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.

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