Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Chatwin’

Sane Man Walking

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

When Your Heart Is Strong painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)

“ Solvitur ambulando, St. Jerome was fond of saying.  To solve a problem, walk around.” Gregory McNamee

After a severely stressful year of extreme physical challenges finally resolved by two successful surgeries, I am once again walking to and from the village every day, and slowly but surely building up my strength and stamina. The three-mile trip—downhill to town, uphill coming home—is invigorating now rather than exhausting, and the hour of steady walking is always a welcome relief from desk work and my connection to the electrical digital reality that underpins so much of my life today.

Spring has sprung, the plum trees and camellias and quince are in fulgent bloom, crab apples, rhododendrons, and cherry trees soon to follow with their outbursts of color, while Japanese maples spread their leafy wings and daffodils wave their trumpet-like flowers over the green grass that will never be so brilliantly green as when it first erupts from the flanks of Mother Earth. How sweet to walk through this riot of new life—what fun to write such purple prose.

“If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking.  Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.” Raymond Inmon

Having just finished writing a new novel, copies being made at Zo, the one and only copy shop in Mendocino, Ian the meticulous maven of duplication handling my case, I find that I am already in the grip of yet another novel, three chapters written and a fourth being told to me as I walk through the piney woods, the new story so intriguing I can barely remember the other book that owned me so completely for several months until just the other day.

I was talking to a friend about the experience of writing my new novel, the first I’ve birthed in some years, and I used the expression necessary delusion to describe why, whilst in the throes of giving birth, I felt so certain that this new book was truly fantastic, though it might not be any good at all.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” said my friend, frowning quizzically. “Why was it necessary that you be delusional?”

“Because,” I explained, “if I’m going to spend months and possibly years working on something that has very little chance of succeeding commercially, when I might otherwise make real money editing other people’s writing, I must believe the novel is going to be the next Moby Dick or Portnoy’s Complaint, or better yet a combination of the two.”

“But maybe you’re not delusional,” said my friend, an optimistic fellow. “Maybe you did create a masterpiece.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I replied. “Masterwork or drivel, it is imperative that I believe the book is superb or I won’t continue. And because the epigenetic overlords controlling me wanted that thing written, they caused the requisite endorphins to be released into my blood along with whatever else was needed to silence my inner critics long enough for me to get the job done, after which the spell was broken and, to thoroughly mix my metaphors, I turned back into a frog, or Toad, as I was called in elementary school. Toad Walnut.”

“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be attained only by someone who is detached.” Simone Weil

Yes, indeed, until I was fifty, I cared deeply about what might happen to my stories and novels and plays after I completed them, hoping fervently that they would bring me renown and buckets of money. And it was this hoping and caring, I now realize, that kept those creations glued to my psyche for months and years after I finished them. Now, blessedly, I understand that keeping things glued to my psyche is the creative equivalent of going deaf from wax buildup in my ears—an impediment to hearing the call of the muse, a blaring egotism that tells the gods I am not the tabula rasa they require; and so they desist from using me in the way I love to be used.

Which is not to say I don’t appreciate those rare and inspiring notes of praise from readers and listeners—I do—or that I don’t hoot for joy when I find a check in our post office box for something I wrote or recorded—I do. But I am happiest nowadays when the muse has me under her power and there is nothing glued to my psyche to distract me. I feel most alive and empowered when no attachment stands in my way of hearing the muse in full surround sound stereo, my attention undivided as I work to translate her imagistic offerings into prose.

“Walking takes longer than any other known form of locomotion except crawling.  Thus it stretches time and prolongs life.  Life is already too short to waste on speed.” Edward Abbey

Countless authors have written about how their most famous works came to them while they were on long walks; and many great scientists, Einstein among them, have said that their most profound theories were first imagined while they were taking walks. I attribute this recurring linkage of inspiration and walking to the profound interrelationship of our specie’s evolution from little-brained tree-dwelling apes to walking-around-on-the-ground hominids with huge brains—the relatively swift evolution from small-brained to big-brained coinciding precisely with our specie’s adaptation of walking and running on two legs as the fundamental means of getting around in the absence of trees to swing through.

During my brief collegiate career, I majored in Cultural Anthropology and was required to take an introductory course in Physical Anthropology, a field I found both fascinating and infinitely less morally questionable than Cultural Anthropology as it was generally practiced in those days—a university-funded imperialism, if you will, that treated indigenous societies as specimens to be intellectually dissected and analyzed by Great White Academics whether those specimen societies wanted to be dissected or not.

In 1967, the year I began my avid reading of Physical Anthropology texts, one of the debates raging in that field was whether bi-pedal locomotion (walking on two legs) or the advent of the opposable thumb was the adaptation most responsible for and/or conjoined with the dramatic enlargement of our australopithecine brains.

