The Window Seat

Last month I traveled to a business conference in Arizona. I flew after dark and so missed the chance to watch the Great Basin and the southwestern desert unfurl beneath me, but I woke the next morning fairly surrounded by exotica. I ambled around the resort astonished by the sunshine, the absurd cacti, the little rabbits running around under the succulents, and the unfamiliar birds.

My favorite of the latter were the Mexican grackles. The male looks in silhouette like an art deco hood ornament from an antique automobile, with a smooth long neck, a curved beak, and a sweeping tail that doubles the length of his body. He is essentially a grandly elaborated blackbird, but his song is more metallic, made up of strange tickings and whirrings that suggest a clockwork mechanism within.

I took every opportunity presented me to escape from my fellow businesspeople with their lanyards and their mobile phones and their language of three-letter-acronyms. I lurked at the edge of the golf course and along trails threading between manmade ponds. I held my face, eyes closed, toward bright Apollo. I stepped beyond the resort property to find the edge of the desert and catch a vista of the barren mountains.

So much of adult life seems an exercise in pretended enthusiasm. If my employers truly understood the profundity of my lack of interest in our business, would they bother to keep me around? I compliment myself that I do good work, that my skills and experience are valuable, but the satisfactions I personally take in my duties are so negligible, so fleeting as to be not worth mention. If I had some other means of support, I would walk away from my so-called “career” tomorrow with never a look back, never a second thought or sense of loss.

I was made, it seems, for retirement: for wife and children, for walking among the trees and mountains, for home and garden, for splitting wood in the backyard and stocking the bird feeders, for cooking meals, for books and tea and a fire in the hearth on a rainy night. Pressing deeper into middle age, ambitions burn away like mist, the light of gratitude warms. Thank God, I have not lost my pleasure in being a human creature and or in wondering what it all may mean.

There were only a few minutes of daylight remaining when the plane that would ferry me home to Oregon left the ground. We passed in woolly dusk over the Grand Canyon, with snow on the higher plateaus at its north side and banded island spires of rock fading from pink to orchid to deepest purple. I observed that Night does not “fall.” It does not come down on us from above in the style of morning. From the abyss of the canyon below, gentle Night crept upward little by little to meet us.

The Million Year Walk

~ Basin and Range by John McPhee ~

My wife is reading this book on my recommendation. First she tried it aloud with the kids but my eleven-year-old daughter was wilting with boredom, so now she reads it alone. I loved Basin and Range. It’s a rare geology title that one makes a mental note to read a second time, and I intend to still. Below is a review I wrote several years ago of McPhee’s little masterpiece.

~

It was a winter’s day of 2011 and I was the man walking all over San Francisco with a pillow under his arm. It was the wrong kind of pillow and I needed to exchange it. I got a few looks aboard the train. I suffered a few comments at the office too. But the lunch-hour march down Townsend Street was the worst part: a wind in the February style, shin splints from a hard pace, slanting rain in the eyes, and mud puddles for sidewalks through an industrial sector of the city.

Then there were the art students, twenty or thirty of them, squinting from the tips of their lit cigarettes near the Academy campus. They parted like waters for Moses to watch the bourgeois thirty-something pass on his incomprehensible errand.

I thought of what I’d read that morning in John McPhee’s Basin and Range. “On the geologic timescale,” McPhee writes, “a human life is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about.” Infinitely briefer, then, and far less worth consideration, was my present discomfort.

McPhee expands on the idea by quoting a geologist friend:

“If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”

Looking round at the train tracks, the warehouses, the built-up terraced hills of the city, for a moment I saw the place through a lens of geologic time: I walked atop the Cambrian seabed in clouds of groping arthropods; I was wrapped in folds of cooling rock; I was buried in volcanic ash and thrust above the surface of the waters.

Before my eyes the city resolved into a work of humanoid insects, a temporary beeswax hive. There were eons still to roll over it, full of unpredictable transformations. My own consciousness was reduced, by a weight of years that smothered sensible regret, to the briefest electric spark of dream in one immemorial night.

