Two architects, a law firm and a graphics designer share a two-story baby blue house with white trimming. A round porthole beneath its peaked roof looks onto a rainy morning, where still bright yet darkening yellow and red leaves cover gray pavement, before a leaf blower bullies them over the curb. Up and down the avenues, creeping along the streets environmentalists need to ask: What is it that we value deeply, that we care for? Too often, they have restricted their focus to wilderness, to the ancient forest, to nature remote and untouched by human hands. This view, however, is surely incomplete as homes are converted into commercial spaces, the neighborhood retreats. Who was born in this room now cluttered with merchandise? Whose child bounced a ball off this wall? Is this bed the one in which someone died?
"It is through the north wall of the hogan that a corpse must be removed in the sad event of death striking someone inside. Then the smoke hole would be plugged, the entrance boarded, and the place abandoned—with the corpse hole left open to warn the People that this had become a death hogan."(1)

My father sold Pontiacs, named for the Ottawa Indian leader who rebelled against the British occupation army after the French and Indian War, leading an unsuccessful siege on Ft. Detroit, but taking several others. Like its namesake, the model gained nearly mythological status. My father would return home with stories of gangsters and baseball players, or complaints about relatives to whom he regretted having sold a car. He also brought home catalogs with pictures of next year's sleek designs printed on paper smelling of cavernous showrooms in which polished cars sat like peaceful pets waiting to be bought and taken home.

"But there’s no way around the messiness and complexity of environmental problems. A better perspective, I believe, is to approach environmental problems as points of departure in a larger critique of modernity; this approach encourages environmentalists to join forces with other social movements seeking to create a more livable world."(2)

With the advent of art-making, in this case bone-and-ivory flutes, some 35,000 years ago, "no longer were humans just predators in the food chain. They were now dynamic partners in a world peopled by animals they considered to be living beings to be treated with respect, prey that fed them but also provided important powers in a world where the living and the supernatural were as one.

"With the expediential growth of human population, with its ever-expanding territorial demands for homes and resource exploitation, animals became captives—in zoos or as pets—and slaves to be fattened in factory farms for the slaughter; or hunted for sport, their spirit subsumed by science, technology and corporate profits. With this, we have lost contact with the knowledge of a vital part of our past, thus ourselves, denying that we are kin to all life, including animal life, and thus situating ourselves in an illusionary ego that narrowly defines what being 'human' is, or may be." (3)

 

A few steps from the building in which I presently live, an automobile collision repair shop spans two sides of the street, entrances facing each other, and an orifice newly opened around the corner. Wrecked cars towed in inside, or parked nearby. Hammering, scrapping, sparks skittering from a torch's blue tongue; poisonous fumes of sprayed paint, workers leaning on the wall outside, sucking on cigarettes in the rain.

There was a garage down the street from my childhood home, with an oil-stained sidewalk by the entrance I'd walk past on my way to school, breathing the fragrance of exhaust fumes, glancing into the gloom. Two graves had been dug, in which mechanics stood reaching up into the bowels of a broken car, oil dripping down, a work light's thin arm hooked around a mysterium of sealed shafts, gear boxes and tie rods.

That was when cement tepees and fruit stands lined Rt 66, hot air dancing on waves through Southwestern deserts, when a young Neal Cassidy drove a would-be writer named Jack Kerouac "back and forth across the country, screwing and drinking too much, talking through the night, 'digging' black jazz players, and in general appreciating everything and everyone at once."(4) Rt 66 has been replaced by I-40, bypassing most towns, total originality is an illusion even in cases of great genius. It would be presumptuous to assume that the cultures of the Upper Palaeolithic were an exception to this rule. Therefore we must view the ancient images as reflections, however incomplete and indirect, of a religious worldview, a monotonous road on which one lives a fast life, dashing around huge semi-trailer trucks, between exits.

"I am an expert at throwing harpoons! I kill whales!  Sometimes, the whales get away, and I throw the harpoon and pull the rope back, so they won't get away."(6)

There was a building on a residential street with three apartments. Its landlord, who also owns myriad properties he leases for shops, wanted to tear down the house and build a garage in its place, attracting more customers in cars from around the city; allowing him to raise rents.

