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Entries in nature (5)


Blue Highways: Ironton, Ohio

Unfolding the Map

We have traveled far, and are now in the last chapter of Blue Highways.  We pass through Gallia County, which provides some nice contrasts of nature and progress, and then through Ironton, which once served as an engine of progress for the United States in its production of pig iron.  To see where Ironton sits, please see the map.

Book Quote

"'Inquire Locally,' the road should have been marked.  Of the thirteen thousand miles of highway I'd driven in the last months, Ohio 218 through Gallia County set a standard to measure bad road by with pavement so rough I looked forward to sections where the blacktop was gone completely.  Along the shoulders lay stripped cars, presumably from drivers who had given up.  Yet the sunny county was a fine piece of washed grasses, gleams in hounds' eyes, constructions of spiders, rocks broken and rounded - all those things and fully more.

"At Ironton I took the river road down a stretch of power lines, rail lines, water lines, and telephone lines (the birds sleep across the water on the wooded Kentucky bluffs, they say)...."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 4

Aerial photo of downtown Ironton, Ohio. Photo hosted at City Data. Click on photo to go to host page.

Ironton, Ohio

The interesting thing about Blue Highways, as we head into this last chapter of the book, are the contrasts that LHM writes about that you might miss if you don't pay attention.  I know that as I read the book, I sometimes get too caught up in where he's going, and I miss a few interesting things that are whizzing by the van in my anticipation of what town is next, or what person he might begin talking to.

It's those moments where I really get into the text that I realize that these juxtapositions are all over the place in the book for us to compare with each other.  In the text above, it is easy to just glance past a theme that permeates many parts of the book.  LHM makes a subtle contrast between broken down and intrusive human-made features of the landscape - the rough road, the abandoned vehicles, power lines, rail lines, water lines and telephone lines - and the sunny county, the fine and washed grasses, gleams in hounds eyes, spider webs, and rocks.  The human made stuff is presented as obstacles.  The road is horrible, the cars have an air of futility.

Signs of progress, such as the lines that provide power, transportation, water and telephone, are intrusive.  I love how LHM writes that the birds don't even use the power lines, preferring the natural trees and bluffs across the river.

I probably come across sometimes as anti-modern in these posts as I decry some of the harmful effects of technology and progress.  I'm not.  I'm as fascinated by progress as anyone.  I'm sitting here typing this on a four year old laptop that is woefully out of date.  It was the height of progress when I bought it, but now it is too bulky, a dinosaur compared to the sleek MacBook Pro that my wife is cursing at right beside me (she's attempting to figure out WordPress and having a devil of a time).  I'd love a new computer.  I have a smart phone in my pocket and am waiting to get the newest Samsung Galaxy III.  We have a Sony 19 inch TV that we got probably 10 years ago from a friend, and I dream of getting an LED or LCD flat panel screen TV sometime.  I regularly surf the web on an iPad provided by my job.

I read with gusto the latest scientific accomplishments, from the micro to the macro, from the human body to the depths of the universe.  I watch science fiction avidly, and am never happier than when immersing myself into Star Trek, Firefly or Battlestar Galactica.  I dream of what the world might be 50, 100, 1000 or even 10,000 years in the future.

Yet I'm no Pollyanna.  I see serious problems with progress.  It has made life better for billions of people, but it has also created just as many hazards as benefits.  Because of progress, the world is becoming seriously overpopulated.  The world is beginning to feel the adverse effects of climate change brought on by industrialization and modernization and I understand that the effects will only get worse.  Millions of deaths and casualties are possible at the touch of a button.  Groups that fear progress, or feel left out of the benefits, have grown terrorism from a global nuisance to a global problem.  Antibiotics have cured untold millions, but have also helped evolve "super bugs" which are harder to cure.

And some progress just hasn't happened like we were promised.  Cars do not run on water, they are still running modified versions of the original internal combustion engine, a concept essentially unchanged since its inception over 100 years ago.  Nor are there any feasible flying cars.  We haven't colonized the moon, or Mars, and in fact haven't sent any person beyond earth orbit since the last Apollo mission in the 1970s.  We could be snuffed out in an instant by a well-aimed asteroid.  And for all our signals to the cosmos, there has been nary a peep back - not even a hiccough. 

