I am delighted to be a contributor to the recent issue of the online journal Away. Please check out Away, not only for my photo-essay on listening to the Los Angeles River, but for some provocative experiments in contemporary travel writing.
My student was correct; George Miller’s film Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) has, at its heart, a travel palindrome. The heroes go forth & come back by the same route, following the pattern of another literary palindrome. In class we had nearly finished reading Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord & Merrimack Rivers (1849), about a river-trip structured palindromically: the travelers went down the Concord River, up the Merrimack River, climbed up a mountain & pivoted, & then returned by reversing the route: down the mountain, down the Merrimack, & up the Concord. (For more about textual palindromes, check out the last chapter of The Meaning of Rivers.) My student Ben, from the rivers course this semester (thanks, Ben!), wrote excitedly that Mad Max not only featured a palindrome but also involved water. He thought I should probably check it out.
The palindrome in Mad Max differs considerably from Thoreau’s. Max (Tom Hardy) accompanies Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is liberating 5 young women — “Breeders” — held captive by a tyrannical warlord. Her plan is to return to “The Green Place,” her motherland, from which she herself was stolen as a child. Chased by the warlord & the leaders of Gas Town & The Bullet Farm, Furiosa leads the escapees across deserts, through a narrow & perilous canyon, over mudflats, & eventually to another desert, where she finds the few surviving women of what is no longer a Green Place. These desolate dunes become the pivot for the escapees, as Max convinces them that their best hope lies in a palindromic return to the only available water source for hundreds of miles: the Citadel from which they’ve fled.
Mad Max’s palindromic return is highlighted by its contrast with the failed return to The Green Place. The latter comes a cropper because it’s a nostalgically guided return to something that no longer exists. We cannot go back to the past. Max’s plan, however, involves going back to the present, informed by knowledge of what lies ahead. Furiosa’s heroic band of Furies go back to where they started, using the return to alter the conditions of the despotic wasteland. In the process of the palindrome, they depose the 3 old men who control gasoline, weapons, and water — the men, we are told, who “killed the world.” Going well beyond “Thunderdome,” the movement of Max & Furiosa describes a furious Palindrome that results in the redistribution of water and power. Thoreau, in A Week, wrote that “good books” are those which make their readers “dangerous to existing institutions.” By that standard, the more recent palindrome might be viewed as a “good film.” Perhaps, though Max’s plan be madness, there is method in it.
It was late Friday afternoon, above the clouds on a small jet out of CLE. On my way to a symposium at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM), I graded papers, did a crossword, watched the flight attendant make her way down the narrow defile with the drinks cart. The soothing authoritative voice of the pilot assured a smooth ride.
The SLAM symposium celebrated several exhibitions of 19th century American paintings, all loosely related to rivers: a grand show of George Caleb Bingham’s work formed the centerpiece, along with works from the Hudson River school and Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life. My lecture — on the river, the steamboat, & literature — had gone to the devil.
Research had turned up a striking number of references to satanic aspects of early steamboat travel. The vessel itself was sometimes sketched with horns & a tail, a “huge demon in the wilderness, bearing fire in her bosom, and canopying the eternal forest with the smoke of her nostrils.” Boatmen often gave infernal names to rock formations & other phenomena along the way: the devil’s tea table, the devil’s backbone, the devil’s oven, the devil’s grand tower, Devil’s Island, the “Chenal du Diable.” The humorist Thomas Bangs Thorpe remembered a woodyard situated at “a place so infested with ‘snags’” that it had been “christened … the ‘Devil’s Promenade.’” (The Devil’s Promenade, we are told, in case we want to look for it, “lies at the mouth of ‘Dead Man’s Bend,’ just at the foot of ‘Gouge-your-eye-out Island.’”)
Steamboats, in various fashions, threatened the edenic peace of the river. Sometimes writers cited the unfortunate frequency with which the boats “generally blow up every season,” tossing their “parboiled passengers to an inconvenient altitude in the atmosphere” (Thomas Hamilton). Others noted in the behavior of their fellow passengers the “incontrovertible evidences of a fallen nature”: drinking, gambling, lechery, the “infernal vociferation of curses” (G. W. Feathersonhaugh), swindling, and slave-trading. While the steamboat marked a technological advance for American culture, carrying us forward into a promising future, it also carried us away.
