the bulldozer poem

2 things happened today. Well, more than 2, but the 2 that bring this to mind are 1) waking up earlier than ideal (which is really damn early these days) to the beeps and grinds of the neighboring gravel pits (“that’s what you should write about: gravel,” i was told earnestly today, which is a 3rd thing) (a 4th thing: as i type, more gunshots from the gravel pits, more tired yelling through the screen door)). And 2) I said I write about one poem a year, and they’re often about construction, and that as much as I love the image of people hanging from bridges blocking drilling rigs, i just can’t feel honest physically blocking things anymore. This poem is several years old, written in a workshop in Anchorage with Ernestine Hayes, and the first draft also has some notes on how a neighbor kid named one of the gravel pits after her cousin Lily, and declared it “her favorite gravel pit.”

We Are All Built for Doing 

He said no sugar

in the gas tanks. You don’t

want to mess with the soul

of a bulldozer.

“Perhaps not a soul,” she said,

“but I’m quite certain a spirit.” *

A restless one, ungrounded,

that spirit, unhinged but land-bound.

Cracked, too much use in cold, bolts

loosed and seams unwelded.

The spirit’s in the house

with us, steals food at dinner.

The man sent to mend the body

while the spirit roams comes home,

hands cracked, face streaked

with grease, cursing the spirit

of the damned thing, so set

on movement and so latent,

unaided. Brokenness is part

of being. One cannot be blamed

for doing what one is built

to do. We are all built for doing:

Pour sugar. Grease axles. Break

under strain, both iron and spirit.

——————————————

*Poet and environmental philosopher Gary Snyder said that he told Earth First! founder Dave Foreman that he wouldn’t put sugar in bulldozers’ gas tanks because “bulldozers have feelings too. They have souls.” The response, “I’m quite certain they have a spirit,” comes from writer Ernestine Hayes.

A Study of Roads, in Quotations

This is a fun piece I wrote for the Denali Citizens Council newsletter, which should be in your mailboxes by now. 

Roads are complicated. Even those roads whose travelers aren’t documented and surveyed, whose surfaces aren’t monitored for dust and noise levels, are metaphorically loaded. Think “a road less traveled.” Think “two roads diverging in a wood,” “afoot and lighthearted I took to the open road,” “the road is my home.” Think roadside attractions. Think good intentions. We mean a lot of things when we talk about roads. “Every day is a winding road,” Sheryl Crow sang, and she was only partly talking about driving.

Like a trail, once a road leads to a place, it’s harder to imagine an alternate route there. Two roads may diverge, but what of the space between them, or to the sides? Or of the woods themselves? A road may make some things clearer while hiding what surrounds it. “There is more to getting to where you’re going than just knowing there’s a road,” Joan Lowery Nixon wrote in a book I vaguely remember reading as a kid, which is somewhat about a train journey and also about orphans growing up in the 1850s, when the railroad defined the route West.

Roads and railroads share the history of snaking across the continent, reduced to lines on maps and transforming the places they reached. This is often called progress. Wendell Berry, though, conceived of that transformation as a kind of violence, writing, “The road is a word, conceived elsewhere and laid across the country in the wound prepared for it: a word made concrete and thrust among us.” He prefers paths: “The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.”

Some roads, we might believe, strive towards path-ness. We might devise studies to regulate and prove their path-ness. Some might question the studies.

Father Oleska wrote in 2002 about roads through the populated Alaskan wilderness, “To Europeans, a road is a social and economic path way established by humans for their convenience, prosperity and pleasure. They have every right to carve a road anytime, anywhere, as their needs and desires dictate. But for Native peoples, a road is a threat to the ecosystem that has nourished and sustained them for millennia. A road brings humans into an area they otherwise would not have had access to, and therefore noise, disruption and, potentially, the destruction of the plant and animal species…And if the animals leave, those who depend on their self-offering cannot survive there any longer either.” This passage was quoted in a 2005 document written by Hollis Twitchell called “Native Peoples and Wilderness Values at Denali.” Twitchell went on to use this view of roads to voice opposition to the then (and occasionally still) proposed North Access to Denali, where roads are especially complicated (and where all (proposed) roads lead to the same place).

