“Curve,” 2015, Ink and found image on found paper. Matthew Craven.
Photo courtesy Asya Geisberg Gallery, New York.
“Curve,” 2015, Ink and found image on found paper. Matthew Craven.
Photo courtesy Asya Geisberg Gallery, New York.
“You’re the same kinda bad as me!”
-Tom Waits, “Bad as Me”
If we drove our cars like we walked down a crowded street, we’d all be dead. Stop and think, no, wait, please don’t wait or stop and think, learn to think and move at the same time, like you do when you’re driving your car— which you spent more on (yes I said moron) than anything you will ever spend in your pitiable life. I live and love and work in New York City, the world’s worst transgressor of pedestrian ethics, save that poor old New York City has an excuse: New York City got killed a long time ago by cell phones. Now the madding throng is struck even dumber by staring straight down, at the empty palms of their sweaty, empty hands. Like I said, if we drove our cars like we walked down a crowded street, we’d all be dead. Or there would just be fewer people.
Especially Florida. And New Jersey. Which could be good.
You should see the shitheads stop smack dab in the midst of such the smallest egress. Pause and check the weather, check the sidewalk without stepping, check the fair and saddened moments that surround you until your ultimate demise you godforsaken fool because you’ve stopped in the middle of 12 people walking briskly to attend to something, anything, other than your glacial maneuvers. On a second by second basis, the secure estimate would range somewhere between 500-1000 people making stupid moves as walkers down the street. Note the wide expanse three feet from you where you might pause and eat your empanada. You’ve stopped me in my ever precious 35 seconds of silence in order to look up at the sky on a tread as thin as half of your immense and overwhelmingly oppressive frame.
Please pay better attention as you walk.
Just a few simple reminders as to the definition of our subject matter as adjective: lacking inspiration or excitement; dull. Also dull, boring, tedious, monotonous, uneventful, unremarkable, tiresome, wearisome, uninspired, unimaginative, unexciting, uninteresting, uninvolving; MORE.
A MACHINE FOR DISAPPEARING might well be the way our sorry ass country might do some good. Give us a MACHINE FOR DISAPPEARING to 39 stand up chaps and truly lugubrious gals (chicks) and we would triple the world’s productivity simply by aiming the gun at undesirables. Spend 1/3 of the budget on missiles for Syria’s disappearing on this newfangled machine and we win as a race of humans, death to those seriously deserving by dint of being in the way.
And the clowns move forward with the snow men.
Now I am unable to go about my urgent business being dull or boring, because you just got in my way. Now I am unable to be tedious or monotonous because your ass just decided to stop in the middle of traffic for absolutely no reason whatsoever and most definitely not because your dog had stopped to take a shit in the middle of heavy foot-traffic. I am unable to remain uneventful, unremarkable, uninspired, unimaginative, unexciting, uninteresting or uninvolving because you had to pause on a sidewalk and check your pockets (which were still empty once you stopped moving, by the by). Actually, I can’t get by because you stopped in the middle of the skinniest passageway in all of New York City.
Mongolian font to be sure. Retarded as China, retarded as America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, as dumb as America in America. Mongolian as my hillbilly tattoo, got from my vice-rid hometown downtown whence the passersby are truly scary now. My hometown is a Mongolian football on the flat, middle American Mongolian horizon. A football full of beer with a platter of cheese-stuffed sausage and several dips for several bowls of heavily salted snack chips, my hometown. Most of it is made in China. There are no pedestrians in my hometown, however, they are in their cars, going to get more dip.
Hey lady now would be a good time to tell your kid to stop making that noise.
We give the average traveler very long shrift. Afraid to ask our slow-witted companions to lower their volume in a public sphere, we assume every jackalope at the gate is a first time traveler. The average traveler is a pedestrian and evidence of the lowest common denominator of human behavior.
AIRPORT GROTESQUE— Girdles avail for your obese subjects. If you are fat enough to require the lifting of arm rests at your airplane seat, you need to purchase two seats. Airports as Leisure Zoos. Airports most definitely qualify as pedestrian examples of etiquette.
Manhattan at Xmas as idiocy pure and simple. New York City as exemplary of pedestrian idiocy. Note for instance the Fifth Avenue clog about two weeks before Xmas. About a dozen blocks stock still, stopped to a stock still stand still. If a poor terrorist sleeper cell could’ve only had five simple office windows they could have doubled the amount dead in September, 2001. The sudden idiocy dawns on a fairly normally well heeled and level headed 50 year old father of two and absolute panic sets in, as in attack. Attack! But the terrorists are as stupid as the tourists, they, too, are staring at their cell phones.
This city is duly ridiculous. Propped on droopy sea scaffold rank with mildew.
An immodest proposition to be sure. If the selected few might waltz with gun-shod, bullet-shy freedom, offing those deserving of the simplest, unspoken codes, like don’t take up more space than you deserve, fat-ass. Gimme a gun like my American obesity deserves. The guns wouldn’t kill, but remove, revoke, make utterly certain those folks who are not intelligent enough to walk down a simple city street on their own two feet without ruining someone’s day for their brain dead disrespect of every other human being’s right to personal space do not deserve to remain on this place rent free. The peeve is for people who take up more space than they deserve. They should be eliminated along with child molesters, rapists and murders. Their violations are as severe. Maybe we could tax them special. The stupidity tax. Or better to simply eliminate them. Enough money in the world already.
But yet any airport gate provides ample evidence of our global idiocy en masse as pitiable specie. Pitting African against American, injury attorney against artisanal bourbon cooper, plumber versus highwayman with 12 string axe from Asheville, North Carolina, wrongly rerouted due to wind shear in Chicago, to this, your tent, your middle western tin can of discontent. My money is on the plumber. Only his toils match the bluntness of his tools, the bluntness of his intellect, the severity of his abler anger, his jagged, angular angst.
The blue of his collar’s sky matched only by the wideness of berth afforded his brighter brethren.
Trauma here we come.
One way to solve the population problem: make every airplane flight a death match. Every stroll to the corner store also offers endless arrays of small choices on the huge haul of vacating a gasping mother’s poor outer crust of pestilence, endless cysts— the pustules that are her overpopulation.
Your neighbor, she gobbles another garlic, pork tube. Now her breath smells like the crease between her pubis and navel. Clammy as yesterday’s ham, pungent as the rot of corpses all around. Pull up a flotation device, folks, come join the pageant. Snacks for sale— they make you smell. Flutes for fruits and never a tasty steward.
One who gets wise by way of Schlitz and macaroni and cheese can easily grow accustomed to vintage Veuve Clicquot and crepes galettes. Why does it not work backwards? The stronger specimen, accustomed to shark’s fin soup, cannot, somehow, get used to a sardine tin. The weak link tortures the high priest with his incompetence. The strong sort tortures the weakling by way of the temper’s tribulations.
Nothing is quite as appalling as the choosy eater. A grey and white and yellow plate— well done mush, in essence, drives me to spasms in any public place. My patience blanches watching a young woman carefully pick every green pea from her tiny platter of mixed-diner-vegetable provisions. Once at a museum reception I watched a man take a tiny bite of a blueberry. Picky is icky. I wanted to smack the chopsticks out of her hands. I wanted to slap the fruit out of his fingers. You are eating in public, act as if you had some manners.
Stop quick in the fairly madding throng. The lights are lit! 900 Strollers stick on the blue grease paint of sidewalk stuck by December sixty degrees of melting per minute. Trust me, I’m your alderman. Trust me, I’m your library, trust me, I’m your artisanal newspaper. Trust me, I’m about to slaughter you with the freedom afforded a righteous USA fan, through stink of pink tape. So many truly stupid people stroll our freest streets. Much population could be struck. Stricken. Stroked. As the DADAist said 100 years ago, get rid of 99% of Germany and we would be OK— in America, eliminate 99.9% and dig!
Why does a dog yawn when nervous? Does the canine brain require extra oxygen to process anxiety? Then why does the human feel the need to stuff some food substance into his regurgitation route whenever a television isn’t nearby? Is it the same reason given for the human who cannot but fiddle incessantly with a piece of plastic wrapping when sitting in a crowded but otherwise quiet public place? I prefer dogs. But my therapy dog needs a therapy dog.
How can the public announcement voice in an Asian airport requesting the presence of a dozen American passengers at the desk of the departing gate never have spoken a word of English in her life? Is it somehow a pre-requisite that the entire universe be so inconsiderate? When one is American, one thinks it’s just Americans who are idiots until he crosses a border. Any border, any time. We are not alone.
Density bespeaks idiocy.
Any human activity requiring a ticket automatically shaves off half of the bearer’s intelligence quotient and thus makes them a pedestrian. PhD’s disappear into thin air. Watch a seasoned, well-traveled, well-dressed man board an airplane, for instance. Once he’s licked the sickening syrup of anticipation from his sweaty face and stuffs the nearest dead animal into his gaping maw, he’ll drift toward sleep and snore all the way to Detroit, Phoenix, Dallas, Anchorage— burping up dreams in his oily bliss.
My family just took a luxury cruise. I stayed home, thereby dubbing my next essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’m Not Even Going to Try. Imagine all the pedestrians on that boat! I’d rather not.
Excluding present company (I’m alone), one isn’t particularly concerned with education, lest he call the smallest human decency, the sparest courtesy and dignity, the basest etiquette or the simplest animal shame an education. Cross your enormous legs you fat, stupid fuck and tuck that pudding-stained sweatshirt into your thread-barest sweatpants. You’re in public now; you should have left your diaper at home.
There is something to be said for the human being who understands how to carry himself in the public world. To wit— when you are walking in a crowded, narrow passage, don’t stop stock still. Step aside, and turn your head and then your body around and away to look for or at whatever you’re looking for or at. If you are passing in heavy traffic, don’t slow down. Once again, if human beings were automobiles we’d all be dead. Then animals would reign again and murder would be crucial to survival. The world could eat its own annoyance.
