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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Books

I love travel, and next to that, reading about it. But most of what I read leaves me flat; most travel writers upholster their pages with supposedly useful bits of information meant to lead me to a favorite hotel or a great nude beach where I can buy the killer margarita.

Most travel writing is in essence consumer news, and consumerism is both shallow and boring. That is not what I seek when I open up a book. I want to be transported to the place the author writes about; if I cannot afford the airfare, I want the words on the page to vanish, leaving me underneath the palm trees or on the mountain crest. I want to feel the moist tropical breeze on my cheek.

The best writing is not about four-star restaurants, but about the experience of the place, whether hotel or Irish bog. I have found that happens most often not in the works of so-called travel writers, but in the works of those who are writers first, travelers only by happenstance.

Lawrence

Lawrence

That is because, ultimately, the travel experience happens not on the ground, but in the head. It is the digestive sensibility of a great writer that can suck the marrow out of an experience and present it to us for our own understanding and enjoyment.

”One says Mexico: One means, after all, one little town away south in the Republic,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in Corasmin and the Parrots. ”And in this little town, one rather crumbly adobe house built round two sides of a garden patio; and of this house, one spot on the deep shady veranda facing inwards to the trees, where there are an onyx table and three rocking-chairs and one little wooden chair, a pot with carnations, and a person with a pen.”

Now that puts you in a place. And a very particular place, seen through very particular eyes.

Miller

Miller

Henry Miller opens up his wonderful travel book, The Colossus of Maroussi, saying, ”I would never have gone to Greece had it not been for a girl named Betty Ryan who lived in the same house with me in Paris. One evening, over a glass of white wine, she began to talk of her experiences in roaming about the world. I always listened to her with great attention, not only because her experiences were strange, but because when she talked about her wanderings, she seemed to paint them: Everything she described remained in my head like finished canvases by a master. It was a peculiar conversation that evening: We began by talking about China and the Chinese language, which she had begun to study. Soon we were in North Africa, in the desert among people I had never heard of before. And then suddenly she was all alone, walking beside a river, and the light was intense and I was following her as best I could in the blinding sun, but she got lost and I found myself wandering about in a strange land listening to a language I had never heard before. She is not exactly a story teller, this girl, but she is an artist of some sort, because nobody has ever given me the ambience of a place so thoroughly as she did that of Greece.”

Miller then turns that favor over to us in his book. It is not just about a place, but about how a particular and intelligent sensibility interacts with a place.

Sometimes that happens in a novel, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Herman Melville’s Typee. These give us such a strong sense of being there that the plot sometimes seems little more than an excuse to travel to a new place to feel unfamiliar weather and sunlight.

But it is on their books specifically about travel that I mean to write. I’m sure you have your favorites, just as I have mine. Try some of these out next time you can’t afford two weeks in Tahiti:

1. Sea and Sardinia, by D.H. Lawrence. ”Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction.” His other travel books are just as direct, just as full of the feeling of life and energy, populated with odd and compelling personalities. Mornings in Mexico, Twilight in Italy, Etruscan Places — if I were to name the single best travel writer, it would be Lawrence. colossus cover

2. The Colossus of Maroussi, by Henry Miller. Forget the four-letter Miller of the Paris gutter. His vision of Greece, uncorrupted by pious Classicism, is all about location, location, location. His American travel books, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare and Remember to Remember, are more episodic, but still among his best work.

3. The Encantadas, by Herman Melville. ”Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles.” Melville takes us to the Galapagos Islands and gives us all we know of them outside of Darwin.

4. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho. The greatest writer of Japanese Haiku takes us on a walking tour of the northern portions of Edo-period Japan. ”Days and months are travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives traveling.”

5. The Desert, by John C. Van Dyke. One of the most peculiar books ever written, it is the love letter of an obsessed stalker to his beloved Southwest deserts. Written in 1901, it is full of the most effulgent language ever put to paper. And it would be pure breathless kitsch if every word weren’t the most truthful and accurate observation of the land.

”The reds are always salmon-colored, terra-cotta or Indian red; the greens are olive-hued, plum-colored, sage-green; the yellows are as pallid as the leaves of yellow roses. Fresh breaks in the wall of rock may show brighter colors that have not yet been weather-worn, or they may reveal the oxidation of various minerals. Often long strata and beds, and even whole mountain tops show blue and green with copper, or orange with iron, or purple with slates, or white with quartz. But the tones soon become subdued. A mountain wall may be dark red within, but it is weather-stained and lichen-covered without; long-reaching shafts of granite that loom upward from a peak may be yellow at heart but they are silver-gray on the surface. The colors have undergone years of ‘toning down’ until they blend and run together like the faded tints of an Eastern rug.”

