The Forest of the Ancients (a travelogue)

Nestled on the Eastern slopes of the White Mountains in the Inyo National Forest, lives a clan of ancients. The oldest of the impressive sentinels had already been living for thousands of years before the birth of Christ, before the creation of the famed Rosetta Stone.  They had already witnessed three quarters of a million sunrises and sunsets when the blocks for Stonehenge were being chiseled.  The Great Pyramids at Giza would have to wait yet another 500,000 sunsets and sunrises from that point before would they be conceived .  These creatures, the oldest living non-clonal organisms on the planet, are emblems of adaptability and survival.

I’ve had the honor of walking among these wonders thrice in my lifetime, and each time I have been amazed and humbled by them.  The steep dolomite slopes on which the Bristlecone Pines reside are rough and textured like the silvery skins of the trees themselves.

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Dolomite slopes

The Bristlecones stand alone and apart on these extreme inclinations; they thrive in the alkaline soil not because it is perfect for them, but because they are obstinate and adaptable and opportunistic enough to exist in an environment, which would kill most other plant life.  If that is not enough to hint at their stubborn nature, consider the Mohave Desert Basin lurking to the east far below Schulman’s Grove.

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Extreme and harsh environs surround the Bristlecones

To walk among them is akin to walking through the canyons of Zion National Park.  I taste my insignificance in these places, my transience.  I also sense wonder, and a host of other feelings in this vein.  Gratitude to be part of this experience, to be able to witness these creatures and creations, to stand amidst the art and science of time and revel in the absolute miracle of our planet.

The Bristlecone Pines perform their dance over eons.  For some species they grow as little as one inch per century.  Some 40 year-old seedlings in the White Mountains, where we were October 2016, are less than six inches tall.  The harsh environment, the growth rate, and the peculiarities all contribute to a movement in wood (for it really does appear that these trees undulate and dance).

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A photographer wandering among the Bristlecones can get lost through the lens.  The bark ranges from a silvery, monochromatic austerity to a warm vibrant glow.  It curls and folds like fluid ribbons tumbling from a gift.

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Ribbons

Serpentine, the gnarled limbs twist, as if to conjure their will and imagination into the world with the spell of their dance. 

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The Spell

The other striking thing about these trees is that it looks as if they wear their heartwood on the outside. As if, when they grow they fold outward, baring themselves, showing off the growing living sensitive bits of them.  I’m sure this is not the case.  I’m sure this is my uninformed and overly romantic interpretation.  Whatever the case, they are fluid magic.  They are historians. And hypnotists and sages.

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Writers aren’t superhuman (or the case for multiple dimensions)

Let’s get the whining out of the way right now. Writing is hard. And working on multiple novel-length projects while also trying to generate short content and still be a good friend and daughter and life partner and colleague – not to mention bathing and eating and sleeping – is the road to ruin. Maybe that’s excessive.  It’s a road akin to something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Desolate.  Smothering fatigue at the grind of an endless, hopeless task, like a pencil sharpened down to its eraser and thus rendered useless.

I must have a real point beyond the trite and predictable drone of complaint for my self-serving and ego-lifting activities. I have several, in fact, which can be distilled into a word appetizer: commitment, humility, and respect. These are big vague concepts, and lend themselves to rumination.

  1. Writing, and really any art form, requires time and dedication. Finished works do not birth themselves. They do not spring out of the ether, sleek and spry and ready to inflict upon people whatever laudable qualities they possess. A finished piece of writing is time laid out in crispy layers, like honeyed phyllo dough. It is strata of earth compressed. It is time condensed into one deceptive layer. The viewer does not see all of the time; they do not see all of the layers. We get credit for the finished piece, but we don’t get credit for all minutes and hours and weeks and months it took to create it.
  2. We are human beings, requiring sleep and sustenance (both for the body and the mind). We cry when we break a bone, or slice through our protective layer of skin. Or when a project becomes warped and stiff and unworkable.  We are not gods. We are not invincible. At times we are so short-sighted we can’t see the glasses on our noses as we desperately search for them. And yet our dreams are the size of galaxies, filled with light and darkness, radio frequencies and gasses, matter and anti-matter. We heap expectations, like Thanksgiving dinner, on our proverbial plates, and are diminished when lethargy takes hold not more than half-way through. It is this incongruity, which motivates us to create, and pains us at the immensity of the journey.
  3. The works we strive to create, those galaxies, are monoliths and we are pinpricks. Yet, a camera obscura is also a pinprick. In the right setting, it reveals the outside in inverted photographic clarity. We must take care to make the hole just right, to make the room dark enough, and to give the scene the right surface upon which to be exposed. We must make space for that thing to be created, as well as the process by which it’s created.

