Posts Tagged ‘Bushmen of the Kalahari’

Work Surfaces

Monday, April 9th, 2018

choir practice

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Stephen Stills

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s autobiography Dreaming of Lions. Near the beginning of her memoir, she tells of her time as a young woman when she and her brother and parents lived with a band of Bushmen in the Kalahari. At one point, Thomas enumerates all the possessions of a Bushman woman.

“…she owned her front and back aprons, also her leather cape and the sinew string which served as a belt, also her digging stick, two or three empty ostrich eggshells in which the people carried water, the grass stoppers for those ostrich eggshells, a leather bag, her necklace of ostrich eggshell beads, perhaps four or five hair ornaments, also a pair of leather sandals, and a tortoise shell in which she carried a sweet-smelling powder.”

Then Thomas enumerates the total possessions of a Bushman man. “He would own his leather loincloth, a leather bag, perhaps a leather cape for warmth, a pair of sandals, also a quiver, perhaps eight or nine arrows, a knife, a spear, perhaps a digging stick, and a pair of fire sticks. He also might own a necklace or some other ornament.”

For both a woman and a man, the total number of possessions was nineteen, give or take one or two. This enumeration put me in mind of when I lived as a vagabond for a few years and carried with me all my worldly possessions. I had many more than nineteen things, but certainly no more than sixty, including my clothing and shoes and survival tools and a few books. Today I am possessed of thousands of things. Thousands.

So…this morning, having put off the task for a year, I decided to clean up and organize the four work surfaces in my office/studio, also known as the Stables of Augeas. This undertaking resulted in my cleaning the entire room from floor to ceiling, and in the course of my excavations I found my good tape measure I’ve been missing for several weeks as well as two unanswered letters (shame on me), seven half-finished drawings, and five beginnings of stories. I also found so many pens, I feel abashed to have bought another box thinking I’d run out.

Yes, I agree that multiple dysfunctional work surfaces and a hyper-cluttered office/studio filled with unfinished, unanswered, unrealized things might be indicative of emotional and creative bottlenecks, and now that I have created these vast open spaces, the question does arise: how will I use this spaciousness? Could I have been avoiding the question of what to do next with my one precious creative life by engineering a physical conundrum composed of mystery heaps and jumbles of stuff obfuscating those work surfaces? Don’t be silly.

I do wonder why I kept a large bike pump on one corner of my writing desk for so many months, and why I stacked several notebooks filled with writing I’d already transcribed on top of a list of people I was planning to contact six months ago about something I felt was important at the time, but once the list was lost to view I forgot about contacting those people, and now I can’t remember why I wanted to contact them. Could this mean the something I wanted to contact them about was not really important, or might this be yet another example of self-sabotage? Oh, please.

These are just a few of the many questions that arose during the clearing process. Here are a few more. Why did I bring five old shoes from my bedroom closet into my office and put them under the table where I keep my postal scale and stamps and telephone? Why did I keep two large cardboard boxes on the left side of my drawing table for nearly a year, each box containing a single book, rather than put those books on a shelf, recycle the boxes, and give myself more room to draw?

An archaeologist generalizing about ancient Californians from the artifacts discovered in the tomb of my office might posit that the two hand-pruners found in Strata 47C on the same desk with pens and papers suggests that pruning and writing were conjoined activities in the olden days in California. A sentence fragment found in a nearby amalgam of disintegrating papers supports this hypothesis. “Pruning a fruit tree is kin to editing a passage of prose, for both words and branches…” Ah but the rest of the sentence has been lost to the exigencies of time and rot. However, the archaeologist feels confirmed in his thesis. These early Californians thought of fruit trees as living essays. Gads what a sophisticated culture!

Having conquered my interior, I stumbled forth from my revitalized creativity complex and found those same early Californians had been at work cluttering up the yard much as they had cluttered up my office. Incensed, I moved five wheelbarrow-loads of seasoned kindling into the woodshed, something I intended to do six months ago before the onset of winter but never accomplished before the rains came and so hastily covered the kindling pile with a tarp, and once a pile is covered, well, out of sight out of mind. Meanwhile, I was making more kindling to be stacked for seasoning, but then the rains came and I didn’t get much of what I cut stacked, and then the grasses started growing and engulfed the unstacked kindling, and so forth.

