Waltzing with a Loon to the Tune of a Whippoorwill

Moondance 1Henry’s loon waltzed into the room laughing
laughing laughing at the phony moon
rising over the pond-like screen
laughing at Henry, at me, and at you too
who scorned the whippoorwilled
who loon-waltzed our way across the fall season

who tweeted twitted twisted and tallyhoed on
but what stilled the waters the antithesis of laughter
came the calm call of the whippoorwill
calling up to the ballooning moon
to Henry, Huck, Hank, and all of us who
waltzing across a lightbox screen

click click click the path of the reen
and fail to see the turn of the season
while flashes YouTube and you too
laughing laughing laughing
at the simple simple single moon
who waltzes with the whippoorwill

to the epizeuxises of the whippoorwill
the yoke on me preening for the screening
in a full no half no quarter no moon
in the turning turning turning of the seasons
as the lone loon laughs
at Henry, Huck, Hank, me, and you too

yes at you too you too you too
whistles the only whippoorwill
as the moon falls fades the laugh
and across the pond fills the screen
white going going gone the season
of the wry loon waltzing with the moon

with the dry improbably wry moon
then on the far shore you too
out of rhyme out of sync out of season
running running running for the whippoorwill
and across the pond comes a single scream
that echoes epizootically laughing

out of season the waltzing singing loon
laughing woo hoo! woo hoo! woo hoo!
the poor loon waltz in a pale fall screen

Thoreau’s Bicycle

Fall falls. Footfalls squish and squash through redorangeyellow leaves, their green energy sucked back into roots, an understandable hoarding for the winter.

The casual bicyclist dismounts for the season, buries the bike in the basement, perhaps intending to walk through the winter.

We have come to rely on the automobile to our detriment: for cars require a massive infrastructure, costly to build and maintain, that blights the landscape and harms the environment; cars are fuel-hogging inefficient, noisy and polluting, difficult to recycle; car use subtracts from walking opportunities. Even in parking lots we search for the space nearest the entrance, though that distance might be our only walk of the day.

While Thoreau probably knew of the bicycle, he didn’t ride one. If Thoreau wanted or needed to get somewhere, he walked.

In his essay simply titled “Walking,” Thoreau says he wants “to make an extreme statement.” What does an “extreme statement” sound like? “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends,” Thoreau says, “and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.” At that pace, few of us would ever be ready or able to go for a walk.

Maybe it’s an argument of definition: what’s a walk? “But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called…but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day,” Thoreau says. He tells us, in Walden, he often walked four miles a day, and would walk eight miles to say hello to a tree (“Former Inhabitants” chapter, para. 17).

“I am a good horse to travel but not from choice a roadster,” Thoreau says in “Walking.” I stopped walking when I got my first roadster, a 1956 Chevy. Cars are cool. Who isn’t intoxicated by the odor of a new car’s interior? Today’s cars, souped up with on-board, high-tech falderal, make my old ’56 Chevy seem a bicycle by comparison. To answer Thoreau’s extreme statement about going for a walk, to walk with Thoreau, we would add our cars to his list of things we must be ready to leave and never see again. It’s an argument of revolution.

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Thoreau’s Meanly Men and Manly Ants

“We live meanly, like ants,” Thoreau tells us in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden, just after he’s divulged his reason for being in the woods: to distill life, then distill it some more, until he has more than 100 proof. And if life prove mean, then he will “publish its meanness to the world.” What does he mean by meanness? The opposite of simplicity, for one thing, letting the railroad ride over us, for getting off track is devalued; today Thoreau would use the automobile as the vehicle and mean man the asphalt. His discussion of living meanly anticipates the later episode of the war of the ants in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter. But there, the ants are anthropomorphized as warriors from antiquity. In the ants he sees meanness because in the ants he sees men. But what could be meaner than the mother who “had charged him to return with his shield or upon it”? Thoreau even imagines the ant armies with military bands blowing on the sidelines just as fiercely as the combatants. Yet Thoreau anticipates E. O. Wilson, whose newest work explains altruism, communication, and cooperation as fundamental to advanced social behavior successes, both in ants and men, as opposed to competition and meanness. The fittest may turn out to be the one who can best cooperate, sacrifice, and share. Wilson considers self-understanding as vital to survival of the species. Thoreau agreed. Thoreau leaves the pond when he does because he’s called by Mrs. Emerson to come care for her family while her husband will be away on a lecture tour. Thoreau leaves Walden quickly, with an attenuated conclusion.

