Ilse (age 14) and I were in London and she wanted to go on a bus tour. It was not something I ever would have done because I hated being visibly marked as a tourist. (I’m less self-conscious now than I was then.) She was grumpy about everything, as only a fourteen year old can be. Finally, I agreed to the bus tour. It was a grey day but as we emerged onto the top deck the sun came out and Ilse’s face lit up: “It’s so beautiful!” she exclaimed, over and over, as we drove past the sites of London. Later, she drew this picture of us on the bus tour.
Sometimes I just use this blog as a notebook or commonplace book to save things I want to think about. This Interview article, “Amending American History with Titus Kaphar” by Eloise Blondiau (Dec. 2016) is one. In one example of his work (screenshot above), the artist Titus Kaphar copied a painting of the founder of Yale and friends with a small black slave in the background, then crumpled the copy except for the face of the child which he put in an ornate gold frame. As the author of the article says, “His paintings and sculptures continually interrogate how narratives of American history either forget black people or malign them.” And, as the artist himself says, “My point is that it’s not so different now. I’m not saying that things aren’t better. Thank God they’re definitely better, but some things are still the same. “Better” is not good enough—it’s not. Especially when “better” still means my life is at risk.”
A lot about storytelling here and the idea that each time something is represented or its story told, it changes a little. What kind of changes can we make consciously that enable us to have new insight of present or past events?
The sign at Gibbet Hill says it may be “the oldest place on Earth you have ever been.” The rocks there are 550 million years old, 100 million years older than the Appalachian Mountains, and over 400 million years older than the Rockies. I stood there today, looking out over the city of St. John’s, enjoying the sunshine before the storm. When I got home again, I read this line in “Beyond the Black Ditch,” by David Frankel in The Journal of Wild Culture: “[His father] loved the bones of places like Skye: the bare stone projecting through the skin of the world, showing its age…” That exactly describes how it feels here where I live. It’s also a place where the bare stone projects through the skin of the world, showing its age.*
David also says, “I’m interested in places where things seem to converge: layers of history, topography and architecture. For me, Rubha an Dùnain also has a sense of convergence with my father’s life.” That’s exactly it, isn’t it? It’s the palimpsest, those layers and layers of meaning, personal, historical, geographical, geological, that make me want to read on. He interweaves those layers so deftly in this essay, in photo and in text, it leaves me feeling I’ve walked there with him, and with his father, and with those long ago inhabitants in their stone and turf blackhouses before they left for Nova Scotia.
I did walk there once, with my friend, Johanne Kérouac, visiting the homes of our ancestors, hers in Brittany and mine in Scotland. I’m not sure if we went to Rubha an Dùnain or not but we walked and hitchhiked around a lot of Skye and David Frankel’s essay brought it back and made it richer.
* It turns out that the rocks of Gibbet Hill are probably not the oldest I’ve ever seen. The oldest rocks on Skye were formed about 2,800 million years ago.
Johanne washing her hair somewhere on Skye in 1978.
I’ve been spending this first evening of the new year reading nature essays by the light of the Christmas tree as a blizzard brews outside. In the comments on “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” by Brian Doyle, in Orion Magazine, someone wrote, “Who made the b/w photographic image at the head of your column? When you wrote ‘image’ I thought you were referring to this epigraphic view, which is lovely but not forceful enough to do what your written image purported to accomplish.” I’m interested in the relationship between pictures and text and I thought the image did work. It’s true it’s restrained, not forceful, but the author does state in his definition of a great nature essay that “there’s no shouting, no persuasion, no eloquent pirouetting… no call to arms… [just] a feeling eerily like a warm hand brushed against your cheek, and you sit there, near tears, smiling, and then you stand up. Changed.” I looked up the photographer, Lucy Goodhart, and I think that describes her whole oeuvre, especially her Solstice Fire series. Lucy herself says that her “objectives lie strongly in the desire to capture the unseen, the overlooked and the fundamentally forgotten.” Have a look!