Saturday, September 19, 2009

Again, into the gloaming

The spiral of time has come round on itself, slightly displaced from this point a year gone.

It is Rosh Hashanah today, the Jewish New Year, and I'm in a pensive mode. Below, I repost a selection from "Almost Twilight," last year's musing on autumn's advent, creative inspiration, twilight, crepuscular animals, hallucinogens, and reflection.

But, first, I'd like to highlight two projects relevant to the season.

- Yusuf Misdaq is an artist, poet, and musician who shares my universalistic mystical inclination. Almost a month ago, he began Palace Prayers, "the aim [of which] is to create a new work of art for every day of Ramadhan, 2009."

A blog-like site presents each day's original work. I encourage readers to visit. You can also listen to a National Public Radio interview with Yusuf here.

- New Yorker editor Ben Greenman has co-organized, with writer Nicola Behrman and Reboot's Amelia Klein, 10Q, a Yamim Noraim project for people of all faith (or lack of faith) backgrounds. From the website:
"10Q was inspired by the traditional ten days of reflection that occur between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a period of time that’s long been considered an opportunity to look at where you're at, where you've come from, and where you're heading. Whether you're Jewish or not, though, 10Q is a great way for anyone to look back at the year that’s past, look ahead at the year to come, and take stock. That’s a beautiful thing in any language."
Sign up here.

Shana tova!


"Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding."
-Lao tzu, "Tao Te Ching"

In New York, recent mornings have greeted us with a pleasant chilliness. Fall is almost here, and winter is just around the corner. For most folks, the prospect is daunting. Not so for me. Each year at this time, a bounce finds my step and I'm happily overwhelmed by a spate of ideas. I know, however, that the creative juices will before long transmute into keen brooding. Late fall and winter nurture a pensive mind.

When the afternoons darken and the mercury dips, I like to take bundled winter strolls through the streets of Manhattan or Queens. Other pedestrians hustle about, intent on achieving their respective indoor destinations, but I find my thoughts best served by a steady pace, one forgiving of some intentioned aimlessness. I spend these walks looking up to where the melancholic sky meets the buildings that scrape it, admiring the resilience of foraging House sparrows, taking note of the way traffic lights glow more brightly in crisp, cold air and marveling over the many lives that move around me. I like to think of this mindful meandering as a form of prayer, or perhaps a communion, and I treasure the insights that are sometimes happened upon.

Curious about the rites, beliefs, and texts of various religions (and particularly those of Judaism), I've been thinking this week about the coming high holy days. Next Monday is Rosh Hashanah, the first of Judaism's ten "days of awe," or Yamim Noraim. Like my winter walks, the Yamim Noraim are given over to contemplation. During the ten high holy days, an observant Jew should meditate on the actions of his last twelve months and, then, on Yom Kippur, the last of the "days of awe," fast and repent for any wrongdoing. In other words, a conscientious Jew begins the new year by reckoning with his past. Although Rosh Hashanah is only one of four Jewish New Years, each attached to a specific set of guidelines and meaning, I find the holiday's position with regard to the seasons of particular interest.

Considered the New Year for humans, animals, calendar calculation, and contracts, Rosh Hashanah arrives with the ploughing of summer into fall. If one considers fall equivalent to dusk and winter to night, then the Jewish New Year, like the Jewish day, begins at twilight in the northern hemisphere. The notion of a day extending from sunset to sunset runs slightly counter to the popular conception of morning time as a birthing, or spring, with the hours moving through summer at mid-day, fall in the evening, and finally into winter, night and death. But the Judeo-Christian tradition is pastoral, founded on an agricultural reckoning. It makes sense, then, that the day should end when the sun falls away. The new day begins with night; the beginning is darkness, a time when all man can do is rest and await the return of the sun's workable hours. In rural farming communities, this pattern holds today, though the blue glow of television has altered habits in even the most rustic counties. Still, the consummate urbanite Oscar Wilde's quip that "people in the country get up early because there's so much to do, [and] they go to bed early, because there's nothing to talk about" remains generally accurate.

Growing up in such a community, I learned early that if twilight is a conclusion for the farmer, it is a commencement for many other creatures. A patient hunter who remains in his deerstand as the final light retreats might see bats dart and dip in aerial pursuit of insects. He may also see an opossum, fox, raccoon, skunk, or even his intended quarry, deer, though it is not legal to shoot after the sun sets. Driving or biking on "backroads," these animals reveal themselves by reflecting light from a car's headlights or a bike's front beam. The tapetum lucidum, a layer of tissue behind the retina of crepuscular and nocturnal species, allows the animal to see better in near or total darkness, but this layer also produces eyeshine that discloses the creature's presence to human torch bearers. Depending on the species and the angle of approach, we can identify the animal by the color of its eyeshine: the white-yellow lights at knee height belong to the red fox; the orange orbs in the low branches of a tree are an opossum; the yellow beams tall over the road are white-tailed deer; the brilliant white spots that appear so near the ground expose a resting whippoorwill.

Imagine the shock of the early humans when they first noticed the glowing embers that moved just outside the reach of their warm firelight. The agricultural tribes that would become the people of the Torah, having abandoned much of their nomadic, hunter-gatherer roots, were particularly afraid of the dark, creeping world outside that circle of light. To be caught in the gloaming, away from a human settlement or encampment, was surely a terrifying possibility.

Indeed, the dark months, like those black, antediluvian nights, remain an ordeal for many people . But they can also be understood as a gateway opportunity. It is fitting, I think, that Jews begin their new year by taking stock, a formidable task if undertaken with thoroughness and honesty. I approached my experiences with hallucinogenic drugs in an analogous way; what most people would call a "bad trip," I viewed as an opportunity for introspection. 'Why has my brain created this awful idea?,' I asked myself. 'What does that tell me about my relationship to x or y, or about my fear of a, b, or c?' The cold, gloomy months, like bad trips, nightfall, and deep melancholy, can be challenging, even endangering, but in an increasingly mediated and accelerated world culture, the difficult passages are of premium value.

But whatever religious label I eventually pin to my lapel (or discard), periods of solemn self-examination are likely to remain a critical part of my identity and annual experience, and these have so far coincided with winter and come on the heels of a fall surge in the creative impulse. Although modernity misunderstands fall to be the beginning of an end, it is only another beginning. Shana tova umetukah, folks. My favorite season is moving in, and our shadows grow longer.