The E. O. Wilson reference is to a Smithsonian.com interview with Wilson, “What Does E.O. Wilson Mean By a ‘Social Conquest of the Earth’,” by Carl Zimmer, March 22, 2012.

Related Posts:

Mapping a Reading of Thoreau’s Walden

Now is the Science of our Discontent

…ant, ant, ant, ant, and ant

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World

Someday, all of the telephone poles will have vanished. They are gradually, slowly disappearing from view as the wires they hold aloft are placed underground or the signals they link go wireless. Does this mean we are improving? Is the human condition better or worse or the same as we found it yesterday, or better or worse than in 1854, when Thoreau’s Walden was published?

“What is the most important thing we can be thinking about right now?” Buckminster Fuller asked (7-8). Forgiveness, some might say, reading today’s news. Bucky invented new words. Perhaps we should come up with one that means the most important thing we can be thinking about right now.

Jaime Snyder, in his introduction to Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, suggests, remembering his conversations with Bucky, his grandfather, the most important thing we might be thinking about right now is tomorrow. Thoreau would have probably answered the question differently. He might have answered, “Today, this moment.” Thoreau probably would have said now is the most important thing we can be thinking about right now. News of right now hits so hard and quickly these days that we seldom seem to have the chance to think of anything else. Yet what passes for news today seldom seems all that new; it seems more like a rerun from something we heard yesterday. And one wonders how one might make a difference, now or tomorrow.

Fuller’s outlook regarding what we should be thinking about now was different from Thoreau’s because for the first time in our history on this planet we had reached what Fuller called, in his idiosyncratic style, “earthians’ critical moment” (8-9). This moment, which we are still experiencing, might be summed up with the title to one of Fuller’s books, mentioned in Snyder’s introduction, Utopia or Oblivion. The fallacy of the false dichotomy did not seem to bother Fuller. He seems to have believed that we are literally down to one of two choices.

Yet Fuller never lost his optimism, as his “trim-tab” metaphor illustrates. Fuller was a sailor, and sailing metaphors often serve to explain his concepts. Fuller explains that “there’s a tiny thing on the edge of the rudder [of very large ships; he uses the Queen Mary as an example] called a trim-tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving that little trim-tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim-tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, ‘Call me Trimtab'” (11).

The landscape, both urban and rural, will be improved with the disappearance of telephone poles. But the old poles symbolize communication, that we are wired, connected, ready to dial. In the past, the poles symbolized progress. Now, they symbolize retro. But there’s something, too, about the poles that I’ll miss. One finds in them symbols and signs, and the linemen are like musicians with their musical triplets connecting across the high wires. There’s a kind of beauty to the poles that only a human could have created and only a human might miss. Telephone poles and newspapers: a disappearing world. What will take their place? And how will we make a difference? Perhaps these are the questions we should be thinking about right now.

Related:

On Universe: A Conversation Between Thoreau and Bucky

Thoreau: “What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!”

Fuller: “Man seems unique as the comprehensive comprehender and co-ordinator of local universe affairs.”

Thoreau: “Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness elsewhere is all that now preserves it.”

Fuller: “This is the essence of human evolution upon Spaceship Earth. If the present planting of humanity upon Spaceship Earth cannot comprehend this inexorable process and discipline itself to serve exclusively that function of metaphysical mastering of the physical it will be discontinued, and its potential mission in universe will be carried on by the metaphysically endowed capabilities of other beings on other spaceship planets of universe.”

Thoreau: “I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe.”

Fuller: “Coping with the totality of Spaceship Earth and universe is ahead for all of us.”