The editor of the neighborhood paper described the landlord's persistence at City Hall as a "Captain Ahab-like dream of a parking structure...about a mad mission and trampling public values and policies for a private goal."(7)

All neighborhoods have a history of conflicts and resolutions, pyrrhic victories and bitter defeats. Zoned for "mixed use," the battlefield in this neighborhood is where residences and businesses face off.

 

Highways don't join wilderness but cities where, if famous enough, an architect can build on "apparently accidental" vectors that seem to twist themselves up from an ambiguous foundation; while we bolt plaques on venerable old buildings as monuments of themselves. Registered as landmarks, these buildings emit an heroic aura. Just as much of this neighborhood's architecture is derived from other places and earlier eras, America's "millennial hero must come from afar; he must arrive as if from another planet, an alien reminder of who we once might have been, and who we could be again."(5)

"In the nearness of neighborhood, place is pinned down and particularized, made intimate. How much more intimate can any experience be than a face-to-face encounter?"(8) Around the corner from where I was born, businesses were built into the facade: beauty parlor, grocery store, and some others. On the corner was a soda fountain/pharmacy whose owners lived in the building, their family and commercial life tempered by the tiding of their neighbors' fate. Outside, several street gangs abounded; so my friends and I "pumped iron."

Inside we are in the iron age.
Old words rust in the throat
(9)

Whether telluric iron, mined from the earth, or meteoric "heavenly metal," iron, especially the celestial kind, has been for millennia held sacred because it came "from elsewhere and hence as sign or token from the 'beyond', a near-image of the transcendental."(10) In Europe, the Iron Age began around 700 BCE. Here the smith's tools, especially his bellows, whose breath materializes sacred words, became associated with alchemical processes.

"'Durathror,' said Susan, as they journeyed on, 'where do the svarts go when they disappear?' 'To dust, my Stonemaiden, to dust. They cannot endure the bite of iron: It has a virtue that dissolves their flesh—'"(11)

What marked this era was the knowledge that combining iron with carbon forges flexible but extremely strong and sharp-edged steel, an art that reached its height with Japanese swordmaking, a process that invokes rites of fasting and chanting before the long grueling hours of folding hard and soft metals into katana that, white hot and plunged into cold water, emit the dragon's hiss.

"Even allowing that the swords were numinous and unusual, still they were beaten, cast, forged and refined by human beings—they were not spontaneous objects. Knowing this, it is clear they could not have become dragons." (12)

I walk through the forest that shares this neighborhood with miles of pavement, thinking of the people who populated it for thousands of years, and of the animal spirits who loomed before them, the "huge cave-dwelling maneating birds with tremendous sharp beaks" and the "thunderbirds, who kept reptile-like lightnings as a man kept dogs, and who flew off with whales as easily as an eagle flies away with a trout in his talons."(13)

 

For at least twenty-five thousand years, in at least twenty-two caves in what is now the tip of Spain to the Ural Mountains, paintings, sculptures and engravings were made by gifted anonymous artists, in what must have been "a religious worldview; that is, of myths and stories, archetypes and allegories, that gave human life meaning."(14)

Wherever humans dwelled supernatural beings dwelled with them, but not in human form. They appeared as totems of familiar animals, or imagined creatures with awesome numinous powers.

 

As the human mind emerged, Zhang’s imaginary wonderland was not in the realm of peace and eternal peach-blossom spring; it was, instead, a secret library concealed in ‘a hermitage of rock’: ‘Shelves full of books are all around me. Opening the different volumes I take a look, and find the pages covered with writing of unknown scripts, tadpole traces, bird feet markings, twisted branches. And in my dream the unknowable was set afoot in the perceptible world.

I know a Zen priest who does good deeds, ministering to the sick planning their own demise. She also sells, or gives away, ancient Chinese scrolls, buddhas of all shapes and sizes, hand bells, incense burners, and screens behind which the ear-whispered teachings were whispered.

While interned in a Wyoming concentration camp during World War II, Zen Master Nyogen Senzaki, who "didn't call himself 'master,'

went about gathering pebbles
and writing words on them—
common words, in Japanese
with a brush dipped in ink.

