The wind resistance alone must drive the cost of gas up considerably. Of course, with Yahweh on your side you don’t need to worry about pocket change. We were driving through a sleepy town in the Poconos. A light rain was falling. We came upon a truck advocating not for the usual and expected Christ, but instead for Yahweh. Promising “dramatically affected” lives for those who do so, the implied message on this portable billboard is somewhat ominous. We are apparently being restrained by “non-mortal, non-native beings of ill-intent.” The grammar of the placard confuses things a bit since it seems to suggest that calling on Yahweh will “release restraints on” said non-mortals, and that’s hardly a good thing. I suppose they can’t reveal the nature of these entities without giving away spoilers for drawing the curious in.
This vague, supernatural world presided over by the personal name of the deity seems just a little out of place in Bible country. There’s a kind of literalism about Pennsylvania that I find strangely comforting. It is where and how I grew up. I never encountered God’s personal name—at least not with first-person familiarity—until I attended college. Even then we were encouraged to be careful with its use. The commandment about taking the divine name in vain is just a bit disconcertingly unspecific, considering that it isn’t spelled out in more detail. And who exactly are these beings of ill-intent? They’re all the more frightening for not being named. Demons, I must suppose, but I don’t recall the Good Book saying anything about their restraints being released. This is a new kind of apocalypse maybe.
The thing about the Bible is that it’s everybody’s book. Some modern translations use Yahweh rather freely, opting for the admission that translating it leads only to more questions and “Lord” is obfuscation. Still, it seems awfully familiar. The need to air one’s personal beliefs, in some quarters, is very intense. There’s a passion behind this proclamation that I can’t help but admire. People stop and stare. Some, like yours truly, will want photographs of your vehicle. I suppose that’s the point, nevertheless, not too many people like being stared at. Evangelical culture demands it, as I recall from my youth. Putting your personal beliefs out there comes with a price. Part of that may be reduced gas milage and, consequently, pocket change.
I don’t have a sweet tooth. I count that as a personal flaw, but the fact is I don’t seek out sugary snacks. Still, who doesn’t enjoy a nice chocolate once in a while? My wife and I attended a local chocolate tasting event recently. This was a new experience for me. Being of working class vintage, I tend to look at comestibles in a purely pragmatic way—food is for eating. It shouldn’t taste too bad, and ideally it should be healthy. Between meals I seldom think about eating unless the time stretches too long and hunger kicks in. I’ve read a couple books about chocolate, however, and I was curious what I might learn.
Apart from learning the disturbing fact that much American chocolate isn’t really technically chocolate, it was an enjoyable evening. The proprietors of Carol’s Creative Chocolatez know their stuff. The event began with a history of cacao beans. Native to the Americas in the equatorial regions, it was only after Columbus’s fourth voyage that Europeans discovered chocolate. Indigenous peoples used cacao beans as currency, and chocolate was the food of the gods. Its technical name, Theobroma, means just that. When Columbus appeared, a white man with European garb, and horses (as well as exotic diseases), he was ironically thought to be the returning god of chocolate. Instead, he took the previously unknown delicacy to Europe where various means of preparing it began. Eventually we ended up with the sweet, sugary variety that is considered standard today.
Theobroma plants contain a compound that creates feelings of euphoria. Chocolate, in other words, rewards you for eating it. It’s easy to see why indigenous peoples assigned chocolate its own deity. It’s also perhaps not surprising that what was mistaken for a god became a deadly plague. While Europeans were mostly interested in gold during the early period of exploration, they eventually realized that exotic foods and spices could be almost as good as gold. Chocolate, the food of the gods, could be mass produced and degraded and sold as an addictive treat to children. Such we do with our divinities. If only obesity were the same as obeisance! Instead, we are presented with a treat that tastes good and makes us feel happy. Like most gifts of the gods, it’s best enjoyed in small quantities. Even a little gold will go a long way. And after this evening, I think theology may help to explain the fascination with Theobroma.
All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?
According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.
Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.
Jim was aghast. The joke had been entirely inappropriate. I had asked him about the Pentecostal service we’d just left. Jim was my college roommate and had invited me to see what his tradition was all about. I’d witnessed speaking in tongues before, but never on such a scale. That wasn’t what was bothering Jim, though. The minister had told a joke about a demon. It had something to do with a man possessed by a coffee demon. The exorcist declared to the demon “You have no grounds to be in him!” Inappropriate. It might make people think there weren’t real demons. We used to disagree on many points, but remained friends. I lost track of Jim. He dropped out of college to go follow a spirit-filled man in Waco who’d learned Hebrew and Greek without ever having studied them. His concern about that joke, however, raises an interesting question.
