention each time I visit.

It is the north window that moves me, in part because it moves, itself. This is an illusion, of course, but its designer was one of the geniuses of his age, able to create that illusion with static stone and glass. Each of these roses are built of circles of circles, building from a central core, and radiating out, like choirs of angels surrounding Providence. But in the north window, the panels dance.

It may be hard to see this in a reproduction, like the one here, but there is a ring of squares and diamond-shapes that form one of the rings, and it is nearly impossible to see these alternating squares and diamonds as anything but tumbling shapes, dancing around the center.

The north rose window of Chartres cathedral is — I have said many times — the single most beautiful human-created entity I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a gob-lot of iconic art works. It brings me to tears each time I am in its presence, and I feel the need to return to it, a feeling very kin to love.

I know a lot of hoo-haw gets ascribed to art. People make great claims for art, only some of which can be supported. But I believe, from my own experience, that art can make you more sensitive to the world around you, to prompt you to see again those things you have become inured to through over-exposure and turned to the ash of everyday-ness. As I have also said, every bush is the burning bush, we just can no longer see it. Seeing it is the epiphany, the moment the world shifts and you see the periphery become the center. When you open those gates in your chest, and let the world in, it becomes intensely beautiful and makes you understand, as William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Each time I visit Chartres, I sit on the church chair in the south transept and look back at the north, for 20 minutes at a time, maybe a half-hour, staring, with tears streaming down my cheeks. This is visionary art, and you don’t have to believe in the dogma to understand the metaphor: This is the Great Mystery. The magnum misterium. You could be looking at photographs from the Hubble telescope. You could be looking at the visions of a peyote dream. You could be looking at the eye of god.

It is not only in art that these things happen. In 1974, my second unofficial wife and I took a trip to Port Jervis,  N.Y., where my aunt had a trailer on the Delaware River. We vacationed and lounged. There, I had one of those epiphanies — reached a state of grace, an esthetic perfection that has never left me.

In its northern parts, the Delaware is not much of a river; it is just a broad shallow stony-bottomed stream with a sandy bluff on one shore or the other, depending which way the riverbed turns. But along the roadsides, and in every abandoned field, the bobbing orange heads of black-eyed Susans mixed with the midnight blue of ironweed. Spikes of mullein drove upward and stands of Joe Pye weed grew to four feet high.

There is something different about the fall wildflowers, something weedier, something more insistent. Their vegetable smells and sticky white sap are less immediately pretty, but they have more character: They are grownup. Perhaps, too, it is the drier air of autumn, the mixed stands of plants, blending goldenrod with Queen Anne’s lace, bull thistle and hawkweed in a Pointillist stew of color.

Anyway, that’s how it seemed as we drove by the railroad yard in Port Jervis, at the point New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all meet. The old yard, anchored by an abandoned turntable and roundhouse, was completely grown over in asters. There were millions of them in the open acres of the yard, each with its yellow disk surrounded by blue ray flowers. Intermixed were all the other fall flowers: the yarrow, boneset, coneflowers and the chicory left over from midsummer.

And in the weedy field, even the spring flowers were represented, not by their blossoms, but by their fruits: the burrs; seedpods; milkweed down; and nightshade berries. For me, it was one of those moments when clocks stopped and the impression burned into my mind as if by aqua fortis on a copper etching plate. That eternal moment has never left me. At times when the day has been roiled and I have trouble getting to sleep, I can recall that scene and let the rancor drain away. 

Beauty of the third sort, of the kind I mean, is visionary. It penetrates like the angel’s arrow into Saint Teresa. It is not a matter of appreciation, as in “I like this painting,” but rather, of turning your mental innards inside-out. You see a vastness inside yourself that is the image of the vastness outside — the two become indistinguishable: the event and its image in the mirror. 

It doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen to everyone. Those bound up in the bustle of the everyday, of the making of fortune, the vying for position, or those in fear of genocide or famine who cannot waste the time on such things, it is possible they are unable to open their chests up to the incoming. But even they, at times, will be dumbstruck by a bolt they didn’t expect and recognize the transcendent. 

