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MapI have lived in the four corners of the U.S. I was born in the Northeast, lived in the South, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest. And yet it is somehow the vast middle of the nation that most draws me to it.

In the Northeast, there are cities and woods, the Hudson River slicing up New York State, the “bare and bended arm” of Massachusetts jutting out into the cod-waters of the cold Atlantic. There are the great curved ridges of the Alleghenies forcing highways into what look like Golgi bodies on the gas-station maps. This is the land of salt-rust on the undercarriage of family cars; Of hillside cemeteries bordered by brick apartment buildings. Warehouse districts and tract housing; turnpikes and wharves; glacial till and the stone walls the till makes both possible and necessary — and the fallen ruins of those walls making forgotten property boundaries in second- and third-growth forests. Swimming holes from abandoned quarries and the ever-present nose dust of bus fumes.New York 3

I look back on these things and a wave of nostalgia warms me. Manhattan in the winter, with the Con-Ed grates pouring steam into the air; the periodic burst of warm air blowing up from the sidewalk as the subway train rumbles in the Stygian underground. People in vast tides walking with purpose up Fifth Avenue. The smell of coffee and pie at the Horn and Hardart.

But I left the Northeast at just about the same time as the Horn and Hardart began fading away. I moved to the South, where I became accustomed to slower talking, slower walking and human interactions that were not based on efficiency and gain. It was a land of pine trees grown for paper pulp, a coastline of sea oats and dunes on barrier islands, cities of fewer restaurants, and what there were served meatloaf and fried chicken. When I moved there, the single Chinese restaurant in Greensboro, N.C. pretty much restricted its menu to chop suey and egg foo yung with pot roast gravy.red maple

I have lived in the South now longer than I have lived anywhere else, although I have not been faithful, and have moved elsewhere, yet I seem always to return. There are pinxter flowers dripping with rain along the Appalachian Trail; there are bass-filled man-made lakes where small towns used to be; there are old lawyers in worn suits who meet every morning in the coffee shop to talk about the day’s events while sipping hot coffee cooled by pouring it out into its saucer slurp by slurp. When I moved to the South, the Klan was still common — in both senses of the word — and otherwise perfectly decent white folk made a sincere case for not changing things too precipitously. Every town had its black community, usually on the other side of the railroad tracks that had once provided the reason for the town’s existence and formed the terminator as clearly as if there were the lit and dark sides of the moon.

There were cotton warehouses and tobacco barns; men actually used spitoons — and if they didn’t have one, they might have an empty tin can into which to spit the brown excess saliva from their chaw. I know of one old reprobate who actually died when he passed out drunk and rolled off his couch, cutting his throat on the jagged edge of his spit can.

If, in the North, people had little time for each other, always in a rush to get somewhere and do something, in the South, everything revolved around relationships, around talking and with that talk establishing social rank and responsibility and anyone you knew, you also knew who their daddy was. People talked endlessly, about weather, business, politics, gossip, taxes, planting, hunting, dogs and church meetings. Even now, so many decades later, when I made my first visit to the local barber, one of the things he asked, making small talk, was what church did I go to. He wasn’t being nosy nor was he proselytizing, he was merely establishing a relationship.nc church jesus saves

A good deal has changed in the South since I first got there four decades ago. Accents that used to define hierarchy have begun flattening out: You can walk through whole blocks of Atlanta and hear the same language you might hear in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fine dining is now possible if your city or town is now large enough. Your mayor has at least a 50-50 chance of being African-American. When I got there, every white Southerner was a Democrat; now, they are all Republicans.barista

I moved to Seattle in the late ’70s, before half of California swept north, and before every streetcorner had baristas pouring white swirls into the foam of a latte. The railroad switchers shunted cars from dock to dock along Alaskan Way where homeless men in dirty coats and black watchcaps clutched brown paper bags while sleeping in industrial doorways. The ferry moved out of its pier in the morning light to make its way to Winslow on Bainbridge Island or to Bremerton. Although it rained most days during the three non-summer seasons, it was mostly a drizzle and few people even thought it counted as rain and no one I saw ever carried an umbrella.

From my house on Phinney Ridge, across from the Woodland Park Zoo, you could see the snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the west and the snow-capped Cascade Mountains to the east. To the south was the biggest permanent, unmoving white cloud you ever saw — on those days you could actually see it for the weather — and it was called Mt. Rainier, which was pronounced, unlike the sovereign of Monaco, as if it described the precipitation in the Puget Sound: rainier. Certainly rainier than Arizona, where I moved later.Seattle docks

There was Olympia beer and Rainier beer, and I could hardly believe it to see pedestrians stop at the “don’t walk” lights, even at 2 in the morning when there were no cars on the road. No New Yorker would do that; I had friends who otherwise had a cavalier attitude toward authority who would stop me from jaywalking, as if the Stasi were keeping files.

When I got out of the city, the forests were populated with douglas fir and western redcedar. Nothing else. Endless miles of the stuff, climbing up the sides of mountain ranges and with downed logs greened over with moss, and the path a spongy loam under your feet.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

I think that is what finally drove me to move back to the South: The sense of homesickness for a forest with scores, even hundreds of varieties of tree. The sameness of the Northwestern forest seemed unnatural to me, as if I shouldn’t be there.

There is much I loved in the Northwest. The moist air, the cool summer, the planked salmon and Ivar’s Acres of Clams. I knew a bunch of bicycle messengers, known as “Buckies,” and enjoyed the friendship they provided. There was a political progressiveness that was nearly universal; one could shop at the co-op grocery, the Public Market at Pike Place. Stop off at a bar and have a beer like a real person.Badger Creek Ariz

Finally, there is the American Southwest, as dry as Seattle was moist. One can see for 20 miles at a glance, taking in a meaningful quadrant of the earth circumference. The Southwest mean space. At least outside the city of Phoenix, where we settled — and we got out of the city as often as we could — the desert was intense, sharp and beautiful. Before a rain, the humidity made the creosote bushes smell like spicy cologne. The saguaro cactus stood vertical above the thorny undergrowth. Jack rabbits, roadrunners, the occasional javalina or rattlesnake darted in and out of view. The air was dry; sweat evaporated before you even knew it had escaped your pores. The sun bleached the landscape and radiated heat like an open oven door.

There were three different experiences of Arizona. The most common one was the urban experience of Phoenix.

