Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Posts are made by tools like me

There are hikes you can take in New England--and I take far too few of them--where you can climb one of the many rolling hills and low peaks and bare granite crags of the ancient glacially-scrubbed foothills and look out over expanses of foliage only modestly interrupted by the intrusions of civilization. In October, this stretches out in red and yellow and matte evergreen, and there's no better time of the year to breathe: woodsmoke wafts from some distant chimney, the fallen leaves rustle up healthy earth scents not yet given over to chill or rank decay. It's strange that the season of dying can be so life-affirming, but so it goes. We value the moments most as the last of them tick so rapidly away. Autumn is the nostalgic time of year. The soft-focus light is less a function of the angle, after all, but a function of the leaves, with the chlorophyll dropping its job of corralling the yellows (as well of the blues), the deep green shade of summer is lost, and the skeletal gray shadows of winter are staved off for another couple weeks. The color of autumn is sepia.
well, yellow anyway
The beauty of trees is a function of the elevation of the observer. Get a high enough view, a couple thousand feet up one of the taller local peaks maybe, or even out the window as you glide in towards Logan Airport, and the tree cover brings out a sense of rural serenity. It covers up the byways and the front yards, and from above, suburbia could be mistaken for a forest, cut through (depending on your view) with the occasional well-groomed highway or parking expanse, with rooftops and fields emerging tastefully from the canopy here and there. It's a different impression from treetop level. If you're on one of those lower outcrops, or if the roadway swerves into one of those scenic overlooks where the landscape stretches out in front of you, you can see the trees blanket the geography like a bumpy ocean of polyps, an endless tray of bloated past-due fruit that can be grabbed and crushed in your fist in pustulent bursts. At this time of year, these sudden vistas are the seasonal glamor shots, and they're nice for their color and expanse, but it's not my favorite perspective. It reminds me too much of a mold colony viewed under a microscope. It reminds me that there's nothing special about the shape and the color of the things, just another example of a million self-similar natural structures, unique only because they're slightly bigger than people and most of the stuff we build. I like the trees best when viewed from below, filtering down yellow light. The walk up is the best view of the hill, as the as the branches loom and sway over you in majestic expanse, and you trudge leaf-blown paths and trip over gnarled old roots.

The forests aren't very old in New England, maybe a hundred years, most of 'em. That's enough to grow some species of trees for a solid lifespan or two, but it's still hard to go hiking and find anything like old growth. They're not the same forests that once teemed with chestnut and elm, that the pre-industrial white settlers thoroughly hacked down to clear farms and heat a couple centuries worth of homes. Nor are they the same woods that the Algonquin speakers still had to respect. People have been part of this nook of the biosphere for at least 30,000 years, and the warm chapter in the climatological novel has been developing over more or less the same time, and different plant species thrive or die under different conditions. The forests were in flux enough without chainsaws and imported Asian fungi, but probably at nothing like this rate.
You don't see too many elder trees around in the woods, no trunks that have grown stabilizing feet at their base, no wind-tortured branches, no rotted-out boles for ghosts to hide in. The remaining ancient members are all loners, allowed to survive near the earlier homes and churches, as docile and as assimilated as old house servants, watching, twisted and benevolent, over people's front yards, scarred into submission with decades of grooming.

The biggest malpractice of tree surgery is along roadsides, to accommodate power lines. We're so used to seeing telephone poles, but they're nasty, ugly things, and to me, they look like relics out of 19th century urban photographs. Along some roadsides, they're noticable for their absence, and it's comforting to me when the hardwoods get the opportunity to stretch their arms over the pavement and meet hands in the middle. It adds drama when these arboreal tunnels are allowed to open up, and then swallow the traveler again. There's mystery around every corner.
no powerlines
It's tempting to universalize the experience of the New England autumns, disregarding untold generations of people feeling out their souls in every niche of climatic and civilizational diversity. No doubt they feel their own seasonal quickenings. But the fall makes me happy to live here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Review of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Prior to cracking Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I'd never read Hunter S. Thompson, which no doubt gets me behind on the mythology. What can I say? In some ways I've lived a sheltered life. But don't think of me as an ignorant naif, instead think of me as that great legal fantasy of an impartial juror, a man who, but for the surprising exception of the famous case at hand, is relatively well-informed. Well, another disclosure: maybe not that well-informed. But you know what I mean.

