Time and Love

Sally Mann What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann was coincident with her exhibition/meditation on death.   Her choice of terms for corpses, “carapaces,” jibes with my experience: when I touched the body of my father, my first thought was “this isn’t my father.” The shell felt somehow plastic, although important to others. For me, it meant nothing. Mann says for her “what remains is time and love.” But if love remains, how is love manifest? Lately, I believe the essence of love can be found in our daily meals— the moments when we stop and sustain our bodies.

As the holiday season approaches, it seems important to note that most key social celebrations are built around feast (or fast) days. It’s where we find the intersection of past and present in its most poignant form. A photograph, as an aide–mémoire, is quite thin. In a recent talk, Sally Mann suggested that Proust never could have written A Remembrance of Things Past triggered by a photograph. To remember, it takes the engagement of more senses. For Proust, it was a madeline.  A photograph can evoke, but its affect is a surface one. Again, her use of “thin” seems apt. To stir our entire being, it takes something more than a breeze brushing across the skin, or the decayed bones of a dead pet. To really feel alive and connected to our fellows, both past and present, a meal is almost always called for.

Cooking is a craft, at times celebrated and at other times dismissed as secondary to more ambitious pursuits, “mere cookery” as Plato would have it. A meal is an opportunity, and for most, an opportunity lost, for reflecting and connecting with what it really means to be mortal. I started a recording my meals a few years ago, inspired partly by Jaques Pepin.

Jacques Pépin's Artwork

I lack the talent to draw or even hand letter menus; my experiment consists of a pedestrian list in a google document. But it started to matter to me. I liked being able to see what I used to eat. It didn’t start out as an artistic, or even poetic practice, however. It was more accurately a byproduct of reading The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. They recommended keeping basic records of consumption in order to better manage one’s household, and meals are indeed a part of that. It seemed hardly surprising that Sally and Larry Mann also were moved by the Nearings, at least according to her recent Q&A. The “love” part, so apparent in Pepin’s menus, exists, albeit thinly, even in something as simple as a list of the food consumed over a period of time.

Going through my mother’s things after her death, I was always struck by the incredible number of small bits of paper with “lists” on them, listing when flowers bloomed, when relatives visited, etc. She wrote it all down increasingly as she got older. I am reminded that the origin of civilization comes down to us through time as pedestrian lists of cellar and larder inventories. If what remains is “time and love” then these records, strange as they may seem, carry with them a kernel, a seed of the human condition.

As the contentious election heated up this year, my compulsion to keep some sort of record of what was “good” about life became stronger. My wife has long kept photo sets of things that made her happy, but I’ve been disillusioned by photography these last few years. Although I dedicated most of my life to it, it just didn’t seem to be a repository of joy for me. I’ve found a way to recover just a bit of that though by photographing my meals. To combat the constant stream of political memes coming my way, I started posting those photographs to Facebook. I was surprised at the response. It seems that lots of people like food, especially in troubling times.

These photographs, for me, are simply an extension of the lists. I don’t look upon it as an aesthetic exercise at all, though I do try to capture what’s significant about the colors and textures of the food. When Lloyd Bitzer died a few days ago, I began to examine why I like taking these pictures from a different angle. Bitzer was a rhetorical scholar whose signature essay, “The Rhetorical Situation” occupied a significant part of my time in graduate school. Thinking my way through those concepts, hashed out so long ago, has brought into focus why I think of meals (not photographs of meals) as an important thing to remember, and to think deeply about.

In a grossly simplified version, Bitzer might argue that meals are a reaction to the exigence of hunger; his critic Richard Vatz might respond that we also eat as a response to being persuaded that we are hungry, while Barbara Biesecker would suggest that both of these responses deny and obscure the potential for radical transformation that occurs at every mealtime. Skipping past the Derridian doublespeak, Biesecker’s point is well placed: we don’t simply eat to satisfy a need, or eat because we’re convinced to, we eat because every time we eat we are changed by it.  In turn, by exercising control over what we eat we can indeed change ourselves, with time and love.

Each meal has the potential to be a uniquely kairotic moment (last supper?). Every meal presents the opportunity to change the world, and ourselves, simply by appreciating were we are at that particular moment. Such moments, when one recognizes the potential for love and sharing, can be radically transformative. The world can be made better by understanding the complexity of our place within it.

Posted in Photography, Rhetoric, Words | Leave a comment

Savage Aesthetics

One passage in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) has haunted me since I read it. The protagonist is navigating the Thames river and passes through an old style pound lock and wonders why the centuries old technology is still in use. In this pastoral vision of the future, the answer he’s given is this:

‘You see, guest, this is not an age of inventions. The last epoch did all that for us, and we are now content to use such of its inventions that we find handy, and leaving those alone which we don’t want. I believe, as a matter of fact, that some time ago (I can give you a date) some elaborate machinery was used for the locks, though people did not go so far as to try to make the water run uphill. However, it was troublesome, I suppose, and the simple hatches, and the gates, with a big counterpoising beam, were found to answer every purpose, and were easily mended when wanted with materials always at hand, so here they are, as you see.’