We are still at the mercy of floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural phenomena.  People still pick up guns and kill each other in shopping malls, theaters, schools and battlefields.  We are just as likely to go to war as we ever were.  Poverty still exists, even in the richest nations on earth.  People still die of starvation.  In the midst of health care crises, we still argue over whether the government should provide basic health care to everyone.  We still expect much, and are yet unwilling to pay for it.  We are still willing to take and exploit, but not willing to give back much.

To me progress is all it promises, and it is nothing of what it promises.  Which is why I probably identify so much with what LHM writes on a deep level.  I can appreciate the seemingly simple, intuitively complex beauty of nature just as he does.  Despite my love and appreciation of progress, I can still get lost in the beauty of trees, grass, the gleam in my dog's eye, and birds in the branches.  If I get caught up in the modern world, it flashes by like scenery in the windows of LHM's van.  But when I take time to notice, and take in the world as it is, without the flash of progress, I often find peace.

Musical Interlude

The topic of progress dovetails nicely with Ironton, which at one time supplied the pig iron used to build industrial America.  That seamlessly fits with Johnny Cash and The Legend of John Henry's Hammer.  Below is the live recording from his famous Folsom Prison concert.

If you want to know more about Ironton

City of Ironton
Ironton Rally on the River
Ironton Tribune (newspaper)
Ohio University Southern
Wikipedia: Ironton

Next up:  The Ohio River Towns (Franklin Furnace, New Boston, Portsmouth, Friendship, Manchester, Utopia)


Blue Highways: Mount Tom, Vermont

Unfolding the Map

In this post, as William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) spends a day on Mount Tom outside of Woodstock, Vermont, he seems a little distracted.  We'll reflect a little on the healing prospects of nature, and the double-edged sword of protecting oneself.  To find Mount Tom, let the map be your guide.

Book Quote

"I spent the day on Mount Tom.  Had I owned a ghost shirt, I'd have danced madly all over that mountain.  Instead, I tried to keep from looking inward, tried to reach outward, but, as Black Elk says, certain things among the shadows of a man's life do not have to be remembered - they remember themselves."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 9

Trail on Mount Tom near Woodstock, Vermont. Photo by "ikur" and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host page.

Mount Tom, Vermont

If you ask me, LHM did this all backwards.  But first, a little back story that I didn't provide in the quote.  If you're joining for the first time as we follow Blue Highways, one of the reasons LHM took off on a trip around America is that his marriage fell apart.  At various points along the trip, he tried to talk with his estranged wife, who he named "The Cherokee."  In the passage preceding this quote, he wakes in Woodstock, Vermont from difficult dreams involving remarriage with her.  He spends the day on Mount Tom to clear his head and soothe his emotions, but by the end of the day when he is back in Woodstock he calls and has a frustrating talk with her which only serves to get him angry.

In my experience, nature is best experienced from a stable platform.  By that, I mean that if one is in an emotionally unstable state, the healing value of nature, of being in a calming, soothing environment like that of Mount Tom is hindered or muted.  It's not that nature wouldn't be able to calm and heal someone in that state, it's just that the healing forces of nature would have to work harder and would probably need to be applied repeatedly to have an effect.  A simple day outing would not suffice.

I think of myself when I have entered nature in an emotionally unstable state.  A few years ago, my wife and I went for an outing in the Tent Rocks, a geologically fascinating area near our home in New Mexico.  At the time, our marriage was troubled with many issues, and my mind was focused on those things.  We walked the trails of the Tent Rocks, through the hoodoos and fantastic geological formations created through volcanism, erosion and time.  I saw them, but I didn't really see them.  I was too preoccupied, my mind racing with potentials and possibilities and pitfalls.  Therefore, while being in the wilderness in an amazing place took me superficially from my everyday surroundings where all of my troubles and difficulties were stacking up, I didn't really absorb the Tent Rocks.  I saw but did not see.  I need to go back to see the Tent Rocks now that I am in a more stable emotional place.

