The starlings love corn. Humans walk along the ridge line and trample ancient mosses, before coming down and eating corn.
Friends, it’s a happy day. Today, just over 35 months since I began with an image of the grassland (6 hits that day), and a gut feeling that a blog might prove a useful writing process, and 47 months since I had a vision of a new way of living on the earth, I have a manuscript. It’s about this land I love and all its stories and surprising histories, and it’s about the salmon coming home and my coming home with them and getting down to the real work, of remaking the land. I’ll finish it up in the next few days. I have a surprise, too: a second manuscript, which I thought was just going to be a short blog post today. I thought it was going to lead into another three years of writing. To my delight, it is largely written, scattered (and I mean scattered) throughout the posts on this blog. It’s rough, and stretched to encyclopaedic length with photographs, but I can feel its body scattered in space around me. It’s not far off. So, on this 800th post, on this journey of discovery from the Fraser River to the sea, from the Okanagan Valley to the Columbia Plateau, from Palouse Falls to the John Day River and East Iceland to the Mosel, the Rhine and the Rhone, deep into East Germany and back again, following the thread of a story like a salmon following a thread of scent up its birth river, in a sea of over 17,000 images (and another 200,000 in reserve) and about a half million words, it’s with excitement that I can show you a bit of my desktop today while the canning pot burbles on the stove and the scent of peaches fills the house:
Harold at Work
Julia Aleynikova is a young poet from the north east Ural mountains, who gave me six sunflower to plant while she went to Minsk for the summer. Her poem “Lady Fallen to Earth” is one of the finalist’s for this year’s CBC Poetry Prize. On the day the finalist list was announced (Monday), this American Goldfinch visited her flowers, that watched over my wildflower garden and greeted visitors for the summer.
I am saving seeds from one of the heads. If you would like a seed from Julia’s sunflower, let me know. I’m hoping you might plant it, to pass Julia’s gift along, but, hey, if you’re small enough and have the right beak they’ll make a meal.
The marriage bed.
Go away for 3 weeks and the neighbours move in, with each other on their mind. Madam came first.
Yeah, she didn’t pose very well, but there was all this, um, mosquito netting in the way of my lens, so I did what I could. Notice how she has learned to blend in with the black “Tuck Tape” background, to stay out of my way. She’s grown about 30% since I came back home. The gentleman arrived 2 weeks later …
He’s about 25% of her size. The black sheets don’t help him. He is, as you can see, going for red, the colour of love. It’s a slow dance. Well, that’s what’s going around here with the black widows. How’s the action at your place?
You can see why Adam just had to bite.
Transparents, Second Picking (in my milk pail)
The greatest contribution of Russia to world civilization. The name comes from the transparent skin, if you peel it as finely as you can with a sharp knife.
The things are sour, though. Great for pies and applesauce and juice but for fresh eating, well, Adam, my boy, they’ll make the eyes bug out of your head. When the Okanagan had a fruit processing industry, there was a demand for these beauties. Now, you’re lucky if you find a tree anywhere, and that’s a crying shame, because I can imagine a few hundred acres planted in transparents, with juice and sauce and pies to put all others to shame. Instead, we have fast food service jobs. Can you imagine a civilization [sic] in which flinging burgers in an industrial kitchen smelling of fry grease is preferable to celebrating one of the delights of life on earth? Talk about poverty. Tonight in this house, we had apple crisp with the last five of these, just in time for the first peaches. Apples before peaches. Adam, you should have waited, man (but I’m glad you didn’t.)
In November, the poet Howard Brown and I are giving a show about tractors. He has the long poem. I have gallery walls. Somehow we’ll make this work. We’ve been taking photos. It has been haunting. Two farm boys at the end of the world of farming, suddenly seeing what we just saw before as work. Here’s Howard, deep in thought and memory.So many guys out there, trying to find the shape of their bodies in time. There are no words for it… except for Howard’s maybe. Got any tractor stories? Any tractor photos? Send them along! Look at this old John Deere go, right in traffic!
Amazing. Machines built on a human scale, as if they were tools. They were. Like I said, amazing.
