Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Black Hills, the Bad Lands, and Hasty Conclusions

I've never met a landscape I didn't love. The moment I say that, I think of the central plains of Florida, which are flat and whose green is never breathless or vibrant or new. But other than that, I've never met a landscape I didn't love. Our drive down to South Dakota for a vacation in the Black Hills and Bad Lands confirmed that fact once again.  A lot of what one drives through is prairie, but it is prairie that continues to change, often subtly, as ploughed fields with their fuzz of new crop give way to the more rolling hills of mustard and cattle.  This is a very green year, all the way from Regina down to South Dakota, so the green hills feed your eyes and your mind in some ineffable way.  But punctuating those subtle changes are formations like the one above, which seem to rise up out of the peaceful green to taunt one's confident knowledge of prairie.  If I know anything, having spent 7 days looking at what happens in the middle of prairies, it's that I need to read Candace Savage's book, Prairie:  A Natural History.  

The Black Hills and the Bad Lands fifty miles away are an area of enormous and complicated activity in the inland sea that the prairie comes out of.  The Black Hills contain many different kinds of geological activity arranged like a donut that got squeezed in the box and is now more like an oval than a circle. In the outer areas, uplift has created mountains made of rock over 2 million years old. You can see the striations from the sediment of the old seas that flooded the prairie from time to time, but they are now at improbable angles where the uplift thrust them up into mountains. The photograph above was taken from the edge of one of these, and you can see both how high up I am and how the foothills go on for mile upon blue mile. 

Closer to the centre of the donut is volcanic activity that gave rise to enormous formations that seem to rise out of the earth.

Further to the east are the Bad Lands--another complicated landscape.  Here the inland seas and volcanic activity and erosion from the Black Hills created unstable formations of sediment sometimes layered with stone.  As the waterways changed, the stone was worn away in patterns that seem entirely random.

Bill did the best job of articulating the effect of this landscape on us.  Its immensity and age dwarf us.  In the context of rock that is over two billion years old, our lives are but an errant thought that whisks through your mind in a traffic jam and is now gone.  Looking at the world from the top of Harney's Peak (over 7,000 feet high) makes clear how tiny we all are.  It is a landscape that brings perspective to bear, even as its beauty and grandeur and even whimsicality delight.  Yes, the formations here are huge and ancient, but the tiny violet that manages to survive in the sediment that has gathered on a horizontal rock also surprises with its unpredictable beauty.

In the malls that ring Rapid City, we found a kind of independent, truck-drivin', gun-totin' culture that had given over many of its stores to the vacationer's hunger for souvenirs. Downtown, however, you find something altogether different.  There's a wonderful bookstore, the Hotel Alex Johnson, which combines German architecture with Native motifs and which was featured in Hitchcock's North by Northwest and which has hosted many presidents.  There is the Dahl Arts Centre, which featured the colourful, expressionistic paintings of animals by Tom Thorson--paintings that are entirely unsentimental, that give the animals energy and lives so entirely unlike our own.  There was an exhibition of photographs by Chris Benson (with Annie Woodle and Leah Diggins) called Inspire:  The Project.  It featured spirited, candid photographs of young people who had come through tough times of abuse, of parents whose alcohol and drug use made their lives chaotic and painful, kids whose appearance or sexuality gave rise to bullying. The photographs were accompanied by panels with each of the kids' stories: stories of creativity and self-discovery and determination.  Many of them found their way out of despair through self-expression, music, or sport; through Alcoholics Anonymous or a great teacher. They are all a testament to human resilience, ingenuity, and determination.

I had an odd experience at the border:  the Customs guy welcomed me home. For some reason, his words set up both a curiosity and a distancing attitude. What, exactly, is different when you cross an arbitrary boundary in something as immense and yet varied as the prairies?  I suspect that when many of us go on holidays, we look for those differences and quickly draw conclusions about them.  We do this for two reasons:  other cultures and their practices, other landscapes and urban environments are chaotic, and we want the sense of order that helps us negotiate this foreignness.  As well, we go with a desire for the unfamiliar that will shake us up a bit and give us a new perspective. 

