Archive

Tag Archives: time

How long ago was history?

When I was in grade school, whatever history I was taught seemed as distant as fairy tales, a never-never of such ancientness as to be inconceivable. It was certain that there was an unbridgeable divide between the now I lived in and a history that resided only in books, and pained us with dates and names we were required to memorize. There was no continuity; past and present were as immiscible as diesel fuel and salt water.

These things change as you get older and what is taught as history is what you lived through when you were younger. When I was born, Harry Truman hadn’t yet campaigned for president. For my grandchildren, Truman is a fuzzy black-and-white halftone in their textbook. For me, however, he was my first president. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing — these were things I can remember a time that was before.

Now that I’m about to turn 70, a century doesn’t seem like such a long time, or such a meaningful slice of eternity. My grandmother was born in the 19th century and I’m now alive in the 21st. She used to muse occasionally on the fact that she was born before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

It’s really just a flash before you connect with what seemed so alien in that history textbook. Six degrees of separation.

Literally.

From me to my wife takes the first step. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was alive until my wife was 8 years old. She was 98 when she died, in my wife’s childhood bed. She could remember eating sandwiches made from the cambium layer of tree bark because there was nothing else to eat during the Civil War. She had been married to Civil War veteran Rowan Steele, who had been messenger and courier for Col. Robert E. Lee, Jr., who was the youngest son of the legendary general, Bobby Lee. And that’s only five degrees of separation. Who knew a Yankee boy from New Jersey would be this close to the biggest name in the Confederacy?

We think of a century as being the measurement of a considerable piece of time — it is long enough to tick off entire ages in the history books: The 19th Century was distinct from the 18th Century; the 14th Century was so different from the 10th Century: the revolution between the Romanesque and the Gothic. But a century is really just the space from grandparent to grandchild. Not long at all.

In Ancient Rome, that is exactly how they counted eras. The Latin word we translate as “century” is “saeculum,” but saeculum doesn’t actually mean a hundred years. It is the time from the birth of a grandparent that you outlive to the death of the child who outlives you. They calculated it to be anywhere from 112 to 117 years.

How we can skip across these centuries. Let’s take something from the history books, say, the accession of James II of England in 1685. Unutterably distant, no?

Well, I can trace a person-to-person connection to that year in only nine degrees of separation. And without Kevin Bacon entering the equation at all.

That same year, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in Thuringia, now part of Germany. One of his sons was Johann Christian Bach, also a composer. J.C. Bach was friend and mentor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who once heard the young Beethoven play the piano. He was impressed. Beethoven had a few paying students to help him afford his daily vin de pays. One of those students was Carl Czerny, who wrote an infernal and deeply hated series of piano finger-exercises that young pianists still suffer through. One of Czerny’s students became probably the greatest piano teacher of all time, Theodor Leschetizky (among his students are Jan Paderewski, Alexander Brailowsky, Ignaz Friedman, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Artur Schnabel, and Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler — all of them among the most famous pianists of the first half of the 20th century). And Mieczyslaw Horszowski — who died in 1993 at the age of 101, playing and recording well into his 90s.

Well, Horszowski had a piano student named Eugene Istomin, who made a series of legendary piano-trio recordings with Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose. And when I was a volunteer photographer for the Eastern Music Festival, in Greensboro, N.C., in the early 1970s, I was tasked with picking Rose up from the airport, cello and all. I was his chauffeur.

There it is, from Bach to me in nine easy steps. So, the 17th Century isn’t all that far away. Another nine and we could be building Chartres. History is not that long ago.

Monument valley windows 2

We’ve all had the experience of revisiting some place that meant something to us when we were young, only to find it ruined by the passing years — the blight in tract homes where there had been woods we played in; the proliferation of 7-Elevens or Starbucks; the widening of roads we had ridden our bikes down and the concomitant soot-spewing storm of traffic. The divided-highway bypass and the Walmart near the exit. Time has not been good to the landscape we knew.

But I have always thought, there must be someone of a generation previous who looked at the landscape I bicycled down and thought, how much better it had been when the road was gravel and there were no houses — including the one I grew up in — lining that road.

The fact is, time is furious and eats up the land just as it eats up the remaining years of my life. “Panta Horein” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Everything changes.” Doubtless, there was someone before my elder who loved the same land when there was nothing but a footpath through the forest and thought it better for all that.

