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
"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)
father sold Pontiacs, named for the Ottawa
Indian leader who rebelled against the British occupation army
the French and Indian War, leading an unsuccessful siege on Ft.
Detroit, but taking several others. Like its namesake, the
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.
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.
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.
expediential growth of human population, with its ever-expanding
homes and resource exploitation,
animals became captives—in zoos or as pets—and
slaves to be fattened in factory farms for the slaughter; or
sport, their spirit subsumed by science, technology and corporate
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.
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
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
deserts, when a young Neal Cassidy drove a would-be
writer named Jack Kerouac "back and
the country, screwing and drinking too much, talking through
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
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
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)
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.
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)
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.
don't join wilderness but cities where,
if famous enough, an architect can build on "apparently
that seem to twist themselves up from an ambiguous foundation; while
we bolt plaques on venerable old buildings as monuments of themselves.
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'
several street gangs abounded; so my friends and I "pumped
Inside we are
in the iron age.
Old words rust in the throat (9)
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.
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.
that the swords were numinous and unusual, still they
cast, forged and refined by human beings—they
were not spontaneous objects. Knowing this, it
is clear they could not
have become dragons." (12)
walk through the forest that shares this neighborhood with miles
of pavement, thinking of the people who populated it
and of the
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
away with a trout in his talons."(13)
For at least twenty-five
thousand years, in at least
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)
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.
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.
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.
in a Wyoming concentration camp during World War II, Zen Master
Nyogen Senzaki, who "didn't call himself 'master,'
went about gathering
and writing words on them—
common words, in Japanese
with a brush dipped in ink.
Then he'd return
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
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)
with most peoples, Northwest Pacific Coast indians sought after
wealth. However, except for personal items, such as clothes, tools,
was owned by kin groups. Tribal turf, where
fishing, hunting, berrying, and wood-gathering took place, was
clearly marked against trespassing. Surplus
goods were transacted between individuals by bartering, or paying
or copper. Ostentatious display by a group
was encouraged as a sign of its prosperity and power. There was
usually short-lived, as families bought their lost members
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.
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)
the gods of this region
were supernatural beings who assumed the form of salmon to feed
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
dawn from my twelfth-story eerie. Red
and purple scars cross
the sky's broad back, brightening
to gold before morphing to mottled
Garbage truck trundles down the
street, several cars and a few bicycles
speed from one eye to the other.
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
call a "female
rain." Last night's dream returns—
woman's dancing on the narrow railing of
a lovely hag naked then not
then naked again;
her long hair seductive, yet a child
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
eyes, ears, nose, mouth, veins, and viscera."(16)
that run through cities are still called "arteries," and
downtown is usually a city's "heart."
the spirit of postmodernism, the stars of contemporary
architecture have returned to corporeal tropes; however,
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
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,
malls, and consumed in private homes; a cycle completed
with a taxidermic operation, in which garbage is transformed
into terrains of seemingly natural
There's also the biodegradable,
that is "hardly a thing since it remains a thing that
does not remain, an essentially
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.
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
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.
form of the earth is believed to have come into being
through the actions of ancestral beings who travelled the earth
place to place, leaving evidence of their actions in
the form of topographical features. Where they cut down trees,
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.
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
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)
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,
the ghosts of those harvested trees, not
Underbrush raked, shoveled,
golden pine needles, oak
leaves on hillsides, under trees.
of a wildfire,
fuel for the crowns of trees,
pulled down- and uphill
heaped and burned.
the land breathes free
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.
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.
Denby, D. (1980 ) "Faint 'Heart.'" New York Magazine.
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.
Hull, J.W. “Harry Potter Takes on the Muggles: A
Psychological Analysis of the Last Great Hero of the 'American
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.
Classen, A. (2009) "Goodbye Free Parking." Northwest
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
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.
wonderland: C. Benfey “China Passage.” Review of J.D.
Spence, Return to Dragon Mountain. New York Times Book Review, Oct 7, 2007.
Inada, L.F. From, "Picking Up Stones."
16- Mumford, L. (1938) The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt
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:
19- Derrida, J. (1989) "Biodewgradables: Seven Diary Fragfments." Critical
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,
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