Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 3

Grain Elevator; Nebraska City


It's a treat to recognize voices that were once familiar enough to be taken for granted. After years of city living, my ears hunger for the soundtrack I knew in childhood.

Yesterday morning, the staccato lament of a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) greeted me as I dressed. Later, standing beside an overgrown lot, I listened to the rasp-rattle-click of grasshoppers in the tall grass. Nearby, on the same block, the up-and-down whine of cicadas reverberated within me. At mid-day, as I explored the grassy fringes of a grain elevator operation on the western bank of the Missouri River, my progress scattered noisy grasshoppers, large and small, in every direction.

As I type this post, a male field cricket's (Gryllus pennsylvanicus) insistent plea sounds from a dark corner of the studio. I locate and playback a recording of the call on my laptop, hoping that the sound of another male suitor might draw the cricket out of the shadows for some Orthoptera fisticuffs. The aural lure fails, but I'm made happy by the attempt; the cricket cries for a mate and, with a keyboard click, I call back.

Life, I'm reminded by the persistent call of this cricket, and by the grasshoppers, the mourning dove, and the cicadas, is fleeting, yet rich and good. As Nebraska native, anthropologist, and author Loren Eiseley writes of "endlessly reiterated" frog calls,
"I suspect that to some greater ear than ours, man's optimistic pronouncements about his role and destiny may make a similar little ringing sound that travels a small way into the night."
Every creature's song is at once insignificant and grand. The middle school marching band is passing by my studio now, and the cricket and I are quiet.

Middle school marching band practice; Nebraska City

A Kettle of Vultures

Appropriately enough, as I walked past a mortuary two doors west of the KHN Center, I noticed seven turkey vultures circling low above the town. The night before, I'd read Lia Purpura's poetic essay "On Coming Back as a Buzzard" in the September/October issue of Orion. Given my dual love of natural history and language, I'm embarrassed to admit that, before reading Purpura's piece, I didn't realize that a group of vultures on the ground is called a "venue," and a group of vultures in flight is called a "kettle."

Watching the peaceful, unchoreographed aerial dance of this Nebraska City kettle, I recalled Mary Oliver's beautiful poem, "Vultures," as well as some of Purpura's essay, written from the perspective of a vulture.
"As a buzzard, I’d know the end of a thing is precisely not that. Things go on, in their way. My presence making the end a beginning, reinterpreting the idea of abundance, allowing for the ever-giving nature of Nature—I’d know these not as religious thoughts. It’s rather that, apportioned rightly, there’s always enough, more than enough. 'Nothing but gifts on this poor, poor earth,' says Milosz, who understood perfectly the resemblance between dissolve and increase. Rain scours and sun burns away excesses of form. And rain also seeds, and sun urges forth fuses of green."
"On Coming Back as a Buzzard" is a paean to reconstitution. How smart and satisfying to embrace the natural end as another corporeal beginning! I pray that my dead body will be saved from the poisonous excesses of a mortuary, that it will instead be wrapped in a simple cloth, laid in a simple wooden box, and buried without the insult of preserving chemicals and concealing makeup. I pray that the worms and the soil will consume me, will leech me and take me, so that my matter will become energy for other forms. I utter this prayer in silence as I look up at the dark birds.

Turkey vultures on roof; Harborton, VA

Elsewhere, Purpura writes,
"I'd love best the movement of stages and increments, to repeat 'this bank and shoal of time' while below me banks and shoals of a body went on welling/receding, rising and dropping. I'd be perched on a wire, waiting, ticking off not the meat reducing, but how what's left, like a dune, shifts and reconstitutes."
Even when alive, our bodies are forever in flux, forever "shift[ing] and reconstitut[ing]." After death, though, a profound reinterpretation and recycling of "self" takes place.

The biologists, writers, painters, and physicists who worship Nature are enthused by reconstitution because it is plain, profound truth. As the poet Galway Kinnell describes it in his terrific poem, "The Quick and the Dead," "the crawling of new life out of the old, which is what we have for eternity on earth."