And no doubt there will be some future progeny who will look at the scene some 50 years hence and lament the loss of those same 7-Elevens, replaced by something even crasser and more demoralizing. To them, the land I now lament will have been Eden.

Holbrook, Arizona

Holbrook, Arizona

Too often we think of the land as something permanent through which plays the impermanence of our comings and goings — a static stage set for our dramas. Its pace may be slower than ours, but the land changes, also; it has its own drama. I particularly love to see the scars of those changes, the evidence of what used to be, the peeping out from under the macadam of the buried eyes of the past.

Along old 66 Signs and storm

One of the prizes I have is a Rand-McNally road atlas from the year I was born (1948). The map of Arizona has no interstates on it, and you can see that the very getting from Phoenix to Flagstaff was a detour, driving first through Wickenburg and up to Prescott before either heading north to Ash Fork and then east on U.S. 66 to Flag, or taking the more mountainous route up Alternate 89 over Mingus Mountain, down to the Verde Valley and then up the hill through Sedona and up the face of the Mogollon Rim to your destination.

Along old 66 Tumbleweed

Of course, there was a more direct route, through Dugas and Camp Verde, but the road was mostly dirt and rutted.

The thing is, that if you look for them, all those ruts are still there. You can, if you wish, and if your car is sturdy enough, drive those roads up through Bumble Bee, through Orme, through Skull Valley, Iron Springs or Happy Jack. Like Schliemann digging down through layers of Troy, the archeology of Arizona is there — or its fossils are.

West of Kingman

West of Kingman

All of which brings me to the slice of Arizona across its northern tier, now defined by Interstate 40. The interstate ate up what used to be U.S. 66 — Route 66 of legend — and takes the speediferous driver across the flatter parts of the Colorado Plateau, up through Flagstaff, and down through Williams, Kingman and on to California. “You’ll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona. Don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino…”

Along old 66 Interstate 40

But, if you get off the interstate, right at the state line in Lupton, you can find the ghost road, mostly paralleling the freeway, and you can drive along it, at a steady 45 mph, watching for potholes, and see the scars of the past dug into the dry stony soil. The road is discontinuous — you will have to get back on the interstate for an exit or so, or ride over the tide of traffic to pick up the auxiliary road on the other side, where old 66 will start again. It is a ghost of itself, and along it are a few forgotten towns, many gutted old service stations with their paint peeled, their windows blown out and their driveways split by weeds busting through.

Along old 66 Minyard Feed Store

Time is fierce, it eats everything.

I admit to a weakness for these pentimenti, for the palimpsest of time, showing through the later “improvements.” They provide a glimpse of the process, of the metamorphosis — using Ovid’s word — of the constant writhing and seething of the planet and our place as people in the ferment and bubbling.

Along old 66 sunflowers

It comes in the shorter term, such as old Route 66 being devoured by grasses and crucifers, but it also comes in longer terms, such as the Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly and Betatakin, the petroglyphs of Rio Puerco in the Petrified Forest National Park.

Rio Puerco Ruins

There are remaining parts of old Route 66, running through Seligman, and it is mined constantly for nostalgia. But it isn’t that I am feeding on, but the sense of sand sifting through my fingers, of time leaving. It comes out of some chthonic well and runs past us and dissipating in an ocean of we know not where. The old road is still there, and it will be there even when there are no cars — just as the wagon ruts can still be found along the Santa Fe Trail, sunk into the grasses of Kansas.

Old 66 to Seligman

I relish all the different tickings and tockings of the various clocks running their various races.

Sliding Rock Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

Sliding Rock Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

You stand at the rim of Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Reservation and look down to the braided stream at the bottom that scoured this great hole out of the sandstone and wonder how long it must have taken. Then you see the tiny Anasazi relics built into the walls of the rock and realize how long people have been living here, and then you see the sandstone itself an think about how much longer ago — exponentially longer — that ancient river deltas deposited the silt that later became that stone.

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

How much more do you sense these multiple time scales at this rift’s big brother, the Grand Canyon.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon

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.

North Rim, Grand Canyon

North Rim, Grand Canyon

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.

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.

Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon West

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.

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a clock. It has a big hand and a little hand.

The little hand moves very slowly, telling the time in geologic terms. To see the hand move, you must wait millions of years.

In that time, you would see continental oceans lay down sediments and tectonic forces push those layers upward, only to be eroded by a river, like a sand pile washed by a hose.Grand View Point, Grand Canyon NP Ariz

One stands at the rim now and looks back into the past, washed away eon by eon, stratum by stratum, until one’s eye stands on the Vishnu schist, the Precambrian footings of the Canyon.

