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.

A word on ɛmpəθɪ

I had big plans for the weekend, and so much enthusiasm for the day that I practically leapt out of bed and started tending to the items on my list. By midmorning, I was facedown on the living room floor, unable to move, let alone proofread my manuscript or drive to the property management office for our appointed meeting.

Each time I tried to do anything, all the muscles in my back would tighten in a vise-grip around my spine and render me immobile. Simple tasks became arduous endeavors, something akin to scaling the slopes of Denali.

This episode of debilitating back pain reminded me of a man I had scene in the waiting room of a medical office almost ten years ago. He was a giant of a man, maybe 6’7″ tall, weighing 300 lbs. Under normal circumstances, he seemed to be the type who would have been jovial, laughing from his belly and enticing everyone to join him. When I encountered him that day, he was rigid with pain. Every movement left him gasping, and near crying.  He looked at me, eyes glazed yet sharp at the same time.  “I just want it to stop,” he said.

That man has been in my thoughts since Saturday.  I feel like I understand him and that moment in his life so much better now that I have the slightest taste of what he was going through.

It brings me to this question: can we be truly empathic to what someone else is going through without having analogous experiences?


/ˈɛmpəθɪ/ (noun)
1. the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings
2. the attribution to an object, such as a work of art, of one’s own emotional or intellectual
feelings about it
Derived Forms: empathist, noun
Word Origin: from Greek empatheia affection, passion, intended as a rendering of German
Einfühlung, literally: a feeling in; see en- ², -pathy
     -from dictionary.com

VS.

/ˈsɪmpəθɪ/  (noun) (pl-thies
1. the sharing of another’s emotions, esp of sorrow or anguish; pity;compassion
2. an affinity or harmony, usually of feelings or interests, between persons or things: to be in
sympathy with someone
3. mutual affection or understanding arising from such a relationship; congeniality
Word Origin:  1570s, “affinity between certain things,” from Middle French sympathiefrom Late Latin
sympathia “community of feeling, sympathy,” from Greek sympatheiafrom sympathes
“having a fellow feeling, affected by like-feelings,” from syn- “together” (see syn- )
pathos “feeling” (see pathos).
      In English, almost a magical notion at first; e.g. in reference to medicines that heal wounds
when applied to a cloth stained with blood from the wound.
Meaning “conformity of feelings” is from 1590s; sense of
“fellow feeling” is first attested 1660s. An Old English loan-translation
 of sympathy was efensargung.
     -from dictionary.com


I realize the concept of empathy is a rather modern one, not yet celebrating its sesquicentennial.  For me, it is distinct from sympathy in that the observer tries to step inside the skin of the observed, and understand that person’s / entity’s experience from the inside out. In this life where our cities work to anonymize us, and some of our relationships are disconnected and superficial, being empathic maybe makes us a little more human, and a little less animal or viral meme.

Right now, as I try to imagine sitting up straight without doubling over, I have a much different perspective on that man in the waiting room and other people who are suffering from chronic pain.

For a wee more on empathy:
–  Stanford Encyclopedia on Philosophy
–  The Introduction of the Word “Empathy’ into English

(sent from the healing waters of my bathtub.  thank you wordpress app)

from seeds to table

I had one job to do during the summer.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  Meme usually had a long list of chores for me.  Cleaning the attic, painting the basement entry way.  Most of all, and always on the list was weeding the garden and picking bugs off of plants.  That last bit was my least favorite.  I didn’t mind getting my hands in the dirt, but touching bugs—

When I would arrive, the plants would be leafy, tall, and growing delicious fruit toward succulent ripeness.  Meme and my uncle tilled, grew seedlings and planted them before I arrived.  There was so much of the process I never experienced.  Seeds.  Sprouts.  Seedlings.  Until I planted my own little garden.

I have two small rectangular boxes, instead of the quarter acre my grandmother had.  I’m only growing kale, tomatoes, peppers, and beets, most from seedlings, some from seeds, and the whole process is amazing.  What started off as six inch tall plants have grown into giants sprawling lanky limbs over the balcony.  Each night when I come home from work, I examine my green babies to see what they’ve been doing.