Photo credits: "Athens Park, Astoria," "Central Park, Manhattan," "Heron's Foot Moon, Virginia," "Branches," all by Christopher Reiger, 2007 and 2008

Friday, September 18, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 12

KHN Center
Nebraska City; September 2009

It's more or less over. My two week residency at the KHN Center is in its final hours. Manya Fox, one of the other residents, will drive Michael McParlane, Shelly Oria, and me to Omaha at 1 PM. While they appreciate the offerings of Nebraska's biggest city, I'll board a plane.

I wish that I could spend more time in Nebraska City. I've found the town inspiring and the residency productive. The long, aimless walks that I often took, the history related in the town's many museums, and the generous conversations had over coffee all compelled the sort of rich, sustained rumination that informs my artwork, writing, and life.

Central Avenue view
Nebraska City; September 2009

The writing that I did while at the residency, most of it posted on this blog, explores the questions and history that preoccupied me during my time in Nebraska City: American notions of spirituality; human biological and social evolution; Manifest Destiny and 19th century expansion; conservation and ecology; patriotism.

I also produced some quick compositional sketches and notes for two paintings and at least four drawings that are inspired by this place and history. I should begin work on these as soon as my upcoming solo show is hung, in about two weeks.

A big debt of thanks is due the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. I encourage other visual artists, writers, and composers to look into the Center's residency opportunities.

Missouri River view (south)
Nebraska City; September 2009

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson: Day 11

As I began jotting down notes this morning, it occurred to me that many of the ideas I've been ruminating on during my time in Nebraska City were nicely tied together in an essay almost a year old. "Eric Beltz and 'The Good Land'," a response to artist Eric Beltz's Fall 2008 solo exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery, in New York City, raises questions of American exceptionalism, conservation, religion, and human conceptions of "wilderness."

I subscribe to the notion that every artist or academic has just one big idea that, over a career, appears in a variety of forms or expressions. Why not, then, revisit the Beltz essay in the context of the writing I've done at the KHN residency? It follows nicely on yesterday's post, and connects our American ecological dilemma to the arts, or at least to two artists' considerations of the dilemma, namely Beltz's and my own.


Eric Beltz
"By this Axe I Rule"
Graphite on Bristol
27 1/2 x 23 inches

"All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish."
-Aldo Leopold

The exquisitely rendered graphite drawings included in "The Good Land," Eric Beltz's recent exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery, are sophisticated responses to our American folkways and myths. As darkly funny as they are disarmingly earnest, the graphic works are both exhortations and critiques of our nation's inborn exceptionalism and romanticism.

Of particular interest to Beltz is our American relationship to landscape. In "By This Axe I Rule," a contemplative outdoorsman sits on a tree stump, ax in hand. The bodies of a white-tailed deer, a moose, an opossum, a raccoon and other animals are partially concealed by snow drifts at his feet; a turkey vulture is perched above, wings spread. The man bears a striking resemblance to renowned ecologist Aldo Leopold. The likeness may be coincidental, but is nonetheless pertinent. 2008 is the 60th anniversary of Leopold's death. Like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, Leopold is a lodestar for many contemporary environmentalists. His "A Sand County Almanac," published posthumously in 1949, remains a critical conservation text.

Unlike Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the 1962 bestseller that catalyzed the modern environmental movement, Leopold's "Almanac" is not a call for corporate and federal responsibility. Although Leopold would surely support such measures, his book is principally concerned with our reforging an intimate connection to the landscape we inhabit. "We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in," he wrote.

It's noteworthy that Leopold's faith is not of the starry-eyed variety; his "land ethic" includes hunting, controlled burns, and other practices typically condemned by preservationists. Contrary to the romantic conception of wilderness, Leopold's ethic acknowledges that the tools invented by humans (the saws, shovels, axes, picks, and pitchforks that figure prominently in Beltz's drawings) are not simply cruel agents of mastery. Humans are animals and, as such, we are not apart, but rather a part of a complicated, messy ecology. No matter how we manipulate our environment, dominion remains a comforting delusion.

Yet most of us do not conceive of Nature in this way. Just as we distinguish between the self and the group, so too do we draw a hard-line distinction between humanity and the “natural world.” William Cronon, a respected, if controversial environmental historian, argues that we must alienate ourselves from Nature before it can be understood as something pristine, virgin, or more wild than ourselves. In his celebrated 1983 book, “Changes in the Land”, Cronon reveals the quixotic quality of preservationist impulse.
"If the nature of Concord [Massachusetts] in the 1850s - a nature which many Americans now romanticize as the idyllic world of Thoreau's own Walden - was as 'maimed' and 'imperfect' as he said, what are we to make of the wholeness and perfection which he thought preceded it? It is tempting to believe that when the Europeans arrived in the New World they confronted Virgin Land, the Forest Primeval, a wilderness which had existed for eons uninfluenced by human hands. Nothing could be further from the truth....the land was less virgin than it was widowed. Indians had lived on the continent for thousands of years, and had to a significant extent modified the environment to their purposes…The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem."
The preservationists' dualistic attitude (i.e., Humanity vs. Nature) provides only simple answers to our complex questions. By contrast, Beltz’s allegorical drawings shirk simplistic moralizing in favor of contradiction, ambivalence and multiplicity. His scenes speak to an active communion with Nature, albeit one that includes suffering, death and a melancholy nod to the essential absurdity of existence. By turns, Beltz eulogizes, champions and satirizes Thoreau's self-sufficiency and Andrew Wyeth's rural romanticism.

Eric Beltz
Graphite on paper
17 x 13 3/4 inches

Beltz critiques America's religious and economic landscape, as well. Four of his drawings comprise a series entitled “Back to Eden.” In each, a headless body clothed in overalls, workman boots ,and a shirt with rolled up sleeves – the uniform of the outdoorsman-farmer - is slumped in or alongside a pile of cut logs and other vegetation. Above each of these tableaus, Beltz has written one word, in cursive: Asthma; Hysteria; Cancer; Delirium.

Considering the series, I recall Adam Smith’s ignored admonition concerning the dangers of loosely regulated capitalism. Smith, the 18th century Scottish philosopher best known for his influential treatise "The Wealth of Nations," is canonized by contemporary capitalists for laying down the principals of free market economics, but he entertained doubts about and acknowledged the shadows cast by such a system.

