Friday, December 27, 2013

Of Mastodons and Macmas

Mastodon! at the Indiana State Museum
I live in a state of multiple personal histories, but where History Itself hardly ever happens. Indiana is a state of people (both the Amish and the KKK have thrived here) more than events (though we're all meant to know something about drug discoveries at Eli Lilly's, and John Dillinger did rob a bank here). Memorials where Things Happened are few and far between - think plaques rather than pedestals. And my kids have picked up on this: they've pointed out on different occasions that no one comes to Indiana to sign a treatise, or tread in the footsteps of something amazing that happened, or touch the column of that one house where that declaration was made, that book was written, that changed everything. And yet. But now. We've seen... the Mastodon! And it was here! "Right here in Indiana?!?" as the kids kept asking incredulously. "Right here in River City!" kept answering Mac (furthering their bewilderment). But of whim, of a morning when we should have been grading and preparing for the holidays, we took off for the Indiana State Museum, propelled by Mac's reading of Elizabeth Kolbert's absolutely terrific piece in the New Yorker about George Cuvier and his discovery/declaration of the concept of extinction based on his work with mastodon and mammoth bones. The totally wonderful and absurd juxtaposition of the Celebration Crossing (Santa! a Train! Raggedy Ann handing out cookies!) and the Mastodon exhibit I will leave to your imagination. Instead, I hope to revel a bit in the tension of historical scales: the huge, massive (yes, mammoth!) statements of an extinct species plodding this very (now very mundane) ground we walk, and the ephemeral entreaties of my own love for my husband and children, which are so individual as to not matter (in an archaeological/historical sense), but which mean the world to me.

Mastodon Mandibles Mostly
Maybe it was thinking of Cuvier and back to the Museum of Natural History in Paris as it used it be before the, granted, fantastic renovations, but the displays looked very early 19th-century to me. Big taxonomic layouts aligning a wealth of bones that have been dug up from beneath the cornfields of Indiana. Easy realizations about the differences between Mastodons and Mammoths. It's all over: in the skull, the curve of the back, the length of the tail, the curve of the tusk. But those all look related. What really gives away Cuvier's discovery of two totally different ancestral trees for the mastodon and the mammoth are the teeth and the jaws: the mastodons had huge rounded teeth (that reminded Cuvier of breasts!!! - and gave them their name) that moved in their jaws' circular motion.

These don't look like breasts at all
Mammoths had blocks of unindividuated teeth that chewed in jaws that moved only up and down. I loved learning this. Simple, drastic knowledge that things are more complicated than you thought they were. Knowledge lodged in the crucial mundane: teeth are boring, but without them, no mastodons, no mammoths. I still can't quite explain the thrill of knowing that both species trod this land. It's linked to the thrill of place surely: I have a friend who is going to Dublin for four days in preparation for teaching Ulysses. I know that being in the landscape where Icelandic sagas were written will be one of the greatest thrills of my life. I remember Mac's careful study and then reveries when we walked all those many WWI battlefields during sabbatical. And now to close our eyes and not have to think any further than the next cornfield to imagine the roaming, and the eating of 400 pounds of ruffage a day, the enormity of this wondrous difference so close. Only time, really, separating us. 12,000 years to be imprecise but evocative of some type of scale. It's in Arizona that evidence of humans hunting mammoths and mastodons has been found - not here. Here, we get to imagine this place before people, before history, before things happened. But for the kids, mastodons being here is something big that happened. It is huge.

So there we are, the five of us in the galleries, being thrilled to discover that something really cool and huge and awesome had indeed happened here. It gave us a new sense of belonging here, I tell you: our fantasies and curiosities being met with big, solid, bones of reality. Of all things for us to feel connected to: mastodons and mammoths whose horizon of consciousness couldn't even begin to begin to begin include us. One could say the same for so many things we love: Chaucer, the Icelandic saga tellers, that one soldier next to Otto Dix in that one trench that Mac wants to think about, all of the creatures that people the books and games the kids read and play. But we retool the scale with our own yearning: we bring them closer, Chaucer and the Mastodon, Eragon and the soldier. Meanwhile, we live within the intimate otherness of family. Those whose horizons of consciousness do include us, those we yearn for all the more for being so close. I stepped outside of our gathered glee just long enough to take this picture and feel a powerful rush of sentimental emotion: their smallness in the scheme of everything, their hugeness in my world, the fragility of goodness, the thrill of love. The intimate scale is a sentimental one. The mammoth scale is a heroic one. Somehow we bridge the two with our desires to know and be known.

The mighty mastodon
And so I'm looking at this mighty mastodon, who meant so much to us. And I'm thinking about how the mastodons of Indiana are by no means unique, how the Le Brea tar pits are filled with them, how in Arizona they are the remains of the hunt. I'm thinking of the tremendous ethical problem of intimacy and uniqueness (and the impossibility of both) presented in Saint-ExupĂ©ry's The Little Prince. When I took this picture, I was thinking about the preparations for Macmas: Mac's December 24 birthday that has become a brunch that gathers our treasured friends, all of us here, more or less explicably, in this place. And I'm thinking of where to put things on a scale, a spectrum of mattering, a range of intimacy and uniqueness.  What courses throughout is the fundamental absurdity of imagination.

