Tuesday, July 27, 2010

July 27:

Last night we went with friends to the beach to listen to the drummers who gather there most Monday nights in the summer. Close to a thousand people showed up; the evening was clear and windless; kids played at the edge of the ocean. The drumming was powerful, as it usually is, and young women danced to it with that barely controlled wildness that seems to come naturally to them. Then a full moon rose over the horizon, its color a burnt dusky orange at first, then slowly brightening as it rose in the sky. One could understand why early peoples worshipped the moon.

Today the calm, cool weather remains. Crows woke us early, calling to each other in the surrounding trees. If one only knew the language of crows.

I have been reading more about the location of paradise, i.e. the Biblical Garden of Eden, and the consensus seems to have been that it was located far to the east, probably at the eastern edge of India, or of Cathay or Mangi or Ethiopia, which were known primarily as names in the Middle Ages. This, it was thought, was where the sun first rose upon the world at the creation, and where it now rose at the beginning of every day, and it only made sense that paradise should be there, at that beginning, and higher than the rest of the world, out of the heat of the lowlands at the equator, which is where it was thought to be. Higher, too, in order to be the one piece of land on the planet to escape Noah's flood. Enoch and Elijah lived there throughout the Middle Ages, waiting for Judgment Day. Columbus was not the only explorer who believed he had come near it. On his third voyage he sailed farther south than usual and his first landfall was the island of Trinidad, which he named after the Trinity prompted by the three mountains he first saw on the horizon; then he sailed into the Gulf of Paria, filled with fresh water. He had come to one of the mouths of the Orinoco, and the volume of fresh water was astonishing, continental in size. He knew he had come to a continent, but he thought it was India, and that this was the mouth of the Ganges. The air was mild. He had already decided that he had been sailing slowly uphill. This was it, then; he was near the earthly paradise, where the Ganges, it was known, arose, along with the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. All four rivers sprang from a fountain in the midst of paradise that fed the trees, including the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the flowers of many colors, the beds of these rivers glittering with rubies and sapphires and diamonds; then they vanished underground, to reappear in Asia Minor and India and somewhere in Africa, wherever the Nile arose. The people of Trinidad were fair, he noted, fairer than those in what we now call the West Indies, tall and well-formed, and this was of course only fitting, since they lived so close to paradise.

He thought that Hispaniola, the island where he established the first European colony in the New World, was the Biblical Ophir, from which Solomon had acquired the gold to build his temple. He styled it in his logs "the former Ophir." The Spanish ultimately exhausted the supply of gold on the island.

Here, then, are the two beginnings of America.

One tradition had it that in the earthly paradise Enoch and Elijah lived in a city built entirely of gold.

There on the beach the moon rose in its majesty, the drums beating as if to announce it, the young women dancing to it, and it made no sense for a little while to practice irony.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July 22:

Yesterday I sat on the front steps watching a thunderstorm with big lightning strikes move toward us from the northwest. When I was a kid at the Jersey shore we used to do that, stand in the door onto the upstairs deck attached to our little cottage and watch the line storms come in from the west. The air would be disturbed, but not blowing hard; then you'd see the wall of rain coming across the water, and right after that the wind would hit, huge gusts of cool air that would lift boats off their racks if they weren't tied down, the wind was so strong, and then a great tropical deluge that would last maybe fifteen or twenty minutes; then it was over. We lived right next door to the harbormaster, old Captain Brown, and my brother and I worked for him, Charles more seriously than I (I was under ten; Charles was three and a half years older), and sometimes we had to row out and tow some of the lighter, more vulnerable sailboats to shore and beach them, so they wouldn't blow over at anchor. Once Capt. Brown woke us up at two in the morning to row out in the darkness, lightning illuminating the sky to the west, and rescue the boats. That my mother let us do that still amazes me, and delights me. Ever after I have loved storms.