This is where a list might come in handy: a list of Things To Be Done Soon. I made several such lists, and before they vanished into the yawning maw of the Bermuda Triangle of my office, I’m sure I suggested to myself that I get that seasoned kindling into the woodshed and stack the new kindling before the rains came. And sure enough I found those lists when I sorted through the detritus on my work surfaces; and on three of those lists the first item was Clean The Gutters Before The Rains Come, and beside that item on one of the lists was a triumphant check mark!

kindling pyramid

 

Slaves of Fruit

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Slaves of Fruit

Cooking Down the Apples photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Martin Luther

A few days ago, Abigail Summers, cellist, pianist and yogini, came over from Willits to work with Marcia on their string camp and attend rehearsals of the Symphony of the Redwoods wherein Abby shares a stand with Marcia at the front of the cello section. When I say string camp, you may imagine groups of people sitting around campfires playing with various lengths and colors and thicknesses of strings, and perhaps weaving those strings into fanciful sculptures or useful bags for carrying fruit and such. And though that sounds like great fun, the string camp I’m referring to is Navarro River String Camp, a twice-a-year event without campfires for beginning and intermediate adult players of violins, violas, and cellos, people keen to play chamber music with other string players and be coached by great and sympathetic professional musicians.

Upon her arrival Abigail gifted us with seven gorgeous persimmons on the verge of perfect ripeness, and I placed those delectable orange orbs in a bowl on the kitchen counter next to a bowl of walnuts recently given to us by our neighbors, and there the persimmons and walnuts sat for some days until last night when…

But first I must tell you about the apple and pear harvest we attended yesterday and why we, Marcia and I, are now slaves of fruit, as Marcia so aptly described our current reality here at Fox Hollow, so named for the foxes who share this neck of the woods with us and are especially enamored of our plums.

This has been a stupendous year for pears and apples in Mendocino, and though apples may retain their perfection for weeks and even months after picking, pears are perfectly ripe for but a fleeting—a few days at best—before they devolve into inedible rot. Yet when a good pear is perfectly ripe, there is little in the world to rival that fruit for sweetness and juiciness and the embodiment of life at the zenith of fulfillment. Thus when we arrived at Sam Edwards’ place a quarter mile down the hill from our house to participate in Ginny Sharkey’s and Sam’s annual apple juicing soiree, we were heartened to discover that along with hundreds of perfectly ripe apples adorning the many spectacular old trees on Sam’s Little Acre, there were many dozens of large and very ready pears, some to be juiced and some to be ferried home along with copious quantities of huge and delicious apples.

In these terrible times of hyper-inflation—never mind the phony governmental figures to the contrary—when not-very-good apples sell for three dollars or more per pound in the grocery stores, there is something positively surreal, nay, ultra-real, about walking through an orchard of well-established and well cared for apple trees and seeing so many huge and beautiful and delicious apples there for the taking, or in our case the shaking, which is how we got a good many of the orbs to come down, the ground a thick mat of just mown grass to cushion their falls. And as we gathered the fruit in buckets and bags to carry to the juicer, I imagined we were Bushmen coming upon this fabulous forest of fruit on the fringe of the Kalahari, the generosity of nature causing us to shout and ululate and dance a thank you dance to the apple gods.

“A major harvest of this kind was very much like a successful hunt for big game, and such major bounty was shared in the manner of big game, if without as much excitement. As the owner of the arrow, not the hunter, made the first divisions of the animal killed by the arrow, so the owner of a bag made the first division of the nuts, no matter who gathered the nuts or carried the bag. This sort of food gathering was surely of recent origin (“recent” in geological time), because without large skin bags, such a harvest could not take place, and before people could obtain large skins by hunting big game, there were no large skin bags.” Elizabeth Marshall Thomas from The Old Way

Back home at Fox Hollow with our booty of apples and pears, a craving for a sweet treat overtook us after supper and Marcia was about to make pumpkin bread when I happened to fondle one of the aforementioned persimmons and diagnosed the fruit to be on the verge of liquidity. “Hark fair maiden,” I cried out to my wife as she prepared to open a can of pureed pumpkin, “these persimmons fast approach the point of no return and should be used post haste or nevermore.”

And yay verily it came to pass that Marcia, with cracking and chopping and stirring help from Todd, did make a stupendous loaf of gluten free and eggless persimmon walnut date bread that pleased us mightily before we went to bed, and again at breakfast with coffee. Gads what a taste treat, over which Marcia observed, “Methinks these tender sweet pears we gained from Sam and Ginny do quickly morph from yummy to yucky, which means today is the day we must render them into chutney, lest tomorrow prove deathly to their deliciousness.”