This distracting debate eventually went the way of the Dodo, thank goodness, and we followers of the fossil discoveries and resultant theories of how we came to be the humans we are today were no longer distracted by academic dickering while we marveled at the ingenuity of nature guiding our evolution from little hominids who were the favorite prey of enormous cats to large hominids staring at television screens while miniature versions of those enormous cats sleep on our beds and demand to be fed or they’ll shred the furniture.

My point being: I totally grok why walking ignites the imagination, and I enjoy thinking about that ignition as a variation on good old ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny—the physiological development of the individual organism recapitulating the physiological evolution of that organism’s species—the imagination ignited by walking recapitulating the interconnectedness of bi-pedal locomotion and the dramatic enlargement of our incredible brains.

 “After a day’s walk everything has twice its usual value.” George Macauley Trevelyan

I have previously extolled the wonders of Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines, which might have been subtitled A Treatise on Walking and the Evolution of Human Society, and I feel compelled to extol his book again. A favorite anecdote therein echoes my own sense of how Nature intends for humans—amalgams of body, mind, and spirit—to function on spaceship Earth.

“A white explorer in Africa, anxious to press ahead with his journey, paid his porters for a series of forced marches. But they, almost within reach of their destination, set down their bundles and refused to budge. No amount of extra payment would convince them otherwise. They said they had to wait for their souls to catch up.”

That story strikes me as an excellent explanation for the discombobulating sensation known as jet lag, as well as explaining why I always feel so much more relaxed and present when I walk to town rather than drive. I have not run ahead of my soul. Or put another way, I am in synch with my essential nature. I am grooving with my intrinsic biorhythms. I have fortified my sanity by doing what my body and mind and spirit require for optimal functioning. In walking I am practicing the yoga (unification) of body, mind, and spirit free of digital electronic automotive interference—striding (or in my case ambling) through the natural world as our Bushmen foremothers and forefathers strode on the sands of the Kalahari.

Here is another thought-provoking tidbit from The Songlines.

“In Middle English, the word progress meant a journey, particularly a seasonal journey or circuit. A progress was the journey of a king round the castles of his barons, a bishop round his dioceses, a nomad round his pastures, a pilgrim round a sequence of shrines. Moral or material forms of progress were unknown until the seventeenth century.”

What I especially like about that earlier definition of progress is how it resonates with my feelings about my daily walk to town, my own little pilgrim’s progress, my shrines the post office, Zo, Corners of the Mouth, Harvest at Mendosa’s, the bank, Goodlife Café, the Tiki god statue overlooking the mouth of Mendocino Bay, the driftwood sculptures on Portuguese Beach, the library, the hardware store, the traffic light on Highway One—the pleasure of my progress amplified by meeting other pilgrims along the way.

Salt and Song

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2012)

“Things filled men with fear: the more things they had, the more they had to fear. Things had a way of riveting themselves on to the soul and then telling the soul what to do.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

Marcia and I recently watched the marvelous documentary The Salt Men of Tibet, and if you’ve been feeling jangled by modern life, I think you will find this movie a helpful antidote to that jangling. The pace of the movie reflects the pace of life for these nomadic salt men who leave their womenfolk and children to walk with a great herd of yaks, forty yaks per man, to a remote salt lake from which they harvest salt to trade for barley so they and their people may survive another year. Walking to the lake takes the men and their yaks a month or so, with the return trip—each yak now burdened with two large sacks of salt—taking forty-five days or more. Thus three months of every year in the lives of these men is consumed with going and getting salt, and each minute of those three months is part of an all-encompassing sacred ritual.

The film begins in a hut in a mountainous wilderness in which there are no trees. A woman is singing to the salt men, her song the story of Lord Buddha and the events composing the spiritual basis for the reality these men and their families inhabit. The salt people are devout Buddhists and believe their salt lake to be an intelligent and emotionally sensitive being who is deeply influenced by the actions of those who wish to gain the boon of salt from her.

At the conclusion of the woman’s song, the spiritual stage now set, preparations for the incredible journey begin. What we soon realize is that these people live without electricity and motors, their fires fueled with yak dung, their clothing and rope and blankets made from yak wool, and that every aspect of their lives is consciously spiritual, for they believe that everything—every step they take and every word they speak and every animal and object they possess—is presided over by gods and spirits and Buddha to whom they speak and pray and sing throughout their days.

