icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


Finding Memory


Somehow Bill Bryson's early book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, published over thirty years ago, showed up on my Kindle, apparently unread. I'd read some of his other travel memoirs, like A Walk in the Woods, but I couldn't remember uploading this one and started reading it. Bryson, then long resident in Great Britain, recounts touring parts of the United States that he'd visited in his youth, traveling south from Iowa through states east of the Mississippi and then north through states on the Atlantic coast. His recollections of family trips with parents and siblings sparked vague memories in me, and eventually mention of specific sites made me recall my own travels in them as a teenager. Those memories ended up being more vivid than what I was reading,


I grew up near Niagara Falls. In the summer of 1955, my traveling salesman father and I drove through central New York and Pennsylvania bound for Washington, DC, the southern limit of his route for Lockport Mills. I wrote about those travels in a section of my family memoir, Happenstance, where episodes about my parents' divorce and its aftermath alternate with episodes about being a 13-year-old alone on the road with my father for a week. Our journey together was perhaps generated by someone thinking I needed either to get closer to him or get more distant from my home life. My memoir was published ten years ago; reading Bryson's account of his travels sent me back into my book and the memories recorded there.


My father wanted me to see monuments and historic sites in Washington and Philadelphia. I kept a travel journal of sorts, and later pasted many photographs, some postcards, and scribbles of identification in a cheap binder. We toured the White House and some of the Capitol. When we climbed the Washington Monument, I raced ahead up the staircase, occasionally waiting for Dad to catch up. We circled the tower, squeezed among tourists lining the railings, and in the distance saw the White House across the Ellipse, the Capitol past the Smithsonian, and the Lincoln Memorial off near the Potomac River. I thought the view inspiring. In the Smithsonian, gawking at Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers' first plane, and objects from various presidents, I began to appreciate the preservation of historical objects. At both the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, we stared at presidential statues and read some of the inscriptions on the walls.


We crossed the Potomac to visit Arlington National Cemetery and watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the Memorial Amphitheatre Dad took the only photo of me on the trip, sitting in a stone chair in a very Lincolnesque pose. Remembering John Wayne's film, Sands of Iwo Jima, I snapped a picture of the U. S. Marine Memorial statue of soldiers raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi. My father wandered around the statue—he and his brother had both fought there during World War II. He didn't mention whether the memorial affected him, although he'd visited it before. Books and movies influenced my sense of history a lot back then. When we toured Gettsyburg on our way back north—I'd read The Red Badge of Courage and seen the movie with Audie Murphy—I thought again about Iwo Jima.


In Philadelphia, after visiting Independence Hall, site of the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution, Dad took me to the restored home of American flag seamstress Betsy Ross, to whom he believed we were distantly related—his mother, born Delia Lathrop Ross, was always called Betsy. Then we wound our way into an affluent suburban neighborhood, where his cousin—son of an older brother of my grandfather—and his family lived, all of them lively and gracious. We spent the night, extending my awareness of my father's side of the family, which I rarely encountered, and I couldn't help comparing their lifestyle to my family's circumstances.


In the morning Dad drove through rows of brownstone row houses, pointing out the architecture, but soon moved into downtown Philly, through narrow, cramped, littered city streets in heavy traffic, unnervingly crowded with jaywalkers and a ghetto population. On one busy street corner, an old black man staggered to the curb and pissed into the gutter, people constantly bustling around him. I thought later that driving down that street might have been my father's way of broadening my awareness of the world, making me compare his cousin's prosperous community with the abundant urban squalor here. I doubt that he pointed out the differences, but the contrast stayed with me. Cultural history, family history, personal history. The past I enjoyed touring. The present I needed to recognize as where I really lived.



Notes: Bryson, Bill. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.


Root, Robert. Happenstance. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2013.


Post a comment

Home Ground Revisited


Expecting to read aloud from Walking Home Ground soon, I re-familiarize myself with it and notice connections to what I've posted online since it was published. The work came together slowly, first as personal journal entries before expanding into a book manuscript. I read the Wisconsin writing of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and August Derleth, walked where they'd walked and journaled about it, and reread Thoreau, as all those writers had done. Eventually, the manuscript followed the trajectory of those influences, from Thoreau to me, quoting them abundantly.


Those writers celebrated their time in nature. Thoreau expressed alarm at thinking of work while he walked in the woods: "In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?" Muir exuberantly described arriving at his new home as "This sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature's warm heart" and recorded seeing passenger pigeons "flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, like a mighty river in the sky." Leopold wondered, while "watching the green fire die in a wolf's eyes," about "Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the preservation of the world." Derleth told how "long walks into the countryside around Sac Prairie disclosed it as nothing else could have done," listing sightings of whippoorwills, woodcocks, "blue racers in the ecstasy of mating," and more. Readers experience natural surroundings deeply in these works.