I’ve just finished reading Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool’s book, Deliver Us from Evil: A New York Cop Investigates the Supernatural. It’s hard not to like Sarchie. A rough and tumble associate of Ed and Lorraine Warren, he is most sincere law enforcement officer (now, at my age, retired). Openly believing in the supernatural, claiming his traditionalist Catholic faith, he hates demons for the misery they cause both humans and God. I admire such unquestioning faith. At the same time he’s clearly aware of his own foibles and weaknesses—something we might like to see more often in the police force. He doesn’t doubt, however, that demons are real. The concern, however, is that he might sometimes be a bit harsh on non-Christian religions. He admits that he’s not the most studious of demonologists.
No doubt, belief is important. Belief with knowledge is even better, it stands to reason. Problem is, academic or scientific studies on demons are sorely lacking. Sarchie was an associate of the controversial Malachi Martin (whose book Hostage to the DevilI blogged about some time ago). I feel for someone who wants to know more but runs into the limits imposed by academia. Where do you find information if the recognized specialists in a discipline don’t write about it so regular people can read it? It is a real dilemma. A scientific approach would declare the events in Deliver Us from Evil (also published as Beware the Night, before being released as a movie) are anecdotal. This is technically correct. No laboratory procedure exists to confirm something science denies exists in the first place. The only weapon against such a foe is faith. Thinking back to college, I don’t know what happened to Jim, but on this point I’m sure he would have agreed.
During my recent travels I had a layover at Sea-Tac Airport. Since I don’t get out much, I always find a walk through the airport a way of measuring what other people find important. At least in a circumscribed way. When you’re traveling you’re limited in your options. Most airlines have addressed passenger ennui by offering devices with electronic entertainment. Instead of an in-flight movie, you’ll have choices of what you want to do, courtesy of the endless magic of in-flight wifi. So the thinking goes. Airports, it would stand to reason, will offer plenty of travel-size diversions. The kinds of things you’re allowed to take onto a plane but which won’t or can’t be used to harm others. A sign at Sea-Tac reads “Books. Food. And yes, beer. Just ahead.” An interesting choice of offerings.
I was strangely heartened by the pride of place given to books. Yes, people still find the book on a plane satisfying. Stories have a way of drawing us in. Making us forget that we’re in a cramped space filled with strangers and recirculated, pressurized air. Books have the ability to take us far away. It’s a magic that movies can’t always achieve. Books leave more to the imagination. I recently rediscovered this on a solo trip across the Atlantic. I used the opportunity to read a novel cover-to-cover. The impact was incredible. For those six hours I was on the ground, following the adventures of young people caught up in the liminal zone of adventure and love. It was a powerful experience.
On my daily commute I tend to read non-fiction. Perhaps it’s the result of earning a doctorate, or perhaps it’s the stigma of enjoyable reading being “fluff.” The great majority of books I read this way teach me a lot. I read about many different subjects, and have recently learned to make commuting time a type of research exercise. But then, a cross-country plane ride is different. While an evening commute from New York City can stretch to three hours or more, that’s fairly rare. Instead, air time is unbroken time. I look forward to it with the prospect of a good novel. Airports are one place where hoi polloi don’t mind hanging out in a bookstore. Yes, the fare will be mostly bestsellers, but anything that gets people to read is a good thing. And, of course, if that doesn’t work for you there’s always beer. Just ahead.
Those of us who watch horror are often asked “why?” Many of us have a difficult time answering that question. To be sure, there are those who like thrills, blood, and violence, but some of us do not. We can’t seem to help ourselves—watching those in difficult, dark places hardly seems edifying, and yet we do it anyway. After reading Jason Zinoman’s book with the supernaturally long subtitle, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, I may have gained a little insight in my own case. Zinoman is a film critic, so he has an automatic excuse. What I found interesting among the narratives of the directors and writers of modern horror is that these were largely men who grew up with absent fathers. Not all of them, of course—demographics are never so neat—but enough of them to start to discern a pattern. The world can be a scary place without a father.
It’s no accident that some religions use the father image to refer to God. Amid the chaos and uncertainty of life that has evolved to benefit the aggressive, the more contemplative often experience fear. Having grown up without a father, I think I might have a better idea now about why I watch what I do. As I’ve often told family and friends, I do not like being scared. Startle moments in movies bother me. I don’t like blood and gore—I’m squeamish both in real life and in the diegesis of the film I’m watching. Yet something compels me to keep coming back. Is it related to the fact that many of those who gave us the classics in the field (and yes, there are bona fide, canonical members even in this genre) know this same sense of childhood alienation that I did? The missing father is, in our culture, a source of horror.