But I suspect we come to conclusions way too quickly.  I have been reading Joseph Heath's Enlightenment 2.0, where he talks about the latest research into how human beings "do" rationality (which is not very well).  Analogous to Kahneman's System One and System Two styles of thinking, Heath observes that we have an "old" brain that evolved to draw conclusions that would have once been crucial to our survival. One of these is the tendency to find patterns.  If a berry makes you sick twice, you quickly come to the conclusion that it's poisonous, which means that when someone in your tribe offers you a nice slice of berry pie you will give it a miss and survive, unlike the less well-experienced and pattern-perceiving people in your community.  You'll have recognized this tendency in the way you see a pattern in someone's treatment of you or in the kinds of stories you are seeing in the news and will draw a brilliant but hasty conclusion of what this all means--only to find out that what you have observed is really pretty random and means nothing at all or something entirely different than your astute conclusions. What Heath says we do too seldom is to ask "the negative."  What if what I'm seeing isn't really there? What if it doesn't explain everything or if I'm asking it to explain too much? What if there's evidence I don't know about?

I suspect this way of thinking kicks into high gear when we visit unfamiliar places, partly because unfamiliarity overwhelms us and we need the comfort from having mastered it, from having frog-marched it into our conclusions about how this culture works.  I'd done exactly that until I went down town and saw a different Rapid City, one with a Gay Pride Week, a mayor with a committee devoted to accessibility, the art gallery and the book store. 

Still, that "welcome home" was a burr under my saddle, as it were.  And I knew Canadians and Americans were fundamentally different on my last night there when Bill and I were stopped at a light that gave us a full view of one of those big electronic billboards.  There was the face of a plainly Native man (I'm using the American vocabulary here; it's probably politically incorrect) with the words, in capitals "DO NOT APPROACH" and the local sheriff's phone number.  Fortunately, we sat through three more lights (the left-turn light was very short and it was rush hour) and between the ads for realtors and pubs, I glimpsed the faces of two more people--a white man and a woman, just to show that crime is equal opportunity in South Dakota.  Still, there was something rather "wild west" about the billboard and the sheriff's phone number.  

Later that evening, we strolled down the Main Street, where Rapid City organizes two different concerts every summer Thursday night.  At one end of the street there's a rock concert set up on a stage in the intersection.  Farther down at Main Street Square there's a jazz band or a Beach Boys tribute.  In between are places for the kids to get their faces painted or to do crafts or grab a hot dog, or places for parents to grab a beer (though there are also alcohol-free zones).  It's a pretty impressive undertaking for a city of under 60,000.  That night, we heard The Glenn Miller Orchestra under its current director Nick Hilscher (Miller having disappeared and presumably died in 1944). There were places near the stage for people to dance, and though the best dancers were well over sixty, they weren't the only ones dancing.  The audience was wonderfully varied, and as I looked across at all those faces, faces that had brought their lawn chairs out to cover an entire city block, I wondered how I could have drawn all those clever conclusions.  Maybe at that moment when I recognized how complicated and even contradictory the culture around Rapid City was, like any culture, I could go home.  My holiday had done its work. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Woolf in Chicago: Street Haunting

I am just back from the 24th annual Virginia Woolf Conference, which was held at Loyola University this year, co-hosted by Pamela Caughie, who teaches at Loyola, and Diana Swanson, who teaches at Northern Illinois University, about an hour west of Chicago.  It was a wonderful mix: old farts like me talking about the latest instalment of the work they've been doing now for ten years, and graduate (and even some undergraduate) students talking about their newfound love for Woolf.  I will freely admit that I found the young 'uns the most inspiring:  no matter how much I talk about the 2008 generation and their indifference or lack of discipline, that vision is undermined by the strongest students of that generation, young people who think carefully and passionately and express themselves with such grace and clarity.  They made me hopeful.

They also reminded me of two important principles.  First, nothing I learn is ever useless.  Second, all of my disparate interests somehow connect at their furthest reach, perhaps like the caves Woolf wrote of as she thought about the back stories of her characters when she was working on Mrs Dalloway.  For example, right now I'm reading Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City, which considers how we experience cities in all their myriad manifestations.  Who knew that I would recommend this book to several Woolf scholars? Or that Woolf scholars would prompt me to realize that Woolf might have ideas that belong in the book of ekphrastic poems I'm writing that are inspired by Veronica's photographs?  Or that these two things would converge in the walking I did in the Loyola neighbourhood to clear my head after being bombarded by ideas?

