Midnight Breakfast: “I Have No Bow”


The good editors at Midnight Breakfast have released their fourth issue, and my non-fiction piece, “I Have No Bow”, was included.

It’s about a subway ride experience I had, and the mini-crisis of conscience which ensued. I wish that women all over the world could dismiss with a single civil gesture any public attention that came their way. Alas…we have no bow.

Read the piece here


(Illustration by Joanna Barondress)



I’m making maps with Stamen Maps.

There is so much space and sensory experience between what a map shows you and what the land shows you. Walking the studied land is disorienting. One feels that location and place should feel obvious.

I have pored over this territory.

I could guess how many steps are to the creek east of me and be correct.

Still, it feels strange.

Something vertiginous about the bird’s eye view.

Here are two maps. Both depict the city of Arcata, in Humboldt County, CA, to the left/west. As your eye roves east, you see Rte 299, a main corridor through the Trinity Alps toward Redding. (This is the setting for my novel – the path of escape.)

What is a river and what is a road? What is green, brown?




First issue of ‘Ekphrasis’


This Spring, I contributed a poem to a great new publication, Ekphrasis, edited by Monique Mero-Williams and produced by Fourteen Hills and Voices/Visions. I was assigned an image (“Guest” by Jennifer O’Keeffe) and asked to respond. I wrote “Hottub Exegesis”. It is a lovely journal, with nice heft in the hands, and I hope they make many more of them.




Excerpt of “An Episode…”


The German landscape painter Rugendas and his companion colleague Krause sit on the banks of the river near El Tambo in Argentina after a morning spent sketching scenes of melees from an Indian raid. They are considering these sketches, their value, their part to play in “a very minor episode in the ongoing clash of civilizations”.

“Imagine a brilliant police detective summarizing his investigations for the husband of the victim, the widower. Thanks to his subtle deductions he has been able to “reconstruct” how the murder was committed; he does not know the identity of the murderer, but he has managed to work out everything else with an almost magical precision, as if he had seen it happen. And his interlocutor, the widowers, who is, in fact, the murderer, has to admit that the detective is a genius, because it really did happen exactly as he says; yet at the same time, although of course he actually saw it happen and is the only living eyewitness as well as the culprit, he cannot match what happened with that the policeman is telling him, not because there are errors, large or small, in the account, or details out of place, but because the match is inconceivable, there is such an abyss between one story and the other, or between a story and the lack of a story, between the lived experience and the reconstruction (even when the reconstruction has been executed to perfection) that widower simply cannot see a relation between them; which leads him to conclude that he is innocent, that he did not kill his wife.”

-Cesar Aira, “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter” p74




Notes from “The Humboldt Current” by Aaron Sachs


“At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable…We need to witness our own limits transgressed.”  – Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)


As Paul Zweig noted in a study of adventure myths, stories ‘beckon us out of the visible, providing alternative lives, modes of possibility. Merely listening to a story — ‘losing oneself’ in it — creates a vision of other spaces and times.’ And stories can be binding forces. Because the explorer comes back to tell his tale, ‘his escape from society is a profoundly socializing act.’


‘How intensely,’ John Muir wrote in an 1865 letter, ‘I desire to be a Humboldt!’


Humboldt seems to have been living up to the twelfth century ideal of Hugh of St. Victor: ‘The man who finds his country sweet is only a raw beginner; the man for whom each country is as his own is already strong; but only the man for whom the whole world is as a foreign country is perfect.’


Radical romanticism


“whole-souled exercise” -attr. John Muir


“TO ALL THE WORLD!…the earth is hollow, and habitable within;…and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees…I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking…I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea; I engage we find warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.” – from a handbill by John Cleves Symmes Jr. of Ohio, retired captain of infantry in the War of 1812


The richness of your life, Humboldt asserts, depends on what you’re able to see. (ref. Personal Narrative)


the torrid zone


“If…nature (understanding by the term all natural objects and phenomena) be illimitable in extent and contents, it likewise presents itself to the human intellect as a problem which cannot be grasped, and whose solution is impossible.” -AVH


“a horizon that endlessly retreats” -AVH


travelers who embraced disorientation


Edgar Allen Poe on the cosmological argument of his prose poem, Eureka: “In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.”