Thoreau: “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions.”

Fuller: “Only as he learned to generalize fundamental principles of physical universe did man learn to use his intellect effectively.”

Thoreau: “The harp is the travelling patterer for the Universe’s Insurance Company, recommending its laws, and our little goodness is all the assessment that we pay.”

Fuller: “We are faced with an entirely new relationship to the universe.”

Thoreau: “Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.”

Fuller: “Can we think of, and state adequately and incisively, what we mean by universe?”

Thoreau: “Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.”

Fuller: “But the finite physical universe did not include the metaphysical weightless experiences of universe.”

Thoreau: “The universe is wider than our views of it.”

Fuller: “The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omnitransforming, event sequences.”

Thoreau: “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

All quotes, juxtapositions around universe, taken from Thoreau’s Walden and Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder]. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben]. Print.

Related:

Transition: From Walled-in with Thoreau to Take-off with Buckminster Fuller

“We can never get enough of nature,” Thoreau says (297), yet we will soon have turned the entire planet into garbage. But, as Slavoj Žižek has said, we must learn to love garbage, for it reflects our imperfections (Examined Life, at 1:04:40). “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds,” Thoreau says, in the Walden chapter titled “Conclusion” (303). He was aware of the pun. In “The Ponds” chapter, he says, “I detect the paver. If the name was not derived from that of some English locality, – Saffron Walden, for instance – one might suppose that it was called, originally, Walled-in Pond” (173).

“The universe is wider than our views of it,” Thoreau says (299), yet he’s limited to worldwide travel in wooden boats. But he’s aware of the limitation, and the ambiguity of his predicament: “The other side of the globe is but the home of our correspondent. Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing” (299). Travel, for vacation or business, amounts to the same thing, for we cannot vacate ourselves, but must bring us with us on any trip. Thus Thoreau proposes that we travel to “whole new continents and worlds within [us], opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought,” for “there are continents and seas in the moral world” (300). And why should we make such a trip? “How worn and dusty the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world” (302). He “will pass an invisible boundary” (303). How will he pay for the trip? “Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul” (308).

“What is the most important thing we can be thinking about?,” Buckminster Fuller asked his grandson on the way to LAX (8). Thoreau comments, as if riding in the backseat of the car, “My neighbors tell me of their adventures with famous gentlemen and ladies, what notabilities they met at the dinner-table; but I am no more interested in such things than in the contents of the Daily Times. The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose, dress it as you will” (308).

And a planet is a planet, Fuller might have responded, and how will we address it? “What are men celebrating?,” Thoreau asks (308). Thoreau was not a specialist, and he celebrates, in Walden, his non-specialist skills, the ability to cross over the boundaries of disciplines. This is why there are so many ways of looking at Walden, and why Thoreau (like Fuller) was an inventor – his vision was not walled-in by the format of a specialized discipline. Buckminster Fuller was also a non-specialist who avoided the traps of specialization and categories (because, as we will see Fuller explain, specialization leads to extinction). And specialization leads to artificial categorical definitions of all kinds that place claims on individual lives: “This ‘sovereign’ – meaning top-weapons enforced – ‘national’ claim upon humans born in various lands leads to ever more severely specialized servitude and highly personalized identity classification,” Fuller says. “As a consequence of the slavish ‘categoryitis,’ the scientifically illogical, and as we shall see, often meaningless questions ‘Where do you live?’ ‘What are you?’ ‘What religion?’ ‘What race?’ What nationality?’ are all thought of today as logical questions,” yet, Fuller says, “These questions are absurd” (p. 31). The specialist is the go-to man, yet Fuller says, “All universities have been progressively organized for ever finer specialization. Society assumes that specialization is natural, inevitable, and desirable” (25), dangerous assumptions, for, as Fuller says, “society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking” (24).

