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Part 1: The Thing

Abstract art has several jobs, but one of the most important is to take the bits of the visual world around us, separate them from their context, and allow us to see them freshly. By removing color, texture, and pattern from their received meaning allows us to pay attention to the building blocks of vision. As if we could take the music of speech and remove the words from them, so only the sensuous vestige remains.

In most of the visual world we live in, we have given meanings to what we see, like seeing the diagrammatic picture of a man or woman on the restroom door. And in “reading” the visual world this way, as a sort of language, we too easily fail to actually see what we are looking at: We simplify and name: That is “green,” rather than “that is the green of kelp,” or “the green of grass.” Two very different greens. And there are thousands of greens. If we abstract the color from its worldly signature, we can place two greens next to each other and force ourselves to notice.

The same is true for texture, reflectivity, surface (whether matte or glossy), size or scale, the opacity or translucency of pigment — a thousand different qualities of sight, and of the visual world we inhabit, but where habit has dulled our perception — and our delight.

Still, no matter how abstracted from the quotidian an image may be, there remains some remnant of its source. We tend to recognize a certain green by the chords it sounds in our memory, our sense memory. We respond to this green or that in part — and idiosyncratically — by the way it calls to mind the emotions and pleasures we attach to it in a rather Proustian way.

Thus, although we may think of abstract art as a kind of rationalized set of color and pattern, line and texture, we can never entirely divorce our response to it from the experience of our own lives.

So, we are left with complicated response to art that on the surface seems to have no meaning.

(It’s no use making the argument that such response is too subjective, too personal. Our response to any art, no matter how abstract or how realistic, is always personal. Abstraction, again, reminds us of what we don’t normally think about.)

Painters have the advantage that they can invent shapes and lines from nothing but cobalt blue and vermilion. But a photographer is left with a more direct connection to the world outside his head. The camera must be pointed at something.

So, to make the same sort of visual argument as an abstract painter, the photographer has to use the real world and re-see it in some way as to make it unrecognizable. The two most immediate ways to do that are to get so close that all context is stripped away, or to step so far back that the perspective is one that no ordinary human can recognize it.

It is why I always book a seat by a window when I fly. I can look out the window and see the colors, textures and patterns of the planet below me, and make designs with them with my camera.

I self-published a book of such abstractions using the website, blurb.com. You can find the book here, and open it up in preview mode: http://www.blurb.com/b/1376943-windowseat

The skin of the continent becomes a canvas painted in swirls and pools, like some de Kooning or Pollock, Rothko or Diebenkorn. If you look, you can see again.

Part 2: The Metaphor

We live on a planetary canvas; colors and shapes are spread across the stretched linen of the Earth’s surface, although we have to step back to see it with any clarity.

The best way to do that is to climb up into the air. Up a tree and the neighborhood looks different; up a mountain and the valleys change; up in a jet plane and whole quarters of the continent are transformed.

That is the gift of the window seat. The view out and down paints a completely different picture of the world: clouds below us; shadows stretch out for dozens of miles late in the day, or as the sun rises; seas catch the sunlight in a scatter of sparks; the sky overhead is so dark a blue as to mimic midnight at midday.

I love flying. There is nothing quite so exciting as seeing a whole state underneath you opened up like a life-size map.

From 30,000 feet, you get a sense of the world as a tiny globe and can see whole ranges of many mountains as single features, like wrinkles on a face.

Few of us will ever see the Earth from the moon, or even from orbit, but anyone with a boarding pass can have his sensibility slapped silly with the incredible beauty of the planet.

So I always book a window seat for the show. And no matter how long the flight, I’m glued, stiff-necked, to the view.

You can spot the Rio Grande and its terrace, the Mississippi and its wiggle. You can tell Chicago from Detroit, Oklahoma from Arkansas.

Several times on cross-country flights, sitting on the north side of the plane, away from the glare of the direct sun, I looked out the window and down below the jet would be a floating pool of light, moving with the plane at some 500 mph. It is called a “glory” and it is certainly well-named. It is a visual effect much like a rainbow, and no two people see it in just the same place.

It can be seen at a point 180 degrees opposite the sun, speeding across the map-landscape below, crossing interstates and rivers, past the pegged dots of new housing developments, looking like mitochondria in an electron microscope, or the great circles of irrigated crops — great green coins spaced across Texas.

But it isn’t just the landforms that excite me. Even bad weather keeps my attention. Think of all the thousands of generations of humans who were never able to see the tops of clouds, which form their own fantastic landscapes, with mountains and valleys of crenellated whiteness.

