"[Deming is] a writer of skillful means and economy."Kirkus Reviews
"[Deming is a ] gifted poet and essayist."Booklist
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Troubled by tensions that inevitably arise when civilization intrudes upon wild regions, Alison Hawthorne Deming visited some of our continent's most remote areas to answer questions that had long been on her mind. In the absence of vast frontiers, can we manage our ever-increasing numbers? How can we strike a balance with a natural world that we threaten by our
Troubled by tensions that inevitably arise when civilization intrudes upon wild regions, Alison Hawthorne Deming visited some of our continent's most remote areas to answer questions that had long been on her mind. In the absence of vast frontiers, can we manage our ever-increasing numbers? How can we strike a balance with a natural world that we threaten by our very presence? With the language of a poet and the eye of a scientist, Alison Hawthorne Deming presents us with the difficult challenge of redefining our traditional notion of cultural progress and thinking of our future in new terms.
"[Deming is] a writer of skillful means and economy."Kirkus Reviews
"[Deming is a ] gifted poet and essayist."Booklist
The Values of Experience
There is no desire more natural than the desire for knowledge. We try all the ways that can lead us to it. When reason fails us, we use experience.
--Michel de Montaigne
Whenever I was sick as a child, I had a fever dream in which a tree that looked as lobed and meaty as a brain would grow uncontrollably, consuming everything in sight. I was a part of the time-lapse mushrooming and yet I could stand apart and witness it. One time I woke from this experience in a night terror, feeling that I had nearly lost myself to its burgeoning. I sat up straight and turned on the light. The hands of my alarm clock were racing like a movie calendar in which ten years pass in ten seconds' time. At this rate, I thought, my life won't last very long. And I willed myself to slow down the clock. I did not question whether it was possible for me to do this. It was necessary and, in that moment of terrified awareness, the ability came as a gift. And that is how I learned about the power of the human imagination, not in school, not in museums, not in books, not in therapy. Later, of course, all of those instruments of learning proved valuable to me. But first came a paradoxical experience of the power of the mind to create and destroy and re-create its own reality.
Montaigne was so fascinated by his own experience he vowed "to study it, savor it, and ruminate it" rather than let it fly by like sleep without being conscious of it. "To the end that sleep itself should not escape me thus stupidly," he wrote, "at one time I saw fit to have mine disturbed, so that I might gain a glimpse of it." And why not begin one's study of the world with inspecting the basic machinery of one's intelligence: we learn by remembering and telling others what has happened to us, by putting our stories together until a pattern forms and we begin together to understand something we could not understand alone. Writing is like that. One hashes over one's experience looking for patterns and order, feeling an intuition of form, like a scratchy throat before getting the flu. And one may regret experiencing this symptom, because writing a book--wanting to write a book--can feel a lot like having an illness that one cannot shake. But if one gets really sick and recovers, there may be a something to show for it that recounts individual experience in a way that has collective meaning.
The value of experience does not pertain only to one's self; it is by Darwin's definition what distinguishes intelligence from instinct. Intelligence may exist as a continuum spanning all living creatures, but the ability to learn from experience and rapidly adapt based on learning is what separates the human beings from the bugs. The female digger wasp, for example, will maintain several burrows for her maturing offspring. Each morning, she will inspect the burrows to determine which contain eggs requiring no food, which contain larvae needing two or three caterpillars to eat, and which contain pupated offspring to be sealed in for metamorphosis. On the basis of her inspection, the wasp knows how much prey to capture and where to deliver the food. If the occupants of the burrows are switched after her morning inspection, she will spend the day delivering caterpillars to a burrow containing eggs; she will examine an egg many times without realizing it needs no food; and she will seal off young larvae to starve. Her instinctual behavior is based on the findings of her morning inspection, and it offers a very limited opportunity for learning from experience.
Human beings have unlimited opportunities for learning, remembering, and passing on the lessons experience teaches us, finding ever more efficient means to communicate them to one another, and we are all the smarter for one another's learning. Where we find a limit in our biological capacities, we invent a technology to extend our reach. When our habitat becomes depleted, we move to another or, increasingly, try to restore what we have lost. We seem to be infinitely plastic in shaping ourselves to new realities, and learning voraciously in order to do so. What is puzzling about the state of human beings in our consumerist heyday is that we do not place much value on learning from experience. We value things, and go about acquiring them as if we were novice hunter-gatherers needing to forage constantly in order to survive. We measure progress in economic terms, not in natural or cultural ones. Once linked to nature as the commonwealth of all living beings, we have traded that alliance for one with the human economy. But if we reported each year's progress not in terms of fiscal loss and gain but in terms of the earth's biological and cultural loss and gain, we would have a more accurate assessment of human success.