‘Besides, said Dick, ‘this kind of lock is pretty, as you can see; and I can’t help thinking that your machine-lock, winding up like a watch, would have been ugly and would have spoiled the look of the river: and that is surely reason enough for keeping such locks as these. (192, Penguin Classic ed. 1993)

Today, our aesthetic choices might be different. I remember a story not long ago about some of the locks on the Erie Canal still using electrical equipment well over a hundred years old. It looks quite pretty to modern eyes. What makes one technology good and another not worth using? For Morris, it seems, it was a question of looks.

polynesian-face-tattoo-04122013-2

Trying to figure out the clearest take away from Typee (1846), Melville’s narrative about his time among the “savages” of the Marquesa Islands, it’s hard to shake the closing anxiety Melville faced at the prospect of having his face tattooed. This was long before Adolph Loos proclaimed ornament is a crime using tattooing as his benchmark for savagery; indeed, Melville seems to show great admiration of the natives and their technologies (especially food technologies) through the book. But having his face tattooed? That was a bridge too far— he could never return to polite society if he allowed this. His choice to leave centered on aesthetics.

While he lived with the Typee, Melville was frequently in awe of their way of life; in fact, the book represents to me a powerful allegorical (and direct) questioning of the nature and bounds of civilization:

As I extend my wanderings in the valley and grew more familiar with the habits of its inmates, I was fain to confess that, despite the advantages of his condition, the Polynesian savage, surrounded by the luxurious provisions of nature, enjoyed an infinitely happier, though certainly less intellectual existence than the self-complacent European.

The naked wretch who shivers beneath the bleak skies, and starves among the inhospitable wilds of Terra-del-Fuego, might indeed be made happier by civilization, for it would alleviate his physical wants. But the voluptuous Indian, with every desire supplied, whom Providence has bountifully provided with all the sources of pure and natural enjoyment, and from whom so many of the ills and pains of life— what has he to desire at the hands of Civilization? She may “cultivate his mind,”—may “elevate his thoughts,”—these, I believe are the established phrases—but will he be the happier? Let the once smiling and populous Hawaiian islands, with their now diseased, starving, and dying natives, answer that question. (149, Library of America ed.)

The facile answer regarding civilization and technology (as alluded to here) is that technology frequently can better our lot in life by alleviating our pains and wants; if there’s no need of this, then what other benefits does civilization accrue? Not many, when it comes to the islands of Hawaii, as Melville rightly states. The population was decimated, and was still being decimated at the time that he composed this. In the United States, the same thing was happening to the Native Americans, particularly in California. The “voluptuous natives” of the Pacific Coast were among the most devastated by the encroachment of so-called civilization. Those who needed it least, suffered the most at its hands.

This passage is not an isolated reflection, but to be balanced in discussing the book it is not entirely a political diatribe (one of the only books of Melville’s to be censored and  modified for the US audience), but also a titillating exercise in voyeurism, “a peep” at Polynesian life as the title states:

I happened to pop in on Mehevi three or four times when he was romping—in a most undignified manner for a warrior king—with one of the prettiest little witches in the valley. She lived with an old woman and a young man, in a house near Marheyo’s; and though appearance a mere child herself, had a noble boy about a year old, who bore a marvelous resemblance to Mehevi, whom I should certainly have believed to be the father, where it not that the little fellow had no triangle on his face—but on second thoughts, tattooing is not hereditary. Mehevi, however, was not the only person upon whom the damsel Monotony smiled—the young fellow of fifteen, who permanently resided in the house with her, was decidedly in her good graces. I sometimes beheld both him and the chief making love at the same time. (224)

The explanation that Melville unfolds is that this is a polygamous society where women are allowed to take several husbands. Women’s issues frequently surface in the book, particularly taboos for women. They apparently weren’t allowed to ride in canoes, which Tommo (Melville’s alter ego in the book) fights and manages to overturn for his paramour, Faraway. Note however, the little joke about tattoos not being hereditary. Society, though inherited, doesn’t mark us quite that directly.

The sexual overtones of the book tend, in many critical accounts, overshadow several discussions of technology. For example, Melville’s description of his valet Kory Kory’s efforts to start a fire with a spinning stick is frequently summoned:

At first, Kory-Kory goes to work quite leisurely, but gradually quickens his pace, and waxing warm in the employment, drives the stick furiously along the smoking channel, plying his hands to and fro with amazing rapidity, the perspiration starting from every pore. As he approaches the climax of his effort, he pants and gasps for breath, and his eyes almost start from their sockets with the violence of his exertions. This is the critical stage of the operation; all his previous labors are in vain if he cannot sustain the rapidity of the movement until the reluctant spark is produced. Suddenly he stops, becomes perfectly motionless. His hands still retain their hold of the smaller stick, which is pressed convulsively against the further end of the channel among the fine powder there accumulated, as if he had just pierced through and through some little viper that was wriggling and wriggling to escape from his clutches. The next moment a delicate wreath of smoke curls spirally into the air, the heap of dusty particles glows with fire, and Kory-Kory almost breathless dismounts form his steed. (135)

I would to defy anyone to watch, for instance, a Massai tribesman perform this procedure and sexualize it the way that Melville, ever the bawdy sailor, has:

This, I think, is primarily Melville the showman doing his best to earn a living as a writer. The real meat of the scene occurs after the lascivious passage:

What a striking evidence does this operation furnish of the wide difference between the extreme of savage and civilized life. A gentleman of Typee can bring up a numerous family of children and give them all a highly respectable education, with infinitely less toil and anxiety than he expends in the simple process of striking a light; whilst a poor European artisan, who  through the instrumentality of a lucifer, performs the same operation in one second, is put to his wits end to provide for his starving offspring that food which the children of a Polynesian father, without ever troubling their parent, pluck from the branches of every tree around them. (136)

Note the description of Western fire starting as “the instrumentality of a lucifer” rather than a gift from Prometheus, which would apply to both indigenous and Western fire starting. What makes a good technology? A technology that solves our needs, I suspect, would be Melville’s answer. I find it interesting that with the proceeds from Typee, Melville bought a farm of sorts, perhaps so he could pick food from every tree around him.