Tomato buds

buds: the beginning ©JL Colomb

What starts off as one simple tendril sprouts a cluster of buds.  Which get fat and expand.

Tomatoes Flowering

flowering ©JL Colomb

And soon they explode, fireworks in yellow.  Dangling in the sky.

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fruiting ©JL Colomb

Eventually, little bodies bulge out of the flowers and plump up.  So far I’ve only harvested some of the kale (which is delicious, by the way).  I’m waiting for the green orbs to begin to blush.  I love that I get to be a part of growing something, that my hands are nurturing my little garden.  Hopefully my harvest will be bountiful.  In any case, this is the beginning. Of learning, of growing.  And of eating.

 

i always wanted to, but never did (reflections on change)

At dinner, with a random cadre of people, I learned two restaurants I had always been meaning to check out had closed. “No!” I thought to myself, feeling a peculiar sense of loss, as if an almost friend had been taken away from me. The restaurants were there for years, and I had passed by them for years, always meaning to check them out, but never actually doing it.

“That always seems to happen, right?” someone asked. “There are these cool places, and then they disappear before you have a chance to get to them.”

layers of changes

After I thought about it, the fact that a restaurant had closed became less of a surprise, while my reaction to it became more of one. Why should I be so shocked that something has changed?  After all, the most constant and true thing about life is its mutability. Everything, all around us, even inside us is in a state of flux. Our bodies die in microscopic pieces, and are created anew. The food in the ground sprouts, grows, ripens and decays, sending its potential progeny into the universe to do the same. Asphalt succumbs to the elements and wear, radioactive isotopes decay.

old & new

Change isn’t just about decay and loss. Part of the circle is transformation. The next step in the dance: creation. The example of chrysalis is often paraded about in such discussions. (And how utterly incredible is it that a caterpillar literally dissolves into a sticky gooey mess, undergoes some sort of genetic rewriting, and emerges into this creature with wings?)

The struggle is that the human brain seems to be programmed to prefer constants. We map the world, and commit it to our hardwiring. That coding guides our actions and reactions. As convenient as that is, we have to stay flexible, which perhaps at its heart is about accepting things do not remain the same. And to see the beauty in that.

eXpeRiMENtal

IMG_5890v2Protocols. Rules. Methodical steps followed faithfully and through to the period. I admit it. I am guilty of this, of letting myself be seduced by the sure comfort of a recipe. If you add a cup of this, a tablespoon of that and whip vigorously, you end up with something delicious. Deviate from the path, and who knows what could happen.

How about serendipity?

Enter infusions. Lately I’ve become obsessed with the notion of them. My history with experimenting with alcohol is a little spotty. Years ago I attempted to make my own limoncello. I fretted over the bottle filled with highly flammable grain alcohol and lemon zest. It was going to be awful.

Instead, the liquid transformed from clear to golden. And after adding a little simple syrup, I had trance-inducing nectar stocked in my freezer.

Fast-forward to now, and the current experiment.

Lemon. Peppercorn. Ginger. Grapefruit. Darjeeling tea and honey. Cinnamon sticks. Just to have fun. Just to see. Some of these experiments might turn out like dog piss, but that’s the point. To challenge the fear of failure. Even embrace failure. By poking at the edges of our comfort, our awareness, and by standing at the boundaries of our experience, we can open the door into the unknown just a little. This is how we grow. This is how we evolve.

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Light

I noticed something a couple of days ago. In between my usual ruminations and intensive work on Book II of Fire and Blood, I noticed the house glowing.

I set down my tech, walked away from the screens and drifted to the north side of the house. It’s not a big place, but long enough to support three windows on that side between the kitchen and my bedroom.

I started in the kitchen. Light reached in, dove past the sink and stretched long over the counter. In the dining area, it dashed itself against the wall. It bled gold tones, and though it wanted to ooze, it stuck thick and heavy where it first landed.

It made its most dramatic showing in my bedroom. Fitting, I suppose. Being quite the narcissist, it preened in the mirrored wardrobe before it silently spread itself across my bed. It caressed highlights, and with soft and steady pressure it etched in shadows.

I sat and witnessed this moment. The light. Something like magic.