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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Dawn, Grand Canyon

Dawn, Grand Canyon

When my wife and I were first married, we lived on the Atlantic Ocean, facing east. It was the direction we knew best: We both were born and raised on the East Coast, and although we sometimes migrated north and south, we had never been to the West.

So, as a kind of honeymoon, several years after the fact, we decided to spend one summer driving west to see the West.

The question became something of a joke on that trip: Where does the West begin?

When the country was young, the Western frontier was the Appalachian Mountains. It took people like Daniel Boone to blaze trails over the ridges into the new, green country beyond. We drove across those mountains the first day. It didn’t feel any more like the West than New Jersey.

The first real milestone was the bridge over the Mississippi River. In some ways, it is still the unofficial boundary between the nation’s East and West. We looked at each other as we drove with smiles of excitement; we were finally in the West.

Yet, the West turned out to be Arkansas and it didn’t look any different from Tennessee on the other side of the river.

We could convince ourselves that Arkansas really was the West; it was where “Hangin’ Judge” Isaac Parker held his court, it was where Jesse James robbed trains. Yet, a look out the window told us it wasn’t really true. We hadn’t reached the West yet.

Thunderstorm, Hydro, Oklahoma

Thunderstorm, Hydro, Oklahoma

Surely, then, Texas was the West. As we cruised through on Interstate 40, though, it was a nondescript, flat, boring land. The Texas Panhandle might be technically in the West, but it wasn’t the West of the Randolph Scott movies we knew when we were young. Where were the canyons? Where were the cactus and the Indians? Even the people sounded more Southern than Western.

The first moment we really felt as if we hit the West was the Texas-New Mexico line, when the Interstate suddenly comes down off the high plains and into the eroded country of the Canadian River bottom. We saw, for the first time in our lives, mesas and buttes, red rock under smooth blue sky.

We sat bouncing up and down in our car seats for the excitement. It was like seeing the moon for the first time, it was so alien, so fresh, so different from anything we had ever known.

But were we yet in the West? The question may seem silly, but all the rain that hit the dry ground would eventually aim to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. The Canadian River dumps into the Arkansas River, into the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.

So our next goal was the Continental Divide, which we crossed near Thoreau, N.M., camping the night at Blue Water Lake.

Yet even the next day, driving across Arizona, we knew that for most of the pioneers who crossed this country a century and a half ago, the desert was just one more obstacle on the way to California. In some sense, this still wasn’t the West.

Tsegi Canyon, Navajo Reservation, Arizona

Tsegi Canyon, Navajo Reservation, Arizona

And when we finally got to the coast, we got out of the car and stood on a cliffside among the tall, drying cow parsnip and looked out over the Pacific Ocean, feeling like stout Balboa with wild surmise, silent, upon a peak in Darien. There could be no question but that we had reached the West.

Olympic Coast, Washington

Olympic Coast, Washington

But looking out over the blue sea, we knew there was yet somewhere further. Beyond was Hawaii, Japan, China, Tibet, India, Iran, North Africa — and that eventually, the westward search would lead us back to Virginia — where we began — and we would see it again as if for the first time.

And we recognized that the West isn’t a place you can ever really reach, but a destination beyond the horizon, or conversely, that every point on the planet is the West to somewhere else, and when you can see that, you can recognize the even the familiar ground on which you stand as electric with the same excitement you feel when you leave it.

For all points on the planet are its still center and that all real travel takes place not on the ground, but in the heart and mind.

Sierra Nevada, Lone Pine, California

Sierra Nevada, Lone Pine, California

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The right angle is king of the world.

Look around you and everything is square. The streets, the buildings, the windows in the buildings. The TV you watch and the refrigerator you lean into to grab a snack.

If there is a single, overarching symbol of civilization, it is its rectilinearity. Honeybees make hexagons; humans make squares.

I write this in a square office in my square woodframe home on a suburban block, staring at a rectangular computer monitor, typing in letters on little cubic keys embedded in a rectangular keyboard.

The books I consult are square-edged, the file cabinets I keep my research in are boxes. Even the take-out Chinese food I eat at my square desk comes in a plastic foam clamshell cube.