I completed and published Walking Home Ground roughly six years ago. Since then, I've read more recent, truly terrific nature books, like Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, Suzanne Simard's Finding the Mother Tree, Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, Barbara Hurd's The Epilogues, Leila Philip's Beaverland, and Ed Yong's An Immense World, all solidly literary and ecologically learned. They tell me things that enrich my understanding of the way the elements of the world we live in work. I gain a deeper understanding of unique qualities of whatever life form or locale they focused on, all far more complicated in their existence than we once knew. They also reveal troubling knowledge about their futures on our planet—as well the future of our species. The nature books of the 21st Century provide urgent warnings and dire speculations about the direction the creatures and creations on the planet are heading.


Reviewing my observations about writers walking their home grounds, I feel unsettled by not having stressed implications for the future in what they examined. In The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, Muir was disturbed by the changes wrought in the landscape, prairie and savanna turned into farmland, the health of the environment endangered. Unable to convince new owners to preserve Fountain Lake, his awareness of what could be lost in the natural world sent him exploring and recording as much as he could.


Muir saw things as they were and tried to preserve them; Leopold saw things as they had become and tried to restore them. In A Sand County Almanac, he wrote of his own efforts at the Shack: "On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger and better society, we try to rebuild, by shovel and ax, what we are losing elsewhere." Time and change are a constant awareness in Leopold's writing; the elegiac is always an undercurrent in what he writes, as well as a sharp observant presence. The monument to the extinct passenger pigeon "commemorates the funeral of a species," he reflected, "Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know. To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons."


In Return to Walden West, Derleth recognized the changes occurring in his familiar landscape, and sought solace there. "I never found that nature failed me," he wrote. "While the condition of man on his planet slowly worsens, the pattern of the seasons changes not at all, however much nature's aspects reflect the damage wrought by man in his avarice and his devotion to false, unnatural values." He laments the "unceasing change" of the social world, the way most people

"never see themselves as integral to nature." He ends his Sac Prairie nonfiction series with a mixture of resignation and acceptance, letting him come to terms with his experience walking his home ground.


Retreat and withdrawal seem acceptable, even justified in those earlier nature writers; broader knowledge and deeper understanding are vitally convincing and necessary in the current ones. They are also disturbing if we're actually learning vital truths too late.



Be the first to comment

Umwelten and Beyond


Catching up on unread articles in The New York Times Book Review's year-end issue, I opened to the section on what they judge to be the ten best books of 2022 and realized that I'd been reading one nonfiction choice nightly, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong, for a week or so. They provided a cover image, a capsule review rich with merited praise, and a short excerpt, part of a paragraph about the speed and power of a striking rattlesnake that I'd already read and remembered well. Upstairs at my nightstand, I leafed through the book, pausing at each dogeared page where scenes or observations had caught my attention on various nights. Rich in vivid description and significant information about the animals it discusses, the book continually expands the reader's awareness of how all kinds of creatures operate in the world.


Yong draws on an amazing range of research—most pages throughout the book include footnotes adding to the informative paragraphs above and his extensive bibliography runs 45 pages—sharing not only abundant scientific reading but also onsite conversations with various researchers to learn what distinguishes the sensory ranges of all kinds of creatures. Chapters center on smells and tastes, light and ways of seeing, color, pain, heat, sound, and contact, as well as sensory powers humans might not know they themselves have or once had, powers other very different creatures consistently rely on.


Yong begins the book demonstrating how seven creatures in the same physical space might "experience it in wildly and wondrously different ways." As the book will show us, "every animal can only tap into a small fraction of reality's fullness," because each creature is "enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world." He introduces the key term Umwelt: "the part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience—its perceptual world," and uses the term Umwelten throughout the book to distinguish different ways that different creatures discern their world. For example, the chapter on electric fields examines such creatures as knifefishes and elephantfishes that "use their electric fields to sense their surroundings, and . . . communicate with each other. Electricity is to them what echoes are to bats, smells are to dogs, and light is to humans—the core of their Umwelt." Yong makes a good case for his assertion that "[t]o stand a chance of knowing what it is like to be another animal, we need to know almost everything about that animal': its senses, nervous system, needs, environment, "evolutionary past and its ecological present."


Examples abound throughout the book, encompassing an almost encyclopedic range of creatures. For example, observing heat-sensitive pits behind a rattlesnake's nostrils, Yong tells us they evolved among three groups of snakes, "two non-venomous constrictors, pythons and boas," and "the highly venomous and aptly named pit vipers—cottonmouths, copperheads, moccasins, and rattlesnakes." He points out that "a pit viper can detect the warmth of a rodent from up to a meter away. A blindfolded rattlesnake that's sitting on your head could sense the warmth of a mouse on the tip of your outstretched finger."


