Monthly Archives: July 2015

Wolfe, Stegner, & Steinbeck: American nomadism and the elusive notion of home

Time standing still

Time stands still

Time seems to be standing still as I sit here day after day under the great dome of the sheltering sky. Minutes feel like an eternity and I am lost in them. I have started passing the stagnant crush of time by the movement of the clouds: the buildup of great billowy cumulus towers and then the subsequent dissipation of them, the choppy puffs of woolly looking cirrocumulous floccus arching in a trail from horizon to horizon, the shifting mood of light and shade as the monolithic clouds appear, move and then disappear. And then I feel as damn near ceasing to exist as I have ever felt under the blinding, deliberate, solitary march of the sun across a desolate, cloudless, celestial landscape. I am a nomad, adrift in endless days with no anchor.

It is not just the lack of action and it is not just boredom. It is a frightening stillness. Even the air is still. So still that it leaves an unsettling fear that I am not even here, that perhaps I am a figment of someone’s imagination – maybe my own. This is how I imagine death: Nothing. Nothing to remind you that you are alive. The only indicators being the up and down of my chest and the slow aging of my sun baked skin. There is no sensual arousal when life stands still. Nothing to excite even the mind holed up in a sedentary body because the mind still needs to be touched, thrilled, moved. And nothing but the clouds are moving. Everything is standing still; even me.

Living out of a bag

Living out of a bag

I am uprooted. Temporarily, but it’s enough to give me a notion of what feeling homeless must be like. And yet I made this choice. It was a calculated (if not a little romantic) decision for career, for experience, for my love of the land – and while I am enchanted by the land, it is the known lands of home that call in my solitude.

Like a good conversation with an old friend those lands emerge in my mind as more than sweet memories; they are companions in thought and action. They are the well-worn miles of dirt roads my car has driven, the rocky trails my feet have trod, the dust and air of familiar scents my lungs have breathed, the soothing backdrop to lifetimes of daydreams, and the inspiration upon which my words emerged. Yes, they are old and trusted friends. Time counted out in cadence with the tempo of my heart and the endurance of my body was an investment that has made those places an essential ingredient to what I call home. But this is not the home of my childhood, it is home by choice.

Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” Two great American writers had strikingly different views on home and both took opposing views on Wolfe’s assertion. Wallace Stegner disagreed with Wolfe while John Steinbeck agreed. Stegner believed that it was possible to go back home but that it’s getting harder due to lifestyle, and bemoaned our loss of roots. Steinbeck, on the other hand, believed that being on the go is in our blood, that we were born from a long line of restless peoples of Europe who left home for a new land and that being a nation of nomads is in our collective DNA.

I agree with the essence of what both had to say.

Americans are nostalgic people. We cling to lost time and by-gone eras like children who’ve lost a favorite toy. We never want to grow old, never want to change and yet we are the very agents of the change we so despise. Furthermore, we grow tired of old things and yearn for the new. Perhaps that is why our version of home is such a convoluted and paradoxical one: we are people of the past and future but rarely the present. We live in the tension between wanting to leave and wishing we had stayed, hating that there is loss attached to either choice.

But I believe there are two distinct versions of home: the one of our childhood in which we have no choice and the one as an adult in which we do. If we stay in the place of our childhood, home is like a yo-yo: we go out and come back, always having that familiar place to return to. To leave is to disconnect from the metaphorical umbilical cord and start anew. It can be a disorienting and lonely, but also exciting and new experience.

Both choices leave a longing that resembles sadness because to never leave is to wonder what else is out there, and to leave is to wonder why. And because we hate pain we fluctuate between the two trying to find happiness. We settle on what once was because nostalgia, which is neither happiness nor sadness, feels so good. It is a panacea for how disconnected we feel.

Cloud canvas

Cloud canvas

As my mind floats uneasily in this no man’s land of trickling time, the images of home are overshadowed by a new song that draws my attention. It is akin to nostalgia, but more solid. It is a call for change, but is not an alluring siren promising my heart’s desires. The melody is a sweet one that seems to dance with the rhythm of my life.  And it is this that makes me think that perhaps home is an evolving idea, one that matches the eye of the beholder and one that can vary from a static to a dynamic idea, as changing as the person it resides in.

Perhaps home is more like the transient theater of the sky and the memories of our youth like twinkling stars. One is trajectory while the other is fixed. In other words, home moves with us through time.