We are so inundated with right angles, that I’m afraid we don’t see them anymore. They become like the invisible air we breathe. Yet, if you begin to notice them, they can become oppressive. There is a tyranny of the box.

There are reasons, of course, that our built environment relies on the square. Of all shapes, it is the most space-efficient. The dairy industry, for instance, discovered many years ago that square milk bottles took up less space on the delivery truck than the older round bottles.

And because they can share walls, square buildings can fill up space just as efficiently as the milk bottles. It becomes like playing dots-and-boxes, connecting the dots to make little sub-squares.

suncity

There are attempts to break up the squares: the swirling streets of planned retirement cities, such as Sun City, Ariz., for instance. Even in the larger city, new tract housing is often built on curvy streets, but those streets are all contained within the larger squares — the “major cross streets” — of the larger Phoenix metro area. Those mitochondriacal squiggles are almost like the irregular growth of cancer cells inside the regular structure of the urban grid — a virus waiting to bust out and infect the next municipality.

square blocks

What is round is escape: the wheels of our cars, the CDs of our Walkmen, the cylinders of our vodka bottles.

Considering how ubiquitous the square is in the human world, it is striking to discover how rare it is in nature. Certain crystals are square — look at a grain of salt under a magnifying glass — but more common are rhomboids and hexagons.

And nature so dislikes the cubic salt crystal, that she dissolves most of them in seawater as if they were collectively the Wicked Witch of the West.

In fact, nature seems perpetually at odds with right angles. She wears them down through erosion, attacking the sharp mesa edge or the overhanging rocks of Niagara Falls.

Nature grows things asymmetrically, profusely, and just as avidly, breaks them up into chunks and sands them down into dust. You cannot expect humans to match that fecundity or ferocity, so instead, we build safe, boring little squares and put cupboards in the corners.

If you look out over any American city, you can see the incessant cubicularity of its architecture, tiny and regular against the larger, organic rising and falling forms of the landscape it occupies and the constant metamorphosis of the amoebic cumulus clouds that break up the shapes with moving shadows.

How static the architecture seems.

cun 18th century

What does the midday sun look like?

That may sound like a simple question, but it’s not. You can’t really look at the sun: If you try, the result is sensory overload, like the distortion of loud music on cheap speakers. You can even go blind, rather quickly.

Yet, everyone thinks he knows what the sun looks like. It’s everywhere in art, beginning with the tempera paintings kids make in elementary school: They so often put a wedge of sun in the corner of the painting, with rays spread out below like sea urchin spines.

kid turtle

But the sun doesn’t look like that: The child’s version of the sun is a symbolic representation of the solar disk.

But then, so are all adult representations.

So we also recognize the gilt centrifugal rays of Louis XIV’s Sun King symbol and the terra cotta sun face of Mexico and the red ball and rays of the World War II Japanese “Rising Sun” naval ensign.

sunmosaic

The sun is the paradigm of art problems, because it can never be portrayed accurately as it looks. Paint cannot be so bright.

But that doesn’t stop artists from attempting it. Van Gogh painted the solar disk over and over in his landscapes. Usually, the sun is a yellow circle surrounded by concentric brushstrokes in a darker ocher. The only way he could make the sun seem bright was by making the sky unnaturally dark.

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Ansel Adams had a photograph he called The Black Sun, in which a long exposure caused the image of the sun to solarize, making it a dark dot in the picture, surrounded by a halo of rays. It looks almost like an eclipse photo.

 

Ansel Adams' "Black Sun"

Ansel Adams’ “Black Sun”

In Picasso’s Guernica, the sun is an edgy elliptical disk with spiked rays, in the middle of which is a light bulb.

guernica detail

Each of these is an attempt to portray something that cannot be portrayed.

On a piece of paper or a canvas, the brightest white is no more than 40 times brighter than the deepest black. In the Arizona summer, the sun is thousands of times brighter than the shadow under a mesquite. A canvas just cannot accommodate that brightness range. We compress that range and accept it.

But the emotional effect of the sun’s brightness is just as hard to portray. When artists attempt it, they have to leave the realm of naturalism and create a fiction, a symbol for the sun instead of its snapshot.