You hardly can take in the vastness of it. It is an earthly reminder of eternity, that time beyond time that turns our lives into flyspecks.

But this geological clock has a fast-moving big hand, too. And it changes all 200 miles of the Canyon second by second. It can seem to the observer like time-lapse photography in real time as the sun jumps from the horizon and changes the shadowed blacks of the deep walls to a burning cherry ruddiness and on much too quickly to the weathered indigo blueness of noon.

Cycles and epicycles, wheels inside wheels, the turning of time on itself in all its speeds.

The first time I saw the Canyon, I got there before dawn. My wife and I had arrived late the previous night and wound up camping in the Kaibab National Forest outside the park. I set our alarm clock for 4 a.m., and when we got up, it was completely dark.

We drove to the overlook at Lipan Point, and I set up my camera in the blackness, out on a rocky ledge beyond the guardrail.

The tripod barely could find purchase on the narrow outcrop, and my wife warned me about taking chances, especially by the glow of a flashlight.

A little after 4, the horizon began to appear. It was July, but it was icy cold before the sun rose. The batteries of my light meter ceased to work in the cold.

Yet it was beginning to be possible, as the far edge of the Canyon contrasted with the blue-gray of the lightening sky, to focus my lens on the ground glass of the camera. And I saw there little more than that dividing line.

But down in the bottom of the Canyon, a mile below us, there was a snaky line of a reflecting light.

Dawn, Grand Canyon

It was the river, a white tube of neon cut off here and there by the mesas and buttes below us. At times, the rope of water actually seemed brighter than the sky.

I managed to take a two- or three-minute exposure of the nearly black landscape. The glow in the sky had begun to make some of the rock texture visible, but less so to the eye than to the camera.

Dawn, Grand Canyon NP Ariz 2

Moment by moment, the scene changed, a slow crescendo of light that began where the river disappeared in the northeast until the fire broke the horizon and the first sliver of sun appeared.

What is most surprising is the quickness of the change. If you were to take a photograph once a minute over the course of a day, you hardly would have two alike.

When the sun is on the horizon, you actually can see it move. And as it rose and sank its light deeper into the Canyon, what had been a charcoal mass of rock mazes became lighted at the top ends of the rocks, like the cherry end of a cigarette in the dawn.

You could see probably scores of miles down the Canyon to the west and see the angle of the sun on the edge of the rock.

Nothing is so like the Earth waking up.

Grand Canyon NP, with shadow

Looking toward the sun, the Canyon became a receding stage set of silhouettes, each lighter and grayer as it retreated toward the sunrise. Looking away from the sun, the rock faces became increasingly red, then orange, then brick, with layers of white and green thrown in.

The Grand Canyon is grandest in the dawn. Those willing to awaken early enough stare into the clock of the day playing on the stone and see their lives moving before them. If time is a stream, as Thoreau says, at the Grand Canyon you can see its rapids. The change continues all day. On most summer days, the midday hours are the least interesting. The hazy blueness of the distant rim seems steady from about 10 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. But if you stare with enough commitment, you can see the changes even then as the downward angle of the sunlight twists slowly from one side of the cliffs to the other.

Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon West

Later, when the sun’s angle lowers to day’s end, the changes accelerate once more, taking the rocks back from blue to red and into darkness.

There is no mistaking the Earth as a clock, turning with the sun as the hour marker, moving in orderly procession around the rim of the great circle we live on.

But the two clocks at the Canyon also remind of the conflicting realities of the place. On the one hand, the slow clock tells of the everlastingness of things, their physical endurance. On the other, how can you believe in reality if the same limestone that can be red at 8 a.m. can be blue by 9?

It reinforces your sense of rock-solid reality and undercuts your belief at the same time. To live in two times at once: This is the central message of all the world’s religions.

When people find spiritual meaning in the Canyon, perhaps it is these conflicting clocks more than anything else that create that sense. Certainly, the Canyon’s vast space is inspiring, but it is time that speaks of eternity and our place in it.

Snake infinityClick any image to enlarge

Linville Falls
It has been nearly 50 years since I first saw Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Back then, getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over into.Linville Falls 03

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.Linville upper falls

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

Leaping from rock to rock across the cataract could easily have got me killed, swept over the precipice, but I was young, and therefore, an idiot.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.Linville Falls from above

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those five decades in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge from Ashe County towards North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farmsite along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the “Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.Linville trillium

It had been 20 years since we visited that farmhouse and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill towards it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nailheads still showing.