I’ll leave you with one last thought, only partially metaphorical, from Aldo Leopold, who said, “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into the lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” Perhaps we can get farther—or at least somewhere different—when all routes are not imagined as roads.

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matter, bent into life

I’m writing this on c’s computer, sitting on the bed in a mostly empty room. My computer’s dead at least for now, and the bedroom furniture is mostly piled in other spaces, which aren’t quite rooms in this house. This is the one room, enclosed, with walls and doors, and it’s under reconstruction. My computer just flashes a gray folder with a question mark. These two things have become inseparable, in an existential #firstworldproblems sort of way.

I get preachy sometimes about purging your junk, burning old papers, not leaving boxes full of clutter for your progeny or the people you leave to sort through. A couple years ago, sorting decades’ worth of receipts and pictures and lists of things that might matter (once you list too many things, Roy Clark says, the list signals chaos more than order…or something. I lent the book out and my notes are saved on the dead-for-now-or-forever hard drive.) at c’s mom’s house, i felt grateful for blogging and email and facebook and the things that keep our clutter contained and intangible, thinking of it as thoughtful consideration for future generations (“Hey, we fucked the planet, but at least you won’t have to sort through shopping lists from 1973, because they’re all on my phone!”) But i’m wishing now that pictures were all in boxes instead of hard drives, future generations be damned because they are anyway so they might as well have a bunch more old crap to dig through.

We watched the first episode of the show Hoarders on netflix the other night–i’m not sure why, other than it was suggested and we’d been swimming in sawdust all day and it seemed refreshing to see a bigger mess than yours. L.E.C., do you remember when we moved into the Mabel house and the cabinet under the sink was stuffed so full with plastic grocery bags that we couldn’t get it closed or keep anything else in it, so instead we put the bags in a 100 lb burlap potato bag hung from the wall so it looked like a grownup bag stash, and even if we’d reused 100 plastic bags a week we couldn’t have gotten through that stash. The people on Hoarders have whole houses like that. And at 1 am, crawling over a pile of pillows and Dall sheep skulls to get to the desk drawer that might have contained a startup disk I vaguely remember having seen once (it didn’t), it seemed like a very fine line between responsible record keeping and diving headfirst into a ceiling-high stack of plastic bottle lids looking for a sock while your horrified relatives and therapists look on.

And no, it’s not backed up, because i seem to put backing up my shit in the same category as taking pills and calling people back and it just doesn’t happen, but sometimes when i’m trying to remember a poem i can google it and find something i blogged 10 years ago, and sometimes socks do show up in a box full of lids so i guess it’s worth trying.
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the blue mountains march out of the sea

“On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between…interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world…

“…In the country one’s solitude is geographical–one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers…”

(Rebecca Solnit)

We had a long layover in Seattle coming home from Ohio via Oregon, and took the train downtown from the airport for Indian food and some aimless wandering, which i’m finding less enjoyable as i get older and perhaps only partly because whenever i’m wandering in cities i end up buying books, which i then have to carry around for the remainder of the wandering. I bought a book of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry and Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir, and we had an overpriced ginger beer just outside Pike St. Market, because it was something concrete and identifiable that i remembered from February in the rows of things to eat and buy. c bought socks at one of the gear stores that isn’t REI because he hadn’t done laundry and airport security lines were getting embarrassing, and i remembered when i was 20 and a guy conned me into something weird that i never understood by telling me some story about his wife having a baby and him losing his wallet and all he needed was for me to buy him socks at the Seattle REI and he was gonna do something to repay me, which never happened, of course, but somehow it put me into a good mood to walk into REI with this (to everyone else) clearly crazy man and buy him socks, getting weird looks from the beautiful Seattle REI people. So that made it worth it, even if, somehow, i lost 40 bucks in that deal.