We used to sail everywhere. How many times, in my little Barnegat Bay sneakbox, which was maybe twelve feet long, did I sail to the mainland, four miles away, and up one of the creeks that flowed out of the pines and the marshes, the water tanned as brown as a wood floor. I did it all alone, without supervision, when I was eleven and twelve years old. My mother would watch the sail from the deck, but often I was out of sight, and she was a nervous person. But she seemed to understand, this is what kids have to do, and should be allowed to do, with all the risks. In most places, at low tide, you could stand up in that big bay if you were in the water. The bottom was all eel grass and bay muck, and we clammed in it. When he was a little older Charles made quite a bit of money clamming, up to $20 a day, which was substantial in the late 1940s. I was much dreamier, not interested in making money; I read a lot, played alone a lot, and sailed. I have three little sterling silver sailing cups I won as a kid.

Sounds idyllic, and it was. Now I work as much as I physically and mentally can and haven't sailed in many years. But I still love storms. A few years ago we drove down to Long Wharf here in Sag Harbor to watch a line storm come across the water, and it was the same thing, the air a kind of shuffle of little breezes before it hit us, then the wall of rain, lightning everywhere and the great peals of thunder overhead, the wind gusts rocking our little light car back and forth. I was elated. We saw some people caught in a small boat in the harbor try to ride it out, then capsize; somebody in a power boat went out and got them. It's a mistake to grow up completely.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

July 15:

It has been a strangely lethargic day, a day of paralysis almost, even though I continue the reading I must do, and I realize that I'm lost. I've been immersing myself in an altogether alien world, among serious people who accepted without question that, far in the East, in India, or in Cathay, somewhere way to the east, in any case, the Garden of Eden still existed; that India and probably Cipango, the name they gave Japan, and other nations as well, were populated by races who had ears so long they could wrap themselves in them at night, use them as blankets, and yet other races who had no heads but did have faces--in their chests, and there were men with the heads of dogs and men with one leg, at the end of which was an extremely large foot, which they used to shield themselves from the sun when they lay on their backs. And this is just one window into their minds.

The sources of these particular races go way back, I think ultimately to folk myths; they appear in the ancient Sanskrit epics, in Chinese lore, and they reached the West via the Greeks at least four or five centuries before Christ. And they survived, that's the extraordinary thing, well into and then beyond the Middle Ages, so that Columbus, when he reached what he thought was India, expected to find them there, in what we know as the West Indies; and they appear in explorers' tales for a long time thereafter, always in the guise of the explorers being told by native informers that such races existed at the fringe of their territories.

There has been a great deal of scholarship addressing this pre-modern, mythical ethnography, and I've read a good deal of it now, but I find it doesn't help all that much. I think that if you could go back in time, even if you could speak their languages, and talk to, say, Columbus or Vespucci or Pizarro, you would feel utterly lost in their mental world, in what the French call their mentalite. If a lion could speak, Wittgenstein said, we could not understand him. It's the same thing; their assumptions, their way of looking at the world, their reactions to things: a great gap would divide us, and I doubt it could be bridged. Henry James wrote a novel on this subject, unfortunately unfinished, A Sense of the Past, and I've always wanted to read it but never did. Maybe now. Who were you, Christopher Columbus? There have been hundreds of books trying to answer that question.

And yet these strange imaginings survive. I remember vividly the scene in the bar in the first Star Wars movie, when Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan are looking for a suitable pirate to spin them off Skywalker's home planet to, where was it? the rebel hideout? and find Han Solo, and the place is full of just such creatures as I am talking about, including, if I remember correctly, somebody with the head of a dog.

On his third voyage Columbus found himself skirting the edge of the Terrestrial Paradise--the Garden of Eden. He thought the mouth of the Orinoco was the mouth of the Ganges. It fills me with wonder, and a kind of despair at the same time.