In the years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In just those few years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 20 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

 
 
 
 
 

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.

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

flaxman

As I get older, so do the books I find most congenial.

I admit I’ve always been something of an old pedant and have always spent more time with what other people have called “serious” books rather than best-sellers or recent worthies. But age has only exaggerated this tendency.
wright moon 2

Perhaps it is because as I’ve gotten older, the distance between the old tomes and the present seems shorter and shorter, almost to the point of disappearing.

For many readers, such books as the Iliad or Ovid’s Metamorphoses seem incredibly distant, in a past that is so vastly divorced from the concerns of today that they question the relevance. But for me, the space between then and now has become compressed and it is in those old authors that I find an urgency and relevance unmatched.

I am now 66 years old — two thirds of a century. It is a time that has passed as swiftly as an eyeblink. I was a boy last Tuesday. My grandmother used to say, with some amazement and some pride that she was born before the Wright Brothers’ flight and lived to see the moon landing. This is a personal, internal sense of history. It is increasingly the way I see the past. yardstick

If I measure the time between now and my birth, and take it as a yardstick, I can get a sense of the it. jesse james

Sixty-six years from my birth is now; 66 years before my birth was the year Jesse James was shot dead — 1882. If I flip my yardstick over one length down the timeline from that, I arrive at 1816, the year Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein. One more flip of the yardstick and I’m at 1750, the year Johann Sebastian Bach died. That is, I’m only three lifetimes — three very short, skipping lifetimes from Bach and those last unfinished measures of The Art of the Fugue.

I could keep flipping the yardstick to measure the years before: 1684, 1618, 1552, 1486, 1420, 1354, etc. And I discover it takes only 30 copies of my life before I’m face to face with Caesar Augustus. Only 42 lifetimes and I’m sitting there with Homer. Forty-two of my own short lifetimes — not enough to fill a bus. So, you see, the past increasingly does not feel long ago, does not feel alien, does not feel irrelevant. It feels contiguous. I can measure it all out in lifespans I can imagine and visualize it in a way impossible with the more Saganesque “billions and billions” of the cosmos.

Heck, I can take that yardstick back far enough to see them painting the caves at Lascaux and I haven’t even filled up a jumbo-jet.

World War II ended three years before I was born; it is fresh in my culture’s memory and a constant in television documentaries. Troy fell three millennia ago and it hardly seems any different to me. It is all connected and I feel the fibers of my blood and sinew in the pulse of history.

So, the paroxysms of current events, which feel so dire to those younger than me, feel like familiar blips when taken in the long view. I do not know if we will survive them, but chances are we will. And even the genocides of Rwanda and Darfur or the beheadings by Islamists seem merely familiar excrescenses of an eternal human tendency, and in fact pale compared not merely with the Shoah, but with the extermination of Native Americans, the pyramids of skulls left by Tamerlane or Genghis Khan, or the smiting of the Canaanites and Jebusites ordered by Jehovah (Deuteronomy 20: 16-17). According to scientist and author Jared Diamond, it is possible that Neanderthals disappeared under just such a fatwah. skull pyramid

So, when I open Homer’s Iliad and find in its opening lines grief and the corpses of “so many fighters leaving their naked flesh to be devoured by dogs and vultures,” it is no more removed than Afghanistan or Gaza.

“Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.”

I am constantly amazed that the first book in the Western canon should never have been bested. The Iliad has a breadth of vision unmatched by anything else I am familiar with. It is always the first on my list.

homer bustHomer describes everything from the food to the landscape as if he were a gobbling camera, eating up the full existence of life. And not, like some novelist, in different chapters, but in a single sentence he can telescope from the entire battlefield down to the iris of a bee’s eye, and then back out again in the space of five or 10 words. It leaves one not just with the grand view and not with the microcosm, but with a clear sense that they co-exist in a single space, a single comprehension.

There is little so vivid as Homer’s description of battle. Yes, our modern understanding of war — at least those of us who have not been in it — has more to do with battalions and artillery, but even in modern warfare, the experience of it from the inside is personal: one human soldier and the chaos that threatens to erase him (or her) and the light that comes in through his eyes.