When the drinks cart arrived, I asked for a bourbon. The flight attendant smilingly gave me a small bottle of Devil’s Cut, from the Jim Beam family, & as she did, a sudden & considerable JOLT shook the jet. The flight attendant staggered, the cart cut a caper, passengers worriedly & in vain sought explanation out the windows. As I recovered & poured the Devil’s Cut over rocks, the pilot explained we’d been hit by “wing turbulence” from a passing plane. We flew on, high above the earth, & so far below heaven.
One day / On the river is worth a thousand nights on land.
—Robert Bly, “The Cabbages of Chekhov”
One Green River Day. Awake to the feint tinkle of water, after the sploosh of eroding sand, first light, camp still in shadow, guides already busy in the kitchen, beaver crosses from shore to shore & pads off.
Pee into river, pad across sand barefoot to dip camp coffee into your cup, morning greetings, remove to the quiet of your tent site to let the day pray through you or maybe head to the groover for a scenic crap, facing away from the increasing hubbub toward the waters of where you have been or the waters of where you are going.
Return to others, to the us, for sand yoga standing postures, beginning in Mountain — apt in so many ways: mirroring canyon walls & towers, embodying stillness, peace, gathering of forces — then Warriors & angular twists, Chair, shoulder openers, hip releasers, breath followers, folds & reaches. Attend, please, to each of the seven centers of energy. Sit. Breathe. The light rises all around as if from our circle; the light in me sees the light in you.
Breakfast & breakquiet bonhomie. Heron squawk. Dull clank & splash of dishes washed — scrape, rinse, scrub, rinse, bleach, stack in rack. Pack up in hot sun, hup the gear to the fleet, stow supplies in each & every canoe. When camp is fully broken, after the last last-call for the groover, we go, boat by boat, into the slow glide. All slip away, gladly.
It is a moment of suspended time when one could so easily cross over into another dimension, a feeling neither of exhilaration nor euphoria, but simply of infinite possibilities. —Ann Zwinger, Run, River, Run
The Guide honors the day by calling for a Silent Float. With our chatter stifled, the vastness & solitude take in the attention, take in the mind itself & through it my whole being. To belong to the river & to the canyon & to the sky — that is why I’ve come here. Out of the quiet comes small voices of life: water dripping from the bow, the blade; crickets in the brush; canyon wren among the cliffs; heron wing beats.
Sun’s intensity, river’s ease, Children’s Moon high above the varying sandstones — Entrada, Wingate, Navajo. Silence cracks off eventually & falls into the water, whether by song or splash, howl or yawp. Floating on, following the subtle thalweg or following the subtle Guide following it, along long arcs of meander, crossing curves from one side to the next, in fruitfully fruitless pursuit of the chain of languid bubbles.
The behavior of rock, of herons & ravens & small birds in the shore scrub, of paddlers. When we are not quiet we are usually laughing, unbidden badinage uninterrupted by occasional stops: to pee, to swim, to pass around snacks, to hike to petroglyphs or overlooks of the river. Mostly though we ply the paddle. “The path of the paddle leads to the original perspective.” Patterns, reflections emerge. Paddle & float. Think & drift. Alcove & cliff face. Breathe in, breathe out.
Lunch: haul the canoes through “goodge” onto a sandbar; a game of Find the Appropriate Containers & tote them to the two folding tables set up in the sand, usually under blazing sun; coldcuts cheeses lettuce tomato salty-snacks fruit, cookies brought out at the end, all tasting better than such fare would elsewhere, elsewhen; standing around in little groups, milling about the bar, jokes & observations & continuation of conversations, words the follow us all along the way. Load up, push off, float on.
Thy sickness, they say, & thy puny habit require that thou do this or avoid that, but know that thy life is a flitting state, a tent for a night, & do thou, sick or well, finish that stint. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”
Our boat hangs back & we smoke cigarillos in a lazy drift, enjoying the lull & quiet, the flavors of a floating moment, the pffft of the butt hitting the water. Another couple hours or so will bring us to where we will be, where we empty & secure the boats, re-create the kitchen, pitch tents, swim or reconnoiter or recollect.
Happy Hour: a couple beers dragged cool behind the canoe, bags of wine, lemonade, camp chat echoing in the rocks. Experiences are compared, places discussed, the river revered. Pale scorpion scurrying, desert toad scampering, scientists, seekers, instructors, examiners, writers & makers & engineers. Becoming unstuck. Following tortuous paths, winding ways, lives we cannot predict. Poem & song, stars & tears. The heron takes us down the river.
Just as sunrise climbs down the rock wall, sunset ascends. Dinner & clean up are among the last rituals, then either music or an astronomy lesson or the sharing of souls, one more pee into the water, brush teeth, late looks at the clear sky — not much else needed to put final touches on the day, on the shedding of time.