Bartram

Bartram

6. Travels, by William Bartram. The full title gives us the wonderful 18th-century flavor of the book: Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or the Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing An Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together With Observations on the Manners of the Indians, Published in Philadelphia, 1791.

It is my favorite of any number of similar books that follow the author through what was at the time unknown and miraculous new territories. Jonathan Carver’s Travels through North America, from 1778, or William Dampier’s A New Voyage Around the World, from 1697, are full of ”travelers’ tales.”

Later, the journals of Lewis and Clark and of John James Audubon are full of the same sense of being there.

7. Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain. Such a classic, it hardly needs touting, but there is no more completely compelling vision of a river and the life that survives because of it.

8. California and the West, by Charis Wilson Weston. The reason most people pick up this book is for the historic photographs by Edward Weston. But the stories his wife, Charis, tells about their travels while making the photographs are a complete delight and present a picture of America between the wars with dusty roads, bad food and cheesy tourist traps.

9. Italian Journey, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The great German writer and natural philosopher managed to get into the spirit of Europe’s sunny south by meeting a bunch of Germans in Rome and rhapsodizing about Classical civilization. It is a funny, moving and infectious memoir, and I can’t put it down.

Thoreau

Thoreau

 

10. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, by Henry David Thoreau. This is only one of several quirky and idiosyncratic travel books by the Transcendentalist author. You could as well choose The Maine Woods, Cape Cod or A Yankee in Canada. How idiosyncratic? ”I fear I have not got much to say about Canada, not having seen much; what I got by going to Canada was a cold,” he writes. He also lies. He has got much to write about Canada.

square into skull

If you want to be really smart, you have to learn to be stupid. 

Now, I don’t consider myself to be particularly intelligent, but I have noticed when other people are, there are a few things they have in common. One of them is the ability to be blunt pig-iron stupid. 

What I mean is that intelligence can best be found in ”volitional ignorance,” or a willed erasure of everything you know. I am certain of this: What you know prevents learning. 

People create for themselves a model of reality, or more accurately, many models. These models derive from experience. When anything new makes itself felt, it is immediately tested against the model most appropriate. 

If no model is right, the new fact can be dealt with in one of two ways. More commonly, it is squeezed into the model like a square peg hammered into a round hole. The new is shaved and jiggered until it conforms with what we already know. In the end, we have learned nothing; we may only have renamed what we already knew. Unless the square is a brownie and the round hole is a mouth. eating a brownie

But intelligence is what makes us throw out the old category rather than mangle the nonconforming fact. And those who are genuinely brilliant throw out the categories before even considering the new fact. This is what I mean by volitional ignorance. It forces us to reinvent the wheel every single time and is the only way to discover anything genuine about the problem of wheels. 

It means you accept the experience fresh and start for yourself rather than relying on the culturally accepted model. 

I was talking of this with someone recently and he said, ”You mean, like coloring outside the lines,” and because I am not particularly quick of mind, I agreed. 

This worried me later. For it is not like coloring outside the lines, not at all. When he said that, he was in fact squeezing my square peg into his mental round hole, translating what I was saying into something he already understood. 

We all do this constantly, and I am not criticizing him for it. I am frequently guilty of the same thing. In fact, we cannot do otherwise without becoming yammering idiots. A certain amount of structure is needed to function in our daily lives: We cannot question the egg at every breakfast. 

But still, intelligence is the ability to get past the quotidian. I call the ignorance ”volitional” because it is something I make a choice about. Those who have no choice and are forced to see everything fresh at every second of their lives are called schizophrenic; they cannot edit the information coming into their brains. 

Yet, we need to be able to allow ourselves to enter that state on cue if we are ever to learn anything new and genuine. 

Coloring outside the lines implies a disregard of the structure of the drawing we are coloring. Intelligence doesn’t mean the mere disregard of structure, but the discovery of yet another structure, as if, looking up at the night sky, we were able to ignore all the constellations and create new ones, entirely our own, and what is more, that the ones we create are better and truer than the old ones, just as the Big Dipper is easier to see than the Great Bear. 

There are also several other aspects of intelligence that need mentioning, I think, although they are all related. 