Though these three things are some of the dimensions of creativity, but they are by no means all. I have recently traveled through them (and others), and I will do so again soon. Each new foray starts as a beautiful day, with the fall nowhere in sight.

The Aesthetics of Bodie (a travelogue)

Hiding in the sagebrush, tucked between the folds of the soft hills dwell the bones of something.  Bones of wood and metal, fabric and stone.  They are hard, these bones. They have 90º angles, which time and the desert try to soften, or erase completely.

Some of the bones still bleed, or otherwise carry in them the notion of a time before decay and abandonment.

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bones of bodie, (c) JL Colomb

 

I first experienced Bodie over 20 years ago, which was fortunately right when I had become enthralled with photography.  We had visited the alkaline Mono Lake—steeped in stark alien beauty—earlier that day.  Continuing into the California wilderness, away from cities and streetlights, crowds and corner stores, was like pulling back the veil of modern civilization and stepping into a past living at the edges of our memory.

The road, a dirt washboard bearing all the evidence of the harsh climate of the area, was long and rough.  When we finally arrived, the late autumn sunset streaked its long golden arms over the hills and the remains the town birthed by the gold rush.

It was spectacular, this place of arrested decay; this evidence of our past and greed, of our human drive to make a home.

I had my own 35mm camera, and a certain amount of technical skill.  Through the lens, I explored the former businesses, houses, and outhouses.  I slipped through the graveyard and peered through windows to witness the pieces of what people leave behind.

All these years later, my feelings about Bodie and my reactions to it have not changed.  If anything, they’ve deepened as I become more comfortable with my dour sense of aesthetics.

I am obsessed with states of decay, titillated by the things we leave behind.  Perhaps it’s unusual, and I myself have had a hard time rationalizing this preference, understanding it in the context of the human experience.  Part of it is entangled with the mutability of life.  We are born, we create, and we lean into the next passage.  Evidence of our existence endures in some form, but our legacy is ever changing according to the influence of other factors.  We become a painting turned over to the curator of time; an abandoned home, picked through for salvage, and otherwise left to the process of unbecoming.

But the aesthetics of decay can also easily be a rejection of something, rather than strictly an embrace of it.  We live in a disposable society, where seemingly everything bears the stamp of built-in obsolescence; where we answer the fatigue of familiarity with a donation or trash run in parallel with the shopping trip for the new and wondrous.  We don’t live in a world of unfettered abundance, and what we take cannot be put back. I favor valuing an object for it’s persistence, and acquiring it with intention so I can use it well past its age of usefulness.  I suspect my attachment to decay relates to this aspect as well as any other.

There is a more simple driver, removed from this self-obsessed mental flossing exercise.  Decay can be beautiful.  Period. In tonality and texture.  In visual framing and juxtaposition.  In patterns and contrast.

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oxidized, ©JL Colomb

The soft sable texture of disuse.

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standing still, ©JL Colomb

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the left behinds, ©JL Colomb

The curling of the clapboards as the wood of the house dries and peels away from its intended use and returns to some process more natural to its existence

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clapboards in the desert, ©JL Colomb

It’s an emptiness you can step into and inhabit.

judgement (& absolution)

When they first put on the blindfold, they ask me, How do you see?

Not well.

I shake, though I’m in my own home.  I can hear them rummaging through the dresser my grandfather had made for his new bride decades ago.  Furniture falls to the floor.  Breakable things are broken in a horrific cacophony of loss. There is no music here.  Only discordance.

I can’t see at all.  The darkness stifles me, and I whip my head around to wherever I can hear noise clattering, and it clatters all around me.

They laugh.

I become dizzy, like an ever-spinning top, and stagger with my hands outstretched in a hopeless attempt to catch myself before I fall.

A foot catches my leg and helps me crash to the ground.

A hand tourniquets my arm and brings me to my feet.

Silence.

The silence is worse than the noise.  It’s flat and endlessly deep at the same time. Silence is the kind of landscape in which you become lost, in which you can forget you ever were at all.

Out of the nothing, a fingertip touches my cheek, barely pressing on the skin, it could be a fly or my imagination.  And I flinch.

Other hands emerge from the ether to grab at mine and cinch them together with a wild and biting wire.

They remove me from my home, bound like this, like a criminal. 