His cautions against the incursions of imperialism and conversion, particularly conversion:

How little do some of these poor islanders comprehend when they look around them, that no inconsiderable part of their disasters originate in certain tea-party excitements, under the influence of benevolent looking gentlemen in white cravats solicit alms, and old ladies in spectacles, and young ladies in sober russet low gowns, contribute sixpences towards the creation of a fund, the object of which is to ameliorate the spiritual condition of the Polynesians, but whose end has almost invariably been to accomplish their temporal destruction!

Let the savages be civilized, but civilize them with benefits, and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by destroying the heathen. The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent; but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of the Red race. Civilization is gradually sweeping from the earth the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time shrinking the forms of its unhappy worshipers. (230)

Melville’s resistance to the “tea-party excitements” that surrounded polite western society chafed against Melville (see his reaction to Hungarian fund raisers a few years after), but he was not immune to the potential benefits of “civilization” as he knew it, particularly the benefits of technology. Given his later narratives regarding the whale oil trade, I found it interesting the way he painstakingly described the Polynesian technology for lighting the night:

At this supper we were listed by several of the native tapers, held in the hands of young girls. These tapers are most ingeniously made. There is a nut abounding in the valley, called by the Typees “armor,” closely resembling our common horse-chestnut. The shell is broken, and the contents are extracted whole. Any number of these are strung at pleasure upon the long elastic fibre that traverses the branches of the cocoa-nut tree. Some of these tapers are eight to ten feet in length; but being perfectly flexible, one end is held in a coil while the other is lighted. The nut burns with a fitful bluish flame, and the oil that it contains is exhausted in about ten minutes. As one burns down, the next becomes ignited, and the ashes of the former are knocked into a cocoa-nut shell kept for the purpose. This primitive candle requires continual attention, and must be constantly held in the hand. The person so employed marks the lapse of time by the number of nuts consumed, which is easily learned by counting the bits of tap distributed at regular intervals along the string. (244)

Besides providing light, the apparatus, as designed is also a clock. There’s an obsessiveness about his technological descriptions which is fitting what Morris labeled as “the age of invention.”

Melville’s excitement about technology in Typee is closely matched by his interest in food and tattoos. In the next paragraph, he rails against sushi: “Raw fish! shall I ever forget my sensations when I first saw my island beauty devour one?” But, his aesthetic sense was not offended because she didn’t eat “vulgar-looking fishes: oh no; with her beautiful small hand she would clasp a delicate, little, golden-hued love of a fish, and eat it as elegantly as innocently as though it were a Naples biscuit” (245).  If things are pretty, then they are okay. This jibes with Morris’s attitudes towards technology perfectly: only beautiful technologies— or foods— should be celebrated.

There is of course a lot more to say about the book, but I must press on to its sequel Omoo.

Posted in Books, Craft, History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hats off to Hungary

While reading Typee, I found myself marveling at the sheer density of his descriptions of food on the Marquesa islands. It’s a romance of sorts, so I was expecting and not disappointed by the number of interludes with native girls and such; but food? Why so much attention to food?

Melville wrote Typee while living in Troy, New York (coincidentally the point of origin for the character/ caricature “Uncle Sam”) in 1845 and because of its success he made enough money to finance a home across the Hudson near Pittsfield, Massachusetts he named “Arrowhead” in 1850. I found a letter written December 28, 1851 from Mrs. Sarah A. Morewood, his neighbor, that speaks to hungers of various kinds.

I hear that he is now so engaged in a new work as frequently to leave his room till quite dark in the evening when he for the first time in whole day partakes of solid food— he must therefore write under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health

If he frequently starved himself to write, this might explain it somewhat. Or, it might be the memories of a sailor who had spent much time thinking about food while at sea. But the food references don’t end there, as the letter continues:

I laughed at him somewhat and told him that the recluse life he was leading made his city friends think that he was slightly insane—he replied that long ago he came to the same conclusion himself but if he left home to look after Hungary the cause in hunger would suffer

I pondered a moment what he meant by “the cause in hunger” without any really satisfactory conclusions, but the punning is tantalizing, as is Mrs. Morewood’s further observation:

—Mrs. Melville is looking better in health than I have ever yet seen her look— I am strangely and strongly attracted to her and her family now that I know them as well as I do.

Curiously, a book suggesting an affair between Melville and his neighbor has just been published. What interests me more is the reference to Hungary. Hershel Parker, Melville biographer extraordinaire, has a direct explanation for the passage in his appendix to a volume of Melville’s poetry:

Late in 1851, when all good Whigs and Democrats were telling themselves they had set the slavery issue to rest for their generation by the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Law, Americans gave Lajos Kossuth a triumphal tour of the country on behalf of the liberation of Hungary from Austria at a time when the United States should have been confronting its own political crisis, there was an element of hysterical displacement, a feel-good ineffectual celebration which required no national outlay of money and no commitment of American troops.

unnamedkk

Melville would have read in the Literary World of December 6, 1851, the “Lines Addressed by Walter Savage Landor to Kossuth on his departure for America,” an appeal to the north wind Boreas to spare him so that the United States might arm him for a return to his home: “Hungary! no more / Thy saddest loss [Kossuth] deplore; /Look to the star-crowned Genius of the West, /Sole guardian of the oppress. / Oh! that one and only nation dared to save /Kossuth the true and brave!”