The pilot curves the jet route in wide circles around a towering thunderhead, bleach-white at top and sooty at bottom, with its cauliflower protuberances catching new light. The distance is crowded with them, sprouting like mushrooms to the horizon. Dozens of fresh, new thunderstorms rising sunward like children reaching up for their mothers.

Over California once, after a rainstorm, with a low mist of water evaporating up into the atmosphere, the millions of puddles aggregated their mirror effect into a single flash, moving at the speed of the plane and making Fourth of July lightning bolts that flashed just beneath the surface of the mist, the way you can sometimes see the blood pulsing under the skin of a newborn. It gave me a feeling of intimacy with the planet.

Or a night flight, with the ground black underneath you as you fly over the empty expanses of the Southwest, with the small embers of tiny desert communities coming periodically into view, glowing like the last bit of a dying campfire. As you approach Phoenix, those embers gather into a vast pattern of incandescence, like some great lava field, with the glowing magma breaking through the cracks of the cooling stone above it. Almost nothing is as radiant as a city at night seen from the air. You want to hold your palms out toward it, to warm your hands in its heat.


Earthbound, we have a very bland, utilitarian sense of the celestial body we ride around on. It is all streets and signage, houses and mini malls. It is the place we go to work every day, the place where we watch television in the evening.

It is true, to those who have the eyes to see it, the planetary nature of our home is there to be seen: Daybreak shows us the sun breeching the horizon and moving across the heavens; the stars are there to see at night; there are rainy days and lightning storms to remind us of the larger forces. But they have all become ordinary through habit and usage. How many of us take the time to look up and admire a mackerel sky or a fair-weather cumulus cloud floating puffy on the slightly denser air beneath it?

But take an elevator to 30,000 feet and you get the god’s-eye view, moving across the curved surface of the world, where the people aren’t even ants and where the Earth is one small aggie in a great colliding pile of cosmic marbles.

Click any image to enlarge

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.

Glen Rio, on Texas, New Mexico boundary

Glen Rio, on Texas, New Mexico boundary

The world is divided into drivers and riders. I’m a driver.

Riders are easygoing; they can relax in their seats, even nap. They feel comfortable being chauffeured.

But drivers have to have the wheel in their hands, their feet on the pedals and their eyes bouncing from road to rear-view.

For those with driving in their genes, there is nothing so relaxing as a 500-mile drive on a nearly forgotten U.S. highway route, dashing over endless prairies and collecting state lines like baseball cards.

But driving as a pleasure is something that can be done properly only on the remaining two-lane blacktops and three-lane concrete highways that used to be the mainstay of the American road system. There is no pleasure to be had from the endless drone of radials on the endless concrete of interstate highways.

The interstate system is really only a poor substitute for flying. If you need to get somewhere fast, a jet is much more efficient.

But driving — tooling along with the window down, one hand on the wheel, watching the countryside change — is a job to be done on the smaller roads.

Before the interstates were built, roads connected cities with their surrounding towns and towns with their surrounding villages. It was a time when home and community meant something more than they do now. Roads went from Chicago to Joliet or Rockford. From Paramus, N.J., to Hackensack. When roads connected the places where people actually lived, long-distance travel meant seeing hundreds of towns.

Now interstates run directly from Chicago to Denver, or Seattle to San Diego. The towns have become invisible; the scale is different. So is the importance we give to Joliet or Hackensack, and we are the poorer for it.

The interstate is mile after mile of mown grass, interspersed with patches of crown vetch. It has the personality of a bureaucrat. Along dustier roadsides, wildflowers grow thick and mark the calendar. If it is March, the Coulter’s globe mallow oranges Arizona highways. If it is October, joe-pye weed lines New Jersey road shoulders and vacant lots between the discount houses.

February brings red maple flowers to North Carolina; June brings them chicory. Ironweed and asters make fall in New York state. When I get out on the road in some rural area — Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina or Wyoming — I can smell the tobacco, the corn, the hogs, the coming rain. It smells like this place, this now. Sharp, beautiful, fresh, clean.

Near Asheville, N.C.

Near Asheville, N.C.

There is a romance to the long miles: the song of the open road. The nighttime driving on empty highways. Venus rides the top of a slim wedge of brightness that lines the western horizon, and no other cars break the darkness for miles of Ohio miles.

We drive from Canton to Toledo, from Toledo to Chicago. The hum of the tires on pavement. Nighttime radio. Detroit. Denver. Missoula. Summer in New Orleans.

Fall moves in on the continent, and we travel south toward the Rio Grande. Rain in Albuquerque, snow in Flagstaff. Palm trees in Phoenix.

As winter covers Wyoming, the windshield is icy to the touch.

Along the back roads of the high plains there are no cars, and only a few trucks, lonesome beads on a string of asphalt.

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Near Pendleton, Ore.