My wife and I moved there because we had traveled summers across the country and thought it might be pleasant to live in the West for a few short years. I’m sure we were thinking of Flagstaff or Santa Fe. We wound up in Phoenix. We were thinking of having a little adobe house with a white picket fence and perhaps a butte in the background and a few pinto horses grazing in the pasture.  We wound up on Seventh Street, the busiest thoroughfare in the city, with traffic noise like endless surf crashing outside the house, and exhaust soot collecting in the cooling ducts of the house.

The street grid was punctuated by Circle Ks and 7-Elevens. The right-angle network of streets were broken in places by the eruption of mountains: Camelback, Squaw Peak, South Mountain. Enthusiasts climbed them to get a view of the city below, which spread out like a plaid tablecloth, divided into square patches. You could hardly get lost in this checkerboard of roads; you were either driving north-south or east-west, and the city’s mountains provided easy landmarks. You always knew where you were.camelback mountainSaguaro NP Ariz

Outside the city, the land was split between northern and southern Arizona. To the south, there were greasewood flats, saguaro cactus and stony mountains catching the sun late in the day to demarcate the rosy lit areas from the bluish shadows. Dry lake beds hovered in the distance, white salt pans, and the taller mountains caught snow in the winter.

To the north was the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff, the Navajo and Hopi reservations and the Grand Canyon. The air was noticeably thinner and cleaner — no Phoenix, no Tucson to fill the valleys up with yellow smog. Roads unrolled in long ribbon streams ahead of you heading to the horizon bounded by mesas and buttes. The landscape painted tawny, ruddy, sooty, whitish and blue by streaks, the sky larger than you have seen it anywhere, and most likely uniform blue, only darker toward the zenith.

At First Mesa on the Hopi reservation, you can hardly tell the blocks of stone making up the hillside from the stone houses built atop. You drive endless miles across grassy plains to the next habitation. Streams are marked by slight empty depressions that only fill up in the rare rains that come, mainly in late summer as thunderstorms and mid-winter as constant frontal drizzles. They can become roiling mud rivers almost instantly. Cars will be washed away in the flow. You can always tell the newbies in the desert; they think they can drive through the flooded washes. They fill the nightly news and we see the cars floating downstream, their owners on the roof waiting for rescue.

We spent one Christmas day with friends in Walpi. We brought apples and oranges, coffee and sugar. They gave us cookies they were baking. It snowed on First Mesa; the fire in the stove heated the low stone house.

What you are never quite prepared for is the sense that the canyons are not, like mountains, something that rise from the level, but rather are gigantic holes in the ground you don’t see until you are right on top of them. The stratigraphy is a geological story that is told, part by part, as you move from one part of the state to another. The same layers, in the same order hundred of miles apart, although they might be covered by yet more layers in one place, and rest on the surface elsewhere. You could, like a good geologist, anthologize the landscape to tell a continuous saga.

When we left Arizona, we immediately became homesick for the Plateau and the desert. I cannot say, however, that we missed the city. I used to call it “Cleveland in the desert.” I loved my job there, and my colleagues and friends, and my wife loved her job and her colleagues and friends, but the city itself is rather charmless. The South called us back.

And so, we returned — for me it was my third homecoming. Now we live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and I am constantly amazed, as a Yankee, at just how open and friendly the people are — so much so, it sometimes creeps me out.

But as I was saying at the head of this periplus, I have lived and absorbed the people and land in the four corners of the country, but somehow, there is a gravitational pull to the middle I have always felt, to the place I have never managed to live, the vast gut of the continent.Chicago, Ill

For me, there are two emotionally resonant attractions to the middle. First, there is the rustbelt city, the factories, the immigrant populations, the train yards and highway junctions that all spoke of the industrious rise of the nation from the late 19th century through the Second World War. It is where so many of our great writers came from. It is the home of pirogis and deep fried ravioli, sausages and red cabbage. I have loved taking the train across the lower shores of the Great Lakes past Cleveland and Toledo to Chicago. There is a Midwest that is populated. What is not industry is farm. And there is corn and wheat, silos and tractors. The land tends to lie flat. You could play billiards on the ground in places in western Indiana.Joes Colo haystacks

But there is the second middle of the country that calls to me even more insistently: It is further west than the prairies; it is the Great Plains. Driving through North Dakota or Nebraska, eastern Colorado or eastern Montana — there you feel more than anyplace else in the 48 states that you live on a planet. On the coasts, it used to be proof of the roundness of the earth that you could see the ships and their masts slowly dip below the horizon; on the plains, you see the next grain elevator rise from the same horizon in front of you as you drive and later drop again behind you. You are always on the high point of a dome; the earth falls away from you in all directions. And on this dome, the grasses curl like whitecaps on the ocean.

It is this sense that Melville captures so well in his late story and poem (or is it poem and prose prologue) John Marr. “Blank stillness would for hours reign unbroken on this prairie. ‘It is the bed of a dried-up sea,’ said the companionless sailor — no geologist — to himself, musing at twilight upon the fixed undulations of that immense alluvial expanse bounded only by the horizon, and missing there the stir that, to alert eyes and ears, animates at all times the apparent solitudes of the deep.” The landscape between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains  was “hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.”

There is little in this expanse that can count as a city. Much that seems uninhabited. Moving across the Dakotas and into Montana, you find that neighbors count their separation not by fences but by miles. The land rises and falls like sea swell, and from the top of any ridge, you can see the land spread off in grassy waves.

Why this landscape should call to me so seductively is a mystery, even to me. I have wondered if it is some atavistic genetic memory of the Indo-European origins in the Caucasus, the Trans-Oxiana, where the grass continues unabated for a thousand miles, that Scythian homeland of my peoples, or at least of my language.Pawnee Buttes 5

Or perhaps, even further back, it is the imprinted memory of the African savannah where even before the global diaspora, we hairless monkeys were born. Why should I feel a homesickness for the grasslands that I have never actually lived in, unless there be some tick in my chromosomes that was molded there?

Whatever the cause, I feel it strongly. I feel it also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and eastern Alberta. The grasses swirl in the breeze, like animated hair whorls on an infant’s head; you can see the breeze moving through the grass in waves, the way a man in a sailboat sees the fretting of the lake surface as the gust approaches.

I am old now, and it is unlikely that I will dot the center of a quincunx of habitations by finally moving to the continental center. I will stay fixed in the North Carolina mountains. The Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest are part of my past. The spindle around which they all turn will remain a psychic locus, not an actual one for me. And the gust that frets the water a hundred yards off is the final one.

