Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Notes on Evacuating

Last night at this time I was building a model of our home out of Legos, showing my two-year-old roommate Julien how we had prepared for the storm: how we had boarded up the vulnerable back window, and how the wind would slam into the house and whip around the next-door palm tree when the hurricane hit. We played out various scenarios, and Julien would grunt his affirmative "Hm!" with each demonstration.

Overnight the winds picked up, rattling our old windows, and the air started to change.  At three in the morning I got up and packed the car; at 4:00 we drove off, Julien still slumbering in the back seat.  We didn't necessarily know anything more about the storm at that point—it was still "trying to become better organized"—but it was time for us to go.  

The roads were empty as we drove out of the city on US-10.  As we merged onto the highway we saw the first droplets rain on the windshield.

You could practically feel the heavy penumbra of sherbet spreading over the city—and what a strange feeling to be speeding way from it, sitting in a reclined chair in a somewhat aerodynamic 2700-lb metal box on wheels. During those predawn hours I kept looking back in the rearview mirror at the glowing cloud mass.  How big was it?  Was it building?  How bad would it get?  What about our house?  Had we made the right choice?  Should we be there with our friends who had stayed?  All these questions and more were at turns enhanced and subsumed by the necessary myopia that is driving.

Later in the morning as we zoomed up I-55 we saw shattered turtle shells from ruined would-be highway crossers, and shredded armadillos balled up on the side of the road.  And of course, there were the ubiquitous black forms of ejected truck tire husks, sometimes dangerously curling up in and between the lanes.  There's something singularly terrifying about watching a big-rig shed a tire in real time, everyone speeding along merrily at 80 miles per hour while a certain tire that only you can see starts to buckle, flap on its wheel, and begin to disintegrate, leaving its carnage to flip and tumble behind, for other cars to veer around or run over.

Then there were billboards advertising hamburger choices, and others lambasting the choice to have an abortion—and still more billboards selling billboard space, a veritable landscape of meta-advertising.

We'll spend a few days in St. Louis, where Julien is getting some unexpected quality time with his grandparents.  It's good to see him running around the yard and making up games in this new place.

But I miss our home. In my mind I keep trying to inhabit it—to check a certain leak in the ceiling, to mop up the drips around the fireplace, or to stand over that one crack in the floorboards where the wind always whistles in underfoot. I find myself imagining what the house is feeling as the storm moves through.  The house is old, and this is one of many many storms it has been through—it probably has its own patterns and flexions for dealing with such torrents of wind and rain.  The power appears to be off in our neighborhood now, and I imagine the whine of generators interspersed with the gusts and the downpour.

On our way north on I-55, we passed several dozen energy company bucket trucks that were headed south, driving in teams, toward the Gulf Coast. Help on its way.

We'll be back in New Orleans soon, back in our home.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Waiting for a storm

Right now we're just waiting for a storm, to see what it will do.  It's eerie.  There's the god's eye view provided by satellites, but this form of 'knowledge' is hardly commensurate with life on the ground.

The planes overhead seem louder than normal, today; maybe one of them is a NOAA Hurricane Hunter.

I can't decide if that name—Hurricane Hunter—is comical or heroic, an absurd misnomer or an admirable attempt at something more primitive within our techno-media maelstrom.

Beyond the planes and helicopters chopping above, there's a different kind of buzz outside: the buzz of people stocking up at our neighborhood market, and other people frantically loading their cars in order to evacuate.  Some cars drive down our skinny street startlingly fast—panic in action.  Other people gab and laugh and stroll down the street with cases of Abita and Miller High Life on their shoulders.  We've got our bags packed and the house all tied down—but we're not leaving, at least not yet.

This morning it was dead-still, and the sky was a brilliant azure —I've never quite appreciated the phrase "calm before the storm" until today.  Now, at 3:30, the light in the sky is diffuse in a weird way. There isn't exactly a cloud layer yet, but it's as if a sheet of fine linen has been pulled over us.  The wind is starting to gust, and I can hear it sporadically whistling through the 100-year-old chimney a few feet away from me as I write this.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Back in New Orleans

After eight weeks in the woods of northern Michigan, I'm back in New Orleans.  I love this city.  The way smells seep up from the ground.  How, when the rain pools in the streets, I'm suddenly uncertain as to whether they are mere puddles, or if the entire city is in fact made up of millions of tiny floating islands always ready to be submerged.  And how the clouds tower and move, a perpetually shifting panorama that never fails to send my mind reeling.