“I cannot but agree with you,” I exclaimed, “but before we enslave ourselves further to these sugary fruits, I beg you assist me in the pruning of Marion’s apple tree, the Golden Delicious thereupon crying to be picked, the branches of that ancient tree strangling each other for want of pruning.”

So we took ourselves thither (just two doors down, Marion another of the string camp honchos) and pruned and hewed and snipped that generous tree until we’d relieved her of myriad redundant appendages, and gathered another couple bags of fruit. Then we ate lunch, ran some errands, gave a big bag of apples to Ian at ZO, Mendocino’s incomparable copy shop, and spent much of the rest of the day peeling and coring and chopping pears to be cooked and spiced and stirred and canned, with a cup of excess spicy chutney juice proving a most delicious sauce on our rice at supper.

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.” Mark Twain

The original Hebrew text of the Old Testament says nothing about apples being the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden; and for historical and geographical and climatic reasons, it is much more likely that the forbidden fruit mentioned in the Bible was figs or pomegranates, though why any non-poisonous fruit would be forbidden is another of the great Judeo-Christian mysteries.

“About 69 million tons of apples were grown worldwide in 2010, and China produced almost half of this total. The United States is the second-leading producer, with more than 6% of world production. Turkey is third, followed by Italy, India and Poland.” Wikipedia

Now we gaze upon our hundreds of apples to be turned into sauce and chutney and pies and crisps, and given to friends and neighbors, the badly bruised ones to be taken to our neighbor Kathy Mooney who will feed them to her magic horse Paloma. Magic? Yay verily. Paloma is a glorious white steed with sky blue eyes, the source of truckloads of manure per annum that not only enriches our vegetable beds, but fills the basins around our fruit trees where winter rains soak the vivacious nutrients out of the poop and feed the soil and fatten the worms and invigorate the roots and cause next year’s apples and plums to be huge and sweet, and so on.

For more information about Navarro River String Camp, please visit NavarroRiverMusic. com

Mystery Inventions

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Mr. and Mrs. Magician and Daughter Mystery painting by Todd

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

Deeply moved by a concert of music by Martinû and Mozart, a man gives fifty dollars to a street musician, a Venezuelan bass player whose musical inventions are reminiscent of Eric Satie and Bill Evans. The bass player uses the fifty dollars to buy herself the first nourishing meal she’s had in weeks, after which she catches a train to visit her mother for the first time in several months, and arrives to find her mother dying. With her last breath, the bass player’s mother reveals the identity of the bass player’s real father; and while questing to find her father, the bass player meets a pianist with whom she records ten improvisations, each a musical meditation on the question: what is life all about?

“As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.” Albert Schweitzer

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas makes an excellent case for the digging stick and the ostrich egg being the two most important inventions in human history—more important than fire or weaponry. I am reading The Old Way again, Thomas’s masterpiece about the Bushmen of the Kalahari; and I find her book the perfect antidote to the information overload and resultant anxiety of this digital age. Here is a tiny taste of The Old Way.

“A digging stick is humble, yes. The very name of this item in the English language shows how seriously we underrate it—we assign specific nouns, not vaguely descriptive phrases, to objects that we consider important. Our long stick with a blade at the end is call a spear, for instance, not a stabbing stick. But even if a pointed stick seems insignificant to us in our innocence, as an invention of consequence it ranks with the discovery of the deep roots themselves and has made more difference to our species than virtually all the other inventions we celebrate with more enthusiasm.”

“Then, too, there is the ostrich egg. This useful item is first a meal and then a water bottle. To use these eggs, we had to do only two things—steal a fresh egg without being kicked by the ostrich, and open a hole in the shell. Unless the egg is opened carefully, the contents will spill, so the best way to eat the egg without wasting the contents is to pick up a rock, tap open a small hole in the shell, and stir the contents with a stick. After sucking out the egg, we had an empty eggshell, with obvious implications. An ostrich egg holds from five to five and a half cups of water, more than a day’s supply. No further refinement was needed except a wad of grass for a stopper.”

“On the dry savannah, the need for water limited our foraging. One ostrich eggshell filled with water could expand the foraging range of its owner by fifty to one hundred square miles.”

“Only one kind of primate—our kind—found a way to reach the deep buried foods, carry small amounts of water, and modify tree nests into ground nests so that we could sleep anywhere.”

“There is no greater mystery to me than that of light traveling through darkness.” Alexander Volkov

Writing about inventions, I am reminded of that old joke (and its many variations) about a world conference to determine the most important invention of all time, each nation having an egoistic stake in nominating an invention thought to have originated in their country.