It's not that LHM didn't try to calm his emotions.  He states that he tried to focus outward, rather than inward, but to paraphrase him, a man's shadows will manage to make themselves known.  In my experience again, those shadows seem to come when one is ungoing emotional unrest.  LHM makes reference his quote above to the ghost shirt, which to Native Americans were a protective garment.  The ghost shirts were adopted by many Native tribes in the late 1800s and were initially worn to protect the wearer from the certain doom, notably earthquakes, that were believed to be the punishment for the white invaders in North America.  However, some Natives believed that the ghost shirts would protect the wearer from the white man's bullets.  They didn't, as was proved at the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.  It is believed that the idea of the ghost shirts were adopted from Mormon temple garments that are supposed to protect the wearer from evil.  However, throughout history there have been many beliefs that the wearing of garments, or even the shedding of clothes, offered one protection.  One of the most interesting cases I've read is about General Butt Naked, in Liberia, who led his troops into battle while nude believing that it protected him from bullets.  He hasn't been proved wrong yet, as he is still alive!  Although I think that his butt-naked battle days are over. 

However, the ghost shirts and other forms of protection are all focused on dangers from without.  How do you protect from the turmoil within?  If you are surrounded by a cloak of protection, such as a ghost shirt, a protective bubble ala Green Lantern, a safe room, or a Romulan or Klingon cloaking device, it doesn't actually mean that you are able to vanquish the doubt, madness or rebellion that can brew within the individual or individuals within the protective device.

Here we get back to LHM.  From my lofty perch thirty years in the future, I might have advised him to get his compulsive act of calling his ex-wife over with before he went up to Mount Tom.  He could have had his despairing, angry moment where he yelled and hit the telephone booth door.  After, a drive up to Mount Tom and it's clean air and forests would have helped calm him.  The views from the top of the mountain could have given him perspective.  Perhaps Black Elk's wisdom, "I did not know then how much was ended," would have come with less desolation and more inner peace.

But then again, I have been known to act exactly as LHM did.  Lucky for me, I have had access to good people who provide me that perspective, and the slightest bit of wisdom to know that should I need healing energy, calm and perspective, that I can always reach out to Nature.  In a week, I will be doing just that.  I will go camping for a weekend in New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness.  I will hike on mountain trails, take in the vistas, and observe wildlife going about its business in the moment.  I will watch my dog joyfully leap into the car, not caring for a moment where she's going but just happy to be going somewhere, and then her joy at being outside for an entire weekend.  For a few days, I will heal, and then come back to civilization, work, and relationships, put up some protective cloaks and live, taking the buffets to my psyche and soul that life brings, until I realize I need rejuvenation and peace again.

Musical Interlude

For the musical interlude, I am posting Protection.  Written by Bruce Springsteen for Donna Summer, who recently passed away, both of them recorded their own versions of the song, as well as a duet that has never been heard.  This version is a fan remix, putting these legendary musicians' voices together.


At the risk of giving in to my own hubris, I once wrote a sonnet that sort of fits LHM's situation in this chapter.  Here's what LHM writes about his phone call to The Cherokee:

"By evening, my judgment had given way, and I called home.  I was talking fast, talking, talking, trying to find where we stood, how our chances were.  She talked.  No matter how we tried, our words - confounded - ran athwart and, as usual, we ended up at cross-purposes.  Neither of us knew where to go from there.  Nothing to do but hang up.  When I put the receiver down and heard the line ding dead, I tried to excuse the failure by thinking that nothing ever works out over a telephone."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 9

I wrote this sonnet after a similar experience with a girlfriend a long time ago, in the late 1980s.  It has similar themes to LHM's quote, including dancing, nature, a dead telephone line, and loss.  I humbly offer it to you here:

Autumn Thoughts
by Michael L. Hess

A click, and then the lifeless droning hum,
As I replaced the phone upon its hook;
I walked outside, into the setting sun,
And sat upon the porch to think and look.

A cavalcade of brightly colored leaves
Ran helter-skelter down the somber street,
Driven by a soft, yet forceful, breeze
That pushed them onward to an unknown fate.

How I wished that I could join them there,
And also dance away my lonely grief;
Until, with growing pain, I was aware
That life is but the wind, and I, a leaf.

I thought of love and loss, and thus entranced,
I ran into the street to join the dance.

If you want to know more about Mount Tom

Climbing Mount Tom
Hiking around Woodstock
Mount Tom
Mount Tom and the Pogue Trail

Next up:  Quechee Gorge, Vermont


Blue Highways: Somewhere on the North Side of Oneida Lake, New York

Unfolding the Map

As we continue through New York, we happen with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) upon Oneida Lake, the largest freshwater lake entirely within the state.  This post is about framing, or specifically how a lake helps visually frame vistas.  But it is also about something more.  Books like Blue Highways frame an author's perspective and thoughts, and now I'm using these posts to frame my experience of Blue Highways and other books for you.  Hopefully, you can use my posts to frame your own thoughts and create frames of perspective for others.  To frame Oneida Lake geographically, please see the map.

