Monday, August 5, 2013

Music and Memory, Part 30: The Slovenly Wilderness

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Gustav Mahler going on a walking tour of the Austrian Alps with his protégé, the great conductor Bruno Walter. Walter, no doubt like most visitors to the Alps, was in ecstasy when he beheld the mountains' grandeur, and he waved his hands around excitedly. "Look, Gustav!" he cried, to which Mahler, walking on quickly with his head down, replied, "No need; I have composed them already."

As a child, I had all kinds of fantasies about what the unmediated, unadulterated natural world might be like, but my experience was mostly confined to yearly hikes at Bear Mountain, which my father, paraphrasing Marx, called a "Lumpenwilderness."  And anyway, it can seem Herculean at times to leave New York City and go into nature, or anywhere else for that matter. If you don't have a car, which is many if not most people, you have to rent one. For my set, that meant walking across the George Washington Bridge to the Rent-A-Wreck in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Then you had to actually drive out of the city, which could literally take hours, because, since you'd walked to New Jersey, you had to drive back across the bridge to get your stuff. And then there would be traffic and getting lost, which could not be avoided if your path took you through the Bronx at all. And then, if you weren't some sort of wilderness expert, what exactly were you supposed to do when you get there? You could luxuriate in the grass while trying to wipe the fear of Lyme ticks from your consciousness, or marvel at the unobstructed views of sky. But if you're like me, by dark you would be sweating in your bed because of the sonic emptiness, terrorized by the absence of the reassuring all-hours city din. As Woody Allen said, "I am two with nature."

It's much easier driving into nature from here, though. We're surrounded by state parks, all of them spectacular, the closest about twenty miles away (Bear Mountain was only a little further than that, but it could take two and a half hours to get there). This summer, trying to quell my fear of Lyme disease, I started to take my son with high-functioning autism into the woods on hikes. (Incidentally, though I fear ticks, I have no fear of mosquitos. I'm the carrier of a rare Mediterranean disease which, like sickle-cell anemia, is linked to malaria resistance, and mosquitos have no interest in me.) In the past few months, my son has had tremendous difficulty controlling his emotions. We've started him on medication -- and, pace the nostalgic authorities on boyhood who glibly insist that boys are being medicated for being boys, my son is being medicated to try to help him with his towering rages that keep building up over the course of a day, that cause him to scream bloodcurdlingly and prolongedly when something happens to go awry in the little ways in which things go awry every day, and that are making our family's attempts to live in peace extremely difficult. But when he's in the woods, he's better. I don't mean that he's not autistic, but that in the woods, his autism shines forth as a kind of intense and beautiful adaptation. He's calm; he writes poetry in his nature journal; he's a delightful companion. I haven't read Last Child in the Woods, but I'm starting to believe in the healing propensities of the natural world.

In the state park, my son tells me that he misses New York. He often says this, and he says he wants to move back. He was not yet three when we left, but he has an uncanny memory, and he's also been to visit many times. I think about a trip I took to coastal Maine with M. fifteen years ago, and how beautiful it was, and then, stuck in traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway after driving many hours, with the windows of the rental car rolled down in the heat and the tinny sound of a frenetic merengue played on a thousand radios pouring in along with the damp, sour smell of the hot summer pavement mixed with the odors of piss, stale beer, and the dank Harlem River far below us, how my heart leapt and thrilled to be home.

I mention instead to my son that in New York, it's hard to find a place as beautiful as the place where we are now. Places as beautiful as this are far away and hard to get to, and, besides that, there's so much traffic and noise there.

I remember staring in bewilderment when my my longtime recital accompanist declared that nature was more beautiful and more important than music. I'm still not sure I believe it. My kind of nature is the still life, the natura morta, as it's called in Italian -- the nature that is mixed, and even wrecked, by its contact with the human, or the nature that is furtive, appearing a little at a time to slowly and imperceptibly redeem the urban spaces that have ruined it, like the weeds that grow out of the sidewalk cracks or the iridescent pigeons -- all so different, all so lovely, though their detractors call them rats with wings -- that peck at the refuse carelessly strewn on the street. Perhaps, like Mahler, I believe that music is better than nature, that art enhances, ennobles, and supersedes nature. Indeed, Wallace Stevens wrote about this in his 1919 poem "The Anecdote of the Jar":

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Above: Corenlis de Heem, Still Life with Fruit, 17th century.