I trip and stumble on my stairs as a newly born blindman. We— I presume there is still a we though I only know them as the detached hands touching me and the footsteps indicating there are feet and legs and bodies attached to them, though unproven in this dark space—we descend to the front entrance at the street level. 

Inside the confines of my home the relative quiet gets bigger.  It sits on me with a long face full of judgement. 

Outside, chaos reigns. 

I am shoved onto a surface, which is alternating hard and soft, and the soft parts breathe.  An engine roars.  Exhaust peppers the air with greasy smoke. I jerk against the other men who presumably share the bed of the pick-up truck with me, and thus share my fate, as the truck stutters into motion. 

I’m not even sure the men closed my front door.

There is shouting.  There is screaming.  There is angry, terminal dissent, and righteous indignation.

When we stop, it is like we are propelled into another time and space.  This is not my country.  These are not my people.

We are extracted and lined up and stripped of our blindness.

The square is full of people with angry faces.  Mob, this is what a mob looks like.  They are boiling with rage and hungry for violence.  That is the only way to pacify them, to bring about some kind of resolution. Give them violence.

Men in military fatigues, men carrying guns grab me by the shoulders and force me to my knees.  Pain explodes in me as I make contact with the stone.  They proclaim I am impure. They boast how they will save others by getting rid of me, as if a human being was a piece of trash to be crumpled and thrown into a landfill.

The children in the crowd launch stones at me.  They bludgeon my head, and peel with laughter at each precise strike.  Women scurry up to spit on me. 

You are judged, I am told. By God and by his good and righteous People.

I am aching rot.  I am prostrate.  I am humbled.  I am shaking so badly I only see the world around me in strobed blurred images.  And then she appears.  She walks away from me, away from this tableau of endings, and she is the clearest thing in my world. Even though she walks away, she quells my shaking. 

Just before they blind me again to take me away to wherever the impure infidels are kept (if we are kept), she turns and gazes at me.  Her almond-shaped eyes, the color of obsidian, hold kindness.  They hold grace and strength and hundred other things that can’t be named, but felt.  She rotates her arm so her palm faces me, and she uncurls her fingers in one graceful movement.  The beautiful arches, swirls and patterns of words lay hidden there in her palm.  I alone see them.  I alone read them.   

the incongruous spoon

It’s not just a spoon

People are interesting creatures.  We encode meaning and memory into objects, and frequently project our psyches into tangible things. There are some objects, which elicit the most pure and concentrated memories, laced — like an oatmeal cookie — with nostalgia.  A. and I came upon one such object on a Spring afternoon when we were running errands on foot.

The heat of the day was swelling, but it was still mild enough.  We cut through a shopping center driveway, next to Taco Bell, to get to the crosswalk.  We discussed art, the goings on of the world, and what was next on our list.  In the midst of all our chatter, a shiny object caught my gaze.

There, in the grass median between vast swathes of blacktop, rested a spoon.  It wasn’t just any spoon.  It was one of the ones you buy in airports or curio shops, the kind never meant to touch food.  The edges of it folded into a delicate scalloped edge.  A braid of metal made the handle, and atop the braid stood a keyhole, from which a trolley dangled.  San Francisco scrawled across the top, and also in its concave surface.

Meme.

That was the first thought I had upon seeing this bobble.  You see, my grandmother, being the practical woman she was, collected spoons from the places she visited.  Other people also collected them for her, as folks are wont to do when someone curates a blessed collection of curios and whatnots. What to get Mabel?  Of course, a spoon!

She displayed the spoons in a specially crafted shelf.  They would dangle from their hand-carved notches and behind them rested porcelain creamers from a less manufactured era.  They weren’t her prized possession, but they warmed her heart nonetheless.

I hadn’t thought about Meme’s spoons in years, and now I was on the verge of recalling when I had picked out one for her.  I shared all this with A. as I turned the spoon over in my hands.

“This one’s had a hard life,” I told him as I puzzled over the blemishes in the metal.  “That’s so strange.  I wonder…?”

an aberration

My mind was on the verge of teasing out exactly what had happened to this little kickshaw when A. found the next item in our macabre set.  Perhaps those of you who are more savvy have already conjured all of the possible uses of a spoon, including the sinister ones.  Alas, it took locating the hypodermic needle to fully elucidate its recent history.

This was a heroin spoon.  As in some had used it to cook drugs and shoot up.  Maybe even right there in the parking lot, or as they were driving into the shopping center, chucking it out the window when they were done.

Needy.  Addicted.  Selfish.  Dirty.  Sick.  Disposable.