The poor soul borne of a moron begets another moron. This is not advocacy for murder or cannibalism (mind you, the Lord knows we have enough to eat if simultaneously thrifty and generous)— but if horses are glue and frogs become ink, can’t we find a way to make idiots into bullets? Can’t we find a double-duty, fool-proof way to protect ourselves from ourselves?
It seems all Americans in the airport are military today. Nothing against them— they too need to feed their spawn with the dead by killing sanctioned from on high. They will grow fat as saints, healthy as second-string basketball billionaires. Someone strong needs to protect us from China when that grave, grey nation comes a- calling for payback.
No, really, we all revel in eyeballing your extra 60 pounds of belly fat as you take up five seats for a nap at the overcrowded airport gate. We understand your sleep is needy, both beauty and brain, we’re tired too, but it must be exhausting for you eating that many inhuman meals in a single day. Please, snore a little bit harder for us, we can’t hear you clearly enough, can’t smell your rancid breath on our ways to Los Angeles, Stockholm and Guam.
Women are more important than men. In Tokyo— no cows, no fruit, no dirt and the old cigarettes teach the new cigarettes about flowers. In Seoul traffic cops wear helmets for good reason. I’ve never been to Norway, but their sneeze is Snorri Sturluson. We are told it is America’s fault for the globe’s demise. Until we witness a Lithuanian king drive through his reckless, crooked night, or a Mexican president sink like a shit-sack, or watch the Chinese learn how to drive. The world devours itself like the ancient symbolic snake— spineless, unaware and unscrupulous.
Pity the unpardonable sot who can’t sit still for more than a minute with only his thoughts, the poor, tortured troglodyte who must fuss with the vacancy in his overhead compartment for fear of the shifting contents within. The unforgivable cluck with no peace in his naked soul, no parcel of understanding of the joy of indifference, unaware as we prepare for our initial descent… I am not an angry man. Brace for impact. We are all exactly the same. Everybody’s empire is empty.
Born and raised in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Scott Zieher has published four books of poetry, as well as numerous books and articles on poetry, art and vernacular photography. He is co-owner of Zieher Smith & Horton, a contemporary art gallery singled out by The New York Times’ Roberta Smith for “their abilities to find young or underexposed talent.” This essay, a screed toward less humanity, does not reflect his general attitude, serving instead the smaller purpose of aiding the author in identifying his fears. Zieher lives and works in New York City with his wife and two sons.
Sirens change shape over time and sometimes even enter into Laughter.
When a Siren turns 16, two of her guardians, empty-handed and formally attired,[i] are given the opportunity to enter the Talking Institute for 3 hours to attempt to Graduate her—which is to say, to bring her out. These two guardians—always blood relatives—are known as Big Business.
Big Business enters The Talking Institute with nothing but their own wherewithal and need of withdrawal. Their formal attire makes them seem otherworldly to the Siren they intend to Graduate. Formally attired in this way, they certainly don’t look like Greenpeace Wet-Nurses.
Many women in Big Business are willing to take off their dresses so as to resemble (as far as possible) a Greenpeace Wet-Nurse. Indeed, there is a school of thought in which the only reasonable candidates for Big Business are topless women—preferably topless young women.
Every Talking Institute has its gates. These gates open for Greenpeace Wet-Nurses when a Siren is young, and for Big Business later on, if a Graduation Ceremony is attempted. So long as a Graduation Ceremony goes on, the gates of the Talking Institute stand open.
A Siren no doubt learns where the gates are when she is an older Baby. She may hang around the gates, awaiting the visit of her Greenpeace Wet-Nurse.
But then one day—the day of her enrollment—the gates are sealed. If the gates were a wound in the wall, that wound has completely healed and there is no scar. And so then there are no gates. There is no way in or out for 8 years. Virtuosity is thusly sown in the speech of every Graduate.
Suddenly the gates open again. The Siren cannot have seen this coming. The Siren was probably starting to question the reality of the gates—perhaps they were just a dream?
Will the Siren hear the gates opening? They open with very little noise. Will the Siren hear Big Business entering into the Talking Institute? Who knows how loud Big Business in The Talking Institute is going to be.
Big Business are allowed to choose the time for the Graduation Ceremony. They do not choose the day, but they choose the time.[ii]
Just before a Graduation Ceremony, Big Business are brought by Game Wardens to The Talking Institute—specificly, to the gates. When the gates open—and stand open—and Big Business first look out into The Talking Institute, they have no idea what direction they are facing and no idea where the Siren is.
Big Business is made up of some combination of the following blood-relations of the Siren: parents, siblings, grandparents, great grandparents, siblings of mother, siblings of father. If there are more than two volunteers, the identity of Big Business is decided by the Siren’s mother.[iii]
Big Business is always diverse, i.e. made up of more than one volunteer. Big Business only ever develops if more than one Nameless Soul in the Siren’s family is really invested in her potential presence in Laughter.
By far the greatest challenge Big Business faces is moment-to-moment orientation in time-and-space. They have no compass. They have only the sky, the ground, and the forest to work with. Miles and miles of forest, miles and miles of sky.
The gates of the Talking Institute stand open throughout the entire Graduation Ceremony;[iv] Big Business may leave The Talking Institute whenever they like, but once they leave, the gates are closed and the Ceremony is over. Game Wardens subsequently usher Big Business back into the realm of Nameless Souls, back into their homes, back into their beds.
Because the gates of The Talking Institute stand open for the entirety of the Graduation Ceremony, it is possible for a Siren to leave on her own, in an exploratory capacity, in a desire for escape, or for any number of other good reasons—even for no reason at all. She may even be able to leave without Big Business knowing it. In any case, no matter the reason or lack of reason, a Siren who leaves the Talking Institute is forever thereafter its Graduate, and may never enter again its gates. Game Wardens immediately subdue said Graduate and prepare her for Despair, if not Laughter (for which she is certainly bound, but for which one cannot prepare).
The subdued Siren, rising aloft in Despair, is transformed: she is now a Dreamer, and she is brought to Laughter, where she lives out the rest of her days.[v]
When Big Business have been instrumental in increasing the number of Dreamers in Laughter, they are said to have been “successful.” As such, each is subsequently known in the realm of Nameless Souls as a Big Wheel.
Consider the shift from Business to Wheel. Business—the established multitude, the sharing of purpose in the midst of the merely necessary. Business is inherently and essentially plural. They are a plurality, in this case, of tentatively allied social workers, or con-men, or stalkers, or hunters, etc…. A Wheel, on the other hand, is inherently and essentially singular. Not Wheels, which could be useful, a vehicle… but Wheel—just one. The Wheel exists in the space of theory; the Wheel, moreover, is the invention that makes vehicles (Wheels) (purposeful movement between here and there) possible.[vi] The singularity of Wheel does not blind one with regard to plurality; rather, it shifts the location and the nature of the plurality, moving it from the chaotic exterior (salesmen and their products in endless flux) to the orderly and measured interior. Wheel thus contains rather than participates in plurality. Wheel is closed (perfection)—its rim attesting—and at the same time Wheel is open—its spokes attesting.
A Big Wheel is really something—that’s the point. For this reason—and perhaps as a gesture of thanks—a Big Wheel is paid 5 times the average annual salary for the rest of his life. There is expectation (but no requirement) of a memoir. If a Big Wheel does not write (or co-write, if need be) a memoir detailing his experience in the Talking Institute, a feeling of disappointment is likely to attach to him. Suspicion may also grow. As in: what is he trying to hide? If his Business partner has written a memoir, everyone begins to suspect that this must be a false account, else why would his partner withhold his own publication. When neither partner publishes an account of the Ceremony, criminal behavior is presumed to have taken place, and both of the partners are felt to be a threat to the community in which they reside.
Every Big Wheel has proven himself capable of inspiring trust—and transformation—in the languageless mind of a Siren. This is more than most Nameless Souls can say.
The transformation of Big Business into 2 Big Wheels has to do really with 2 things. First, a plurality has been reduced (increased?) to a totality. The many has been reduced (increased?) to the one. Second, Big Business goes on in a Talking Institute, while a Big Wheel rolls in the realm of Nameless Souls.
Big Wheel is a hell of a help to any job application. What a luxury to be able to put it right there after a legal name. For instance, Henry Helmut Erickson, Big Wheel. It’s akin to Dr., or Esquire, or Sir. It is perhaps as prestigious as all of those combined.
His twin brother is a Big Wheel, whispers one of the whisperers. Her husband was a Big Wheel. Being a Big Wheel is a real honor insofar as it cannot be fabricated, i.e. one has either been in a Talking Institute or one has not. And then, one has either succeeded in performing a Graduation Ceremony, or one has not.
When Big Business simply doesn’t develop, the gates of the Talking Institute are simply never re-opened. The Siren for whom no Ceremony materializes is known thereafter as a Myth. The Talking Institute she inhabits is known thereafter as a Reservation.
A Myth is a grammarless woman living alone in the woods.
[i] Males wear black tie tuxedos, females wear ball gowns. Males and females alike are bare-footed in The Talking Institute—bare feet and The Talking Institute are to some degree the same thing. Big Business comes in softly, it might be said. The females have nothing in their hair, and the males have nothing in their pockets. The females and the males wear no underwear. The formality of Big Business is completely superficial, and often is stripped away and abandoned to the wilds of The Talking Institute.
[ii] Big Business sometimes opts to have the Ceremony in the middle of the night. Under cover of darkness, they hope to slip in and surprise their feral kin. The plan is not without its faults. For instance, how do they make their way into The Talking Institute in complete darkness? And how are they to know where the Siren is sleeping, let alone find that place in the dark? Their keen sense of smell? And whereas it may be true that a Siren and Big Business are hidden from one another, on the level of the eye, it is also true that a Siren’s feral hearing may be better than Nameless Souls’ hearing, maybe much better. How sleep impacts upon this potentially better (feral) hearing is not known but it is certainly one of the few truly indispensable questions.