“Thrasymedes stabbed Antilochus right in the shoulder and cracked through the bony socket, shearing away the tendons. Then he wrenched the whole arm out and down thundered Antilochus and darkness blanked his eyes. …

“Peneleos hacked Lycon’s neck below the ear and the sword sank clean through, leaving Lycon’s head hanging on his body by only a flap of skin. The head swung wide and Lycon slumped to the ground. …

Tarantino is playing catch up.iliad mitchell

It isn’t merely the violence that is shown us, but the desires, the pity, the sorrows and the triumphs. I try and re-read the Iliad once a year, and each time in a different translation. Last year, it was Alexander Pope’s. This year, it is the recent one by Stephen Mitchell. I’ve read in past years, translations by Robert Fagles, Richmond Lattimore, Walter Benjamin Smith with Walter Miller (illustrated by the great Neoclassical designs of John Flaxman), and George Chapman.

(Of these, I recommend Fagles for first-timers. Chapman is rough sledding, despite the reputation Keats gave it in his sonnet.)

If I ever have to shrink my library down to something I can carry in a duffel, it would include the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible and a Shakespeare.

Ah, but I would have to make room for a Milton, too.

NEXT: A grand finale

moviola 1

We travel in time as much as in space.

And just as there are moments when you stand on the top of a rise and see grand vistas and the lay of the land suddenly becomes clear, there are moments when you climb up out of the hollow of local time and the years spread out in front of you as one vast temporal landscape.

I had such an experience this summer in New Jersey.

I was born and raised in the Garden State in several communities between the Hackensack and Hudson rivers. I left for college and have rarely been back in the intervening quarter century — family and friends had all died or moved away.Old Tappan 2

But on this trip my wife and I passed through Bergen County and managed to stop by some places I knew well as a boy.

Now I’m not about to wax nostalgic. I abhor nostalgia; it is a kind of morticians’ wax applied to the dead face of the past, distorting everything we once knew. Times were not better then and never were.

But things clearly have changed.lein's grove

The first change is purely psychological: Everything has shrunk. The landscape that was so sprawling to my boy’s eyes is now condensed to a few tight city blocks. What seemed like an expedition is now walking distance. Skyscrapers are now bungalows.

Many people have experienced a similar sensation.

But the second change is more profound: The snapshot of New Jersey in my brain has remained static while time has bounded forward, so that when I revisit Teaneck or Old Tappan, I’m seeing what is in effect time-lapse photography: All the changes are accelerated so that what has moved invisibly day to day is now telescoped into a rush.

It isn’t just that there is more development. Bergen County has for a long time been the very model of suburbia; there are tract homes everywhere and more spring up every day. But nature has somehow kept up with the construction: Housing developments that were raw muddy wounds 30 years ago are now green and shaded under sprawling trees. For all the decay of time, there is a matching fecundity.

And when a quarter century exists between frames in your movie, it is a small step to move back yet another quarter century and then another, so that the history you learned in school no longer sits inkbound on the page of a book but begins to breathe as another scene in the movie you are a small part of.eisenstein

So you can slide the film back and forth in your mental Moviola only a dozen equal frames and you are in the era of Peter Stuyvesant and Dutch colonialization. It’s a blip from now to 1655 on the time line.

Frederick Haring HouseThe Old Tappan I grew up in was dotted with farms and old stone houses, built during the Dutch era. The houses are thick-walled and covered in lichen, moss and ivy; they are overarched by spreading oaks. They have, as it is said, settled.

Such houses were constructed of brown sandstone quarried by slaves.

It isn’t often remembered that slaves are a part of New Jersey’s history: In pre-Revolutionary times a settler was given 175 acres of land for every slave he imported. By 1737, slaves accounted for 8.4 percent of Jersey’s population.

Slave insurrections — in Hackensack, Raritan and Elizabeth, among other places — were a continual occurrence and citizens felt themselves stuck with the damnable institution. In 1772, a law was proposed ”obliging owners of the slaves to send them all back to Africa at their own expense.”

The law came to naught, but by that time free labor began to replace slavery and indenture.

I mention all this because when my boyhood home was built in 1956 in Old Tappan in northern New Jersey, the excavation turned up the stone foundation of slave quarters. It had been buried in woods for centuries and was now opened up to the sun for the first time.

It seemed little more than a curiosity then, and it was soon buried once more under the landscaping in our back yard. Its reawakening was brief.