First is that intelligence can apprehend the similarities of disparate things. It recognizes in what way the horse is the same as the fork. It makes us transcend the accepted categories of things and redefine the categories. Perhaps, instead of thinking of the categories ”mammal” and ”silverware,” we might discover that through human history, both horse and fork have been used as parts of the common category ”tool.” 

Or we might compare four legs with four tines. 

I remember a segment on Sesame Street where they played the game, ”Three of these things are kind of the same,” where they show us four items and ask which doesn’t belong, and which three do belong. 

In this case, they had a red ball, a tomato, a green apple and a ruddy pear. Well, there are four different answers: The ball is different because it is inorganic; the pear is different because it is not round; the apple is different because it is not red; the tomato is different because it is soft. 

The ability to see multiple answers is another sign of intelligence. Intelligence is not afraid of ambiguity. 

And finally, intelligence understands things metaphorically, that is, it thinks in images and discovers in them reductions of complex thoughts in small, understandable packages that resonate emotionally. 

Einstein first discovered his theory of relativity not in a mathematical equation, but in a mental picture. It gave him the insight he needed to later forge the math proving his insight. But the picture came first. 

Speaking of one thing while meaning another is the heart of intelligence. This is not a game, merely substituting one thing for another as in a rebus, but rather it is the recognition that our vocabulary is limited by what we know already. When we confront something genuinely new, we cannot speak of it in language we already have, we must speak of what it is ”like.” 

As for instance: Human love is infinitely complex. When we feel it, we almost always decide the word ”love” is inadequate to describe what we feel. We can either do what Woody Allen does in one of his films, and try to invent a new word: ”I glom you, I snorfle you,” but such a course is meaningless to anyone else. 

Or we can make a metaphor and say, ”My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June,” or ”Love is the valence of pheramones.” 

In each case, we are trying to convey something of the complexity and subtlety of what we feel, not allowing it to die the death of the normal, the bland, the banal. We are insisting that the particular emotion be understood and felt by the stranger to whom we are talking. We want exactness in our language, and we can reach it only through inexactness. Metaphor is the means of doing it. 

All our highest and best thoughts are metaphorical. All the most banal come straight from the dictionary. 

The more precise a word is, the less it describes. Meaning depends on ambiguity. 

Intelligence is the lightning bolt that arcs from one thought to another, fusing them together like glass. 

All intelligence is a form of recognition.

Mahler conducting

There are rainstorms, and then there are hurricanes.

There are symphonies, and then there is Gustav Mahler.

The Austrian composer is like nothing else in classical music, and his unique brand of emotional fury inspires a cultish following. You may love Mozart or Chopin, but if you’re a Mahler fan, you are in love. Devoted. An acolyte; it’s akin to religious conversion.

“I love all composers,” said the late music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky, “but the composer for whom I will make the greatest effort, or spend the most money, is Mahler. There is nothing in life that can replace what Mahler’s music does to and for me.”

It is almost an addiction.

The music hits closer to the experience of being alive than almost any other: deeper, more emotional, more direct. The Mahler addict measures a performance not so much by whether he leaves the hall whistling the tunes, as whether he has lost control of his lacrimal glands and has to hide his face as he leaves, so as not to show himself weeping in public. Mahler’s music is personal; it batters your heart. Zasche Theo Gustav Mahler 1906

He asks you the questions you think about only at the most extreme moments of your life: Why are we here? What is death? Love? How has the child become the man? It isn’t the intellectual answers he seeks, but the emotional landscape of the questions themselves.

There is nothing moderate in music or performance. Leonard Bernstein, often credited with starting the modern Mahler revival, was a particularly passionate exponent of the music.

“People are always saying that I exaggerate Mahler, which is so stupid,” he said, “because you cannot exaggerate Mahler enough! To play a Mahler symphony, you have to give it your whole heart and body and soul and everything.”

As William Blake said, “Enough or Too Much! Less than all cannot satisfy.”

‘3 times an outsider’

Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, one year before the American Civil War began, to a Jewish family in what now is the Czech Republic. He rose to prominence as a conductor in Vienna, where he was alternately lionized and vilified. By all accounts, he was one of the greatest conductors of his time, but a vicious element of anti-Semitism conspired against him, despite his careerist conversion to Roman Catholicism.Gustav Mahler Emil Orlik 1902

“I am three times an outsider,” he famously said, “as a Bohemian in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout the world.”

He finished his first symphony in 1889, and he put into it much of his life up to that time. Every Mahler symphony is in some way autobiographical. It’s not just abstract music; the symphonies are his life.

