Readings — From the January 2010 issue

The Wisdom of Rats

From “Contested Ground,” which appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Orion. Trinity, a collaboration between Bowden and photographer Michael P. Berman, was published last October by University of Texas Press.

As a child, I could not color within the lines. Nor interest myself in children’s books. I also had trouble with categories, and this I have never outgrown. I have trouble understanding the concept of eras, I question the line in our culture that separates organic and inorganic, I talk to trees but also speak to rocks, I distrust chunks of meaning called the Ancient World, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the American Century. I falter around words like progress.

Time has also been a problem since I cannot keep the past in the past, cannot believe the present is pure and freestanding, and think the future is simply a place we imagine.

I cannot really fathom hierarchies and so I believe in evolution as a fact but not as a meaning. I understand that the man is more complex than the pigeon but I do not feel this fact nor really believe it. My first crayon drawing was of a worm thinking of a man.

I am certain there can be no comprehension of the present without the past, just as I am certain the past is not past. And there can be no comprehension of the present without all the tribes, human, animal, floral, and stones, river and dry wash, at the table taking part in the talk.

Nor do the disciplines convince me. Science cannot be kept safe from poetry, the cyclotron must deal with St. Francis and his Little Flowers, and the wolf cannot escape the force of the lupines blue with spring. I also believe in the wisdom of microorganisms. Scholars of dung heaps command my attention.

Years ago, I concluded that all concentrated forms of energy in human hands become dangerous. The state mutates into the tsar, the lane becomes the sterile corridor of the freeway, the fire morphs into a nuclear pile, the songs go corrupt and become propaganda. Freedom becomes slavery and valor descends to shock and awe. God becomes the Church.

I do not know what art means but I know what it is. Edward Hopper is in Paris between 1906 and 1910 and he is lonely because he is always lonely and will always be lonely. He is the figurative painter, an idea then slipping from fashion, but his paintings capture desolation so complete it will take decades, until the summer of 1945, to replicate what he sees in his mind. The young woman has dark hair and sits on the floor with a white sheet under her, one half pulled from the bed. Her chemise is awry, black hair blooms between her legs, and one foot basks in a shaft of yellow light penetrating her lonely chamber. Her lover has left, or more likely has never come. She is warm and the world is cold and so slowly, ever so slowly, she will become chilled and become one with the?world.

It is Monday, June 24, 1907, and Rainer Maria Rilke is in Paris to view an exhibition of his hero Paul Cézanne. He writes a letter to his wife: “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible. . . .”

Dostoevsky explains in his Crime and Punishment, “Do you think I care if they talk nonsense? Hogwash! Talking nonsense is man’s only privilege that distinguishes him from all?other organisms. If you keep talking?big nonsense, you will get to sense. I am a man, therefore I talk nonsense. Nobody ever got a single truth without talking nonsense fourteen?times first. Maybe even a hundred and fourteen. That’s all right in its own way. We don’t even?know how to talk nonsense intelligently, though!”

And it is written, “. . . when on the following night, much to his dismay, he had a dream of raping his own mother, the soothsayers greatly encouraged him by their interpretation of it: namely, that he was destined to conquer the earth, our Universal Mother.”

That is Julius Caesar in Spain.

Osip Mandelstam suggests, “There are epochs . . . when mankind, not content with the present, longs for time’s deeper layers, like the plowman thirsts for the virgin soil of time.”

I doubt this word epoch, but I have the hunger. For me it began in the dirt, I’m one or two?or three, the house is full of people all the?time, men who have come off some war and now purify themselves with alcohol. Then, as now, a creek runs down below the house and the ground gets wet and then the scents come and the fragrance and the perfume and best of all the smells, rank, strong, and rich with the decay of life, and this feeds stands of weeds and flowers and grasses that tower over me. The spring water runs across the limestone floor of?the milk house to cool the metal canisters of?milk, and I can smell, smell it right this instant. I may well leave this life as I began it—with the?smell of water flowing across limestone in?that old rock building down by the Midwestern creek where I crawled as a?toddler.

The hummingbirds are roaring in the gray light. They’re hungry from surviving the long night. Each day their numbers increase—broadbills, black-chins, violet-crowns, and now and then a blue-throat, ten a day, then twenty, then thirty, now fifty mobbing the feeders, and the lust for sugar is rising, and I get up and boil the water, make the solution, fill the feeders, and they come as surely as dusk and the moon is full and at the dawn the great blue herons fly up the creek and down the creek and at the dusk I can hear their slow wingbeats like the rhythm of some abandoned god—and I bolt at 10 a.m. and go toward the border and a mile from the house by the creek the road has flashing lights, ambulances, Border Patrol, the agents staring and strutting. I look over and ten or fifteen dark men in dark clothing sit on the brown dirt. Their faces strain to look blank. Men with guns stand around them. When I slow and stare, I realize their eyes are not blank, their eyes are not angry, their eyes are sad.

I am on the far side now, over in the other country where the countries bang against each other by this other creek flowing over rock and ruin as the land dries and the rains stay away?and the fruits writhe in the new sun of new days.

This has always been contested ground. For thousands of years, plants and animals felt their way into niches, then failed, then came again at the parched earth. We have a dim sense of this past from middens formed by rats in caves, from puzzling studies of pollen left in ancient pans of dirt, from bone piles of huge animals that no longer walk the earth. All this vanished reality is blocked from our view by lines on maps, men patrolling with guns to guard borders, by the demand for passports and visas, by men sitting in little booths and claiming abstract notions like sovereignty as we sweat in our cars waiting to cross from nation to nation. But beneath our asphalt and concrete the earth is whole, united, ferocious, and relentless.