Old Tappan 4The house has had two or three owners since I lived in it. I doubt that any of them knew what was buried under the Zoysia grass. But I thought of it again as I visited on vacation and saw how much the old house had changed: new paint, grown-up trees that were once bushes, a new bridge over the creek that cut through the property.

You play the film through the Moviola: The whole of northern New Jersey was once covered by a forest of oak and hickory. That was cut down for agriculture; the slave quarters behind my childhood home was evidence of that. But the fields grew once more into trees and were once more cut down to build the house.

The field next to the house was still pastureland when I was a boy. Now, it is dense with willows, birch and maple, on its way once more to growing oaks. If I look into its future, I can see more housing.

Time is fierce; it consumes the world.

NFL 1

We enter the second week of the pro-football season, and I have to make a decision: To watch or not to watch.

Like any red-blooded American male, sporting the mangled Y-chromosome that defines malehood, I cannot easily resist armored behemoths in a demolition derby of sinews and ligaments, with the prize being lifelong damage from accumulated concussions.

(A confession here: I am really a baseball fan, so my interest now is whether the Red Sox will be able to hold on, or whether they will collapse in the next few weeks. I care rather less about the NFL.)

I watch football, though, it’s just that I cannot justify the time wasted doing so. It is something like an addiction and just as fruitless and just as absurd.

After all, the game really can be summed up, as my wife says, as “he runs with the ball, he throws the ball, he falls down with the ball.” There isn’t much else that happens. Oh, yes, there is quite a bit of measuring.

Not that much happens to fill up that three-and-a-half hours on TV that a game takes. And, as a recent experiment on my part proves, even those things don’t happen much.

I timed a game.

What I actually did was record the game and play it back with a stopwatch in hand, fast-forwarding through the chaff, timing everything from each snap of the ball to the referee’s whistle ending each play.

To my utter amazement, three minutes and 25 seconds into the experiment, the gun sounded on the first quarter. Whoa, that was a rush.

In the three hours-plus that the game would have eaten up of  my Sunday afternoon, there was exactly 14 minutes and six seconds worth of actual playing time.

The rest was huddling, timeouts, zebras in confabulation, replays, reverse-angles, ex-jocks analyzing the fine points of the left tackle’s trap block and, most importantly, beer commercials with pneumatic women.

I have tried to go cold turkey. Last season I went 11 weeks into the NFL season before watching a game. I was a more productive member of society; I felt righteous.

But I finally caved in, sneaking a bit of a Giants-Redskins game. I watched till the end of the season.

This year so far, I have only watched one half of one game. I am hoping to avoid the steroidal monkey on my back.

But I have also found a way to enjoy the game without wasting my time waiting three hours for those few minutes of actual football: I have learned to dilute my drug of choice. I now put the game on and turn the sound off. I put some Brahms or Stravinsky on the stereo and I sit down in my favorite chair with the Sunday paper. I read, I listen, and when the ball is snapped, I can look up at the screen and catch all the action. And I mean all the action. It’s a great way to get something done and see those 14 minutes and six seconds that actually count.

futurismo

Patience is a virtue, they say, although you could never tell it from watching a driver hit the speed dial on his cell phone while in the drive-through lane at McDonald’s.

If it is a virtue, it is one of those quaint, Victorian or medieval virtues, like chastity or temperance, that seem completely beside the point in our modern world.

Ours is a world of channel-surfing, of Federal Express, of 24-hour Wall Street, of the Concorde. drive thru holding bag

When e-mail isn’t fast enough, we invent instant messaging.

Admit it: Haven’t you left something behind at Safeway because you just didn’t want to wait in the line?

Children cannot wait to be teenagers. Teenagers cannot wait to be adults. They are all in over their heads and don’t know it.

Adults cannot wait for the traffic light to change and gun their engines. They run up escalators and microwave their instant coffee.

If they could make their clocks run faster, they would.

And what do they gain by racing through the day?

A few moments to squeeze in something else too hectic to notice as it passes by.

It is our national impatience on each Election Day that we want to know the results before the ballots are actually counted. How has that worked out?

Don’t blame the media: It is our demand for instant results that drives the networks.

But, on the other hand, we should blame media. drive thru sign

I don’t mean “the press,” for which “the media” is often used as a synonym but rather the actual mediums of communication: the television, the computer, the iPhone.

We live in two competing time realities. Media time rushes at the speed of the electrons that form it.

Our computers run at a speed clocked in gigahertz, and if tomorrow they run at terahertz, we’ll trade in our outdated desktop.