Humboldt’s attitude toward science [as illimitable]…matched Poe’s attitude toward art, which he described, in “The Poetic Principle,” as “the desire of the moth for the star”.


“If one loves to gather the material for traveler’s stories, he may find here and there a hollow fallen trunk through whose heart he may ride for many feet without bowing the head. But if he love the tree for its grand own nature, he may lie in silence upon the soft forest floor, in shadow or sunny warmth, if he please, and spend many days in wonder.” – Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872)


The great question…: would the frontier be free?


The American West was “one prodigious graveyard.” -attr. Mark Twain


[Of geologist Clarence King’s antislavery stance:] From early childhood, he had been deeply influenced by his grandmother, Sophia Little, who, he later explained, “ate no sugar but free-soil maple and refused Southern oranges, as they were to her mind ‘full of the blood of slaves’.”


[Clarence King, in a letter re: his pacifism:]

“God knows that for my country I would ‘push a bayonet’ and that I would not quail before death for my land, but the act would crucify in me many of my noblest impulses. It is like tearing my soul in sunder.”

[ed. side note: Clarence King was a seriously interesting man. Besides ending up in Manhattan’s Bloomingdale Asylum in 1983, here is a bit about his marriage:

From his Wikipedia bio: King spent his last thirteen years leading a double life. In 1887 or 1888, he met and fell in love with Ada Copeland, an African-American nursemaid (and former slave) from Georgia, who had moved to New York City in the mid-1880s. As miscegenation was strongly discouraged in the nineteenth century (and illegal in many places), King hid his identity from Copeland. Despite his blue eyes and fair complexion, King convinced Copeland that he was an African-American Pullman porter named James Todd. The two fell in love and entered into a common law marriage in 1888. Throughout the marriage, King never revealed his true identity to Ada, pretending to be Todd, a black railroad worker, when at home, and continuing to work as King, a white geologist, when in the field. Their union produced five children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Their two daughters married white men; their two sons served classified as blacks during World War I.[8] King finally revealed his true identity to Copeland in a letter he wrote to her while on his deathbed in Arizona.[9]



[Of Clarence King meeting John Ruskin, professional art critic and author of the five-volume work, Modern Painters:]

At times, Ruskin seemed to King too obsessed with the anthropocentric view, too scornful of plain, wild American scenery, which, the Englishman [Ruskin] once commented “cannot acquire picturesque significance, or rightfully claim to excite human sympathies, till man has consecrated it.”

‘The varying hues which mood and emotion forever pass before his own mental vision mask with their illusive mystery the simple realities of nature, until mountains and their bold, natural facts are lost behind the cloudy poetry of the writer. Ruskin helps us to know himself, not the Alps.’ – C. King


“Cold calculating gainers form a large part of my acquaintances” – C. King, in a letter to Jim Gardiner, 1860


“Shut in by great monotonous slopes and innumerable spurs, each the exact fac-similie of the other; with no distance, no faintest suggestion of a snow-peak, only a lofty chaparral ridge sweeping around, cutting off all eastern lookout; with a few disordered boulders tumbled pell-mell in the bed of a feeble brooklet of bitter water, –it seemed to me the place of places for a fossil…” -C. King, on finding an elusive fossil which would provide information on the geologic history of the Gold Rush lodes


“The scientific conscience is an abyss.” -Nietzsche


“The purely scientific brain is miserably mechanical; it seems to have become a splendid sort of self-directed machine, an incredible automaton, grinding on with its analyses and constructions.” -C. King


“The earliest geological induction of primeval man is the doctrine of terrestrial catastrophe. This ancient belief has its roots in the actual experience of man, who himself has been witness of certain terrible and destructive exhibitions of sudden, unusual, telluric energy…Catastrophism is therefore the survival of a terrible impression burned in upon the very substance of human memory.” -C. King, “Catastrophism and the Evolution of Environment” (1877)


Mountain of the Holy Cross, CO. Photographer Wm. Henry Jackson altered the right stem of the cross in the film negative so that it would look more like a proper cross.



















Review: Marilynne Robinson’s “When I Was a Child I Read Books”


I’ve been re-reading a book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson, the novelist of Home and Gilead and professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It’s an informative collection which covers a range of topics relevant to American society – how we think about our country today (the book was published in 2012 as a reaction of sorts to the financial downturn and the shifts in public policy ideology it ‘necessitated’), the spiritual history of the United States (Robinson is a modern liberal Christian and a scholar of the subject), the vanguard of New Atheism, and most notably, a close examination of the ideology of austerity pervading our public universities.