Calling this particular passage a “grim pun,” Parker explains it thusly:

His attitude, expressed in a grim pun as he was completing the short version of Pierre, was that if he left home to look after Hungary (that is, to join in the feting of Kossuth) the cause of supporting his family “in hunger would suffer” (.)

800px-kossuth_104th_rsd_jehThis makes as much sense as any other explanation really; though I must say the few pages I scanned from Parker’s two volume biography of Melville contains a great deal of information about Sarah Morewood, which might merit further investigation. Zeroing in on the matter at hand though, Kossuth was revered around the world, including a statue in New York City.

I was intrigued to again find myself face to face with Austro-Hungarian history, as I was before when I was reading a lot about Adolph Loos. Stranger still though, was to find myself enthralled by stories about hats. Apparently, the statue as erected leaves out what Parker feels is the most salient characteristic of Kossuth:

After Kossuth’s departure, Americans, already manifesting a short national memory, turned their attention elsewhere, although for a while people remembered Kossuth whenever they saw an ostrich plume on a man’s hat. The fad he created outlived his cause.

Indeed, there is, as it turns out, a Kossuth hat. A bit of research groups it in a peculiar group of soft felt hats that culminate in the sort of rough-rider hats popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, a popular military headgear in both the U.S. and Australia.

Stephen Beszedits questions the connections between Hungary and the hat though, claiming that the Kossuth hat was the creation of a New York City haberdasher, John N. Genin. He claims that it’s an adaptation of another fad, the Jenny Lind hat, modified with the addition of a feather. However, Kossuth’s revolutionary credibility, and scientific justification, was quickly attached to the headgear, even if they felt the feather was silly.

Buchanan’s Journal of Man a medical journal published in 1851 reported:

The Kossuth Hat.—The Common and Kossuth Hat are thus described in the Scientific American:

“The common silk hats have what are termed felt bodies. These are made of felted wool, are soft and pliable, and allow the gas that passes from the head to escape freely. This is the Kossuth hat. To make it a common silk hat, this felt body is saturated with lac varnish, and a covering of silk plush is ironed on to it, and smoothed to shine like a mirror. This hat, then, the common sober hat, is then hard as sheet iron and quite stiff; it greatly resembles a little pot, and in warm weather it most effectually prevents the evaporation of the pate. It causes headache, makes the hair to decay early in principle: oldish people of a sedate turn, although they would prefer the Kossuth hat, do not like to adopt it just yet, from a prudential fear of becoming conspicuous. This is our feeling exactly upon the subject—we like the black felt ‘Kossuth hat,’ barring the little feather, (that may do well for a military man,) and we hope to see it come into such general use as will warrant us in doffing the hard shelled silk head kettle. There was never more ungraceful head gear than that of the common hat.”

I truly love the image of the conventional hat as a “hard shelled silk head kettle.” It seems no wonder that both the Austrian laden and the Kossuth hat were more attractive to military men who didn’t want to bake their pates. That aside, there is no question that Kossuth had an impact in New York and beyond, with or without his hat. I noted from the Wikipedia page on Lajos Kossuth that there was a street named after him in Utica, NY (about an hour from where I live) so I wanted to figure out why. Looking at a history of Utica from 1900, I found this:

In this year, (1851) the great singer, Jenny Lind, visited Utica and gave a concert in the Bleecker Street Baptist Church.

The following year, Louis Kossuth, the illustrious Hungarian patriot, was received by a committee of citizens (June 1, 1852), and a public meeting was held at the Museum, which stood on Genesee Street between Elizabeth and Bleecker.

There yet remain in Utica a few of the notes, “good for one dollar each, if presented one year after the attainment of Independence by Hungary,” mementos of the patriot fund raised during this American visit.

The location in Utica now looks like this, according to Google:

untitled

I’ve driven through here many times. The historian, writing in 1900, is not nearly so dismissive of the Hungarian patriot as Parker, Melville’s biographer. Parker claims that that Kossuth was soon forgotten, as the poets moved on to consider the problems of the unification of Italy. Hungary, like the Greek battle for independence that so obsessed Byron, faded from the cultural consciousness.

In the shower this morning, I suddenly thought to myself that the flood of Italian immigrants to America would have been just a bit after this; I wondered about the lyric in Yankee Doodle about “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” might have been somehow related. I was wrong, as Wikipedia points out that a Macaroni is a completely different sort of head gear from a much earlier time.

philip_dawe_the_macaroni-_a_real_character_at_the_late_masquerade_1773

Posted in Books, History, Words | Leave a comment

Stan

28906339014_fd25b9065b_oI went to Kinney Drugs yesterday to get my biannual supply of Williams shaving soap, and as usual, everyone rushed the front and there was a line. The cashier called for help, and I stood about third in line behind an old man with a shopping cart. I didn’t look too hard at what was in the cart, but I noticed the man’s cap. It was covered in embrodiery and patches, proclaiming him as a Navy veteran of two wars, WWII and Korea. I suspect there aren’t that many of those left.

As the second cashier went to work and all those behind me rushed to her, the vet offered to let me go ahead of him. I said, “that’s okay I’m in no hurry” (I never am, these days).

“Where did you find those!” he said, pointing at the three packages of shaving soap in my hand. I misheard the question, and though he was commenting on my somewhat unusual choice and rambled off something about the fact that my father used to use it… He stopped me and said, “no, where in the store do I find those?”