Part 3 to follow

Carole Steele wrote one of my favorite poems. It is the first one in her book, Rust Sings. Called, “Winter,” it is a catalog of deeply seen and felt physical detail, presented with the verbal precision that is one of the hallmarks of her writing. But it is the final quatrain that set me thinking.

“What have you seen that was the most beautiful?” And I looked back at my own life and come up with my own list of those things, not merely that were beautiful, but “the most beautiful.” That gave me not just pleasure, but a transcendence. These were all life-changing encounters, that filled my inner life like a freshet fills a pool. 

A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. It is hard to describe exactly what it is, but it makes time stand still. It isn’t something you desire, like the pretty, or admire, like the beautiful, but something that stops you in your tracks, clobbers you over the pate and reminds you that you are alive in a universe. In the first two orders, you are distinct from the object of your attention; in the third, you and it become a single thing.

The first time I encountered this, I had no clue what it was, or any way to express it. I must have been five or six years old and riding in the back seat of our 1950 Chevrolet as we drove along the top of the New Jersey edge of the Palisades. It was night and the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson was a new constellation on the horizon. A million pegs of light, like as many pinpricks poked through a black backdrop, gave something of the effect of a waning campfire, blackened by ash, through which the underlayer of flame burned, glowing coals that I now take as a metaphor for the intelligence that burns under the surface of the cranial cortex. 

Since then, I have encountered that same scintillating coal sight many times, flying across country at night and looking down at the electric cities, especially as the plane on its final descent brings the city up closer and all the light, as if coming from under a blackened blanket, just burns, flickering like stars, shifting as the plane angles towards the landing. 

 This is a planetary emotion: the awareness that we live on a round globe suspended in a cold, black immensity. The most powerful and intense encounter with this sense came on a trip to the South Carolina shore in the mid-1970s. 

Huntington Beach State Park is 2,500 acres of saltmarsh, fresh water lagoons and live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. It is a haven for birds. I added 27 species to my life list in that trip. It was by far my best single day as a birdwatcher.

An old causeway, paved in concrete, runs ramrod straight from Brookgreen Gardens, on the landward side of U.S. 17, to Atalaya, the one-time beach house of industrialist Archer Huntington and his wife, the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. On one side of the roadway is the tidal saltmarsh, on the other, a pond.

The clown-faced ruddy turnstone flicked pebbles over with its beak; the oystercatcher poked its red-orange bill into the mud, looking for lunch; and the black skimmer sailed inches above the lagoon with its lower jaw slicing through the water, feeling for minnows. And there were alligators submerged like tree stumps in the murky water.

There were also herons, egrets, gulls, terns, coots and gallinules. Ibises, bitterns, phalaropes, curlews, willets and mergansers.

On a dead branch above the receding tide, an anhinga stretched its black wings out in the sun to dry. I wrote what is perhaps the earliest poem I still keep, about that anhinga.

I was with my second unofficial wife, Sharon, and we slept in the dunes and were eaten alive by sand fleas. The next morning, I went down to the beach before dawn to watch the sun come up. When it first appears, you can see it moving, slowly but distinctly.

The sliver of brilliance broke the horizon and mirrored off the tops of the ocean waves, casting the near side of each into an obsidian blackness. The effect was of turning the sea into a shifting net of burning copper laced with black lacquer. 

And then, like Joshua in the Valley of Ajalon, I saw the moving sun come to a dead halt halfway out of the water. It was a disconcerting effect. And at the very moment the sun stopped moving, the vast gears and motors of the Earth started spinning and the sand under my feet began to move under my feet, yanking me — and the whole eastern seaboard  — toward the motionless sun.

It was as if the whole planet had become a ferris wheel and I was just coming over the top. I momentarily lost my balance as my plane of reference shifted from the local to the sidereal.

A few seconds later, all was once more normal and terrestrial; the sanderlings ran back and forth with the breakers and it was time to wake the others and tell them what I had seen.

It was yet another of those planetary experiences, a complete and involuntary disjunction from the ordinary frame of reference to a more cosmic, perhaps truer, one. 