For days and weeks I work over volumes of notes taken on two trips to Mexico, transcribing them from handwritten notebook to computer disk, being careful to remain accurate to the facts: an old man sweeping with a twig broom, a woman carrying an enormous basket of gardenias on her head, a truckload of federales buying Cokes in a seri village, a fig tree in a remote island arroyo carved with the words "I love you," the carcass of a freshly slaughtered calf lashed with rope into a wheelbarrow, the throaty word and grazing of fingertips--not a handshake but a gesture local and ancient--as Zapotec women greet each other on a bus. Each entry records a moment at which I felt exquisitely alive in apprehending something new and particular, something American yet utterly foreign, that made me see a border in my mind I had never crossed.
I amass all the entries, review them in the context of one another, highlighting those that still provide a bolus of energy. Yet I find no shape, no order, no pattern to lend meaning to my hoard. It looks more like life than art, a flood of experience that races through time without slowing down to form a calm, reflective pool. If I were an anthropologist, linguist, historian or botanist, I would bring an articulated research question on my travels. I would gather aggregate data to support my hypothesis or failing that frame a new research question based on inconclusive findings. I would propose a theory or venture an argument or make something useful--an interpretation, a dictionary, a policy statement or a pharmaceutical formula. But I am a poet: a maker of poems, which are useful only in the way that dreams are, as vessels for particular experience.
And I confess personal qualities associated with the figurative sense of the word: the poet gives herself to being moved imaginatively and emotionally, she savors the intensities of consciousness, she is a novelty seeker in the inner domain as an adventurer is in the outer, she is drawn to the light of beauty and to the darkness that gives beauty its shape. Such qualities made poets so dangerous to Plato that he banned us from his utopian city. I turned from poetry to writing prose not in order to become more journalistic, utilitarian or argumentative, but simply to bring more of my experience of the world onto the page. I brought with me a faith in the value of writing based on personal experience as an instrument through which culture might see itself. To value experience in a thing-loving age necessitates elevating experience to the status of things. One device for doing that is art. That makes the process sound mechanical. In practice it feels organic. First I forage about in the world, then I forage about in my notebooks, and somewhere along the way, if I am lucky, I start to hear some music I can dance to. And then the steps reveal a pattern, and the dancing becomes more confident and sensual. I do it in the dark, circling in the arms of the world, sometimes leading, sometimes following, always in love with the possibility of greater wakefulness and how it might heal the actual wounds of living.
For this, Plato banished us. For what would become of civilization if we were all to dance with ourselves in the dark?
I traveled to Mexico looking for a missing part of myself. I don't mean that I was looking for family roots. I have none there, though my grandmother lived in Mexico City for several years at the turn of the century. As a young woman she had entered an arranged marriage with an older Cuban man whom her parents believed to be of a class to properly care for her. They had emigrated from France to New York City, and such arrangements were the family's tradition, a widely respected marital strategy at the time. Little of my grandmother's story has survived her. I never thought to ask for details while she was alive. Apparently her husband had been what polite society would have called a roue. He had caused his parents so much trouble that they decided to set up the newlyweds far away from whatever history of embarrassments he had written in New York. For my grandmother, the marriage was a happy time. They had lived an aristocratic life in Mexico City. A witty French girl with magnificent clothes (her mother had been a dress designer), she had so charmed the President of Mexico that he gave her a horse. She lived with us when I was a child, and she loved calling me into her room to look through her artifacts: here she was standing proudly beside her mount in front of their city home; here she was dressed as Carmen, a fat cigar raised coquettishly near her lips; and here was the infant who had died at birth dressed in funeral lace. Her husband had died of consumption soon thereafter, and she had returned to New York with the photographs, some castanets, and a magnificent embroidered Spanish shawl that she would unfold from its tissue-paper storage. Perhaps my attraction to Mexico began when those few images from my grandmother's life were planted like a posthypnotic suggestion in my imagination. They did conjure up a sense of the near-foreignness of that nation, though not the deeper sense of absence in myself as an American that I would cross the border to explore.
Since moving from New England to Arizona eight years ago, I have experienced a profound change in my senses of both nature and culture. Living in the West has made me feel more intimately connected with the power of the continent as it reveals itself with such naked intensity in the desert, and with the wounded history that has shaped its landscape and people. In New England, the past has been paved over, beautified and made genteel. In the Southwest, the landscape tells stories more openly; they can be read along the Mexican border, on the urban Yaqui reservations and rural Hopi mesas, in the layering of cities over the bones of people who inhabited the continent for ten thousand years, and in the unremitting heat that cannot fail to open the collar of the most buttoned-up Easterner. The West has taught me that no matter the dominance human beings try to enforce over one another and the planet, the land is the final authority determining our destiny.