I had taken the entire stock of the drugstore, so I quickly offered him one of boxes I was holding. He said that he used it all the time, and he was heading off to Florida and knew he’d have trouble finding it there, which is true. Not many drug stores stock it these days. The cashier got to him, and rang up his items, which came to six dollars or so, and he quickly paid with a credit card. I noticed that he was wearing hearing aids in both ears, but it was me who misheard him rather than the other way around.

He was just about to leave the line when the cashier pointed to the cart, and he said, “oh, I almost forgot” handing over a few bags of empty plastic bottles for recycling. She painstakingly tallied them up, and he commented that it would be nice if the drugstore had a redemption machine so the line wouldn’t get tied up, ever apologetic for taking too much time.

In fact, he started to walk away as the cashier exclaimed, “Stan, don’t forget your money!”

He said “Just put it in there” gesturing at the charity collection box on the counter. Looking at one of the women who had just finished up in the other line, Stan said “Wait a second, I want to talk to you.” It dawned on me that Stan was a part of the fabric of this drug store, everyone knew him but me it seemed. It choked me up to think that a life filled with service is long, and worthwhile.

During my trip to Maine earlier in the summer, I suddenly started to understand the difference between the Mid-Atlantic states and New England. New England is the land of voyagers, people who travel and yet always seem to return home. I started to think of generations that have gone to sea, and returned to the hard scrabble bits of land. Running into the Navy man here was a bit unusual; in New England, it’s the historical norm.

I’ve often lamented that New York is filled with provincial people who seldom look further than their neighborhood, let alone saw much reason to leave it. New England just isn’t like that; people leave, but unlike the Midwestern streams of migration, they don’t stay where they travel. They try, desperately sometimes, to get back.

I began to understand Jack Kerouac returning to Lowell to drink himself to death better, and the popularity of seafaring narratives. That’s when I decided that this year I was going to try to read Melville again. I’ve made it through Typee with great enjoyment, and stopped to read a biography, a couple of doctoral dissertations and a handful of articles before pressing on to Omoo.

I still don’t have great affection for the whale, but I’m beginning to at least understand the voyager spirit.

 

Posted in Books, History, Words | Leave a comment

Fish Stories

29805711892_e83833cabe_kI must confess that I’ve not been able to read Moby Dick in the decades since I first started trying. I make it part way, and then just sink to the bottom of the endless whaling descriptions. Jim Levernier, a member of my Master’s committee and incredibly generous professor of American Literature, swore that I would really love it. I’ve been trying every since.

This week, though, I managed to finish Typee— Melville’s first book, and his only best-seller. In sort of celebration at this triumph, and of fall in general, we drove north to Clayton, New York to visit the Antique Boat Museum, where I landed the shot of the fiberglass fish model in the bottom of a canoe. I’d like to dig into some thoughts on that book, which isn’t really a novel, and isn’t really an autobiography although it is billed as the latter and usually taken as the former. It’s an embellished and researched recollection of his time in the Marquesa islands in the South Pacific. While in Clayton, I overhead a different sort of fish story that I’d like to relate here, a recollection if you will.

After visiting the boat museum, we were strolling down the main drag and ducking into a few shops. There was one with assorted dishes and crockery that looked interesting. The featured exhibit was a huge collection of blue ceramic dishes in celebration of America’s bicentennial. It won’t be long until those are antiques. A talkative woman behind the counter was spinning a yarn to a couple at the counter completing a purchase, and I paused to examine an 8″ earth tone stoneware casserole that was quite attractive. As I looked it over, I heard a story.

She was calling the roll of several long-time families and residents of the Clayton area, looking for a glint of recognition from the customers, and chanced to mention her cottage in Bermuda where she winters. “Not just everyone can own property in Bermuda, you know. It’s an interesting story how we came to own it, you know.”

Her husband, a Clayton boy, dropped out of high school because he had no interest in education and knew what he wanted to be— a fisherman. He connected up with a family friend who fished out of Pompano Beach, Florida, and started to work down there right away. He fished off the coast of Bermuda a lot, so they’d often go ashore there. He came to find out that there was a parcel of land available near his favorite watering hole, so after much wrangling and red-tape he finally got it cleared through the government to allow him to purchase the land, where over successive seasons he built a cabin. They’ve had it to this day.

The casserole, like my memory of the story, was filled with hairline cracks. I’m afraid that though it was affordably priced, would not have been serviceable, and would best be left as a show piece. The shop had some fine crocks, which though they might be nice to have for future use, we had no immediate need. Krista informed me that they were priced as collectors pieces, and we could do better. So we went next door to our primary destination, River Rat Cheese.

29804122492_a288b8fd72_k

We returned to the car, parked in front of an auto parts store,  with our bounty and drove away. Just before we got on the freeway, we passed a distillery where I had to make a final still life of our little road trip. I remember fondly the day that Jim Levernier regaled our class with the story of the memorial Hannah Duston Jim Beam bottle. There’s nothing quite as all-american as liquor and tall tales.

29625683090_f6609a9e5a_o

Krista told me after we got home that there were fish traps in the back of the store which I hadn’t noticed. Aren’t there always?

Posted in Sights, Words | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Last Resort

The Last Resort

Arvin, California circa 1994.

A common subject for the “Songs from the Valley Towns” photographs was bars, both active and abandoned. The bar exteriors were frequently poetic, and I fondly remember the Last Resort, on the outskirts of Arvin, California on Bear Mountain Boulevard.