"Power and riches," Smith wrote, "are immense fabrics, which it requires the labor of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which, while they stand, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much and sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow, to diseases, to danger and to death." Smith’s misgivings were warranted. Contemporary life is rife with social ailments and, in combination with our alienation from Nature, secular capitalism is a principal causative factor.

Curiously, free market capitalism is close kin to Manifest Destiny, the divine doctrine of conquest and consumption. Capitalism is exported with no less zeal than our cruel spread west from the colonies. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the 19th century novelist best remembered as an outspoken proponent of abolition, wrote that America is "a nation specifically raised up by God to advance a cause of liberty and religion." She did not say “liberty of religion.” America was founded by Protestant fundamentalists fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Arriving on these contested shores, they took names like Ezekiel, Jacob, and Issac, and likened their journey to the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. These religious settlers are the forebears of a great many contemporary Americans.

Appropriately, Beltz’s drawings incorporate Biblical texts and his subjects are recognizable as America's founding fathers and God-fearing, anonymous farmers. But Beltz draws from a peculiarly American well, the proverbial melting pot. Each drawing is suffused with currents of Eastern philosophy and shamanism. His farmers and historical figures are also mystics. American philosophy is more plural than we care to admit, and Beltz's admixture of East and West, allegory and history, supernatural and natural is a fair reckoning. (American transcendentalism, for example, the philosophy so vital to Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a hybrid of Protestant Unitarianism, Romanticism, Hinduism, and European intellectualism.)

Eric Beltz
"Tree of the Evil Eagle"
Graphite on paper
40 x 30 inches

Still, the Bible is the first book of the United States, and many Americans regard the Constitution and founding fathers with astonishing reverence (to the extent that, in some circles, the former is sacrosanct). But documents and philosophies are of a particular time. Guarded by strict interpreters, the Constitution of the United States can become as regressively dogmatic as any primary religious text. Without thoughtful interpretation of Constitutional scripture, the significance and relevance of the founding fathers' enterprise will wane.

But most Americans (politicians and citizens alike) are in the business of denying the inevitable, be it the death of a loved one, an unregulated economy, or an ideology. Rather than confront our heavy history (and with it our future), the United States cloaks itself in exceptionalism. We remove ourselves from a fact-based historical narrative so that the road to future success is understood as an unyielding continuation of the present, divinely-ordained course. Like the empires that rose and fell before us, America's clarity of vision is obscured by global power and a history that privileges mythic glory over fact. Because we make history, many of our leaders feel strongly that we don't need to know it. Moreover, the history we make is irreproachable because it is consecrated.

Yet the secular capitalist world view strives to replace religion and the supernatural with consumerism. Manifest Destiny Version 3.0 is not ordained by God so much as by the Almighty dollar. And the replacement worked, more or less. The secular capitalist model is today the global standard. But sociologists, anthropologists, and, now, some neuroscientists agree that the substitution is inadequate. This deficiency is most apparent in a religious nation like the United States, where fundamentalism and cultism, reactionary responses to the secular world, are thriving. Despite our founding fathers' dismissal of the New Testament's Book of Revelation (Thomas Jefferson described it as "the ravings of a maniac"), a 2002 CNN/Time magazine poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe the prophecies therein are real and that the gruesome judgment of the Second Coming is imminent. James Watt, former President Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, is among that majority. He famously stated that protecting our nation's natural resources was not a priority because Jesus Christ would return only "after the last tree is felled."

Yet some evangelical fundamentalists are more fair-minded. They focus instead on the Bible's call for stewardship, and argue that the success or failure of the environmental movement depends on which interpretation gains the upper hand. Will we embrace a dominionist or stewardship theology?

The crux of that question is the American notion of wilderness. Cronon writes, "the flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate...and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world...Non-use is not an option: to live in nature is to use and change it by our presence. The choice we face is not to leave no marks - that is impossible - but rather to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave."

Eric Beltz
"The Good Land"
Graphite on paper
30 x 40 inches

Beltz's meticulously rendered works don't offer any answers, but neither do they shrug off the dilemma. With a richly ironic sensibility and a sensitivity to the complexities of our national character and (natural) history, Beltz embraces our clusterfuck approach even as he skewers it. "The Good Land" is sublimely ambivalent.

Photo credit: all images ripped from the artist's website

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 10

Jefferson Sculpture
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

Naturalists, Puritans, and New Territories
"I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt."

- Thomas Jefferson, 1787
The American polymath Thomas Jefferson ranks highly in my pantheon of heroes. Yeoman farmer, architect, inventor, philosopher, naturalist, Virginia gentleman, and statesman, Jefferson defies easy classification. His political pragmatism and philosophy reflect his broad excavations, and the complex of sometimes contradictory ideas that Jefferson put down over the course of his long life allows his legacy to be fairly claimed by contemporary pundits of every stripe. His name and statements are marshaled to support causes across the political spectrum, including state's rights, internationalism, provincialism, gun control, the right to bear arms, unregulated capitalism, anarchy, secularism, and even the call for the United States to be officially deemed "a Christian nation." It is not, however, Jefferson's nuanced political philosophy that is responsible for his cultural ebb; he was a slave-owner and a patriarchal figure who decried "intellectual women." By today's standards, he was a deeply flawed man. But Jefferson died 183 years ago. It is wrongheaded to dismiss the whole of the man for latter-day sins. In any case, his accomplishments and legacy are profound.

Jefferson was irredeemably curious and hopeful. The man's hunger for knowledge and his faith that the human lot can forever be improved upon vitalize the Jeffersonian heritage. The Enlightenment-inspired, exuberant optimism of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Jefferson, and others in their mold watered the soil of American social, political, and technological revolution. And, as I wrote two days ago, "it's a happy wonder to contemplate [...] the maturation and proliferation of human technology." But at what price did so much "happy" change come?

Mandan Fort recreation
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

President Jefferson, in March of 1803, commissioned Captain Meriwether Lewis to lead the Corps of Discovery with William Clark. Jefferson obtained federal funding for the expedition on the grounds that, if successful, Lewis and Clark might "offer the most direct and practicable water communication across [the] continent for the purposes of commerce," but the president's principal interests were other. He wrote to Lewis,
"The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River. [...] Objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country, it's growth & vegetable productions, especially those not of the U.S.; the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S., the remains or accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct; the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal, & saltpetre; salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last, & such circumstances as may indicate their character; volcanic appearances; climate, as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion of rainy, cloudy, & clear days, by lightening, hail, snow, ice, by the access & recess of frost, by the winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects."
Historians suggest that the excitement Jefferson felt on the eve of this great expedition was quite real. His impetus was curiosity, not Puritan conquest.