It’s spring along the smokestacks of Charleston, W.Va. The Kanawha River is glassy in the morning. Pittsburgh. Memphis. Ours is a generation of wheels as much as of television. We read about how TV has shaped our imagery, our cultural myth. Yet since World War II, the car has had an equally powerful effect on our world view. Our modern Odyssey is Route 66, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, any song by Bruce Springsteen. We were told to “see the USA in your Chevrolet.” American optimism in the ’50s and ’60s demanded bigger and better Mercuries and Edsels, 405 horsepower under the hood. But the power of the automobile is measured in more than horses.

In one day of driving, say from Jackson, Miss., to Abilene, Texas — about 800 miles — one drives a substantial arc across the circumference of the Earth. It would take only a month — one good summer vacation — of such travel to circumnavigate the globe. Driving, through time zones and climate changes, is a planetary experience.

There is one destination we all will arrive at. But few people, when they get there, say, “Thank god, the journey is over. The trip was long and arduous, and if there had been a shorter, faster way to get here, I would have taken it.”

No. The travel itself is the point, the excuse, the breath, the joy.

Rainbow, Delmarva

The DOZEN BEST ROADS 

* Blue Ridge Parkway — Begun during the Depression and only recently finished, the Blue Ridge Parkway wends through the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Best driven in early spring, just as the red maple flowers, or slightly later, when the chill gives way to trillium, redbud, spiderwort and dogwood, it is just about the most beautiful road to drive anywhere.

* Kancamagus Highway — This 30-mile mountain road runs from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, following for part of its route the Pemigewasset River. Along its way are bright white paper birches and waterfalls rasping through gnarled gneiss. Covered bridges lead to some of the off-the-road campgrounds.

* California 1 — Hugging the Pacific shore for 700 miles, the road can be touristy along parts of its southern limbs, from L.A. to San Francisco, but north of the Bay City it winds its way tortuously through headlands and canyons whiskered with pine and redwood. It is the only serious rival to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

* U.S. 22 and U.S. 46 in New Jersey — Seriously. Along them were the Flagship, a furniture store shaped like a ship; giant pin in front of bowling lanes; giant paint cans atop a paint store; and the Leaning Tower of Pizza. Piscataway and Watchung, Lodi and Moonachie, these crusted, cracked and crowded highways are the soul of New Jersey. It is because of these museums of ’30s road building that the New Jersey state flower is the cloverleaf.

* U.S. 9W in New York — Squeezing up the West Shore of the Hudson River, past Bear Mountain, West Point and Storm King, 9W was the primordial three-lane highway, daring the impatient to risk passing a Sunday driver in the middle lane as both round a crag and plunge down the mountain. Blind thrills.

* Going-to-the-Sun Highway — Across the alpine spine of the Rockies, Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Glacier National Park breasts Logan Pass at 6,646 feet, an icy height so far north as Montana. In midsummer, the air is still nippy, breath congealed.

* Virginia 58 — 58 underlines Virginia for emphasis, running from the Atlantic to Cumberland Gap, where Virginia meets Kentucky and Tennessee. It is 450 miles of bad concrete and twisting macadam. It also runs the gamut of the best Virginia has to offer.

* N.C. 12 — What’s it like to drive a car 30 miles out to sea? North Carolina 12 runs down the length of the Outer Banks like the vein down the back of a shrimp. The Banks are a line of barrier islands that bends at Cape Hatteras, and in places is so narrow that the highway must exhale to squeeze through. Salt air, squawking gulls and a constant 30-knot wind.

* Texas 170 from Terlingua to Presidio — Really, the great driving extends from Marathon, Texas, down through Big Bend National Park and through to Presidio. It is a grand, empty Chihuahuan desert road along which you can see for leagues. From Terlingua it parallels the Rio Grande, and Mexico is on the far shore.

* Nebraska 2 — Sand hills, rolling grasslands and the Nebraska National Forest, the only national forest entirely planted by humans. From Alliance to Broken Bow, Nebraska 2 gives one a feeling for the loneliness of pioneer families and the wide-open spaces. This is not the West of John Wayne movies, this is real.

* Utah 12 from Bryce to Torrey — Dirt roads are some of the best in the country to drive on, and Utah 12 is a dotted line of dirt alternating with pavement. At one point it rides a road-narrow ridge between two precipitous red-rock canyons. Don’t look down, passenger or driver side. Aspens and Anasazis fill out the appeal.

* U.S. 14 through Cody from Yellowstone to Gillette — City driving causes ulcers and hyperventilation. Cruising the plains east of Yellowstone in Wyoming is relaxing. You really don’t even need to watch the road. Put the car on auto pilot and kick back: Driving never was this relaxing.