Such facts surface about other creatures throughout the book. For example: "Around 350 species of fish can produce their own electricity, and humans have known about their ability since long before anyone knew what electricity was." And: "After a busy night of insect-catching, big brown bats use a compass sense to return to their home roosts. After an early life in the open ocean, baby cardinal fish use a compass sense to swim back to the coral reefs where they were born. Mole-rats use their compass to find their way through their dark underground tunnels."


As exhilarating as his revelations about all kinds of creatures are, there's a darker aspect to what we learn. In his final chapter Yong details the ways humans have profoundly altered the Umwelten of Earth's other creatures. "We are closer than ever to understanding what it is like to be another animal, but we have made it harder than ever for other animals to be."


He heightens our awareness of where our world is now: "We normalize the abnormal, and accept the unacceptable. Remember that more than 80 percent of people live under light-polluted skies, and that two-thirds of Europeans are immersed in noise equivalent to constant rainfall. Many people have no idea what true darkness or quiet feels like . . . . As the problem of sensory pollution grows, our willingness to address it subsides." He asks, "How do we solve a problem that we don't realize exists." This book makes us more profoundly aware and gives us hope that we'll find a way to address it.



Notes: Yong, Ed. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us. New York: Random House, 2022.

Post a comment



I just happened upon an old photo of Leila Philip and me standing on either side of a graduate student whose master's committee we served on years ago. It was a timely glance—I'd just read Leila's most recent book, Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, and put it on a bookshelf alongside her two earlier works. Teaching in that graduate program for several years, we spent two summer weeks on campus, where I bought one of her books when she joined the faculty.


I expected A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family to resonate with my memories. Not only had I written a book on family and place set in western New York, but I also had researched the Hudson River for a potential travel memoir (never completed) comparing it with the Rhine. Here she records the challenges and the processes of researching family history "in search of the story or stories that could set the record straight," discovering "who these people were who had kept these files, those unsmiling faces on the walls, this place that always whispered, 'This is who you are.'" Her book is both conscientious and thorough.


Her earlier book, The Road Through Miyama, is an account of the two years she worked as a potterer's apprentice in the southern Japanese village of Miyama. I had become familiar with Japanese wood block prints from exhibits in the Art Institute of Chicago and owned guides to early 19th century works by Hokusai and Hiroshige. The black and white reproductions of such art in Philip's book, together with my appreciation of A Family Place, spurred me to acquire this book. In retrospect, I imagine it prompting her family memoir of place, as if her thorough blending of research and narrative experience in foreign surroundings innately modeled an application of that skill to a more personal enterprise. I envied her experience in Japan and valued her recording of her time there.


It had been years since I'd seen her, but those two books still anchored one end of a bookshelf mostly filled with work by Scott Russell Sanders, Patricia Hampl, and Joan Didion, essayists and memoirists who also modeled intimate examinations of particular places. I'll admit to being initially hesitant about acquiring a book about beavers—my biases tended toward birds and trees—but other recent texts had shifted my perspectives not only on other creatures but also on many elements of the natural world to which I'd given little attention. Day by day accounts of weather and climate—shrinking rivers and drying lakes, melting glaciers, rising seacoasts, habitat losses, species extinctions—made me more cognizant of how important it was to acknowledge what was happening to our world and to consider how little we'd invested in trying to preserve it.


And Leila Philip's first two books had been pretty absorbing reading. The depth and range of her research combined with her artful narrative skills promised a rewarding read with Beaverland that was quickly confirmed from the start. She's a writer you want to wander with, whose conversations with ecologists and environmental researchers you appreciate overhearing, whose discoveries of unexpected landscapes makes you more alert to the ones around you. The scale of her research into the history of the beaver in North America is impressive, and the book opens with a description of the beaver's surprisingly varied features and the assertion that "one million years ago, beavers the size of bears roamed North America."


Having seen a beaver in a nearby pond with a beaver dam and then not seeing it anymore, Philip makes up her mind to learn whatever she can about beavers and visit sites where her understanding of their habits and history will be enhanced. She will learn of beavers' relationship with Indigenous peoples across the continent, their eventual extinction through European alteration of the landscape and exploitation through voluminous fur trading, their eventual return thanks to conservation advocacy. She will visit sites in the Northeast, the Northwest, and the Midwest and learn about sites in Alaska and Europe. She will attend fur trade auctions and beaver sanctuaries. She will report on ways to manage beaver-caused flooding problems through nonlethal methods (like installing pond-levelers and culvert fencing). In one photograph of 64,000 charred acres from an Idaho wildfire, she calls our attention to one large green patch which has been preserved by the lifestyle of beavers.