Monday, July 12, 2010

July 12:

It's odd to have workers painting the outside of your house when you're inside, doing your own work, and the noise of scraping and sanding, or the softer noise of someone with a trowel filling in holes in the wood, is right beside you, or behind you. It's like something is moving in your walls, it's half sinister, you have to remind yourself it's only the painters and they're two very pleasant men from Brazil who occasionally speak to one another while they're working in their strange language. I can understand a bit of Spanish but Portuguese has an altogether different sound. Mostly vowels. Which reminds me of Robert Stone, complaining about the title of the movie made from his novel Dog Soldiers, starring Nick Nolte, as I remember, and it's called Who'll Stop the Rain, and he said, what on earth compelled the producers to come up with a title that begins with a Swedish diphthong? The movie didn't do very well. But I can usually work with noise around me. I tune it out. Not music, however. Some writers, and I think most visual artists, work with music going. I generally start listening to the music. But Stone was right, and what was more impressive was that he knew what a Swedish diphthong sounds like. I don't, and my father was Swedish. Born here, but Swedish.

Work is a funny thing, though. With me it has a rhythm; I'll work very hard some days, other days I can't really get started, even when the subject fascinates me and if I don't work I'll lose precious time. I seem to have a large need for downtime, for gestating things, ideas, I don't know what. I need to read the papers. To straighten up my office. I need rituals, daily rituals, that must function as a kind of glue, holding me together. Me! Whoever that is. The rituals in a way are me, that illusion I spoke of some time ago, that construct. Whole societies are constructed of rituals. The daily vodka; the evening news, truly a waste of time; the crossword puzzle Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, because that's when they're the hardest. Rituals, chitchat, surface tension.

All to fill the silence, I suppose. Behind me one of the Brazilians is painting, and I can hear the paintbrush on the wall from time to time, knocking up against one of the battens, perhaps. It's a trifle eerie, but also reassuring. In horror movies the sounds are supposed to be terrifying, but perhaps at the same time they're a source of hope. Something, at least, is out there. It might have mercy. Isn't every creature capable of mercy?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

July 8:

Last night I watched episode #3 of the Tudors, which was even more cliche-ridden than the first two. In this one Henry VIII and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, had a conversation about the New World and Aztec art that was even more unreal than the conversations between Henry and Francois I of France. And the scene between Sir Thomas Wyatt and Anne Boleyn I found simply funny. Whether or not Wyatt was Anne's lover is still uncertain, and the one poem that seems to be addressed to her out of Wyatt's known works is not the one he recited from the tree in the show. I studied Wyatt in grad school and it was interesting to see that he made the show, and it was also fun to see that they found an actor with a large chin to play Charles V, who was known for the size of his chin; but they fail once more to catch the tone of royal conversation, the formal rodomontade, with the ever-present translators in the background. Most of all they get Sir Thomas More wrong. There he is, showing a kind of unease at the burning, on the King's orders, of Martin Luther's works, when in fact More was a great persecutor, relentless in his pursuit of heresy, and quite eager to burn heretics, not to mention books, at the stake; and most of all the producers are insensitive to the normalcy at the time of things like the burning of heretics and their works. Right now I'm working on Columbus and the Spanish attitude toward slavery, and Columbus and his contemporaries did not think twice about kidnapping natives and sailing them back to Spain to show to their sovereigns, or about establishing the slave trade in the West Indies. It is so easy to apply modern standards of morality and the rights of man to the past, and totally miss the mark. The rights of man had not even been invented in the fifteenth century. Mankind is not always and everywhere the same. Columbus was an avid Christian.


I have been intending to mention books in this blog from time to time. Having lost my book column when National Geographic Adventure closed last fall, I miss recommending books, something I've been doing in print since 1992, starting at Men's Journal; and since I'm talking about Spain and its rulers, I have in hand a new book out of Yale University Press by Henry Kamen, currently the leading light in studies of Renaissance Spanish history. His latest is called The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance. Spanish history is particularly interesting to me right now because my next book begins with the Spanish discovery of America, and the Escorial became a symbol of Spain's power and wealth at the height of its empire, when gold, silver, tobacco, chocolate, and the other products of the New World were making it incredibly rich. So what does a king build to show off his wealth? Something like the Escorial, which was palace and monastery all in one, the Spanish being nothing if not obsessed with the salvation of their souls. It survives as a major tourist attraction, but the focus here is really on Philip II, who built the Escorial (it took twenty years); Kamen had previously written a biography of the man, who also had a long chin, like his father Charles V. He was a fascinating king, capable of great festivities and great austerities at the same time, anything but the typical royal womanizer, and the first king in Spain to build on such a grand scale. He was inspired evidently by his travels in Europe. It was hardly normal for kings to go on grand tours, but Philip spent years doing exactly that, leaving a Hapsburg cousin as regent in Spain. When he came back he set to work on the Escorial.