I have been home, or at least to the places of my youth, and I can’t go back. To go back would be to turn back time to a period when the world was bigger and I was smaller, to a place of ignorance and wonder, to a place that no longer exists. I have lived a lifetime between then and now and I have changed, as have those places. I don’t recognize them now; I don’t recognize myself in them.  As Steinbeck said, “You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.” When I go back I am the ghost of a past that no longer exists except in my mind; which is why home is such an elusive idea, the meaning of which is held suspended in one’s mind.

But the idea is real. I have lived in places that were not home, they were where I resided for a time and are like bus stops in my memory. But they also helped me identify what home is to me.

Steinbeck said when contemplating roots, “The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency?” But as all things sweet need their opposite to be experienced Stegner said, “Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”

Which is why, perhaps, we cling so desperately to the idea. Because we are a restless nation, we know only so well the peace that comes with permanence and so we are always longing for it – the comforting permanent idea.

As Tom Wolfe said, “Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement…that we never have the sense of home so much as when we feel we are going there.”

To go back

To go back

The song of home I hear and will likely follow, I suspect, leads to the autumn and winter of my life. I am not the same person I was at 10, or 20, or even 30. I am the person I was in all those years combined with a lifetime of experiences of joy, pain and sorrow, ignorance, futility, wisdom, as well as years. To stay forever in one place is to ignore the beating and changing of my own heart. I have grown older and have no desire to return to a by-gone past. As beautiful as the shining stars in the night sky are, they are a distant beauty. I want to remain in the ever changing, yet recurring burst of a rising sun over a mountain in the morning and the golden rays of a sleepy sunset at the end of a long day. It is not so different now as it was when I was young – I have the same eyes, but my old eyes describe a different world than my young eyes.

In seeming anguish Stegner queried, “I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to?”

Returning home

Returning home

His question seems to ask if it is possible to return to a home place that one has loved deeply. I’m not sure. To leave a place “intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to” with no intention to return is to end a relationship; it is a sort of betrayal – which may be why one can never go home again afterward. The loss is too great, the return too painful, the memories only sweet through the lens of nostalgia.

Then again, if it’s all in our heads then the hurtle is self-imposed and returning just takes an act of forgiveness, some humility, and the ability to accept ourselves as we are in the present; prodigal sons if you will. You can always return.

Wolfe said, “The mountains are my masters. They are rimmed with life. They are the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They are my absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.”

And that is the heart of it, is it not? That home is the abiding idea in the midst of a changing reality. It is the constant, the ever-present within us. What is outside must match what is inside. Even as I sit here writing, my spirits lift as my mind returns to an old image, the diffused nebula of which makes up the essence of a place I call home. Amidst the seemingly frozen time of endless days I find peace in an airy landscape that mimics what I see in my mind: the clouds roll in on a colossal canvas before my eyes, undulate and erupt into cloudy mountain ranges slowly navigating the sky until the invisible stroke of the painter’s brush washes them away with a furious stroke of angry ocean waves that cool, dissipate, and dissolve from a foamy froth to wispy nothingness.

Home

Home

And when the day has passed and the clouds are gone I feel as though I have traveled through time over countless landscapes and lived a thousand days in one still afternoon. When I come out of my reverie time begins ticking again. Home recedes from my mind as the hum of activity propels me into evening, supper, and then twilight; blinking stars, and then finally, sleep. And in the morning it starts all over again, until one morning when it will end and I will go home again, for this absence is only temporary.

While not the home base of my youth, my return home is to “a place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to” that I count clouds to pass the time in my longing. The familiar landscape where I invest my time and upon which my idea has settled is the place where well-known faces can be found, the sound of their voices can be heard, where a warm embrace can be had, where laughter is the music, soft sand is the path, and joy is the welcome mat.

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Juniper dreams and stolen plunder

Unknown lands

Unknown lands

There is something rare and notable about spending time in places not transformed by civilization; far out places where you can be alone. I’m not talking about the jewels of the country, a Yosemite or Grand Canyon. I’m talking about the places that some might consider ugly or barren, that don’t draw the crowds, and which more than likely require dirt roads and contingency plans to visit. These places are the ones that most have never heard of and even less will ever see. In a sense, they are secret places held in trust and loved by locals.