This is the place where we always insist on our power because the enormity of the ground and the hard rules of the sky?make us tremble and fear that we do not have power.

A man comes here, puffs on his pipe, calls a tiny piece of the place Trinity, and ignites a force so large that everyone thinks they are finally safe even though they will never sleep well again after seeing that flash of light in the wet air before dawn on a summer day. The bomb he helped create will be dropped on a nation that wants to find a way to surrender so that another nation that is the ally of the United States will take notice. And stand in fear and pause in its efforts to gobble up remnants of the Japanese Empire that border the Soviet Union. This will never be admitted by the United States. Bombs can be dropped, cities destroyed, but motives always remain fictions. Nations need identities and these identities are based on stories, not facts. The land was found vacant by the ancestors, save for a few savages. Mexico crossed the American border and started the war. The bomb saved American lives—pick a number that feels good to you.

Before the Plains Indians went on the hunt for the buffalo, they made medicine so that the beasts would come and die for the people. We have made our own medicine and now we must swallow it.

Still, the hummingbirds come, each day more and more. Within their small skulls rest maps of a nectar trail that reaches from Alaska to Central America. They know more than we are likely ever to learn of the ground, but we barely notice them as they violate all borders and make love in the murderously dry air of early summer.

Laws are passed, uniforms designed, theories float like butterflies over the mountains and valleys and deserts. Things are Mexican or things are American or people are settlers or pioneers or savages or aliens, men are outlaws or lawmen, boundaries are violated or secured, armies sweep through, order is insisted upon, revolutions come and go and succeed or fail and it is all under control at all times whether there is control or not. Havoc is disguised as police, violence parades as an economy, murder described as establishing peace or law and order, and the bugles blow, dust rises from the cavalry, warriors descend with lances and clubs, screams slash the blue sky and it weeps blood, governments tremble, the men gather on the mesa and puzzle out the science of mass murder, and the rains fail, cattle die, villages are put to the sword, entire nations of feathers and tongues fall dead at our feet, the books arrive—those histories—and all this is tidied up and made sense of, history becomes the final suicide where we block ourselves off from the earth, from the ancestors, from ourselves, and from the hungers that feed our dread. I go outside in the night and sit on the ground as it slopes toward the creek and rats appear and move all around me as the music plays in the house and spills out the French doors, yes, the rats mock the metes and bounds of my world and they have been here since before the beginning, were here when Cortés rocked on a ship off Veracruz dreaming of conquest, back then, even earlier, but certainly back then. The rats came out in the night and moved right here where I sit, a continuous thread of rats reaching far back with love and anger and lust and dreams and reaching past any place my world will ever attain, and the rats know but will not say what they know and so we must find out, experience the fantasy of power and control, and finally we will go under like every one of our kind they have ever seen and still they will come out in the night and move around, not making a sound, not a single sound, but move around and thrive as the creek purls along in the black love of the night. We must not play it safe if we wish to share the wisdom of the rats.

We stand on the deck, Cortés is pacing, it is early in the sixteenth century, an empire is in the offing, he paces, and within twenty years, men just like him will cross what we now call the border, as men have been crossing that line on our maps for thousands of years.

Our idea of history is the end of history, of tracking a concentration of power that finally reaches critical mass, and by an explosion of force solves all problems and ends all change forever, amen.

No rat has ever believed our history.

Imagine this place is not about us and never has been and never will be and that this is the history it teaches us and that this is what we must learn and never seem willing to study.

I look up and a raven has come to the tray feeder slung on a pole. The platform is wobbly, the bird weighs two and a half pounds and has a wingspan of four and a half feet and cannot easily land on a swinging tray designed for the weight of a nuthatch or a cardinal. There is a metal bow welded to the pole and one end of this arc holds a swinging tower full of sunflower seeds and from the other dangles the tray. Days earlier, a raven sat on top, then slowly slid down the pole bow and at its end tentatively extended one leg to the wobbly tray. Three times it failed but on the fourth try it got the touch down. This morning I filled the tray in the gray light and the raven came, easily slid down the bow, and got on the tray without mishap. Now it is sitting out there perched on the edge and eating seed while a nuthatch feeds across from it baffled by its new breakfast mate. A Border Patrol chopper swoops down the creek at treetop level, the raven, ever cautious, ever curious, ever independent, moves off, and then when?the machine is gone, the big black bird returns. Someday all the choppers will be rust and lost memory and the ravens will still own this creek.

If human marks matter, there are thousands of years of history on this creek, and if life matters, there are millions of years, and if reality matters, the creek is a recent wrinkle on the face of eternity. History here has been mainly a series of one-act plays—human communities enter with cultures formed in other environments, flourish for a spell, and then recede. Modern American and Mexican history insists it is the final act, and that its script will now play out here until the end of time. But as the nations shout these beliefs, the ground underneath them and the sky above them turn a deaf ear. We are dancing to the edge of life and we now move through the forests of dread and what we fear, really fear, is not some other nation conquering our plains and mountains and deserts, no, no, what we fear is that someone or something will do to us exactly what we have done to the buffalo, and to the mounted warrior on horseback with that lance and bow, what we have done to the rivers and the trees and the fine native grasses that first fell under our footsteps as we ventured into the bewitching and yearning ground.

Single Page
Share

More from Charles Bowden:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content