Even in the First, the opening section depicts recollections of his childhood, of taking walks in the woods in Moravia with his father. So those high harmonics in the violins depict the wind blowing through the pine needles, and the clarinet depicts cuckoo calls, and then an offstage trumpet plays a fanfare because, in the woods they used to walk, there was a distant army barracks.

Mahler himself said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

It must be made the musical version of D.H. Lawrence’s “bright book of life.”

A challenge

Mahler presents an initial challenge to the newcomer, who is used to attending a concert for the purpose of hearing the great abstract artform left to us by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Copland, Prokofiev. But nothing in Mahler is merely abstract: It is all personal. All life. All extreme. The composer asks his audience not to enjoy his melodies, but to use the music to search their own lives for the return of serve he rockets into your court.

The Fourth Symphony is the best entry point for the neophyte: Mahler’s shortest symphony, filled with all the things that make the composer so compelling. There are great tunes, inspired orchestration, a vocal part and many of the deeper themes that pervade all his symphonies: Nature, nostalgia, tragedy, death and innocence.Mahlercartoon 1907

From there, you can move on to his more intense symphonies, where he feels compelled to throw at you everything he knows, everything he’s ever felt.

For him, that meant adding to his already huge orchestra such things as sleigh bells (which open the Fourth Symphony), cowbells, mandolins and — in his tragic Sixth Symphony, hammer blows that “fell a man like an ax cutting a tree.” The First Symphony has everything from klezmer bands to military marches.

He was trying to make a world, and that world is as much marching bands, elegant waltzes and earthy landlers as it is soaring, breathless melodies.

There is Mahler counterpoint, too: layers of tunes and snippets of tunes, less like the long line of a Bach fugue, and more like a Picasso collage, with torn fragments overlapped.

That mixture of high and low is both the hallmark of Mahler’s world view and our own Postmodern world. Perhaps that is why Mahler feels so contemporary to us. For Mahler’s contemporaries, his symphonies too often seemed to be infected by the worst sort of vulgarity. They had come to hear hochste deutsche Kunst — high German art — and got tin whistles and banjos thrown in in the bargain.

The “unmedicated” Mahler

If Mahler is about anything, it is about these extremes: sublimity and camp, aspiration and despair, irony and sentimentality.

In his famous essay about the composer, Bernstein wrote: “Think of it, Mahler the creator vs. Mahler the performer; the Jew vs. the Christian; the believer vs. the doubter; the naif vs. the sophisticate; the provincial Bohemian vs. the Viennese homme du monde; the Faustian philosopher vs. the Oriental mystic; the operatic symphonist who never wrote an opera.”mahler caricature 4

Mahler can whip you around these opposites, turning his music on a dime, snapping your emotions back and forth like a pennant in a Wrigley Field bluster. Not only between movements, but he can be ecstatic for three bars, and, suddenly, you’re in the deepest depression for six, only to snap to attention with 12 bars so alert that they seem electrified.

If he were alive today, he’d probably be on medication.

The slow movement of the Fourth Symphony is that way: It is a theme and variations on two themes, one elevated and serene, the other devilish and taunting. The two themes merge in variations, finally both stopping as the orchestra bellows a loud cry — for some, it is the gates of heaven opening. Time, and the music’s forward motion, stop dead in glory.

All that is followed in the finale by a song sung by a soprano, directed to sing in a childlike, innocent way, about the wonders of that heaven, imagined by a child, where “the angels bake the bread.” From the sublime to the ridiculous in one easy step.

Exhausting pinnacle of art

You can leave a concert humming Mozart’s tunes or inspired by Beethoven’s nobility, but after Mahler, you are simply spent. You’ve been “rode hard and put up wet.” He has dragged you from pillar to emotional post, pounded your deepest fears, pointed with your most fervent hopes. Mahler exhausts.mahler caricature 2

For those who are up to it, it is the pinnacle of art. For those who ask for something less exaggerated from their music, Mahler can be interminable and exasperating.

The symphonies are long — some single movements are longer than whole Beethoven symphonies. Mahler is an acquired taste.

Yet, while they are sonically splendorous, they are spiritually deep, and if music is an expression of the human spirit, Mahler is exploring its deepest depths.

For Drobatschewsky, it is summed up in the Mahler Ninth that he heard conducted by Claudio Abbado in Amsterdam.

“I am not a religious man, but what other people get out of religion, I get out of Mahler: solace, joy, every feeling that’s known to man.

“All out of Mahler’s music.”