Yesterday I spoke about the social nature of the scientific systems of both Darwin and Goethe and how their examples gave us the freedom to choose new paths of science to match our contemporary needs for healing a rather broken earth. These two great scientists both lived a long time ago. The nature of structured inquiry into the relationship between humans and the earth didn’t stop with them, no matter how profound their contributions were. So, I think it only fair to dip into newer worlds as well. Today, Einstein (the theory of relativity) and Heisenberg (the uncertainty principle).
Einstein, Who Said “God Doesn’t Play Dice”
The strain of trying to make opposites cohere shows, doesn’t it.
Einstein added the concept of relativity to a system of absolute science, or science that claimed to have found laws that did not change with circumstance. He presented the mathematics that encapsulated the idea that notions of time and space are not absolute but are related to the particular circumstances of an observer (or an observing mode of enquiry). That’s a very jewish observation. It comes from a jewish sense of relational ethics, such as both Abraham and Job, not to mention Abraham’s nearly sacrificed son Isaac, learned to their consternation in the Old Testament.
The Erfurt Synagogue
One of the few ancient houses of jewish worship surviving in Germany — a place in which a man could be both a German and not a German at the same time, and it wouldn’t be clear which was at play at any given time until circumstances unfolded themselves. Would one be a jew? Or would one be a German? Only the observer (or the circumstances) could determine it.
This observation puts Einstein’s science closer to Goethe’s than to Darwin’s, in that both Goethe and Einstein were concerned about the observer’s impressions, while Darwin was concerned with a system that an observer could deduce and then apply to make sense of the world. The two concepts are mirror images of each other. And that was Einstein’s problem. He tried to merge his conception of relative time and space and Heisenberg’s conception that matter is not in a determined state until it is observed, even if there is no observer but only a collision with concepts of solidity, with a humanly observable physical world. From the distance of 2014, the two concepts appear pretty much the same, but the attempt to bring them together proved really frustrating for Einstein. It’s kind of a problem that Goethe foresaw, though, although rather poetically. (But why not. He was a poet, too.) Here is the natural formation that enchanted Goethe most of all, a gingko leaf:
The plant that has both male and female genders in different individuals, and which puts out single leaves that are made out of two conjoined parts… Goethe drew inspiration from this model. It spoke to him of an elementary nature in the earth: bisexual relationships.
Well, that’s Goethe speaking as a poet, but perhaps, all the romantic glory of finding a mathematical formula to join the two concepts aside, that’s all one needs: a poet’s practicality. For an understanding of the nature of matter on earth, it matters not a whit whether it is reduced to a mathematical formula or apprehended instantly through poetry. What matters is the deepening of the human-earth relationship through intellectual activity, and that can take place in poetry as much as it can in science. Perhaps that’s the next step in the ladder from Goethe to Einstein to Heisenberg to Today: human systems of consciousness that can merge the human with the earth.
Gnomes in Berlin.
Sometimes these ideas work out in very physical ways. It could be that the evidence of the path that lies open to us is right before us, and to find it all we need to do is read the earth and human social space with the same relativistic tools that Einstein and Heidegger applied to mathematical conceptions. Here, for instance, is the 1960s version of an attempt to reconcile Heisenberg’s science with a practical, industrial worldview from the 1890s, and it is ascendant again:
The former synagogue of this ancient pilgrimage city was levelled in the Third Reich, and planted thereafter with flowers, as a space for all people and a kind of permanent grave memorial. It is currently in use by drug dealers, cutting deals on burner cell phones.
Not the way to heal human relationships with the earth! Just around the corner, there is more physical manifestation of these scientific principles, again very much from a previous generation:
Former Jewish Businessman’s Town House, Fulda
Offices now, whereas once it spoke of a marriage between the sacred and the profane.
Still not good enough! One way to move forward is to honour the earth by speaking for her. I can easily do the Goethean thing, and bring the next step in this science forward in imagery. This, for example, is the earth speaking.