Then he'd return them
to their source, as best he could,
the ink would wash,
and no harm was done.
(15)

Social critic Lewis Mumford wrote that in the market-driven economy "that developed during the last five hundred years, there was only one criterion of effort: profit. If more profit could be obtained by baking stones than by baking bread, stones would be baked, even though in fact people were starving."(16)

As with most peoples, Northwest Pacific Coast indians sought after wealth. However, except for personal items, such as clothes, tools, canoes, everything was owned by kin groups. Tribal turf, where fishing, hunting, berrying, and wood-gathering took place, was jointly owned, and clearly marked against trespassing. Surplus goods were transacted between individuals by bartering, or paying with strings shells or copper. Ostentatious display by a group was encouraged as a sign of its prosperity and power. There was also slavery, usually short-lived, as families bought their lost members back.

One hundred miles inland, salt suffuses prevailing westerly winds. Merchant ships sail against the tide to spawn, making this city feel like a seaside port, where men were shanghaied and women sold into prostitution, slave labor held captive temporarily in a warren of tunnels dug beneath these very streets.

Like priests of the people that built Stonehenge,
Dark silent forms, performing
Remote solemnities in red shallows
Of the river's mouth at year's turn,
Drawing landward their live bullion, the bloody mouths
And scales full of sunset
(17)

Among the gods of this region were supernatural beings who assumed the form of salmon to feed humans and become human themselves. Returned to the sea, their bones were restored into a periodizing concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order—what is often euphemistically called modernization, postindustrial or consumer society, the society of the media or sinuous red bodies for next year's river run. Thus we hear the ocean in a sea shell because our ears evolved from gills.



December dawn from my twelfth-story eerie. Red and purple scars cross the sky's broad back, brightening to gold before morphing to mottled gray.
Garbage truck trundles down the street, several cars and a few bicycles speed from one eye to the other.



Black clouds float over the West Hills toward downtown where they swirl around tall dark-eyed buildings. Only the auto body shop and corner gas station are awake, their lights baring what the Navajo call a "female rain." Last night's dream returns—

A woman's dancing on the narrow railing of a fence, a lovely hag naked then not then naked again; her long hair seductive, yet a child below.

Renaissance theorist Francesco di Giorgio "showed a figure superimposed literally on the plan of a cathedral and of a city," and Antonio di Piero Averlino Filarete "compared the building's cavities and functions to those of the body, its eyes, ears, nose, mouth, veins, and viscera."(16) Avenues that run through cities are still called "arteries," and downtown is usually a city's "heart."

In the spirit of postmodernism, the stars of contemporary architecture have returned to corporeal tropes; however, the body now is "in pieces, fragmented, if not deliberately torn apart and mutilated almost beyond recognition."(18) This autopsian picture extends into the arts, and popular culture, projected onto the environment itself, an environment that struggles for life in face of the concerted onslaught of corporate mortification.

Empty tract of land—
Weeds, too, dream
Of the city’s plans
.

It begins with the extraction of earth's entrails, "raw materials" manufactured into an array of products for neighborhood stores, or community malls, and consumed in private homes; a cycle completed with a taxidermic operation, in which garbage is transformed into terrains of seemingly natural beauty.

There's also the biodegradable, that is "hardly a thing since it remains a thing that does not remain, an essentially decomposable thing, destined to pass away, to lose its identity as a thing and become again a non-thing."(19) This recalls the theory of 17th Century physics that "place does not affect the nature of things,"(20) meaning their underlying structure and how it exists in space and time.

 

On a grosser level, where something is sold no longer matters. A neighborhood mom and pop store may grow into a franchised chain, then a multinational corporation which, though from this date those quivering landscapes, those bridges over ponds, those deep thickets in which the full gamut of green tones gorge on the forest’s sap, that trailing greenery reflecting all the breathing water registered in a particular country, is functionally placeless. Like Odin, the Norse god who hung from the World Tree, sacrificing himself to himself, place creates a mythology of its own.

"the physical form of the earth is believed to have come into being through the actions of ancestral beings who travelled the earth from place to place, leaving evidence of their actions in the form of topographical features. Where they cut down trees, river courses or ceremonial grounds were formed by the impression made in the ground; where they bled, ochre deposits were formed or waters of a particular colour were left behind."(21)

What if, by the expression of its geology and topography, place created the Ancestors from whom the Aboriginal People made their myths and material culture? In turn, it is true that humans are an integral part of this mythologicalizing process, recording stories into images and words, so they can fossilize and be passed down through millennia. We are the only beings through which place can express itself in many ways; although we are never, except through our delusion of real estate, placed.