Book Quote

"The shingled cafe, Ben and Bernies, afforded a broad view of Lake Oneida....

"The Oneida shoreline was warm - too warm - for May, although maples by the highway had opened to a cooling shade.  The perpetual spring I'd been following around the country was about done.  On a map, Lake Oneida looks like a sperm whale, and my course that morning was down the spine, from the flukes to the snout.  All along the shore, old houses, big houses, were losing to the North climate, and for miles it was a place of sag and dilapidation."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 6

Sunset over Oneida Lake, New York. Notice how water, land, sky and sun work together so well in this picture. Photo by The Brit_2 and hosted at Flickr. Click on photo to go to host site.

Somewhere on the North Side of Oneida Lake

I've always heard that when one takes a picture, framing the shot is the most important thing one can do to make sure that the picture is a good one.  I've also watched videographers, and have seen television shows about how certain movies are made, and once again how shots are framed are very important.

What is framing?  In photographic terms, framing focuses the viewer's attention on an object in the photo or in the scene, and in many cases can add a sense of depth to an image.  So, why am I starting out a post centered on Oneida Lake with the concept of framing?  I think I first became aware of this component of visual arts through my interaction with lakes.

I grew up next to the Pacific Ocean.  When one looks west from my hometown, the ocean spreads flat as far as the eye can see.  On some days, the view is to the horizon and on other days, if it is foggy, the eye cannot see as far.  When looking out over the ocean, one seeks some kind of frame of reference, such as a boat or other object.  I often found my eyes seeking the coastline, especially north where Cape Mendocino juts out into the ocean many miles distant, and I often found that a pleasing sight as it gave me a sense of distance and depth that I lacked looking straight west.

I probably had my first experience with a lake when I was too young to remember.  My family used to make yearly winter trips from our home on the ocean to Lake Tahoe.  They started this before I was born, and for some reason these trips ended when I was about four years old.  I do not remember much about my couple of trips to Lake Tahoe at the time other than some disjointed images of the car ride and being in snow (which I hated at the time because I didn't like the cold).

The first time I remember seeing a lake and really appreciating it was when I was in junior high school.  I was probably in 8th grade.  I had a friend named Mike, and he lived with his mother.  His father lived in Clearlake, California and Mike asked me if I would like to go with him to see his dad for the weekend.  His dad was a pilot, and flew over to Little River Airport to pick us up.  It was my first airplane ride, and as we followed Highway 20, which I knew well, I saw the limits of my world laid out for me.  I noted the turn from Highway 20 onto U.S. 101 and followed its line down toward Ukiah - the route I knew so well from frequent trips to the orthodontist and the ophthalmologist.

Just beyond a low hill from U.S. 101, where I wouldn't have seen it from the road, lay a small lake.  I asked about it, and learned it was Lake Mendocino, a large reservoir on the east fork of the Russian River.  We were following Highway 20 again after it split off from 101 - a continuance that I wasn't aware of.  There were a series of little lakes that followed along the road.  I was told those were the Blue Lakes, and told some thought they were bottomless.  Then, a much, much larger lake, Clear Lake, came into view.  As we banked over and began our approach into Clearlake's airport, I was amazed by its size.

Since then, I have seen a number of lakes, some much bigger than Clear Lake, and have realized that everything is perspective.  And to be fair to myself, Clear Lake is the biggest body of fresh water entirely in California.  But at that time I never realized that there could be a volume of water, outside the ocean, that could be so big.

The time we spent on and around Clear Lake was fun.  Mike's dad owned a motel with a pier into the lake and we spent time fishing, and he took us out in his boat and I learned to water ski for the first time.  But what made the lake so fascinating was the view.  Mount Konocti, a volcano, rises on the south shore of Clear Lake, and small hills ring it.  The depression in which the lake lies and the flat blue water of the lake itself creates a natural frame.  I think that my unconscious view was drawn to this frame of water, earth and sky and I would spend a lot of time looking toward the lake for that reason.