[iii] If her mother is deceased, or refuses to decide, her father becomes the decision-maker. If her father is deceased, or refuses to decide, her maternal grandfather becomes the decision-maker. If her maternal grandfather is deceased, or refuses to decide, her paternal grandmother becomes the decision-maker. If her paternal grandmother is deceased, or refuses to decide, her paternal grandfather becomes the decision-maker. If her paternal grandfather is deceased, or refuses to decide, her maternal grandmother becomes the decision-maker. If none of these is able or willing to decide, then the family must simply forfeit the opportunity to enter the Talking Institute. Big Business, if it is to come into existence, must be made up of two blood-relative volunteers from the Siren’s Nameless Soul family.
[iv] This is not to say that The Talking Institute ever stands open to the realm of Nameless Souls; no, the area in which Talking Institutes exist is a secure area. No one is going in except for Big Business, and no one is coming out except for Big Business and, hopefully, a Talking Institute Graduate.
[v] A Dreamer’s very special relationship to Agony is immediately established upon her arrival in Laughter (this relationship is discussed below).
[vi] The unicycle is a vehicle, of course, but for practical use it is absurdly arduous. As such, it seems to make the point more than it refutes it.
Joe Wenderoth has written any number of books, most of which are thought of as poetry. Audio of his (including the award-winning podcast: About Brett Favre) can be found on Internet Archive, and video of his on You-Tube. He teaches in the Creative Writing graduate program at UC Davis.
Real wages of American workers have declined since the late 70s (while wealth has been concentrated in the Ruling Class) yet there is no real protest. Why? Logically, union membership should be rising in response, but in fact it’s dwindling. What’s the matter with America?
The answer is a unique phenomenon in world history: the “spiritualization” of the working class. The New Age, which appears to be a peripheral phenomenon, was in fact central to this transformation. I will date the dawning of the New Age to the publication of Be Here Now, the all-purpose guide to enlightenment published by Baba Ram Das – as he was then called – in 1971. Early New Age followers were fond of saying, “I am not my body,” and though this formula could be described as “dissociation” from a classical Freudian viewpoint, it became prophetic. Much of the working class today does not reside in their corporeal flesh. Simultaneous to Be Here Now was the rise of the “Jesus freaks,” who gave birth to the current evangelical Christian movement, which emphasizes personal salvation, religious ecstasy, and apocalyptic visions. The End of the World is probably the main theme of recent American movies. The shrinking paycheck must not be resisted; it’s one of the signs of Jesus’ imminent return.
Millions of Americans – mostly male – live their true existences within the prismatic world of video games. Others find “avatars” – spiritual identities – through role-playing games, Civil War reenactments, busy online communities. They are not their bodies; they are mystic warriors temporarily trapped in (usually overweight) fleshly vehicles. Though the USA has lost every war since World War II, individual Americans have vanquished trillions of aliens, terrorists, vampires, demons.
Simultaneous to the dematerialization of American workers was the easy access to credit cards – what I call “spiritual money.” One need not work to have riches; one can have them for free and pay in some utopian future. Also a renaissance of drugs, from “mood enhancers” to “muscle relaxers,” from Prozac to Xanax to ecstasy, allow Walmart clerks to escape the drudgery of material existence, while listening to their iPods, which transform daily life into an endless action movie. Throngs of radical workers once filled the streets on May Day, demanding a better world. Now every day is a festival on Facebook.
What happens when an entire nation is “not their body”? Does the country become “not its geography”? No one knows. One truth is certain: today’s world can be better understood through game theory than through political science. Social reformers can’t push people back into their physical flesh. No one can be forced to re-materialize. Radicals and thinkers must accept this new spiritual reality, and fly alongside it.
Sparrow lives in a doublewide trailer in the hamlet of Phoenicia, New York, with his wife Violet Snow. His book How to Survive the Coming Collapse of Civilization is forthcoming from The Operating System Press. He is currently running for President of the United States. Sparrow@Sparrow14 on Twitter. http://thesunmagazine.org/author/sparrow
2014, plaster, paint, faux-metal hardware, and cast rubber
I think of my practice as textual, an amalgam of image, word, and gesture to be read as relational components in poetic rhythm. Central for me is the notion of ‘tracing’, taking form as both the literal, formal process and as a metaphorical anchor. Through an eclectic range of materials and modes of making, sources including modern literature, cartoons, art history, literal refuse, poetry, and commercial/industrial spaces are ‘traced’, retooled as narrative props, inspired by the idea of dramatic or filmic ‘scene setting’. Tracing in this context is the balancing act between hand and appropriated sign; between presence and absence; a cycle of extraction, consumption and regurgitation.
Zack Rafuls was born in Miami, FL, and lives in Nashville, TN. He received his BFA from Watkins College of Art, Design, & Film in Nashville in 2015, and in Fall 2014 studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as participant in the AICAD Mobility Program. Currently, Rafuls is codirector/cocurator of The Packing Plant, an artist-run project space in Nashville. He has shown in both solo and group exhibitions in Nashville, and has exhibited nationally in New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. His work can be viewed at zackrafuls.com, and more info on The Packing Plant can be found at thepackingplant.net.
First, I want to demonstrate the surprising applicability of mathematics to the physical world. Second, I want to convince the reader that most anybody is capable of doing mathematical research. We will attempt to accomplish both goals with the aid of an extremely simple experiment requiring only three sticks (or three pieces of uncooked spaghetti, three wires, three bottles, etc.). Here is the problem:
Suppose we find a flat surface, lay our three sticks end to end in a straight line, and then measure the total length spanned by the three sticks to be 3 feet. Given only this information about the total measure of the 3 sticks, we want to find out everything we can about the lengths of each of the three individual sticks.
Let’s address the most obvious question first, mainly, “Why is this stick problem supposed to be interesting?” Well, exactly because it represents a type of question that humans have been tackling since the dawn of scientific thought. It is related to questions like: “This stone is a mixture of an equal number of three different types of atoms. The total mass of the stone is two kilograms. What does this tell me about the masses of the different types of atoms mixed in the stone?” or “Given the total energy of a burst of light, what can we say about the energies of each individual wavelength in the light burst?” Indeed, in the case of a question about the weight of a stone, we can translate the question into one about 3 sticks by considering the stone to be the collection of all 3 sticks laid end to end, and the three different types of atoms of the stone to be the three individual sticks. We may now simply translate all questions about the weight of the stone’s atoms into questions about the length of our 3 sticks by replacing “weight” with “length” everywhere in the question. Thus, we can see that any techniques we develop for telling us about individual sticks can be used to tell us about individual types of atoms in a stone. All we must do is (i) translate the question about types of atoms in a stone to be one about sticks laid end to end, (ii) find out what we can about the length of any individual sticks, and, finally, (iii) translate the answers about the length of individual sticks back into statements about the mass of individual types of atoms. Similarly, we could use methods for finding out about the lengths of our 3 sticks to find out about the energies of 3 individual wavelengths making up a light burst when given only a single collective energy measurement. Furthermore, there is nothing really special about the number “3” in this essay. There could be any number of sticks, types of atoms, or wavelengths, as the case may be, and the same ideas would still work. This is the beauty of mathematical abstraction!
Having decided that there is indeed a point to contemplating our simple 3-sticks problem, we are free to labor on without fear of wasted effort. More specifically, we are now free to consider the previously stated question: “What can we tell about the individual lengths of our 3 sticks given that their total combined length is 3 feet?” As we shall see, the answer is “Quite a bit, assuming that you ask about the right individual sticks.”
Let’s begin by asking how long the shortest of our three sticks can be. We can help answer this question by imagining an extreme situation. In the most extreme case the shortest stick will have length almost 0 while the other two sticks make up the entire collective 3 foot length of the three sticks laid end to end. Clearly, then, the shortest of the three sticks can be arbitrarily small!
Perhaps the most natural next question is “How long can the shortest stick be?” This question can again be answered with the help of an example situation. Certainly it is possible that all the sticks are 1 foot long. In this case any of the sticks could be considered the shortest, so clearly the shortest stick can be as long as 1 foot. That’s OK, but is it possible for the shortest stick to be more than one foot long? Well, if the shortest stick is longer than a foot, then both of the other two sticks also have to be longer than a foot. However, if all three sticks are longer than a foot then their total length when laid end to end in a straight line must be longer than three feet! This is impossible since the collective end-to-end length of the 3 sticks is three feet (and no longer). We are forced to the conclusion, then, that the shortest stick cannot be more than one foot long because, if it were, the total length of the three sticks laid end to end would have to be more than three feet.
What about the longest of the three sticks? How long can it be? Well, similar to above, we can imagine an extreme example where two of the three sticks are mere specks. In such a situation the third stick must by nearly three feet long on its own. Therefore, the longest stick can be arbitrarily close to three feet long. How short can the longest stick be? Well, here we can again use the extreme case where all sticks have the same length of 1 foot. When this happens any of the three sticks can be considered the longest. Hence, the longest stick can be as short as 1 foot. Any shorter, though, and the three sticks together would have to measure less than three feet when laid end to end. Therefore, the longest stick must be at least one foot long.
This last realization brings us to our first point: Having performed only a few thought experiments, we have to come to a concrete conclusion about the real world. Any time three sticks laid end to end in a straight line collectively measure 3 feet in length, at least one of three sticks (i.e., the longest) MUST be at least one foot long! There is no getting around it — I dare the reader to try to violate this mental discovery in their kitchen with three pieces of uncooked spaghetti. You will fail! Mathematics — and, more generally, Thinking — can tell us about “the real world”!
The second point is this: mathematics and science are largely conducted in a highly abstracted language which can be difficult to learn. However, much of the real thought behind what mathematicians and scientists do is no more complicated than what we have just been using in this essay to discuss our three sticks. If you can read and understand everything written here, you can — with enough hard work and study — be a competent and productive scientist!