Robinson has clear opinions to assert, and she does so with grace, fluidity, research and with an eye for the wider lens. Her particular method of persuasion invites us to consider other modes of ‘American’ perception before hardening into one kind of savage believer or another.

And how do we reckon ownership? Who owns [the public university]? The generations who first broke ground for them? Who saw them through wars and depressions, when the wealth of this present generation would still have been unimaginable? My university is more than 150 years old. It was built on generosity and good faith. Why should all these hundreds of little farm towns sustain such a thing? They have sustained it heroically. Who should own its resources and its reputation? They are very valuable, so there is money to be squeezed out, certainly. There are corporations ready to rent it or buy it piecemeal. It is as if the very idea of a people, a historical community, has died intestate, and all its wealth is left to plunder.

Her essay, “Who Was Oberlin?” describes the social liberality of the Second Great Awakening, a Baptist and Methodist evangelical movement originating in upstate New York around 1790 and lasting decades in the Midwest. This was a movement which saw the rise of the Protestant pastor as grassroots community organizer, which led to substantial reform movements for education, prison conditions and care for the disabled and mentally ill, and which led to the founding of abolitionist, women-supportive liberal arts colleges like Oberlin, Grinnell, and Knox. Charles Finney, a leader of the 2nd Great Awakening, preached people into a tizzy of the possibility of a true liberation from original sin through repentance, that personal holiness was attainable in this lifetime. In these pastors’ minds, not only was the perfection of society possible, it would be inclusive.

Think about Christian evangelism today. How does one reckon Finney’s wild-eyed, open-armed progressive leadership alongside that of his contemporary counterparts, whose political ideologies formed the Tea Party caucus? In some corner of my imagination, a single charismatic character emerges, but this character’s values  and approach have clearly mutated.

Robinson is also an accomplished Biblical scholar. As a secular-spiritual person (ah, so much of life lived in that dash) who really only went to Church because her mom told her to, I was fascinated by her essay on Calvinism and the notion of charity in American spiritual history, titled “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism”.  It begins with a complicated quote from George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher and essayist in 1911:

America is a young country with an old mentality: it has enjoyed the advantages of a child carefully brought up and thoroughly indoctrinated; it has been a wise child. But a wise child, an old head on young shoulders, always has a comic and unpromising side. The wisdom is a little thin and verbal, not aware of its full meaning and ground; and physical and emotional growth may be stunted by it, or even deranged.

Santayana says that the “old head” is Calvinism, a Old Testament-based form of Christianity (Santayana called it “an expression of the agonized conscience”) often described as zealous and strict, which American writers quite plainly turned away from for the more imaginative and beautiful idea found in the New Testament, the Gospel of Grace. Robinson questions this polemical association of the harsh, foreign Old Testament and the gracious, charitable New Testament formulated by American religious scholars. The aloof, alien Old Testament God-construct of modern dialectic reduces the liberalism of the Old Testament, she argues, and in fact, Calvinism defended “an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity”.

She nerds out on Bible translation here too, tracking how words like “charity” and “generosity” changed in various versions of the Bible, and how different preachers from Calvin to Winthrop used these words deliberately, thus altering the political conception of what congregations of individuals should be doing to help those in great need: does one literally give them the coat off one’s back, or all the money in one’s pocket since they need it? Or is praying broadly for the improvement of their well-being considered ‘loving’ them? When it comes to governance, should conscientious Americans push for a welfare state or “safety net”, or do we trust in the “thousand points of light” charitable institution model to do the work of taking care of our nation’s poorest?

Robinson works the idiom and language well. She has thought deeply about the United States and where we come from – intending not to glorify the past, but to take on the more difficult work of understanding how we discuss and use the past to make arguments. Sure, she wants you to support robust funding for public universities, but readers can tell that this advocacy comes not from any self-interest, but in genuine recognition of the work that went into those schools, reminding us that they were built on the backs of previous generations who believed it deserved priority. To liberals who ask, how did we get here? — these essays may help.

I’ll leave with the prescient, persisting quote that opens the book’s Preface, from Walt Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas” (1870):

America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-overarching American Ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.