I don’t mean to overly psychologize what Zinoman is doing here. He’s telling the untold story of the auteurs of the field. Some of them are familiar and others less so. They tended to grow up reading H. P. Lovecraft—I’m more of a Poe fan, myself, although Lovecraft still manages to deliver an existential angst that will do in a pinch—and they found ways of expressing the anxiety of being alive. Most of them are highly intelligent people. Some have even been professors. They learned to tap a deep source of fundamental fear that speaks to some of us on a level that other emotions don’t. I still can’t say why I enjoy a good horror film, but maybe now I’ll be able to do so without feeling like I need to make excuses.
Perhaps it’s all just coincidence, but once in a while a number of unexpected things come together. Since I do a lot of reading this often happens in the context of books. The current case begins with my first noticing Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. I saw a review online, and since I enjoy contemporary novels that build on the worlds created by H. P., I added it to my reading list. The first coincidental aspect of it was that I found in Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca. Like most independent bookstores, it’s not huge, so the selection of books that cater to my odd tastes is always adventitious. I found it on the staff recommendation shelf and recalled that it was on my reading list. A second coincidence came in finding Neal Stephenson’s name under a cover blurb. My brother-in-law’s name is enough to get a book onto the bestseller’s lists, but I had no idea this kind of book would be to his tastes as well.
I began reading it right away. The third happenstance is that Ruff crafted a biblically literate story here. In a day when those of us associated with the Bible are definitively passé, it is nice to see popular fiction fighting back a little bit. Not that Ruff is advocating or proselytizing, but his finely tuned story is definitely enhanced with a bit of biblical knowledge. He’s unapologetic about it. In our religion-critical outlook these days we sometimes forget that the Bible has several stories that maintain, and even reward, contemporary interest. The most obvious example in Lovecraft Country is the story of Cain. There are plenty of others that can be dug out as well, and Ruff even leaves some on the surface so that they aren’t hard to find. Not that this is a religious book. It’s just not afraid of religion.
Some may find that odd in a homage to the noted atheist Lovecraft. What they may not see is that the master himself used religion from time to time in his tales of horror. Also, for those who are willing to be honest, we know that an unsavory racism resided in Lovecraft’s outlook. Ruff, like other writers who see the positive side of this author’s work, tells a story of African-American struggles in the “idyllic” 1950s. The protagonists, dropped into a world of real Lovecraftian magic—and in a very self-aware way—are all a close-knit black family and their friends. Which led to another coincidence. Quite unconnectedly, I’d been reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This plays an important part in the story as well. Sometimes reading itself can lead to a cascading set of coincidences. Lovecraft Country is one instance where it happened, but that may just be my unusual taste in books.
So it finally happened. Sean Spicer, I mean. Resigned. It must’ve been an impossible job, lying for a liar. The art of lying requires a knowledge of what’s true in order to be effectively done. Since truth is a commodity decidedly rare in Washington, DC, and imports aren’t reliable, to be a liar’s liar takes some considerable skill. Now, all people lie from time to time. Politicians more than most. If you’re too naive to believe that, well, I’m the president of the United States. Tweet. QED. I was in Washington the day of the inauguration from Hell. I was there for purposes of participating in the Women’s March the next day. A curious family member attended the inauguration and swore to what the cameras revealed—it was poorly attended. The next day the otherwise muddy mats—why they chose white I’ll never know—revealed the line where the crowds had stopped the day before. It wasn’t very far back, if I believe my own eyes.
The doleful night of nights, Sean Spicer made his first press appearance. It was the best attended inauguration ever, he lied. Those of us in DC at the time stared at the television screen in disbelief. Shortly after that we were informed that “alternative facts” revealed the way the president preferred to view reality. It has stayed that way pretty much ever since. The amazing thing is that Spicer lasted this long. Trump appointees come with a short shelf life. Behind-kissery will only get you so far. The funny thing was to watch the interweaving of untruths as Spicer spouted a falsehood only to have Trump trump him with yet a different post-truth answer.