So, what does the world look like? The sun is only one minor example of the complexity of this question. It is a question that has been at the core of art for 30,000 years and has still not been answered in any finality.

The problem in formulating an answer is that human perception is both so complex — scientists keep finding more astonishing whirligigs in the brain’s apparatus — and at the same time, so universally believed simple. We all have eyes; and seeing, after all, is believing.

We see with our eyes, most people think. The world looks the way a photograph makes it look.

But of course, we don’t see with our eyes, but with our brains – and even more difficult, with our minds, which means we see through the haze of emotions, culture and individual life experience. We so thoroughly process the data that our eyes collect that the final result barely matches the patterns on the tickled retina.

Seeing doesn’t just happen; it is a complex mental process. And it is a learned process, as any of hundreds of studies have confirmed. One of the ways it is learned is through art — or, to use the more modern term, through media.

Which is why, until the Modernist revolution in this century, artists concerned themselves with attempting to accurately depict the world around them.

It was to this end that such men as Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi attempted in the 15th century to devise a mathematical formula for creating the illusion of three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas. The linear perspective they created became the mother tongue of European painting for four centuries.

But perspective wasn’t the only question: We’ve all seen the obsessive drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, attempting to get down on paper the swirl of water in motion.

leonardowater

Or Michelangelo’s attempts to show every anatomical muscle under the marble skin of his statuary.

The Italian Renaissance was so thorough in its quest for realism, and so successful, in contrast to the Romanesque and Gothic art that came before it, that we have on some level considered the question answered ever since: This is what the world looks like.

Yet, it isn’t so. There are gross distortions built into perspective: Its grid of parallel lines is pure fiction. Leonardo’s water looks more like masonry than fluid, and Michelangelo’s muscles are a little too manic to be visually true.

Yet, the schematic system of image-making they came up with was so persuasive that we still accept the look of it.

Photographs, for instance, which are often taken for the ultimate in realism, are actually made through lenses carefully designed to mimic Renaissance perspective. Rectilinear imagery doesn’t happen naturally.

No art is ultimately realistic. What we tend to call realistic art, whether it is 200 years old and hanging on a museum wall, or hanging in the “starving artist” corner of your shopping mall, is more properly called ”conventional” art. It partakes of the conventions of art that we have, for the moment, accepted.

But those conventions are just as stylized – just as unrealistic – as the ”King Tut” angular figures on an Egyptian frieze, or the misty landscapes on Chinese scrolls.

Take any so-called realistic piece of art and ask just how like life it might be.

When a British cleric, Dr. Thomas Church, visited Rome in 1816, he sat to have his portrait drawn by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, one of the leading French artists of the time. The 6- by 8-inch pencil drawing Ingres made is now owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is a drawing almost everyone would call a realistic likeness. Certainly, if you knew the drawing, you could have picked out Church from a police lineup.

Ingres' Dr. Thomas Church

Ingres’ Dr. Thomas Church

Yet, the drawing is realistic in only a conventional sense; we are so used to those conventions, we don’t even think about them. We are fish, the conventions are water. It almost seems silly if I point them out. But it isn’t silly; it is profoundly important for us to think about them.

First of all, I doubt the good reverend was only 15 inches tall, as he is in the drawing, or would be if he stood up and his legs hadn’t been cut off by the edge of the paper. We have no trouble believing that a small likeness is realistic, any more than we have trouble with Georgia O’Keeffe’s larger-than-life flowers.

Second, Church probably had a little more color in his cheeks than in this monochrome drawing. We accept black and white as realistic.

We even accept his high-collared coat as black because we know such coats, even though in the drawing, it is the same blank-paper color as his nose and cheek.

Third, the real doctor was three-dimensional; the drawing is not. We could walk around the real person and see his back; the verso of the drawing is just blank paper.

Then, too, the real person moved and the drawing is frozen still.

The real person moved through time, too. It should also be noted that the drawing still exists; the same cannot be said for the good cleric. Ars longa, vita brevis.

The real person made noise — I cannot imagine such a cleric not talking constantly, even prattling. The only noise the drawing can make is a crinkling sound if you were to crush it in your hands — a sound to draw the immediate attention of the museum guard, no doubt, but not exactly conversation.