There are large swaths of “unremarkable” land that are our last hope for refuge and sanctuary, that are not loved and visited for their majestic peaks and valleys but rather for the blessings they bestow on the visitor. And while going to these places is a physical experience, it is not just the act of being there that is special; it’s the power of the place to seep into your soul that is most salient. All the notes and nuances of such places strum the spectrum of senses and produce a music you can only hear there: the sound of silence below a high wind blowing in the trees, the scent of unspoiled earth and vegetation, the sensation of being alone, but not.  It is those things that stay with you and haunt your dreams long after you are gone and which leave a longing for the impossible: a reversal of time and a repeat of what has passed in order to feel it again.

The good fortune of being able to encounter such places, depending on what happens there, determines the experience of reliving them because they are both wonderful and dangerous, which is what makes them so enticing. I would echo what Gandolf said in The Hobbit but with a twist, “There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the edge of a remote, vast, rugged, and virtually inaccessible wild now. But there are pockets of wonder that exist here which seemingly only exist in literature until you discover them. And you are lucky to be here.”

Juniper dreams

Stolen plunder

I’m not sure if it was fate, destiny, or just plain luck that got me out to such a place, but I found myself in a far-away forest of juniper, pinion, and ponderosa pine high up on a desert plateau. The sound of a dozen chainsaws ripped through the still air and released a fragrance that only mythology can describe. While everyone worked, their minds far away, lost in the physical labor of cutting, I was intoxicated by the scent released from the freshly cut softwood of juniper, my mind grappling with the juxtaposition of the mechanized saws and the natural and surprising scent that followed their roar.

As I worked pulling branches away for my sawyer my mind dove into the pages of literature. I recalled Edward Abbey’s description of burning juniper and argued to myself that if burnt juniper rivaled Dante’s smoking censers in paradise, fresh cut juniper must rival ambrosia of the gods, a divine exhalation of the earth meant for immortals. And of course being mere mortals we must cut it open to get it, plunder to steal for ourselves that which is meant for the gods. Oh the mysteries Prometheus revealed when he stole fire.

I let myself sink into the thick, sweet, and sticky air, nearly drunk from the pungent aroma rising off the trees at my feet. It smelled of birth, of time, and awoke in me the visceral act of inhaling life and being filled by it. It’s a scent that visits you in your sleep and elicits a longing for damp earth and shaded forests. I closed my eyes and thought, everyone should be so lucky.

My stay in the juniper fields ended in a hazy, fire induced sunset that acted like a shade tree cooling off the sultry landscape. The physical ache in my muscles and the smell of juniper stuck to my skin was proof enough that I had really been there. But would I ever smell it again? Perhaps. Perhaps only in slumber. When I zipped into my sleeping bag, exhausted and ready for sleep, I let loose a wish that Morpheus would periodically ride in on the cool breeze and fill my dreams with wind-swept dirt roads, quiet meadows and the scent of juniper.

Sweet dreams

Sweet dreams

A Wildfire Fairytale

Surrounded by storms

Surrounded by storms

I lit a sprig of incense and watched the smoke curl and tumble toward the ceiling. I took a sip of my coffee and my mind alighted on the smoke, drifting into daydreams – daydreams of wildfire. Wildland fire exists in that vibrant world of vintage Americana and floats in our collective conscience as legend and folklore, colored by stories of rough and rugged heroes, triumph and tragedy.

I sit at the tail end just beyond the stories. My practical experience has just begun. I am not a fire hardened smoke eater and I don’t have tales of daring feats or courage, but I do have a first fire and it was magical. It wasn’t a huge, scary fire; there wasn’t a long, arduous hike involved to get there; and it happened in the cool of an evening on an open desert expanse blanketed with thunderheads.

We had been patrolling a remote, rugged landscape and had just stopped on a high spot to scan the horizon. A cool, rainy breeze blew through the open windows. There were storm cells around us in every direction. The question was: which one will drop the lightning that will start a fire? We were storm watching, kind of like the crazy scientists in Twister except rather than tornadoes we were looking for smoke.

I lazily looked out the windows unconvinced we would see anything, but to my surprise it didn’t take long before brown puffs of smoke could be seen in the distance. Binoculars were passed around the engine as all of us took a look. The smoke stood out from the clouds by its coloration. As we were watching it someone came in over the radio asking about smoke on the horizon. He was driving up from the opposite direction and could also see the billowing brown column. We waited and watched.