Was that black tar on my hands? How much residue was left on the surface of the spoon I had just been fondling with all the genial fuzziness of my childhood and shiny goodness of sweet family memories?

“I think you should put that down,” A. calmly instructed me, as if instead of dropping a spoon he was saving me from a rattlesnake.

“Jesus Christ.  Seriously?”  A decorative, commemorative spoon?  Who in the hell does heroin with a trinket like that?  I held my hands away from my body until we could get to the nearest bathroom.  I felt robbed. The world had intersected with the memories of my grandmother in a way I could not have anticipated.  I had a very specific emotional and intellectual meaning wrapped up in “spoon”.  And here was this cruddy little shlock. Scorched from a lighter and pot-marked from a caustic heavy-duty drug.

It was aberrant.  Not only did it not fit, it was incongruent with my reality, and because we intersected, it became part of my experience.  Now “spoon” not only means Meme, summer visits, travel, and gifts, it also means addiction, desperation, disease, and decay.

The Cookie Cutter Life

Confession: This is going to be a bit of a rant. 

I have been reprimanded. Quite soundly. I prefer not to go into detail in this all-comers medium, however I am really bothered by the whole incident. It has occupied more of my conscious life than I have the patience for, and has left me pondering this problem: does human life fit with a systems-based approach?  Turning the crystal another way, does the human tendency to construct rigid order (like micromanaging people, implementing draconian laws, etc.) stifle our creativity, our ingenuity, and some of the other more nebulous and subjective elements which help us feel happy and satisfied in life?

In design theory, constraints often serve to help designers. To take a over-simplified example, think of the last time you tried to coordinate a dinner, or plan an outing.  Big vague questions tend to yield big diffuse answers.

Consider this:
“What do you want to do this weekend?”
“Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe go out.”
Versus this:
“I’d really like to get outside this weekend.  What do you think?”
“We haven’t been to the beach in a while. Or we could go hiking.”

Here “get outside” acts as the constraint.  The response is still a little wishy washy, but it’s far more concrete than the other scenario.

In another example, the order and constraints imposed by roads is constructive in a lot of obvious ways.  Roads help prevent accidents (although poor design can foil this benefit).  They expedite travel, foster good will among people who would otherwise run each other over, protect the land outside of the roads from being trambled and eroded by the heavy-footed falls of thousands of human beings.  But… roads also tell us where we can go, and where we can’t.  The building of them can damage just as much as they protect, and irrevocably alter a landscape, a community, a planet.

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Edinburgh ©JL Colomb

In contrast, the fractal patterns of nature, the order derived from natural processes rather than human imposed structure, soothes and inspires us. To be outside of earshot of cars, alarms, sirens, to be out of artificial lighting and false days restores us.  It refreshes us, and makes us more sensitive to ourselves and the world around us.  At least, that’s what it does for me.

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Order and Chaos ©JL Colomb

But these are lofty considerations of order and chaos.  The real meat of my angst is the imposition of micromanagement in the name of attaining order to adjudicate a perceived problem, and the impacts that tack has on morale, productivity, and creativity.

Creativity and innovation are often touted as among the most important qualities of an individual or business environment; however, organizations often stifle, thwart and otherwise crush them through absurd policies, rigid thinking and other constraints. Business management and organizational change consultants, like Torben Rick, cite “internal process focus” and micromanagement among other obstacles to creativity.

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Stacks ©JL Colomb

Not only is it a barrier, but articles on micromanagement detail its deleterious effects, such as demotivation, loss of trust, decreased confidence, and related emotional and economic stressors.

You know what?  They’re right.  It’s been quite some time since I’ve felt this demoralized and humiliated by another’s control over me.  I realize rules and structure have a purpose, however for people who care, who work hard and pour some of themselves into everything they do, dogmatic environments are insulting.

I like routine, I like structure, but not when it’s dictated to me without a cogent, rationale dialogue and mutual agreement.

And the impact on creativity?  We’ll have to see in the longterm. In general I think it’s responsive to constraints, however not to an engineered, and overly fabricated and regulated mode of existence.  I’m a wait-and-see kind of person.  Often problems resolve themselves, but if they don’t I am the architect of my own life, and change is always an answer.

[blink] you missed it (a life in vignettes)

[one second i’m connected feet on the ground and racing across the road there’s a little taco shop on the other side a florist and a drug store.]

She sweeps my hair back from my face, and presses her lips to my forehead. “Be a good boy,” she tells me.  Her breath stings my eyes.  “And don’t you go outside.”  She shakes me as she says it.  “Don’t tell anyone, either.”