NAG NAG NAG: An ADDENDUM

Gustav Mahler was a control freak.

Look at most music scores and you see not only notes but some basic instruction: tempo markings, how loud to play, whether to speed up or not.Mahler silhouette Otto Böhler

Look at a Mahler symphony score and you see enough writing to fill a book. He was a micromanager.

The Dover miniature score for his Fifth Symphony, for instance, has four pages of small-print glossary to translate Mahler’s German instructions. Hardly a bar goes by without some nudge by the composer.

In the first four bars alone of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, he asks the orchestra to play “Moderately, not rushed,” and with “Grace notes very short,” “staccato” and “piano” (“quietly”), followed by “sempre piano” (“always quiet”), followed immediately by a diminuendo (“get quieter) — which would seem to contradict the sempre piano by asking the orchestra to change. Meanwhile, he asks that the music be played “grazioso” (gracefully), while also asking for a “poco ritardando” (“slow down a little”).

That’s in three bars. In the fourth, he asks for a return to the original tempo, but it should also now be “comfortable.” Meanwhile, he throws in a reminder: “Expressively.”

That’s only four bars out of an hourlong symphony.

You have to give yourself over to Mahler’s intentions, perhaps more than for any other composer, due to the sheer volume of specific instructions he has left us.

The markings can be difficult to interpret, however. The very first instruction Mahler gives for his “Songs of a Wayfarer,” before he says anything else, is “Faster.” Faster than what? That is followed by “Slower” and, two bars later, “Faster,” and back and forth until he gets to “Smoothly agitated.”

Most conductors mark up their scores with little notes to themselves to remember this or that detail in the music. Mahler was a conductor, too, and has given the performer the benefit of his own marking up.

Basically, Mahler was a backseat driver.

Apollo

Apollo

The older I get, the less reading I do, and the more re-reading. It’s a common symptom of age. There are many things that change as you leave behind the enthusiasms of youth.

I remember the complaints about conductor Arturo Toscanini that his repertoire was small and repetitive: How many times can you play the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, and why don’t you play more contemporary music?

Toscanini 2First, you have to remember that when Toscanini was young, he gave world premiere performances of many new works, including Puccini’s La Boheme and Sam Barber’s Adagio for Strings. He gave world premieres of at least 25 operas. When he was young, the music of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy were brand new, not the concert stalwarts they later became. He gave the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. He programmed all of George Gershwin’s major pieces, even if his Italian soul never quite beat to the jazz rhythm. 

But it is true that after he came to the NBC Symphony, he concentrated on the war horses. His repertoire did narrow as he got old. The problem is that we know Toscanini mainly these days for his RCA Victor recordings, made near the end of his life, and so we have a skewed vision of his career.

That narrowing is not uncommon in artists, who generally — if they get to live long enough — develop a streamlined “late style,” which eschews much of the complexity they favored as young Turks, and gets straight to the point, as if the knew they didn’t have time for all the hoopla and somersaults. 

And so, as his hair whitened, Toscanini focused on those works he knew he could never exhaust: things like the Beethoven symphonies. They provide endless riches, endless possibilities, and endless satisfactions. 

I say I recognize this because as I’ve aged, I, too, have narrowed my focus. As a young art critic, I kept up with all the newest trends in contemporary art. I loved the buzz and fizz: Who’s up, who’s out. What’s the latest and greatest. I even went so far as to disparage much of what is found in our art museums as “relics” of the art process, and therefore not really art — real art is what is coming out of the studios today. Or even better, tomorrow.

And, as a music critic, I felt the same way. Give me something to shock my ears and lord keep me from having to hear another Beethoven’s Fifth! 

But there is a great change in one’s approach to art as one matures. Maturity isn’t just a slowing down and tightening up: It is the weight of experience. When we are young, we know so little, yet we think we know so much. We have the answers, and why don’t the fogeys understand that?

Life, however, burdens you with the accumulation of experience and what was clear as an adolescent is infinitely muddy as a grandfather. 

When we are striplings and in love with art, we tend to idolize it, and its makers. We test ourselves against our heroes, and against the art they made. Are we up to it? Can we maintain in ourselves the vibrancy and aliveness of the art we adore? Aren’t we “special,” too? Of course, we are! The world in art seems so much more brilliant and colorful, so much more emotionally intense. 