Thoreau was a comprehensive thinker, but he only glimpsed, in his criticism of the railroad, the damage that was to occur, or how worldwide poverty would belie his dictum, “Love your life, poor as it is” (307). He would have been appalled at the costs we’ve incurred, the lack of generalist and comprehensive thinking. Thoreau’s Walden was published in 1854, Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969. The juxtaposition of the two works (though published 115 years apart) creates a dialog between Thoreau and Fuller, a conversation that might suggest answers to where we’ve been, where we might have gone, where we appear to be headed, and where we still might have the possibility to go.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder].

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Walden: From “The Pond in Winter” to “Spring”

In Samuel Beckett’s chapter of Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress, twelve essays looking at Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (reissued New Directions Paperbook 331, 1972), titled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett says, “Words have their progressions as well as social phases. ‘Forest-cabin-village-city-academy’ is one rough progression…And every word expands with psychological inevitability.” Thus the Latin word “Lex,” originally, Beckett says, “Crop of acorns,” progresses to “Lles = Tree that produces acorns,” to “Legere = To gather,” to “Aquilex = He that gathers waters,” to “Lex” = Gathering together of peoples, public assembly,” to “Lex = Law,” to “Legere = To gather together letters into a word, to read” (10-11).

“It is the child’s mind over again,” Beckett says. “The child extends the names of the first familiar objects to other strange objects in which he is conscious of some analogy.” It is this idea of analogy that helps inform a reading of Thoreau’s Walden.

Walden seems to move quickly toward the end when Thoreau takes us from “The Pond in Winter” chapter directly into the “Spring” chapter. But this sense of quickness evaporates in his detail of observation, for we glimpse both the speed of change, as one day he wakes up and suddenly it’s spring, and the slowness of the process revealed in the close reading he gives nature.

This close reading is found, for example, in his etymological study of leaf, which progresses in the same way of Beckett’s Lex, but with Thoreau is added an extended analogy in which man is found in and of nature, finding his voice, his language, words he needs to describe his predicament:

“The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (γεἱβω, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβὁς, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed), with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of waterplants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils” (286-287).

One feels the ice melting in Thoreau’s “Spring” as an analogy for the learning of language, human language, but also the language of nature, from a frozen state of the tongue, where speech is all body language, to the cacophony of the awakened spring day, the naturalist writing it all down. Beckett says, “In its first dumb form, language was gesture. If a man wanted to say ‘sea,’ he pointed to the sea…The root of any word whatsoever can be traced back to some pre-lingual symbol” (10-11). Thus Thoreau, wanting to say spring, or nature, points to Walden.

The reading reveals much of Thoreau’s general method of explicating nature, through metaphor, analogy, personification, pun: “Is not the hand [of man] a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins?” (287). And the function of Thoreau’s method, its purpose, is to show interconnections, not man removed from nature, but not even man in nature, but man of nature, which allows for the view that “our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity” (291). This is why “There is nothing inorganic” (288), and why “We can never have enough of Nature” (297). Thoreau can trace everything back to nature because everything is nature, everything comes from nature: “The root of any word….” Recall McKibben’s questions in his introduction: “How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). The ambiguity, if any remains, is nature’s, not Thoreau’s.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

On the ice with Thoreau

Reading Walden this time around, and coming near the end of the literary sojourn, the Portland east winds blowing out of the Gorge, cracking their taut, dry cheeks while I burrowed into the  “Winter Animals” and “The Pond in Winter” chapters, I reflected on where nature goes in contemporary life, for we spend sweeping resources to turn our backs to her, to hide from her, to ignore her, to close our eyes, ears, noses to her, to avoid her sound and smell and touch, to lock her out. Thoreau went out to meet with her, and he spent quality time observing her habits at close range. Why should we not comb our own urban woods, gutters and sidewalk paths, yards and parks, breezeways and carports, bridges and sidings, bushes and beaches and fields, vacant lots, and streams of rain water running down the oily streets to see if there’s anything left of the nature Thoreau observed and chronicled in Walden? Thoreau asks rhetorical questions; why should not we?

