Archive for December, 2008

Soot

December 26, 2008

The once-in-a-decade blizzard has left us up to our waists in snow, and all the familiar tropes apply: dollops of frosting leaning off the roof, peaks of whipped cream along the roadsides, pine needles individually wrapped in glinting ice, and sedimentary architecture scoured in the tunnels of wind.  It makes for a different world, a lot of extra work, and it makes for fires.

We’ve been fixing up the old blacksmith shop out by the road.  Now it’s just a little shed, but when we moved here in 1952, it was a working smith, with a huge tub of coals, about 4 feet wide and a couple of feet deep, and obscure wooden and metal shaping tools on the walls.  Stuck into the bottom of the tub was a bellows, just like the one for your fireplace, but so huge it had to be worked with a handle levered via a rope from the ceiling, and it put air into the fire with a whoosh and then a sigh.

From this forge came the square-cut nails that put together the sheds around the place, and fashioned a lot of wrought iron tools and fixtures that were still here when we took up residence.  Everett and Edna Kelsey and their neighbours were an independent bunch, not only making their own nails, but also their own soap.  We found wooden ‘lasts’ (carved wooden feet) around which they cobbled their own shoes.  2009 may be the year we begin to rediscover the need for these old and lost skills.

The forge has long since been given to the Maine State Museum, and the shed has sagged and settled toward its dirt floor, popping the windows out and giving the poor old thing a wrecked and forlorn look.

So Quan and I with Shawn and Peter’s help have been squaring it up, repairing the windows, and shingling it.  The old shingles, tattered and easy to scrape off with a claw hammer, have become our kindling for the winter fires in our house.

So each day when I take some of these shingles to start the fire in our stove, I handle the unique soot that covers what the inside, made from the coal of the smithy’s fire, crept into the walls over the years, giving a crystalline anthracite sparkle to their surface.

This serves to remind me daily of the industry and ingenuity of the early Americans – and not so long ago at that, we’re talking Depression-era here – and how we are not so far from them.  Whether anyone still has the skills to get back into blacksmithing, or using horses for farm work, or making shoes or any of the other skills that were necessary until Sears and then a host of other corporations took over our lives remains to be seen.

We have become a weak and complacent people, dependent on Exxon to deliver our energy and Hollywood to deliver our entertainment and Kraft to deliver our food.  Although part of me recoils from every new shock as our savings and income dwindle, another part welcomes the coming hardship for its engagement with the real world, and the opportunity to re-engage with each other.  We live in interesting times, and a strong economic contraction in the middle of the Facebook era holds much of interest.

Twilight in America

December 22, 2008

While visiting my Mom, 91 and down with a grippe that has seized and shaken the retirement community where she lives (a phenomenon that makes us question her decision to be warehoused with so many other older folks What has happened to vertical integration in this society? – but back to that in a minute) I came across a book I have been looking for on my own shelves during these last few months of electoral and economic turmoil.  Apparently, I lent it to my Dad as he was in his last month some six years ago, and in the uproar of his sudden death, I forgot all about the lending.  It was still on his night table; Mom says it was the last book he was into – that’s a stretch, he always had three or four going.  I took it back; it is definitely bittersweet to find his underlinings, ticks, and ubiquitous marginal calculations in his small hand for the first half of the book, and no marks at all in the second.

The book is Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture, and though his arguments are too long to recapitulate in full here, he offers that cultures / civilisations / empires often show four factors in common as they reach the impending collapse.  Whether this economic collapse on whose edge we are now teetering proves to be the death knell for the American empire or not, it is clear that such an ending is inevitable in the nearish future.

The decline of empires is inevitable, unless history is somehow reversed, which it can be. Egypt, Rome, Byzantium, Persia, Greece – all these agriculturally based empires eventually rotted and collapsed, though some went down for a bit and picked themselves back up again after a century, so I am not too quick to pronounce the death of our American version.

The more recent industrial empires really started with England, which started as an agricultural empire, transformed into a naval empire, and then finally choked and died on its innovative but finally creaking industrial thrust.  While the Egyptian empire lasted almost 2000 years, the whole British Empire – the first to circle the world – took a mere 200 years.  America, still the current sceptre-holder in empirical terms, industrialized in 100 years – 1840 – 1940, more or less – and Russia, building from our successes and avoiding our mistakes, took 50 years.  China is taking 25 years (starting with jets, not recapitulating England and US strategies), and Indonesia and Africa will industrialise even more quickly with green strategies developed from the environmental revolution now about to bloom worldwide.