When our plane touched down at Louis Armstrong International airport, I was elated to see the great suspended masses of force and liquid somersaulting above the concrete stacks of the terminal.

The view out the aircraft window as we nestled into our gate put me in the mindset of Walker Percy, who describes the Louisiana skyscape so well in his wonderfully bizarre novel The Moviegoer:
"It is a day for clouds. The clouds come sailing by, swelled out like clippers. The creamy vapor boils up into great thundering ranges and steep valleys of cloud."
And then there was our 100-something-year-old house, which had been sitting empty while we were gone.  There is a distinct feel of a home that has been left to breathe on its own, with no human inhabitants, but only assorted cockroaches and occasional mice foraging for hidden crumbs, their tiny turds barely discernible here and there.  A small cockroach crawled out of the sink drain this morning, appearing startled that we'd usurped its territory.  I scooped it up in an olive jar and dropped it outside, where it skittered under the house.  Even as I write this post in the predawn hours, I can hear a sizable periplaneta americana cruising through the dark across the kitchen, its broad wings making a sound not unlike a small helicopter as it transports itself from one crevice to another.

Re-inhabiting our home and re-calibrating the lines of coexistence therein, I've also had to re-familiarize myself with the old heartpine floorboards, which ones creak and which ones don't.  (Especially crucial knowledge during nap-time.)  A house several doors down from ours is being added on to; they've lifted the entire four-bay shotgun structure and are building a new first story beneath.  It's fascinating to see the underside of the house, raised as it is about fifteen feet above ground.  When we first moved into our home, I put on my work pants and a long-sleeved canvas shirt, grabbed a flashlight, and crawled beneath the house for an hour, filling five huge black trash bags with miscellaneous debris and rubble.  These were different kinds of globular accumulations than the romantic clouds above, but likewise full of history and mystery.  While looking skyward can seem like a more reliable place to look for beauty, this was a reminder not to dismiss the rich ecology of what's down and dirty. 

This fall I've decided to incorporate Ian Bogost's new book Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing into my class, as I think it opens up exciting possibilities for reading and writing in my discipline (and of course for all sorts of creative practices beyond the squishy bounds of English).  I'm eager to see what my students make of Bogost's book after we've worked through earlier movements in literary theory and textual analysis.

I particularly love how Alien Phenomenology ends with a quasi-manifesto on behalf of wonder, and I hope to put this sentiment into practice with my students in their reading, writing, and thinking, as well as in their daily lives around New Orleans.  It might start as simply as watching clouds, and then learning that clouds, in the discourse of meteorology, have genus and species types and further varieties beneath that—they are living things, able to transmogrify and even dissipate at once.  And this kind of awareness is precisely what Percy is up to in The Moviegoer when he notices the atmosphere:
"The cloud is turning blue and pressing down upon us. Now the street seems closeted; the bricks of the buildings glow with a yellow stored up light."
How do clouds interact with people and cities?  How do things seem?  How can open space be not disclosed?  How can built structures stash ephemeral qualities, only to become illuminated unexpectedly?  These questions and more lurk in Percy's lines, and they lurk everywhere—waiting to be asked, speculated about, and multiplied. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Logging Camp

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can.
                                                                   —Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
Last spring I enjoyed reading Richard Scarry's classic book Cars and Trucks and Things That Go to my small roommate Julien. It's basically an introduction to Object-Oriented Ontology: it turns out that pretty much everything goes, and has a perspective—even nonliving things. One page that kept catching Julien's fascination was the page where the pig family (the road-tripping main characters of the story) passes a logging camp.

It turned out to provide a useful, if unexpected, education of sorts: for this summer, people are logging the woods behind my family's house, on a piece of conservancy land. The near constant buzzing of the STIHL chainsaws mixes with intermittent cicada sirens in the trees. Each time a tree falls, the booming crash cascades down the hillsides, strangely amplified and muffled at the same time, and practically shaking the ground underfoot for an illusive moment.

They drag the felled trees through the woods along a fresh path that shows the gouges of the tremendous logs, with surprising glacial rocks and yellow beach sand churned up in the process. What used to be my favorite valley of dense, waist-high bracken ferns is now a staging area where the huge logs are cut into eight-foot lengths.