2015, ballpoint pen and resin on Ash
My work is concerned with landscape in its broadest and deepest sense. It’s about the world that stretches endlessly before us, offering the possibility to accept it either as an expanse of raw uninterrupted reality, or to idealize, embellish, and edit it as we see fit.
I grew up in the desert Southwest, ringed by a horizon interrupted occasionally by sandstone outcroppings. As a child I was visually taken by this sculpted topography, amazed when my father told me that the layered strata of rock had been fashioned by years of water and wind. My first creative interventions into this environment were crude: I pulverized sandstone blocks with a hammer, dug into cliff faces to excavate minerals, and dredged sand with magnets for iron dust that I cured into patties of iron oxide inside my father’s tobacco tins.
The physical sense of land and material has continued to guide my work, both as a symbol of process and as a source of content. I remain interested in how the incremental effects of time can create something more structured and unique than I might ever make with my own hands. My recent work merges competing formal languages: those things that look like nature, those that symbolize nature, and those which are nature. The form in this work is often analogous to the methods of its creation. The structures in them take root in the physical properties inherent within specific, mundane materials such as Elmer’s glue, correction fluid, ballpoint pen ink and plastic resin, whose limits are stretched by subjecting them to non-traditional applications. These applications generate complexity that belies the simplicity of their creation, and in the process unearths fundamental questions about what is natural and what is artificial.
Shane McAdams is a writer, curator, artist, and professor splitting his time between studios in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, and Brooklyn, New York. He is a three-time Creative Capital, Andy Warhol Writer’s Grant finalist, and his work has appeared regularly in the Brooklyn Rail since 2002. “Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide,” his series of writings about bi-coastal commuting appeared regularly in Bad at Sports, and was a source of inspiration for the exhibition High/Low/Middle at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. He is currently a contributor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a curatorial advisor at the Selma Sadoff Center for the Arts. His artwork has been exhibited at Allegra LaViola Gallery, Marlborough, Chelsea, Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Storefront, Bushwick, Scream London, among others, and has been reviewed in Vogue Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer and The Village Voice. He has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and Marian University. His latest work, Splayed Oak, was on view at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University before going to the Schneider.
In her book Femininity and Domination, Sandra Bartky writes a hypothetical example of a female-feminist masochist called “The Story of P.” P is politically and personally devoted to feminist theory and action, but she finds that in erotic situations, she enjoys being in the submissive position. This poses a dilemma for P because she believes that as a feminist her preference ought to be for equality and reciprocity in all things. She further worries that her submissiveness could spill over into other aspects of her life. P must ask herself if her masochistic tendencies are really an instance of internalized misogyny. I bring resources together from phenomenology and psychology to lend insight to the dilemmas faced by the female-feminist masochist. I believe that her concerns are even more complex than Bartky has articulated. Nevertheless, there may be a manner in which the female-feminist masochist can integrate these apparently divergent aspects of herself.
The Perks of Slavery
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre draws on the dynamic found in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to describe the manner in which he thinks every human encounter enacts a struggle for power. Within this conception, this struggle amounts to the attempt to secure one’s own being as essential by dominating the other. At least in Sartre’s account, slavery is not literal or historical; it is the condition of being dependent upon the gaze of another free self-consciousness. This is what one of my students once called the “Does my ass look big in these jeans?” moment. It presumes that each individual desires full self-possession; and indicates that one is powerless over how one is perceived by others, which is, in fact, a large aspect of oneself.
Paradoxically, according to Hegel, the slave has greater opportunity for self-awareness which occurs by seeing oneself reflected in one’s work on the material of nature. In Sartre’s account, the master’s position is also the place that one struggles to acquire, but to remain in the role of the lord would make self-awareness impossible. An individual can only overcome solipsism through the external perspective provided by another. The subject realizes that she is not alone in the world through the very visceral and immediate experience of feeling the gaze of others upon herself. Adequate self-perception requires the integration of this external view, even though it brings along with it the accompanying disappointment that one’s self- perception is dependent on others. Sartre deems these attempts at enslavement mutual, “moving and reciprocal” (475). Thus, everyone gets a turn at being both subject and object.
Sartre and Hegel affirm that power conflicts are pervasive in human relationships, and that experiencing the position of slave is vital to self-awareness. However, we also find that there is no room in these accounts for authentic enjoyment of, or rational consenting to, vulnerability and powerlessness. I find this curious given its central importance to self-consciousness. However, it is the existentialists’ claim that it is in bad faith to surrender to one’s own object-status because this amounts to a denial of transcendence.
Sartre’s appraisal of the conflicted nature of human relations leads him to conclude that human relations are inherently sado-masochist. However, Sartre deems masochism an inevitable failure (493). The masochist ultimately fails to surrender because she is asking to be tied up or held down. In doing so, she asserts her own agency in spite of immediate appearances. Take the trope of the type-A male CEO who hires a dominatrix to humiliate him on the weekends. His submission, as he is paying for it, is really a further assertion of his power. He has the power to get someone to dominate him although they may find it boring or even humiliating. In playing the weekend submissive, he compartmentalizes the desire to let go and have someone else take control. Perhaps this very compartmentalization is what enables him to retain the strong sense of agency that he has in his daily life.
Could we not make a similar claim about P? Perhaps her sexual submission actually contributes to her sense of empowerment in the light of day. In attempting to make herself an object she reaffirms her subjectivity, because she makes an object of herself instead of being objectified by others. That is she takes the perspective of the perceiving subject. She enacts a mock-surrender, remaining, in Sartre’s terminology, a transcendent object. Her body reveals that which eludes the objectifying gaze—her self-consciousness—and consciousness “makes the meaning and the unity of the body” (502). We are attracted to the consciousness that inhabits and is implied by the arm, the leg, the breast, the tattoo, the hairstyle and so on. When the masochist feels the sting of the whip, her consciousness becomes focused on this location. The lover brings about this result through knowing her as a subject and that this is what she wants. Yet, even as the lover imagines the masochist’s pleasure, she remains out of grasp. Sartre says “…everything happens as if I wished to get hold of a man who runs away and leaves only his coat in my hands” (511). The female-feminist masochist could well have that same realization—in her attempt to surrender, she finds herself still escaping capture.
We might say that the female-feminist masochist’s mind remains her own even when she is in physical bondage. The key evidence for this would be in her desire to submit. However, the missing piece in this analysis is a critical look into the context within which some women desire to be submissive. Sartre does not consider the difference that one’s social location makes in the significance of these power-plays and the manner in which our desires are trained. The male CEO and female masochist will typically differ in this regard. It is not so simple to assert that a woman authentically desires to surrender in a society that continually encourages her to do so.
Is authentic female submission possible?
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir writes that love equals total devotion for the woman in love, that “love for the woman is a total abdication for the benefit of a master” (683). This is the result of women’s particular situation; placed continually in a position of dependence, “she chooses to want her enslavement so ardently that it will seem to her to be the expression of her freedom” (684, emphasis added). Woman seeks to elevate her lowly position through worshipping and serving a god; she hopes to find salvation under his approving gaze. Thus her self-abnegation is an attempt to salvage a sense of self-worth in a situation that provides limited opportunities for self-affirmation. Referring to Being and Nothingness, Beauvoir defines masochism as “to cause myself to be fascinated by my objectivity-for-others” (690, emphasis added). Thus on her account, a woman can come to value herself by seeing herself through the gaze of a worthy superior.
Beauvoir asserts that masochism is the route taken by the “unsatisfied woman” (693) and it will fail to bring true relief. The masochist takes revenge on herself for failing her lover: “she does not choose to revolt against him as long as she loves him; she revolts against her self. If he loves her less than she desires, if she fails to interest him, to make him happy, to be sufficient to him, all her narcissicm turns to disgust, humiliation, and self-hatred that push her to self-punishment” (692). All of this is predicated on the belief, and in some cases the fact, that man holds woman’s destiny in his hands; only he can determine if she has value. Thus Beauvoir finds the submission of the masochistic-woman-in-love to be, at best, a meager expression of freedom within highly constraining circumstances.
Certainly women’s situations have changed since the first publication of The Second Sex. Nevertheless, a great deal has remained the same, and perhaps taken on additional pernicious forms. Sandra Bartky argues that “women undergo a special sort of fragmentation and loss of being as women” (34), that women are estranged from their sexuality because they are culturally construed as inferior objects rather than as subjects. She is aware that many women actively enjoy their object-status, internalize the gaze of others, and joyfully self-objectify. However, she writes that “repressive narcissistic satisfactions [the fulfillment of needs that are produced through manipulation and indoctrination, that benefit a social order that seeks to dominate the subject] stand in the way of the emergence of an authentic delight in the body” (42). Bartky suggests that “women would be better off if we learned when to refrain from the exercise of [the right to desire what and whom we please]” particularly with regard to masochistic fantasies, and that “we struggle to decolonize our sexuality by removing from our minds the internalized forms of oppression that make us easier to control” (51).
It is beyond doubt that all of our desires are heavily constrained and arise within a culture that is obsessed with power, that is male dominated and is, moreover, a rape culture—a culture in which rape is not only common, but one in which our media and gender expectations normalize and even encourage sexual violence. This is a real problem as we can see the impact of the domineering male gaze everywhere. Gail Dines, for example, convincingly argues that mainstream misogynistic pornography effectively transforms its viewer’s desires for the worse. Mainstream pornography narrows our popular notions of the erotic and the beautiful. As Dines explains in Pornland: Porn portrays itself as being harmless fun that remains in the realm of fantasy, but its damages are cumulative: creating feelings of sexual inadequacy, setting up impossible standards for both men and women, limiting “our imagination and ability to be sexually creative,” leaving little room gender variation, and sometimes becoming an addiction (87).