I’d been reading Solnit’s Wanderlust, which seemed appropriate given the amount of time on the O-state trip we spent sitting, on couches, restaurant chairs, plane seats, car seats. After eating as much as we wanted to eat and failing to find anything else of interest in downtown Seattle (i looked longingly at the Ferris wheel. c didn’t.) we returned to the airport with hours to spare, and i intended to write something then about walking, and Solnit’s book (worthwhile if, like me, you have a tendency to intellectualize the actions of the body rather than turn to the body, but not quite as worthwhile as i’d hoped), but i can’t think in airports anymore, maybe like i can’t wander aimlessly in cities without getting irritable. Solnit speculates that it’s better done alone. She’s probably right. So i’m trying it now, and i’ve finished the book and read 2 others since, and most of my walking has been up and down the airstrip, in moonlight, with a purpose, and very little to interrupt me.

We stopped for less time than the little time we’d planned in Chicago to see Ammie, and on a walk to the lakeshore saw where the lake had dressed all the winter plants in ice, and they looked like teeth or wings or sometimes just plant-shaped ice.

In Ohio, we walked in the cemetery, and cousin Elena and i put a knit mushroom on our great-grandparents’ 3-way headstone, and then walked back. I wrote an essay in the years since i was last in Ohio that, now that i’ve gotten it down, seems like my official thoughts on the cemetery, and doing weird silly shit is all that’s left now that i’ve worked out my thoughts on the caskets and the relatives (Warrantied. Mostly unremarkable.) We had to walk fast to get back to grandma’s in time for the next scheduled sitting event, so i didn’t have time to show the 4 others my other half-remembered landmarks (the big mausoleum. The little Civil War headstones, worn rectangles with rounded tops, tilted like spruce trees).

In Oregon, we walked to beaches, through the redwoods (this was California, technically) and barefoot on the sand dunes in cold rain. I was poorly dressed, for the most part. On the beaches, i looked for dead things, and found what might have been a seal femur that i gave to some people digging through the driftwood with buckets and more focus than i had, since i couldn’t justify traveling with a femur, what with all the books. On another beach, a little Superman action figure with his right foot missing and a red cape the same size and shape as the scapula of something i found in the same pile. Arches of styrofoam particles marked the tidelines in a way i didn’t remember from past beach walks, and dead birds. Golf balls. So many golf balls. Dead things. On one beach, a weird amount of shoes. I wonder about the tsunami in Japan, and other things i don’t really understand well enough to know if they have anything to do with anything, even if being on foot does mean you’re living in the whole world. My feet went numb on the beach beyond the sand dune trail, and on that beach there were bottles–empty glass liquor bottles mostly–and plovers. I don’t know why so many bottles. The plovers nest there. I put my wet shoes on for the walk back.

a blur of color and light

photo (17) I finally got a new bike. Well, it’s a used bike, but we’re starting a new life together. It’s been too long. The old one was a gift, a half-joke, and cheap, and these last couple years riding it felt too much like work and not in the good, efficient exercisey way that biking should. It creaks in weird places and technically belongs to an imaginary person whose name i’ll keep secret but once she was dreamed as a blur of color and light. She never came for her bike, even in the winters i left it unguarded and snow-covered on porches or sheds, so i kept riding it. Until Tuesday, when a friend sold me hers, loved and well-cared for and a reminder of why people fall in love with bikes. Why i did. It’s dark now when i bike up the hill to work in the mornings, and the moon’s back in the consciousness of the north. This morning, it reflected through broken clouds on the lake, and i rolled onto the little beach, stopping as the front tire hit the water, marveling at the sensitivity of working brakes. Thanks, Kate.

*

I used to bike to work in the dark early mornings, also to make coffee, but without a hill or a lake and no chance or startling a moose on the way, and the Rasputina cover of “Brand New Key” was like my power ballad: “don’t go too fast but i go pretty far.” I had a green and silver mountain bike that got stolen, then an amazing blue beach cruiser, both of which i rode in ways they were not intended to be ridden. Still, they all represented a kind of resistance to cars and dependence and straight lines. Remember when biking was political? When everything was? Even the recently replaced (but still sitting on the porch) bike has a sticker that says “the revolution will not be motorized.” Which is most likely true. But.