The problem with dishonesty is that it quickly snowballs. In the case of the present administration it started well before January and the season for snow. Now it’s July and the melting is picking up speed. Past presidents, as bad as some may have been, seem to have had, at least to a reasonable degree, the greater good of the country in mind. Now we’ve got a commander-in-chief who takes everything personally and who can’t keep a press secretary even after he bans cameras from the room. And still his supporters think he’s doing a great job. Meanwhile, Spicer’s made a celebrity of himself. His resignation comes as no surprise since Trump staffers constantly find themselves living the lie. And for those Tea Partiers who still support 45, it would be a good idea to learn what it means to “bear false witness.” Oh, and the Bible says “thou shalt not” just before that.
One of the benefits of “getting away from it all” is the blessed respite from news. Given the political situation these day I suppose that’s a rather risky proposition since the government is now based on presidential moods rather than any kind of policy or strategy. I worried as I got onto the plane home whether regulations might have changed when I was in the air and whether I’d be landing in the same country as the one from which I’d taken off. Maybe it was more than just time zones that we were changing. Being a child of the ‘60s I couldn’t help thinking about the Twilight Zone—getting onto a plane and then something happens. Quite a few episodes deal with that theme. Only now it’s real time. Real fear.
I have to wonder about the impact of constant news. Since November I’ve been obsessed with frequent updates—scanning headlines for any sign of hope that what began as a joke might have finally reached its punchline. Instead, the press has fallen into normalizing Trump, writing and reporting as if this is what happens in a democracy. It should be illegal to elect a dictator. It’s one of those logical conundrums, but it is a real one. Democracy shouldn’t be just those people who feel like they should getting out to vote. It should be a legal obligation. We know that if votes were counted straight up Trump could not have won the election. Since politicians like to play games we now live in the Twilight Zone of government. Every day Trump is allowed to remain in office the more credibility in government erodes. The knock-on effect will continue for years.
Since stepping off that plane I’ve been wondering what has changed over the past week. Has some basic fact of life been overturned by a presidential temper tantrum? Is what I’m doing now illegal? Has a horse been made a senator? Anything is possible. When I last paid attention it seemed we were well on our way to becoming the United States of Russia. I’m afraid to look at the headlines. The glow of getting away from it all hasn’t faded yet. It’s a hazy, dreamy reality that makes government seem like a bad dream. What would happen if they privatized air traffic control when I was in the air? The results are just to scary to contemplate. I think I need a vacation.
There’s bound to be a logical explanation for how it got there. After all, this is private property and people have been here all day long. Somebody would have noticed if fishermen had stomped up this boardwalk, dropping their catch along the way. There’s no place to dock a boat. And yet here it is in all its Fortean glory. A fish out of water. Literally. It’s a perch, I think. About eight inches long. Forty yards from the nearest water. Other than the flies all over it, it looks in good shape. As if it were out for a swim in the dry air and lost its way back to the nearby lake. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation, but I can’t help but think of Charles Fort and his witty takedown of conventional reasoning.
In addition to fish, this lake also hosts ospreys and bald eagles. Just yesterday morning I saw one flapping above the water looking for breakfast. And one of my relatives saw an eagle struggling with a fish the other day—an issue of maintaining air-speed velocity when fully laden, I think—only to have to catch and release. Could that have happened twice? Raptor drops the slippery, heavy fish and can’t fit under the pine trees with that wingspan to pick the thing up. Possibly. It’s not the most fun explanation, but it will do when logic’s non-negotiable.
Charles Fort, the great anomalist, is perhaps most famous for his irrepressible insistence that rains of fish had a more exotic explanation than a tornado sucking them up only to drop them far from water. In his puckish way, he wrote how such “damned facts” were explained away by convention. Fort liked to hold the door open for the wider possibilities. Meanwhile we’re stuck here with the unarguable reality that there’s a dead fish by the boardwalk, far from water and a logic that makes me ask, if it fell from a bird’s talons why does it look so perfect? No twigs or pine needles picked up from its heavenly plummet. No obvious injuries to its piscine flesh. Even had some disgruntled fisherman rowed up unobserved and flung a perch as far as he could, the thing would’ve had to’ve had quite a spiral on it to’ve made it this far from the lakeshore. Science works by sweeping the facts outside the norm off the table. I’m not saying there’s anything paranormal about this fish, I’m just wondering what Fort would’ve made of it, beyond a free lunch.
“I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on that hard law of life, which lies at the root of religion and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress.” These words occur near the beginning of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s confession, the very manuscript that closes Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Upon reading the book, along with the preface and afterword clearly meant to pad out the thin volume, I realized that I was not alone in having known the story all my life but never having read it. Western culture is steeped in the idea like so much strong English tea. The story of the divided self. The eternal question of who I really am. Like Frankenstein’s creature, Jekyll and Hyde found immediate resonance in the pantheon of monsters. Here was something with which we could all identify, but which we all would deny. Or would we?