I've seen this effect at other lakes as well, including in New York where LHM travels first past the Finger Lakes and then past Oneida Lake.  On a visit to a friend's parents' house at Geneva, New York, I was aware of a similar effect as I looked south down the long lake.  Hills and sky frame the lake, and if an object such as a sailboat were on the lake in the distance, the combination of elements framed the boat beautifully.

I can imagine LHM coming upon Oneida Lake for the first time.  The water appears, and the frame spreads as more water fills the field of vision and the shores spread out to the right and left.  Depending on the time day, the sun might add to the effect.  At dawn, as the sun rises, a trail of light might direct one's gaze toward where the sun is coming up if one is standing at the western end of the lake.  One might see the same effect in the evening at the eastern end of the lake.  The lake is long enough that one might not be able to see completely across its length, which in itself creates a frame for the eye.  At the same time, standing on the north shore, the length of the south shore (if it can be seen - I don't really know) would draw the eye toward natural frames that the brain would recognize, giving depth and distance a meaning.  I'm speculating, because I have never been to Oneida Lake, but that's the point of a book - to put these images in my mind that tap into my own experience.

I've always been one to really observe and see the art and beauty in the world around me.  Some of my most memorable scenes, ones that are indelibly etched into my experience, are the vistas surrounding lakes, and I believe it is because of that natural framing that occurs that my unconscious, developing mind recognized and appreciated long before my conscious mind understood why.

Musical Interlude

The lyric "In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky and they stand there" came into my mind as I was writing this post.  To me, it almost perfectly encapsulates the effect a lake can have on one's vision.  The lyric is from the song Roundabout by Yes.  The rest of the lyrics can be seen if you go to the YouTube site for the video.

If you want to know more about Oneida Lake

New York Department of Environmental Conservation: Oneida Lake
Oneida Lake
Oneida Lake, New York
Wikipedia: Oneida Lake

Next up:  Somewhere on the Erie Canal


Blue Highways: Agate Beach and Cape Foulweather, Oregon

Unfolding the Map

What a great, descriptive name is Cape Foulweather!  The English explorer James Cook gave it the name after experiencing, you guessed it, foul weather off this coast of Oregon.  The problem of coast access, and the ways in which we connect with nature are the subjects of this post, and they fit together quite nicely.  Take a moment to look at the map to see our oceanfront location, and then sit back and observe what's happening!

Book Quote

"On north to Agate Beach. Shoreline I had camped on fifteen years before was now glassy condominiums and the path to the ocean posted.  Again northward to a pocket of shore between developments near Cape Foulweather. The surf rolled out an unbroken uproar like a waterfall....In the lee of a big tussock of beach grass I ate lunch, as gulls, slipping over the drafts and yawing and tilting in the stiff sea wind, watched me watch them. It's a curious sensation when nature looks back."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 4

View of Cape Foulweather, Oregon from the Devil's Punch Bowl. Photo by "Little Mountain 5" on Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Agate Beach and Cape Foulweather, Oregon

Growing up in Northern California, I never really thought much about beach access.  After all, I never had a problem getting to the coast.  A lot of the coast was open to me.  There were plenty of state parks with beach access, and even those parts of the coast where property went to the edge the bluff, my understanding was that the public had a right to walk on the beach below the bluff.  In preparing for the post today, I see that I was mostly right about that - the public is allowed to walk on the wet sand which is in the highest tide area.  But in my neck of the woods, we really didn't think about that too much.  Beach access was available almost wherever one wanted to go.

Development was not very active, either.  Sure, people built houses near the ocean, and some blocked off access to the water.  This was questionable legally, since under California law if the public has used the property for access to the beach for a long time, the owner may need to live with this established public access.  In my hometown, thankfully, there were no condominium developments or large tracts that blocked beach access.  There was really no issue.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that public beach access wasn't available everywhere.  When I met people from Massachussetts, I learned that the Cape Cod beaches were mostly off limits, and that visitors without connections were limited to crowded public beaches where, I think I remember it being said, people had to pay a fee to get on them.  (Note: I am wrong on this, but one does have to pay a parking fee)  In fact, I get the idea that public access to beaches is more of a rarity than anything.  Even in California, the right to access some beaches is challenged.  In Malibu, some property owners go to great lengths to keep people accessing beaches through their property even though it is legally questionable to do so.

Oregon is even more open to public beach access, and declared in 1961 that the state owns all wet send 16 vertical feet from the low tide line belongs to the state and that public easement, or right of way, exists up to the line of vegetation.  This law was modeled on a 1959 law from a surprising source, Texas!  Texas passed a pioneering open beaches law that allows the public the right to use the wet beaches and access across the dry beach up to the vegetation.