State Line tex-NMTo see the world, you fly around it; to learn about your neighborhood, you walk through it; but to appreciate something about the country you live in, there is nothing better than an automobile.Clouds from plane

A jet flies too high and fast to take in any detail. The country is too big to slog through on foot. A car is the perfect compromise, letting you pass over a significant portion of the nation each day, but allowing you the leisure to stop and sniff the magnolias in Mississippi, the rank ecstatic yellow sunflowers in North Dakota — and the lingering odor of peanut butter at Graceland.

It’s summer again, and once more, I open up another brand-new Rand McNally road atlas and begin planning a drive around the North American continent.Sunflowers North Dakota

In the past 15 years, I’ve made the round-trip across the United States at least a dozen times. I feel like Magellan when I start once more on the circumvehiculation of America.

I’ve done it alone and with my wife. I’ve done it camping and in motels. I’ve done it in summer and in winter. I’ve done it in as long as two months and as short as two weeks. Last year, I made it from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend, but I’m not likely to repeat that butt-numbing feat.

Yet I am planning another road trip this spring.

Friends tell me I am nuts, a masochist torturing myself or a sadist torturing my wife, but I keep setting out.

There is always something new to see, or some old friend to revisit: I’ve been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks something like 40 times, and I’m beginning to develop the same relationship with Maine’s Down East. When I have lived in the East, I couldn’t wait to visit New Mexico again.Baldwin Co. Ala. sunset

There are soft-shelled crabs to be eaten in Virginia, salmon in Seattle. There are pirogis in Wisconsin and scrapple in Philadelphia. You can only get pizza in New Jersey, you can only get barbecue in eastern North Carolina, or a real Cuban sandwich in Miami.

Barns in Pennsylvania have stone foundations; in Georgia, they rest lumber right on the ground. In Wisconsin, the barns are red; in North Carolina, it’s the dirt that’s red; the gray, weathered barns aren’t painted at all.

I remember passing through Iowa and being astonished to see a farmfield filled with hogs and each animal had its private home, looking like a Levittown of doghouses.

In southern Arizona, I passed something very similar, but it was for fighting roosters.Bear Mtn Bridge

American regionalism is alive, despite network television and corporate advertising. America hasn’t yet been completely turned into one great food court of McDonald’s and Arby’s.

If you think you have only a choice between Pepsi and Coke, wait till you pop the top of a Double Cola in Reidsville, N.C.

Try one at the Sanitary Cafe, where calf’s brains are the breakfast special.Cadillac Ranch Amarillo Texas

I’ve been to most of those landmark places you’ve heard of: International Falls, Minn.; Walla-Walla, Wash.; Langtry, Texas; Cairo, Ill.; Appomattox, Va.; Intercourse, Pa.; West Point, N.Y.

There are some great old iron bridges across the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, some great concrete bridges in central New Jersey that speak of the the great age of American highway building in the 1930s.

I’ve been up Pikes Peak in Colorado and up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

I’ve been over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana and across the floating bridge over the Hood Canal in Puget Sound north of Seattle.Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

It helps if you love to drive, and I know not everyone has that passion. My brother hates driving, for instance. He views an automobile vacation like a two weeks stuck in an elevator. He can’t wait for his floor to arrive so he can get the heck out.

But most elevators don’t have windows.

As I watch the landscape pass across my windshield, like a travelog on a movie screen, I get a sense of the whole elephant, not just his trunk or tail.

Of course, we are talking here about a two-lane blacktop trip, not a bland rush down an interstate highway, where one stretch of concrete pavement can be distinguished from another only by the names on the exit signs.factory, trees, Lowell, Mass

It is a particular kind of travel and has nothing in common with the destination-vacation of the tourism industry. I have no interest in waiting on Disney World lines for thrill rides or Lake Winnibigoshish for a week of trout fishing. You can have your three days lounging on the sands of Bimini or your Love Boat cruise.

Instead, I get to travel an arc of the planet, get to feel in my bones the curvature of the earth and the roughness of its skin. It is through driving across its surface that I get some body-feel for the size of the globe: It is roughly 10 times the distance I drive to get from Phoenix to New York City. New OrleansThat’s not some numbers on some mileage chart, but a distance I know by the seat of my pants.

It’s also a lot smaller than the world seemed before I began driving.

In those years, my wife and I have been to each of the 48 contiguous state at least twice and most more frequently; we have been to all but one of the Canadian provinces; and even skirted into Mexico a little bit.

And each of those trips could have produced a Blue Highways, a book-length summation of what we saw and learned.Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Part 2

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve put enough vacation miles on the cars I’ve owned to equal driving around the world 2 1/2 times. You don’t drive that much without learning a few things.

The first is, of course, to stay off the interstates. You may get there faster, but not by much, and you’ll be bored the whole drowsy way. And in much of the country — and especially in the West — speed limits on smaller highways is not much lower than on the four-lanes, and with less traffic.Golden Gate Bridge SF Calif

Have a rough itinerary and plan how many miles per day you are willing to drive. This is more important for a passenger: Driving will keep you occupied, but your partner may go stir crazy sitting in a seat while going across some of the flatter places in Texas; Don’t overdo it. Marriages hang in the balance.

But never make your itinerary too rigid. You will discover unexpected things along the way; let yourself enjoy them.Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist04 copy

We never reserve motel rooms, so we never feel forced to get somewhere by nightfall. There are enough motels along the way. Even national parks, with their crowds, often have last minute cancellations. We’ve pulled into the Grand Canyon and into Yellowstone and gotten a room. But have a contingency plan.

One year, we hit South Dakota the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and there were no vacancies for 200 miles around. We had to drive into the next state to find a room. But that brings up the next lesson:

Don’t be afraid of mishaps and adventures. They may be uncomfortable during the trip, but they will be the best stories you tell your friends. No matter how bad it gets, it will provide the most vivid memory.Imperial Dunes California

Don’t drive every day; take some time to spend in a single spot. Three days we spent in a cabin on Daicey Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park were three of the best days we ever spent — hiking, canoeing, watching moose and listening to loons at the base of Mount Katahdin. Not once did we start the car. When we finally left, we were ready for more miles.

There are things you should always have in your car: water, a blanket, Fig Newtons, a road atlas, your address book with phone numbers. Forest Lawn cemetery LAI also carry an entrenching tool — one of those small folding shovels you can buy at army surplus stores — for digging out when I get the car stuck in sand or mud.