The drawing also has no odor of humanity about it. Then, too, the drawing is made up of pencil lines. Examine as you will the world around you, you will not discover lines in it that outline the borders of objects. The use of line in drawing is one of the most persistent, and least realistic conventions.

And the last thing I’ll mention: There is a frame, an edge of the picture that cuts off the bottom half of the good reverend. Real experience does not come with a frame line.

All these things we look right past and accept the drawing as an accurate rendering of reality. I’m sure you can come up with a dozen other hidden conventions I have passed over. But that is the power of convention. And it is all the more reason we should be concerned with the question: What does the world look like?

A century of Modernism has taught us not to ask such a question, and we have largely bought into the propaganda. Instead of asking the question, “What does the world look like, from the time of Cezanne on, art has primarily asked, ”What does art look like?” When a visitor looked at one of Jackson Pollock’s swirls of paint drippings, he asked, wondering what the picture’s subject might be, ”What is it?” Pollock answered, ”A painting.” He wasn’t just being cute. All of art critical theory at the time asked us to consider the effects of colors against other colors, forms against form, line against line.

But as great as some of the century’s art is, the overall effect is of a mirror held up to a mirror. It is intentionally mute: ”Music can express nothing,” said the arch-Modernist composer Igor Stravinsky. He was wrong, but he summed up this century’s own unacknowledged provincialism.

Art must regain its connection with the life we live. There is no better way to do this than attempt to answer the basic question about the appearance of the world.

For seeing is active, not passive. It is something we do, not something that happens to us. Each generation must keep up this dialogue with the world.

It is still a noble goal of art: to discover the difference between the schematic and the mimetic, between convention and experience — between what is and what has to be.

To parse it all out.

What is called Postmodernism doesn’t effectively do this. If Modernism is a mirror looking at a mirror, what has followed is a TV set looking at a TV set.

nam june paik1

A generation of media-savvy savants has created an art that is self-referential, and its main reference is The Brady Bunch.

I am certainly not calling for artists to imitate the look of Norman Rockwell. I hope I have made clear that Rockwell is not realistic.

I am calling for artists to take a really close look at the world around them — actually, I am calling for them to love the world, to caress the things of the world with their eyes.

The most effective way of doing that is to draw. Not until you have drawn something have you really seen it, felt its texture in your mind, tasted its color on front and back of tongue, known its shape and the shape of the air around it.

You can see this in Ingres’ drawing again. The coat, the pose, the chair arm — they are all merely conventional. But look at the eyes. They fairly swell with life, there is a softness to the bags underneath, a bristliness to the eyebrows and a live intensity to their gaze. The eyes are the animated center of the drawing, a jewel in a supportive setting.

In the coat, one sees the artist’s training; in the eyes, his connection with the world. There is no doubt which is more important.

So I ask the question of artists, what does the world look like?

Take take just one of those issues: motion, for instance. In the early Renaissance, it was not unusual to repeat a figure several times in a painting, depicting action as it is shown in the frames of a comic strip – showing the same figure in different parts of the frame at different moments in the action.

salome

One depicts Salome dancing in one part of the picture and John the Baptist in his cell in another. Another corner of the picture shows John bent over the block with an executioner’s ax raised over his head and a final portion has Salome watching John’s head on a platter.

Even God appears twice, from front and back, in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Creation.

An entire century of art grappled with this problem as Baroque artists painted violent action at its most unstable point in time, suggesting the motion even when the figures are still as statuary.

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is an attempt to portray the motion itself.

nudedescendingstair

Jackson Pollock’s action paintings are visually active with the result of the painter’s own motion.

Jean Tinguely created kinetic sculpture that actually did move.

Which of these is most “realistic”?

The depiction of visual reality is only one of the purposes of art, but it is a great and noble purpose that has been in eclipse as artists have been seduced by the cleverness of conceptual art.

As though the problem of mimesis in art had somehow been solved, freeing us for other endeavors.

But every time an artist picks up a pencil and tries to get the proportions of a figure right, every time an artist mixes a rose madder with an alizarin crimson to match the color of a landscape, she is tackling the biggest and most intractable question of art.

Looking is hard work, worthy work for an artist.