I’m not sure exactly where it was, but as I recall it was on the far side of town as the highway headed into the mountains. It’s gone now, I’m sure. I looked around on google maps and located similar buildings in the area, but nothing quite the same as “The Last Resort.”

Bear Mountain Blvd 1

Love the happy face in the lefthand window.

The view, btw., just on the other side of this building, pretty much looks like this:

Bear Mountain Blvd 2

Bear mountain lies directly down the road, as is fitting.

That view, which I didn’t record on that day, is the reason why I remember the approximate location so vividly.

Nonetheless, many of the bar exteriors I took in those years are hard to locate in memory. The Central Valley is full of them. For example, I have no idea where the El Cha Cha Cha bar was. Best guess is McFarland or Delano, but I can’t really be sure. I do remember a second version of this photo with a woman crossing the front of this bar which is better, but I haven’t been able to locate it.

El Cha Cha Cha Bar

However, after writing about King Lumber Company and doing the research, I located the Estrella bar: it was just down the street from there on 166 W. Perkins street in McFarland (the address is above the door).

Estrella Bar

Flanking the door, the Estrella bar proudly proclaims “live music” and identifies itself as a dance hall. No doubt there were countless Saturday nights passed by people who had worked the fields all week. The location looks a bit different these days, according to Google street view, but the “pole” motif is still in evidence.

166 W. Perkins

That’s the curious thing about the fog of progress; sometimes you can see for miles and still not know what you’re looking at. All the lost dreams, all of the songs, disappearing along with the world that used to be. We depend on an increasing array of memory devices, like photographs and stories, which we summon as a last resort, like maypoles to wrap our dreams around.

Postscript:

I suddenly remembered that I could look for signs of a street address on the Last Resort photo. Bingo! My memory was within a block of the original location, which is now a Chinese restaurant.

120 Bear Mountain Blvd.

120 Bear Mountain Blvd.

And, locating the negative strip I can now say that the El Cha Cha Cha bar was also in McFarland. The sequence of photographs, King Lumber, Estrella Bar, El Cha Cha Cha, etc. was taken in March 1993.

Posted in History, Photography, Sights | Leave a comment

The Fog of Progress

January 17, 1982

Selfie in a library parking lot, Southwest Bakersfield, 1982

Bakersfield is famous for its tule fog. It’s literally a low flying cloud that just can’t escape the ground. Lots of people die in automobile accidents during the fog season, but growing up there, I loved it. Fog days!

Fog is a powerful metaphor, and random google searching brought a short summary lecture on YouTube to my attention. The fog of progress, a final lecture in an online class on machine learning and neural networks, describes why it is so difficult to predict the future in quite meticulous and scientific terms.

It occurs to me, though, that it’s just as difficult to see through the fog of progress to understand the past.

Looking through some more of the “Songs from the Valley Towns” photographs, I started scratching my head trying to figure out where I took a particular photograph. It isn’t one of my favorites from the series, but I distinctly remember trying to make it work (visually) but thinking of it as a failure. Intellectually though, it’s a new favorite.

King Lumber Company

King Lumber Company, McFarland, CA March 1993

The project I undertook in the early 90s to photograph odd bits of landscape in the Central Valley was inspired by a musician friend, Scott Sturdevant (a.k.a Slim the Drifter) who recorded a cassette called “Songs from the Valley Towns.” Most people thought of the valley disparagingly (as far back as 1873, it turns out), but when Scott looked around he saw the hopes and dreams of the people who lived there. I saw those same hopes and dreams in the landscape. When dreams are in ruins, it’s hard to see them through the fog. There are a lot of ruins along Highway 99.

This photograph was one of the first I can identify from the series. I drove up Highway 99 from Bakersfield to the first real exit worth getting off at, which might have been McFarland— yes, the same McFarland immortalized by Kevin Costner in the 2015 track movie. I remembered vaguely, revisiting this one, that it was King Lumber Company (hard to forget, given the “crown” cut in the sign.) Nothing much remained but the “Co.” One of the great innovations, in my opinion, of photography in the 21st century is GPS data. It’s hard to remember where you actually took photographs as the fog of years rolls in.

King Lumber was a big clue, it turns out. Looking further into it turned up this photo from Bakersfield, captioned as being a location on Union Avenue (old Highway 99, actually) from 1911:

c45f637ba573b371bf77b43b9a98dd96A bit more research turned up that King Lumber was founded by twin brothers Everett and Elmore King, circa 1904.

Elmore-King The California Lumber Merchant from April 1, 1923 tells a story of Elmore King slipping out of a posh dinner to exchange clothes with the chef, in order to confront his host and demand payment up front for dinner.

His lumber empire grew to be huge. He founded a brick company as well, and I found notices that he became an importer of straw hats, clearly a great opportunity given the Bakersfield sun.

The trade publications also noted that he loved to play golf, and there are multiple references to his performance as a golfer. He expanded King Lumber to at least five different locations up and down the valley.

I located the address of the McFarland location from an old ad from 1961. This is what it looks like now, courtesy of Google street view:

KIng Lumber McFarland

The telephone poles are still there, and Highway 99, but not much else. King was the founder of a huge empire that is now largely gone. One thing seems to have survived from the King empire, at least in spirit. Although it’s a different organization from the Kern River Country Club King helped found (which died in 1935) The Bakersfield Country Club is located on the same spot.

Bakersfield Country Club is the area’s most exclusive golf club offering a limited number of full equity memberships and non-equity tennis and social memberships. It has a friendly tradition that started with its founding members. These were families with great pride and values born out of the farmlands and oil fields surrounding Bakersfield. These same values and friendliness have survived into second and third generation memberships since the inception of Bakersfield Country Club. There are many golf, tennis, and social events that keep the calendar busy year round.

