What would life be like if we could thrive only for a few weeks each year?
If, for the rest of the year, we had to lie dormant in dryness and heat, exposed to wind and relentless rodents that assume everything that’s not rock or sand is edible?
We would do our best to make these few weeks count. All our prickly defenses would make place for a display of attraction.
The pictures here were taken early 2001 in the Joshua Tree National Park, at the peak of the wildflower season. All these plants are strangers to me, as I am a stranger to their home, the desert.
It was still good to be a guest, because even the most alien forms of life can teach us something.
Persistence, in this case.
“West” has meant different things at different times. It (still) signifies a cultural attitude of possession: This planet is ours, we can transform it at will.
It has also signified exploration, and transcending imagined limits.
Settling at such a limit point signifies an attitude, the willingness to accept being a Stranger in a Strange Land.
Esthetics here is necessarily a potpourri of ideas and cultures that do not create a harmonious whole by itself.
The unifying theme is elsewhere.
Every attempt to create one’s own little human space here is humbled by the vastness of the world around us.
That we are allowed to be here, too, is a form of grace.
The Eastern Massasauga is Michigan’s only poisonous snake. This was my first encounter with a rattlesnake, I didn’t expect to find her at a beach in Michigan.
The camouflage in the dried sea grass is near perfect, but the human predator trying to get a better picture annoyed her, so she moved.
Why do us men think of snakes as female, and reserve the male attribute to her larger brother, the dragon (whom I still have to find)?
They are beautiful, elegant, hit you when you expect it least, and sneak away when you don’t look.
Sometimes, they also just sit there thoughtfully and lick their tongue.
Nested among a garden of fruit trees next to the Roofless Church in New Harmony is another sculpture by Stephen de Staebler, the Angel of Annunciation, which is easy to overlook, despite its tallness.
A small plaque on the church wall nearby quotes a poem by Staedler that states that arms are for doing, while wings are for being.
This angel is deeply conflicted. The arm sticks out of his head like the wings. The head itself, whose face is just recognizable as such from the side, is split in half when viewed from the front.
One of the two feet is cemented in, the other free to walk. Where does this leave us?
There is another sculpture in this garden, without plaque or any indication of authorship: A piece of wood, hanging from a tree.
It’s not a sculpture. It’s what is left over from binding the branches of an aging tree together to keep it from breaking and falling apart. An attempt can never completely be a failure. Doing and being can still be one.
A river with its strict sense of flow is a universally used symbol for the passage of time. Resistance against that is, in contrast, best contemplated by looking at the relentless forth and back of waves along a coast line.
Time is reduced here to repetition, it seems.
The weeds and twigs shown are gone. Their only action then was to write on the water, invisibly, and immediately forgotten.
But there is more. They are defending a territory beyond the water.
They are also witnesses for an esthetic of complexity beyond the untextured and timeless water.
And finally, they did leave their traces, elsewhere, in memory.
For many years we went camping to Nordhouse Dunes at Lake Michigan, and an episode of nostalgia made us revisit this place one last time before my daughter is off to college & life.
In László Krasznahorkai deliberately cryptic book War & War, the hero György Korin is depersonalized: He just symbolizes a single function of our lives, namely delivering the past into the future, becoming the horizon between the below and the above.
This happens concretely by carrying an old manuscript to New York, a place that the four inhabitants of that manuscript haven’t seen yet. These inhabitants are cryptic, too, bemoaning the loss of the noble, the great, and the transcendent, this causing also the loss of peace, so that the world now consist of only war & war.
Korin realizes however that delivering the manuscript is not enough, he feels the calling to complete it, to find an exit for its inhabitants. There are several attempts for this, one being by writing on water.
This year, the dune grass that so gracefully used to create sand drawings, is now doing this in the water, thanks to water levels two feet above normal. The water itself leaves very temporary traces on the disappearing beach.
Is it maybe the author’s dream that his protagonists keep writing the story?
We have learned simplicity,
we sing in the choir of cicadas
In 2004, the midwest of the USA became the region of the largest outbreak of biomass on the planet. Brood X emerged, the largest of the periodical cicadas, with a life cycle of 17 years.
They spend most of their life underneath as nymphs, going through several instars, and feeding from root juices of trees. Then, almost all on the same day, they emerge, and crawl up.
They molt into adulthood, which takes up to an hour. All this takes place above an abyss. If they fall, the soft wings will not unfold properly.
In the last stage, the wings unfold.
They hide and rest for a few days. This is supposedly the time they are most delicious.
Then, they tumble around, with their poor eyesight and clumsy bodies, causing harm to none, and begin their irresistible mating chant, droning sound patterns that move through the landscape like ambient music.
17 years underneath, for a few weeks of a single song. Who will question the meaning of life?