The things I do for research.
Pharrell Williams has released what purports to be the world’s first 24-hour music video, which you can view on line by clicking the link below. The video consists of a continuous loop of his 4-minute song “Happy,” with the camera tracking the movements of a number of characters as they dance their way across Los Angeles. You can forward through the loop — & you will likely need to do so after a few minutes — to about 7 a.m., at which point dancers spin-flail-bounce-contort-gesticulate-skip-lipsync-smile their way along the bikepath that runs next to sections of the Los Angeles River. The shots of the river are fleeting but the characters are compelling.
At approximately 7:56 a.m. (PST), a woman manifests her glee on the dry plain of the river in the downtown section, followed at 8 a.m. by Pharrell Williams himself, dancing downriver from 4th Street on the concrete bed, the low-flow channel full, running fast, spilling over in places (though tire-tracks are more widespread than water). He turns & gyrates up the tunnel under the 6th Street Viaduct, & soon dancers & camera-crew leave the river behind.
‘Tis the season to be jolly, I suppose, & “Happy” aims to contribute to the Kettle of Good Cheer. The people & the city are all rather winning & the song is catchy, but I think I went through something like the five stages of grief as I listened & watched: Intrigued, Infected, Irked, Insane, & finally (if intermittently), In-the-Groove. As Elvis Costello said, “C’mon, Get Happy.”
I woke long before the alarm this morning, made coffee & sat sipping it until leaving on a predawn dog-&-cat walk. Rags nosing along the margin of the bikepath behind me, Meme keeping one eye on Rags & the other on everything else, I was enjoying the unseasonably warm breeze & reflecting on recent fieldwork in Los Angeles when I was called to return to my senses.
Out of the darkness, an owl — four crisp hoots, generously spaced — each break of silence a warning that the sun might not rise — night the new day.
Back home, I ate a handful of almonds as I looked out the backdoor. In the dark, prayer flags waving in the wind, & in the glass a dim reflection of a white beard moving, mirroring the flags.
The owl, among its other offices, called to mind a recently published essay, in which I reflect on its kin & the meaning of rivers:
McMillin – Transdisciplinarity 2
Over & out.
I was invited by my friend Harrod Suarez to contribute to a new website, Poetastic, which features videos of people reading poems. Click on the link below to see my version of a river poem, Gary Snyder’s “Night Song of the Los Angeles Basin.” The site just went live, & since Harrod is hoping to expand operations, please consider sending in one of your own.
One of the things about the Los Angeles River that intrigues me is its paradoxical existence—the river is both there and not there. My current project is exploring the ways in which literary study, fieldwork, & reflective connection of the two might “daylight” the river. This poem, by Hayden Carruth, has nothing to do with L.A. or sunshine, & only refers to streams in passing; but I take something from it that helps me think about the ways in which something is and at the same time is not.
From Clay Hill, high,
next to the old pitched cultivation
of the settlers’ graveyard, I watch you,
eastward of the mountain there
rising, your glowing fervent bronze, so full
though with one edge blurred
as if in sympathy with the settlers lying
half in the blurred
receding shadow of April’s snow.
I watch you, alone and lonely,
both of us lonely, full of this late
fire. Then I descend once more
to the cove, to deepening snow and the house
that stands by the loud brook in freshet
under the hemlock bank, finding
my loves there, compassionate and always
careful of me. And you
are hidden by banked black boughs,
as I am hidden by love.
when the night has gone to frost
again, a reversion to winter,
I walk out onto the crusted snow
and there you are, high
in the winter sky again, so clear,
like a free flake in the stream
of stars. I have found you.
I lean to you in the depths
of cold and darkness, you always there
and yet often hidden, as I too
am where I am always, hidden.