That sort of epiphany doesn’t come often, but it does come. I was camping on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, down 45 miles of dirt road on the way to Toroweap. There was not another person for 20 miles in any direction. At 6:30 exactly, with the sun already below the planet’s edge, the first star came out, directly overhead. It was Vega, in the constellation Lyra. The rest of the sky is still a glowing cyan with an orange wedge in the west. 

So far from civilization, the night sky is a revelation. As the night darkens, the stars pour out like sand from a beach pail. By 7:30 the sky is hysterical. I haven’t seen so many stars since I was a child. The Milky Way ran from north to south like the river of incandescence it is, splitting like a tributary stream from Cygnus to Sagittarius. 

I sat on the car hood, leaning back with my head against the windshield and looked straight up. For two-and-a-half hours, I sat there, looking up, trying to do nothing and think nothing. Just look. 

What at first seemed to be a solid bowl overhead, with pinpricks punched in it for the light to shine through, later took on depth. It became a lake with fish-stars swimming in it at all depths. This is beauty of the third kind, transcendent and transfigured. As I reclined on the hood, I suddenly had the sensation of being a figurehead on a ship, or a hood ornament on a car, speeding into the three-dimensional emptiness defined by those stars. 

The realization hit me that, of course, I was. I was having my vision, as it were. But it is my particular stubborn sensibility that epic vision and lumpen fact turn out to be two faces on the same head. This has happened to me before. Each time I enter the visionary world, it turns out that the transforming image I am given is grounded in simple fact.

I really am on a stony vehicle careening through stars. It is just that in everyday life, we never think of it that way. Given the solitude and the velvet sky, the obvious becomes apparent. 

When my joints were finally too stiff from sitting in one position for so long, I decided it was time to sleep. I crawled in the tent and dozed off in the silence.

Then, at 3:30 in the morning, I got out of the tent to look at the sky again. It was all turned around. Orion was now up and bright as searchlights. And the Milky Way went east and west, having revolved around the pole star. So, this bullet we’re riding on is rifled. 

The night went on like that: One sense input after another, so busy through the nocturnal time-sluice that I hardly got any sleep at all. At 6 in the morning, the coyotes yowled, and I decided it must be time to get up. The east was whitening, although the sun was behind the mesa. 

When I drew open the tent flap, I saw the blue sky patched with gray-brown clouds, and dangling from one of them was a rainbow. It was not much more than a yellowish bright spot against the angry cloud, but I saw its familiar arc and promise. 

We live two lives. In the common one, we are one in 7 billion, a single voice in a clamor of humanity, spaced 100 per square mile. We function as part of the crowd. But in that other life, we are alone. We are the one, the singular — heroes in our own life’s epic, even, and we recognize the solitary importance of ourselves to ourselves. 

It is this second life — so rich and so important to our sense of meaning and purpose — that we come to meet in solitude. That is perhaps what Montaigne meant when he wrote, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” 

The first life is brought to you by television, newspapers, books, radio and movies. It is a cultural existence, defined by other people. It is the madding crowd we are never far from. 

The second life comes to you when you seek it, alone, in quiet. Ultimately, to yourself and your family, it is this second self that is important. It is this self that is fed by beauty, is kept alive by beauty. 

Continued in Part 2

I wrote, by actual word count, two-and-a-half million words during my 25-year career at The Arizona Republic. I retired in 2012 and couldn’t stop. Since then, I have written another million words for this blog. As I have said before, a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

There is also a collection of five years worth of monthly essays written for The Spirit of the Senses web journal, which averages out to something like another hundred thousand words. The monthly essay gives me a deadline, something I miss terribly since leaving the newspaper. 

I loved my work. My editors will tell you, that even when I went on vacation, I came back with a packet of travel stories. I worked even when I wasn’t working. I don’t know if it is a blessing or a curse, but I am saddled with that stupid Protestant work ethic — even though I haven’t been a Protestant since childhood. It feels wrong, morally delinquent, if I am not producing something to justify my continued existence on this planet. 