Beaverland is richly informative, thoroughly thoughtful, and convincingly argues our need to value beavers and their lifestyle. While enlarging our understanding of our continental past, she expands our sense of what we might need to do for our future. Each of her books enriches its readers, just as the writing of it has enriched her own understanding of what she experiences.


Notes: Philip, Leila. The Road Through Miyama. New York: Random House, 1989.


Philip, Leila. A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.


Philip, Leila. Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America. New York: Twelve, 2022.


Be the first to comment


Birgit Schössow's cover image for The New Yorker's November 28, 2022, issue imitates an 1831 Japanese woodblock print (ukiyo-e). It's partly an homage to Hokusai's "The Great Wave" (or "Under the Wave off Kanagawa") in which, beyond barely visible manned wasen (traditional boats), a small distant image of Mount Fuji stands in a trough below the towering crest of the wave. It may be the best-known image from Hokusai's "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji." Schössow renders the arc of the waves as more advanced and ominous and, in place of Fuji, she's substituted the distant, darkened outline of Manhattan. It isn't a random alteration of Hokusai's scene—his vessels may make it through the waves; Schössow's shadowy city seems more vulnerable, more menaced.


The major articles in what The New Yorker designates as "The Climate Issue" focus on that theme. David W. Brown's "Journey to Doomsday" recounts an expedition to Antarctica's "Florida-sized" bowl-shaped Thwaites Glacier to estimate its likelihood of collapsing as warm waters eat away ice supporting it. He narrates efforts to determine "whether Thwaites has fifty, a hundred, or five hundred years left" before it slides into the sea. Readers gain a detailed appreciation of the challenges that researchers face at the South Pole—their ship can't reach the glacier and flown-in teams trying to explore a variety of sites wrestle with high seas, high winds, loss of visibility, extreme cold, difficulty with communication, and shifting levels of uncertainty.


Emily Witt's article "The Coming Storm," enhanced by a sprawling photo by Ace Adams of the barrier island of Kivalina and the low, vast Alaskan coast beyond, examines the challenge to Inupiat villagers as Arctic Ocean waters rise. Witt's visits to both the island and the mainland provide a thorough understanding of the history of the region in terms of the changes Indigenous people have undergone culturally from their residence prior to the invasive influx of European development and politics beginning centuries ago and, despite changes in the 21st Century, still affecting them today as their climate changes and their financial situation limits their ability to counteract its effects. Witt's report on global warming's impact on the Arctic as the result of of industrial commerce imposed upon the region by Canada and the United States gives readers a deeper appreciation of the complexity of dealing with climate change issues.


The longest article in the issue is by Elizabeth Kolbert, who gives us a disturbing follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize winning earlier book The Sixth Extinction in "A Vast Experiment." Both book and article ought to be required reading for all of us. Here, she explores "stories we tell ourselves about the Earth's future" by following "The Climate Crisis from A to Z." Sixteen drawings by Wesley Allbrook illustrate many of the items she will highlight along the way. In the alphabetically opening section, she reports on Swedish scientist Svente Arrhenius' early 20th century speculation that increases in carbon dioxide would affect a rise in global temperature in roughly 3000 years and points out that actually the "threshold could be reached within decades." She doesn't fault Arrhenius for getting it wrong: "Here we all are, watching things fall apart. And yet, deep down, we don't believe it." Her second section recounts the instances of agreement since world leaders at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero (1992) claimed that "radical change was needed" to avert global disaster and then centers on Greta Thunberg's 2021 account of all those decades of proposals as "blah, blah, blah"—a great many pompous promises followed by overwhelming inactivity.


In subsequent sections Kolbert is fairly specific about the kind of problematic changes the planet faces and the challenges human populations must overcome should they truly engage them. She quotes Vaclav Smil's observation that "the gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast" and his reference to studies that "rely on a variety of unreliable assumptions—that existing technology will be deployed at fantastic rates, or that nonexistent technologies will be deployed at fantastic rates, or that humanity's ever-growing appetite for energy will suddenly be curbed, or some combination of all three." Kolbert then explores problems that will arise whenever any attempts to act on climate change occur. The essay ends at Lake Mead, comparing the optimistic voice on an old tour tape with a disturbing view of Hoover Dam's depleted lake environment and deepening aridity. She concludes, "Whatever we want to believe about our future, there are limits, and we are up against them."


Elsewhere, Philip Montgomery's photographs of wind turbines rising three hundred feet along "the spine of the Appalachians" and Robin Coste Lewis's powerful poem "To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness" further broaden readers' perspectives. This issue is compellingly rich and necessary, one everyone ought to know about and read.