Part of Kamen's mission is to rescue Philip II from the myth of his isolation, his timidity, and his instability. He works, of course, from a thorough knowledge of the original sources and years of immersion in Spanish archives. Kamen views have often generated controversy, but this book is persuasive about the character of the king and fascinating on the subject of the building. Over the past few years Harvard University Press has been publishing a series devoted to landmark structures like Stonehenge, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, the Dome of the Rock, and so on; these are excellent summaries of the current knowledge about these subjects. Except for its greater length, Kamen's book wouild have been a worthy addition to the series. For anyone interested in great buildings and their builders, The Escorial is well worth a look. [Henry Kamen, The Escorial: Art and Power in the Renaissance, Yale University Press, $35]

And if you like royal intrigue in great buildings, and who doesn't, keep in mind as well a book to be published by Walker and Company next month called The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace. Its author is Lucy Worsley, chief curator of the organization that runs the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace (where some of The Tudors takes place), and Kensington Palace, and her method in this book is to take some of the royal portraits on display at Kensington Palace and use them as windows into the lives lived there during the time the first two Hanovers, George I and George II, ruled England, 1714 to 1760. It's the kind of book that takes more interest in George II's hemorrhoids than in, say, the War of Jenkin's Ear, or Whig and Tory politics; but I don't mean to trivialize it. Worsley has done a great deal of research, she knows the period thoroughly, and she demonstrates a lot of sympathy for the women especially, so often caught up in court intrigue or in the wars between royal mistresses for attention and influence. She writes well, too. It if isn't in the stores already, watch for it in the next week or two. [Lucy Worsley, The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace, Walker and Company, $30]

Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4:

One of those hot still days. True summer. We're promised a heat wave this coming week. It has been very dry, no rain for well over a month. I live close to water but I think of myself as a soil-based person; I seem to be more aware of the nature of soils and more interested in them than most, if not all, of my friends. Our own private soil on this third-acre of happiness is sandy and thin, glacial moraine soil, underlain with gravel and the ground-up stone of glacial debris. It doesn't hold water long, so we have been watering busily, to save the grass, the shrubs, the younger of the trees.

Maybe I take an interest in the soil from thinking about the glacier, 5,000 feet thick, that overlay this land only 11-12,000 years ago. That strikes me as a wondrous fact. I wish more people thought about these things; it might make a difference of a sort. We live in four dimensions, in the space we occupy and, within that space, the fourth dimension of time, which stretches both before and behind and upon which our lives cannot help but have an affect. I think about this little piece of the landscape a lot. About ten years ago, digging around one of our hedges, I found a small midden of clam and oyster shells, almost certainly Indian in origin, left there when our third of an acre was covered with oak forest, or maybe before that, the ubiquitous red cedar, which still wants to reclaim this land for itself; we have several in the yard as it is, two in the front hedge, which I'm letting grow into trees because nothing is more boring than a hedge, and they seed constantly in the lawn. It's easy enough to imagine a band of the local Indians, or just a family, camping here and eating the mollusks they had gathered from the meadows below, now filled in, the same meadows where downtown Sag Harbor stands now.

And at the height of the glaciation this spot was three hundred miles from the coast.

For me, these facts always give me pause; they are lessons in impermanence; and as I move toward old age and death I revel in it, oddly enough, knowing that the beaches will disappear in the not enormously distant future, what was incredibly valuable waterfront property will drown, the earth will shake off this destructive and thoughtless species and only a percentage of mankind will survive. And the question will be: then will we have attained wisdom?