And I wasn’t just a writer. I also made photographs, artwork, and sometimes even typography for the stories I wrote. And for the continuing blog, I continue to fill it with my own images. Before I was a writer, I was a photographer: I have had gallery shows and self-published books. I remind myself of William Blake’s mythical figure of Los, whose job in the cosmos is to create a chain of links forever; he cannot help himself — indeed his very definition is his production. 

In my case, it is to invent a project and then work on it. And whenever I feel I have sat on my duff too long, I work up another. And this covid “vacation” has left me too inactive, too dulled out. And so, yesterday, I set off with my camera. 

It is November and the sun is lower in the sky, and that “certain slant of light” creates long shadows and teases out any textures to be had. Bark on trees becomes rougher, pebbles on gravel roads become sharper, the scribble-lines of leafless trees in the woods, cross each other like Jackson Pollock paint drips. The sunlight is less bright, but more incisive. Late afternoon becomes a drama. 

And so, my project for yesterday was to drive the back roads of Buncombe County, North Carolina and see if I could capture some of that feeling. (Today’s project is to write this and post the pictures). 

U.S. 70 runs east-west through the mountains east of Asheville, and a series of back roads parallel the highway, with many spurs heading back into the coves nested between the hills. I drove up each one for miles until the pavement ran out, stopping to make photographs whenever I saw something that caught my eye and I didn’t have to block traffic to snap the shutter. 

The trip alone was restorative. The pandemic keeps too many of us holed up in our houses. We watch way too much Netflix. Sit too much. Eat too much. Getting out in the nippy air seemed healthier even than a workout at the gym. 

Asheville sits in a broad, flat-ish valley. Mountains are all around, including the tallest in the East. U.S. 70 runs along the Swannanoa Mountains and south of the Black Mountains and the back roads snooker up into the crenelations between peaks, always coming to an end at the foot of some steep incline. 

Waterfalls wash under culverts and lines of mailboxes sit by the road where a dirt drive heads up into the trees. It is late fall, not yet winter. The trees have not lost all their leaves, but many of them are bare skeletons, or have a shag of hangers-on, dry as cellophane. 

I drove for about four hours, until the sun was so low, whole mountainsides were darkened on eastern side and their shadows drowned out by grayness. In all, I wound up with about 70 images, of which about half were decent enough to edit into a set. I usually think of my photographs in sets, rather than as individual images, the way a novel is not simply discreet chapters. In the past, I would print them out as “books” and show them that way. 

Now I no longer have a darkroom, nor an art-grade digital printer. My publication preference is the blog. I have posted quite a few sets of photographs over these past eight years. 

In this posting are a sampling of the photos I’m calling “A Certain Slant of Light,” after the poem by Emily Dickenson. I am 72 years old and nearing the end of my own day. My own shadows are bringing out the texture of my selfness. Things like the lowering sun speak to me ever more than they did when I was young and had no meaningful idea of an end. 

And so, perhaps these images have more emotional import for me than for my viewers (or readers). I cannot help that. After all, I began writing this blog not for its potential readers (although I always hope what I write is worth the time it takes to read them), but for myself. I write because I have to. I make photographs because I have to. I breathe because I have to. 

The landscape listens — shadows — hold their breath. 

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I was an English major, and how anyone can survive that is a miracle. It is only through love that I have survived: love of the language I speak and write, a love that was nearly extirpated by those who explain literature and write the prefaces to anthologies. The experts, that is. 

It was nurtured, however, by many a teacher and professor, who also love the language and its productions. I don’t remember ever having an English teacher who propounded such gobbledygook as the professional explainer class regularly emits. (This, by disclaimer, is a class of which I was once a member, having made my living as a critic.)

I tried my best to write clear prose with understandable ideas, but my fellow guild members too often do the opposite. They can take something so simple and direct, so unimpeachably beautiful and clear, and turn it into a tangled knot of impenetrable theory, catching the flying sparrow in the fine mesh net of academic verbiage. I was, more particularly, an art critic, and I always said that I couldn’t read art criticism, that doing so was like eating an old mattress. 