Note: The New Yorker, November 28, 2022


Depenbrock, Julie. "This is what's at risk from climate change in Alaska," Morning Edition, NPR (December 22, 2022)


Be the first to comment

Art and Memory


In our two-story condo, the first floor encompasses three adjoining open spaces. I'd come downstairs for a break from accomplishing nothing on my laptop, crossed the kitchen and entered the living-dining area, when I noticed the painting perched on our small upright piano. The table where I scribble this in one corner of the condo's back wall provides a straight-ahead view of piano, living room furniture, seldom-used gas fireplace, coat closet, and front wall with two tall windows and matching entranceway. To the right is our kitchen counter-breakfast area, kitchen cabinets, refrigerator, and hallway leading to the garage and the stairway to our second floor. It's pretty compact but not a particularly crowded space.


Almost every wall displays images in various sizes and varying media, some random purchases, some gifts, all having hung in those spaces for years. Only the small landscape painting propped on the piano keyboard is a new acquisition—it will likely adorn a different space elsewhere in the condo before long. Even as I crossed over to study it more closely again, memories began opening up about the scene in the painting and also about the painter, and then memories started spreading around the room.


The painting is a watercolor that depicts a cluster of buildings and boats along a riverbank below a distant church spire and empty pale blue sky. It's a scene set in St. Joseph, Michigan, where the artist, my mother-in-law, lived most of her life and where my wife and her siblings grew up. We have other paintings by her, one hanging behind our dining table. That one, one of her most accomplished paintings, larger and more colorful, portrays sand dunes, beach, cloud-filled sky, lake shoreline, dark clumps of beach grass and weathered trees. We'd passed the setting often when we visited St. Joe and strolled along the Lake Michigan shore. It has a prominent spot in our home.


Kitty-corner from that picture is another personally connected one, a large bright painting by our friend Carole Steinberg Berk of a cluster of buildings on a Greek island where she and her husband Mike once vacationed—other images by her hang upstairs in our bedroom. The island image is a vivid balance of white buildings and blue sea and sky. When you enter our front door, you immediately have the clearest view of those shoreline paintings, suggesting that we are fond of landscapes and also fond of those artists. That they simultaneously commemorate losses in family and friendship will not be obvious.


Other artworks upon our walls have personal links for us: our daughter's close-up photograph of a leaf; a former student's photograph from above the Mackinac Bridge; a picture of three white horses sharing a quilt and bed pillows for the essayist Kathleen Stocking's book The Long Arc of the Universe; landscape photos from Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail and Door Peninsula. For the most part, every time I pause again to study one of these pictures, I open a door to memories of the artist and/or the donor and/or the locale.


Unlike the sand dune shoreline painting, which we received after my mother-in-law's death several decades ago, we only recently acquired the picture of the riverbank, though we'd seen it long before. For all those years, my brother-in-law—my wife's twin—possessed it. She received it a few months ago, after her brother's unexpected death. Looking at that painting, I can't help shifting my gaze to those by my mother-in-law and my friend's widow. A wave of melancholy arises from them all.


Eventually, inevitably, all these paintings and other artwork will be passed on—hopefully not soon—most likely to our heirs, who will decide whether to keep them or donate them elsewhere. As we look at them and recognize their sources, abundant images arise—of conversations, games, rooms and residences, holiday gatherings, emotions deep in memory. Our children will have some similar recollections of their grandparents and their uncle and places they once visited—the family home in St. Joe, recent summer gatherings on the Leelanau Peninsula—but it's unlikely that the artifacts I survey here will trigger the same specific thoughts.


And then the images will stand on their own. For other, unrelated casual viewers they may provoke responses to composition quality, memories of other images, or ideas about how to render such a scene, but those viewers will likely have little sense of who the artist was or what compelled the creation of the scene. Whatever the art inspires in them will not be what surfaces in those of us who stand before it now, making connections only the artist's family can make. We consider our losses a lot these days. It's good to be reminded, while we can be, of what we deeply valued—and value still.


Post a comment

Modern Song

I plan to shelve Bob Dylan's The Philosophy of Modern Song, a birthday gift this year, beside my two-volume copy of Paul McCartney's The Lyrics from last year. It's been a while since I've purchased recordings by popular performers, but when I did, I more often collected singer/songwriters than cover artists. I have Dylan's albums on LPs, cassette tapes, and CDs, as well as his earlier 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One, all stored in various boxes and cabinets. Since his new book arrived so soon after publication, I had no time to wonder whether I'd buy it myself. It doesn't collect Dylan's lyrics, as McCartney's does, but is devoted to considerations of recordings and performers from the second half of the twentieth century, though some songs were composed in the first half and a couple in this century. He reacts to sixty-six separate songs spanning a wide range of subgenres, composers and lyricists, and recording artists and cites lyrics more by vague paraphrase than direct quotation.