Even back in the early ‘70’s, when I was studying with Fuller, it was evident from just following the developing mathematics of these industrializing empires that America would be dying on the vine – outdone by its more nimble competitors – within our lifetime.  Now, here it comes, or at least a convincing simulacrum, and are we ready, like the Brits before us, to be a faded power?  Will we be jaded and ironic, like them, or will we resist our fate and go out in a blaze of glory or a spasm of “if-we’re-going-down-you-are-too”.  I hope we have the grace to recognize our time is up and retire from the stage gracefully, but I fear we do not have the maturity as a culture to do so.

It was good to have the book in hand to remind myself how Berman (who also wrote the stunning Coming to Our Senses, an analysis of how our modern body image got its start in the crushing of the Albigensian heresy) posits four signs common to declining empires:

1) Accelerating social and environmental inequality

2) Declining and marginal returns from investment in organizational solutions and socioeconomic problems, including foreign wars

3) Rapidly dropping levels of literacy and cultural understanding, and

4) Spiritual death – meaning the emptying out of real cultural content and the repackaging of it as formula, i.e. the spiritual kitsch of TV, movies, drive-in religion, and People magazine.

We certainly have the first, with the rich getting far, far richer over the last 40 years, while the incomes of the lower end have stayed the same or declined.  We have definitely been pushing toward such a separation between the worker’s pay and the executive’s – a dangerous trend, says Berman, that heralds the end of an empire.

As for the second, how many billions have we invested in Iraq and Afghanistan, for how little return?  And now how many billions into reforming the banking sector for how little effect?

Americans elect the leader of the largest and most influential empire in the world, but how many could point on a map to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalis – where we will surely be involved soon.

And we fight for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, even as those very values are subverted at home, and used cynically abroad to further our own agenda, not that of free people across the globe.

We can hope that the new and unique administration of Barack Obama might slow or re-direct our fall from grace, but the tide of historical circumstance will inevitably push us off the center stage.  Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld and their ‘Plan for a New American Century’ was doomed from the start, and they have certainly accelerated our fall with their folly.

Berman’s solution is for those of us who are awake to form little ‘monasteries’ of culture, places where essential cultural elements are remembered and practiced during the Dark Age to come, be it music, or literature appreciation.  (Berman says that it is not the actual survival of the classics that is at stake this time.  Last time, the monks had to literally copy and save the ancient classics during the post-Roman dark age.  This time, computers and libraries will probably assure the existence of all our literature and music.  What could be lost, says Berman, is the knowledge of how to use these assets – their meaning and their depth.)

In such a context, I hope this little place in Maine might be such a refuge for good bodywork and somatic education.  That was the plan my father and I had when he died, but so far I have been stymied in my attempt to effect our dream, but maybe it is not necessary yet.

No matter my personal part in this, the American empire is at its natural end, now or soon, and preparation for a long period of bleak, Beckettian, monochromatic cultural as well as economic stagnation is essential.

First snow

December 21, 2008

Old Man Winter is insuring a white Christmas for so many of us within his reach.  Yesterday I strapped on my old and battered cross-country skis for the first time this season.  I set off through the woods to avoid the cutting wind, given that it was starting with 5 degrees above zero air, so it had quite a bite to it.  Out of the wind, however, with the proper clothes, I found myself at one point overcome with fatigue – not from the skiing, but from the large class we just finished – and was able to lie down in the fluffy snow under a pine tree and have a 10-minute nap.  The down side- the one against the ground – got bloodless first and woke me up.

The air and the trees crackle with the cold, but the ponds and streams are not sufficiently frozen yet, and after a couple of times of dropping through the shell ice around the cat-o’-nine-tails into water, and pondering streams where I could hear the water gurgling just beneath my feet, I chose the better part of valor and went around.  Even if the water were not deep, even if I could get back out to firmer footing, trying to get back home a mile or two away as my pants and boots froze would be risky with the sere and falling sun rendering the woods lovely, dark, and deep.