It is the same for much buncombe written about literature and poetry. Something that should be read for pleasure, understanding or solace turns into a midterm exam, the kind that you have in your recurring dreams when you discover you aren’t wearing any pants. 

I am pretty sure such explainers are cases of arrested development, stuck in the sorrowful stage of the sophomore. The memory of having been once a sophomore myself gives me pause. There was a time when I, like so many other young minds, sought to “decode” a poem, finding the hidden meaning in the symbols therein. As if a poem required an enigma machine to untangle its “true”meaning, found in footnotes at the bottom of the page. 

Is Billy Budd a Christ figure? A victim of patriarchy or capitalist oppression. Perhaps he is a Marxist hero. Maybe, he is just a handsome sailor, like Melville tells us. What we are meant to glean from the story’s reading is inherent in the story itself. 

As Archibald McLeish put it: “A poem must not mean but be.” 

Any good work of literature explains itself, if we are willing to listen, to pay attention and to stay within the work and not require a university seminar to unpack. All this comes to mind because of a short discussion recently about an eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams. And a comment by critic Dave Wolverton who wrote: “The poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story…” 

Such ideas raise the hackles. 

The poem in question couldn’t be simpler, more complete, more self-explanatory, but no, Mr. Wolverton tells us we need to take a secret decoder ring to it, to find out what it is “really” about. 

The back story he refers to is of the poet-physician, who was attending the hospital bedside of a dying young girl and happened to look out the window to see a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. First problem: Williams was a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, where it is quite unlikely to find chickens outside a hospital window. More likely a traffic jam. 

Second problem is that despite the widespread retelling of this dying-girl tale, Williams himself tells us the genesis of the poem. It “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.”

It was first published in 1923, and one head-scratching comment I found suggested the poem was a comment on women getting the vote. How the critic got there from the contents of the poem, I leave to you and perhaps your bong. 

Another sees it as a celebration of the proletariat. This is the kind of stuff that turns high-school students away from poetry and literature and toward auto repair. 

To wit: “The wheelbarrow is an enduring and universal tool, used by people for thousands of years. It is most commonly associated with farming and construction—arguably, the foundation upon which civilization is built. In the poem, the wheelbarrow and its surrounding environment could also nod specifically towards agricultural workers and rural communities. As such, the poem’s contemplation of the wheelbarrow can be read as a meditation on the link between humanity and the natural world—as well as an assertion of the importance of respecting the latter.”

Where is that assertion? Show me the line. 

Elsewhere: “By extension, the wheelbarrow here might be taken to represent the value of the working class. This class — the people actually performing said manual labor, such as farmers, miners, construction workers, etc. — is often stereotyped as being unskilled and unintelligent. Physical work, in general, is often misclassified as ‘lowly’ or ‘simple,’ which ignores the complexity that goes into planting, pollinating, etc. Seeing as this work is often undervalued despite its importance to human survival, the attention given to the wheelbarrow (and, through it, the people who use wheelbarrows) could act as a subtle acknowledgement and celebration of the working class.”

Where do manual laborers spend their time “pollinating?” Et cetera. 

It might be noted that none of any of that shows up in the 16 plain words that comprise the poem. What there is, is a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. They are not symbols, they do not require a gloss. They are, in fact, a wheelbarrow and chickens. It is the ability to see them as just that that is the gift of the poem. They have been separated out of the rest of existence and shown to us as something worthy to be noticed. 

My acquaintance was remembering a common friend who had recently died, who had introduced him to the poem.  

“With my spotty poetry background, I’d never read this gemlike summing up of the power of first impressions. We were probably talking about things that seized our imaginations when we were very young.”

I always took it not as about first impressions, but about the importance of noticing, i.e., paying attention, even to the things you ignore in quotidian life. Paying attention is, for me, tantamount to being alive — I mean really alive, as opposed to merely existing. That is what so much depends on. 

It is also the importance of the senses, as opposed to rationality. So much of what we think is merely done in linguistic categories. House, bird, horse. We tend to value logic and think it is what we hold in opposition to irrationality. But logic has its own pitfalls: It is also thinking in linguistic categories, and so much of what is “logical” is only so in words. Zeno’s paradox never actually prevents Achilles from overtaking the tortoise in a single step. 