Mainstream pornography is especially nefarious not only because it perpetuates the values of sexist culture, but because it cements sexist ideology in a way that gives intense sexual pleasure. It conflates sexism with sexiness, giving one an erotic reward for embracing misogynistic ideals—the humiliation of and contempt for women. Dines writes: “By wrapping the violence in a sexual cloak, porn renders it invisible…” (ibid). Women are not exempt from experiencing sexual gratification via internalized sexism; this is one payoff for identifying with misogynist culture. If the female-feminist masochist enjoys rape fantasies or similar displays of male dominance we must admit that this is strongly motivated by her culture.
According to Marxist-feminist analysis, the female feminist submissive experiences an alienation of her “labor.” In this case her labor is her erotic “work,” and work is understood as where she might find the exteriorization of herself, her powers, and her uniquely human capabilities. In such a case, the product of a woman’s labor—her erotic life and desires—may not be a reflection of who she is. Bartky suggests that the female-feminist masochist alter or resist her desires. This analysis seems to imply that there is a more authentic self that one might encounter outside of the structural powers that bear upon us all and thus harbors the utopian dream of escaping our social and political context. Furthermore, I think her suggestion risks a further sense of self-fragmentation, because it asks her to change something in herself that is the result of forces beyond her control. I argue that any authentic sense of self must be found within the current context, with the acknowledgement that it cannot be overcome by the efforts of an individual in a struggle for self-formation. Nevertheless, as I will argue in the next section, it may still be possible that this subject can undergo some amount of voluntary change and self-integration.
What would authentic erotic choice look like?
In his essay “Is it a Choice?” (in The Journal of Social Philosophy) William Wilkerson is concerned with the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. He challenges the popular assumption that we are simply “born this way,” and contradicts the false dichotomy between the idea that our desires are either freely chosen, or determined. He argues that knowing one’s own desires requires an act of interpretation and interpretation entails choice. As Wilkerson writes:
…interpreting [our] desires requires that we take an inchoate group of ambiguous desires, place them together into a complex, and consider them as a unified whole, and further that we compare this whole to available social and sexual roles in society, link those desires with other experiences like fantasies, pleasures, and so on, and finally come to believe that it means something enduring and lasting about myself (100-101).
For example, if I identify as heterosexual, but I enjoy going dancing with my girlfriends, I can interpret this as simply an expression of friendship. However, if in the future I later identify myself as lesbian, then I may look at my past with a revisionist lens; that which had seemed to be the significant will now appear to be less central and vice versa. This example is an oversimplification. Wilkerson states that our feelings are “an ambiguous mess of uncertain and frightening feelings, mixed in with the other desires, social messages, homophobic worries, and so forth” (104). Nevertheless, it illustrates Wilkerson’s point that our sexual orientations are formed through a pattern of interpretations that are subject to change. Moreover, it is in determining which erotic experiences we take as noteworthy, and which we take as inconsequential, and above all that we have some amount of choice in determining the meaning of our desires. Obviously, these choices are heavily constrained and motivated by culture and other factors. Nevertheless, there still remains a sliver of freedom within the realm of desire that is not to be discounted.
Wilkerson’s argument can be extended to consider what agency the female-feminist masochist retains. According to this line of thinking, she might harness the power of interpretation in order to co-determine the significance of her desires. She might ask herself “what does it mean if I enjoy the submissive posture?” This is not to say that she can thrust whatever interpretation she prefers upon the phenomena. An authentic interpretation would require consideration of the milieu that encourages and names such desires. However, this consideration already loosens the grip of cultural determinism. Although our desires may be trained and cultivated by cultural forces, the full meaning of these desires need not be foreclosed. Moreover, to interpret is also a manner of change. For example, if P comes to understand her desires in the context of a misogynistic milieu, then they lose the force of a desire that is understood as natural. It is not that P can now wield control over all of her desires; it is that now her changed understanding of those desires means that they no longer manipulate her so easily. While she may experience pleasure at the same experiences, their power to dictate her actions can perhaps be lessened.
Hegel can provide some support for the importance of interpretation to self-creation. According to Hegel, the slave (not the master) realizes her independence and creativity through meaningful work. We might argue that the work of interpretation provides a similar outlet for agency. A large part of what makes patriarchal culture so sinister is the hegemonic nature of its ideology. In addition to influencing our thoughts, feelings, and actions, patriarchy also tells us what to think of them; patriarchy strives to dictate our meta-thoughts and feelings (the thoughts and feelings we have about our thoughts and feelings). In recognizing and claiming some amount of choice in how to interpret her desires, perhaps the feminist reclaims some aspects of her erotic agency.
The work of interpretation might be viewed as the recovery of the perspective of the subject in the face of one’s object-status. In an existentialist framework, this is the work that centrally determines who we are. Feminist-female masochism could be viewed as a project of self-recovery in a misogynistic world. I don’t mean to imply that this self-recovery is a complete self-possession; this is an impossible dream. The female-feminist masochist who interprets her own desires is no longer in the position of one-only-being-looked-at (always being the object). Rather, she is taking a speculative view of her role in the subject-object dichotomy. She is observing the dynamics of the gaze, including her own place within it. She inhabits a subjectivity that is always already objectified, but is not limited to that non-perspective. Feminine masochism, on this view, could sometimes be an attempt at self-empowerment, albeit an attempt that strongly risks (and perhaps also actively affirms) misogyny. It is a strategy that perhaps recognizes her position in the patriarchy, while opening a space for resistance.
The Search for Reciprocity and Self-Integration
Beauvoir writes that
Authentic love must be founded on reciprocal recognition of two freedoms; each lover would then experience himself as himself and as the other; neither would abdicate his transcendence, they would not mutilate themselves; together they would both reveal values and ends in the world. For each of them, love would be the revelation of self through the gift of self and the enrichment of the universe. (706)
According to Beauvoir, authentic love involves a shift in perspectives that allows one to recognize both self and other as independent. The masochistic dependence of Beauvoir’s woman in love excludes this type of reciprocity. However, I will suggest that the female feminist may find such a reciprocal recognition even via encounters that appear to be masochistic.
In “The Alchemy of Male Desire” (in Fire in the Stone), Scott Churchill writes that in male desire “an identification with the female (or the one in the female role) can occur in which this Other is fully invested with subjectivity—indeed, where the female body and receptive role are taken up vicariously… that beneath the veneer of male arrogance is (sometimes? often?) ” the fantasy of submission, an unconscious desire to be passive, feminine (180). In a study conducted by Churchill (a psychologist) one case included a man describing an experience of bondage in which his female partner asked to be blindfolded and have her hands tied above her head. He was skeptical of this suggestion as he had never been interested in doing this before. However, he found that as his partner expressed her pleasure he began to feel it as well. Although his role was explicitly domineering, his greatest attention was focused on imagining what the experience felt like for her from her perspective. Churchill reasons that in this case, it is not the thrill of power over another that is exhilarating because “the very fact that the [submissive] partner is provoked into obvious excitement within the circumstances of the domination/submission scenario is proof of his or her complicity” (190). More importantly, however, Churchill proposes that identification with the submissive role allows the apparently sadistic male to temporarily inhabit his culturally forbidden and disparaged feminine side. In this view, reciprocity in heterosexual sex has little to do with who is on top and who is on bottom. Churchill writes “Mutuality occurs when one experiences the “for-me” of the other’s desires, as well as the “for-the-other” of one’s own desire” (197). Churchill agrees with Sartre that flesh meeting flesh is a touching touched that incarnates both bodies, “a double reciprocal incarnation” (508).
In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel, a psychologist and couples therapist, has a similar analysis. She rejects what she considers an unsexy American tendency to extend the principles of democracy to all realms. She argues that individuals often use their erotic life to play out aspects of themselves that go unexplored in the rest of life. In one case, a man who is passive in his daily life enjoys being dominant in erotic life. In another, a woman who holds a lot of power and responsibility in work and family life enjoys letting go and having her partner take charge in the bedroom. In each case, the erotic provides a safe outlet for exploring and integrating an unfulfilled aspect of themselves.
Perel writes: “A lot of women find their desire for sexual submission hard to accept. But stepping outside of ourselves is exactly what eroticism allows us to do. In eros, we trample on cultural restrictions; the prohibitions we so vigorously uphold in the light are often the ones we enjoy transgressing in the dark…In the broad expansiveness of our imagination we uncover the freedom that allows us to tolerate the confines of reality” (59). She argues that there is liberty in experimenting with transgressive sexuality. In playing with the erotic roles (particularly when they are quite different from those we take on in everyday life) we find the possibility of integrating fragmented aspects of ourselves. Perel’s claim might be taken even further to state that the female-feminist might be even more inclined toward sexual masochism than a gender-conforming female. A feminist might find herself exhausted by the daily struggles against patriarchy and the attempts to be treated as an equal. Being sexually submissive might be a way for her to let go of control in a manner that is refreshing and relaxing. According to this logic and given the taboo against heteronormativity in their circles, it could be that feminists, both male and female, will find it especially erotically transgressive to submit to normative gender roles in their sexual lives. It does seem to be the case that erotic play can be a safe context in which to toy with norms and expectations. When there is safety and explicit consent [“You submit only as much as you’re willing; you dominate only as far as you are allowed” (Perel 68)] erotic power plays can perhaps provide an ideal opportunity to experiment with the structures that weigh so heavily on us in our daily lives.
 Sartre is also, as has been strongly demonstrated by Margaret Simons in various works, drawing on Beauvoir’s novel, She Came to Stay. However, in this paper I will focus on the more explicitly thematized accounts of Hegel and Sartre.
 That is, structural problems can only be overcome through collective efforts aimed at institutional change.
Sarah LaChance Adams is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Superior. Her previous book publications include Coming to Life: Philosophies of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering (co-edited with Caroline Lundquist, Fordham UP 2013) and Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What a “Good” Mother Would Do: The Ethics of Ambivalence (Columbia UP 2014). She has published articles on Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, Bataille, Sartre, Hegel, and care ethics. LaChance Adams works primarily in feminist philosophy, ethics, existential phenomenology, and 19th Century German philosophy.
Q: Where do you get your supplies?