Living in the West has taught me that the political demarcation of the Mexican border is arbitrary and has nothing to do with the affiliations of nature and culture that define the region. My first excursion into Mexico, beyond the usual dismal and harried border forays to Nogales and Juarez, came while I was editing Poetry of the American West, an anthology for Columbia University Press. I wanted that work to speak about people's relationships with the West both before and after the Conquest, and I wanted to include the earliest written poetry I could find from the region. I decided to include some of the Aztec flower songs compiled in the sixteenth century by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun. Although the majority of the Aztec and pre-Aztec scroll texts were destroyed by the Spanish, several friars with the assistance of indigenous informants preserved an astonishing body of testimony regarding the ancient cultures of what is now Mexico. The decision to include this work in the anthology marked an imaginative commitment to erase the border, to consider citizens of both nations simply as Americans. I do not mean to minimize the violent realities of the border. It would take far more than an act of imagination to erase the daily suffering that occurs there. However, once I had made that step as an editor, I began to wonder what else Mexico might teach me about what it means to be an American.
On my first extended foray, I spent a week sailing among the uninhabited islands in the Sea of Cortes. One day our boat approached a hunk of rock that looked about four acres in area, though scale can be deceptive in the shifting tropical light of the Baja. What is fact and what reflection become lost as islands mirage in and out of view. A boat may float in space beyond the edge of the earth, or an island in minutes may double in size, then melt to nothing. It becomes so hard to believe your eyes that you do not bother, instead accepting whatever reality drifts into view and then letting it go. But this island was real--a sloping bluff midway between Isla San Francisco and the southern end of Isla San Jose. On maps it is called Isla Coyote, but the locals call it Pardito. From a distance it looked like nothing more than a brown ledge with a couple of white gulls sitting on it. But as we grew near, the gulls grew larger and turned into small cupolas topped with lean black crosses.
Rounding to the western shore, we saw a crowded settlement of a dozen or so houses tucked into the lee of the rock--some scrap shacks with thatch roofs, the newer ones with corrugated fiberglass, one house of mortared stone with a wide veranda, finely made, three large metal water tanks raised high over the habitations, a photovoltaic panel, a tiny church and a one-room schoolhouse, its cinder-block exterior painted with murals depicting orcas and coral fish. Along the beach was a bouldered breakwater where lines had been strung and split fish hung to dry. One hurricane, I thought, and it would all be gone.
A panga slid up close to where we had moored some good distance offshore for lunch--two men and a young boy riding in the flat-bottomed boat powered by a bright new seventy-five-horse Yamaha outboard. We chatted about the weather, the bad fishing during the full moon, the price of the motor and where we were from. One said that he lived on Pardito; the other that he was born there, but now lives in La Paz and only comes on vacation to help his relatives or to visit. They could not agree on how long people have lived on the island. One said fifty years, the other a hundred. They invited us to go ashore.
Not wanting to invade anyone's private space, I headed up the foot-worn trail past a big cardon cactus that wore a shark's jaw strapped to its waist. Midway up the bluff above the cluttered houses stood the tiny white chapel. Climbing up to see what kind of place it was, I found a sanctuary ten feet square with a homemade altar of blue ceramic tiles on which rested a dimestore portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe decked with fake gilding and roses, votive candles, a tiny cross of sticks lashed with blood red yarn, a photo of a blond woman sitting on a sailboat with a coffee mug in hand--a stout, ruddy, middle-aged woman--looking cheerful and relaxed. Dusty bundles of plastic-wrapped imitation flowers were stacked in a corner. The walls were painted sea blue and were peeling, the little room like a drifting bit of sea, except for the smell of wax and the soot staining the ceiling above the altar--the candle smoke from many necessary prayers made by people who relied upon the mercy of the sea. I'm not Catholic--cannot say I'm really even Christian--though I have experienced the presence of God enough times to say I'm a believer. It seemed wrong to be in such a place and not honor what it was made for. I knelt and said a prayer of my own, surprised at my sudden piety and need.
Stepping back out into bright day, I saw in the distance sheets of misty rain drifting out from the mountains in the west toward Pardito. Snagged by the peaks on the mainland peninsula, storms rarely reach this little refuge in the sea. The tenor of the day had drifted too, now that my own inner need had connected with the foreign ground of the island. Descending the steep slope from the church, I passed packed bunches of houses, clotheslines hung with dusty chiles, a basket of garlic heads on the stoop, a salting shack where bins of fish were set to cure. The residents were hospitable and eager to chat, though I never stopped feeling that I didn't belong there. A local woman named Beatrix sat on the veranda railing of the one tourist house on the island. She told me the story of the blond woman whose photo I had seen in the chapel. For six or seven years the Californian couple had come on their boat to visit Pardito. The women had become friends. "There was love between us," said Beatrix, touching her heart, "like sisters." Her eyes followed a panga offshore where men were diving for clams. Her friend, she said, had been in a car accident in San Francisco, her leg badly injured. Medicines had hurt her heart, she said, and she had died at only fifty-eight. But her ashes were here, some of them, in a box beside her photo on the altar.