You will notice that she speaks in neither language nor mathematics, yet mathematics and language are the tools that we have, given to us by our ancestors. It has long been considered the role of artists to find new tools. It is the role of scientists as well. I think it would happen very quickly as soon as the skill sets of poetry were brought back into science and a new Enlightenment, a new mode of knowing were created now, rather than out of the material of the 18th century. That would take courage. We have nothing to lose but our selves, and everything to gain, including new selves. If you want a map of current cities (current maps of the human body, in other words), look no further than this:
Mariposa Lily, Okanagan Valley (Vernon)
This is urban space. If you don’t see urban space here, look again. And again, until you do.
Currently, human explorations are going towards creating machine selves for humans, rather than addressing human-earth relationships. That is romantic laziness and nothing but Frankensteins will come of it. Let me be clear:
What’s the difference? This urban space in Emmendingen, Germany is a post-biological human. Machine humans are going to be no different.
Granted, something needs to be done.
The humans seem so frail in this monstrous human body (city) they have built. Android phone identities for humans are no better. All human creations are projections of social circumstances.
Humans have the ability to humanize nearly anything, but it takes real vision and courage to set that aside and earth-ize humans, to put the earth in our social group, yet that’s exactly what we have to do, and you know what? We’ll make it human, and we will be transformed. What I’m advocating here is hard science and clear, intellectual vision, not romantic nonsense like this:
“Castle Kitchen”, Castle Frankenstein, Darmstadt, Germany
Annual home of an American Hallowe’en party. It was reconstructed BADLY in the 19th century. No castle ever looked like this.
We can be human or Frankensteins. If we choose Frankensteins, we won’t be human. And that’s the problem with Einstein. He chose to be human, but by wrestling with non-relative science without the benefit of poetry, he had to continually fight for it by an act of his will alone. It should be easier and more physically gracious than that.
Gingko Leaves, Vernon
Notice how the divisions Goethe loved have almost healed.
I’d like to talk ethics today, with East Germany in view, though, because it was a society that allowed an alternate vision, not only of what might have been possible (good and bad), but into what we were all like back before the Wall came down in 1989. For instance, out of a sense of common land, through a convoluted and violent process, East Germany adopted a communist mode of government after the Second World War. The choice resulted, among other things, in the infamous Plattenbau (prefabricated) apartment buildings of the Soviet block. They were infamous because they were done on the cheap, had no balconies and had common public space that the residents had to landscape with their own sweat, and out of their own organizational abilities. What happened to that positive energy after reunification with the West? Balconies were added to the apartments, as you can see below in Riesa, Germany, and, in some cases, North American style adventure playgrounds were added for the kids. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but look at the alternatives: a communal ping pong table … … and communal laundry facilities… You can bet the piping was diverted from a state-sanctioned infrastructure project, because someone’s wife was in tears. And why was she in tears? Ah, imagine. You only got a nice modern apartment like this if you were married, so you did that the instant you got out of high school, and the next day the poor girl has to do laundry, but the social code of the laundry is controlled by the building communist block warden, and the girl hasn’t earned the space to hang up her new husband’s shirts, so, chances are, they wind up in the mud, and then the tears, see? It’s not as simple as it might look, though. In 1989, upon unification with the West, East Germany had the most progressive system of women’s rights and support for mothers and children in the world. The feminist movements of the West, including the Okanagan, are deeply in debt to 18-year-old East German women dealing with blocks wardens from Hell. The Western perception that East German communism was repressive misses the vital detail (among others) that the West, too, is built upon East German communism. The repression, in other words, is just good old fashioned human oppression and exploitation, following whatever patterns it can find and take advantage of. It’s what humans, a top predator, do. In my valley in Canada, that can look like this: A boat, a Sea-doo, a boat pulling a kid in a tube, a kayaker, a guy swimming (good luck, Dude), and another boat, all in a tiny space. This use of a post-glacial lake and a local drinking water source is surely as insane, and as liberating, as the East German Plattenbau experience, and likely a lot more destructive of the environment and human relationships with it. Sometimes, this exploitation looks like this: The valley is famed for wine, or tells itself it is. Here is a bottle of cheap industrial chardonnay vented by a large Eastern Canadian winery that moved into the