*

I tried to find something useful to reflect on relating to 9/11 and nonstop wars and reread old blog posts (now that i’m trying to get back to blogging), and what i found was that i’ve been tired of it for a very long time and rehashing that doesn’t serve much of anything. But i did come across this story about birds getting trapped in the memorial towers of light in New York, and the decision to turn off the lights at intervals to let the birds go. I think it was the only useful thing i read today. I remember something about the realization 13 years ago that whales in the Pacific were vocalizing more and differently because shipping stopped after the attacks. Pay attention to these interconnections, these blurs of color and light, working brakes and moonlight. The revolution may not be anything but that.

useless-smart & squirrel grace

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Yesterday was one of those glorious fall days that gives the two-week season its reputation, all gold and red and deep blue, warm where the sun falls and cool in the shade, a promise of something about to change, but not yet. There’s still some new snow on the mountains, offering some definition to elevations that have already faded to shades of brown.

I spent much of the day sitting next to a hole watching for impending collapse and/or signs of changes in c’s consciousness while he whacked a rusted lid that’s older than i am back into place over the septic tank and then cut better and different holes in the tank. A friend came to sit with me for a bit, and asked, watching c’s dirt and oil-stained back twist around with the lid, “does this make you love him more?” I said maybe, even as it made me also hate the house more, and then we reflected on being useless-smart, able to “coordinate” and “facilitate” and edit and revise the shit out of things, but when it comes to not dying in holes, we both find ourselves at the surprised mercy of others, horrified to realize that we might not have thought about the fact that breathing decades of stored-up poop fumes can kill you and precautions should be taken to avoid it. c bungeed a utility fan to the ladder. And I’d been convinced for months that all the bungee cords were mysteriously lost forever and resigned myself to life without them, never to be mentioned again.

Useless-smarts aside, we’ve been negotiating this contrast a lot this summer, the questions of whether a sunny day is a demand that we go out and enjoy where we live or that we stay home and do the work to ensure that the house where we live doesn’t fall apart. Both are important, but i’m far more resistant to one than the other. I’ve been thinking a lot about the pros and cons–though that’s probably too reductive a way to categorize them–of stability and rootedness, and in recent weeks about the different things a season represents. Though of course it wasn’t intentional (what is?), my creative thesis ended up being mostly about finding home, settling in, settling down, whatever you want to call it (edited, revised, validating that i’m the kind of smart that doesn’t do shit for digging holes). Stuff about choices and gardens, about not leaving a place a lot of people leave (one of those essays was just published today on Vela).

This summer, there was a local series of well-intentioned and questionably executed storytelling events focused on seasonal life, with an emphasis on jobs and travel as what defines seasonality. Perhaps because i’m (still) reading Walden and perhaps, as i said later, i have a hard time just liking anything, it left me a little irritated. You can live a seasonal life from a single acre, if you’re paying attention, and that acre isn’t necessarily imaginatively restrictive. Still, i do feel an occasional twinge of nostalgia for the days when i identified with the cranes rather than the squirrels, for not having to deal with the holes. Of course it was never that straightforward, but some things are remembered more easily than others, and the grace of cranes is easier to see than that of squirrels. 

So, right now, there’s this big hole ringed in red fireweed gone to seed behind the house, and other broken things accumulating, and a deliciously stacked woodpile, 8 producing tomato plants in the living room, c’s still breathing, , i’ve got another useless degree and americans don’t read anymore, but now i know where the bungee cords are, and it’s another gorgeous day, my last Sunday (which is a Monday) of the summer work season, and i’m enjoying my day alone in a house i love and hate with bread dough and coffee and this MFA writing habit challenge, which i’m hoping will, if nothing else, get me back into blogging (i think i’ve said that before…). 

Thoreau, who doesn’t annoy me half as much as i expected him to, has c’s tolerance of small animals in built spaces, and wrote

The animal merely makes a bed, which he warms with his body in a sheltered place; but man, having discovered fire, boxes up some air in a spacious apartment, and warms that, instead of robbing himself, makes that his bed, in which he can move about divested of more cumbrous clothing, maintain a kind of summer in the midst of winter, and by means of windows even admit the light, and with a lamp lengthen out the day. Thus he goes a step or two beyond instinct, and saves a little time for the fine arts.

#yesallwomen

I do this thing with the internet where I read way too much about one thing–a news story and the flood of responses to it, usually–and then spend days filled with disjointed rage at whatever happened and what it says about society and culture and i sputter on and on to c about it, trying to explain both the event and the cultural context (he’s lived in Denali a long, long time, and it’s only kind of America) until, exhausted, i just go back to pictures of cookies or flowers or something that i’ll be able to talk about in public without feeling completely weird, and feeling guilty about the degree to which i’ve chosen isolation and denial over engagement and participation.