As Stephen Fry says over and over, the counter position to superstition and irrationality is not logic, but empiricism. Empiricism is paying attention. In that sense, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. Without it, Galileo is put under house arrest. In this sense, paying attention and sense data are a bundle, inseparable. 

Paying attention to our senses — looking carefully, hearing intently, touching, tasting, smelling — is also the key factor in squeezing the most enjoyment out of this brief moment we spend on the planet (seeming briefer with each birthday). In Keat’s words: “seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/ can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine.” 

So much depends… 

I am old, Father William, I am old. I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. And I’m not kidding: I am sitting at my keyboard and there are wide cuffs on my dungarees. I have shrunk. I am only minimally shorter than I was when I was young, but I have settled, like an old house. I have been crawling around on this earth for 72 years. 

Two days ago, the maple tree in the front yard was a deep forest green. Today, half its leaves are yellow and orange. I don’t know if this will be my last fall, but certainly the number of them ahead is dwarfed by the number behind.

It has always been my favorite season, although I lost 25 of them by living in the desert, where fall is really just a period of about 17-and-a-half minutes between the thermometer at or above 100F and the moderating drop to about 80. In Arizona, it skulks by almost unnoticed. Winter is the great season in Arizona. 

I grew up in the Northeast, where fall has a special character, with nippy, dry October days and a sun getting lower in the sky, which makes the leaf color all the more ruddy and the shadows more deeply lined. Leaves raked into piles for kids to jump into. A skim of ice on ponds in the early morning. 

Now, I am in the North Carolina mountains and this time of year, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins to feel like the 101 in Los Angeles, clogged with cars, their inhabitants seeking the perfect fall-color experience. 

In most of my past years, what I noticed about fall was the color. It wasn’t always as postcard-perfect as the New England autumn of The Trouble With Harry, but then, in Hitchcock’s movie, they had to paint the leaves orange (they shot the film in summer). Still, that is the mental image most of us have of the season. 

But the calendar-picture image of fall is too pretty, like peonies or dahlias. I am not moved. They belong on postcards with names like “Autumn Paintbox” and “New England Rhapsody.” The very word “autumn” is too Latinate. It reeks of literature. It traces its etymological roots back to Proto-Indo-European words meaning “cold” and “dry.” In plain-spoken North America, we prefer to call the transforming season simply “fall.” It is the leaves that fall, after all. 

It is much as I love weeds and dislike flower gardens. The gardens are too prissy. Perhaps they smile in bright reds and yellows, but their smiles are unearned. But weeds at the side of the road have strained and labored and live without permission. They are ungoverned and profuse: The force that through the green fuse drives — weeds. 

Gardens are planted in rows, people march in columns, books are alphabetized, plants are given phylum and genus, but any idea of order in this profuse world is a fiction.

There is a rankness to the weeds that I love. If you need a demonstration of the difference between the pretty and the beautiful, it is there beside the roadways, the Joe-Pye weed, the ironweed, the asters, the thistles, goldenrod, cow-itch, cockle burrs, pokeweed, teasel. Most distinguished by their textures and scratchiness. You can feel them on your skin. “I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

Now that I am old, with liver spots and wrinkles, it is not the color of fall so much as its texture that appeals to me. The leaves spot and crinkle, curl at the edges and almost rattle as you walk through them as they collect on the walkway. I recognize myself. 

The inner world and the outer come to match. We have inner weather, and we have an interior climate as well. At the extreme it is Lear’s “cataracts and hurricanoes,” and it is my own sense of the textural maculation of my old age: Those blackened spots and browned edges are my own. 

I cannot distinguish between my projection of myself on the world, and that world’s identification in me. It is all one. And the shrinking leaves are verse and chorus. 

And so I look with a burning concentration at the sere and weakened leaves with an intensity brought by my own awareness of how few recurrences of the season I will get to witness. They are all the more beautiful for that.