The sun streams in through the window, I go to it, look out at the world beyond and wonder what it looks like.

Astonish us.

poconosnow3

There is no silence more palpable than when you’re alone in the woods on a windless winter morning with new snow a foot deep on everything.

It is eastern Pennsylvania, in the meatloaf Pocono Mountains on a late November weekend and when we pitched our tent late the night before it was cold and dry. The stars were acetylene, caught in the naked treebranches.

But during the night, it began to snow and when we got out of our sleeping bags in the morning, there was a new layer of white caught in those branches and all over the rocky ground underneath.

Winter camping has many rewards, but certainly the most magical is the weird acoustic effect of snow. It sucks sound out of the air and replaces it with something as solid as styrofoam.

What breaks the silence are your own squeaky footsteps in the snow as you step out of the tent and start to prepare breakfast. You rub your hands together noisily and blow fog into them with your breath.

Silence is an exotic commodity and we should learn to value it and enjoy it as if it were a balm from heaven.

It is a rare place that you can find where you can’t hear a gasoline engine.

The internal combustion engine fills our noses with stink and makes the roadside clutter of ugly billboards and fast-food restaurants inevitable. But what is worse, it fills our ears with the rattle of rpms and gears.

You stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and the tour busses roar by. You take a sailboat out on the water and the lake-shrinking Evinrudes drown out the sound of your luffing jib.

I knew a woman once who told me that when she was a little girl, she heard the summer sky hum.

As children, we often are content with the mystery and don’t ask for an explanation. It’s just the way the world is: The summer sky hums.

As an adult, she came to recognize what the noise was, and how banal. She was hearing a sound hardly known anymore: a propeller-driven airliner flying too high to be seen.

That was more than half a century ago, when the planet was still quiet enough that you could pick out the airplane’s buzz over the local noise. Nowadays, even though jets are much louder, you seldom hear them flying at 30,000 feet because their roar is drowned by the din of traffic, the boom of car stereos, the cackle of the TV set and the occasional gunshot from a few blocks away.

Complete silence is profound and rare. It is the aural equivalent of complete darkness: the place where no sound exists at all.

In a cave, for instance, when you are still and your lamps are turned off. The deadest sound and most obscure blackness are somehow cousins. But even that silence isn’t complete: In such a silence, you can hear the blood squirting through the capillaries of your inner ear. Perhaps you can hear your relaxed heart thumping.

At such a time, there is nothing that exists but your autonomic sense of your own meat and nerves. You face only inward; the outer has ceased to matter.

And the only quiet more utter is death.

But that isn’t the kind of silence that recharges our batteries. For that we turn to nature and wilderness.

It is the reason we drive to the Poconos and hike into the campground.

If there is a place we can get out in nature, away from the parking lot and out from under the flight path, we can let our ears register the planetary rhythm. There are dry beech leaves that crackle in the breeze all through winter before they fall off in spring, there are the squirrels chattering in the elms and the occasional cardinal flapping its wings in the snow to clear a spot where it searches for some food.

Sounds such as these are always present, but are suffocated by the commotion of daily urban living. If somehow all the electricity and gasoline were instantly neutralized, and our ears somehow adjusted, we would hear the natural sounds even on Main Street downtown.

You recognize the symptoms: The air conditioner suddenly cycles down in the office and you notice that you hadn’t known it was making noise till it stopped. Silence is in part only known in relief, against the unheeded white noise.

Part of the appeal of wilderness hiking is the silence we enjoy there. Our cochleas catch their breath and come to terms with the persistent quiet of the natural world. And if we stay long enough, and our ears catch up with the reality, the birds begin to seem noisy and even sunrise groans.

poconosnow2

Spillane

Wham! The book socked me right where it does the most good.

“What’s this?” I thought as my brains came to their senses, “Mickey Spillane as a literary author?”

I could hardly shake the fuzz from my credulity.

It isn’t exactly a prestigious Library of America anthology, but the Mike Hammer detective novels from the 1950s and ’60s have been collected by New American Library, three to a volume. The first, the Mike Hammer Collection, Vol. 1 contains I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick and Vengeance is Mine. Volume 2 contains One Lonely Night, The Big Kill and, Spillane’s magnum opus, Kiss Me, Deadly. The third volume comprises The Girl Hunters, The Snake and The Twisted Thing.