young Okanagan wine industry a couple decades back and transformed it from a farm-based industry, based on the work of farmers with the land, to a form of investment that created sales by marketing savvy alone. This bottle of wine, half-consumed at the site of a failed winery building in Vernon, suggests that someone came for the view, with a bottle of wine, and couldn’t stand to finish the damn thing. The most sensitive grassland in the North Okanagan was sacrificed to build this vineyard to help sell houses. The class of people who would do such a thing is, I believe, exactly the class of people who waylaid Luther on The Road, after he was excommunicated in the ancient Roman-German city of Worms, and walked out expecting to be killed that night by bandits, as an outlaw. It was not safe for anyone to be on The Road at night. Instead, Luther was abducted by a prince, who kept him under house arrest, feeding him bread and water until he agreed to translate the Bible into German. The translated Bible was then used to dismantle the Catholic Church in the North of Europe, in Luther’s name but against his wishes. The class of people who did that is precisely the class of people who transformed the young romantic poet Goethe into a symbol of Germany itself, and used him to create a state quite the opposite of the one he would have wished to see. The class of people who did that is precisely the class of people who reduced local Indian reserves by a factor of 90% upon annexation of British Columbia into Canada in 1871. This is not a new story. Within it, however, there have been few people who have shown us an alternate way, who have had the ethical courage to point out alternatives. Goethe was one. Without alternatives, there is only the illusion of choice.
I’ve been trying to say something useful about Goethe this week, which is a tough thing to do with a writer who was used for nationalist purposes ever since his youth in pre-Napoleonic Germany. When my father left Germany in 1952, his father gave him the collected works of Goethe as a portable homeland, so he would remember who he was. He gave it to a young German woman he met on the boat across the Atlantic, as he didn’t want anything more to do with all that. She gave it back to him forty years later — seemingly, still unread. Within 24 hours, he gave it to me. He didn’t want it. I put it on a shelf. Maybe I’d read it someday, I thought.
Goethe’s Forest Hut, Ilmenau
One of the major tourist shrines of the romantic age, right up there with Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Burg Frankenstein and the Castle of Chillon.
For most of my life, I thought little of Goethe. There were translations of his poetry, of course, but they were silly romantic things that he wrote in Strasbourg, which were translated by ultra-conservative American poets in the 1970s: oddities, more than anything. But then I went on The Road in 2008. The Road? It’s best you saw for yourself. I’m not talking Kerouac here. Let me show you a section of the road outside of Marienstern Cloister in Saxony. When the Road was first constructed (grew up out of a donkey path, is more like it), it was the only thing of its kind, so it was just called “Die Strasse”, or the road. It stretched from Santiago de Compostela to Minsk.
The trees are to give shade to foot travellers, and to give fruit at the same time. You could increase the efficiency of communication several fold by this simple ruse.
As it passed through Germany, The Road was also known as The King’s Way, the via regia in Latin. In one sense, the term refers to “the road that the king maintains for the sake of communication, war and economy (mostly the latter,)” but it also means “the right of the king to cross country at his own will,” and “the king’s right to increase the productivity of his kingdom (his self) through artful intervention”. What the road crossed was something ancient, from which the king’s right to rule was derived: the German forest. Here’s a little glimpse of it:
The German Forest from the Window of Goethe’s Forest Hut
Goethe had a habit of deriving inspiration by plunking himself in the middle of physical space. We might refer to this as “a nice view from a writer’s retreat,” but if we do we might remember that Goethe invented the idea, and he did so for something other than individual purposes.
The idea of The King’s Way and the right of kings comes from the old aristocratic world. The term “aristocratic” is much maligned these days, largely because of abuses which the Enlightenment sought to correct with revolution and the championing of important notions of human liberty and universal human rights and dignity. Those are important things. In Germany, though, one of the major Enlightenment figures was Goethe. He did not believe in revolution. He believed in translation. He saw the aristocratic world fading away. He worshipped Napoleon for a time, but he also witnessed the Rape of Weimar in 1806 after the defeat of the Prussians above Jena. He sought a better way. What actually happened was this:
The Wind Knoll, Napoleon’s Battlefield in Cospeda, above Jena
The pillar is said to be the point at which Napoleon directed the battle (it isn’t.) The bench is for admiring the view. The tracks are because for nearly fifty years the Russian Army used this site as a tank practice ground, reenacting Napoleon’s battle to hone their mechanized warfare tactics.