Fear and Loathing is a binge through sin city, following Thompson (as Raoul Duke) as he, with his attorney (one Dr. Gonzo) in tow, ostensibly reports on the fabulous Mint 400 motorcycle race and a DA's conference on the threat of illegal drugs. Pursuits, as the subtitle goes, of the American dream? Well maybe, but more on that in a moment or two. First, an objective reviewer such as myself must address the drug theme, which is what inflates maybe a dozen pages of journalism and commentary to something novel length. Now, I don't have much of a purchase point with such high-level debauchery--at no moment do Duke and Gonzo escape the influence of substances swallowed or inhaled, and maintaining that state requires some industry on both their parts--but I've spent enough irresponsible time with (mostly) legal drugs to appreciate the motif. It's not quite a comedy, but it's got some good comic timing, centered about the recklessness and the shrewd insanity of a drunk. I got some quality laughs out of the characters' carefully debated illogic, and the shoestring confidence games they had to wield to get out of those same scrapes they got themselves into in the first place. The alarming acid hallucinations fit in well enough as metaphor, or as grounding, but I'm still square enough to have been horrified at the random experimentation, ingestion of industrial chemicals, and some of the physical effects of their extreme dilettantism.

That comic voice does have a familiar tone, and I'm not sure if it's borrowed from film, or from a thousand next-day accounts of foolish escapades (or, for that matter, from however many of Thompson's intellectual heirs). He conducts that timeless brilliance of "acting nonchalant" as the world goes to hell around you like a maestro, and he's mastered the classic art of puncturing assumed dignity with irreverence. He sets a considered pause here to frame a gag, he's got the contrasts of outward calm against the thoroughly absurd or of drug-addled mania over the bland and mundane. The language on the whole is witty and apposite, and it utilized mock-seriousness very well. Our heroes sincerely throw around words like "vile," "swine," and "maniac," which are funny on their own, and on a higher level, the sober truths (and ironies) of them are carefully considered, even as they pertain to their own unsober selves. (Their petty criminalities against The Man are funny by similar measures, especially in that town, but one or two innocents may have been abused. This was much less so.)

But Fear and Loathing is not just for the jokes, and there are sober truths behind it, that need to lie behind to keep the book from achieving anything more than a blivot of props and gimmicks. I would have preferred a firmer bedrock of substance: there were ten pages of hijinks for every three-paragraph insight. I'll admit there are some fine juxtaposition and contrasts, but maybe there's too many left to the reader to decipher. Vegas is portrayed as your standard-issue den of iniquity, but the point's made that it's an ugly conservative version of sin, a real cop's-night-out sort of lawlessness: implicitly violent, outright objectifying, and personally destructive in an orderly and artificial sort of way, from which the real (and presumably less harmful) weirdos are exiled. You might call it an affirmation of genuine feakiness, although I didn't come out approving of Gonzo and Duke's lifestyle either, and these two carefully refute the drug-fueled idealism of the previous decade's youth movements as well. "The American dream," when they find it, is burnt out and irrelevant to any personal quest either Horatio Alger or Timothy Leary may have proposed, just a dangerous journey with not much at the end of it. You might say it takes lunacy to show the lunacy.

As a final note, I found the lamented demise of 60s idealism a bit tired in 2008--the boomers have reinvented their generation half a dozen times by now--but I expect it was potent in 1971. I have no reason to believe, however, that Thompson himself ever gave up his integrity. Before I finished writing this, I came across his 1994 eulogy of Nixon, now the second piece of his I've read, and I recommend it. It's brilliant without all the drug gimmicks.