But underneath it, there is the time that there has always been: The solar time that is barely perceptible, plodding at the pace of starfish crossing undersea rocks.

In our media experience, everything flies by, helped by keyboard shortcuts.

It confuses us into thinking we live in a fast-paced world. But we don’t. We live in a slow-paced world that is chronicled by ever-faster media. A day still takes a full 24 hours to cycle.

Because so many of us work on computers and spend our leisure time watching video screens, it is easy to mistake the mediated world for the real one. We are social creatures, and the means we have created for communicating with each other can seem primary rather than derivative. cell phone pix

Our new gospel might read, “In the beginning was the flicker.”

The problem is that the faster we speed up our interaction with the world, as mediated by our technology, the less we are actually engaged with the world we live in. Instead, we are engaged with our iPhones, leaving our world to fend for itself.

This was brought home all the more forcefully the last time I went to the zoo.

We visited with a friend’s 8-year-old boy and watched as he paced from exhibit to exhibit, looked in for a maximum of 10 seconds and moved on to the next animal.

Trained by the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, he expected instant animal action: The big cat should roar, the antelope should pronk. That is what they do on television, where all the “boring parts” are edited out. lions sleeping

The zoo, because it was there, in real time before his eyes, was a terrible disappointment. He hadn’t the patience to stand for a half-hour in front of the exhibit to see what animals actually do, as they sleep, scratch their furry behinds and tear the rinds off tangerines with their teeth.

The result wasn’t just boredom. It was a failure to identify with the animals, to scratch his bottom like the monkeys or to feel his own teeth in those tangerines. A failure of empathy.

What he sees on television are just pictures: information he can manipulate.

There is nothing human about it. It is experience as flat as the video monitor. But there in front of him at the zoo, if he had the patience to see it, is a 3-D world, one infinitely complex and fascinating. It contains not only unexpected behaviors, it contains sounds and — most pungently — smells that the iPad experience cannot deliver.

At such times, we can recognize that impatience is a vice. It blocks our understanding and our growth as humans. It diminishes the world and worse, shrinks our engagement with it.

The reverse is also true: The reason that patience is a virtue — and one worth cultivating even in the 21st century — is that it provides a chance to escape our egos.

It gives us the opportunity to empathize, at real time and with real beings, so that we may act morally and ethically.

Patience allows you to seep into the world and become part of it instead of just moving it efficiently from the in-box to the out-box, stamped by your momentary attention.

Instead of making life boring, patience makes it exciting and keeps us involved in it.

Linville falls from upper look

I first saw Linville Falls 40 years ago. Getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over onto.

Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us, and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.

Linville Falls 03

It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.

I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.

The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.

If I speed up those 40 years in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.

And what comes in, ebbs.

Linville trillium

A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge toward North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farm along the road, halfway down the mountain face.

There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the ”Jumpin’-Off Place.”

We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.

It had been 14 years since we visited that farmhouse, and we thought we should see what had become of it.

About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.

Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.

When I climbed down the hill toward it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nail heads showing.

In the 14 years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.

And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.

In 14 years.

Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 14 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.

Linville Gorge1

accordion lady

Time, said Alfred Hitchcock, was meant to be stretched and squeezed like an accordion. Sometimes, you need to cover a lot of ground quickly; sometimes you need to slow the ticking clock to drag out the tension.

Joan Fontaine is eating dinner with her wealthy family in Hitchcock’s Suspicion and she is called to the phone. She rises slowly and anxiously and walks through a door, down an endless hall and off screen to the right, and we follow her with our eyes, a long, slow aggravating wait with suspense for the possibly distressing news the call will bring.

It’s a typical moment in a movie by the master of suspense. What happens next may be even more typical for Hitchcock. After the suspense is drained, Fontaine puts the phone down, takes two steps toward us and eases quickly back into her seat.

joan fontaine

What happened to the hallway? The door? The slow steps?

It’s the time accordion. Hitchcock was its virtuoso.

Movies and time:

One small experimental film I’ve seen takes 90 minutes to cover the events of 10 minutes. Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life apparently covers 12 billion years in its two hours.

But time, in America, is money, and we have little of it to waste: We want our rewards now. We don’t want to work for it; we don’t want to linger.

One-Hour Photo? Takes too long. Digital is instant.

Minute Rice? Who has the time? You can buy a pre-made pilaf at the grocery store on the way home from work.