Mt. Zion African Methodist Church yard
Mayhew Historic Village; Nebraska City

The Pilgrim settlers of this country had little curiosity about the natural history or native peoples of their "New World." William Bradford, five-time governor of Plymouth Colony from 1621 - 1657, described (what little he knew of) the North American continent as "a hideous and desolate wilderness." Jefferson, by contrast, wrote that "there is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me." He saw the natural world as an Eden to be studied and, as author Erik Reece describes it, as "an antidote to the deadening forces" of civilization. For Jefferson, the notion of "God and country" was shaped by topography and the human place in it.

But Lewis and Clark's great voyage of discovery didn't simply educate Americans living east of the Appalachian spine about the continent's interior and western Edens. It paved the way for mass migration, mass slaughter, and mass industry. What happened on this vast continent parallels the greater history of mankind and, indeed, of all life.

Bison diorama
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

Historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in 1953 that, "the genius of American democracy comes not from any special virtue of the American people but from the unprecedented opportunities of this continent." Similarly, the remarkable evolution of the human ape, from tree-dweller, to hunter-gatherer, to agriculturist, to civilized man, comes from no special virtue of our species, but from the unprecedented opportunities of this Earth. One thing, as it were, led to another, and our species proved able and willing to exploit to the fullest extent. Loren Eiseley writes, in The Immense Journey,
"The stolen energy that would take man across the continents [as a hunter-gatherer] would fail him at last. The great Ice Age herds were destined to vanish. When they did so, another hand like the hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago would pluck a handful of grass seed and hold it contemplatively. In that moment, the golden towers of man, his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand."
So it was with North America. The "meteoric, messy, and astonishing history" of the United States was fueled, above all, by a distinctly un-Jeffersonian conquest of the land's native peoples, animals, and resources.

Near the end of his sweeping ecological history of North America, The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery writes,
"During the nineteenth century, [...] the European Americans were developing a new economy. It was an economy based on systems of mass production and mass exploitation that needed enormous resources to operate. The key decade was 1880-90, for only then did European machinery become sophisticated enough to destroy the great herding and flocking species [the passenger pigeon, the American bison, and the Eskimo curlew]. Their enormous numbers provided an ideal teething rusk for an economic machine that would soon produce cars in the millions and hamburgers in the billions."
We devoured the continent.

Fake Prarie Dog burrows and mural
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

What allowed for this? What became of the Enlightened foresight of the founding minds? How did we move, in one hundred years, from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Ford? And could we have made such astounding, "happy" progress in human rights, suffrage, and science without surrendering to this demonic appetite? There is no tidy answer to these questions and, in any case, it's irresponsible to wade in what-might-have-been when you can instead strive toward what-yet-could-be. Still, the history perplexes.

Jefferson bemoaned the Christian scriptures' inclusion of miracles and the emphasis, in Christian doctrine, on the afterlife. Erik Reece explains in An American Gospel that Jefferson realized,
"the more Christian fundamentalism emphasizes that the kingdom of God awaits as a reward in the afterlife, the more it ignores [...] Jesus' teachings of how we should act while we inhabit this earthly realm. [...] The relevance of Christianity to most Americans has far more to do with the promise of eternal salvation from this world."
Jefferson's famous and sensible solution was to edit the Christian New Testament, deleting any and all miracles, including the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. He called the result "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Today, the book is best known as "The Jefferson Bible." Perhaps, if more good Christians had followed their incarnate God's example and teachings in this life - the one that actually matters! - the west would have been settled in accord with the land. Unfortunately, most in our "Christian nation" don't know of Jefferson's earnest effort to save Christianity from other-worldly supernaturalism, from, as he called Puritanical ministers, "the soothsayers and necromancers."

Neither do most Americans know of Jefferson's effort to temper our faith in industrialism. Jefferson's agrarian dream for America was impossible; the United States was then and is now a burgeoning country, and true pastoralism can only ever be embraced on a small scale. But we would do well to remember Jefferson's vision, to remember that we are part of a greater system, and that the expiration date for America's frontier mentality, its faith in boldly going and exploiting, is past.

Despite our exceptionalist tendencies, our nation is like any other. Every nation is a tiny part of the greater superorganism, and every nation's story is a life cycle. The sprawling, arrogant United States is no longer an adolescent, and it can't afford to continue acting like one, to continue "lighting out for the territories." If we fail to mature, our reckless faith in what lies over the next mountain, in the future and in the afterlife, will prove our nation's undoing. It is faith in what exists here and now, in the place where we stand, that needs resurrection.

Missouri River Overlook
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

Most Americans are estranged from their own nature, as well as from the nature all around them. Reece writes,
"[We are estranged from] the sources of our food, the sources of our clothes, and the sources of the energy that run our homes. Beyond these basic needs, money and corporate influence have estranged us from our own government. Our isolation within suburban homes has estranged us from our neighbors and communities. [...] Cars have estranged us from our own bodies. [...] Our modern condition of estrangement has led us to live in ways that show a remarkable abdication of responsibility."
Reece proposes that Aldo Leopold's philosophy "carries us back into an ethic of responsibility." I agree.

Leopold, the godfather of modern conservation, inherited Jefferson's dream. Like Jefferson, he was a Romantic pragmatist, a type as well-suited to diplomacy as to conservation. Leopold acknowledged that resource use, like the economy, can be regulated thoughtfully, but the Romantic in Leopold was dismayed by the dark side of our equating land with money. He wrote,
"I suspect that the forces inherent in...economic evolution are not all beneficent. Like the forces inside our own bodies, they may become malignant, pathogenic. I believe that many of the economic forces inside the modern body-politic are pathogenic in respect to harmony with land."
He deemed his heroically optimistic response to the increasing pressures of population and market a "land ethic." Despite the difficulties of cultivating such an appreciation of the natural world in the twentieth century, Leopold persisted.
"That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. [...] A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land. [...] We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in."
The American estrangement from land and from the rest of nature (including the dark, interior wilderness of the psyche) is redressed through cultivation of a land ethic. And, in so far as I am "happy" to contemplate the incredible rate of technological evolution, I am made happier still by the prospect of a mature, tempered America.