I admit that this post is at best indirectly connected to the sorts of things that usually appear here. The poem — a brief ode — is for an esteemed colleague of Environmental Studies on the occasion of his retirement. His work in political theory has, for four decades, improved the ways in which people think about and act on behalf of rivers, woods, mountains …
While staying near the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which graciously provided hospitality during some of my fieldwork on the L.A. River, I frequently toured the short, shadowy hallways of David Wilson’s “cabinet of wonders.” The museum puts an emphasis on “muse-” in presenting its odd collection of objects and ideas. Calling itself “a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic,” the MJT features “unusual or curious” items from diverse areas of inquiry—music, science, folklore, cat’s cradle artists …
Exhibits, with titles such as “Scrupulous Fidelity” (the astronomical paintings of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot) and “The Lives of Perfect Creatures” (dogs of the Soviet Space program), range from the zoological (stink ants of the Cameroon and Myotis lucifugus, a bat that can fly through walls) to the esoteric (theories and practices of the magnetic arts in the work of 17th century scholar Athanasius Kircher) to the archaeological (treasures from Los Angeles Area Mobile Home and Trailer Parks). A visitor can be thrown off-balance by the juxtaposition of the unbelievably micro with the equally amazing macro. One might, for instance, pause before the FRUIT-STONE CARVING exhibit—a tiny seed, into which is carved “a Flemish landscape” that includes “a bearded man wearing a biretta, a long tunic of classical character, and thick-soled shoes” holding a viol held “between his knees while he tunes one of the strings,” with a menagerie “in the distance” (“including a lion, a bear, an elephant ridden by a monkey, a boar, a dog, a donkey, a stag, a camel, a horse, a bull, a bird, a goat a lynx, and a group of rabbits: the latter under a branch on which sit an owl, another bird and a squirrel”), all of which is on the front of the fruit stone, a seed that’s a half-inch high and less than that wide, while on the back is shown “an unusually grim Crucifixion, with a soldier on horseback, Longinus piercing Christ’s side with a lance, the cross is surmounted by a titulus inscribed INRI.” One might then step around the corner from the tiny encased carving and enter a suite of rooms that contain dazzling exempla from Kirchner’s studies involving lights, mirrors, sound, and sculpture. (All quotations from http://www.mjt.org)
But the exhibit that most haunts my memory has to do with forgetting. “The Delani/Sonnabend Halls” occupy a wing of the museum and are centered on the work of Geoffrey Sonnabend, “an associate professor of neurophysiology at Northwestern University,” and particularly his three-volume Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter. Inspired by the multi-chambered exhibit to further research on the professor, I found Bill Domonkos’s short (6 minutes) film, A Song for Sonnabend—itself a haunting little text making ample use of flowing water.
I finished reading Mark Lee Luther’s The Boosters (1923) the same night I watched John Cassavetes’s film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Novel & movie were separated by more than the half-century between their respective release dates, representing contrasting visions of L.A. as destination, as destiny—but they tell similar stories about the Los Angeles River.
The novel offers a cheery narrative of Bostonian George Hammond, who heads to Los Angeles as a once-capable architect turned dyspeptic business failure. Goaded by his wife Harriet, who has California roots, the family take the train west. Through genial adaptability, considerable luck, the pluck of his children, & the reemergence of his latent talents, George’s fortunes reverse, his digestion is righted, the family flourishes. The L.A. they experience is a land of sunshine, opportunity, romance, & the occasional earthquake; it has hills, beaches, off-shore islands, & oil-fields, but no river worthy of mention.
The film also tells the tale of a man from the East Coast transplanted to the West. Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara), originally from NYC, owns a LA strip club, believes in style, & manages his affairs congenially if not quite successfully. In an early scene, after paying off a gambling debt & knocking back a couple scotch-&-waters, he talks with Eddie, a helpful cab-driver also from NYC, about the old days. Eddie (played by Eddie Shaw), from lower Manhattan, says of former uptowner Cosmo, “At least you had the river, the beautiful river,” & Cosmo smiles as he remembers swimming in the East River. Eddie says he used to go to the Hudson, then after a little more nostalgia, says, “But now were going home.” “Where?” “Your house.” “There’s no river there, Eddie.”
In both tales the river is missing—a superfluity for Hammond’s rise, an absence of fluidity in Vittelli’s fall. Joan Didion wrote that “California is a place in which a boom mentality & a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem 174). Here too is where we run out of water.