And while Library of America, with its acid-free paper and navy fabric bindings has already begun reprinting the more respectable Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, it will probably be a while before they acknowledge Spillane. It’s hard to think of Spillane in literary terms: The books practically define “pulp” as a genre. Yet, it turns out that the literary qualities of the books far outweigh their slender ambition.

The violent stories and their stereotyped characters are pure cliché: The tough gumshoe, the vinegar-mouthed secretary with the unspoken crush on her boss, the harried pal at the precinct office. These were commonplaces of the genre before Spillane changed his first typewriter ribbon.

But there is something about the prose they come packaged in, something fresh as a slap on the cheek:

“The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the rug and my gun was in his hand.”

Or: “There were two bums down at one end of the counter taking their time about finishing a ten-cent bowl of soup; making the most out of the free crackers and catsup in front of them. Halfway down a drunk concentrated between his plate of eggs and hanging on to the stool to keep from falling off the world. Evidently he was down to his last buck, for all his pockets had been turned inside out to locate the lone bill that was putting a roof on his load.”

One shouldn’t overstate the case. Spillane is no James Joyce, but looking back from the vantage of half a century, we can see the Modernism in his sleek style. The story almost doesn’t matter: They are all cut from the same bolt of blue serge. But the manner of the telling — the choice of the bon mot, the clarity of emotional drive in the prose — these tell of a stylist, not a hack.

More than Kerouac, Spillane speaks to the underside of the Eisenhower years. Vets who had come back from Europe knew they had done unspeakable things for the greater good. It was something they didn’t talk about.

Spillane put that undercurrent into print. His Mike Hammer — left as undescribed as Everyman — uses the methods of evil to perpetrate justice. Still, it is the words, spare as Hemingway and direct as Homer — that make Spillane a memorable writer.

I would venture to assert that Spillane has had more effect on writers his better than any other. Reading Spillane is a postgraduate course in using verbs that have punch, in creating a sense of here-and-now, of relating a story through a sensibility.

Perhaps if Mickey Spillane had tried his hand at a better book he would have failed; perhaps he has no interest in anything but the process: those word middens toppling out of the page.

But these reprinted classics prove that Mickey Spillane is a first-rate second rate writer. Maybe the best.

grass fireworks

This world is filled with useless things: old habits we refuse to give up; new answers to problems that long ago vanished; professional football.

Most of them are inoffensive. We can live with them. But there are some that really get under my skin. Prime among these is the front lawn.

In my list of senseless things, the suburban front lawn takes the lead, surpassing such other bits of silliness as:

1. neckties

2. chrome detailing

3. parsley garnishes

4. extended warranties, and

5. nipples on men.

Explain for me, if you will, why so many well-meaning people work so hard to put a spot of green along the street, in an area of their property they never visit, save to mow it.

Of course, a thirsty lawn makes even less sense in the American Southwest, where it might well be considered a crime against nature. Yet, drive the streets of Phoenix and see all the pretty lawns: like kangaroos in Greenland.

It has been argued that front lawns are beautiful. Certainly grass growing in the meadow is among the most satisfying sights in nature, with its rusty autumn seedheads waving in the breeze above the thousand wildflowers that fill out the landscape.

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Birds and butterflies are drawn to the meadow. It is a perfect Eden.

But lawns are not the same thing as grass. In a lawn, we chase away the wildflowers, which we call weeds, and discourage insects with noxious chemicals and we shoo away the birds that might eat up the newly seeded turf.

And the ample seedheads, with their glumes and awns, are slaughtered by the riding Toro, so the lawn approaches its Platonic ideal: AstroTurf. The lawn, as envisioned in the American suburb, might as well be a green shag carpet.

It is also argued that the tightly mowed lawn is a delight to walk upon, that it is a wonderful place for children to play or for the family to have a picnic.

That might be true of the back yard. But almost none of us does such a thing in the front yard. The neighbors would stare. About the only purpose the front lawn serves is to provide a comfortable place for the neighbor’s dog to poop.