For example, the third chapter, following chapters about Bobby Bare and Elvis Costello, discusses "Without a Song" as recorded by Perry Como in 1951, accompanied by a photo of sheet music crediting Vincent Youmans as the composer (in 1929) and Lawrence Tibbets as the performer who sang it in The Prodigal, a 1931 MGM movie. I remember Como's version—my family watched his TV show each week (he duetted once with Bing Crosby), and we had the record; mere mention of it brings the melody and a few lyrics to mind. But the fourth chapter discusses, at greater length, "Take Me from this Garden of Evil," written and recorded by Jimmy Wages in 1956 and never released. From time-to-time Dylan draws on a vast, expansive breadth of exposure to "modern song," thoughtfully examined but devoid of academic reference. It's as if Dylan is casually sharing his thoughts about each song without supplying references that would help readers track down texts or recordings. You mostly have to have heard them yourself long ago and draw on your own memories.


Dylan's idea of the philosophy of modern song is expressed in a variety of popular types—ballads, rhythm and blues, country and western, folk, show tunes, rock and roll, and more. Composers range widely as well: Little Richard, Pete Townsend (of the Who), Jackson Browne, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht ("Mack the Knife"), Willie Nelson, Domenico Modugno ("Volare"), Hank Williams, Rodgers and Hart, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, Pete Seeger, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Lerner and Lowe. Most chapters open with a second-person address to the speaker in the song, as if the prospective singer is speaking to himself—or trying to inhabit and identify with the personality that will project from the lyrics.


Take the first two pages of Chapter 35, on "Blue Bayou" by Roy Orbison: "In this song you've been saving your pesos, penny pinching all your small change. Working freelance, doing drudge work so you can get back to Blue Bayou. A place close to heaven that lingers in your head." Later a second section of the chapter will talk about the song: "This is both a spectacular song and a spectacular record." There's a darker opening for "Your Cheatin' Heart" by Hank Williams: "This is the story of the con artist. In this song you're the swindler who sold me a faulty bill of goods—beguiled me, double crossed me, and now you're out of moves and soon you'll be groaning with prolonged suffering. How do I know? I just know." Is this what's necessary for a singer, to become the person reciting the lyrics from within himself? Do you alter your identity with every set of lyrics you perform?


I haven't said enough about everything that's in this book visually as well as dramatically. But possibly Dylan wraps it up in his final pages, riffing on Dion and the Belmonts' 1959 hit "Where or When," a 1937 song by Rodgers and Hart performed in both stage and screen versions of Babes in Arms. Dylan considers the difference as like reincarnation—"star-crossed romance playing out in different times and in different flesh." (I have the single somewhere.) Dylan claims that Dion's voice "captures that moment of shimmering persistence of memory in a way the printed word can only hint at." For Dylan, music "is of a time but also timeless; a thing with which to make memories and the memory itself." He concludes, "Music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again and again."


Most of these songs are likely accessible online, but Dylan makes me eager to hear them again on my old Victrola. I need to discover who I think is listening to them now.


Note: Dylan, Bob. The Philosophy of Modern Song. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

Be the first to comment

Who Am I?


"What can we learn," Joshua Rothman wonders in a New Yorker essay, "by asking if we've always been who we are? . . . Are you the same person you were as a child?" Questions worth asking but answering them requires knowing who you were as a child and who you are now and figuring out how to determine whether those two identities are the same or different. I return to Rothman's challenge to readers: "Try to remember life as you lived it years ago, on a typical day in the fall." A typical fall day in my childhood quickly arose in memory, but I needed to get inside that skinny blonde kid, not just conjure him from photographs or recall the places and people he recognized outside himself.


As a child I was a relentless reader who tended to create adventure stories where I pretended to be a superhero of some kind or a western hero of some kind or a Robin-Hoody/Zorro-ishy swashbuckler of some kind. What I read in comic books or comic strips or heard on the radio fired my imagination towards variations that suited my preferences. I never imagined myself playing sports and seldom attended sporting events or watched them on TV. Hanging out with friends I preferred donning a costume like those worn by action stars and pretending to overcome various villains. We never played on opposing teams trying to beat one another—we were always the good guys. When hiking across town and climbing trees in Outwater Park, I tried to emulate Tarzan's movements from tree to tree or ducked into the only cave-like space on the hillside to hide out or pretended a shootout in the cemetery made me leap (or at least clamber) over tombstones.


Reading, viewing, listening, and writing isolated me. My neighborhood friends didn't go to my elementary school and had other friends elsewhere; I had a lot of time to myself. I often claimed to be sick and stayed home from school catching up on my reading and imagining myself to be someone else. I had my own bedroom, my own radio and record player, and the solitude to sing along with teen performers and share their lyrical emotions without indulging in lifestyles the songs implied.


Somehow I got through high school and college and became a high school English teacher—still writing all the while, mostly short stories, one very short high school novel, a college newspaper column, reviews and poems—and went on to grad school, where I took up creative nonfiction as a scholar and an essayist/memoirist. I taught composition and creative nonfiction for almost thirty years, published academic articles and books, and eventually concentrated on composing literary nonfiction.


