Monthly Archives: June 2012

The S-sence of Art

Grass is grass. It’s green, it grows. You mow it or you don’t. That’s it. Marketers of the stuff try to commoditize it by enticing the homeowner/snob with exotically named boutique-y brands that come with promises of sexy lushness bound to defy nature and impress neighbors with your apparent richness. Still, though, and frankly – just lawn.

For 26 years we, cement-locked city dwellers that we are, have not felt the lawn lure of grass envy because, quite simply, we do not have land around us on which to grow it, even if we wanted to, which we didn’t, and don’t. Now, however, aging life-affirming-peace-seekers that we are, we have a second (soon to be only) place in a more rural, less congested, quiet and humane spot – complete with three-fourths of an acre of grass. It’s green, most of it, and, boy, does it grow. And about that mowing part …

We can’t free ourselves to make the hours-long drive to get up there more than every 2-3 weeks, and so, during that time, the grass’ reach exceeds our grasp. It’s amazing how quickly the stuff goes from kempt to crazy. In a rural setting, there might not be much to do except watch the grass grow, but, where our house is, it’s like viewing an action-adventure film, or sci-fi. And we simply can’t afford hiring someone to keep the grass mowed on a regular basis; besides, being the kind of folks who have lawn-care workers is just not us. Having, for the moment, two houses seems enough to cement our bourgeois-pig credentials – having groundskeeping help would put us over the top, or, perhaps, below the bottom.

Besides, we just don’t think that, other than for societal acceptance, lawns need to be manicured. Most of the other property owners on the same side of the mountain that we are have well-tended, rolling carpets of green. Seems dumb to us, which is why, over time, we’ll replace most of the grass with no-maintenance ground cover. Until then, we’ll tackle the job of controlling nature in the most natural way we can, short of accumulating a flock of grazing livestock. We will continue to mow some of it, but with old reel mowers – no motor, no fumes, just muscle power and the pleasant clip-click of the blades. Like walking instead of driving, pushing one of these old mowers gives the place a placeness – it’s not a flyover … you see the land, you notice things, you can hear your own heart over the rickety clatter of the basic machine. There is an artfulness in the act, full of memory and history, a kind of elegiac experience. It is almost like walking with a divining rod, one that will dip when it finds that frequency where you and machine and Earth all hum as one. It’s physical, it’s tiring, it takes a lot longer to do the task than if you used a power mower, but it’s worth it to feel the connection that comes up from the land, through the machine, into your arms, up through you to the sun, and it lulls you into a contented complacency. 

We have decided, too, to give over a big swath of the land to meadow, just letting the grass and clover and weeds (which is the natural world’s answer to the computer world’s “undocumented feature”) and wildflowers and whatever do their thing. Some of it is practical and self-centered: the more meadow, the less work for us. Elegiac is one thing, keeling over heart- and heat-stricken is another. But here, too, art can find its place. Where mowed grass meets Zoysia gone wild, we have shaped the border into a lazy S-curve that flows down a hill to the edge of a stout hemlock. With that simple imposition, art is made – there is visual interest, certainly, but beyond that is the creation of something not found in nature, something clearly asserted onto the land by a human hand, which is self-conscious and artificial, and yet resonant and imitative, all of it grass but establishing a diversity of likes, a debate of material and intent and choice. All from just a simple swerve. Arslocii can be like that, and often should. And to return at the end of the day to the tool shed, with the lawn mower clopping behind, shooting off sparks of cut blades, and to look back and see that place where nature ended and you intervened, but not too drastically, respectfully but artfully, is like scratching a masterpiece in the sand, knowing that the tide will come in and erase your lines, but also knowing that you’ll be back to create your simple, impermanent but imperative art again.

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Desert Solitaire: A Lone Ranger

We have said that placeness can be in the eye of the beholder. One such beholder, a certain Edward Abbey, wrote a book in 1968 called Desert Solitaire. His observations about time spent alone in the desert, specifically Arches National Monument (now Park), are keen and true – and often express our concept of arslocii. Up front, in the introduction, he worries that the book might be perceived as being based on appearances and surfaces rather than “to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships … the true underlying reality of existence.”

First of all, an amazing time the late ’60s was – when people actually thought about such things as reality. Apparently, a lost notion. And, then, to be concerned that critics might think that he wasn’t providing dialogue about it, let alone answers. Wow. But, he as writer is a great combination of scientific observer and poetic interpreter. The 33,000 acres of Moab valley, canyon and tableland, with the deep gash of the Colorado River, which he tends as a park ranger, are described in achingly beautiful detail, sometimes to the point of madness. And he is protective and angry about its impending loss for human use. But he states, simply, that he is there “to confront … the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us … in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.”

Abbey illustrates so well in this book that the combination of human observation – not intervention – and wilderness together make a perfect pairing. Voyeur and performer, interpreter and constant changer, lover and indifferent object of that love. Arslocii. One of his stated goals is to lose the filters, the human translation of the place – although he certainly describes and reacts to what’s around him – but he simply wants to “be,” just like nature itself. He can’t help his human emotions and his metaphors and similes, and because of that he makes it real for us. He creates that placeness for us in his words. We can’t see it through his eyes but we can hear it in his voice. Nature’s indifference feeds the flames of his human passion.