I came to the shop where my misbegotten purchase had occurred a few days before. A man in round, frameless glasses helped make my exchange. He had a gray goatee and a pleasant voice. Ten minutes later I passed through the crowd of staring students again with an apparently identical pillow under my arm, like someone on his way to a slumber party at an address he cannot find.

Varieties of Curiosity

“I’ve got, I suppose, to a time of life when things begin to take on shapes that have an air of reality, and become no longer material for dreaming but interesting in themselves.”

~ H.G. Wells, Tono-Bungay

As a young person (in fact, well into my twenties) all experience was to me material for dreaming, and the value of any particular object was summed up in the associations it suggested. I lived, I suppose, more among the ideas of things than among things themselves.

I was recently reminded of this state of affairs, and surprised by the degree to which it no longer obtained, while hiking with my family. We were climbing among basaltic outcrops in the Columbia River Gorge when my wife began plotting to befriend some unsuspecting geologist whom we might force to join us and answer our questions about the various land forms we encountered.

My teenage son objected that he didn’t believe knowing more about the geology of the place would increase his appreciation of it. Not that he lacked appreciation, but for him (and I paraphrase) the knowledge of the processes that produced environmental phenomena added little or nothing to his enjoyment of the phenomena themselves.

We might consider this an aesthetic perspective. It is more concerned with the ideas and sensations an object may summon in the intellect than with the nature of that object in itself. To fully adopt such a perspective would be to approach the whole panoply of outward experience in the guise of a tourist passing through an art gallery.

It is a popular notion that curiosity belongs particularly to the young, but the curiosity of the young tends toward narcissism (What does this object mean to me?). Maturity offers a more disinterested form of curiosity. It’s as if we are only able to be ask proper questions about things after we’ve grown tired of exploring our own inner spaces.

Talleyrand

~ Talleyrand by Duff Cooper ~

Duff Cooper, who wrote this book in the 1930s, delivers the story of Charles Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand’s life in the sort of buttery prose that could make a 400-page biography of a bachelor librarian a pleasure to read. The materials of Talleyrand’s life, however, are several cuts above standard. Eldest son of a noble family who was crippled in childhood and superseded by his younger brother, Talleyrand was a famous libertine and gambler, an archbishop who never wanted to be a priest, and arguably the greatest statesman of his generation. He somehow managed to serve France in high positions under the revolving regimes of the Revolution of 1789, the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire of Napoleon, and two successive restorations of the Bourbons – all the while amassing ill-gotten wealth, being excommunicated by the Pope, marrying, gambling, siring illegitimate children, carrying on indecent love affairs, making himself indispensable to kings and emperors, and impressing everyone he met with his urbanity, wit, conversation, and sage counsel in diplomatic affairs. Cooper’s argument is that despite accusations of Machiavellianism and his undoubted personal ambition, Talleyrand was in fact a man of consistent public (if not private) principles, who strove in all his appointments for the greater peace of Europe and the better relations of France with her neighbors. The story, like the man, is consistent and complex, and the conclusion of it all (the chapter titled ‘The Last Treaty’ about Talleyrand’s final reconciliation with the Church) I found surprisingly moving.

An Introduction

I have chosen the hermit thrush for a mascot because he is one of the birds I like best and he has an admirable pedigree in American literature, appearing in Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d and in Eliot’s Wasteland.

The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) favors the woods and unpeopled places. He is dull in color but wears a ruddy tail and spots on his pale breast. In northwest Oregon, where I live, the hermit thrush keeps a vow of silence through the lowland winter but in late spring returns to the mountains to chant a golden sanctus with an unmistakable note of melancholy.

Though the bird and I enjoy the same locales, I do not fancy myself a hermit thrush. You would do better to hike through the June woods and listen to him yourself than to read anything I may commit to this page. But I’m told that no one reads blogs anymore, so perhaps this disclaimer is unnecessary.

If you read on, you will discover there is no governing theme to this site. I’ve kept more focused blogs in the past, some for several years at a time. I begin this one because I miss the habit of writing and, as a distracted middle-aged person, the discipline of careful thought grows more difficult to maintain without it.