By the time he came slipping and sliding up the muddy road the smoke was clearly visible. Everyone looked through the binos again and then dispatch came in over the radio asking our location and if we could respond. Though it was my first fire ever, it was everyone else’s first fire of the season and whoops and hollers, fist pumping and damn near jumping out of seats rocked the engine. The only thing missing was the Philip Seymour Hoffman character of our crew who was on another fire handling logistical support.

Though his humor and entertainment value were missed, the fire excitement filled the air and drowned everything else out. Everyone kept turning to me and asking if I was excited. Not being the most excitable person I nodded, smiled, and took it all in rather quietly.

SEAT

SEAT

I looked out the window as we drove into a seemingly empty wilderness. We followed a winding dirt road past grazing cattle that looked up from their grass unamused and watched us go by. When we got to the fire, Air Attack was circling the fire and SEATs (Single Engine Air Tankers) were coming in to drop retardant around the fire’s edge. We watched them drop half a dozen loads, soaring in low right over our heads. It was like having our own private air show. After they were through we got the go-ahead to hit the fire. As we gingerly made our way down to the fire, the engine operator turned toward the boss and said, “I’m so excited I think I’ll have a chew.”

We drove down to the fire’s edge and started working the perimeter. It didn’t smell as bad as I thought it would and in fact, I was surprised how much it smelled like a large burning smudge, thanks in large part to the sage. It made me think that what we were doing was more like prayer than work, the four of us toiling in the thick, humid air seeking supplication as we walked through coals and bathed in smoke.

It didn’t take long for my clothes to become sweat-soaked from the heat, but the night was cool and the breeze offered a welcome reprieve when it hit my wet clothing. Occasionally I stopped and looked around at the blackened and smoldering vegetation and scanned the horizon  trying to commit the scene to memory. We only get one first after all.

I watched my boss up on the ridge holding his radio up into the air to catch a signal to give the fire size-up details to dispatch, at the engine operator pulling line, and at my partner working ahead of me. I scraped the burnt earth and vegetation, suffocating the ones that were burning or smoldering. It was hard work, but there’s a certain beauty in the simplicity of it all and a subtle catharsis overcame me as I worked.

The sky was as active as we were, moving and shifting in our periphery. Storm cells hovered all around us like giant jellyfish; virga and lightning stringing down from above. We were awash in a sea of storms and fire. Out toward the east a very active cell could be seen dropping lightning every few seconds. It was frightening and enchanting all at the same time. I wondered how long we would stay on the fire with that kind of cloud to ground lightning striking so close and so often and with such ferocity nearly on top of us.

My boss radioed dispatch to get the radar on the impending storm. Sure enough, it was heading due west and straight for us. I couldn’t stop watching it. The pink clouds lit up with golden light were shaped like a turbulent tidal wave building up to a breaking point, ready to crash down to earth; lightning frantically striking out of it every few seconds.

Between the fire smoldering on the ground and the fire falling out of the sky we were sandwiched in the shrinking space between heaven and earth. I bent low to snatch a photo of the last little flame flickering in the foreground of the looming storm before turning dirt over it. I looked back at the blackened, burnt ground behind me and when I turned back it came; a torrential rush of wind poured down out of the sky and hit me like a river. I wanted to let myself get swept away in the violent stream of cold air but something caught my eye.

Between heaven and earth

Between heaven and earth

I turned and looked behind me. What was dark just a moment before was suddenly aglow. Like a woman grazed by her lover’s touch, a hundred fires and embers lit up across the ground in response. All our work of putting the fire out was undone with the arrival of one dashing guest. It was as though the earth had awakened with his presence, glowing softly against the fading light of dusk, radiant and alive.

It was a wildland fairytale. As I stood there watching the earthen stars glittering across the ground, the wind mischievously whipping around me, I heard yelling. When I turned back toward the engine my boss was waving his arms and calling us in. We made our way toward the engine, put our tools away, and jumped in. And not a moment too soon as the storm descended on us in a blast of light, thunder, and rain. I looked back one last time at the wind dancing with the earth, and then it was gone, washed away in darkness.

As we crawled over the hills and headed back to camp my boss said, “It’s not often we get chased off a fire by lightning. In fact, in the 15 years I have been fighting fire I can only think of one time that has happened.” He stopped for a moment and glanced back at me, “And that was tonight.”

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