But then sometimes i think, you know, that’s a silly thing to think, and really oversimplifies my community as being somehow separate from the rest of Society (and when i say that, i say it like a teenage stoner wearing shoes scribbled with anarchy symbols…do kids still do that?), as if that’s even possible. And just to get to my point, the latest internet black hole i’ve fallen down is #yesallwomen, and the platform the internet offers to the new generation of misogynists, and the women and men who are sharing stories of assault and harassment in an attempt to demonstrate just how common, even universal, it is for women to live with fear and anger about the societal expectation that men will feel entitled to their attention, at the least, and that violence will be a likely result. Fucking society, man. And as i read my friends’ Facebook posts about harassment on campuses and streets and bars, my first thought was bitter and simplistic: and that’s why i’m glad for the lack of public places and populated streets and bars with strangers in them in my life. But then I started realizing what bullshit it is, the way i’ve separated myself from the problem, the way i’ve forgotten.

As many of you know, I used to be something of a regular at the Denali summer dive bars. I’m not gonna say I regret it, or claim it was a waste of time–it was fun, a lot of stuff happened there, i’ve got some good stories. But I was thinking today about apologists, and the way transgressions are spoken of in a place thought of by many as NeverNeverLand, Denali/Denial, and the way actions are separated from context everywhere, and, perhaps, even more so in a place where context is often separated from context. So you do a shot with a guy, someone everyone likes and you think you should too, and later he asks you to kiss him, and your first strategy is to remind him that he’s married, which he declares irrelevant, and persists, until, on a shuttle ride home, he dives over a seat and latches his teeth on to your shoulder, through two layers of clothing, and there will be bite marks in the morning. Ha ha, silly drunk man.

Another night, another man, someone i knew struggled with addiction and general awkwardness, and I felt for him, I wanted him to be healthy and feel comfortable, because that seemed like something a human should want for another human. Once, he told me I was “the best intellectual we’ve got,” and that meant something to me, then, so i’d talk to him. And he thought that meant eventually I’d go home with him, and when I made it clear that I wouldn’t, and that, that night, I was going home with someone else (yeah, i played that card), he turned to leave, and then turned back and kicked me, hard, in the shins, and if not for the drunkenness would have taken me with him when he slammed into the wall behind me.

So I’d mention these incidents, and be met with an eye-rolling, “oh, _____ (insert name of legendary Denali drunk), what do you expect. Depending on the charisma of the drunk in question, there would be an affectionate grin or a disgusted snort. Those were the first moments I thought of today, and then others, and they bore me, and they make me angry.

I remember reading out loud in high school my “autobiography as a writer,” which at the time fit on two sides of one sheet of lined notebook paper, written in pen, because even in 2000, that was how school sometimes worked. I wore shoes scribbled with anarchy signs. And I remember summarizing the stories I’d act out with dolls and sticks and stones as a child, sort of the gestation of my writerly self. There were complicated stories of women’s kingdoms in the sky, where Totally Hair Barbie reigned over a group of flying horses and women who had arrived there via a portal in a closet in a terrestrial shelter for abused women, and they would swoop down to earth on occasion to exact vengeance on their oppressors. “Everyone knows the Ken doll is a rapist,” I remember reading. The girls in my class kind of laughed, and my teacher smiled. I was proud of that line; I knew I’d entered into a more complex relationship with the audience by including it, and I liked the approval. I’m right, I thought. They do know.

And i think now, how the hell did I know? I was and am now surrounded by good men, enough of them that I rarely saw good men as a luxury, but the norm. And yet, I knew to watch out for the Ken doll.

Last i heard of my Ken doll, he was strung naked from the ceiling of a kid i hung out with in high school, who’d taken him home first to film a portion of a group project for English, and then kept him, and then described his fate as a morbid art project, and eventually I stopped asking. The biter retired, is featured on a t-shirt. The kicker hitchhikes a lot. I used to pick him up, but I don’t anymore.