So the Russian representative rises. “We nominate sputnik. After all, first satellite started space race that put people on moon and spawned most important technological breakthroughs thereafter.” Loud applause.

The American representative stands. “Hey, there’s no denying sputnik was a good little kick in the pants, but has anything changed the world more profoundly than the computer? We don’t think so. We nominate the computer, that fundamentally American creation, as the most important invention of all time.” Thunderous applause.

Then the representative of the group or nation the joke teller wants to make fun of stumbles to the podium. “Of course, sputnik was a game changer, and life without computers is almost unimaginable, but there is one invention we think is far more amazing than both of those illustrious inventions, and that is the thermos. Keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold. How does it know?”

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anais Nin

In 1900, the average life span of an American was forty-seven years, and the average life span for people in many other societies in the world was considerably less. The invention and deployment of penicillin in the 1940’s is credited with increasing that average life span to eighty years for citizens of America and other so-called advanced nations. Prior to the widespread use of antibiotics, millions of people, especially infants, children, and the elderly, died annually of diseases now easily cured. The most troubling result of this vast increase in human longevity is the increase in human population far beyond the regenerative capacity of the planet.

Consider this: paleoanthropologists have found almost no remains of pre-historic humans older than thirty. Lose a step ten thousand years ago and you were tiger food, or possibly vittles for your brethren. Now try to imagine the world today if most people still died shortly after their wisdom teeth emerged to replace those molars lost during the first twenty years of chewing on the tough and the raw.

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” Carl Jung

I recently came out with a new CD of piano and bass duets entitled Mystery Inventions on which I play piano and Kijé Izquierda plays bass. Each of our ten tunes explores variations on a basic melodic expression underscored by an intriguing bass pattern. Because my piano playing is spacious (some would say spare), the tunes on my previous piano albums 43 short Piano Improvisations and Ceremonies are melody-driven, whereas the bass drives the Mystery Inventions, even when the tempo is slow. I was tempted to bring in a drummer, but the interplay of bass and piano sounded so groovy, I opted for duet.

The most mysterious thing to me about my piano playing is that my left hand operates with no conscious direction from me, whereas my right hand learns through my conscious intentions. Because I do not read music or play music composed by other people, my compositions and improvisations are the result of hours of daily keyboard explorations during which I discover note patterns and interrelationships that captivate me sufficiently so I will repeat those patterns until my fingers remember them. The more thoroughly my fingers memorize these patterns, the freer I am to improvise on those patterns. I have been practicing this way for forty-five years, my right hand learning through my conscious inquiries, my left hand figuring things out on its own.

 “The final mystery is oneself.” Oscar Wilde

I don’t read music because when I was seven-years-old I took piano lessons from a very unhappy man who did not like me. After a few traumatic lessons wherein he berated me for not sufficiently practicing the assigned pieces, there came a horrific moment when he struck my right hand with a heavy metal pen because I was not, in his estimation, holding my hands correctly. I screamed bloody murder and ran out of the room. I can feel the ache in my knuckles to this day.

Thereafter I not only refused to play the piano, I could not look at our piano without feeling sick. Singing became my main mode of musical expression, and at sixteen I was a singer in a very loud rock band. The leader of the band was my close friend, and a talented guitarist. He used to come to my house and noodle around on his guitar while I accompanied him on bongos. One evening he pointed at our old upright piano and said, “Can you play that?”

“No,” I said, reluctant to even look at the piano.

“Oh, go on,” he said, reaching over and plunking a few notes. “Just play anything and I’ll play along.”

“No,” I said, furiously. “I don’t play the fucking piano, okay?”

“Please?” he insisted. “Just a few notes so I can play some harmonies.”

And because I wanted to please my friend, I went to the piano and played a simple pattern of notes; and six weeks later we opened for a rock band at a teen nightclub in the basement of a church in Woodside, California. I played simple patterns of notes and chords while my friend improvised on his electric twelve-string guitar. Two beautiful hippie chicks wearing dresses made of diaphanous scarves danced to our pubescent ragas, and afterwards a big black guy with a shaved head came up to me and said, “Busted hip, kid. You know Monk? Miles? Hubbard? Hancock? Evans? Cannonball? Check’em out.” So I did; and I was a goner.

And now, listening to Mystery Inventions, I bless that very sad man who smacked my knuckles fifty-five years ago, because if not for his striking me so cruelly, I might never have left the well-trod path and gotten lost in the wild jungle of possibilities.