I visited the Bakersfield Country Club once around the time that the photograph at the top of this post was taken, somewhere between 1980-82. The club is located near the Kern River, next to Lake Ming in a fairly deep valley, traversed by Alfred Harrell Highway. In the early years, the highway lead right to the golf course that the King brothers were instrumental in founding. Elmore King contributed redwood saplings from Eureka to the project. But when I was there, the highway ran from the bluffs on Panorama Heights to Highway 178, the Kern Canyon Highway. Notably, the county dump sat midway between, with oil fields on the other side of the river to the north, where my father worked until he retired in late 1982.

I wasn’t a member of the country club, but the lumber and hardware store where I worked, Sackett and Peters, threw a Christmas party there. I remember that party well, because it was the first and last time they ever booked the country club in the fog season. Down in the river basin, the fog was about a hundred times worse than it was in the city. By the time we stumbled out of the party around 2am, the fog was so thick that you couldn’t, without exaggeration, see the end of your own car from the driver’s seat.

Most people gave up and slept in the parking lot. However, my girlfriend Lisa and I braved it, along with Jim Powell, a nursery salesman and good friend of mine. Lisa and I were in my old Ford, and Jim had a small pick-up truck. It seemed like it took around an hour to locate the exit to the parking lot. I was reduced to driving with my door open, following the curb around the perimeter. Jim followed my tail lights, because my car was lower to the ground and it was easier to see the curb. When we got out of the parking lot (the toughest challenge of the night) the road up to Alfred Harrell Highway was easier; as you got higher, the visibility improved slightly.

Jim and I parted ways at the highway. I remember trying to convince him not to go his normal route back to his house in Panorama Heights (because the road dipped down lower from there), but he decided to brave it anyway. I turned left, toward the relative safety of the mountains. Jim headed towards the dump. I knew those roads like the back of my hand and felt like even if I couldn’t see, I could still drive them, and I’m sure Jim felt that same confidence of youth. Lisa and I made it home fine, as did Jim.

It dawned on me, as I went through the trouble of remembering this foggy story, and using arcane resources to locate addresses lost decades ago, that “the fog of progress” works both ways. While we are in constant danger, moving forward, of hitting the car that rides just ahead of us, we also flirt with the problem of running into the cars we used to be in, colliding with the past just as surely as we might crash into the future. After all, today is yesterday.

Oddly enough, this also implies the rota fortune, a distinctly medieval, rather than progressive, concept.

Posted in History, Photography | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mom’s Motel

From the series "Songs from the Valley Towns," circa 1994

From the series “Songs from the Valley Towns,” circa 1994

Scanning some photographs I took in the mid 1990s, I located an interesting detail. There’s a B-17 parked near the edge of my photo. In twenty years, I never noticed that before. I might have, when I took it, but I’ve slept since then.

Mom's Motel (detail)

What always intrigued me more was the name of the hotel, adjacent to Highway 99 in the Central Valley of California. We’ve all stayed at mom’s motel, haven’t we? Growing up in the Valley, I spent a lot of time driving around, and quite to this day I feel that the highway is my home. It’s the landscape I know, and in most ways, my favorite book. There’s always something interesting to read.

2008

2008

Before I could drive, I used to ride my bicycle down to Milt’s Coffee shop, just across Highway 99 from Oildale, California to sit and read.  One of the books I distinctly remember reading there was On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Milt’s seemed like the natural place to read it; the view was perfect.

 

Milt's Coffee ShopThis was always my landscape— weeds and freeways. It’s been a strange transition, to go from this to the mid-south, to the upper midwest, and finally to the east. I’m going to visit Maine next week, for the first time. It’s a long way from Oildale. I’ve never understood why others weren’t as fascinated as me by the man-altered landscape. I never found it ugly at all.

I feel as if I’ve really discovered a kindred spirit in J.B. Jackson. His obituary in the New York Times spells it out succinctly. I look forward to reading the next chapter out there on the highway.

Whenever we go, whatever the nature of our work, we adorn the face of the earth with a living design which changes and is eventually replaced by that of a future generation. How can one tire of looking at this variety, or of marveling at the forces within man and nature that brought it about?

The city is an essential part of this shifting and growing design, but only a part of it. Beyond the last street light, out where the familiar asphalt ends, a whole country waits to be discovered: villages, farmsteads and highways, half-hidden valleys of irrigated gardens, and wide landscapes reaching to the horizon. A rich and beautiful book is always open before us. We have but to learn to read it.

John Brinkerhoff Jackson, “The Need to be Versed in Country Things,” Landscape , Vol. 1 No. 1. Spring 1951

I’ll never forget opening up Ed Ruscha’s books when I started college: Twenty-six Gasoline Stations, Thirty-four Parking Lots, and especially Every Building on the Sunset Strip. BC actually had a copy, thanks to Harry Wilson.

These books taught me to pay attention to something besides pornography. Landscape porn, in particular, has overshadowed the way most people look at the world and I find it awfully sad. This was the primary lesson I learned as a young adult, staying at mom’s motel.

Posted in Books, History, Photography | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Knowledge and Power

And underneath the flutter leaf
The reams of dreams array
Melting into make-believe
I hear you gently say
Oh please let our people say
Just how hard they want to play
For you know very well Judas is betraying them tomorrow

I’ve been thinking about the imagery in this tune for a while. It was a work in progress when this was recorded, and in his lyric book, The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper omits several of the lines, including “melting into make-believe.” There is a line that he added that explicates the image more deeply, “I hear our likeness say.”