Goethe was one of the few men in history to receive an education exceeding that of princes, with the express goal of running a princedom for a prince (or, in his case a duchy for a duke.) At the same time, he was an early romantic writer, whose work was seized upon by early German nationalists as proof of an individual German spirit that could justify the formation of a German state and in the absence of any German identity form one around itself. The idea was to prevent the adventures of any future Napoleons. This abuse was murder on Goethe’s writing and on his soul (his great play Faust, about a Doctor of Philosophy who makes a pact with the devil to receive all the knowledge in the world in exchange for his soul), but the tension between Goethe’s life as one of the last courtiers, as one of the first modern men, and as the cynically-applied cipher for the country of Germany itself (a fate he shared with Luther, but that’s a different story) led him to try to resolve the tensions in a form of science that carried the old aristocratic world forward into the technological present. One of the ways in which he did this was this:
And some fine East German Communist re-purposed water line bridge work, too.
From an aristocratic perspective, Secretary of State Goethe has a perk, a kind of country estate in a park he constructed out of a collection of water meadows on the Ilm River. From a modern perspective, though, Goethe installed himself within the park as an embodiment of the spirit of the state, right in the middle of a refined version of this:
The View from Goethe’s Forest Hut above Ilmenau
Time is not clockwork in this world view, and space is not measured by civic plans. Rather, civic plans are measured by their relationship to space. Welcome to Goethe’s invention of the modern age through the recreation of the pre-Medieval one.
Goethe had a fine townhouse up the hill above his garden house, yet it is the garden house (and its extension of the aristocratic hunting lodge-poet’s forest hut connection into civic space) which he wanted to be remembered by, along with his scientific articles on light (which I discussed yesterday and the day before). Why? Well, because of this …
… and this path from that water to his garden house …
Well, before we answer flippantly, that Goethe was just another garden variety romantic, remember that he loathed the romantics, and before we answer flippantly as well that Goethe was just another garden variety royalist, remember that we are in East Germany, and the hard-headed East German government chose to preserve this point of privilege, and, I promise you, they were pretty bloody-minded about stuff like that. It was preserved in the most modern state in the world (Yes, East Germany. It was a jail, but very modern as well.), in the Republic of Farmers and Workers, because it was the king’s way. Germany is kind of complicated.
The Green Man, Königsbrück
The pre-modern German forest man who became a symbol of 19th Century German Nationalism. In other words, this is Goethe Version 1.0.
Goethe’s attempt to recast the modern world on the same foundation in the forest that gave birth to the old aristocratic one speaks of a choice: one is either of a place, in the full depths of its time, and extends all of its past forward into the future, or one is not. Like Goethe’s Faust, one must choose (In Goethe’s sense, one must choose the most complete path over the one that sets completeness aside for expediency.) It is not, however, a choice between the Green Man …
… and the Green Man …
… and the Green Man …
Leafy moustache and all.
Those are symbols only. Goethe wanted modern men to be the Green Man. Even the East Germans didn’t give up that idea.
Proletarian Picnic Tables in the Aristocratic Pleasure Garden of Schönefeld
These are strange choices to Western imaginations (and, believe me, they unsettled me completely when I confronted them in No Man’s Land in the Fulda Gap on my way east and then again and again every day I went further into the country), but that’s only because two World Wars were fought to obliterate them (after the cynical ways in which they were abused by German military and political elites), and did, to all peoples except the Germans. The rest of the world shed German nationalism by turning away from Himmler’s SS. The Germans shed it by turning to the king’s way.
Goethe served wine all night to French occupying troops here in 1806, to keep them from burning his books and furniture to roast stolen chickens. Now people queue for this most important of German shrines.