Jekyll notes that the root of religion—proper behavior, moral living—is a source of distress. And this before the era of Nones and non-believers. Religion has that reputation. “Be good or else!” Or fire insurance, as some call it. Religion, in the popular imagination, isn’t so much about sublimity any more. Or transcendence. Somewhere along the way it got fixated at about the level of our genitals and what we should never, ever do with them. Hyde’s sins, as commentators frequently note, are anything but explicit. He tramples a young girl and kills an old man. Beyond that we know nothing of his monstrosity. Is it so hard to believe the restraint concerns his sexuality? After all, his friend Utterson—well, Jekyll’s friend Utterson—enjoys his wine. Both respectable men seem to have hearty appetites. Apart from violence, what other dissipation is there?
Like many first-time readers I can’t recall how I first learned of the mad scientist and even madder thug that make up the namesake of this story. For some reason I never made—even remotely—a religious connection with it. It was a monster story, after all. Innocent fun for a Saturday afternoon. The experience of reading the book was a bit more jarring than that. Jekyll’s confession isn’t exactly easy to read. It is like going to the confessional with the curtain drawn and all the lights on. And yes, the implications are religious after all. It is a little book with a big point to make.
Two people looking at the same thing see something different. Since we’re living with a government of distorted perspective this truth appears refreshed daily. I was reminded of this while picking huckleberries. Huckleberries, according to the local edible berry guide, are called many different things. In this part of the country you know them when you see them. And if you see them you pick them. They appeal to the frustrated hunter-gatherer left in us city-dwellers. As I was trying my best to fill my bucket, I kept thinking of those who only see nature’s bounty as a means of turning a profit. In my mind they’re meanies—those who take all the fun out of the few freedoms we have left—although I realize that it’s a matter of perspective. Consider the huckleberry.
I’m a mere seasonal visitor to these parts. Since not too many of my own species make this location their permanent domicile, that’s perfectly natural. Many of the berry pickers I’ve encountered have been seasonal guests as well. There are the more “industrial” pickers, though. In a good year huckleberries can command fifty dollars a gallon on the local market. Unless you know an unfrequented secret site, a gallon can take several hours to pick even in a promising location. Overall, you need to arrive before anyone else and get the most productive bushes so that you don’t have to wander around the mountainside in search of a more lucrative locale. Not to mention that, like most berries, they have a limited shelf life. Nature prefers sharers to hoarders.
While I’m picking I generally think of bears. Unlike my species they don’t have the grocery store option. These berries are their survival, I suppose. Nature does provide. That’s how evolution works—we form symbiotic relationships with our environment. The meanies, however, can’t see beyond the self. What nature provides must be accumulated for my own benefit and not that of others. There are never enough huckleberries to go around, the industrial mind thinks, and so I’d better control the availability and set my price. You don’t even have to like huckleberries to do it. Ironically we call this having a gift. Standing here on this isolated mountainside, bent over a bush offering nature’s abundance, I believe that I’ve found a gift. I have to remind myself, however, that this too is a matter of perspective. It is a perspective that tastes right to me.
Western Pennsylvania, from which I hail, has few claims to fame. One, still largely forgotten, is that it was the birthplace of the petroleum industry. Remains of the early exploitation of the fossil fuel still lie scattered carelessly in the woods. Another claim to fame is that the region was the adopted home of George Romero and served as the setting for his groundbreaking film, Night of the Living Dead. Unintentionally, Romero created what continues to shamble on in the form of the modern zombie. Although the movie doesn’t call the living dead “zombies,” it established the trope of their endless hunger for human flesh and their rabid bite. So it was with sadness that I read of Romero’s death a couple of days ago. Although he wasn’t from Pittsburgh, he established the city as zombie central. It’s nice that he gave something back.
Zombies have, due to their protean nature, become a fixture among the monster constellations. They represent the worst of what people can be—selfish and brainless, without empathy, their own cravings being the only matters of importance to them. Sounds kind of like the Republican Party. The rest of the world calls them monsters. Night of the Living Dead shocked audiences of the late 1960s with its graphic portrayal of cannibalism and thoughtless destruction. Interestingly, the choice of a strong African American lead for the movie was, according to interviews with Romero, simply a matter of his being the best actor, not an intentional racial statement. (That too reminded me of western Pennsylvania; there were racial tensions where I grew up, but many of us befriended those who were “different” without any clue that it should matter at all.) Duane Jones carried off the role of Ben with conviction and energy. He died young but he never became a zombie.