“Flutter leaf” is either a metaphor, or an English variant of fly leaf (the blank page that begins a printed book). In The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper doesn’t comment on the lyric much but does illustrate it with pictures of protest marches, and given the timing of the song it’s easy to see it as a celebration of the great “hippie” awakening in the late 1960s. The way I read these lines, it’s as if “today” is a book which begs to be read optimistically, and “our likeness” (the representation of our world as it is, as in hippie solidarity and the power of people) invites us to dream of a better world, as futile as that might be.

The literature of power, to use Thomas DeQuincey’s term, is powerful in that it invites us to dream of things beyond ourselves; it is polysemous, filled with multiple meanings that invite us to play with them. The working title of the song, “The Garden of Gethsemane” is taken from the site where Jesus rested before he was crucified, a place where 900 year old olive trees are said to grow. Cultural traditions, religious and otherwise, exert a sort of gravitational pull.

The gravity of these literary images is refracted by the other reading that I’ve been doing. As DeQuincey puts it,  “No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.” Or, better still, I keep viewing them through  a Claude glass. There was a series of blog posts initiated by Joshua Klein, on “Real  Craft.” It’s not an academic discussion, and academic precision and pedantry is anathema to most craft workers. Interestingly, Peter Follansbee took great exception to a minor point of definition:

He “state(s) the obvious: craft implies tradition.” His words, his emphasis. I don’t necessarily understand why or how that’s obvious. Nor do I think it’s true. To me, craft/crafted means made by someone – the action of someone making things. Pretty broad definition.

Klein says that “craft implies tradition.” If he were writing academically, would have said “craft connotes tradition.” It’s in the cultural baggage that attaches itself to the term, a baggage that Follansbee wants to distance himself from, as he continues:

“Traditional” is one of those terms that means one thing to one person, something else to another. I make 17th-century style furniture, using only hand tools – but some of mine are now/have always been, more modern versions of period tools. I know I have used the term “traditional” before, I might still. But I’m nowadays pretty careful with the use of words like that – because of their shifting and varying meanings. Or perceived meanings.

Commenters (perhaps of an academic bent) suggested that using the term techne might be better than “craft” to resolve things more finely; I’ve written on that extensively over the years, and in a nutshell it means an ability to make with an awareness of the thing being made. That’s only slightly more specific than what Follansbee suggests, leaving room for interpretation but transferring craft from verb to noun; craft is, I think, more than just an action. But that’s just a substitution of a specific word for a general one, it doesn’t address the relationship between craft (as a knowledge) with tradition.

I think that Klein was not nearly so off base as Follansbee suggests; it’s polysemy at work. But, his point is an interesting one and a point echoed numerous times by Roy Underhill. In essence, he wants to be thought of as a woodworker of today, not yesterday. However, I think it’s inescapable—today is yesterday, as Roy Harper so succinctly puts it.

For some people, “tradition” connotes stability, strength, and connection with heritage. For others, it connotes rigidity, inflexibility, and slavery to an idyllic conception of the past. Choosing words carefully matters, because when you invite people to dream you don’t want them to have nightmares. But the oscillation between two different sets of connotations can be simultaneously true and false. It’s a paradox, and a productive one; in a sense, it’s the power, or “wind” that fills our sails, as DeQuincey would have it, demonstrative of words (literature) to move us to deeper understanding.

The literature of knowledge is different. To “know” things rather than drawing strength and inspiration from them means having a precise understanding of what the words you’re using mean. DeQuincey’s benchmark for that is the encyclopedia. Not fun to read, but useful. Much of craft literature falls in that category, but as DeQuincey also notes, there is a hybrid literature that qualifies as both.

It isn’t pedantic to consider definitons. Even when we’re not composing dense academic treatises, it isn’t counterproductive to insist that words denote things. Their likeness (which shifts across time) says volumes about what matters to us, but their metaphors, the riddles of connotation, gives us the space to play until our definitions collapse, replaced by new and improved ones.

I have no interest in defining “real craft,” because it suggests a false dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic craft. However, I am interested in paging through the book of craft both seeking precise meanings and spaces where the reams of dreams melt into make believe. Continuing Harper’s biblical motif, I’m also drawn to DeQuincey’s reference to a prayer box in summarizing the literature of knowledge:

The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An encyclopedia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol — that before one generation has passed an encyclopedia is superannuated; for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the repose of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries.

Devout Jews literally bind their tradition to their bodies, but for everyone, response to tradition is inevitable. This entire exercise, I suppose, is best summarized by the central paradox: Today is yesterday.

Posted in Books, Craft, History, Words | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

From Thomas Jefferson to Henry Knox, 1 June 1795

Have you become a farmer? Is it not pleasanter than to be shut up within 4. walls and delving eternally with the pen? I am become the most ardent farmer in the state. I live on my horse from morning to night almost. Intervals are filled up with attentions to a nailery I carry on. I rarely look into a book, and more rarely take up a pen. I have proscribed newspapers, not taking a single one, nor scarcely ever looking into one. My next reformation will be to allow neither pen, ink, nor paper to be kept on the farm. When I have accomplished this I shall be in a fair way of indemnifying myself for the drudgery in which I have passed my life. If you are half as much delighted with the farm as I am, you bless your stars at your riddance from public cares.

Thomas Jefferson

Posted in History, Words | Leave a comment