Q: The racks, the whips, the…I’m not sure what you call those long sticks that are used for stabbing the traitorous souls in the back.
A: We tend to be, in hell, both practical and literal in our language.
Q: Right, well the so-called jabbers must break sometimes.
A: Frequently, yes. The shards that get stuck inside of the traitorous souls turn into ice rats, and they eat their way out.
Q: I assume that the eaten pieces of the soul regenerate after they’re eaten?
A: The soul is infinite.
Q: Ah, I see. Back to the jabbers. Where do you get new ones once a jabber breaks?
A: It’s complicated.
Q: (laughs) You’re not going to make this easy, are you?
A: The short answer is: despair.
A: (sighs) Look, how do you breathe?
Q: How do I breathe?
A: Yes. Explain the process to me.
Q: I allow gasses to come in and out of my nose and mouth?
A: You allow.
Q: Do I have it wrong?
A: Could you prevent it? Could you stop allowing the gasses to come in and out in a permanent way?
Q: Not without ending my life, of course. And then I might wind up here (laughs).
A: So you couldn’t, in other words, stop without altering the system of your body. The despair/jabber issue is very much the same principle. The appropriate sectors of hell stay open in the appropriate ways, and things flow in and out as they should. They are altered during the process of this flow in a way that is similar to how oxygen melds with your red blood cells and so on.
Q: So, you’re not really in control? You don’t necessarily know how it works?
A: I’m aware of it in an academic way. In the same way that, again, you are likely aware of the mechanics of your breathing, but you don’t stop to think about it as it happens.
Q: I know the basics of the organs, the path…
A: That’s right. You understand, vaguely, that oxygen enters your lungs and that it’s somehow distributed to parts of your body. You understand the generalized picture, even if you don’t grasp the finer details.
Q: Well…I might know more than you think.
A: Really? What does an oxygen molecule look like?
A: So you don’t know?
Q: I’ve seen the diagram. I have a notion.
A: You’ve seen the diagram.
Q: Maybe I don’t understand the nature of the question.
A: Never mind. I’m being nitpicky. I’m being a bastard.
Q: Let’s get back to despair.
A: Sure, despair.
Q: It’s how you get your supplies?
A: In a sense, yes.
Q: How do you transform the despair into things? Or, to get back to your oxygen example, how do they get transformed?
A: You’re on to something in recognizing that I don’t transform them.
Q: But there must be some sort of catalyst? Some sort of mechanism?
A: Like how you convert energy into matter or vice versa?
Q: Right. But you’re mocking me again, aren’t you?
A: Listen, heaven is eternal bliss, right?
A: And ignorance is bliss.
Q: I think that’s more of a trite adage than actual—
A: So, if heaven is bliss and ignorance is bliss, then maybe just being a corpse, rotting into nothingness without any consciousness is the purest kind of heaven. And that’s a transformation, right?
Q: Are you trying to fill me with despair? Trying to fill your storehouse?
A: I’m really not. I’m trying to tell you about the nature of transformation.
A: Body to bread, blood to wine. Despair to jabber.
Q: And back?
A: In a sense. It’s like the law of conservation, I suppose.
Q: Conservation of despair?
A: Conservation is at least partially about awareness and how we measure things, to be fair.
Q: It’s about perception.
A: You could say that.
Q: I didn’t expect you to be so Eastern.
A: That’s very clever of you.
Q: You don’t make that sound like a compliment.
A: Maybe it’s a matter of perception.
Q: That’s clever of you. It’s more about perception than awareness?
A: Here’s the thing about awareness.
A: If you really understand these things, then you recognize that the barriers are arbitrary and, in many ways, simply figurative. I should add, too, that if you follow my reasoning that heaven is ignorance, and if hell and heaven are opposites , then you might say that heaven’s being ignorance would make hell awareness. Hell is really recognizing that the jabbers are your own despair, just in another form.
Q: Sounds a little trippy to me. Especially coming from you.
A: Maybe you should be glad that you don’t get it.
A: If I’m right, then if you did get it…
A: Then you’d be in hell, wouldn’t you?
Zeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His work has appeared in Bitter Oleander, Moon City Review and Scissors and Spackle, among other places. His books include In a Family Way and So Anyway…
“Here are no stories told you of what is to be seen at the other end of the world, but of things at home, in your own Native Countrey, at your own doors, easily examinable with little travel, less cost, and very little hazard. This book doth not shew you a Telescope, but a Mirror, it goes not about to put a delightful cheat upon you, with objects at a great distance, but shews you yourselves.”
Joshua Childrey, Britannia Botonia, 1660
“The Author of the following letters takes the liberty, with all proper deference, of laying before the public his idea of parochial history, which he thinks, ought to consist of natural productions and occurrences as well as antiquities. He is also of opinion that if stationary men would pay some attention to the districts on which they reside, and would publish their thoughts respecting the objects that surround them, from such materials might be drawn most complete county histories.”
Gilbert White, Natural History of Selborne, 1790
“The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet…. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841
I: Addiction and a New World
After I stopped smoking in the 1980s, I began to hike in the woods every day. As I walked and walked to dilute my withdrawal from nicotine, I took notes about what I saw around me in nature: flowers blooming, trees leafing, birds calling, insects crawling.
Addiction to moving and taking notes about what was happening in the natural world replaced the other addiction, and for the past 35 years, I have kept records of the progress of the seasons in my home, Yellow Springs, Ohio, a small town just south of the 40th Parallel in the Ohio Valley.
Since I was not actually interested in making sense of what I wrote down, I was free to write what I saw without ulterior purpose. To those with whom I shared my observations, the information seemed curious, maybe interesting, but without any legitimate context – except that of withdrawal from tobacco.
Later, the shaping of observations into patterns, making connections, coming to unofficial conclusions about random and unjuried data, seemed to occur spontaneously, seemed a simple result of my obsessions and my physiological needs.
To compensate for their loss of nicotine, some people might have created fantastic, surreal fictional worlds from all their fragments. Others might have become ecologists and searched to find signs of global warming. Others might have written poetry or become academic naturalists. Others might have found safe haven and escape and peace and God. Others might have returned to smoking or have given up the natural world for air conditioning and computers. I started making phenology almanacs, and having paid little attention to my habitat before my new self-discipline, I literally encountered a new world with odd laws I had never thought about.
II. Finding Weather
In the third month of this odyssey, my wife’s fortuitous gift of a barometer introduced me to the steady breathing of Earth, a structure around which I was able to cluster my notes about what I was observing. I began obsessively tracking barometric highs and lows, a process that allowed me to rediscover practical, pre-20th century weather prediction methods. From my graphs of barometric pressure, I discovered that the number of major cold fronts each month is more or less consistent from year to year, and that the Earth breathes at an average rate of about once every three to five days in the winter, and once each five to seven days at the peak of summer.
A short apprenticeship told me when important changes would occur and what kind of weather would take place on most any day. That information was expressed in the language of odds and percentages, and it was surprisingly accurate. The pulse of the world was steadier than I had ever imagined. Taking into consideration the consistency of certain patterns in the past, I could make fairly successful forecasts about the likelihood of the repetition of such occurrences in the future.
My graphs also allowed me to see the special properties of each season. Summer’s barometric configurations, for example, are usually slow and gentle, like low, rolling hills. Heat waves show up as plateaus. Thunderstorms are sharp, shallow troughs in the gentle waves of the atmospheric landscape. Hurricanes deepen the troughs. Autumn arrives like the sudden appearance of a pyramid on a broad plain. By the end of September, the fronts are stronger; the high-pressure peaks become taller; the lows are deeper, with almost every valley bringing precipitation. By December, the systems loom on the horizon of the graph like a range of mountains with violent extremes of altitude, sometimes snowcapped, almost always imposing and sliced by canyons of wind.
While tracking the weather, I saw that the plants, shrubs and trees I had been naming were natural allies of my graphs, and that they were parallel measures of the seasons and the passage of time. Soon I started making a list of when each wildflower blossomed and saw how each one consistently opened around a specific day, and that even though a cold year could set blooming back up to two weeks, and unusual warmth accelerate it, average dates were quite useful in establishing sequence of bloom which always showed me exactly where I was in the progress of the year.
Tracking barometric fractals and coordinating them with sequence observed in plants and animals, I found that the idea of four seasons referred only to relatively broad periods with which to identify time and space. At first, four gave birth to twelve: Early Winter, Deep Winter, Late Winter, Early Spring, Middle Spring, Late Spring, Early Summer, Middle Summer, Late Summer, Early Fall, Middle Fall, Late Fall. Twelve gave birth to fifty-two, and then (since the markers of seasons are truly infinite), uncountable seasons within seasons.
III. The Daybook and the Homely Laws of Phenology
As a way of compiling and sorting the hundreds of thousands of words I had used in my observations, I put together a daybook. This daybook has one chapter for each day of the year, and each chapter contains my notes for that day between 1984 and 2015. Its combination of 17th century meteorology and what Gilbert White called parochial history has provided the basis for the nature columns that I currently write for a number of newspapers and magazines. It has been a teacher that has shown me how clusters of observations create seasons. It has been a well of local natural history that is not available in another single place.
In addition, the daybook is the source for what I like to think of as laws of phenology. It appears to me that these laws or maxims or principles are the scaffolding upon which all phenological information is ordered and with which ecological assessments are made. They treat natural events not as separate occurrences but always connected to other events, in the context of other events, and creating context for other events. This framework is most immediate and practical if it is built through personal contact with the environment. And, without such contact, the “laws” vanish for lack of raw material and structure.
A. Beginner’s Mind and the First Law of Phenology
The First Law of Phenology is self-evident and contains the whole of the process of observation and engagement with observation: When one thing is happening in nature, something else is happening, too. In a great synecdoche, the “one thing” always points to other things, one part linked to so many other parts, and ultimately to the whole.
Each event, therefore, is a mine from which one draws out limitless concurrent events. In natural history, this synecdochic law is even more useful than in poetry or fiction, an isolated flower or scent or taste easily able to conjure whole seasons as well as to map an ecological system.