For culture, protection from the Other and the exchange of goods and services, urban centers have been spreading over the planet for several thousand years, built by cutting down forests, in-filling wetlands, and paving over deserts. "Still, even the stone structures of a metropolis may become expressions of the genius loci.

"Old buildings regularly worked over by the sun, rain, and wind finally become gestures of the local earth. The very architecture of any city old enough to have negotiated with gravity, century after century, for the stance of its walls and the solidity of its foundations, is now a conduit for the pulse and power that rises steadily from the ground."(22)

Still, we can't hear the myths of a place when it's seeds are buried beneath concrete. This neighborhood is no exception. Slabtown, it's old name, brings up the days when slabs of locally milled lumber without commercial value were used in poor homes for cheap fuel. Even though the green face of the forest can still be seen from these streets, Slabtown speaks for the ghosts of those harvested trees, not the songs of wildly living land.

Underbrush raked, shoveled,
golden pine needles, oak
leaves on hillsides, under trees.

makings of a wildfire,
fuel for the crowns of trees,
pulled down- and uphill
heaped and burned.

Now the land breathes free
again, fields of wildflowers,
groves of poison oak.
(23)



environmentalists need to ask: J.D. Proctor, “Whose Nature?” In W. Cronon, Editor, Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W.W. Norton.
1-Hillerman, T. (1985) The Ghostway. New York: Harper & Row.
2- Proctor, J.D. (1996) “Toward a Conclusion."
In W. Cronon, Editor, Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W.W. Norton.
3- Fagan, B. (2010) Cro-Magnon. New York: Bloomsbury Press
.
4- Denby, D. (1980 ) "Faint 'Heart.'" New York Magazine. May 12.
total originality: M. Donald, “The Roots of Art and Religion in Ancient Material Culture.” In, C.Renfrew and I. Morley, Editors, Becoming Human. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
5- Hull, J.W. “Harry Potter Takes on the Muggles: A Psychological Analysis of the Last Great Hero of the 'American Century.'" http://www.life-shifting.com/pdf/potter.pdf
6- Herrmann, S. (2010) "The Emergence of Moby Dick in the Dreams of a Five-Year-Old Boy." In, M. Stein and R.A. Jones, Editors, Cultures and Identities in Transition. Hove: Routledge.
7- Classen, A. (2009) "Goodbye Free Parking." Northwest Examiner. November.
8- Casey, E.S. (1998) The Fate of Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.
9- Rowland, S. From, "Inside My Roots Are Waterlogged."
10- Eliade, M. (1971) The Forge and The Crucible. New York: Harper & Row.
11- Garner, A. (2006) The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Orlando: Harcourt.
12- Schafer, E.H. 1980) The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens. San Francisco: North Point Press.
13- Drucker, P. (1965) Vultures of the North Pacific Coast. Scranton: Chamber Publishing.
14- Donald, M. (2009) "The Roots of Art and Religion in Ancient Material Culture." In, C. Renfrew and I. Morley, Editors, Becoming Human. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zhang’s imaginary wonderland: C.
Benfey “China Passage.” Review of J.D. Spence, Return to Dragon Mountain. New York Times Book Review, Oct 7, 2007.
15- Inada, L.F. From, "Picking Up Stones."
16- Mumford, L. (1938) The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace.
17- Jeffers, R. From, "Salmon-Fishing."
a periodizing concept: F.
Jameson, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." In, H. Foster, Editor, The Anti-Aesthetic. Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983.
18- Vidler, A. (1992) The Architectural Uncanny. Cambridge: MIT Press.
19- Derrida, J. (1989) "Biodewgradables: Seven Diary Fragfments." Critical Inquiry (Summer)
20- Jammer, M. (1969) Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space and Physics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
from this date those quivering: J. Gasquest, Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
21- Morphy, H. (1995) "Landscape and the Reproduction of the Ancestral Past." In, E. Hirsh and M. O'Hanlon, Editors, The Anthropology of Landscape. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
22- Abram, D. (2010) Becoming Animal. New York: Pantheon.

23- Weishaus, J. (1974) "Breathing Free." In, Feels Like Home Again-Collected Poems 1962-2002. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/host/weishaus/cont-p.htm