A group of men, four or six--someone was always coming from or going to the salting shed--worked at a rough wooden boning table on the beach. A man with a barrel belly wore a rubber apron, cartoons inked on his chest, a stitched surgical incision and a caricature of his face stubbled with whiskers. He sharpened a wide-bladed knife with water on a stone, then cut off the fins and gutted a thin skatelike fish he called angelita. Another man sliced out the backbone and filleted the meat with sure and careful strokes. He had made these simple cuts many times and he made them well.
We traded some provisions from our boat for fish and clams--sierra fillets and big chocolaty Colorado clams that the men said would be good for making seviche. "But you have to eat it with beer," one guy joked, "or else the seviche gets stuck in your throat." We asked if diving for fish was dangerous and did they worry about sharks, which are prevalent in the area. They shrugged, as if to say that it was just a thing they did. Another worked on the clams, splitting open the shell with a broad knife, cutting loose the meat, washing it in a plastic soup bowl with seawater, then cutting out the darker parts, washing again and dicing the white-and-orange segments. Deep blade marks inscribed every inch of the table's surface. Another man told me that sierra was good for a hangover. We laughed. He gave me a knowing look and said, "Yes, you have a few beers and at first you're happy, then you get sad."
Others loaded a panga with burlap sacks of clams, getting ready to ride forty miles to La Paz for a wedding. Beatrix was among them, wearing a bright orange short-sleeved blouse and khaki shorts. She smiled and waved as the panga pulled out. Everyone waved, those on shore and those setting out to sea, a gust of eager friendliness blowing through the whole village. It made me realize that though there are many things the people of Pardito do not have, they do have the experience of community, of being in place, something we keep looking for, feeling out of place in our dense, frenzied, glittering life of cities. And then it was our turn to leave, and we did so very slowly, watching a magnificent frigate bird rising over a nearby reef, carrying a fish so big it could barely fly.
"Religious man," wrote Mircea Eliade, "sought to live as near as possible to the Center of the World," a fixed point that was "an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real." The farther history proceeds, the farther it moves from that absolute, the divine source of life's upwelling, and the greater our nostalgia for the past. Visiting a place like Pardito where people still live in primary relationship with nature, closer to that mystery of origin, can satisfy an experience seeker's hunger only briefly. The appetite soon returns. I cannot deny for long that I live not at the center, but on edge, lost in a centerless sprawl where one reality abrades against another. And the more at odds I feel with my self-devouring culture, the more I long to leave again, searching for evidence of another way of existence, for a new experience that will make the world real again.
What's missing is not something that existed in the past or might come to be in the future, not something to be found on the remote edges of civilization or at a geographic center. What's missing is a connection with the hidden quality of existence that announces itself as spiritual. It is not something locatable, though seekers look for it in every place. It is a force that has been on the planet ever since humans climbed out of the trees, since the trees sprang from the ground, and maybe since the ground and water teemed with microbes. Perhaps it is a quality inherent in matter: to be embodied in a form is to harbor that memory of formlessness that we call spirit. Certainly it is a force inside the mind, one that keeps reawakening the hunger, not for things, but for the part of experience that has been denied. For it is a fact, as David Abram has written, that "phenomena can be hidden not just within the past or the future, but also within the very thickness of the present, itself---that there is an enigmatic, hidden dimension at the very heart of the sensible present, into which phenomena may withdraw and out of which they continually emerge."
Days and weeks may pass during which I am occupied with business, duty and repairs. I do not experience these periods of time. I do not know them. I merely move through them like an overtired traveler on a cross-country bus. The bus speeds past cities and towns, each of them melting into an indistinguishable blur. Then in my mind there may occur a glimmer, a momentary bridging of synapse--some memory, desire or insight--a thing intangible that becomes more real and durable than the scenery flying by the window. I will hold that intangible otherness for a long time, knowing it, drawing strength from it. Then when I look out the window again, say, at some cottonwoods lining the curves of a distant stream or a stand of chollas with spines catching the sunlight like a halo, I find that the scenery too has become real, that quality of innerness awake in everything. How private the most civilizing moments can be: in harmony with the world I imagine, I am in harmony with the world I live.
Alison Hawthorne Deming is the author of two poetry collections and a book of essays, as well as the editor of Poetry of the American West. Her first collection of poetry, Science and Other Poems, was selected by Gerald Stern for the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. She has been the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and the Pushcart Prize in Nonfiction. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
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