Some interest in nature is suggested by our obsession with the weather and natural disasters (many of which could be mitigated with the simplest of codes, for over 50% of the US population lives within 50 miles of a coastline, where most of the weather spends its wealth). But watching the Weather Channel or studying the sunny or cloudy day emoticons in the newspaper or on our cell phones falls short of Thoreau’s direct contact with the sun, clouds, rain, wind, ice. “But,” you say, donning jacket, scarf, hat, gloves, galoshes, and umbrella, though you’ve only a short walk from house to garage where the car is parked, “we spent a week camping out at the lake this past summer, and have the Facebook pics to show for it.”

Thoreau spends time on the ice in winter, ice-fishing, taking short-cuts across the ponds, viewing the shores from a new vantage point. He seems to have no fear of the ice. There are over one hundred references to ice in the Walden text. Thoreau had a theory, which McKibben remarks on in one of his annotations, that if the world as we know it were to succumb to some modern weather disaster, the calamity would be ice. Yet Thoreau is remarkably resourceful on the ice:

“Once, in the winter, many years ago, when I had been cutting holes through the ice in order to catch pickerel, as I stepped ashore I tossed my axe back on to the ice, but, as if some evil genius had directed it, it slid four or five rods directly into one of the holes, where the water was twenty-five feet deep. Out of curiosity, I lay down on the ice and looked through the hole, until I saw the axe a little on one side, standing on its head, with its helve erect and gently swaying to and fro with the pulse of the pond; and there it might have stood erect and swaying till in the course of time the handle rotted off, if I had not disturbed it. Making another hole directly over it with an ice chisel which I had, and cutting down the longest birch which I could find in the neighborhood with my knife, I made a slip-noose, which I attached to its end, and, letting it down carefully, passed it over the knob of the handle, and drew it by a line along the birch, and so pulled the axe out again” (“The Ponds” chapter).

Once, years ago now, never mind exactly when, I lived in a small house, for a little over a year, on Lake Oswego, a long but narrow lake fed by streams and the Tualatin River, south of Portland. I was there two winters, and both winters the lake froze over. During the first winter, I walked out onto the ice some distance and had my photo taken. It was a foolish thing to do, walking out on the ice. Unlike Thoreau, I didn’t know the thickness of the ice. The ice covered the water like a blanket with air pockets between the bottom of the ice and the surface of the unfrozen water. Thus the ice sheet moves up and down, cracks with its own weight, stretches and contracts, undulating like a monstrous, frozen jellyfish. I didn’t stay out on the ice very long. I walked out, had the photo snapped, and walked back to the boat dock. I was wearing a Navy flight jacket that I had traded a couple of years earlier for my Army field jacket. Neither would have done me much good had I fallen into the water. It’s taken me a long time to get used to the Northwest climate, but still, if I’m to go out on some water, I would prefer doing it on a surfboard, in warm, salty water, where nothing freezes. I like Thoreau, but I’m not following him out onto the ice again.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

What some others have said about Thoreau’s Walden

Agger, Michael. “Thoreau’s Worst Nightmare: Are the new ascetics masters of self-denial or just self-promotion?Mother Jones Nov./Dec. 2008.

An Exchange on Thoreau” 2 Dec. 1999 Lawrence Buell, reply by Leo Marx IN RESPONSE TO: “The Struggle Over Thoreau” from the June 24, 1999 issue [New York Review of Books].

Bibliography on Walden: Selected Articles, Lectures, and Chapters.” American Transcendentalism Web.

Hurn, Rachel. “Not a Luddite, Not a Thoreauvian.” New Yorker 1 Feb. 2011.

Kopley, Richard. “Chiasmus in Walden.The New England Quarterly Vol. 77, No. 1 (Mar., 2004), pp. 115-121 (article consists of 7 pages) Published by: The New England Quarterly, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1559690

Lepore, Jill. “Vast Designs: How America came of age.” New Yorker 29 Oct. 2007.

Miller, Jakob. “Two Truths in Thoreau’s Inconclusive ‘Conclusion’.”

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Mysterious Thoreau.” New York Times 1 May 1988.

Updike, John. “A Sage for All Seasons.” Guardian 25 Jun. 2004.

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