That is a long way from the English estate lawn, which the American suburban lawn attempts to emulate.

We didn’t have lawns in America until after the Civil War. Houses were built right up on the street.

Dirt, which could be swept clean, was the ground cover of choice.

But after the Civil War, urban patterns began to change. Streetcars and passenger trains allowed more people to move out of the city to live and commute to work.

There are many reasons for the triumph of lawns in American landscaping. The idea took root in a century that was much more concerned with nature than our own. It was a time of Romantic poetry and art, and people looked for ways to be closer to nature. The lawn satisfied this need, in a small and distorted way.

But what began as bringing nature to suburbia ended, by the 1950s, as outright war against nature.

“A good many homeowners feel this way,” said Changing Times magazine in 1954: “Mother Nature has beaten them to a stand still for so many years that revenge is worth almost any price, as long as it comes in the form of a real good, drought-tolerant, weed-resistant lawn.”

I once lived in a house next to a jowly retiree who kept his lawn cut to the same length as his Marine crewcut. He was so intent on regimenting the naturally wild grass, that after he finished giving his lawn the buzzcut, he actually rode his mower for a half-mile up and down the road shoulder in front of his house to keep it all perfectly manicured. He did this at least twice a week.

I suspect he spied on his lawn at night to make sure it didn’t misbehave.

For if a lawn is a bit of nature, it is nature bridled and harnessed.

In his book, Second Nature, author Michael Pollan argues that “Lawns are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship to the land. They teach us that, with the help of petrochemicals and technology, we can bend nature to our will.”

If we followed the logic of the lawn, we would create the front-yard equivalent of the plastic wood-grain walnut tabletop. Indeed, a friend of mine in Seattle, to avoid having to mow his lawn, poured in a layer of concrete instead, and painted it green. It frees him up to drink beer and watch ballgames.

If anything, the lawn is a peculiar case of cultural persistence. All around us are things that once made sense, but as they persisted through changing times, they lost touch with reality. Parents teach their children to play with “choo-choo” trains, although no one has seen steam locomotives since their grandparents.

We find Gothic pointed-arch windows — which made engineering sense in Medieval stone churches — in modern wooden churches.

And we get on and off the left side of jet airplanes because right-handed cavalry officers used to wear sabers on their left side, making it more sensible to mount and dismount their horses from the left. Early military airplanes — as part of the “air cavalry” — took the cue and the practice has never changed. (Indeed, those WWI biplanes often had “stirrups” on which to climb up into the open cockpit.)

Even neckties may once have had a reason to exist. It is said they served as bibs for sloppy eaters; but let’s face it, today you can throw a shirt in the washing machine, but you have to take the tie to the dry cleaners to get that mustard spot off. Tie as bib does not make economic sense.

And so, lawns, which originally functioned on English and French estates to provide hay for agricultural animals, later became symbols of rank, wealth and title.

Maine grass

They oddly persist this way in American suburbs.

It played into the curious American delusion that in our democratic nation — where everyone is theoretically equal — we are not equal as commoners, but as aristocrats. Every man in his white clapboard house was king in his castle. And each of us deserves his own rolling green estate, and if we only own enough property for a postage-stamp lawn, so be it.

Thorstein Veblen, the social critic who first came up with the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” at the turn of the century, saw the American obsession with lawns as yet another example of showing off your wealth, no matter how pitiful its amount.

And we began a century of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

After World War II, it became almost unpatriotic not to have a perfectly kept lawn to show off.

I suppose the reason I get so exercised about lawns is that I really, really love grass. I love the lacy panicles of panic grass, the bushy-eyebrow racemes of sixweeks grama, and the three-fingered tassles of big bluestem growing man-high in the few remaining patches of Midwest tallgrass prairie.

Grass B&W

And nothing beats the stiff stalked timothy, where the redwings like to squat and squabble.

It has been suggested that people value lawns in part because we have some faint genetic memory of developing as a species on the savannahs of Africa. I feel that atavistic pull, but it is prairie that excites it, not front lawns.

In the prairies, vast fields of wheat or wildgrass blow like seawaves in the wind.

In America’s suburbs, the front lawns mock “nature without check with original energy.”