Enbrethiliel said...


Just last weekend, I got to watch an old childhood favourite, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, again. It is definitely about "nature that is mixed," if not totally wrecked, "by its contact with the human."

I refer to the Lego 1X2 block and the Oatmeal Creme Pie which the children find while they're making their way across the suddenly huge backyard to their house. It's truly fantastic to see a small snack normally consumed in three bites suddenly big enough to feed 5,000 (or something!), and to find that one of the tiniest Lego blocks the company ever cast has become big enough to sleep in. And yet . . . that stuff didn't absolutely need to be there: the children could have dined on fallen fruit or camped out in an earthworm's burrow. That is, the fantasy could have been entirely driven by nature . . . but as it stands, we have a mix of nature and commercial brands. (Oh, how 80s!)

Now I am reminded that when the crew of The Lord of the Rings were building Rivendell and Lothlorien, they deliberately designed sets which could be taken down and leave no artificial "footprints" on nature. Not simply because they valued conservation, but because they thought that was how J.R.R. Tolkien's Elves would have built them. And though I (typically) can't recall the relevant supporting passages from the books, I know that the Elves disdained the name "magic" for all their own seemingly magical creations: the weaving of seamless cloaks which make their wearers nearly invisible in grass and trees; the braiding of ropes which hold knots fast when your life is at stake and unknot silkily at the slightest tug; and of course, the baking of lembas, that waybread which gives unusual strength to the traveler and never spoils. They refused to call these "magic," which contradicts nature; instead, they called them art, which builds on, enhances, and even ennobles nature.

How lovely, right? But we are not Elves, but Men. And even when we approximate their greatest arts, something seems to be missing. We mix it and even wreck it, as you say--or we force it to come back furtively. It seems like a lesser thing by comparison. But I think there's a universe of difference between truly "bad art" and art that's just not up to the Elf standard.

I also have all sorts of fantasies about living "in harmony with nature"--the phrase in quotation marks because, of course, I don't actually know what it means. (Sigh!) I think about having a nice house in a secluded area, near a lake, with great views of mountains, and floor-to-ceiling windows on some rooms, all the better to take in the sights without actually stepping outside. Oh, yes, and no frogs. Not because of pollution, but because of a magical force field. And of course I'd never have to dust that big house; it would just stay clean.

Which no longer has anything to do with your point, does it? =P

Pentimento said...

I would love to read a poem about someone placing a Lego on a hill and observing it taking dominion over the slovenly wilderness.

Pentimento said...

This also reminds me a little of "The Anecdote of the Jar."

Anne-Marie said...

Totally off topic, but while going through old boxes today I came across a book that you might like, Pentimento: Toby Talbot´s _A Book about my Mother_.
It´s a memoir/history of the mother´s life and the author´s childhood, written in the aftermath of the mother´s death. I thought of you because of the general topic, but also because the author is a New Yorker from the Bronx.

Pentimento said...

I don't know the writer, but I will check it out. I have the feeling I would like any book you recommended, Anne-Marie.

Anonymous said...

My daughter is now thirteen and loves Tolkien and other fiction. She is very good at all of her school subjects. Unfortunately, she has not taken to music or poetry as we had hoped. If you could include in a post, or direct me to an older post about, the sorts of books you read as a young teenager that have aided your aesthetic development and spiritual formation, that might be beneficial to my daughter and to me as her father. Your "Music and Memory" series is great format, one of the prettiest themes I've seen in any blog. Perhaps a memory of yours might be instructive. Best to you, TQ

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your kind words, as always, TQ. I will try to jog my memory and I will probably answer you in an email.