In early June, for example, sweet, ripe strawberries are a single tip of summer. But with synecdochic power, their odor and flavor expands time and space, envelops a totality of events in their maturity. With strawberries come the longest days of the year and the completion of the forest canopy. The planting stars, Arcturus and the Corona Borealis, are overhead at night, Hercules not far behind them to the east, followed by the Milky Way, middle summer’s Vega and the Northern Cross. Scorpius follows Libra across the southern sky.
One ripe strawberry implies all of the flowers of early summer: chamomile, clustered snake root, white clover, red clover, yellow sweet clover, yarrow, blue-eyed grass, angelica, prairie false indigo, hemlock, blackberry blossoms, wild roses, swamp iris, meadow goat’s beard, feverfew, and crown vetch. To mention just a few.
Strawberries are a sign that mulberries and pie cherries are getting ripe, black raspberries not too far behind them, a sign that quail are whistling for their mates, that box turtles are laying their eggs, that spiders are weaving their webs across woodland paths, that the spring field crickets are mating. The catalogue of objects and events could go on and on. Each term in the list is convertible from part to whole, from microcosm to macrocosm.
One might conjecture that in order to trace something even as subtle as an instance of the “Butterfly Effect” (or sensitive dependence) to its source, it would be necessary to begin with the First Law of Phenology and follow the concentric circles of coincidence to a conclusion in which cause and effect might even be indistinguishable.
And if the First Law is both so simple and so broad that it might be applied to everything happening in the universe at any given instance, it is also the first step in the creation of local natural history. It is the core of the naturalist’s beginner’s mind.
B. The Second Law of Phenology
I took my thousands of nature observations and sorted them around 24-hour periods in a daybook. Once the clusters had been formed, the result was rather obvious: My notes for any given day created that day in my backyard natural history. And so the Second Law of Phenology: Any named unit of space or time is only the sum of its parts: What you see is what you get.
Gathering observations is a process of giving birth to these units. Each observed piece of information contributes to a larger construct; without these fragments there is no visible time or space at all to observers. A certain number of parts might be posited as necessary for any unit to exist as a concept. And the more parts one can identify, and the more dimensions one can add to the mix, the more the whole becomes.
The existence of any seasonal or geographic construct, then, is a matter of filling the emptiness of unawareness with detail. Indeed, the details are not peripheral but central. They are the only things. They are the critical parts of the whole, their synecdochic power enhanced by multiplication.
One might formulate a corollary to the Second Law, that a decrease in the number of elements decreases the construct in itself. The critical tipping point of absences is of obvious concern to ecologists tracking the effects of climate change and mass extinctions. And any change in the makeup of one time or place affects the makeup of the next, in fact, the whole state of nature. The lushness of strawberry summer, for example, is so thick that it seems inconceivable that the loss of one element (or simply forgetting to include one element) alters its essence. But unless the construct of events in nature is fleshed out as much as possible, the whole is understood less fully and is in danger of erosion, and ultimately of collapse. At that point, you truly don’t get it if you don’t see it.
C. The Third Law of Phenology
The creation of radial data, using successive daybook entries about the course of nature for the same day of the year in the same place over many years, reveals a surprising regularity to natural phenomena on any given time in any specific locale, which can be used to monitor similarities and changes from year to year. Events accumulate to suggest patterns that are fractal but consistent.
So I thought that a Third Law of Phenology might then be formulated as follows: Radial time informs linear and circular time. As observation and clustering create sequence and connection in the mind of the observer, they also create a phenological network that links observed events through the radii of the years. Images and impressions from each year overlap, some almost the same, others seeming out of focus, but all together creating one time-lapse day across decades.
The Third Law, like the first two laws, is not surprising nor is it new. It simply suggests benefits of placing observations vertically instead of horizontally. If, for example, one tracks the trajectory of first cardinal song from March through August for a given year, the notes proceed in a linear fashion. Paying attention to first cardinal song during several twelve-month periods creates a circular pattern. However, in order to find average or typical times for any given day, I look at first cardinal song times for that day radially across a span of thirty or more years. The Third Law simply displays as well as enumerates the raw data for averaging.
A radial approach allows a contrast of events that are more difficult to identify in a linear or circular context. In addition, armed with radial data, the explorer finds unity as well as variation. Instead of the effect sought so diligently in the 19th century by the creator of the kinematoscope, in which still pictures were rotated or manipulated to create the illusion of motion, the radial observer might note an opposing effect, an inverse kinematoscope that stills the disruption of passage in which one kind of event reaches back and forth through multiple seasons, is knit tightly with parallel events that are separated only by linear and circular time, time that, in spite of appearance, and no matter how fast it seems to fly, makes the present only more fixed and indelible. Nothing is separate. One event is all there is.
D. The Fourth Law of Phenology
Adjunct to the Third Law, the Fourth Law revealed by the daybook is perhaps the most simple but most controversial of these curious principles: If something happens once, it will probably happen again. Certainly history as well as daily life are replete with events that did not or cannot happen again. On the other hand, radial time demonstrates the fractal consistency of self-similar patterns that traverse a cross-section of imaginary temporal units such as days or weeks or years. And without the Fourth Law, neither human nor beast, fish nor fowl, would venture out into the world. Frozen by uncertainty and unknowing, no creature would risk its existence in constant novelty. Without the Fourth Law, observation would make no sense. Who could draw conclusions from what occurs if the occurrence could not be repeated? Scientific method would implode. To the observer, matter would be an endless string of isolated, unreferenced, linear constructs, formed by the witness-mind. Buttressed by the first three laws, however, the collector of sense data can make sense, shaping a universe rich in experiences which never occur in isolation, which are the sum of their parts and which are then, thanks to the Fourth Law, enhanced and defended and actually created by salutary repetition. And so although not every event reoccurs, meaning or sense in both human life and nature is dependent on events that do reoccur.
E. The Fifth Law of Phenology
One of the dangers of making notes on phenomena in nature, having had academic training in language, history, philosophy and literature instead of in the natural sciences, is that the note-maker is likely to collect all sorts of information that doesn’t seem to fit with any other information he or she may have gleaned.
This, the reader may imagine, happened to me when I tried to focus on something other than nicotine. As my notes multiplied, however, I found that they seemed to clump in various and assorted ways. And the more notes I made, the more conclusions I came to, chaos congealing, so to speak, into new and unexpected forms. My conclusion was, in a way, a return to the First Law, but was also a step further, an audacious assertion, but one which was consistent with the other laws, and one which opened vistas to the unknown: Nothing is unconnected. Everything makes sense.
An incident in my almanacking career brought this home to me several years ago when the young daughter (age twelve, as I remember) of a friend of mine asked what she should do in order to become a scientist. Not being a scientist, of course, I could offer her no practical academic suggestion. And so I told her that she should just observe and take notes. “Everything eventually makes sense,” I told her, without really knowing if that were actually true.
And after she left, I began to question myself and wonder if I had, in fact, lied to her. So I went to my daybook to see if I could find something trivial that really was less trivial than it seemed. I decided to consider my observations about camel crickets (Ceuthophilus spp.), a variety of cricket easily identified by its large hump. These creatures live in the crawl space under my house and occasionally come out to explore. Checking my notes, I found that I had made 18 entries about camel crickets between 1998 and 2005. The notations read like this:
January 1, 2005: A sign of good luck for 2005: a camelback cricket in the bathtub when I went to take a shower.
January 14, 2001: Camel-back cricket found halfway up the bedroom wall.
January 14, 2004: Camel-back cricket killed by the dog on the kitchen floor this morning.
February 1, 2002: Camel-back cricket found in the bathtub when I got up. Skunk odor in the back yard at 6:00 a.m.
February 7, 2001: Camel back cricket found drowned in the dog’s water.
Mar 11, 1998: Baby camel cricket on the bathroom floor this morning, remnant of fall and winter.
May 31, 1999: Small camel cricket seen in the house at 4:30 a.m.
May 31, 2004: Small camel cricket found in a coffee cup in our cupboard.
June 1, 2000: I accidentally stepped on a medium-size camel cricket in the kitchen at 12:30 this morning; I saw another in the greenhouse at 6:00 a.m.
July 18, 2004: Body of a large cricket found at the bottom of the container of the dog’s kibbles.
August 19, 2004: A large camel-back cricket in the bathtub this morning. It sat in my hand as I brought it out to the greenhouse.
August 28, 2003: A huge camel cricket got into the tub last night, was hiding behind the shampoo bottles this morning.
September 2, 2005: Overnight, a large camel-back cricket got stuck in the bathtub.
November 14, 2000: Camel cricket found in the greenhouse.
December 5, 2000: Camel-back cricket killed in the house by one of the cats last night.
December 7, 2000: Camel-back cricket in the hallway, 8:45 p.m.
December 8, 2000: Camel-back cricket in the greenhouse this morning.
December 24, 2000: Tonight, as we sat with the candles lit after supper, a camel-back cricket came hopping down the hall. Good luck this Christmas Eve!
Now although my awareness of the camel cricket was completely casual, I decided I could make some broad generalizations about these creatures from what I had written down: The crickets seemed to be more active in the colder months. They liked bathtubs. They were accident-prone. During the summer, they were apparently content to stay in the dark of my cool crawl space doing whatever they liked. And at some point during the winter, the adults seemed to die off or appear less frequently while the young emerge.
Although these conclusions do not seem particularly unreasonable or profound, one might assume that they would be less complete than entomology reports from various universities. Such, however, was not the case. In fact, I found that while reports on the Internet by university entomologists fleshed out my picture of camel crickets, they were rife with just the kinds of qualifiers that I was forced to make.