Don’t be afraid of dirt roads. There are some amazing rewards at the end of a bit of gravel.

We also always carry a small library of Peterson nature guides, two pairs of binoculars, camera equipment and twice the amount of film I think I can possibly shoot.

And finally, my nomination for the greatest invention of the 20th century: cruise control. It keeps your right foot from cramping up on the gas pedal. I was 45 before I ever tried it and I’ll never be that stupid again.pacific coast highway California

Part 3

What makes for good driving?

I don’t know about others, but for me, optimum driving conditions include:

–Little or no traffic for infinite miles ahead, with no stoplights.

–Interesting and varied weather; I don’t want incessant sunshine any more than I want endless rain. A front moving through gives me a constantly changing cloud show.Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

–An old road with a history. Route 66 is the most famous, but not the only one. I especially enjoy roads that follow geology: along a mountain range or river, so that the road seems to belong to the earth, rather than denying it.

–Occasional side roads, preferably gravel, for a change of pace.

–Periodic change of landscape, such as when you drive from the Plains to the Rocky Mountains, or from the white sands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the hilly interior of the Piedmont.

— A regional food specialty you haven’t tried yet and no chain restaurants.leo carillo st beach california

— A few museums and a few national parks. I gotta have both.

— A used book store in every town.

— A pile of Haydn symphonies on CD to run through the dashboard player.

–A clean windshield. This last must be renewed frequently. Bugs bust on the glass.Mississippi barge

Part 4

The dozen most scenic drives in the 48 states:

1. Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park.

2. The Pacific Coast Highway, Calif. 1, from San Luis Obispo to Leggett, Calif..

3. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waynesboro, Va. to Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.

4. N.C. 12 from Nags Head to Okracoke, N.C.

5. Ariz. 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, Ariz.

6. U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, Fla.

7. La. 82 from Perry, La., to Port Arthur, Texas.

8. U.S. 1 from Ellsworth to Calais, Maine.

9. Kancamagus Highway, N.H. 112, from Conway to Lincoln, N.H.

10. Tex. 170 from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend National Park.

11. Utah 12 from Red Canyon to Torrey, Utah.

12. Wash. 14 though the Columbia River Gorge from Camas to Plymouth, Wash.Niagara Falls

Part 5

It isn’t just the flashy, famous places that draw the true driver. In fact, commercial destinations, such as Disney World or Las Vegas, are probably best gotten to by airplane and shuttle bus, so you can give over all your time to waiting in lines.

No, in a car, some of the best experiences come by rolling through the kind of places that fall through the cracks of marketing. Places “below the radar,” so to speak, of commercial development.mobile bay point clear

The small towns, endless farms, mountain ranges, Indian reservations — these are the places you have the opportunity to discover things for yourself. In the big theme parks, you get a uniform experience, developed through marketing research. The ride you take is the same ride millions of others take.

But when you talk to the harried but chummy waitress in Doumar’s, an original ’50s style drive-in on Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Va., you are talking to a real person, a one-on-one experience that is particular and individual. You get a flavor of place, of culture, of people, of individuals.Page Dam Arizona

To say nothing of the flavor of ice cream, in a cone as close to identical as possible to the original waffled cone Abe Doumar is credited with inventing in 1904. They still make them on the same old wheezy portable machine. If your lucky, they’ll be making them while you eat.

Likewise, there is nothing predictable about the starfish you find in an Oregon tidepool, or the bears in the Smoky Mountains. You get to experience the infinite variety of real life.Sierra Nevada Mts California

Of course, I have my favorites.

Among the 48 states, I can never find the end of either California or North Carolina. They are both richly varied.

California seems to have everything from the world-navel of pop culture to the most remote wilderness. It has more than any other single state.Thunder hole Acadia NP Maine

But North Carolina is nearly as varied geographically, and it has B&G fried pies, the most soul-satisfying food in the world. North Carolina also has the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks.

And I cannot get enough of the great, grassy, rolling middle of America. When I tell people I love driving through Nebraska, they look at me like I just said I was born on the Hale-Bopp Comet. But just pull into one of those one-street towns with the grain elevator towering over the single railroad track and have lunch in the cafe where the farmers eat.Yellowstone Nat Park Wyoming

Or imagine the wagonloads of immigrants trudging along the Platte River, with Scotts Bluff on the horizon.

The pace is slower, more humane in Nebraska.

Humankind developed on the grasslands of Africa, and Nebraska, especially, seems to call atavistically to me, reawakening my genetic love of savannas.Monument Valley Arizona

It’s easy to love the broad vistas of the West. Southern Utah doesn’t seem to have a square inch that isn’t photogenic, and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming are mountains right out of central casting: They are to other mountains what Cary Grant is to most men.

But I also love the Mid-Atlantic states. Sometimes, a Western forest is too much of the same thing. You can walk for miles in the Cascades of Washington and see only two kinds of trees: Douglas fir and Western redcedar.Zabriskie Point Death Valley Calif

It’s different in Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the great Appalachian mountain chain of the East, there are more species of plant life than in all of Europe. The variety is blinding: Redbud in spring, Tulip tree in summer. White pine, pin oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, witch hazel, horse chestnut — and hundreds more.

And there is something humanizing about the landscape. This is land which has been lived in for hundreds of years. It is still wild, but it has made peace with the humans who live there and send smoke up their stony winter chimneys.Zion National Park Utah

In the past, I avoided cities the way I avoid Justin Bieber songs. The noise, nuisance, dirt and traffic were everything I was trying to avoid by getting on the road.

But I have come to terms with them, also. After all, it is in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that you find the symphony orchestras, natural history museums, ethnic foods and imposing architecture.Mississippi River Hannibal Missouri

The greatest city for driving is Los Angeles. It may be the home of the cultural antichrist, but it is also a great fermenting, creative pot, with lots of roads that take you past inventively loopy buildings: The Tail ’o the Pup hot dog stand, the downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant in the form of an ocean liner.

In LA, you can’t get anywhere without wheels. It is the perfect American city.mobile bay

There are two states that I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy: New Jersey, probably because I grew up there and don’t feel much urge to go back; and Florida, which is supposed to be a Southern state, but it has been given over to graceless Yankees. But even in Florida, I have to admit I love the Cubano culture of Miami and the Everglades, proving that there is always something of worth.

View from Craggy Gardens

The East Coast of North America varies more widely than any other region of the continent. Westerners are Westerners, but no one could confuse a Manhattanite with a Cajun, a Down Easter with Virginia gentry.

