Thursday, July 30, 2015


The marvelous world we live on is so varied and marvelous that it’s part of the human condition (at least for the normally adventurous of us) that we want to go out and see some of it. Thus the tourist industry. It wasn’t always that way. Tess d’Urberville might normally have expected to never leave her valley and her poor little cottage, except her not-cousin cousin raped her and made her pregnant, and a chain of tragical romantic adventures got rolling, which took her as far as Stonehenge and a couple other far-off exotic spots in Southern England. A noose put an end to all that travel and exploration, but like I say, it’s a terribly unfair tragedy. The young sailor, Herman Melville, jumped ship in the South Pacific and took up with the Typee who lived on Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, and who quite literally never, ever left their valley, except to raid the one next door on rare occasions. Of course it was paradise, with everything they needed, but it was a paradise with mountain walls around it. They were so adamant that no one was to leave the valley that they were furious with Melville when he tried, and when he finally got away, they came within a whisker of killing him for it. He was fortunate to have made it out. I’m glad he did because a world without Moby Dick in it would have been that much poorer a place. Henry David Thoreau took a dim view of travel in his books and journals, claiming that it was a consumerist waste of time and one of the questionable privileges that wealth purchases. He wrote in his journal,

If a man is rich and strong anywhere, it must be on his native soil. Here I have been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself. If I should travel to the prairies, I should much less understand them, and my past life would serve me but ill to describe them. Many a weed here stands for more of life to me than the big trees of California would if I should go there. We need only travel enough to give our intellects an airing.

He made one trip down the Concord and Merrimac Rivers in a rowboat with his brother, and one to Cape Cod, another to the Maine woods, all of which triggered great airings of the Thoreauvian intellect, but that was not distant heroic travel even for his day. He made it on one other trip as far as Minnesota. Still, for all his insistence on staying home and writing about the advantages and necessity of studying ones place, which is inexhaustible to the attentive and curious nature noticer, he was fascinated with travel narratives—Darwin, William Bartram, and more, were influential. I think Thoreau desired travel a lot more than he admitted, but a stay-at-home attentiveness needed to be the compensation for the life of poverty he chose. Travel is expensive. It was all about nature for Thoreau at any rate. Darwin and Bartram travelled to observe nature. In the end, the reason people read travel narratives, all the way back to Sir John Mandeville, who travelled through North Africa, the Middle East and India in the Middle Ages, and Marco Polo, who made it to China and Mongolia, is because it was such a strange and exotic thing to even think about. It was exceptional. Travel was romantic, but it was weird.

Thoreau’s compensation was to study the rhythms of the flowers and weeds in the woods around, and he wrote a famous essay about walking, which was the free, localized travel that substituted in his imagination for steamboat passage to jungles, snow-capped mountain, cathedrals, and palaces. It was just a question of how narrow to adjust ones focus and what one chooses to observe: What one chooses to value out of life’s experience. The other important thing about Thoreau’s experience is that he wrote it up. These amazing things that surround us don’t write or try to communicate, they just are. It was the Transcendentalist’s project to discern message in the fabric and gesture of the world, but that was as much a creative act as an interpretive one. The line between creativity and interpretation is less fixed than we like to admit. But the thing about creativity is that it doesn’t just poof things into existence out of a vacuum, and then, the thing created often takes on a reality. Thoreau died before he finished his great project, and no one is quite sure to this day what exactly he was up to, but he was closely observing the rhythms of nature, observing and writing them, partially as a scientist does—to interpret—but just as importantly as an artist does, so that he was writing into being a new and newly valid iteration of creation. C.S. Lewis has Aslan the Lion sing and roar Narnia into being. Exactly like that, yet not. Aslan creates Narnia out of a void. We create out of material that life presents. We sew shirts and dresses out of life’s gift of fabric. Thoreau is credited, as a result, as one of the first ecologists, or the first ecologist, but his real aim I believe was to push through the science into an understanding of God the Artist and then translate that work. Translation is an art in itself; it is more than reporting, more than decoding. The work must be faithful to the original but it must also be fully and thoroughly reimagined if it is to have life in the new form the translator sets out to create.

B. laments his travelogue shortcomings in this poem, though we know from The Dream Songs that he crisscrossed North America, had extended stays in France and England, and one in India. Respectable, but there’s plenty more to see. Instead, “Forgoing the Andes, the sea-bottom, Angkor, / he led with his typewriter. He made it fly / & walk to them sites for him.” The writer’s compensation! He creates his own iteration of the marvelous world, and it’s just as real and probably more accessible anyway than the sea bottom. Except—it’s not enough. You see someone in Greece with real problems, and remind yourself that it could be a lot worse, but that’s not enough either. The world waited in all its marvelous wonderment, and he wrote and wrote instead of seeing it. The compensation of that, the fabric of the created world he did experience, isn’t enough this time. “When nostalgia for things unknown grips him he growls / he’s saving it for the next time around.”

Maybe there’s a “next time around” and maybe there isn’t. There isn’t much comfort in that thought, seems to me, outside of a pretty adamant fundamentalist faith in reincarnation and an afterlife, but it’s the best he’s got at the moment. He’s not a fundamentalist: He’s groping for solace. The poet here is struggling with a bad suspicion: All this nose to the grindstone business was foolish. He missed so much. But I think I might argue with that: He roared something into being here. It’s true he didn’t pay enough attention to the world and its sites, not over the horizon, nor, like Thoreau, to what was growing under his shoes. But every one of us is, as Emerson claims, “part and parcel of creation.” He put something out there, roared and sung into being out of the fabric of his awareness, and that in itself is a wonder and a marvel.

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