Those academic descriptions were partial to words such as “often” and “sometimes.” And using a university-style entomological commentary, the casual almanacker might add to the standard description of these creatures that “indoors they sometimes get trapped in bathtubs,” or that “they seldom get trapped in sinks,” that “they occasionally fall into empty drinking glasses and are unable to get out,” or that “they don’t eat our clothes unless you leave them around on the bathroom floor,” or that “they frequently emerge at night in the kitchen,” or that “they have been known to jump into containers of kibbles and die,” or that “they drown in the dog’s water,” or that “they sometimes fall prey to house cats or are accidentally stepped on by humans.”
Had my addiction been less difficult to manage, it is quite likely I would never have paid attention to the camel crickets, or come to the above conclusions. And I hypothesize that the lay taker of notes, free from juried rigor, might demonstrate that not only do those insects have certain patterns of behavior, but that they also may bring on positive feelings of good fortune, that their presence sometimes might make the night seem less lonely and that their occasional visitations could frequently brighten the soul and make the year ahead seem sweet and promising.
As to whether all of this is simply an example of a “camel-cricket fallacy,” who can tell? The Fifth Law of Phenology is the least provable but the most exciting and promising of all the laws. Perhaps most important, without its promise of possibilities, neither scientists nor reformed addicts would bother to go to the woods.
IV. The Path to a Flat World
A. Aliens in the Land of Siri
I not only abandoned tobacco but also became enamored of collecting and hoarding notes about nature and with making sense out of a new, tangible world for myself. Having been quite divorced from my environment before I stopped smoking, I was surprised and delighted to find that it existed at all, comprised of thousands of individual creatures and movements.
But although it seemed to me that my homely discoveries would be so homely that I could find scholarly and anecdotal evidence of them everywhere, such was not the case. In fact, nowhere could I find a “parochial history,” a day-by-day description of the year for my location, or for the region in which I lived. Nor could I find guidance for the seeker of order in the chaotic world of sense data.
I also reflected that while scientific method takes advantage of all of what I saw as “laws,” and applies them with great variation and complexity in a plethora of scholarly books and journals and documentaries, the plain pieces of time and place with which the plethora are composed are simply not readily available or made available. Consequently, the lay observer often feels disconnected from the results of professional investigations. Current questions about the existence of climate change, for example, reflect this sort of estrangement from actual conditions, conditions which are always manifested in local ways and places.
And it is this alienation which is perhaps most dangerous in the current social situation in which Siri or Google seem to be able to answer almost any question and in which most people are indifferent to or ignorant of matters of the environment, aliens in their own country.
Of course, it is not for lack of opportunity that Emerson’s “civilized man” does not understand where he is. Everything is in front of him, but, distracted by technology, he does not look, does not see, and therefore does not get. Perhaps even more insidious is the common assumption by the civilized man that the almanac and its virtual descendants are enough.
B. The Almanac Fallacy
The Greenwich Nautical Almanac referenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson had been available since 1767, was a popular tool both on land and sea, and it documented the radical, sense-defying beliefs of the new astronomy. “The world is round,” those star-gazing authors said. “Contrary to what our eyes seem to tell us, earth is not the level, stationary center of the universe. We are inhabitants of an insignificant asteroid which is spinning at soul-splitting speed through infinite space for all eternity.”
Feathered with easily understood tables of weight and measures, the almanacker’s nest held eggs of surprising and less ordinary dimensions which few lay people understood: predictions about the risings and settings of planets, the arrival of comets and occultations and eclipses of the sun and moon. And most of the readers, never matching the events with the supposed times, were comforted simply to believe what they were told.
Not only did almanacs provide astronomical pronouncements, such as the above, with statistics to support their assertions, they sought out the most sensational and peculiar news items. They were the check-out counter tabloids of their times.
Novelty was absolute. And quantity was far more important than quality; if a
man had lived to be one hundred and fifteen, almanackers cared little whether or not he had had a good life. How many times or how long something was supposed to have happened was considered more noteworthy than other characteristics of the event itself.
The obsession for the uncommon perverted even the simple pleasures of gardening. That someone should have grown a tomato was hardly worthy of mention; that someone should have grown a record-breaking, behemoth tomato was always something else again.
In my capacity as a small-town journalist, I once was called to the house of a man who had probably grown the fattest tomato of the season in my entire home town. Unfortunately, my visit was delayed more than a week, and when I arrived, the prize had decayed to an unpleasant smelling, olive-green wad of mush.
But the fellow had preserved it for me anyway in a plastic bag. He pulled it from the refrigerator, and held it up for me to see. “It’s not what it was,” he admitted, but he showed me a piece of paper on which he had written its impressive former circumference and weight. The idea of the great tomato transcended its demise. The bag of foul-smelling flesh and seeds was of more significance than some small, sweet red specimens that lay before us on the table, flushed and firm in the prime of their edible lives.
The error of using numbers to replace matter is not uncommon, of course. The readers of early almanacs, like Emerson’s “civilized man” and today’s smart-phone addicts, not only relished the outlandish, and the glorification of novelty, but they also basked in the authority of electronic data and information in itself; they began to slide into a new Age of Faith.
Unfortunately, today’s civilized men and women are in much greater peril than were Emerson’s of succumbing to the allure of disconnection. The temptations of 21st century virtual reality are so bright and colorful, so pornographic in their exaggerations and their movement, that they fill attention deficit to the brim and remove the senses from the less alluring, homely experience of non-electronic plants and animals, trees and other people.
C. Carol’s Moon and a Flat Earth
Recently a woman I will call Carol shyly admitted to me her anguish about the moon. It was a misunderstanding, she thought, certainly something she could or should have cleared up when she was younger.
“But now I’m so embarrassed,” she said. “You know I always thought the moon made its own light, and that, well, it glowed from inside.”
Then she told me how she had just read that the lunar surface actually reflected light from the sun. We talked for only a few minutes, but I was struck by her emotion and by her need to share her very real disillusion.
It was especially interesting to me because I had been thinking about the tension between scientific method and personal method. I had been thinking about how the authority of astronomers and physicists and naturalists is often intimidating and discouraging to the layperson, and how most of what modern humans think about the world and the universe is taken completely on faith. They defer to specialists like peasants to priests, and they lose their wonder and curiosity.
The problem is not that first impressions might be contrary to fact, but rather that media-forged, supposedly scientific assertions about the universe tend to discourage people from forming their own impressions, from valuing their own observations, and from putting those observations and investigations not only into a creative, personal world view, but also into practical ecological applications in their own landscape.
So I thought of Carol’s disillusion and self-deprecation as a logical conclusion of the widening gap between the personal and the academic-scientific-research-online-media complex, and the resultant breakdown of connection between the individual and the immediate landscape within his or her vision.
And I wanted to reassure Carol and to reassure myself: There are too many lessons to be learned from a self-lighting moon to mourn its error. In fact, the idea of Carol’s moon defiantly asserts the basic need to discover things for oneself. The journey through the cosmos does not begin with rocket ships or telescopes but rather with objects close at hand. It is not enough to accept what we read and hear and see in books and on screens. Such naiveté is the almanacker’s and the capitalist’s and the academic’s profit. It is the naiveté that embraces size over taste, statistics over flesh, novelty over the ordinary, blind faith over the individual’s experience.
A rebellion of personal observation and the courage to be wrong may be the only antidotes for such spiritual and scientific torpor. And the first step on the journey to intellectual liberation might be to limit one’s vision to what the senses often seem to say: that the world is flat.
Explorers may sail west in order to go east; rockets may go to Mars; satellites may send electrical impulses that many interpret to be pictures of a “round” earth. Believing these messages without investigation not only aborts one’s personal power, but also endangers habitat and contributes to a vast fouling of the planetary nest.
A healthy skepticism toward vicarious science will keep humanity from living in a place in which the sun and moon rise only on charts, where stars appear only on apps, where distance is measured by exotic formulae, and where circumference is the equivalent of flavor.
A flat world is a local world, a world that is created from simple, personal, immediate sense data, gathered and pondered and sorted, guided by simple “laws.” This flat world is accessible to everyone, and it is bright and deep and full of wonders. When the pilgrim in nature has come to its edge, having found the way by the stars that can be named from the closed dome above, there will be time enough for other notions.
V. Back to the Future
It would seem that the danger of disconnection from nature has continued now for several centuries, and that modern humans, like Emerson’s man on the street, have almost no idea what is happening around them.
Natural history is not neglected in academe or in the media. On the other hand, detailed local natural histories are few and far between, and other than gardeners’ journals and various memoirs and diaries of the seasons, a detailed view of what is happening at any given time or in any given place is often elusive. Consequently, the laws of phenology appear simplistic or irrelevant. The excitement of their strange assertions is lost in modern, almost holographic distractions. Indeed, without a bag full of observations, the laws hardly exist at all.
What began in the seventeenth century with Joshua Childrey’s Britannia Botonia and other compilations of common and uncommon events on earth, and then reached its zenith with the down-to-earth “parochial history” of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, has been replaced by massive amounts of loose and unfocused information, wandering stars of scientific knowledge that, rather than bringing the public closer to nature, have taken away the need and motivation for such engagement. So tangled with what Childrey might call a telescope, they fail to see themselves in the mirror, surrounded by their habitat.
I puzzle about the solution to such a situation except to return to the suggestion of Gilbert White: That each one should pay attention to what is occurring in his or her own parish, and that when enough data has been collected, a more coherent picture of reality will emerge. Returning to the new flat (local) world in which laws of phenology appear spontaneously from close examination of the landscape at hand (but disappear in the absence of immediate impressions), one can start again, move out finally and confidently, and with feet still on the ground, into the round and infinite cosmos.
Bill Felker received his B.A. in philosophy and his M.A. in foreign languages and area studies from the University of Minnesota, and his Ph.D. in foreign languages and history from the University of Tennessee. After half a century in the classroom, he now writes farm and nature almanacs for several regional newspapers and magazines. His radio segment, “Poor Will’s Almanack,” is broadcast weekly (and is available on podcast) on NPR’s WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Many of his phenological essays can be found on his website, www.poorwillsalmanack.com.