Vacant lot on Central Avenue; Nebraska City

This morning, I sat for a while and talked with an older gentleman in Long Home Coffee Shop, on Nebraska City's Central Avenue. A retired physicist, he expressed concern about the future of America and, more generally, of the human species. "It's all terribly depressing," he observed. "I have my good days and my bad," I concurred. "But the bleak pessimism is more rare than it was, just because it's unproductive." He nodded, and his heavy eyes seemed to say both, 'Thank goodness for the optimism of youth!' and 'Bloody damned fool!'

But I'm not a fool, and neither is he. An hour after we talked, as I sat at a table scribbling the notes that became this essay, he attended, in the back room of the coffee shop, a meeting regarding the construction of a community garden at the west end of town. The city has provided the group with a vacant lot, a local corporation will provide the initial revenue for construction, and the garden will be tended and managed by volunteers, providing food for those in need.

Now that, I contend, is positively Jeffersonian!

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 9

Wheel Bug; KHN Center; Nebraska City
The Wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) is often confused with the related assassin bug

I did a lot of looking and thinking today, but very little writing. As a result, today's update consists only of four insect photographs, all taken today.

Unidentified grasshopper
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

Southern Dogface butterfly (Zerene cesonia) on Indian Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella)
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City

Mating Differential Grasshoppers
Lewis & Clark Visitors Center; Nebraska City
Differential grasshoppers (Melanoplus differentialis) are considered major agricultural pests in the midwest

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009

Monday, September 14, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 8

1884 Button steam engine; Museum of FireFighting; Nebraska City

Appreciating Varieties of Evolution

"Life," writes Loren Eiseley, Nebraska's latter day Thoreau, "is multitudinous and emergent in the stream of time." Considering the evolution of flowering plants, Eiseley explains,
"The true flower - and the seed that it produced - was a profound innovation in the world of life. In a way, this event parallels, in the plant world, what happened among animals. Consider the relative chance for survival of the exteriorly deposited egg of a fish in contrast with the fertilized egg of a mammal, carefully retained for months in the mother's body until the young animal (or human being) is developed to a point where it may survive. The biological wastage is less - and so it is with the flowering plants. [...] The true flowering plants (angiosperm itself means 'encased seed') grew a seed in the heart of a flower, [...] but the seed, unlike the developing spore, is already a fully equipped embryonic plant packed in a little enclosed box stuffed full of nutritious food. [..] The ramifications of this biological invention were endless. Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. [...] The well-fed, carefully cherished little embryos raised their heads everywhere."
Reading Eiseley, I'm struck by how applicable the language he uses to elucidate plant evolution - innovation, wastage, development, invention - is to the maturation and proliferation of human technology. Our machines of steel and plastic are, like the angiosperms, natural and transient shapes of life's eternal striving; they are imperfect adaptations of the moment.

Antique Tractor; Mayhew Historical Village; Nebraska City

We humans are foolishly arrogant, and often conceive of ourselves as the zenith of physical evolution. The sacred books of our species' major religions claim that we are "made in God's image," and, because most folks are literal-minded, unimaginative, or loathe to admit their own cosmic insignificance, that claim is usually understood to mean that God looks like us, and that we look like God. That's a shame, because the claim's power is metaphorical; humanity is "made in God's image," as is the flower or the carpenter bee or the black bear. For all of these species and, indeed, for God, evolution rolls on.

Humans are unable to outwardly observe our continuing development because we are too close to it, and too short-lived a species. Nevertheless, it is happening. Our technological shifts are the most apparent evidence of this ceaseless process. And what technological transitions each modern human is witness to! Like the growth of a child to a parent, the metamorphosis appears a slow, steady progression, but a retrospective survey reveals an astonishing pace. I periodically marvel at the evolution of computer and video games in (roughly) my own lifetime, from the home version of "Pong" to "Halo," but what of the computers themselves or, for that matter, the Internet?

Consider, for a moment, the technological, political, and social revolutions undergone by our country during Mike Bauer's tenure with the Nebraska City Fire Company #1 and the Great Western Fire Company #1. Bauer joined the company in 1865, at the close of the American Civil War. At that time, "bucket brigades," lines of volunteers passing leather buckets from hand to hand, were the primary way of combating blazes. Bauer climbed the fire fighter ranks, from engineer, to foreman, to chief, and served the growing town through the Spanish-American War, the First World War, and the federal introduction of Prohibition and women's suffrage, in 1920. During this time, the fire department's methods evolved from the "bucket brigade," to horse-drawn pumps, to steam-powered pump engines (like the Button engine; pictured above), to, finally, gasoline-motor pumper trucks (like the 1926 Seagrave pumper; pictured below). All of this change, in Bauer's 67 years of active service! It's a happy wonder to contemplate!

1926 Seagrave Pumper Engine; Museum of FireFighting; Nebraska City

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 7

The Ten Commandments on the front lawn of Otoe County Courthouse; Nebraska City

Attunement on a Sunday Morning

I'm a generalist. As such, I'm inclined to connect the dots between purportedly distinct realms of inquiry. It's impossible, of course, to conduct a truly holistic survey, but my crude efforts have led me to conceive of life - what we know of it, at least - as a component part of a vast, even infinite superorganism. I freely admit to finding value in mysticism, and this superorganism notion is readily dismissed by some scientists and scholars as mystical metaphysics, but science itself speaks to an integrity beyond human comprehension.

As Loren Eiseley describes it,
"[This is] one of life's strangest qualities - it's eternal dissatisfaction with what is, its persistent habit of reaching out into new environments and, by degrees, adapting itself to the most fantastic circumstances."
Eiseley was an anthropologist, and he claimed to be a man of "no religion." That may be so, but Eiseley's writing offers humility, wonder, gratitude, and communion in abundance. As I see it, those are the four pillars of religious practice. The fourth of these vital practices, communion, is alluded to by the very word "religion," from the Latin religare, meaning "to bind" or "to tie." Religious action aims to bind the individual to society and, in turn, to the greater whole.

For a decade, I proudly identified as an atheist and, by the measure of most religious people, my cosmology and metaphysics still qualify me as such. It occurs to me, on this Sunday morning, with Nebraska City's church parking lots at capacity, that many of this town's good Christians would reject my claim of religiosity, and not only because my practice rests on a Jewish foundation. My doctrine-less faith appreciates the stories of the Hebrew Tanakh, the Christian New Testament, and the Muslim Koran as parables, poetry, and anthropological artifacts. I read these books in the same way that I do the Tao Te Ching or Herakleitos; they are annotated, analyzed, interpreted, digested, then, in the fullness of time, returned to for a new understanding. But these collections are not my sacred texts. In the eyes of most religious believers, that disqualifies me from tribal membership. Thank G-d.