The mighty mammoth - totally different animal
And so to end with the reach of our wondrously absurd imaginations stretching across the unknowable and into love. There's Mac initiating an entire dinner's conversation by suggesting that Greg (of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) (!) is an unreliable narrator and that Rowley might actually be smart. And each kid presenting totally cogent arguments as to why an unreliable narrator might nonetheless be telling the truth. Mastodon bones and mammoth teeth present themselves as absolutely reliable narrators of a heroic past, one made more wondrous by being right here. They are reliable because they are gone: in their extinction is a kind of wholeness, a kind of completion, that makes them reliable - heroic and sure. We are more open-ended, sentimental and unsure, reliable only in our entanglements and heroic in our imaginations.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Becoming Trees/Trees Becoming

Mondrian, Tree II, 1912 (Minn. College of Art & Design)
"Becoming" (and its partner "fetching") has always fascinated me as a word signifying something beautiful, or at least pretty and pleasant. So wayward and complex is the English language (the pronunciation conundra of labels/lapels and cough/through/dough are the tip of the iceberg) that the very same word "becoming" has two different etymologies altogether. There is "becoming" as gerund: "a coming to be, a passing into a state". But there is also "becoming" as adjective derived from "comely" (as bejeweled is from jeweled). And comely (as this morning's OED romp revealed) is an Old English word, cymlic: beautifully constructed, delicately fashioned, fittingly wrought. "Becoming" then has its roots in the description of objects, finely made, but it's come to describe the beauty of persons, too. Becoming object and becoming person meet in the "Dream of the Rood," to which I've made a glad return in finishing an essay on the "hewn" (and oh my yes, that's a great etymological trajectory, too). There, the tree that becomes the wood that becomes the cross is a beautiful personified object, an object that speaks and marvels, and trembles with gladness and desire when Christ's (of course beautiful) body is placed upon it. It is trees, then, where the ontological and aesthetic cadences of "becoming" meet. Ever since being a companion to that early morning hunt, and granted, since thinking about trees a good deal over the past months, I've come to see them as shifting forms, Ents on the run, oscillations between states of being and beauty; I've come to see them as becoming. While Deleuze and Guattari may have resented their firmly planted roots and their hierarchic reach, there's room, in the ache and growth and, dare I say it, manipulations of trees by the human imagination to understand becoming trees in their state of perpetual becoming: to see them as unstable forms, opening to fear and transformation and beauty.

Mondrian, Apple Tree, 1912 (Minn. College of Art & Design)
And so Piet Mondrian draws and draws an apple tree in an insistent series of black chalk on paper renditions. If you Google "Mondrian Trees" any number of fascinated bloggers will take you through the transformation from landscape art to abstract art better than I can here. It's not so much the trajectory that fascinates me (though the "visual etymology" of trees in Mondrian paintings is a lovely little piece of knowledge) as the instability. Mondrian is not progressive in his tree paintings: there is no simple trajectory from lush tree to grid. Instead, there are a series of simultaneities and oscillations between branches and bars. In trees, rather than seeing an icon of stability and seasonal return, Mondrian sees fragmentation and disintegration, a hide and seek of predictable form, and elusiveness of shape. I wonder now if he, too, didn't at some point see dawn in the forest, or the sun etching (yes, that's the word) the apple tree in his yard into lines.

Bosch, drawing, Cooper Union Museum
Who knows, as one must ask, what Bosch was seeing? But there's reveling in the instability of form here, as comely creatures float up from the tree's form and the artist's pencil. These finely wrought grotesques that fascinate because they are so sure and possible, and so creepy that we really hope they're not. Deep in the OED entry on "comely" is the idea of difficulty and suffering: the effort of making the thing that is finely wrought, the dark side of the delicate: its worry and failed first attempts. Here is Bosch at play, worrying (over) tree forms until by the end it's the breath of a frothy bird and the weird gas coming out of the ass of a tusked insect. Here, as with Mondrian, I might want to be comforted by the trajectory of an abstraction, by the dematerialization of rough boring bark into abstracted tendril. But, like Mondrian, Bosch stays true to form: it's trees all the way up. Limbs (and oh how wonderful is the phrase "tree limb") and branches and shoots all over the page...

