I enjoy the sensations of things, doorknobs, laundry warm from the dryer, spider legs scampering over my palm, water when I’m thirsty, symphony strings, Buddy Guy doing some straight up insane things on his guitar, the weight of a book in my hands.
Did you know that horses are able to identify emotion in human facial expressions? I can’t even do that. What I can do is reveal or conceal an emotion depending on circumstances.
There are landscapes I could never describe. Not with paint, not with words, not with echoes or inclines or swamps. The whole is always going to be greater than the sum of its parts. This is especially true of landscapes, fjords, inlets, lakes, clouds, late afternoon light on a Tuscany hill.
I like the feeling of the word ‘seethe’ as it seethes through my teeth. As this from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, “go, suck the subtle blood ‘o the grape till the high fever seethe your blood to froth.” Or this, from Pencillings, by N.P. Willis, “Cold meat, seethed, Italian fashion, in nauseous oil.”
Do you see? Each word is a history, a palimpsest, a landscape. Cold meat seethed in nauseous oil. The workings of wine in the blood, turning it to froth, delirium and groping. Daydreaming. Musing on the grain of the wood of an old dark bar. Big arguments with the hands waving. Voices raised in speech, or singing, or the flutter of syllables on the ear in a foreign country, where the weight of what is being said is hidden among its vowels.
The word ‘landscape’ comes from Old Saxon ‘landscepi.’ Old Norse ‘landscap.’ The word was later introduced as a technical term by painters, a picture representing natural inland scenery. Or as I like to call it: the language of earth as it is spoken by wind and rock.
The loose dirt of the Palouse is called ‘loess.’ It’s soft and fine and nourishes the soft white wheat of the Palouse, which goes into the making of pastries, apple strudel and cinnamon rolls.
Since consciousness seems to be localized within my head, I always have the feeling of being in an airplane, in which case the landscape I’m looking down at is generally a carpet, if I’m barefoot in our apartment, or the sidewalk, one of many sidewalks, here in Seattle or in Paris or Minneapolis, which is a little like Paris, in that it has a river running through the city, about the same size as the Seine, but called the Mississippi, and is legendary, and full of catfish.
I remember standing on the Pont Neuf in the winter of 2015 looking down at the Seine, which looked wild and turbulent, weirdly green in color, heavy with French dirt, French landscape, paysage as they call it.
My eyes fill with the light of a thousand bright yellow leaves stuck to the sidewalk at the top of Highland Drive. The temperature is 45 degrees and is invigorating and moist. The sky is gray. It’s mid-November and Seattle’s skyline gleams below. I feel good, but can’t shake the sadness caused by hearing Guy McPherson’s grim predictions. McPherson was a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona until he left his position to live on an off-grid homestead in southern New Mexico. He has since moved to Belize and put his property in New Mexico up for sale. He is best known for his talks on imminent mass extinction due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in earth’s atmosphere, a situation he deems long out of our control. He states a paradox: if all industrial production stopped this minute and no more pollution entered the atmosphere, the heating of the planet would be accelerated since the pollutants in the atmosphere act as a filter, diffusing the sun’s heat.
McPherson delivers his talks in a calm, measured, eminently rational voice. He supports his claims with compelling facts. He has a warm presence and emphasizes the importance of enjoying life to its fullest, living in the present moment, seeking excellence in a culture of mediocrity and continuing to floss one’s teeth. He tries to put a redemptive spin on our imminent doom by urging us to do what we love, disburden ourselves from the encumbering shackles of false hope and the oppressive tyranny of jobs and money and live to the fullest while we still can. But it doesn’t work. Extinction sounds horrible. The death he describes sounds awful: when heat and humidity rise to a certain level, we behave drunkenly, because our organs are boiling.
Other climate scientists, such as Michael Tobis at the University of Wisconsin, say McPherson’s claims are incompetent and grossly misleading. I don’t know what to think. I tend to think Tobis is correct and McPherson is wrong. I want Tobis to be correct and McPherson to be wrong: way wrong. I’m not a big fan of human beings, they’ve been responsible for a great deal of ruin and savagery and pain, but I don’t want to see humanity go extinct, any more than I want to see other species go extinct. I mean, didn’t the dinosaurs do better? They managed to stick around for 165 million years. Think of it: big old walking Walmarts of bone and flesh. And what about dinosaur farts? I don’t get it. Is it all this cortical activity that’s gotten us humans into so much trouble in such a short amount of time?
It would be so much nicer if I could just reject McPherson’s claims wholesale and get on with my life. But I can’t, not quite. I can’t shake the sadness nor the truthfulness implicit in McPherson’s words that easily. It will take more than Tobis’s rigorous mathematics to do it. The wildfires and hurricanes and droughts this last summer were horrendous. Clearly, something very, very wrong is occurring to our planet. And it’s just the one planet; there aren’t any more available when this one is finally, irreparably lost.
Flash drought destroyed half the wheat crops this year.
But enough of that.
Why is it that the things over which I have the least amount of control are the things hardest to let go of?
I think the answer is right there in the question: no control.
Most of the time, the only thing I truly have control over is how to respond to things. And even there I have to separate instinct from intellect.
I have no control over the maniacs using leaf blowers in the rain when everything is sopping wet and stuck to the ground, or the jerks whose leviathan SUVs and four-by-fours won’t fit in their driveways and stick out over the sidewalk blocking everyone’s way, or the ongoing looting of the American population by their “elected” officials, and their cronies, the banks.
Making money out of thin air. “Don’t think money does everything or you are going to end up doing everything for money,” said Voltaire. Amen to that.