First Baptist Church; Nebraska City; September 2009
Sign reads, "Faith Removes Mountains Or Tunnels Through"

Still, I am a religious believer, in my way. My holy books are written by biologists and physicists, naturalist poets and essayists, as well as rabbis, ministers, and theologians. None of them is the word of an interventionist, judging god, even though all of them are necessarily part of a greater, unknowable whole, the aforementioned superorganism.

It doesn't matter what you call this organism. As essayist and literature professor Doug Thorpe writes in Rapture of the Deep, "Call it the sublime, call it the Tao, Om, or I AM; still the names don't hold." I most often call it The All, The No-thing, or Hashem, literally "The Name." In the Tanakh, when Moses asks the name of the Presence he has discovered in the burning bush, It replies, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh." "I will be who I will be," or "I will be that I will be." You can call It whatever you will, for It is you. It is also me. It is the sidewalk; It is the grass of the Otoe County courthouse lawn, on which Nebraska City authorities have installed a carved monument to the Ten Commandments, an act that approaches violation of Thomas Jefferson's shrewd "separation of Church and State"; and It is the ether connecting all of these.

Lutheran Church facade; Nebraska City; September2009

If the faith that has grown in me is dogmatic in some way, it is in its insistence on universalism. Literally translated, "universe" means "one turning." Our universe is just that, one breath, one round, one cycle. All that we know and all that we don't know, everything that we can imagine, is but an infinitesimal sliver of The All, one note of an eternal symphony. Even Herakleitos, ancient proponent of reason and science, turned to poetics when he contemplated ultimate meaning; "Nature loves to hide," he wrote. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for universe is olam, a derivative of alam, meaning "to conceal." Jewish mystics, like many of their Hindu, Sufi, and Christian counterparts, believe that God is hidden in the universe, an ineffable force that pervades every dimension, known and unknown.

Theoretical astrophysicists
now suggest that our universe is but one component part of a multiverse, requiring of us another Copernican shift; yet again, the superorganism is re-conceived. In that stretch of the mind are humility, wonder, gratitude, and communion. Science and philosophy, it seems, can also be religious.

Water tower; Nebraska City

So, yes, I'm a religious believer. Paintings, sculptures, and other hand-crafted objects are among my adored icons, but I find occasion for worship in every place, in every form, in every moment. The Monarch butterfly that flapped yoyo-like this morning in front of the KHN Center's kitchen window is worthy of exaltation. I recognize that, for some other viewer, the insect may be ignorable or irrelevant. For others, it is an idol. So, too, might the weathered brick of a downtown Nebraska City building be deemed a clay calf by unimaginative or close-minded "believers." Placing my palm on this brick today, though, my thoughts range through eons of geologic time to consider the primeval mud from which, eventually, we emerged as a gasping fish thing.

Doubtless some of the folks singing inside the walls of the Lutheran, Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches this morning don't share my enthusiasm for our scaley ancestors. But I'm not concerned with their narrow definition of religion or their selfish understanding of "truth." Although I no longer consider myself a materialist, I'm an unremitting idolater. To those that would condemn that impulse as sacrilegious, I offer Eiseley's reaction.
"People have occasionally written me harsh letters and castigated me for a lack of faith in man when I have ventured to speak of [..] some greater unity that lay incalculably beyond us. [...] They distrust, it would seem, all shapes and thoughts but their own. They would bring God into the compass of a shopkeeper's understanding and confine Him to those limits, lest He proceed to some unimaginable and shocking act - create perhaps as a casual afterthought, a being more beautiful than man. As for me, I believe nature capable of this, and having been part of the flow of the river, I feel no envy."
And I feel no envy, either. There is only dumbfounding, smiling celebration.

Love is, I think, a bit like religion. Humility, wonder, gratitude, and communion are requisite in both, and, as Thorpe puts it, love "demands of us a new way of being in our old world." Religion might be construed as a love affair with The All. It's not always easy, but religious attunement can turn each day, each hour, or each instant, into "a new way of being." Every step is a psalm, every directed gaze is a prayer. Truly, on the streets of Nebraska City this morning, I am an exuberant, enthusiastic mystic.

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 6

Cincinnati House; Nebraska City

Working Papers

The Cincinnati House is a charming craft, candle, and home goods store, located not far from the KHN Center. On Friday afternoon, I purchased some Nebraska City postcards there and, at the register, struck up a pleasant conversation with the proprietress. She moved to Nebraska City and opened the boutique after retiring from a career in Omaha.

Upon learning that my time at the residency is principally given to musings on American and natural history, she announced with a smile, "If you're interested in history, you might like to know that this building used to be a brothel." I allowed as how, yes, I would like to know more about that history, and she provided me with the abridged version.

Although the narrative's specifics were not especially titillating, the Cincinnati House story did cause me to wonder why historical prostitution, unlike its present day trade or the institution of slavery, is so often romanticized or discussed with a wink and a smile? This fact seems especially odd considering that, were genealogical records better kept and people more honest, a significant percentage of European Americans would have one or more "working girls" in their family tree.

After bidding the owner a good afternoon, I made my way to the door. Hung on the wall nearby the exit, I noticed a framed license for prostitution, an artifact of the building's 19th century function.

Soybean field; Nebraska City

Suspicious Activity

Living in New York City, I sometimes forget that my not owning a vehicle is patently un-American. New York City's exemplary public transportation system makes carlessness possible (even preferable), and I'm fond of long walks, in any case.

Most Nebraska City residents, by contrast, aren't fond of walking and the town's plentiful dogs aren't accustomed to walkers. I was hounded, yesterday afternoon, as I tramped about the town's eastern edge in search of attractive river views. I walked on city streets or, where it exists, the lonely sidewalk, and I didn't trespass on private property. Still, although dogs failed to chase or bark at any of the passing cars or pickup trucks, they accosted me with sometimes intimidating territorial displays. At least one of the other KHN residents has experienced similar canine antagonism, and I've concluded that the dogs are alarmed, above all, by our unorthodox mode of locomotion.

Similarly, the town's human residents seem a bit suspicious of walkers. I feel, making my way from place to place, as though I shouldn't let my eyes linger on an open garage door or lawn ornament, lest I appear to be "casing the joint." If not burglary, what other reason would I have for walking?