But, after a few marriages, a few divorces, a few illnesses, a few disappointments and the deaths of too many of those we loved, after seeing the politics of our time repeat themselves endlessly and stupidly, after seeing more genocides in the world, and hearing the idiocies of dogma and doctrine, the evils of ideologies and the fears of unknowing engender the hatreds of tribes and nations, after all that and the heavy weight of more, we — if we have been lucky — have earned a portion of wisdom. What we once valued from books, we know know more directly from life. And now, instead of measuring ourselves against the art we love to see if we measure up, instead we measure the art against our lives and experience to see whether the art measures up. And very often, it doesn’t. 

So, in our dotage, we fall back on a few trusted worthies, those poems, books, paintings, symphonies, choreographies that we have tested against our experience and which hold up and continue to give pleasure, consolation, understanding and — I hesitate to use the word — what we have come to regard as truth. 

It is what I find in those books and in that music that I re-read and re-listen to — that give me sustenance, that feeds my inner life and tells me that I am not alone but share something with those writers, those composers, those painters and sculptors who have gone through enough life to have developed enough emotional complexity to make art that says something real, and doesn’t just tickle my need for novelty, or — as in my youth — my self-announced grandiosity. glenn gould

So, I re-read The Iliad at least once a year, and re-read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust. I just finished again Dante’s Commedia, and expect to take on Chaucer next. I listen to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, or to the Budapest Quartet and the late Beethovens. I weep every time I see Balanchine’s Apollo or his Prodigal Son. I cannot get all the way through Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode without sobbing quietly. 

And Toscanini doing Brahms’ Fourth. I don’t know how many times he conducted that piece, and I certainly cannot count how many times I’ve listened to that recording. I can hear it all the way through now purely in my mind; I don’t even need the score. 

These things — and many more — seem rock-solid and true. 

I expect you have or will have your own list of works that do it for you. They shouldn’t be the same ones; after all, you have lived your own life and collected your own list of wounds and sorenesses, giving you your own sense of what life must be, despite all our best efforts. 

Dawn, Grand Canyon National Park

Dawn, Grand Canyon National Park

It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that we live on a planet.

That we are lodged on a wet rock spinning in cold, black, empty space and hurtling through the void, down through time like water into a storm drain.

You are not likely to notice this while waiting at a red light downtown although sometimes waiting for the thing to change will get you a glimpse of eternity. Nor are you likely to notice it on the recliner, tuning in to American Idol. Or waiting for a table at the IHOP.

Consumer culture and all of our measly daily scratching conspires to hide from us the fact that the ground under our feet is really a large bolting asteroid.

But there are places you cannot avoid the sensation.

For me, driving long distances on the prairies of Saskatchewan or Alberta will do the trick. You watch the grain elevators rise up on the horizon in front of you like the sails on a clipper ship, and watch them lower down behind you after you pass: You know you are on a sphere and every direction falls off downhill around you.

You recognize it on an airplane, too, watching miles pass under your seat like so many inches, seeing at one time Lake Superior to your aft and Lake Michigan afore. You can take in a significant arc of the planet’s circumference at 30,000 feet.

But each of these epiphanies requires that you be traveling: the moving point on a geologic ordinate and abscissa.

If you want to have the planetary feeling without racing around the globe, you can get it standing still in Arizona: with your feet planted at the edge of the Grand Canyon. In that case, you stand stock-still and let the planet do the moving.

The first time I saw sunrise at the Grand Canyon, my wife and I were camping on the North Rim outside the National Park. We had arrived with the naive assumption we could wander in late in the afternoon and get a room at the lodge. Or failing that, we could get a slot at the campgrounds.

The desk clerk took pity on us and explained that although they were completely booked, lodge and campground, for the foreseeable future, we could find a dirt road just outside the park that would take us to a place in the National Forest where people often camped.

It was dark by the time we got to that road, and when we turned into an open place where two or three other tents were set up, it was already night.

North Rim, Grand Canyon

North Rim, Grand Canyon

We slept, we dreamed, and we woke before sunrise, when the earliest glow floated in through our tent flap. And when we got out to stretch and start up the camp stove, we gasped: We were about 15 feet from the rim of the canyon. It dropped out of sight below us.

If we had pulled forward just a little farther the night before in the blackness, it would have been Thelma-and-Louise time for us. We were hard on the edge.

But more impressive, the humid late-July weather had left the entire canyon as a gigantic dish of cotton. The clouds filled in the canyon-hollow like apples in a fruit bowl. A 215-mile long fruit bowl.

The mists swirled and wisped below us, over precipices and down canyonlets, in constant motion, rising and subsiding as the new-hatched sun warmed patches of the air the mist rode upon and the breezes wafted the veils.