There are drawls in the South, missing R’s in New England, even French in Quebec.

But there is one thing that ties the East together, a kind of central nervous system that defines both its history and emotional core: the Appalachian Mountains.

Running from southwest to northeast for 2,000 miles from Alabama to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Appalachians are a true cordillera, not a single mountain range of peaks but a chain of ranges that span a continent.

There are the Unakas, the Blue Ridge, the Alleghenies, the Green, White, Black, Blue and Brown mountains, the Berkshires and Catskills, the Notre Dames and Shickshocks.

They were this nation’s first frontier, a physical barrier to continental expansion in the 18th century that helped define the original 13 colonies.

It took an unusual sort of pioneer to settle the green stony hills, and their inhabitants to this day maintain much of their independent nature. It is one of the strengths of the Appalachians.

They are among the oldest mountains — parts are more than a billion years old — and they are also structurally complex. Appalachian map

They can be divided into three very different sections from east to west. This structure is clearest in Virginia.

There in the front range of the Appalachians are the old, volcanic Blue Ridge, rising abruptly from the Piedmont. Behind it lies the broad, fertile Great Valley — a kind of cordillera of valleys — best-known in northern Virginia as the Shenandoah Valley. The Ridge and Valley Province comes next, fronted by the Alleghenies. It is a long series of low sedimentary ridges, like a line of breakers at the shore. In these loaf mountains are some of the nation’s early iron and copper mines.

Behind that is the Appalachian, or Cumberland Plateau, the wide belt of rocky bumps of almost equal height extending through most of West Virginia and into Kentucky. In these hills, miners still dig out the soft, bituminous coal that is the nation’s greatest single natural resource.

But the Appalachians are also partitioned from north to south. It is traditionally divided into the southern, central and northern sections: The first, from Alabama to Maryland, includes the highest peaks in the East. The second, running through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, are mostly long ridges. And in the north, encompassing New England and Atlantic Canada, the mountains grow once more in height and ruggedness.

For the several blog entries, we will look at the Appalachians and the people who live in them, taking them section by section.

NEXT: The Southern Appalachians

washington and d day

”For one million dollars, how do you spell IQ?”

If you asked America that question, America would not win a million dollars.

What can I say? When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was popular on network TV, a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that most Americans thought it counted as educational television.

Some 70 percent of those asked also identified the Oprah Winfrey Show as ”serving their children’s educational needs.”

It has only gotten worse since then.

As a nation, we are dumbing down. We have decided, like one third-grader told my wife when she was teaching, that ”my mama says there’s only so much the brain can hold or it will explode.” And we’re playing it safe. monte cristo

So we think the questions Regis Philbin asked were actually tough.

”Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”

Although, actually, most of the questions on that show involved celebrities rather than past presidents. The only Grant who counted was Hugh.

Another study found that 80 percent of seniors at 55 top universities flunked or nearly flunked a basic high school history test. ludden and princeton

So that, nowadays, it is rare to find an actual quiz show on TV, outside Jeopardy, which keeps up a decent and atavistic standard. Instead of watching smart people answer questions, we now prefer to watch people being stupid and doing stupid things on “reality TV.” Perhaps this gives us the illusion that if we are not as idiotic as the contestants, perhaps we are now the “smart” ones. cedric the entertainer

Nothing says as much about the course of empire than the slow dumbing down of quiz shows, from the really arcane questions that Allen Ludden asked on the G.E. College Bowl to the pap that passes for knowledge on Millionaire. It is no surprise that in its current syndicated incarnation Millionaire is hosted by Cedric the Entertainer.

Nowadays, we are amazed when a contestant remembers the name of the cute little girl on Family Affair.

It tells us what we, as a culture, value. And we don’t value learning. We value entertainment.

In the past, even people who didn’t have much education valued it and made sure their children received its benefits. Older schools often have the names of great thinkers or artists carved into friezes around their sides: Aristotle, Mozart, Pasteur, Newton. They stood for high goals we should set and aim our efforts at.

That all has changed.

It isn’t merely that schools being built now might scribe the names of Katy Perry, Justin Bieber or Beyonce, but that we think there should be no names at all.

For in our warped sense of democracy, we have decided that ”all men are created equal” means that no one should be better than anyone else.

I never have understood this: We somehow maintain the belief that there are basketball players who are more talented than everyone else, and we reward them richly. We keep the belief that there are more successful CEOs and reward them richly too. But somehow we are not to believe — or at least applaud the fact — that there are some people who are smarter or more talented academically or artistically. We reward such people only with suspicion.

And we make our education system inane to the point that everyone can earn a ”B” and keep their wonderful sense of self-esteem.

Then we wonder why our kids don’t know where Chicago is on a map, can’t balance a checkbook, or believe George Washington was the general on D-Day.

Obviously, we decide, our school standards are set too high, and we lower them yet further.

For it isn’t just the students who don’t know anything of history, geography or spelling but also their parents and teachers who don’t know and don’t think it important.

Another study, by the non-profit Foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition, found that half of all current education majors in college — those who will become the teachers of our children — don’t read books other than what is required for class. And 60 percent think there is too much emphasis placed on books.

What do they want instead? If they are like most Americans, they want to be entertained. They want wall-to-wall television. And they’re getting it.

It is the democratization of culture, so that if you have the Encyclopedia Britannica on one side and Project Runway on the other, we decide they have equal weight.

Learning gives us the context to understand events. It prevents us from making egregious choices. It gives us skepticism.

Learning turns us into individuals rather than demographic statistics, rather than mere consumers. It gives us the confidence to make difficult choices and makes us the free agents for political choice that democracy was originally meant to nurture.

But we have become instead a nation of intellectual and emotional infants, swayed by commercial advertising, hoodwinked by ”alternative” science, led by politicians who can utter no thought longer than a sound bite.

We have the world’s largest and most sophisticated military yet are left defenseless by our own embrace of ignorance. Read your Gibbon.

cletus spuckler and wife

There is little science on the Science Channel, almost no history on the History Channel, nothing to discover on Discover, and you will look long and hard to find any art on the Arts and Entertainment network.

And if you learn anything from The Learning Channel, it is that America’s intellectual level has dropped from the sky like a disabled alien spacecraft, to crash and burn in a desert of mindlessness.