St. Mary's Episcopal Church; Nebraska City
First Episcopal church in Nebraska; Founded 1857

But most folks, many of them good, kind people, don't share this enthusiasm for reconstitution. I presume, perhaps wrongly, that Nebraska City is home to many such individuals. On what grounds do I make this presumption? Firstly, it's a safe speculation anywhere in the world. Most humans prefer a supernatural view of afterlife. Secondly, Nebraska City is home to a good number of churches (nineteen, by my present count), and I make assumptions (sometimes wrong) about the stripe of belief held by the majority of American Christians. No doubt there are exceptions to the rule, but most of the religious Christians I know frown upon materialistic interpretations of life everlasting. Some go so far as to reject my panentheistic or panendeistic conceptions of morality and material being as heretical nonsense.

No matter; live and let die. I find the Christian notions of ascension and self-conscious afterlife ridiculous, and most Christians find my cherished reconstitution as a bit of larvae, a bit of root, a bit of this and that, grotesque and even offensive. Neither conception, though, prevents the individual from acting ethically, and that is, above all, what matters. As Purpura puts it,
"[The vulture] gets to reorder your thoughts about troves, to prove the spilled and shoveled-aside to be treasure. To reconfer notions of milk and honey, and how to approach the unbidden."
Put more explicitly, one man's materialistic mess is another man's milk and honey.

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2008, 2009


Donald Frazell said...

Why, you heathen you. :)
I refuse to ponder on the unponderable(a word?)
I never claim to know gods mind, that is the ultimate plasphemy, for god is beyond all understanding. To know it is to claim to be it, and that is evil incarnate, and the source of most control issues, built from fear or greed. Just like the stock market.

I have no idea if there is an afterlife, certainly we would not know what it is like. I sometimes think that El, Jehovah, Allah, after all the failures of man in the old testament, simply constructed the afterlife as a mirage. Not offered in his chat with Moses, simply as the carrot that evolved to go with Satan and hell as the stick, also not present at the beginning. There is no mention of either in the five books of Moses.

So perhaps he was sick of our stupidity and greed, and gave up with all the punishments, as we simply would not do the right thing just because it is right, and what he, as our father, bade us to obey. Because it is good for us. But we are self destructive, afraid, and avaristic(again,a word?) We never truly grow up and mature. Always that bit of the teenager in us.

But then I could just be a silly ass. And the guide to eternal life right there before, me, with ten thousand other religions and interpretations to chose from. Which do I pick? I simply chose to do the best i can, to try hard, and have some fun along the way as long as it doesnt harm others. And trust god. Its not my decision, so why worry? It wont change anything. Maybe there is a heaven, maybe there is only hell. Maybe I will not longer be I, and cease to be.

But in the end, I am to be cremated and tossed in an earthen pot into the ocean, in my beloved Montana de Oro, where i will mingle with the kelp and sea anemoene's. Where the sea lions will devour the fish that feeed upon the kelp that rose from my ashes beneath the waves.

I wont be here, so I wont know, but it sure sounds nice. There is only life, the rest is in gods hands, and not my concern. What is before me is my task, as appointed by god in all religions. Yet God's peace is the core of them all.
A-salaam malaikum. And upon you, Walaikum Salaam. And that is in balance, in love, in growth, in respect, in faith. With a lil humility mixed in, always my most difficult task.

Glad you are reconnecting with the earth, and humanities ties to it. I am afraid to tell you, but I have most of those things and still in the city, well, real close suburbs anyway. Nature has adapted, and is coming back to reclaim its grounds. The mourning dove only quiet when the other crazy song birds wont shut up, it truly appreciates silence. And they will be here when man no longer is. Well, the skyrats(pigeons) next door certainly will be.

I love humanity and the things we can grow, but damn we are a scary species, With fear and greed our stick and carrot, and our destruction.

art collegia delenda est

Hungry Hyaena said...


You wrote:
"But in the end, I am to be cremated and tossed in an earthen pot into the ocean, in my beloved Montana de Oro, where i will mingle with the kelp and sea anemoene's. Where the sea lions will devour the fish that feeed upon the kelp that rose from my ashes beneath the waves."

A fantastic end, to be sure. The Everything will appreciate it.