Missouri River landing; Nebraska City

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 5

Chicken coop breed variation display; River Center Nature Center; Nebraska City

What accounts for the amplified patriotism that I feel? This American ardor is not specific to my time in Nebraska City. Over the course of the last year, my national pride has swelled, even as I'm daily disappointed by the reactionary ignorance of so many fellow citizens. Still, in this smallish, midwestern town, I am acutely aware of my American identity.

Perhaps Nebraska City's abundant reminders of our nation's meteoric, messy, and astonishing history forefront my appreciation for my peoples' achievements? Or perhaps it is the love of place reflected in the town's twelve museums, each one a heartfelt labor?

Upstairs annex; River Center Nature Center; Nebraska City

Consider, for example, Joe Voges' River Country Nature Center. Voges, born 96 years ago in Nebraska City, began learning the craft of taxidermy in 1933, at 20 years of age. 47 years later, in 1975, he opened the Nature Center, a collection of mounted wildlife - 90 percent of the taxidermy on display is his handiwork - grouped into natural history dioramas and educational exhibits. In 2005, the museum expanded and moved from Nebraska City's old fire hall to a spacious, street level location nearby.

The taxidermy is by turns amateurish and professional, but the information presented is up-to-date and effectively communicated. The best of the Nature Center exhibits are of American Museum of Natural History quality, and, throughout, one senses Voges' driving desire to educate subsequent generations about the importance of preserving biodiversity and conserving natural resources.

Albinism display; River Center Nature Center; Nebraska City

Perhaps Voges' tellurian impetus is part of the reason I feel a particularly "American" pride in Nebraska City? Like our national history, we're a contradictory, complicated lot, but we fundamentally remain a people that identify the "great outdoors" as a reflection of our values and beliefs, and vice versa. Certainly, there is myth involved in that association, but there is some truth, too.

The contemporary character of this American identification with the land is both Romantic and Utilitarian; it incorporates a self-conscious brand of rugged individualism that, on the one hand, allows for George W. Bush's popular appeal, and, on the other, has made the United States an international wellspring of conservation efforts and environmental philosophy. Despite the previous presidential administration's willingness to bend to the will of extractive industry, the United States remains uniquely positioned to foster among the international community a conservation ethic. Indeed, an overwhelming number of internationally active organizations working for preservationist and conservationist causes are American in origin or base; we are yet the vanguard in the environmental arena.

But even - nay, especially - on the streets of Nebraska City, on the banks of the great Missouri River, at the head of the Oregon Trail, I must inoculate my healthy patriotism against the virus of nationalism. I sometimes wish that "America the Beautiful," Katherine Lee Bates' celebratory hymn, were our country's national anthem, instead of Francis Scott Key's "Star Spangled Banner."

Whereas the "Star Spangled Banner," set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, extols military valor and revolution in the name of freedom, Bates' "America" is both a celebration of our vast American landscape and a plea for social justice, pragmatic politics, and humility. Hers is the United States of America that fills my breast with pride; hers is the clay that I am made of.
"O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years [...]
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!"
In 1930, then Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace stated, "There is as much need today for a Declaration of Interdependence as there was for a Declaration of Independence in 1776." I agree, and we're overdue, but I'm starting with the anthem. The Brits can take back their drinking and fighting tune.

Missouri River display; River Center Nature Center; Nebraska City

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 4

Oregon Trail Marker; Nebraska City

Manifest Destiny

On the eastern edge of Nebraska City's Central Avenue stands a simple cairn with a plaque, a monument to the Oregon Trail. The plaque reads, in part,
"Official Oregon Trail Marker: [...] overlaid branch of the Oregon Trail, 1849, from the steamboat landing thousands started westward to Pike's Peak, Salt Lake, California and Oregon."
My gaze drifts from this humble memorial to Central Avenue, Nebraska City's main thoroughfare. Today, automobiles move east and west on the two-laned, paved drag. 160 years ago, families traveling by covered wagon set west on a dirt path, intent on making a better life for themselves.

Just think of it; that was 160 years ago! The territories of the western United States were then largely unsettled by immigrants of European extraction. The notion of Manifest Destiny, the Providential assumption that all of North America belonged to a white, male God and, in turn, to His European sons and daughters, was only introduced in 1845. At the time, the American Civil War had yet to be fought, electricity had yet to be harnessed as a popular power source, and human flight was only a hopeful diagram in a sketchbook. 160 years is just three human lifetimes, a drop in history's bucket, a nearly invisible mark on the geologic timeline.

Nebraska City, circa 1860

As I scribble down these thoughts, a small slug moves over the concrete by my left foot. 300 million years ago, our human face was not so dissimilar from the slug's. As Loren Eiseley describes it in The Immense Journey, the steady march of time, whether surveying a span of 300 million or 160 years, is "life reaching out, [...] that magnificent and agelong groping [...] still in progress. [...] Content is a word unknown to life; it is also a word unknown to man."

Oregon Trail Marker and Central Avenue view; Nebraska City

The Windmill Shop

Early this morning, fellow KHN resident Manya Fox and I were granted access to the now closed Kregel Windmill Company shop, located on Central Avenue. For the most part, the shop's interior is just as the employees left it, a time capsule testament to the labor and ingenuity that allowed for the settling of the American west. As our gracious host put it with a grin, "Some people say the six gun settled the west, but it was really the windmill."

Early explorers, Lewis and Clark included, characterized the land that would become the Nebraska Territory as the "Great American Desert," an area unfit for human habitation. But, because of windmills, the plains would soon become some of the most fertile farming land in the United States. Homesteaders needed water to survive, of course, and the windmill was the only efficient way to draw water up from wells 100 feet deep. Wood and, later, metal blades were cut, shaped, and hammered in the Nebraska City shop, an outfit run by the "taskmaster" Kregel brothers, immigrants from Germany.

The brothers are dead now, the Windmill Company is closed and in need of preservation, and water-pumping windmills have, in most places, been replaced by electric pumps. Technology and livelihoods gone with, as it were, the wind.

Accounting desk; Kregel Windmill Company; Nebraska City

Or are they? Today, towering windmills of steel and aluminum, better known as turbines, are being erected the world over. These turbines are an effective means of energy collection that also offer promise of a thriving, low impact industry. In the windmill shop, as I admired a lathe built in the early 1860s, Eiseley's words echoed; the "magnificent and agelong groping" continues.