... a dynamic of shifts and transformations that happens insistently. It starts (if we wanted to choose a starting point, but really, there may be no origin here) at the bottom of the page, in the fantastic confrontation between the tree on the right whose face frowns at the flying creature whose talon/root limb reaches out to land, its own right limb still an uprooted tree part. "Who are you?" "What have you become?" Iris, who has just emerged ready to delight in the thick snowfall coming down outside (and is of course bedecking the tree outside the window in its own white mantle of snow) has just made this more interesting: the "limb creature," as she calls the flying one, has just broken free from the tree on the left and seeks another companion to liberate itself, a cleaving the tree on the right, frowns upon, maybe unwilling but certainly helpless to stop the proliferation of forms.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Being There

Actually, Sts. Cosmo & Damian
I wonder if this is how we might have appeared to her, two still strange creatures - high up, transfixed, similarly bedecked, the one on the right making hesitating gestures, the one on the left more sure. She worked around us in a long, absolutely not leisurely arc, stomping her front leg, never taking her eyes off of us, then huffing at her two spring deer who, following, leapt with unnecessary grace. She could have taken her cue from their oblivious abandon, because my guide had no intention of shooting a doe. Had a buck not been so coy, had it made an appearance, it would not have been so lucky. That is one of the many things that hunting late in the season means: the rut (what a word!), which renders the deer stupid with sex and initiates the hunting season, is drawing to a close - along with the fall that had signaled it was time to rut to the deer in the first place; most of the hunting for meat (does and spring deer) is at its end, and now hunting is for trophy (bucks). And in our measured democracy, everyone (not just the lord of the land) has the right to kill a buck, but just one (and only one). Hunting late in the season and early in the day came to mean a series of observations, a stilling of the brutal spectacle of the medieval hunt, and a slowing of the blunt narrative of the modern one. This now was never about killing a deer or shooting a gun (I don't have a license for either, so really, that was never the point), it was about the tremendous other goings-on.

the view from up here
It turns out the forest has its own dawn. Or the forest as it starts to thin into a field, a glade, a clearing. The Middle Ages kept coming up with words for this space, defining and refining what it could mean to whom. We moderns woke up early, in long tradition with Lord Bertilak (but without the squires and the mass), and traipsed through dark forest, each step crazy loud.  It's my guide's land, so he knows it very well, takes turns, a path through a shallow creek, no pause up an unexpected hill, a sure kick where a huge branch had fallen in last week's storms. For me, it's trust and hurry. All greys and then suddenly a climb up a ladder (15'? 20'? I'm notoriously bad at measurements, but it was enough to be dizzying), a tiny platform for our feet, and a simple parallelogram platform for our seats. I sit. I'm exhilarated but my body's puzzled: isn't this the part where we keep going, where the momentum builds? Hunting is about waiting. But it turns out it's the dawn, an hour later, that's first going to take my breath away. I took the picture above long after (I didn't want to have the camera's clicks and whirs bother things, I was a still still Byzantine icon, remember) this marvelous dawn, this stealing of pale peach fingers on the forest floor, this crinkling of bark into high relief, this matter of branches being recognized as such and swiftly redrawing the entire landscape from hues to lines. It was incredibly trippy, this little moment of time speeding up when everything had been so still. How alarming and resolute it must be when the sun withdraws at dusk.

yep, same spot
If this shot looks pretty much the same or closely related to you then you're like me, and you're not like my guide, the perceptive and magnanimous Virgil to my utterly ridiculous but really sincere Dante eager to traipse through the long memory of the hunt so much do I love this medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As I sat in the spreading pool of silence, I could absolutely let myself imagine the crash and tumult of Bertilak's first hunt, I could even pretend to see ghostly forms as "Deer dashed through the dale, dazed with dread" (l.1151, Marie Borroff's translation from the Norton Critical edition, 2010). What I could not see was what my guide saw: deer; legs and elegant necks moving in gliding parallel with the lines of the trees. He kept seeing them many minutes before I could. A connoisseurship that left me marveling every time the deer would materialize from between the trees. Looking at the image above, you'd wonder that I couldn't see them before. But the lines are not so clearly delineated, there's a good deal of confusion in the stillness.

the edge of the forest, of the clearing
I had come out here to think along the lines of Gawain (ll. 1126-1178 and 1319-1364 were the ones I read and reread - translation is below the late-14th-century English) and the Saint Eustache legend, and even just line 29 from The Dream of the Rood. And I did, I newly understood the desire for the rush of life in sylvan silence: the plenitude of the deer herd that excited Bertilak's dogs so, the stag filling the glade with its resplendent antlers in which Saint Eustache saw a brilliant crucifix, the tree that would become the cross of the crucifixion remembering its original place at the forest's edge before the men came to cut it down. Despite this attempt to write, I still don't know why place, or rather  being there (forest, glade, clearing, tree place) meant so much here. It wasn't re-enactment certainly, it wasn't medieval authenticity (I live in Indiana for crying out loud), it wasn't hunting ( a big part of life where I live which I now understand completely differently and still hardly). (There is a long caveat to be written about hunting, its mixed status around here as both sport and food, the ethics (oh yes) of thinning herds so fewer deer starve to death, but i want to think more about that in relation to the ethics and aesthetics (and class!) of the medieval hunt before I write it). I think that there is this idea of resonance, of trees and deer present and past; but even more so, there is this idea of stretching out these texts in a place other than the classroom or the study, of letting them mingle with the brief (whispered) interruptions of silence my guide and I exchanged, human commonalities in mundane moments of extraordinary circumstances: talk of looking after our fathers, kids today, our kids, of meeting our spouses, our friends, of doing our work. Talk of revelation and adventure, of plenitude and respite.