“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Shunryu Suzuki

The day after we watched The Salt Men of Tibet, I went out into the garden to harvest our garlic crop, and when I realized I was rushing to complete the task, I thought of the salt men, took a deep breath, and slowed way down. And as I slowed my actions, many blurry things came into focus. I became keenly aware of the beauty of the roots of the garlic clinging tenaciously to the soil as I pulled the dying plants from the ground, which tenacity and beauty reminded me that I was harvesting the children of the marriage of the garlic plant with the soil, children I would soon be eating so I might go on living.

Blessings on the soil and rabbit poop and compost and horse manure and rain and microbes and time and sunlight and darkness and gravity and air and all else constituting the fabric of life wherein our holy garlic flourishes.

“Before the whites came, no one in Australia was landless, since everyone inherited, as his or her private property, a stretch of the Ancestor’s song and the stretch of country over which the song passed. A man’s verses were his title deeds to territory. He could lend them to others. He could borrow other verses in return. The one thing he couldn’t do was sell or get rid of them.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

I am currently reading The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin’s classic about the aboriginals of central Australia in the late twentieth century. The book was first published in America in 1987 and is by far my favorite of Chatwin’s works. This is my third reading of The Songlines, my first in a decade, and I’m finding the text wholly new, which is both pleasurable and perplexing. How could I have forgotten so much of this fascinating information? If you have not read The Songlines or if it has been some years since your last reading, I highly recommend the book as another good antidote to the frantic pace of modern life that so grievously obscures our perceptions of the infinite nuances of Nature—the aboriginals of Australia believing that for anything to exist, it must first be sung into existence.

 “A ‘stop’, he said, was the ‘handover point’ where the song passed out of your ownership; where it was no longer yours to look after and no longer yours to lend. You’d sing to the end of your verses, and there lay the boundary.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

In 1964, when I was fifteen, my family and I went on a Sierra Club trip to a high Sierra base camp on the North Fork of the San Joaquin, a seventeen-mile hike from the last trace of what might be called a road. Joining us at this remote base camp were thirty other people, and one of these intrepid souls was an elderly Italian man who had played the clarinet in a famous symphony orchestra for most of his life.

Every morning he would rise at dawn and climb to the top of a rocky knoll overlooking our camp and sound the breakfast bell, so to speak, by playing on his clarinet a gorgeous rendition of Oh What A Beautiful Morning; and rain or shine his music ushered in the light of day as I lay in my sleeping bag listening to those voluptuous tones giving form to the formless void and filling me with desire to get up and live.

“Richard Lee calculated that a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines

One of the many things I appreciate about The Songlines is that Chatwin resists the impulse to portray the aboriginals as heroic and the Europeans as villains. Each person in the book, regardless of skin color, is presented as an individual with flaws and virtues, beauty and ugliness, so that my own tendency to lionize the indigenous and villainize the colonists is constantly derailed by Chatwin’s fairness, which allows me to surrender to the unspoken message of the story that each of us is the creation of the culture in which we are born and raised; and the most remarkable people are those who practice generosity rather than selfishness, regardless of their particular cultural programming. Indeed, the book is full of little acts of kindness and generosity without which life would be no fun at all.

“All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world: those that stay at home and those that do not.” Rudyard Kipling

Another thing I love about The Songlines is that the book is a jumble of ideas and anecdotes and theories about human behavior set against the backdrop of a rough and tumble journey through the outback in search of places sacred to the aboriginals, which turns out to be almost every place. At one point in his outback odyssey, incessant rain traps Chatwin in a remote outpost for several days, a time he uses to read through his many notebooks filled with stories about various nomadic societies and remembrances of his fascinating discussions with Konrad Lorenz (author of On Aggression) and Elizabeth Vrba, as well as several mind-bending theories about the evolution of human society in that long ago time when our ancestors were the favorite food of gigantic cats.

“A leopard at the kill is no more violent or angry than an antelope is angry with the grass it eats.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines

There is one scene in The Salt Men of Tibet I’ve thought about several times since watching the movie, and every time I think about this scene I feel grateful for the wisdom it imparts. For the purpose of saddling the yaks, one of the salt men is gathering the big animals and tying them to a long assemblage of rope laid out on the ground. As the man goes to get one of the yaks, the big animal moves away, not wanting to be caught. The man follows the yak, but does not hurry. The yak eludes the man three or four times, yet the man never quickens his pace as he follows the yak and eventually catches him.

As I watched the scene, I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the man following the yak, and I nearly shouted, “Just move a little quicker and grab him!” But that is not the way of the salt people. Hurrying and grabbing might frighten or anger the yaks with whom the salt people have a profoundly symbiotic and respectful relationship. The salt people could not survive without the yaks, for these sacred beings provide the salt people with milk, butter, fat, fire, fabric, transportation, and warmth—life!