Aside from rants about nearly every facet of human endeavor (and I cannot disagree), Abbey is a prophet in his wild world. And he is the perfect counterpart to the wilderness. His writing is eloquent, his mind is facile, his sources of knowledge are varied and vast. He has depth and humor and seems to be without fear. As powerful as his detailed sightings of landscape, flora and fauna are, as deep as his respect and love of nature are, he is a man who treasures the gifts of individual humans in the context of civilization

precious and fragile, drawn through history by the finest threads of art and idea. … It is the conscious forefront of evolution, the brotherhood of great souls and the comradeship of intellect, a corpus mysticum … a democratic aristocracy based not on power or institutions but on isolated men – Lao-Tse, Chuang-Tse, Gautama, Diogenes, Euripides, Socrates, Jesus, Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, Paine and Jefferson, Blake and Burns and Beethoven, John Brown and Henry Thoreau, Whitman, Tolstoy, Emerson, Mark Twain, Rabelais and Villon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Spartacus, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, Lucretius and Pope John XXIII, and ten thousand other poets, revolutionaries and independent spirits, both famous and forgotten, alive and dead, whose heroism gives to human life on earth its adventure, glory and significance.

He goes on: “The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.” His thoughts and the rich tapestry of his surroundings, a harsh environment to be sure, are the ideal and the real, brought together in this remarkable diary. Placeness.

Desert Solitaire is as full of extremes and paradoxes as nature is, written by a human who is at once a misanthrope and a mystic. In the forty-four years since its writing, Abbey has proven himself to be right as well as righteous.

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Ray of Hope

Of all the many deservedly laudatory obituaries for writer Ray Bradbury, who died last week at age 91, few if any really “got” what it is he did, and did better than any of his contemporaries, among whom there were no equals.

Most of the tributes took their cue from the one from the Associated Press, which began: “Ray Bradbury anticipated iPods, interactive television, electronic surveillance and live, sensational news media events, including televised police pursuits — and not necessarily as good things.” All true, but incomplete, and missing the point. Bradbury was only tangentially a futurist – indeed, as a Slate blog entry wondered, “Did Ray Bradbury Even Write Science Fiction? If Not, What Was It?” Unlike, say, Arthur C. Clarke, or even the Aldous Huxley of “Brave New World,” who invented futures for either scientific, sociopolitical or social-commentary purposes, tomorrow for Bradbury was only a convenient construct to talk about the past and present, and a way to get his stories printed in (and to make some needed money from) the sci-fi pulp magazines. But he was never really a “time” guy.

Character interested him more. The science-fiction world was not rich with characters beyond the 2-D, simply motivated figures needed to push the plot along, plot was king. Many of Bradbury’s characters were more rounded, more interior, more humanly motivated than what you found in other pulp stories, in which heroes and monsters operated on the principle that action is character, that what a person did was the key to understanding what he was. But, while he was among the best in writing character-driven genre fiction, Bradbury was not primarily a “character” guy.

What Ray Bradbury wrote about better than any other sci-fi or fantasy writer, and as well as any kind of writer, was place. In most sci-fi, place was just a backdrop: a rocket ship, an asteroid, a Swiftian society – simply a spot for the plot-motivator to act and react in. But, for Bradbury, place was central. Montag might be memorable in “Fahrenheit 451,” and the writer’s alter ego, Douglas Spaulding, is indelible as the wide-eyed innocent in so many ruminations and spins, but it is the creation and re-creation of the worlds, the towns, the rooms that they moved in that are the height of the lasting art of Ray Bradbury. The dusty, crumbling ghost-town that was once the home of a great civilization and is now the repository of its wraiths and predators in “The Martian Chronicles.” The dark carnival and firefly-illuminated summer nights of sinister giddiness of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” The holographic living room with real fangs in “The Veldt.” Even the crawly, animated, narrative and doom-prophesying skin of “The Illustrated Man.” Ray Bradbury made places come alive on paper, and put people in them who belonged there, and the combination drew us to them and made us belong there, too. He spun loci of placeness, which we empathetically recognized as something, someplace that lived inside us. They were not outer worlds, but inner, built with materials of the past.

And of all the places that, for me, are linked to Ray Bradbury is one, a special one, mine alone: a table in the restaurant of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, in 1972, where Ray Bradbury generously, amazingly, took two hours out of his life to sit across from me, stake me to a burger, and talk to and encourage this young and eager writer who was in awe of the man he was still stunned to be dining with. I am not sure that I can remember a word of that meeting, but it was as influential as any I have ever experienced. I always wanted to be a writer; he made me pursue it, for he saw being a writer as a mission, a privilege, the best thing that one could do with his life. For his personal kindness, for his exemplary work, for the dreams he spun widely and individually, the place I will always associate with Ray Bradbury is my heart.

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Where and When

So much of the arslocii experience – the feel of placeness commingled with the mindfulness of art, held together, often, with a tissue-thin wrapping of empathy – has to do not only with presence but also the present. The perception of art and the strength of its impact has, as a key element, to do with time – the time of day you see it, the length of time you’re with it, the time in your life you perceive it.