The History Channel, for instance, now specializes in (as explained on Wikipedia): “mythical creatures, monsters, UFOs, aliens, truck drivers, alligator hunters, pawn stores, antique and collectible ‘pickers,’ car restoring, religions, disaster scenarios, and apocalyptic ‘after man’ scenarios,” to say nothing about credulous explorations of the writings of Nostradamus. ancient aliens

Each of these channels began with virtuous motives, and for their early years, created or acquired genuine documentaries for TV viewers, but as they have come to seek ratings over virtue, each has bitten the bait, and now gives us “reality” programming, sensationalist pseudoscience, and celebrities, celebrities, celebrities.

The prime offender of this last are the cooking and food channels, which at one time gave us instruction on cooking and food, but now concentrate on celebrity chefs, some even with studio audiences to applaud and ooh. Julia Child actually taught us something. david pogue

And it isn’t just that Bravo or A&E have given us the bait-and-switch, but that even once laudable programming on PBS has been dumbed down to provide more “entertainment” and less hard information. Their once-proud flagship program NOVA has become a showcase for the high-jinx of such “info-comics” as David Pogue, “Destroyer of Brain Cells.”

It is as if no one believes that actual history or science or art can hold its own in a world of Gypsy housewives of LA married to lumberjacks who look for gold in Alaska and find Nazi ghosts piloting flying saucers from the future, as predicted by Nostradamus.

(Note to Discovery: I now have a copyright on that idea, in case you decide to make such a series.)

I have no complaints with science writers who make complex and often mathematically dense material comprehensible for laymen, such as myself. That is what NOVA used to do: It was aimed at intelligent non-scientists, people with an interest but without the background and training; it now seems aimed at Cletus Spuckler and his family of slack-jawed yokels from The Simpsons.

Is it any wonder that American students fail so badly in math and science, or that a scary percentage of American voters don’t believe in basic scientific principles, and that a major political party carries on a non-too-disguised war on science? We believe in ghosts, UFOs, and ESP, but not in evolution, global warming or environmental degradation. One scratches one’s head.

At least PBS still maintains a veneer of science or history in their documentaries, the commercial cable channels have given up completely. It is all hokum shot through night-vision goggles looking for trumped up ghosts, or teams of competing slackers moaning and groaning about how hard it is to beat the deadline making spangles for their dresses or how to turn squid beaks into desserts for the panel of judges. TLC

How is America not embarrassed to show its face in the world for presenting Toddlers and Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, I Eat 33,000 Calories A Day, Potty Power, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, Starter Wives Confidential, Trading Spouses, Wedding Dress Wars, or Big Hair Alaska? And those are just from Discovery.

The History Channel (now, of course, rebranded as History, keeping the only part of their name that doesn’t describe anything true about itself) has offered: Ancient Aliens, Ancients Behaving Badly, Angels and Demons: Decoded, Ax Men, The Bible Code: Predicting Armegeddon, Big Shrimpin’, Cajun Pawn Stars, Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, God, Guns and Automobiles, Hairy Bikers, Ice Road Truckers, Shark Wranglers, Swamp People, and, of course, UFO HuntersPawn Stars photographed by Blair Bunting

Its highest-rated show, Pawn Stars, exemplifies one of the unpleasant trends in this new field of television.  So many “reality” shows (I can’t help but put quotes around the word “reality,” since the word is so horribly misused in this application) rely on having a bully at its center, whether it was Simon Cowell on American Idol or here, with “Old Man” Richard Harrison, a truly repulsive ignorant blusterer lording it over his clan like a cartoon patriarch, an uneducated know-it-all, with little sense of curiosity — there is no glow in his ball-bearing eyes, just the dull, yellowish glare of a sluggish dragon guarding its horde.

So much of TV is either aimed at or about the unwashed, uneducated and superstitious, as if all of America lived in a trailer park and had only half its teeth. It’s the Jerry-Springerization of America, and it cannot bode well for our future.

So, the rest of us find ourselves either leaving TV altogether, or braving the ridicule of our friends and family, tuning in to C-Span 2 on the weekends to watch Book TV. It’s the last bastion of a medium that used to bring us Omnibus, Young People’s Concerts and BBC nature programs.

 

old elvis 1

Elvis is America.

I am not entirely delighted by that fact — even somewhat embarrassed by it — but there is no other figure, public or private, from the past 200 years that sums up so succinctly what the United States is all about.

And three and a half decades after his disappearance and reported death, Elvis Presley remains both what Americans are and what they want to be.

Of course, what they want to be is Young Elvis — brash, sexy, talented. And, compared to most Old World cultures, that is just what America is. Its pop culture has preempted many indigenous folkways throughout the planet precisely because it is so appealingly energetic. Content doesn’t matter nearly so much as style points, and Elvis — and America — can swivel and two-step like a blue demon.6/30/00 DS - REF="Elvis_ao_MCos.psd"

The effect is so pervasive that in deepest Africa, you don’t hear tribal drumming so much as you hear Top-40 tunes. And Japanese karaoki is not, after all, based on the music of the classical Noh plays.

No, what appeals to the world is America’s optimism, its lack of guilt, its comfort with itself. America may be a novice in world history, but it is a refreshingly guileless novice — or at least, it has been.

Like Young Elvis, we think of ourselves as dangerous without being threatening.

But America would prefer not to notice the Old Elvis in the mix, which is also part of our Elvis-selves.

For America is also crass, loaded with bad taste, money-chasing, conspicuous consumption, anti-intellectualism, sentimental Christianity, drug hypocrisy, junk food and mindless consumerism.

On the surface, the Young and Old Elvises seem like opposites, but they are not: The one naturally evolves from the other. You cannot have the Young Elvis without the Old One waddling behind, two halves to the same coin.

The flip side of our energy is our anti-intellectualism; our self-confidence is also our provincialism.

Our sober, well-educated founding fathers envisioned an America modeled on republican Rome — or rather modeled on imperial Rome’s nostalgic vision of its republican past.

Washington, Madison, Adams and Jefferson imagined something brand new in the world, something bursting with energy, new ideas and vitality.

That is Young Elvis. But just as republican Rome turned into the empire of Tiberius, Nero and Elagabalus, so America quickly added to its repertoire the Jacksons, the No-Nothings and the Tea Party and Neocons.

Indeed, Andrew Jackson, who kept goats in the White House and stabled his race horses on the grounds, was probably the first Old Elvis in our history. He was even known as “The King,” in his day — King Andrew, he was called by his political opponents, who disliked his monarchical yet proletarian ways.