One of my favourite panels occurred at 9 a.m. on the last day.  Called "Flanerie and City Spaces," it featured three young scholars, Elizabeth Goetz, Candis Bond, and Yike He, thinking about how characters' experience of the city is represented and how the characters interact with the city.  Candis Bond even argued that Woolf, along with de Certeau and Georg Simmel, is a spatial theorist of a kind.  They pointed out how transgressive her characters sometimes are, and reminded me of an essay that I've long loved and needed to re-read:  Woolf's "Street Haunting."  So I did re-read it a couple of mornings ago and realized how different her experience of London in the nineteen twenties and my experience of Chicago in 2014 were.  Woolf makes the point early on that she is walking late in the afternoon--between teatime and dinner--on a winter day:  

"The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. We are not then taunted as in the summer by the longing for shade and solitude and sweet airs from the hayfields. The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room."

The effect, as any wintertime walker will note, is that the darkness outside brings the light from inside out onto the street, so that our imaginations roam among possibilities:  

"With no thought of buying, the eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances. Standing out in the street, one may build up all the chambers of an imaginary house and furnish them at one’s will with sofa, table, carpet. That rug will do for the hall. That alabaster bowl shall stand on a carved table in the window. Our merrymaking shall be reflected in that thick round mirror. But, having built and furnished the house, one is happily under no obligation to possess it; one can dismantle it in the twinkling of an eye, and build and furnish another house with other chairs and other glasses."

Walking in Chicago during the early summer is quite a different experience, though Woolf's engagement and imagination provide the tools we need. Coming from Regina, one first notices and hears traffic.  At the same time, however, Chicago is farther into summer than we are, so I smelled lilacs and roses (sometimes among the exhaust).  Among the enthusiastic Chicago runners who flood the streets on Saturday, though, one has the same anonymity that Woolf sought in the dusk of the London street.  

West of Loyola about four or five blocks is an older residential district with some grand old houses and many elegant brick apartment buildings, but the sunshine left them closed to the onlooker.  So I studied their facades to see how my imagination might play with this setting.  Small front yards mean that people are quite creative; sometimes the city even narrows the street briefly with small gardens enclosed by curbs.  Where space is at a premium, people make as much beauty with it as they possibly can.  This was true as well of the apartment buildings which made fine use of the 2 metres or so between the building's foundation and the side walk.  

Both the houses and the apartments threw one back into an earlier time as well as into a community much more culturally sophisticated than the average Regina neighbourhood is now.  The apartments in particular seemed the setting for a 50s black and white movie about the wealthy, creative class. Because you couldn't see into the rooms, you didn't imagine a setting, but instead invented a life to take place in those buildings. Kingwell notes that "freedom is both defined and limited by the drawing of boundaries," and that "every interior you enter or inhabit challenges you to ask who you are, this apparently individual consciousness among others" (Concrete Reveries 211, 195).   Woolf's winter time street haunting erases some of these boundaries, giving Woolf's imagination particular rugs or bowls to suit the boundaries of her imagination, allowing her to control the way the imagined interior challenges her.  In some strange way, my summer time street haunting left me more free to create that "apparently individual consciousness among others."  While she called her practice "street haunting," I might call mine "street daydreaming."  Something of one's mood, something abstract in one's circumstances is changed, as if Clotho had clipped the threads of one's fate in one place rather than another and as if a summer evening's stroll gave you a chance to imagine what that other fate might look like.

What is singular about street haunting or street daydreaming--Woolf's and mine--is that on some level it's a quest for unfamiliar, unexpected beauty. Both depend on purposefully setting out to see the beauty in the unfamiliar, the beauty in the strangeness of different lives. But the differences between our practices also suggest that while the search for everyday beauty is important, how we undertake that search, what we choose to notice, what assumptions we bring to the process, are equally part of our experience.