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Monthly Archives: September 2014

humboldt redwoodsAt a pull-off along the Highway of the Giants in the Redwoods of Northern California a lumbering, topheavy RV pulled to the side of the road and stopped. Its driver got out, walked to a spot about 25 feet behind the vehicle, raised his camera, snapped one picture, got back in and drove off.

I’d seen many people line the wife and kids up against a scenic backdrop, or ask Aunt Emily to smile in front of the Grand Canyon, but this was the first time I’d seen anyone take a picture of his truck.

In a way, it made sense. The redwoods are notoriously difficult to photograph. They seem like they’d make wonderful subjects: They are green, tall, impressive and make their own weather. But they only grow in the lowlands and river bottoms and are surrounded by dense hills. There is no way to step back and get them all in perspective. Heck, there is no way to step back and get them all in the viewfinder. One has to be satisfied with bits and chunks of tree trunk surrounded by ferny growth.redwood ferns vertical

And even that is disappointing photographically. I set up my camera at an especially impressive trunk, maybe 15 feet in diameter, covered in green moss. In front of it were the biggest ferns I had ever seen in my life, with fronds that were six feet long. I looked at them carefully in my viewfinder, with my camera set on a tripod. I groaned. Since everything was of the same immense scale, the picture looked like an ordinary patch of ferns in front of an ordinary tree.

The only solution is to put something whose size you know in front of the tree, something like the wife and kids — or your RV.

As an aside, I want to mention the obsessive proclivity of the West Coast states for naming every Department of Transportation speed bump in memory of someone. The Muriel O. Ponsler Memorial Wayside was little more than a widening in the road so cars could pull over and see the ocean. There is the Joseph and Zipporah Russ Memorial Grove in the redwoods. The habit is essentially harmless, but it helps if you pay attention to the name you are commemorating. We soon passed over a bridge named for Elmer Hurlbutt. The Hurlbutt Bridge: Someone was asleep at the switch when that got named.zion tourists

But what I meant to talk about when I started writing this column was why people make photographs when traveling. The answer seems simple at first: They make pictures to help them remember the trip, or so they can show their friends that they were, in fact, to the redwoods or the Grand Canyon.

But after years of watching people raise their Nikons to their eyes, I am not so certain anymore that the pictures are always aids to memory.

Because the pictures are made so offhandedly, and their makers so quickly jump back in their RVs and drive off to the next natural wonder, I believe they must use the photographs instead as a substitute for memory.

Instead of really experiencing the woods, with its dripping humidity and spongy forest floor, its green smells and muffled silence, they use the camera to arrest a slice of vision that they can take home and dissect, using the image rather than the trees as their primary experience of the redwoods.

It may be that we have become so acculturated to the television reality that the aromatic reality of primary experience no longer retains its validity. It must be transmuted into a Kodak moment — metamorphosed from sense experience to media experience — before it is taken seriously.

But, more likely, people have always done the same, zooming past the magic to chalk up another name on their life list of scenic destinations.

In 1937, long before television became the central fact of American life, photographer Edward Weston was using his huge, cumbersome 8-by-10 camera to photograph Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. A car pulled up with three German couples, among them were six cameras — “One woman had none, but one man had two.”

“The five enthusiasts lined up, focussed on the same view, decided on the exposure, made the picture. Four of them lined up at the other side of the turnaround, made a second picture in unison. Then they climbed back in the car and drove away.”

oxford red clay roadIn northern Mississippi, where the iron-rich clay is the color of a hunter’s vest, the town of Oxford sits in the middle of Lafayette County in exactly the same central position as Jefferson sits in the middle of William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County.yoknapatawpha map

Faulkner’s fictional county began in the 1820s with the first white settlers and an Indian named Doom. The real Oxford was founded in 1833; 11 years later, the University of Mississippi opened for business. There are many similarities between the fiction and the reality, and not the least of them is the way progress seems to have obscured the the old ways that Faulkner felt were the heart of the South.

The town of 20,000 still radiates out from the central square, where an old, large courthouse still stands and is still the central political and legal fact for the county.

But unlike Jefferson, Oxford is a college town and the existence of Ole Miss changes the equation radically. For one, there are bookstores in Oxford.William Faulkner

And, when you stay in the motel at the edge of town, the nearest restaurant serves Orange Roughy with Cilantro Salsa — an Eastern attempt at Fish Veracruz — and Pork Chops Stuffed with Morel Mushrooms and Pine Nuts.

And what is worse, the trendy, warehouse atmosphere with its scrubbed concrete floor and unfinished wood handrails, is home to waiters brandishing pepper grinders, who say, “Good evening, my name is Brian and I’ll be your server tonight.”

So, it can be disappointing, if you go to Oxford to find the flavor of the Compsons, Sutpens and Snopeses.

The courthouse square, where the town used to buy its dry goods, hardware and groceries, now houses restaurants, sportswear shops and a very fine bookstore with a very fine section of Faulkner first editions. square books interiorUpstairs is a coffee bar and tables, where students and tourists mix while reading the morning paper over a cup of hazelnut mocha.smitty's sign

But if you could walk back in time just a few years, you would find a little shopfront cafe called Smitty’s. In the early morning, it would be filled with courthouse lawyers and snappy waitresses, drawling conversation accompanied by the music of clinking glasses being racked in the kitchen.

At Smitty’s, the waitress still called you “Honey,”’ and meant it. The biscuits were still smothered in white sausage gravy and the buttered grits were always salted and peppered.

And the weathered faces of the Old South still gathered for their morning cup of coffee and the local gossip.

When I was there once, in 1994, one particular and dignified gentleman caught my eye. He must have been 75, with thin white hair combed so the furrows left by the comb were clean lines. He wore a striped tie and a dark blue suit that his frailing limbs couldn’t quite fill out anymore. He also wore bifocals and talked in that sweet, subdued aristocratic drawl.

He was natty in a way only very old, very respectable Southern men can be.

At first, he shared the next table with three other men who we learned were lawyers from the courthouse. The blue suit was a judge.

But more and more men filed in and eventually, they all gravitated to one wall, where several tables were lined up end to end. There must have been 20 or more lawyers, all talking and laughing and keeping each other amused with good ole stories and friendly joshin’.

The judge sat dead center at the row of tables, the obvious center of gravity. The surrounding lawyers looked almost like apostles at the Last Supper.

The old man might as well have been Judge Sartoris. He could have come straight from the pages of Sanctuary or Intruder in the Dust. You could sense he knew not only everyone in town, but knew their granddaddy.

But there were also things that had changed: A few of the lawyers were black.la paz oxford

Smitty’s is gone now, replaced first by a yuppified eatery called 208 South Lamar, after its street address, and currently by a Mexican restaurant.

But even with the changes — in some ways, Oxford is impossible to tell from any other university town, whether Chapel Hill, N.C. or Charlottesville, Va. — but the building now occupied by La Paz, formerly 208, formerly Smitty’s, and before that Grundy’s, and before that other bars and restaurants, was built in the 1880s, and despite the frequent facelifts, the past is still there underneath.faulkner's typewriter

Those who don’t understand it laugh when you tell them that in many ways, the South is more civilized than any other region in the country. They shouldn’t. While the rest of the nation is fragmenting culturally, the South is holding on, however tenuously, to the culture and history that made it what it is and that Faulkner chronicled.

In New York, history is a subject taught in school; in Mississippi, history is your grandfather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such a time frame is important to experience on occasion.