I used to climb these trees. My brother and I would take a compound bow and an old arrow with a lead line attached, and one of us would shoot the arrow up into the highest branches of some giant oak or beech. Then we'd pull a static climbing rope up and over, hooking it into a firm branch fork. With a climbing ascender attached to a harness, and another beneath with webbing for foot loops, we could go vertically straight into the upper canopy of the forest, fifty or sixty feet above. And then...just hang out. There is a whole other life world in the upper story of a deciduous forest. Different birds and bugs, and the way the leaves move around in rustling undulations.

I haven't done that in probably fifteen years, but I can recall the feeling quite vividly. Now I'm seeing some of these very trees lying on the ground, their upper branches—useless because worthless—shattered and scattered around. Tangles of discarded biomass left behind in the wake of the destruction. It's sad, and more than a little depressing.

But I'm not simply waxing nostalgic. I'm actually attempting to be enchanted by the spectacle and the tremendous effort that goes into logging a forest, visibly imprinted as it is in the incredible tire tracks made by the Timberjack skidders.

This is hardly clear-cut logging. What's happening back here is selective—one might even say 'sustainable'—logging. (We need to bracket that word 'sustainable', though, as it begs uncomfortable questions concerning for how long, and for whom or what purpose.)

The logging happening here is fairly targeted, thinning out the white ash and northern red oak trees and thus making room for new growth—the millions of seedlings and saplings sprouting up from the floor below, but which struggle to get light when the canopy is too dense. You wouldn't believe how dark it can be in the middle of the day in the thickest parts of the woods. Now, after the loggers have moved through an area, there are bright splotches of sunlight on the forest floor, jagged puzzle pieces flickering on the undergrowth.

I'll admit that there is a latent part of me that drifts toward the mindset of Edward Abbey's seminal study of eco-terrorism, The Monkey Wrench Gang: I sort of want to sabotage the whole operation. Yet I'm restraining myself, and instead just spying on the outfit from afar, perched on an adjacent ridge. Here in the distance you can glimpse one of the skidders, an orange one, crashing through the trees:

In the canon of wilderness writing there's also the poetry of Gary Snyder to entertain—especially pertinent to this post, the section "Logging" from Myths & Texts. Here, Snyder dutifully lists the various goings on around an active logging camp:
The D8 tears through piss-fir,
Scrapes the seed-pine
                            chipmunks flee,
A black ant carries an egg
Aimlessly from the battered ground.
Yellowjackets swarm and circle
Above the crushed dead log, their home.
Pitch oozes from barked
            trees still standing,
Mashed bushes make strange smells.
Lodgepole pines are brittle.
Camprobbers flutter to watch. 
Each line has multiple objects interacting, violently or just barely, or passing by one another oblivious...and the human becomes one thing among many in this scene. It's not just a logging camp; it's kind of campy, too, in the sense that Susan Sontag might have described it. For Sontag, "an important element of the Camp sensibility [is] the equivalence of all objects...." 

When Snyder notices that "mashed bushes make strange smells" it's as if the bushes are making the smells not just for the humans, but for the very strangeness of the smells themselves. I've felt this in the forest over the past few weeks: the smell of the cut trees is so pungent that it jerks me out of my own nose—I feel thrust into the underbrush, into an alien world. Likewise, in Snyder's evocation of the brittleness of the lodgepoles and the watching of the camprobbers (or gray jays), these things happen on their own trajectories, intersecting with the logging operation but also entirely of their own being. Snyder's lines might at first sound sad about the shorn forest, but the more you read of this poem, the more other entities emerge and rise up to an equal status alongside the loggers—even in the midst of the apparently human-caused turmoil.

As hard as it is to watch, and as destructive as it seems, this logging is good for the forest—in the sense that it spurs regeneration and new growth. The other day when I told a biologist friend of mine about the logging, he said, "It would really be great if they burned it all down to the ground back there—then you'd really see some exciting species return to the area!" He's of course right. Forests thrive on dramatic upheavals and wholesale razing. It often happens on longer timescales than we can imagine or come to terms with, but to quote Sontag once again, "Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary." The logging camp—and the forest at large, a domain without bounds, commingling with tractors and chainsaws—is indeed an attempt at something extraordinary.