Instant tea? Why, when you can buy it in a bottle?

Let’s face it: Do you actually have the time to read this story?

Or are you conference-calling on the cellphone while driving 75 mph down the freeway on your way to drop off a package at FedEx?

In America today, not only has time speeded up, but we demand it be so.

There is little patience for anything slow. Especially in our movies. Fast editing, short, punchy dialog, and lots of things blowing up, without too much exposition in between the ignitions. Fuses, thus, must be short: We cannot wait for the boom.

I remember coming out of one recent art film and overhearing a fellow audience member saying, “I just spent the last two weeks at the theater watching that movie. Maybe it was two hours that just seemed like two weeks.”

But people go to the movies for different reasons. If it’s action you want, or a good plot, Hollywood has a vast menu of tapas, quick hits. Even most Indie films — the butt of many a complaint about sluggishness in film — move like arrows through the air compared to some of filmdom’s real glaciers.

There are films – and filmmakers – who do their best to slow the viewer down, make him pause and ponder, to consider the smaller issues, or the details that normally go past us unnoticed. They are the Bruckner symphonies of the cinema.

They want to to notice what’s hanging on the walls of the bedroom, what the weather is like outside the window, what emotional color the lighting is.

Such art movies are aimed at a different audience from those usually found at the multiplex. Such films are difficult. Some are nearly unwatchable.

But they are great art nonetheless, and true classics.

Those of us who appreciate glaciers on film don’t just want to “get” the story, to move the plot along, but rather, we want to live in the world the filmmaker has created, so savor its flavors, scents and sensations. We engage with that world even as we compare it with our own to find the congruences and divagations. Some of the greatest films ever made are long, slow and trying.

Here is my list of the Top 5 Unwatchable Gold-plated Classic Films:

 

La belle Noiseuse

La belle Noiseuse

Number 5: La Belle Noiseuse (1991)  – Director Jacques Rivette  spends a good deal of this 4-hour  film showing us an artist drawing. He’s drawing a naked Emmanuelle Béart,  so it’s not all tough going, but we watch endless moments of pen-scrawl on paper as the fictional artist who is the film’s hero, tries to recapture his earlier genius.

The Sorrow and the Pity

The Sorrow and the Pity

No. 4: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)  – This is four hours plus  of talking heads, discussing the collaboration with the Nazi government during the Vichy years of France, and the excuses otherwise good people make for acceding to evil. By director Marcel Ophuls.

 

Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

No. 3: Andrei Rublev (1969)  – Spend 3 ½ hours  in medieval Russia with Andrei Tarkovsky’s  truly glacial moodpiece about a 15th-century  monk and artist who created religious ikons.  Utterly hypnotic, it is also opaque: We don’t always know what’s going on, but it is almost mystical.

 

L'Avventura

L’Avventura

No. 2: L’Avventura (1960)  – A young woman goes missing on a rocky island in the Mediterranean in Michelangelo Antonioni’s  ur-existentialist rumination, and her lover and her friend spend the rest of the film looking for her. Hint: They never find her. One of the most beautiful films of all times, it also drives many viewers crazy with impatience.

 

And the No. 1 Unwatchable Gold-plated Classic Film of all time:

 

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)  – The poster child for artsy-fartsy films, Alain Resnais  notorious L’Année dernière è Marienbad  is the most self-conscious film of all time. You never know – and never find out – exactly what is happening, or if it is happening, or if it happened, or maybe it will happen. This is the supreme test of the artfilm lover. You have to check to make sure you are still breathing by the end.

 

Of course, there are lots of candidates for such a list. If we forgot your “favorite,” well, here are a bunch more of the movies that give art film a bad name. Nevertheless, they are all great films. Just not for the multiplex.

 

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Renais)

Heart of Glass (1976, Werner Herzog)  (He actually had the actors hypnotized for their performances)

Woman of the Dunes (1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara)

Solaris (1972, Tarkovsky)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodore Dreyer)

Dogville (2003, Lars von Trier)

Hour of the Wolf (1968, Ingmar Bergman)

Arabian Nights (1974, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

Zabriskie Point (1970, Antonioni)

The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Mallick)

The Pillow Book (1996, Peter Greenaway)  (Actually, anything by Greenaway counts. He’s the current king of the pretentious.)

 

Pillow Book

Pillow Book

You probably have your own nominees: But for this list, it only counts if you also think they are great films: Bad tedium remains bad tedium.