I can only see these problems of when and how the public accesses the beaches getting more pronounced as populations increase, the gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population grows, and people with the resources and means to develop the coastlands continue.  This is unfortunate.  Perhaps because we are all evolved from creatures that inhabited water for millions of years before the first daring being crawled out onto land, and perhaps because the human physiology is around 60% water in a mature adult, and perhaps because we need water to survive, we are attracted to bodies of water.  Ocean beaches are, and should be treated as, a national treasure.  It would be a shame if a majority of the American population wouldn't be able to get there, due to the selfish desires of a few.

I have one more thing to comment on in this post.  LHM mentions how strange it is when one watches nature and nature watches back.  When I am observing nature, I tend to forget that I am part of the scene.  There is a quantum physics principle that, if I paraphrase it correctly, argues that one can never be a truly neutral observer since the act of observation will always change the outcome.  Intuitively I know this, even as I watch wildlife in its "natural" state.

I became aware of this one day while watching seals at a beach in Northern California.  Not content with the observation platform (and young enough to not really think that I might be disturbing the creatures as I crept ever closer to them) I moved out on the rocks very close to the water.  A 20 foot wide channel separated the rock I was on from the rock the seals were sleeping upon.  One looked up, noticed me, and slipped into the water.  A moment later, its head popped up, nearer to me than any seal had ever gotten before.  Clearly curious, it looked me over as I regarded it.  It's eyes were large and as it checked me out, it suddenly gave out a soft "hooooo," almost like an owl.  Surprised, I "hooo"ed back.  It looked at me again swimming side to side, and then with a soft splash it ducked underwater and disappeared.

I told a friend about this experience, and she told me that I was very lucky.  She went on to explain that it is rare for a wild animal not only to recognize that you are there, but actually acknowledge you.  When it acknowledges you, she said, it is a gift.  Since then, I have in many ways felt kindred with seals, as if for a brief moment, I was welcomed into their club or society, even if it came after I was being nosy and intrusive on them.  I've since discovered the wonderful legends of the Selkies, an Irish myth of seals that can become human and can be kept human if one steals their pelt.  I've wondered in the past if people I knew were Selkies. 

It clearly is strange, as LHM says, when nature looks back at you.  But I would add that it is also wonderful.  If we all experienced nature watching us, perhaps we wouldn't take nature for granted, or worse.  Perhaps we would be mindful of how we build, what we destroy and take greater measures to preserve and protect.  And perhaps we would have less fighting about whether people should have access to natural treasures, and more strategizing about how to maximize people's access to them.

Musical Interlude

I don't know much about this band, Ivy, but I have one single of theirs on a compilation CD, and this is it.  The song is called Edge of the Ocean.  Enjoy!

If you want to know more about Agate Beach and Cape Foulweather

BeachConnection: Cape Foulweather and Cliffs
Cape Foulweather Lookout and Observatory
Community of Agate Beach
Wikipedia: Agate Beach
Wikipedia: Cape Foulweather

Next up: Depoe Bay, Oregon


Blue Highways: Manton, California

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapIn a volcanic landscape at dusk, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) drives through a wonderland that put him into a whimsical state of mind.  If you're willing to let your mind wander, to rip off Dr. Seuss, Oh The Places You'll Go!  To see where we are located, please click on the map thumbnail over to the right of this column.

Book Quote

"I took a road not marked on my map toward Manton. Nowhere was the way straight, but the land it traversed looked like an illustration from a child's book: a whimsy of rocky shapes, a fancy of spongy bushes, a figment of trees.  Two loping deer could have been unicorns, and the fisherman under a bridge a troll.  The only reality was that somebody owned the land.  At three-hundred-yard intervals, alternating signs hung from barbed wire:  NO TRESPASSING.  PRIVATE PROPERTY.

"Wonderland stopped at Manton..."

Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 11

Manton general store. Photo by David O. Harrison at City Data. Click on photo to go to site.

Manton, California

Sometimes, landscapes seem almost too mystical to believe.  LHM experiences this on a rainy, dusky evening as he drives through landscape shaped by volcanic forces.  Often, landscapes that look ordinary at certain times suddenly take on magical proportions in certain lights.