But I thought we were going to play tonight—I want to say the words, but they’re too big and my throat is too small.  She promised.  She promises a lot of things when sunrise lights the windows and trails dusty fingers into the room.  When all she wants to do is sleep away the night before.

“You hear me?” Her voice is hawkish and I shrug.

A knock rattles the door.  She goes.

[i don’t hear it I don’t see it it just happens one second i’m connected and the next i’m suspended looking up and wondering when the sky will turn blue]

The florescent lights flicker overhead, and rows of desks look like an industrial landscape of fake lacquered wood.  An assembly line whose product is molded brains and good citizens.  I bounce my pencil against the desk, spin it and bounce it off the lead.  Tiny dots soon cover the desk.  A constellation of graphite and boredom.

The door opens, and in steps the TA.  Her red eyes shine.  “I’m so sorry.” She sounds like rain on glass.  “There was an accident, and— Anyways, welcome to poetry.  Let’s start with Dylan Thomas.”

I didn’t want to be here before.  And now, I don’t want to be anywhere else.

[i’m leaping through a million years of evolution my body hurtles through space and i swear i know i’m flying and for a moment it’s magic]

Trash trucks roar down the alley, spearing garbage cans with metal arms.  You sink under the covers with me, block out the light with the long thin veil of your hair.  Your cheeks plump with gravity as you smile down at me, trace your finger across my chest.  Birds whistle their announcements outside.  Floorboards creak above.  I try to drown it out because I want to be here.  With you.  Your lips follow the path your fingertip took.  A phone rings, and an unheard conversation plays in my head.

“Tell me what you like,” you say, pulling me back to you.

“You already know what I like.”  When I smile it comes out as sadness, because the other thing distracting me is the calculus of when you’re going to leave me.

[until i come down to earth hit slam into it]

The grass wets my feet.  She said to not go outside.  To never go outside by myself.  When she’s gone.  But she’s always gone, and I’m always looking through the living room window at this world on the outside and never touching it.  So I strip down to my underwear, ease the door open, then shut, and tiptoe into the shadows.  Crickets fill the night air with chirps.  Something hoots from the treetops.  Plates clank in sinks.  I slink across lawns, hide behind rough sturdy trunks.  There’s a swimming hole nearby.  All the kids at school talk about the old tire hanging from a tree limb, about how they harness momentum and launch into the air to fly even for a second, with the water to catch them when they fall.

it hangs, listless.  The new moon sliver glints against the still surface of the water.  I wait for it to breathe, but everything stays the same.  For the first time since stepping out the door, a shiver shakes me.  The water is black and still.

I rub my hands over my arms, feel the rough peaks of gooseflesh there.  The world presses on me.  Somewhere overhead, and beneath my feet bugs are doing what bugs do.  People hide behind walls.  Things linger in shadows.

Scaredy ghost.  That’s what they call me in school because I’m so pale.

The rubber of the tire is cold and stiff beneath my hands.

[meredith]

You sit up.  Morning light paints your skin.  “You’re nothing like her.”  I’ve said it a hundred times.  Your lips press into a certain smile when I say it.  As if you already know I’m trying to convince myself.  Hoping this time I finally do.

[breathing is torture when your lungs are full of bone shards]

I shove the tire.  The rope creaks against the tree limb as it swings away from me, and sails back. I wanted to push it again, instead my feet shuffled and I latch on.

[…]

I soared high above the black pond, into the night sky where the stars outshone the moon and the dark wings of an owl cut out the light.  And then I hovered, suspended above the world.


a note regarding this story

about a month ago, I was running errands with my boyfriend.  A perfectly banal task for a perfectly banal day.  Coming to a stoplight, I glanced to the left to check for oncoming traffic. Lights from cop cars flashed, but weren’t moving. In the lane near the median, a BMW was parked, its driver outside next to a cop.  There was a person beneath the car.

We surmised the following: someone had been jaywalking, was struck by and trapped beneath the car.

Sirens sounded in the distance.  I figured the best thing I could do for the situation was stay out of the way and move on to leave room for the paramedics, and the professionals already on the scene.  This next point is contentious in our home.  My boyfriend thinks the victim perished, saw the cop pull a blanket over his head.  I’m still unwilling to accept it, but the possible death, witnessed by us, stays with me.

I know nothing about the victim, except that he had a life. Comprised of vignettes and relationships.  He was a person with a past full of moments.  Some people leave a legacy, but everyone takes with them their unique compilation of experiences, the impact of those pieces of life, and the perceptions surrounding them.