The Classical writer, Longinus, said that we enjoy the day-to-day things of our lives, but when it comes to awe, we get that only from the sublime. Hearth fires, he said, were nice, but erupting volcanoes make us consider a planet and cosmos larger than we are and well beyond our control. The sublime is beautiful, but it is also scary: It is the source of religious feeling.

You cannot avoid that at the Grand Canyon, with its stony layers of eons piled upon each other. The Canyon is a great wound in the Earth into which we can look and see its organs pulsating at a rate so slow as to make all of human history a mere blip on its EKG.

Sunrise is always a magic time. For me, all the more magic for how seldom I see it, being a night person and late-riser during every time of the year except vacation. Familiarity has not had a chance to dull the morning’s effect for me: Every dawn I witness is a rebirth.

The following summer, we came to the Canyon again, to the South Rim. We camped outside the park once more, and got up at 3 in the morning to drive to the rim to see the whole process of sunrise.

Even in July, it was cold in the dark. We parked at Lipan Point, where we would be able to see northeast into the canyon, where the sun should pop up. With a flashlight, I set up my 4X5 camera, with its bellows and tripod, and pointed it down into the blackness below.

By 4 a.m., the glow on the horizon widened into a band of dull brightness. I managed to focus the camera on the now-visible horizon line, and then pointed it back down into the ink.

A minivan pulled into the turnout and a few people got out, looked around at the black hole, and deciding there was nothing to see, got back in and drove off.

I moved the camera over the restraining fence and out onto a rocky knob with an unhindered view. My wife fretted I might slip off the cliff and down into the hard centuries of geology below: A very physical way to meet eternity.

By the time I got the camera set, the glow from the horizon had made the rock below us seem less like the river Styx and more like a darkened charcoal drawing. It was beginning to take on detail. I made an exposure of five minutes or so, to try to get some of the charcoal registered on my film. Dawn, Grand Canyon with river

The river below us began to reflect the lightening sky and became a glowing white streak in the sooty rock. It pointed in one direction northeast directly at the place the sun would arise, in the other direction, it curved around the coal-colored cliffs and disappeared.

The moment the sun broke the horizon, though, was the moment we realized we were sitting on a spinning round rock: The effect is unsettling and eerie.

I’ve had this happen a few rare times in my life. When the sun is still in contact with the horizon, its motion is quite noticeable. You can actually see it move.

But at that moment, the sun stopped moving, just as if Joshua had commanded it. And as the sun stopped, the Earth like a giant machine, whirring its gears began rotating forward in front of us, lurching from under our feet. An earthquake wouldn’t have felt more tactile.

It was as if we were coming over the top of some giant Ferris wheel. The still sun made our motion all the more apparent. It was Einstein in action: relativity made palpable. A shift in frame of reference.

The rock we were reeling on, trying to keep our balance, was pulling forward toward the sunrise.

”Whew! What was that?”

It didn’t take long, though, after the disc of the sun broke free from the horizon, all that motion ceased. The common light of day had re-inaned the world. We would eat breakfast, talk about baseball, read the newspaper all the quotidian fuss of our lives and rejoin the society where the search for a good five-cent cigar seems important.

A friend was telling me once about the trouble he has been having with his insurance company. He had run into a bureaucratic Catch-22 in which he needed an official letter before the insurance would take effect, but couldn’t get the letter until the insurance was working.

”Sometimes, I don’t know how the world keeps turning,” he said.

As we fight rush-hour traffic, heat up our Pop Tarts, pay our bills, worry if our taxes will devour our raise or if Congress will ever become more than monkeys squabbling over a banana;

As we worry if our daughters will safely negotiate the pitfalls of adolescence, if the rebuilt transmission can last another 30,000 miles, and we put a few more dollars into an IRA;

As we submerge ourselves once again into the inclarity of what we call our lives, it’s good to remember that there is something larger out there, with a wider frame of reference.

We need to be reminded every once in a while that we live on a planet.

olana

Everyone likes a home with a view. If you are rich enough, you can afford to buy such a property, and if you are an artist, you can design such a house.

Frederic Edwin Church was both of these things, and the estate he created, Olana, is now a state park near Hudson, N.Y., where it sits on the top of a hill overlooking the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. catskills from olana

Church worked obsessively on the house and grounds from 1860 until age and arthritis forced him to give management of the estate to his son in 1891. Always, Church’s goal was to create natural landscape views from every turn of road on the 250-acre estate and from every window in the house. And he knew something about landscape views.