Once I was with my wife and a friend, hiking on Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco.  It was winter, and the huge amount of rain that had been falling at the time turned the rivers coming off the mountain into cascades down the steep slopes.  Everything was wet and looked mysteriously primeval.  Huge ferns grew by the trail and put me in the mind of pictures I had seen in books about the dinosaurs, where giant dragonflies were snapped up by dinosaur predators.  Large toadstools made me think that at some point, a gnome or leprechaun would dance out into the open, laugh at me and disappear.  The gloom under the trees, the crashing water, and the almost jungle-like quality of the scene (even though it was a forest of conifers) made it possible that I wouldn't have been surprised had I rounded a corner and found King Kong eating the bark of a cypress tree while keeping an eye out for Fay Wray, or Jessica Lange, or Naomi Watts.

The wonders of Pandora in James Cameron's Avatar touched people precisely because the world was presented as a utopia where its people, noble savages, recognized their connection to their planet and had essentially become one with it.  Those scenes, as amazing as they can be on the big screen, evoke the passion about the wonders of our world which, though under assault, still manage to surprise us, especially when viewed through a slightly different perspective.  I still remember vividly, when driving for the first time into the Yosemite Valley just after graduating from college, the jaw dropping vista that appeared as the valley opened in front of me.  I still dream of that day when I climbed Half Dome and stood upon the edge, my senses filled with the grandeur of the Valley and the Sierras beyond.  Now I read that it's wonders are under strain from budget cuts and the increasing numbers of people that visit.  However, the images in my mind still linger.

Even as a child, I was quite aware that the world we see in the daylight changes with nightfall.  Places that meant one thing to me in the daytime often took on different meanings at night.  Our barn, a place of coolness and comfort during the day became a place to be afraid of in the dark, with many corners where bad things could hide and get me.  The ocean, roaring and often blinding as it reflected sunlight during the day became docile, placid and quieter at night, and giving my soul a soothing salve.  Redwood trees, so beautifully green during the day, became tall, dark and vaguely threatening figures at night - the forest that they sheltered, so wonderfully beautiful, alive and nurturing during the day often became a place of fear at night, where one would not want to be caught else one might be eaten by a wild animal or carried away by Bigfoot.

Of course, these feelings might have simply mirrored my life, because things were very different for me personally between day and night.  I used to dread the nightfall, because at night my father would become a different person.  The masks he wore during the day came off.  On the best nights, alcohol would make him sleepy.  On the worst nights, alcohol made him more interested in me than a father should be in his son.  I learned at a very young age that as the appearance of the world changed, so too did the appearance of many of those around me.

My wife recently showed me an old series of advertisements for the London paper The Guardian.  They made some of these very points.  In one, a skinhead is seen rushing toward a businessman from many different angles, and in conjunction with other events, it appears that he will attack the businessman.  Only from the last perspective is it revealed that the skinhead saves the businessman from getting crushed by falling bricks.  I've also read a recent article in the New Yorker by Alex Ross about Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Wilde and his work were as much about appearances as anything else, and how we can be deceived by them if we don't question our perspective.

Yet, I love the change of appearance of the world when we see it at different times of day, or different eras, and if there is deception, I still allow myself to get lost in it.  I enjoy the wonder I feel when I step into what seems like a different world, where something has altered the perspective just enough to make it all seem new.  Perhaps that is why I like stories that present alternate realities, or fantasy worlds, or exotic places.  Maybe, it is why I like to travel, and to read, and to expose myself to different places both real and imaginary.  Ultimately, I am so small, the world is so big, and there is so much to discover.  When I can experience many different realities of the same place, it's even better.

LHM brings all of these thoughts to mind as he drives through a vista shaped by eons of violent volcanic action.  Violence can beget beauty, as twisted shapes and forms take on their own elegance and uniqueness.  Beauty can beget violence, as we endlessly have chronicled throughout human history.  The difference in how we view things may be dependent on something as simple as where we stand, and the time of day.

Musical Interlude

I heard this song by the Green Chili Jam Band the other day on The Childrens' Hour on KUNM.  The show's host, a young woman named Jena Ritchey who was hosting her last Childrens' Hour before heading off to college, played this song that really touched me.  The lyrics touch on all the things that make our world wonderful.  Thank you, Jena, for introducing me to this and other beautiful songs on your show, and have a wonderful time making new discoveries about our world in college.

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