To make an impact intention need not be present. While Romero denied for the rest of his life that the movie was “about” the Vietnam War, and that his choice of a black lead was a racial statement, both of these factors became facts about the film. Concepts, in other words, like zombies, may rise from the dead. Beyond the shock and gore, the movie made a powerful, if unintentional, statement. It helped to define Romero’s future career. A success in a difficult industry may indeed decide one’s fate. George Romero would go on to make many other monster movies. Western Pennsylvania would become a zombie haven. You never know what you might find scattered about in those forgotten woods of your childhood home.
Whenever I travel in the northwest, I keep an eye open for what one colleague calls “charismatic megafauna.” You know, the big animals that are so rare to see that they develop a charming, if imaginary, persona. Not that I’ve ever seen much of it here. It’s rarity is part of the charm. My usual hope is to see a moose—something that happens every three or four years. Black bears are even rarer. Grizzly bears, which still inhabit this area, and mountain lions I’ve never seen. I know they’re there, but their agenda is not to be seen. My first full day here I was sitting outside working on an academic paper. My time off work is rare, and when I get a moment, even in the wilderness, I try hard not to waste it. I had the feeling of being watched. Not the creepy kind of feeling, but the kind where you think an animal might be keeping a wary eye on you.
I looked over the top of my book. Several yards distant I could see a head bobbing up and down. Then I noticed a black patch on a nearby lodgepole pine. It took a few seconds for the red head to register. A mated pair of pileated woodpeckers. Not exactly huge, but they are large birds. And since they are the personality behind Woody Woodpecker, well, I guess you can call that charismatic. Charismatic enough for me to put down my Ugaritic mythology and go inside to fetch a camera. Of course they were gone by the time I’d returned. I decided to take a walk down the track in a vain hope of finding them again. Once in a while charismatic megafauna cooperate. There they were, one going after ants on the ground, the other perched above pecking wood.
Most of our large fauna we’ve driven to near extinction. Humans can’t stand not to be the biggest thing around. The megafauna remain, however, hidden though they may be. An online site for this area posted a photo of a cougar snapped last summer. I’m not sure when the last time a grizzly might’ve wandered down from Canada, but since last November I’m not sure why they’d even bother. Even the moose seem coy. Animals don’t do what we want them to do. Those that we can’t domesticate follow their own agendas and calendars we can’t hope to comprehend. As they flap away I can swear these woodpeckers are laughing at me.
All photographs are lies. That moment preserved, formerly on celluloid but now with electrons, is gone for good as soon as the shutter is snapped. The camera doesn’t see as the eye sees. I was reminded of this during a mountain thunderstorm. I awoke early, coated with jet lag and the residue of my regular early morning schedule. It was still dark, but the reddish sunlight soon wrestled through a valley fed by a creek across the lake. The color was impressive, but my camera washed it out to a diluted Creamsicle orange. In reality the clouds were roiling overhead and lightning was streaking through a thunderhead like synapses firing violently in a massive brain. Thunder in the mountains can’t be photographed. Nor can it be forgot.
My work used to require quite a bit of travel. Before I would visit a campus I would spend some time on faculty pages, trying to put faces together with names. Impressed with how young these professors were, I’d knock on doors armed with foreknowledge of who might greet me. I wondered who these older people were when the door actually opened. It’s disconcerting to see someone age before your eyes. I would think back to the photographs online that had assured me this person would be much younger. The picture was a fossil. A moment frozen in time. The very next second after the photo capture that smiling face had changed. The best that we can hope for is a gross approximation.
Perceptions of reality, as all religions teach us, contain a healthy dose of illusion. While it contains ethereal beauty, this vision I’ve captured in my lens is only part of the picture. There is something deeper, more meaningful behind it. Photographs enhance memory. In the days before Photoshop they could be submitted as proof of an occurrence. They are a form of art. Whatever else they may be, they are also lies. Lies need not be of evil intent. Religions try to explain what some privileged individual realized was the truth. These who found a way of looking behind the photograph. The streaking lightning outside evades the slowness of my finger on the button. The thunder rolling and re-echoing through these valleys will remain in my head long after the sound waves cease to reverberate. Reality is more than it seems. Even my experience of this mountain thunderstorm is that of a single individual seeking enlightenment. Elsewhere others are up early, observing it too. What they experience may be something very different from me indeed. I have a photograph to prove it.