The king’s way is, in a sense, the old aristocratic method of governance, through poetry. Each of the nearly 2000 German-speaking princedoms that made up the Holy Roman Empire in Middle Europe was governed on the principle of a poem. It was this which the poet Goethe tried to bring forward, in his transference of aristocratic privilege to democratic rights and responsibilities (such as the Park on the Ilm) an in his science. There is no reason on earth that science must be one monolithic project, based upon one approach, and no reason why it must be pursued according to one principle of procedure and logic. What Goethe proposed was that it be pursued in the multiplicity we know today from poetry (where the principle survived and from which the aristocracy learned it in the first place,) an energy in which each scientist was pursuing a different but parallel method, which fit together not because they broke with tradition but because they extended it and used tradition, not individual perception, as the touchstones for authenticity. This is why Weimar is now the heart of German Classicism, and why Goethe’s Weimar, a creative city of intellectuals and writers who shaped modern German consciousness, is the foundation stone of the German Empire of 1871, the Weimar Republic (note the name) of 1919, the postwar German Association of Communities (West Germany) and the post 1989 country of Germany. In Weimar, that looks like this:
The Roman Villa, Park on the Ilm
In Weimar, anyone can walk through a painting made out of living things on a living earth, walk deep into the past, and meet it, living in his or her own present.
This aristocratic vision brought forward into the new industrial, bourgeoise age is one of the faces of German communism. To most East Germans, it worked itself out more like this:
East German Garden House, Jena
It was in the crucible of these houses that East Germans eventually brought down their totalitarian state. Along the way, they produced most of the fruit and vegetables in the country, something which the government was less interested in pursuing.
Across the street from this garden house, is this:
Goethe’s Poem The Erl King Set to Stone (Music by Schubert)
In Germany, Nature is an art form. There is no such thing as wilderness, or wild life, but there is a continuum that extends back to the primeval forest that was the crucible of the Germans as a people, to Wodin, the pre-Christian god of the North (for some), to the Celts (for others) and through Christianization to the Garden of Eden, which is the intersection of eternity and time. In other words, as the Germans show by having given themselves to it entirely, the entire concept of Nature is an art form. So too is the science they built upon it. Goethe knew that better than most. This is not, by the way, something you can take a democratic vote on. What you can vote on is stuff like this:
The Jena Green House Cooperative, in its Post-Communist Days
But the barbed wire remains. One has to take these things down piece by piece. There’s not enough energy to do it all at once. In its prime, this greenhouse provided hothouse plants for the garden plots of Jena, in an atmosphere much like a rectal exam. You can vote on rectal exams. Sometimes the way to vote is to build a garden house.
Why is a man of the grasslands of Western Canada writing about Goethe? Not because I want to, I can tell you that, what with my family background and all. Rather, because on the Road my identity was burned away and reforged. Because when I came back, I was a new person, if you could say I came back at all. Because Nature and Wilderness are used as the foundation stones of all of Western Canadian culture. Our science and our politics and our civics and pretty much everything else are predicated on the eternal independent viability and life-giving force of this thing called “Nature” and “Wilderness” and “The Wild”, but that’s nothing more than a time-photograph of colonization of a landscape created by and cared for by peoples, such as the Syilx of my valley, who treated it much as the Germans treat theirs. The “wilderness” that Canadian settlers found here was not wilderness at all, but an artistically created space. Rather than drawing on the energy of the natural world, for the last 150 years they have been drawing down on the human capital of just such a project as Goethe supported, and it doesn’t work. It has led only to environmental poverty. There is almost nothing left, and the remaining capacity of the earth to support the people of this place has been reduced to a few simple elements, corresponding to the natural laws of non-Goethean science, without space for humans, while the real solutions are invisible. There are few lenses that allow us all to get outside of this world view, but Goethe offers one. That he offers a form of science that, although created 200 years ago, is still more cutting edge than the cutting edge, is a bonus. All the nationalist rot that accompanies Goethe is just the stuff that drove him half mad. But that’s a different story.
Tomorrow: political realities and ethics.