My essays and memoirs were largely either about where I'd been and what I'd done there or about other writers and what they'd written about. That seems very much like an extension of what I'd been doing when I was young, learning from what I'd read or viewed or listened to and imagining myself as one of those people. In youth I had modeled myself on Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran; in adulthood I connected to Ruth Douglass, Isabella Bird, John Muir, and others. My literary studies angled towards dramatists and essayists whose work appealed to me most, often less celebrated than others, or whom I identified with more, like the Restoration dramatist Thomas Southerne, E. B. White as an essayist, and nature writers Aldo Leopold and August Derleth.


When I consider the adjectives that would best describe me as a youth, I think of these: withdrawn, solitary, reserved, self-absorbed, shy. Over the intervening decades I had to learn to be (or to at least seem) more sociable, approachable, cheerful, and outgoing. All these later traits were necessary developments for me to become a lecturer, classroom teacher, scholastic advisor, husband, and father. I've been mostly comfortable in those roles and certainly the happiest.


But it occurs to me that those traits aren't ones that define me for myself. I'm now a retiree, almost exclusively an aged homebody, and my most outward-seeming behavior is what I'm doing here: writing about what I've been reading, reacting to ideas that circumstances have suggested I might think about. My social life is limited—it doesn't often occur to me to get in touch with anyone (I receive almost no personal mail or email and mostly post only a "like" in reaction to others' Facebook posts, seldom a comment, almost never a judgement.)


So to Joshua Rothman I guess I'd reply (if I had to) that I'm pretty much the same person I was as a child, despite accommodations that growing up has influenced me to willingly accept. That's who I am. That's okay.


Notes: Rothman, Joshua. "Becoming You". The New Yorker (October 10, 2022: 20-24)

Be the first to comment

Who Are We?


One of the habits I've maintained over the years when we've spent autumn weeks in Florida has been, on our return to Wisconsin, to pile unread back issues of our subscriptions on living room tables and gradually set about making sure I've perused each issue before I recycle it. Naturally, after we've come home this year, new issues have been arriving to be added to the stacks. As usual, it's unlikely that we will be up to date in our reading before winter sets in. I won't read everything in every issue, of course, but sometimes I need to tear out an article to reconsider a few times more after the rest of the contents have been disposed of. That's how I come to be contemplating an essay from a mid-October issue in the second week of November.


The subtitle of Joshua Rothman's New Yorker article "Becoming You" asks, "Are you the same person you were when you were a child?" and claims early on, "If we could see our childish selves more clearly, we might have a better sense of the course and the character of our lives." He eventually asks, "What can we learn by asking if we've always been who we are?" It's not a question everyone feels the need to ask themselves, since who we are today seems so much like who we were yesterday and who we expect to be tomorrow, but it can get you remembering your sense of self at various stages of your life.


Rothman refers to some long-term studies that attempt to gauge stasis and mutation in personality and/or character and/or sense of identity over time. One that originated in New Zealand examined the same thousand-plus individuals over a forty-year period to assess how they "have changed over the decades" and compared them to thousands more subjects studied in the United States and the United Kingdom. He also considers a series of documentaries begun by the cinematographer Michael Apted which focused on the same individuals every seven years between 1964 and, so far, 2019, ranging from "Seven Up!" to "63 Up." The subjects were initially grouped in relevant categories, and changes in those categories noted as they emerge. Rothman remarks that, "as the series has progressed, the chaos of individuality has encroached on the clarity of characterization."


Readers of Rothman's article are given a challenge: "Try to remember life as you lived it years ago, on a typical day in the fall." The article is in an October issue, after all, and looking out your window at your surroundings may help trigger your memories. Certainly, after glancing out at my present surroundings, I automatically flashed to my childhood neighborhood in western New York, the trees in our yard and my grandparents' yard and our neighbors' yards, and the fallen leaves everywhere and memories of my friends and I leaping into piles of them. The longer I recall those images, the more they expand my sense of being there, bringing back those neighbors and those playmates and those relatives, and the feel of the weather, and of eventually being old enough to be assigned to rake those leaves and pile them on the curb for city crews to pick up. Rothman's challenge for such memories is this: "Does the self you remember feel like you, or like a stranger? Do you seem to be remembering yesterday, or reading a novel about a fictional character?" That is, how close or how distant do you feel from the individual in your memory, the one you're certain was you?