It has been said that an eagle in a cage is not an eagle. And grass in a lawn is not grass.

yellowstone panorama

I bought a video camera to take on our summer vacation.

It was a simple camera, with a modest zoom lens and absolutely no extra gadgets: a stripped down version, the cheapest I could find on the market. With it, I bought an adapter that would let me plug the thing into the car’s cigarette lighter.

We shot several hours worth of tape as we drove up the Rocky Mountains and back. And the single greatest boon the purchase returned on its investment was totally unexpected.

It was not the “moving snapshot” aspect that turned out the most important. Sure there are lots of shots of scenery, and of my wife standing in front of Yellowstone Falls.

And a few times when Carole took the picture of me instead, and decided she wanted a vertical frame, so turned the camera sideways.

Or some pictures when we forgot to turn the camera off.

No, the most important thing to find out is that a video camera captures the wind.

It is there in almost every shot: the hiss and blow of air moving across the internal microphone of the videocam. The sound of the breeze made us notice the moving seedheads of the grass, the dancing aspen leaves, the rising of the ends of Carole’s hair as she stood in front of the falls.

Without the intervention of “art,” the wind becomes part of the unnoticed background noise we filter out in our daily lives as we pay more attention to such important things as the mowing of grass or the seventh inning of the Braves’ game. Unless there is a full blow tearing through town, and shingles switch roofs from one house to the neighbor’s, we don’t much pay attention to the moving air.

But out in the countryside, and seen through the eye of the video lens, the air is never still, and within the air, nothing that can move doesn’t.

The entire world is constantly in motion, wiggling and twitching.

My wife, who has studied such things, tells me that certain Plains Indian tribes understood the wind to be evidence of the Great Spirit, “Taku-scan-scan” in Lakota. Anything that moves in nature is evidence of the Great Spirit: wind, water, breath, the frosty snort of a buffalo in winter.

“For them, the world is animated by the spirit, and the wind is the sign of the spirit,” she tells me.

That is the purpose of the “peace pipe,” which sends a curl of smoke up into the air so that we may see the motion of the spirit around us through the play of the smoke. The ritual smoke was meant to cleanse the mind and make it receptive, to calm the human heart in recognition of the sacred.

I have often felt something of the same when smoking a cigar. I would never use the Native American vocabulary to express it — I am too much the European-American — but most cigar-smokers, I think, will tell you something of the same: There is something relaxing and reassuring in the play of smoke as you blow it into the air and watch it ascend and disperse.

Even on a still day, the cigar smoke will twist this way or that, giving away micromovements in the air.

If the breath is life, the smoke lets it be seen.

Lupines

And so does the video camera, as it captures the lupine bouncing in the field, the bottoms of the white poplar leaves turning upward, the current running through the grasses, the sideways tilt of the mockingbird’s tail as it takes off in a crosswind.

You can see something of this each weekend on CBS, as they end their Sunday Morning with a five-minute bit of video tape taken somewhere in America’s nature. “We leave you this morning,” says Charles Osgood, “in Martha’s Vineyard,” or “in the hills of the Dakotas,” and then we watch as the camera shows us a flock of Canada geese or the hive of some buzzing bees.

And always, each week, there is the gentle blow of wind in the microphone, reminding us that all of nature is animated.

This recognition is the purpose of all travel, at least for me. When I come to the point of unnoticed boredom with everyday life, to the point that things have lost their edge and become so familiar I no longer see them, there are two things that remind me just how awake the rest of the world can be.

The first is art, whose job it is to elbow me awake and make me notice what I hadn’t paid attention to before.

And the second is travel, which, by putting me in contact with things unfamiliar, acts as a kind of mirror for my ordinary daily life, showing its face and alert eyes.

The vacation videotape combines the two: In every frame, it seems, something is moving, twitching, turning, blown, agile, bouncing.

My wife tells me about when her dying father was mostly blind from a stroke. He called to her from the back steps one day, where he sat looking out toward the river and woods.

“Catbird, come here and let me show you something,” he said.

“The whole woods is moving.”

He couldn’t see the leaves, or even individual trees, only the whole mass of forest moving, dancing, swaying.

And he had a terrific grin on his face.