There is something in American culture that is illogically ambivalent about royalty. We claim to be a classless society and righteously argue that anyone in America is as good as anyone else. Heaven help anyone who “puts on airs.”

Yet, Old Elvis is what America wants to be, too.old elvis 2

It is the ultimate goal of American democracy, not that we all share equally a modest and comfortable life, but that everyone should be a millionaire — and Old Elvis is America’s vision of what a millionaire should dress and act like.

So, we make an image of our desires and create a kind of celebrity aristocracy and pay homage to them by gobbling up tales of their every peccadillo in tabloid exposes.

It is a kind of trailer-park version of royalty: Bad taste, emphasis on wealth and glamor.

Glamor is to beauty as rhinestones are to rubies: There was some genuine grace in the Young Elvis; the Old Elvis is cubic zirconia to the bone.

Ives portrait

The music of Charles Ives has been thought gnarly and noisy, difficult and dissonant. And it is, for sure. But it is also profoundly nostalgic and deeply American.

Instead of avoiding his music because it is so “modern,” you should let the music steep inside your consciousness and let it dredge up all your most inkept feelings of loss and childhood. Ultimately, his music is not so much avant-garde as it is heartbreaking. Fireworks, parades, summer vacations, church picnics — it’s all there in the music. And all the more potent for its evocation of the New England that Ives grew up in.

For Ives, New England was America. He was born from the soil of New England and finally was returned 79 years later to that same soil. He inherited the culture of Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne and turned it into sound.

His piano sonata Concord, Mass. 1840-1860, his Holidays Symphony and his Third Symphony (Camp Meeting) all grow from his New England roots, full of the marching-band tunes, patriotic airs and revival-meeting hymns he heard as a boy.

But one piece above all sums up his New England experience, and it is one of his easiest to digest and, therefore, most popular. It is Three Places in New England, and it describes in music three very precise landscapes.

Sometimes called the “New England Symphony,” it was written by Ives between 1903 and 1911. It contains three movements that are unforgettable impressions of the land and people.

Landscape plays a big part in the history of painting and hardly less in literature. We can visit the very square foot of land in Canada where painter Frederic Edwin Church stood to paint his monumental Niagara Falls or we can tour the Lake District that inspired William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

But it is not often that landscape inspires music. There is the occasional Moldau or La Mer, but scene-painting in sound is not often as precise as a painting. Smetana takes in the whole river, not a single view, and Debussy’s ocean is any ocean.

Yet Ives gave us in his Three Places three distinct sites that can be visited and enjoyed and compared with the sound portraits.

Shaw Memorial, Boston

Shaw Memorial, Boston

The SHAW MEMORIAL, Boston

The first section in Ives’ music is titled ”The St. Gaudens in Boston Common” and is subtitled ”Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment.”

The St. Gaudens is a Civil War monument, considered by some people to be the best American example of memorial sculpture. It was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and unveiled in 1897 at the northeast end of Boston Common, across the street from the Massachusetts Statehouse.

The deep-relief sculpture commemorates the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and its commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who died in the Civil War.

The 54th was unusual at the time because its enlisted ranks were composed entirely of African-Americans. On May 28, 1863, the largest crowd in Boston’s history came out to see the 54th march off. They saw the thousand Black soldiers marching, accompanied by their White officers on horseback.

A souvenir of the day quoted Byron: ”Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.”

Two months later, Shaw and a third of his command were dead, killed in the attack on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor. Their charge had failed, but the soldiers had fought so well that they legitimized what had been considered a questionable idea: African-Americans in combat.

Shaw initially was buried in a common combat grave with his dead troops, and after the war, when plans were made to exhume the gallant young officer and give him an official ceremony in a Massachusetts cemetery, his parents refused, writing that they could hope for ”no holier place” for him than ”surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers.”

Saint-Gaudens, America’s premier sculptor at the time, was commissioned in 1883 to monumentalize Shaw, and briefly considered a standard equestrian statue, but finally decided that the Black troops deserved the memorial as much as Shaw and devised plans to include them.

He wanted to represent the soldiers accurately; some were as young as 16, others were bearded grandfathers. So he hired African-Americans to pose for him and made 40 heads as studies. Sixteen went into the final bronze.

So Shaw rides his horse in front of a rhythmical line of marching soldiers, their heads, sleeping packs and rifles creating a visual drumbeat.

Ives’ 8-minute portrait of the monument is a diffuse, dissonant wash, as though not only the images of the Civil War but also its very idea were obscured in the haze of memory and history.

”Moving — marching — faces of souls! Marked with the generations of pain, Part-freers of a destiny, slowly, restlessly swaying us on with you towards other freedom!” Ives wrote in his score.

The monument was only a few years old when Ives began writing about it, and the layers of time show through in the music: the war, the remembrance of war, the causes and unfinished business of the war in a conflicting mass of sound.

Often, in the welter, you can make out a familiar tune: Marching Through Georgia or Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Then it all fades away into the nostalgic past.

Today, the sculpture is nearly black in its patina. It sits on its granite plinth looking vaguely like a plaque on a headstone. The tour buses stop, and the tourists pour out with their cameras. Some shoot the gold-domed statehouse, others shoot the St. Gaudens.

One bus unloads two dozen Japanese tourists. They also point their cameras. The amplified sound of a tour guide overpowers the street noise — but in Japanese — and I cannot possibly know what she is saying or what the Japanese tourists can make of the racial complexity involved in the war, the monument and American history.

Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut

Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut

PUTNAM’S CAMP

The second movement is called ”Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut.”

Gen. Israel Putnam, like most American generals in the Revolutionary War, was better known for strategic and tactical retreats than for victories. Charged with holding the Hudson Highlands in 1777, he lost Fort Monroe and Fort Clinton while backing up into Connecticut.

He and his troops wintered near Redding, Conn., in 1778, undergoing much of the same privation and hardship Washington endured at Valley Forge.

But Ives isn’t remembering the Revolutionary War in his music. Rather, he is remembering his childhood, when he used to visit the site of Putnam’s Camp and fantasize what it must have been like in the winter of 1778-79.

He also recalls the patriotic Fourth of July picnics he attended there and the brass bands that played.

”Long rows of stone campfire-places still remain to stir a child’s imagination,” Ives wrote.

What he hears is a grand cacophony of marching bands, playing different tunes at the same time. It is loud, bouncy and ear-blasting, getting louder and louder, with strains of The British Grenadiers and other songs, and ending in a misquoted bar and a half of reveille.