The wild turkeys are all around us now – big and black as Labradors – but in the fresh snow I also saw fox tracks, coyotes, and deer, as well as squirrels and dogs, but mostly I saw silence.  Sounds carry forever in Maine in the winter, but on this Saturday before Christmas, there were no chainsaws or axes, everyone seemed to be inside, awaiting the next storm.

——————————

The phenomenon of super-chilled air (4 degrees this morning, -15C) over not so cold water – like the not-yet-iced-over ponds – is that the salt-water river this morning is sporting that unique form of fog called sea-smoke.  The land is entirely fog-free, but the river is shrouded in a thick blanket at the water level, which rises up and tatters off in the wind like cannon-smoke from a battlefield.  Be fun to sail through, but you’d need to be kitted out for it.

Apples

December 15, 2008

During the last depression in the 1930’s, desperate people in New York sold apples on the street for a nickel, or even a penny.

This time, I imagine it’s going to be Apples.  You heard it here first: Look for people on 6th Avenue with boxes full of nano iPods, iMacs, iPhones, PowerBooks – cheap!

Mercy killing

December 5, 2008

Tonight I had to kill a rabbit.  Hard to believe that in ten years of Quan’s rabbit rescue project, I have not been called upon to do this.  Of course a number of rabbits have died over this time of illness or natural or predatory deaths (see ‘Owl’ back in January of this year), and I have done dissections on some to see what they died of.  More occasionally a rabbit reaches a state of life where it is the better part of mercy to send them on, but it has always been when I’m away, and we’ve had a number of helpful vets and a nurse who have drugged these rabbits to sleep.

But the responsibility for death is part of what we have to take with this project, so the day arrived.  This little black and white rabbit unusually didn’t even have a name, as it was one of several who came, like many of Quan’s rescues, from a bad situation, and this one just hadn’t got on top of her health in the month she’d been here.  With her belly and legs caked in her own poop, and labored breathing through a wall of mucous, she was skin and bones, with the hard freezes of a long winter starting tonight.

Dark is early these days, and I needed to be alone to do this.  Quan is Judge, and says who goes and when, but tonight I am Lord High Executioner, necessary but there’s a reason for the hood: to hide the tears.

For some readers, this may be part of their way of life, and killing an animal, for mercy or for food, just part of the yearly farming routine.  I remember when I was a child a neighbor beheading chickens not with glee, exactly, but with none of the reluctance I feel as I walked down the hill to a clearing by the pond.  The rabbit is shivering with my unfamiliar smell, so I spend a few minutes calming and soothing her until she’s quiet and her eyes close.

Knowing this must be done with decision and without tentative-ness even if it’s my first time, I elongate her neck and then suddenly twist it a full turn.  She gives a tiny mew as I do it, but there is no resistance – not much life left in her to begin with.  There is an awful crackling sound within her scrawny neck, a few reflex jerks of the legs before they extend into the decerebrate rigidity, but there is no motion of the diaphragm. It seems very quick.  I sit in the dark, keeping her in that position until long after I am sure she has passed, praying her little spirit on its way to whatever’s next.  By the time I release my hand her eyes are cloudy and the wracked carcass limp.  I left her body there in case some animals can benefit – the fox’s kits or maybe a coyote, and dropping the rubber gloves in the trash, rejoined the warmth and light of my house and life.

I only take you through this because your death is out there stalking you, as mine is out there stalking me. Tonight I am very aware of it, sitting somewhere behind my left shoulder as Castaneda says.  One day it will reach out and take me in.  Having death so far removed from my daily life, I forget that death is stalking me, and thus forget to live fully.  Having to dispense death brings it very close, and I have a long talk on the phone with my daughter.

Her mother just attended the death of her own father, over in England a few weeks ago, a lonely vigil of a week – 4 days of his dying, and then another 3 to let him rest undisturbed, following her Tibetan Buddhist tenets.  It is an act of great courage, keeping off the rest of the family and the undertakers so her father can make the transition to the bardo in peace, rather than being whisked away to be dressed, plumped and made up in a macabre simulation of life.  May someone – maybe my daughter – do it for me.  May my death reach out his hand with the same kindness and decision that I tried to have with this rabbit.  I have no envy of God.