Prompting memory to go off in search of younger, potentially different versions of myself certainly surfaces a variety of different images, mostly from that neighborhood and from the elementary school I attended and the nearby streets and stores and the park behind our house. Much of what surfaces is external: other people's faces and behavior, the surroundings that provide a background for their actions, some unintended shifts in seasons. The challenge is to turn my perspective around and envision my reactions to what those images display at the time I first saw them, first lived in them. At the moment, I'm not sure I can follow the linkage from who I was as a second or third grader jumping into leaf piles, running home from school, obsessed with Bomba the Jungle Boy and Davy Crockett and Robin Hood and superhero comic books, to the elderly author/professor retiree I am now, scribbling these thoughts. Have I changed? How often? How much? How? Rothman concludes, "We change, and change our view of that change, for as long as we live." He may be right, but I'll need to contemplate a lot more memories—reinhabit my earlier self more fully and frequently—to confidently agree.



Notes: Rothman, Joshua. "Becoming You" by Joshua Rothman. The New Yorker (October 10, 2022: 20-24)

Be the first to comment



Thursday, September 29, 2022: 8:05 AM, the power still out, I write by hand, expecting to copy it to my laptop sometime later. We sensed Hurricane Ian's presence throughout the night, its winds bouncing through the trees. Rain stopped early this morning and, though still high and windswept, the stream that rose well onto its east bank recedes slowly toward its regular channel. I count thirty-five ibises pecking along a stretch of the golf course.


A bright stretch of cloudless sky briefly shines in the distance, closer to the Gulf of Mexico. Trees shake more or less calmly. A tree limb smashed a bedroom window in our daughter's Sarasota home, half an hour's drive south of us, making them hunker down in a windowless hallway for part of the night. They were somewhat closer to Ian's landfall around Fort Myers, their night likely more fraught than ours. They've emailed us that their power's back on, clean-up proceeding, roads around them still too dangerous to drive, but they're all safe. Our landlady reports that outage here is too widespread to restore locally, and though the coast from St. Petersburg to Naples is in rough shape, Tampa is mostly unaffected. Ian stormed northeast toward Orlando and the Atlantic. I haven't yet learned about its impact on coastal islands near us.


From the lanai, we see branches and limbs deposited by the surging stream as it receded lining the opposite shoreline. Formerly exposed marshes further south have yet to resurface, but the stream should be back to normal in a few days. In our parking lot an elderly man brushes debris off his windshield and sweeps away leaves and branches that accumulated around his car. Nearby, an older couple packs up their station wagon to retreat somewhere with electricity.


A neighbor tells us her brother-in-law down the street has a working generator and we follow her past yards where people saw and rake and pile debris and take down window covers. We chat idly while he charges Sue's laptop and phone, our neighbor's friend's laptop, and an appliance of his own. Back at our condo, we check out fallen trees at the north end of our parking lot, directed there by someone whose window was broken by one collapsed tree and who owned one of the three cars it landed on. Part of the tree rests on the wall of the complex, two windows on each of the four floors visibly damaged; the pavement at its base still clings to it.


Walking out across the golf course, we continually discover fallen trees, cracked trunks, and hanging limbs. Maintenance crews will need several days to clear the landscape. At least fifty white ibises and five sandhill cranes now patrol the grounds. More than a half dozen crows drift down to pick up what look like popcorn kernels outside our neighbor's lanai. We open all the blinds to let in as much daylight as we can, keep the refrigerator closed, make an uncooked supper meal of cheese and crackers.


Just before 8:00 PM, startling us as we read by battery-powered lanternlight on the couch, lights and audio abruptly cut off on Wednesday suddenly brighten and sound out. The dishwasher starts up, lamps brighten the kitchen, living room, one bedroom, and at least one bathroom. I shout, "Harry Lewis!" We don't get television or internet access yet, but we can read in bed by lamplight again and decide when to sleep.


September 30 and Beyond: Hurricane reminders abound: traffic lights out much of the way on a nerve-wracking ride to rent a car, other drivers not as cautious as ours; debris lining streets and sprawling across yards and roofs; our relief when neighborhood signals light up again; thronging vehicles waiting to turn into a still-open gas station; crowds of people restocking supplies at a still functioning supermarket that lost most refrigerated food. With further, safer mobility, we reach our kids' house secure on a street lined with trash bags, piles of tree limbs and furniture, and evidence of vigorous yard work. Online news reports, drone footage, personal videos, and photographs display broad swaths of damage elsewhere: flooded homes, demolished buildings, unsalvageable businesses, the collapsed Sanibel Island causeway, an 18-foot storm surge, desperate anguish of the suddenly homeless, over 119 deaths throughout the state, persistent restoration efforts of homeowners and neighbors.


The hurricane haunts me, but I've only been an inconvenienced bystander, a short-term visitor able to retreat from reminders. I won't live with it daily, like those who still walk or drive these streets and neighborhoods, like those longing to somehow restore their unexpected losses and escape their ominous memories. When we return next autumn, Hurricane Ian's memory will await us here; we'll be hoping that evidence of its presence will be harder to find.


Be the first to comment