Lewis McAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, prefers to call himself an “infrastructuralist” rather than an “environmentalist.” The preference, perhaps, suggests an aversion to particular ideas of “nature,” or to an acknowledgment of the strange nature of the Los Angeles River. Or maybe it suggests the perceived need to build bridges—infrastructure—between “nature” and “culture.” ↔ There are 27,002 bridges in Ohio. ↔ Last year, 5 “self-proclaimed anarchists” tried to blow up one of those bridges (over the Cuyahoga River). They did so “in the hopes of furthering their ideological views” (Cleveland Plain Dealer 11/20/12). ↔ THREE STORIES FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, 9/17/13: 1. “The deep division between Western backers of rebels seeking to overthrow Assad and Russian and Chinese supporters of the regime has paralyzed the U.N. Security Council….” 2. “The gap in employment rates between America’s highest- and lowest-income families has stretched to its widest levels since officials began tracking the data….” “…Net worth for America’s wealthiest people has risen in the years since the financial crisis, widening the gap between the exceptionally well-to-do and the rest of the country.” ↔ ”Where’s that confounded bridge?” —Led Zeppelin, “The Crunge” ↔ “An Associated Press analysis of 607,380 bridges in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory showed that 65,605 were classified as ‘structurally deficient’ and 20,808 as ‘fracture critical.’ Of those, 7,795 were both—a combination of red flags that experts say indicate significant disrepair and similar risk of collapse” (AP 9/15/13). ↔ A young shirtless man on a narrow bridge—railroad or pipeline—is out over the Los Angeles River acting erratically, spasmodic, threatening to jump. Whole families & many youths congregate to watch the spectacle. A man, holding his little girl, tells me the shirtless one has been there 2 hours. Fire & Rescue people fan out below the bridge, some wading through the knee-deep water of the channel’s low-flow notch, others maneuvering a large inflated pad. Cops come along to roust the crowd & get pushback from many, including the man w/ the little girl, who yells, “This is a public place! You can’t make us leave!” The worn tune of an ice cream truck plays nearby. ↔ “Can I take ‘em to the bridge?” —James Brown, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” ↔ “Many of the bridges included in the AP review have [comparatively low] sufficiency ratings—a score designed to gauge the importance of replacing the span…. A bridge with a score less than 50 on a 100-point scale can be eligible for federal funds to help replace the span. More than 400 bridges that are fracture critical and structurally deficient have a score of less than 10, according to the latest federal inventory. ¶ The Brooklyn Bridge is among the worst” (AP 9/15/13). ↔ Hart Crane, to the Brooklyn Bridge: “O Sleepless as the river under thee, / Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod, / Unto us lowliest sometimes sweep, descend / And of the curveship lend a myth to God” (“The Bridge”).
New Year’s Eve, The Queen & I celebrated the end of one year & the beginning of another with a hike. We let Rags off the leash, watched his ears flop down the bike path. Fireworks began as we crossed Plum Creek then headed back into the woods, Rags bouncing along a game trail ahead of us into the still drifts of snow & strange light: the trail, in shadows, opened to a clearing amid the trees into which the snowy sky reflected low incandescence. Trees—thick black lines illumined by fallen snow—gleamed against the deep stormy dark back-sky of the east, contested by the odd radiance seeping in from town to the west. Fireworks quickened behind us, the gloom before us etched eerily by white—a Beckett-scape—thrilling ominous piebald night.
We turned toward home, Rags, terrorized by cracks & blastings unseen, scampering far ahead. Arm in arm we crossed Plum for the last time of the year, listening to 2012 carried away down the small stream, the “dark stream that seaward creeps.” We paused & listened awhile to the slipping away, on our right, & the coming to be, on our left, then walked on & kissed as bells rang beyond.
In “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” Edward Abbey writes of taking his copy of Walden along “in an ammo can” on a Green River float trip in November 1980. Throughout the essay, as his party drifts through Labyrinth Canyon, Stillwater Canyon, and beyond, Abbey’s thoughts play between “one of the sweetest, brightest, grandest, and loneliest regions” in the United States and his rereading of Thoreau. Typically iconoclastic, even when dealing with another iconoclast, Abbey discusses Henry’s sex life, imagines a marriage between Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, and quotes or comments on some of what he deems to be the pertinent ideas of Concord’s famous “village crank.” The upshot: “The deeper our United States sinks into industrialism, urbanism, militarism,” the more urgent our need to read, reread, rethink the questions posed by Thoreau about our “economy,” our ways of living. Thoreau, Abbey finds, near the end of Labyrinth Canyon, “becomes more significant with each passing decade.”
This came back to me recently as I was writing a lecture on Walden. The book is difficult for many readers to understand, given Thoreau’s interest in complexity, his facility with paradox, and, frankly, our limited skills of interpretation — in fact, a worry about “reading” occupies a good portion of Walden. We too frequently “read,” Thoreau laments, in order to serve a “paltry convenience,” too busy to think through intricate issues and tangled problems, hastily concluding this or that about a work’s meaning or worth then “desperately” (a keyword in Walden) rushing on to the next thing. And such thoughts were occurring to me just as Black Friday had moved to Black Thursday — “holiday” sales were ramping up, must-have or must-give items were proliferating wildly. I imagined a rustic-clad vagabond commandeering the store microphone: “Attention shoppers: a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone!”
A brief pause — utter silence — and the barcode scanners again begin bleating.
How can we carefully attend to a book that promotes personal economy and “deliberation” (another Walden keyword, a proposed antidote to desperation) when, all around us, every form of media, from the cell phone to the movie screen, from the newspaper to the blogsite spreads the word that Things Must Be Bought, supporting a vast system of getting and spending? If that weren’t troubling enough, Thoreau also suggests that desperation in the marketplace maintains worldwide systems of injustice, inequality, and waste, exacerbating tensions and precipitating war. Walden proposes that if we want to have a better world, we will need to think better; to think better, we will need to slow down, reflect, and consider the consequences of our ways of living: What are the costs — to ourselves, to others, to the planet — of the pursuit of luxuries and superfluities? What do we really need to live a good and just and full life?
Tis, as they say, the season. “Goodwill toward men”? Goodwill is more than a store where goods go that are no longer needed. “Peace on Earth”? Peace is more than a wish, more than a state. Peace is created by our smallest actions, what we do and how we do it, wherever we are.