I rather doubt it. Jonathan Swift said that he loved individual human beings but he found mankind itself loathsome. I think of mankind as not so much loathsome as clueless. Yet here I am, approaching old age, growing more cheerful by the day. Oh, I can get irritated, I can snap at people, sometimes I get seriously angry, and I drive with care because the roads are full of idiots on cell phones, driving at high speeds. Clueless. Oblivious. A few years ago we almost killed a woman who pulled out of a side street right in front of us, chattering away on her phone, too interested in her conversation to look both ways. We swerved, honked our horn; she jammed on her brakes. It clearly spooked her. Maybe she learned from it. But I doubt it. Nothing is harder to teach than a human being; usually it takes a death, or something very close to a death.

Still, I am not unhappy at the state of things. As an historian, I know it has been far worse in other times and places. And it isn't my burden any more. I spent five years in local government, doing what I felt to be my civic duty. I do my best to be kind to the people I know and love, and to strangers when they need kindness. I don't lecture anyone. I try to find reasons for those I love who are in pain to feel good about themselves, and about their futures. These things turn out to be satisfying to the soul. I have lived an extraordinarily fortunate life, and have some good stories to tell. What more could a peson want for the end game?

And then yesterday, while the fireworks were going off on two sides of MacArthur Airport in Islip, we picked up Lorraine's "new" granddaughter, a child given away by Lorraine's own daughter at childbirth. We had never met her; only recently had Lorraine established contact. And she's smart and charming and interesting, a poet, 24 years old, and witty to boot. It's like the line in Yeats's late great poem "Lapis Lazuli," about the little piece of sculpture in that soft blue stone where the old men are climbing a trail on a mountain and looking down on the life below, and "their ancient glittering eyes are gay."

Friday, July 2, 2010

July 2:

We have a new deck out back now, fresh wood, a new railing, a couple of steps leading up to it from the side yard, and we sat out there yesterday evening, a beautiful evening, clear skies, cool air, on our old comfortable Adirondack chairs, and hoped for the birds to come and visit our feeder. Not many did. The birds are in short supply this year, possibly because of the neighborhood cats, possibly because they have been staying away from the deck construction. But an oriole did show up to feed on the trumpet vine flowers, and orioles are very colorful birds and fun to watch. And so many moments of ecstasy in my life have come from watching birds. Why that is I have no idea, but it is. Once at Mary's Point in the Bay of Fundy I lay on my back on a great flat stone next to the water and a peregrine falcon came and hovered directly above me for a full thirty seconds or so. It felt like a blessing. At the same place we watched maybe ten thousand semi-palmated sandpipers, down from the Arctic to feed on the mud flats before they left on their non-stop, 2,000-mile-plus flight to South America, forced up on the beach by the rising tide, dance and swirl in unison, all 10,000 of them at once, alarmed by this very same falcon flying low over them. People come from all over the world to see this happen. I tell you, my heart took flight with them. It isn't often you can say something like that without reservation, without embarrassment. They have brown backs and white bellies, and, I say again, in unison, they flew first this way, then that, 10,000 flashes of white, then brown, looping, diving, rising, until they settled back down on the beach. To have lived, and seen things like that! And even there on our deck I have taken such great and quiet pleasure in the birds. It reminds me of one of my favorite poems, Coleridge, "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," in which he is confined by lameness to his bower while his friend Charles Lamb, visiting, walks down to the river with Coleridge's wife, and finds even in the bower a great deal to make him happy.

Yes, happiness. One thing I like about Jefferson, who enshrined the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence (it is July 2, the day the finished document was presented to the Continental Congress), is that he knew that things like this brought it. Forget slavery for a moment, forget Sally Hemings, and all the other things we can condemn him for. Think of him there at Monticello, on his little hill, in the house he never stopped improving, amidst his gardens. Men of his era made much of the retired life, it was a convention of the time that came out of the classics; Horace did the same, so did Virgil; but it was also quite real for people like Jefferson and Washington and Madison; and I like to think of Jefferson sitting on his terrace watching the sun go down over the Blue Ridge Mountains in the same state of mind I feel on our modest little deck. A little cheese, my nightly vodka, and the birds. This is happiness. And, if your life is good, and mine is pretty good so far, this is all you need.