It is all a jolly 6-minute joke but the kind of music Ives loved best. ”Pretty sounds are for pretty ears,” he said, deriding those who wanted pleasant melodies from his orchestra.

Once, upset over the hoots and boos of an audience listening to some modern music, Ives got out of his seat and exhorted the unappreciative crowd to ”Stand up and take your music like a man!”

Putnam’s Camp is today a state park, half on the east side of Connecticut 58, half on the west. It is the eastern half that is most visited; it has a lake, a parking lot and picnic tables, and many of the people who come there probably give little thought to the Colonial army that once wintered there.

On the other side of the road, there is a path through the woods that passes the lines of camp hearths and a hilltop cemetery full of the unmarked graves of those who died fighting for American independence.

At the lake, a man — who looks like he’s playing hooky from work — casts his fishing line into the water. The fall remnants of waterlily leaves are curled and brown on the water, and a few Canada geese honk on the lawn.

The sky is overcast, and the woods are brown as tweed, with neither shadows nor highlights. And the old-fashioned New England Fourth of July patriotic and religious picnic is as much a part of the past as Putnam’s war.

Housatonic River, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Housatonic River, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

HOUSATONIC at STOCKBRIDGE

The last section of Three Places in New England is perhaps the most moving. It is ”The Housatonic at Stockbridge.”

That is, the Housatonic River at Stockbridge, Mass.

The Housatonic is one of those alternating lazy and cascading streams that run from north to south, along which New England’s factories were built in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

It begins at a small pond in Washington, Mass., and wends its way 149 miles to Long Island Sound at Stratford, Conn.

Along its banks are both towns and woods. Ives honeymooned in the Berkshires in 1908 with his new wife, Harmony, and one Sunday morning, they strolled near Stockbridge and the river.

”We walked in the meadows along the river,” he wrote many years later, ”and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the riverbed and the colors, the running water, the banks and the trees were something that one would always remember.”

The 4-minute movement that Ives wrote captures the quiet and the mist: It is ambiguous tonally and melodically, like a remembered dream, builds to a climax that evaporates abruptly, uncovering the quiet chords playing on the orchestral strings as if they had been sounding all along, but drowned out by the noise.

Like the strings in Ives’ Unanswered Question, which are drowned out by chattering woodwinds, the final quiet strings in Three Places are the eternal harmonies of nature.

Ives liked his piece well enough that he turned it into a song later, with words by poet Robert Underwood Johnson:

”Contented river! In thy dreamy realm — the cloudy willow and the plumy elm.”

It is an elegy to nostalgia.

Stockbridge has changed since the Iveses visited. It is now a prime tourist destination, full of gift shops and art galleries, with frozen yogurt. It is also the home of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Rockwell made his home there and used Stockbridge natives as models for his magazine-cover paintings.

The river eases in and out of town, crossed by four or five small bridges. The Housatonic is an average of only 35 yards across in Stockbridge, hardly more than a brook.

On a cloudy day in October, it also is hidden by the grayness. I have visited every spot along the river in town and enjoyed its quiet but missed its beauty.

Until late that afternoon when I stand on the hill by the Rockwell Museum looking over the river out at Pleasant Hill and a chink in the clouds widens, throwing a spotlight on the meadow across the water. The bare winter sycamores along its banks suddenly stand out like neon, and the band of sunlight sweeps from left to right, finally in its passing leaving the scene in gray once more.

And the riverbed and the colors, the running water, the banks and the trees were something that one would always remember.

DEEP TIME 

The search for Ives’ three places has turned into a pile of time on time, present on past, past on deeper past, all wound up in a single point of geography.

It is as if the Indians, who were in New England before the Pilgrims came, had a deeper understanding of reality. When something happens, they believed, it is always happening. Time is not a straight line but a basket full of harvest, all piled in together.

So that I cannot see this single piece of real estate, the Housatonic, the Yankee military camp or the St. Gaudens statue, without thinking of history, memory, my past and my nation’s past, all balled up into a single, complex thing.

All happening at once and all happening in my eye, looking at the past.

And I know it is not just true for these three places, caught in Ives’ web of meaningful noise, but for all places and all times.

Charles and Harmony Ives

Charles and Harmony Ives

CHARLES IVES

Charles Ives is the father of American music.

Before him, what American composers wrote for the concert hall was a dim reflection of European — and especially German — art music, with its sonatas and symphonies. After him, it was possible to feel truly American.

You can see his influence in the folk tunes that show up in Aaron Copland, the spare orchestrations and open harmonies of Roy Harris and the avant-garde fun John Cage has with noise.

Ives was a funny duck. Born in 1874, he studied composition at Yale, but instead of becoming a poverty-stricken composer, he became a wealthy insurance executive. Ives and his partner, Julian Myrick, founded a successful agency that pioneered much of the industry’s modern practice. Myrick had the business sense, Ives brought the creativity.

Together they prospered, ultimately becoming the largest insurance agency in America. In 1929, the firm sold $49 million worth of insurance.

But he was also a genius in music, taking little stock of what he learned from his stuffy college professors and feeding large on the oddball music education he received from his father, George Ives, who was bandmaster for the small Connecticut town of Danbury.

George Ives loved to experiment with sound, playing with microtones, out-of-tune instruments, polytonality and organized noise. That enthusiasm for experiment, which in George was a variety of practical Yankee inventiveness, became for his son a creed and a muse.

Yet although Charles Ives’ music was more modern than Stravinsky’s and more dissonant than Bartok’s, he really was not concerned with fitting into the long history of European art music. It is obvious in the music; Ives was not writing about modern things.

For although the music is filled with ear-splitting dissonances, it is unabashedly nostalgic. Ives felt a powerful nostalgia for the past — his past — and his music drips with bits of the music he heard when he was a boy: old hymn tunes and marching-band music.

No matter how loud and incoherent Ives sounds at first, at long last, it settles into Bringing in the Sheaves and Columbia the Gem of the Ocean — not whole but in snippets, as if half-remembered.

Ives wrote the bulk of his music in the first years of this century. His business and his ailments — he suffered from a poor heart muscle — kept him from concentrating on composition after 1918.

Or perhaps, as Ives’ early biographers, Henry and Sidney Cowell, suggested, ”The war was a shock of the first magnitude to a man whose life was based on his confidence in human progress.”

He lived on until 1954, becoming for many American composers a kind of father figure and rallying point.