Beyond Manifest Destiny

Nebraska City's Morton-James Public Library has a small NASA exhibition on display now. As I shuffled around the library gallery this morning, I marveled that the Space Shuttle Orbiter, the "vehicle that carries the crew and payloads to and from Earth orbit," must reenter Earth's atmosphere and land without power. It "glides back to Earth and lands on a runway. [...] Careful guidance control is needed to assure that it is properly positioned to reach the desired landing site." This astonishing feat of engineering and science is made that much more impressive if we consider that it was first realized just 130 years after the homesteaders and pioneers disembarked from Nebraska City's steamboat landing.

To those individuals who emphasize humanity's bloody excesses and potentially catastrophic exuberance above all else, I can only express my bafflement. Truly, to study evolution and the progress of history and science is to be necessarily possessed by eudaimonia. What great feats are forthcoming? The sun is shining; the crickets and katydids are singing; the world is electric with possibility.

Refurbished blades; Kregel Windmill Company; Nebraska City

Photo credits: all photos, Hungry Hyaena, 2009; Nebraska City illustration, ripped from Richard Gehling's "The Pike's Peak Gold Rush"

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

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Kimmel Harding Nelson Residency: Day 2

Iowa corn field

The Flying Nun

As our plane approached Omaha, Nebraska, I surveyed the irregular grid of rectangles and squares formed by western Iowa's country roads. Cumulus clouds cast dark shadows of punctuation over the vibrant greens, yellows, and siennas of the state's corn and soybean harvest.

I tend to think of our nation's industrialized monoculture as a rigid corporation of hundreds of thousands of acres of symmetrical fields, but, in practice, even agribusiness can only bend the land so much. At an altitude, one sees that our fields are as shaped by the extant topography as they are by human manipulation. Indeed, some of Iowa's fields, with their rounded edges and calligraphic plow lines, could, from the air, be mistaken for southeast Asian rice paddies.

Aerial view of western Iowa agriculture

My neighbor on the plane was a pleasant Benedictine sister. Dressed in full habit, she was en route to Norfolk, Nebraska, for an assembly of the world's Benedictine Monastic Missionaries. She works and resides in Namibia, Africa, assisting with education and HIV/AIDS prevention. I deeply appreciate the charitable activity and lifelong devotion of such missionaries, but I remain wary of the proselytizing component.

At several points in my conversation with the sister, I felt as though she was soft-selling her faith. She commended me on my given name, Christopher, explaining that I was named after the Catholic saint that supposedly carried the young Yeshua of Nazareth across a river. (Of course, that isn't quite right. The saint, if the man in fact existed, was named for his deed; the Greek word Christophoros translates as "bearer of Christ.") She was also happy to learn that my vocation, my calling, was art, and encouraged me to use my artwork to "usher in Christ's love everlasting." I replied with a noncommital "um hmm," and left it at that.

Perhaps because my response was ambiguous, she persisted. Inspired by my affinity for art, she recollected a visit she made to the Norman Rockwell Museum, where she viewed a sculpture by Rockwell's son, Peter. According to the nun, the sculpture featured a crucifix crowned by devil horns. The piece sounds wholly adolescent, but it evidently upset one of the nun's companions, who couldn't understand why the "symbol of all that is good" would be paired with "the symbol of all that is evil." The nun reassured her friend by pointing out that "at least Peter Rockwell isn't an atheist." She weighted the last word, and shook her head as she pronounced it. I'm not sure what element of the sculpture informed her confident conclusion about Rockwell's metaphysics, but her story made clear her negative feelings for those who doubt or deny her particular faith.

Some minutes after the Rockwell anecdote, she expressed pleasure at Pope Benedict XVI's decision to expand contemporary Catholic use of the Tridentine Mass, a Latin text that vilifies Jews. Considering the nun's clear dislike of atheists and her implied disapproval of non-Christian religious beliefs, I'm happy that I dodged any questions that, squarely answered, would have revealed something of my personal path from a Christian baptism, to agnosticism, to atheism, to my current exploration of and identification with panentheistic or panendeistic Judaism. Part of me was disappointed in myself for not confronting her ecumenical failure, but, frankly, I was more interested in looking out of the plane's window.

Auto repair yard on Central Avenue; Nebraska City

First Impressions of Nebraska City

If you define "city" as a settlement with a large population, Nebraska City is a misnomer. Compared to New York City, my home for almost a decade, Nebraska City is a population blip. New York City's population, estimated at 8.5 million, is 1,200 times Nebraska City's roughly 7,000 residents.

Shortly after we loaded the minivan with our bags and left the Omaha airport, Ron, the owner (and sole employee) of Tree City Taxi Service, said that most Kimmel Harding Nelson Center residents that come to Nebraska City from big cities experience some degree of culture shock. But, although I now live in New York City, I originally hail from Locustville, Virginia. Locustville's population was just 99 when I lived there, and I don't believe that the number has significantly increased or decreased in the years since. Compared to my hometown, Nebraska City is, as its name suggests, a veritable metropolis!

Closed store on Central Avenue; Nebraska City

In conversation with Ron, I gathered that the largest employer in Nebraska City, the American Meter Company, has recently laid off a significant number of its employees. Two other companies that the townspeople depend upon, Cargill Meat Solutions and Diversified Foods & Seasonings, are also facing cutbacks. As a result, many of Nebraska City's citizens are struggling to make ends meet. The economic woes are apparent on the town's main street; it seems as though every block on Central Avenue is home to at least one vacant storefront.

Ron also confirmed my assumption that white-tailed deer, turkey, carp, and channel catfish are major focal points of the region's outdoor recreation. He proudly told me that two of his granddaughters, decked out head-to-toe in camouflage gear, already accompany their dad deer hunting. The image of the camouflaged little girls made me smile, perhaps because I fondly recall the too-big camouflage outfits of my childhood.

Along with hunting and fishing, the major pastimes in eastern Nebraska are high school and college football. This afternoon, from the kitchen window of my residency apartment, I watched the middle school football team practice. I wondered if, compared to their coastal peers, a greater percentage of Nebraska's teenage athletes bank on athletic scholarships and dream of going pro. Many of the players' parents arrived early and watched them from the edge of the practice field.

View on 6th Street; Nebraska City

Photo credits: image of Iowa corn field, ripped from Iowa State website; image of western Iowa fields, ripped from Legacy By Design blog; all photographs of Nebraska City, Hungry Hyaena, 2009