Church was one of the most famous of American painters of the previous century. His work commanded the highest prices of any American art when it was new, and inexpensive prints made from them were sold by the thousands to his middle-class audience.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

He found in the New World apt subject matter: the American landscape, from Niagara Falls to the volcanoes of South America. The land he painted was vast, romantic and sublime. It told of a new Eden, almost a new covenant for which America was the herald.

The Heart of the Andes

The Heart of the Andes

Frederic Edwin Church

Frederic Edwin Church

From the 1850s through the next two decades, Church’s paintings glorified America’s vision of itself and the Manifest Destiny that was the root of the vision.

Others painted the same subjects. What made Church distinct was his scale and detail: His paintings were big enough to be exhibited like movies, in their own venues with an admission charge, and they didn’t generalize or idealize their flora and fauna, but instead painted them in Peterson field-guide detail. You can name the plants in a Church painting; you can almost name the week and month by their stage of development.

Rainy Season in the Tropics

Rainy Season in the Tropics

The same kind of obsessive detail marks his house, too. Church couldn’t stand an empty wall or a broad expanse of window. Victorian houses are often chock-a-block with bric-a-brac, but Church is notable even by these standards.

The house was originally intended to be a French chateau-style building. But when Church and his wife toured the Middle East in 1869-70, they became infatuated with what they called ”Persian” architecture. It was actually a little closer to the Arabian Nights style Hollywood eventually adopted for its version of Baghdad. olana front hall

They called it Olana after an ancient treasure-fort in Persia. olana studio

Inside, Church displayed all of his many souvenirs. Most look like they’re straight from Pier One Imports. One lesson to be learned: Being an important artist doesn’t automatically confer good taste.

One room avoids the Scheherazade look. The dining room instead mimics a Medieval castle. And on its walls are the paintings Church called his ”Old Masters.” In fact, they are old, dusty souvenirs of Europe, sans provenance, sans signatures, sans anything else but an old look. If a painting was too bright for his taste, Church himself dimmed it in brown varnish.

The dining room is also one of the few places in the house without a view. Everywhere else, each window or balustrade frames what could as well be a painting. view from olana

In 1884, one visitor wrote about her trip to Olana: ”Mrs. Church met me at the Hudson and we drove up here, several miles, through thick woods, like the ascent to the Alhambra. In fact, Olana is placed somewhat like that, on the top of a cone-like height commanding the Hudson. The house is large and all open on the lower floor, with wide doors and windows a daux battants, so that everywhere you look through vistas to shining oak boughs at hand, and dim, blue hills far beyond, middle distance omitted because so far below.”

The Icebergs

The Icebergs

The house stayed in the Church family until 1966, when it was purchased and later donated to the state of New York. It had fallen into a bad state of repair, but renovation has brought the property up to code and turned it into a beautiful place to spend a day.

Caricature by Tony Bustos

Caricature by Tony Bustos

Leave a man to his own devices and he becomes a grunting carnivore. Let him make his own food for a month, and he will turn his home into a Aurignacian cave.

I’ve done this myself many times, when my wife left home to visit our daughter out of state. At such times, any vegetable in the fridge has ample time to turn into brown goo out of malignant neglect.

It is an odd development. I can cook; I did so for many years on a daily basis. I even enjoy making a nice rogan josh or Mexican mole. But with my wife gone, and with the advent of summer, I’ve lost all desire to cook.

And it isn’t about thinking a wife is only good for cooking and cleaning. I sometimes cook, and we share housework. This is the 21st Century. No, it is that I’m a better person all around when she is home. When we are separated, I don’t function. I seize up like an unoiled motor.

So, I live the bachelor life. I watch baseball and I sleep and I go to work.

I lose the gift of speech.

Typical dinner: I stoke up the patio gas grill, take a steak out of the freezer, drop it thunk-rock solid on the gridiron, go inside and watch an inning of baseball, go out and flip the meat over, watch another inning and then plop the steak on a paper plate and eat it with a beer as I watch the rest of the game.

I don’t even need a knife and fork. I just bite off mouthfuls. I am Attila, scourge of God.

Every once in a while, I feel the genetic need for something vegetable. On those rare days, I order a pizza with the works.

The dishes pile up. The cave floor is paved in chicken bones and the cat wanders around them licking the last bits of tissue off them with her rasping tongue.

It is an ugly sight.

It is a good thing men don’t run the world, or we would be in one heck of a hopeless mess.