There are some loci of placeness that affect you no matter the time variable: morning, night, spring or winter, at a youthful age or in later years, these places just have that ineffable “it,” a charisma, a baraka, making us feel as if we are being reunited with an entity from which we were separated at birth. A memory, recalled. But, for most other place experiences, time is a defining factor.

I am not one, American though I am, who thinks that sports is art, or an art; in many American minds, games and athletes seem to have supplanted art as a high, or even highest, form of human attainment. But I am certainly aware that, from art’s very beginnings, the athlete in the midst of some physical endeavor has been a subject-matter honorific staple, from the kinetic grace of the discus thrower to, God help us, Leroy Neiman’s drippy-gloppy Playboy-era renderings. Yet, every year for the past two-and-a-half decades of my life, I have found myself drawn to a sporting event that passes  by not far from where I live, and in it I have found something artistic, and even something arslocii.

It is a bicycle race that runs for more than 120 miles, circling through the city, and, in its looping course, coming multiple times up a ridiculously steep hill, nearby, that tests the strength, agility, ability and smarts of the participants. They call the spot “The Wall,” and when you hit it, you really hit it.

It has become something of a tradition with us: We get up somewhat early; the race begins at 9 a.m. about 7 miles away. Sometime between 9:15 and 9:30, the racers have made their way to our area, to attempt their first ascent. We know, attuned as we are now, when to start out and how long it takes to walk the two blocks from our house to what has become our favorite viewing spot along The Wall, so that we can see the cyclists, already miles into what will be a grueling day, struggle up the hill. That time of morning, even on what will inevitably become a drainingly hot June day, it is still crisp, even a little dewy. The sun hasn’t yet awakened and realized that its job is to help the vendors of high-priced cool liquids. The crowds – and this race, and especially this particular part of the course, attracts perhaps thousands – haven’t yet arrived. The cordoned-off street is sparsely populated with aficionados, or, like us, traditionalists, and neighbors. Good vantage points along the barriers separating viewers from participants are easily had; in an hour or two they will be filled, three deep in spots. You can almost, at this moment, taste the anticipation, smell the potential energy. We few, we happy few, we still half-asleep few, stand by the barricades, look down the hill, and know that something wicked-good this way comes.

And then, it’s here: First, the sirens and horns, and the police motorcycle escort rumbles by in perfect formation. Then, cars with race officials, and media, and friends of the sponsors, roar by, honking and blinking their lights, trying to convince us that they, too, are in the race and not just gladhanders. We viewers move even closer to the metal grating of the portable barriers, and we grip the top rail of them, and lean out over them, to get the first glimpse.

And here they come: At first, just a row, then a group, then a phalanx, and then a sea – of multi-colored team uniforms and helmets, from a distance a strange oceanic wave rocking back and forth in rhythmic fashion, drifting closer. And then, they are at our side, this peloton, these athletes, already laboring to make it up the hill, of which there is much more to go from where we stand. The cyclists’ faces are grim, determined; their arms, taut on the handlebars of their aerodynamically austere bikes; their calves bulging, already on the edge of cramp. Dozens, a hundred, swoosh by, and we greet them and celebrate them with cheers, and whoops of encouragement, and the clanging of cowbells, a welling up of not only human kindness or sports fandom but an empathetic desire to give them our strength, a gift that will help propel them up the hill and send them on their way more easily. For a moment, we give them us – an odd symbiosis. The cyclists are not artists, and what they do is not art-making, but there is art in the color and kineticism, and in the relationship between us and them. Not Art with a capital A, but art that rhymes with heart. 

And then they are past and gone, except for a few stragglers, whom we give our loudest cheers and deepest support, to urge them to keep going, keep at it, catch up with the pack, go for the gold – and, once they’ve struggled past, in the residual roiled quiet we make our separate ways home, as if from a dream, or to return to one. The race will go on, most of it without us. But we had that moment. Alone, individual, we shared it.

Or, that is, we used to. This year, the real world encroached, and financial considerations caused the race organizers to pare down the event, cutting the 14-plus mile circuit from 10 loops to seven. And the way they decided to cut was from the top – that is, the race started at 10:45 a.m. Which meant that the first assault on the hill didn’t arrive at our location until about 11 a.m.

The later time changes the way we see it; it feels different on our skin; our noses sense something else, something more already-used; our bodies are not as tight and stiff as an early-morning body is; there are more viewers, and not just our in-the-know veterans, but callow interlopers; it seems to be no longer our turf but just another place. And when the cyclists do appear, there is something indescribable gone – they are no longer a cloud of fantasy but some bunch of bikers, interrupting our brunch. There is still excitement, of a base sort, but what was once special, magical, unintentionally but definitely artful, is now a reminder of a world ruled by and transformed into a commodity. The thrill is gone, and with it the magic.

And so is the art. And the placeness. When the experiential elements alter, even by a few ticks of the clock, the world is a changed place, as are the events in it.

To paraphrase Woody Allen’s oft-quoted bon mot about success, 80 percent of arslocii is showing up. The other 20 percent is showing up at the right time.

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