TOURING THE CREATIVE LANDSCAPE
Since the country is going “tribal,” not just politically but psycho-socially, it stands to reason that one would begin to see the towns and cities around him in the context of tribal (or medieval) villages. It seems anymore that if he wants to find respite from this (not to mention from the “medieval” violence which is more and more filling our streets today), he must use his creative instincts. It’s not hard to imagine the American landscape as a mountainous frontier of imaginative scenes.
In the spirit of selective attention, one can see what he wants to see in the heart of any given settlement. Instead of the usual steel, plastic and glass, why not choose a history and tradition for which each came into being in the first place? That means (in my imagination) I choose seeing earthen lean-tos and hide-covered shelters in some places, and sod-stuffed log dwellings in others. Still in others pure futuristic expressionism borne out of the mid-20th century – always looking forwards. Some places remain glass and steel, as they should.
And if we can indulge our imaginations this far, why not push them further and invent a bicycle path connecting these villages? This way we can forge a wide view of everything and an appreciation for the multidimensionality of our creative industry – despite the weight of sublimation forced on it by economics and politics. So we begin our journey – via the touring bike.
Before departing I have to first describe a bird-s eye view of the city, the urban Serengeti, from where we begin. I always see it at night when the lights, some neon, some yellow-amber, blend into a hot-summer mix of smells, conversations, performances, and fortuitous happenings. There’s an underground which supplies and feeds the streets not unlike how supply-rooms below ground equip restaurants above. Night people are constantly “running the stairways” up and down with ideas and objects meant to keep the nightlife going. There’s a familiar drone of fused and confused sounds similar to the sound of a river – about which there’s the famous question: “What is the sound of the river?” Answer: all the sounds in the universe. “Ditto” for the city streets.
This is our launch-point. From here we begin rolling towards one of the countless arterial paths leaving the urban core which splay out like spokes in a wheel, or Parisian arrondissements. The nighttime summer breeze cools us as we ride. We’ve already lived through most of the night. Now it’s daybreak, the horizon ahead is new, and the road actually does “rise up” to meet us.
Various settlements announce profoundly different ways of life. Shapes and smells point to habits which distinguish one village from another, some having pretensions to elegance, others showcasing a rough-hewn, crude, and unfinished ambiance. The color in Colorado shows most brightly in village names stolen right out of a Hollywood movie script. Colorado is a movie set constantly revisiting and rewriting plots and story lines, though the characters (also with colorful names) never change.
Selecting a path and a village to visit is difficult. Some places are compact, others stretch like rubbery conurbations of urban sprawl. But each has its center with stony tracts, fields and pathways, and patchwork bocage protecting it. Hedgerows re-inspire the days when nature marked original property lines. Through such trail markers one can see not how nature survived the villages but how villages survived nature, how they sprouted from nature. Nature in fact moved over and accommodated them.
Once these places were organic and grew like fruit on a vine. They germinated literally and spouted as if from a family tree. Indeed, an aerial view shows appendages growing from limbs connected to branches connected to larger branches, and finally to a central trunk rooted in the urban corridor of ambition, commerce and trade. The primitive road was an artery forcing blood into smaller arterial roads and pathways which extended to the rivulets, the fingers, of the wilderness. Each year the human imprint carves a new gash into the land by moving at the joints. Old joints become arthritic and stop, new ones take over.
Isolation is a weakness and a strength. The village is eternally schizophrenic regarding its goals and needs. Isolation creates and protects its unique flavor and texture. A certain pride prevails for as long as it can claim self-sufficiency and independence – until it can’t. Compromises are then made with each passing year until what it once was is preserved in little more than a reputation, a t-shirt, and coffee mug. “Progress” is that word equally loved and hated. A “pig in a paddock” is worth more than a city merchant, until it isn’t. Then one day it is again.
Once upon a time one’s very first siting of a village was the church steeple. The bell tower holding up a cross was always the tallest structure designed to lend inspiration to residents wherever they happened to be, in or around the village – a visual symbol of strength and unity. Gradually, another (paper) god encroached from outside, at first entering from below, then gradually consuming everything in its path, including the church. Today the bell tower and church below it are little more than old landmarks squeezed between steel and glass – every village has its “Twin Towers” (and Trump Towers). Traditionally, the smaller the village the higher the steeple. But even in the smallest places the “green” god bribes the old god with its Faustian fruits: “Riches are the blessings God heaps.” “Poverty is the sign of moral failure.”
Traversing the landscape I see lanterns faintly outlining earthen windows in the distance. As we approach smells and shapes precede them much like entering a community kitchen. A different incense defines place and time – sage here, lavender there, cedar down the road. Entering this village it’s coffee and sweet pastries, in the next village the odour of stale beer shadowing a constant hangover. Others down the road have no foretaste at all (or even an aftertaste). In those latter places the smells of industry and greed overwhelm the visitor – someone who is most likely trying to escape both. What he seeks instead is finery and garnish, not petroleum and rubber – sensitivity, patience, and craftsmanship – not snobbery, insolence, plasticity, and complacency (the spices of modernity).
The “worst” of all the villages is the one to avoid. It is of course the biggest and most populated. It has become its own city under one roof, a caricature of itself – the super-mall. The mere fact that it’s what Americans populate the most says something about both (patron and place). It’s the only tent-city where one can spend an entire day with family maxing-out credit cards for unneeded junk while stuffing his mouth all day long with toxic food. It’s the perfect climate of consumption and cheap entertainment. It’s also a village that’s most difficult to circumnavigate (in America) since, to this day, it continues to grow like a virus. America, from coast-to-coast, is now one long series of super mega-malls, separated by mini-malls, separated by mini-marts, which are in turn separated by liquor stores, 7-11s, gas stations, and Taco Bells. – Visit one village today and you’ve seen every village, large and small, in America. That is, unless you use your imaginative skills.
This is what happens when one leaves his imagination at home. It’s a warning never to leave home without it. The only thing which keeps America interesting anymore is by romancing it, seeing what isn’t there but what you wish to see anyway. It’s a difficult project by itself, particularly since one literally has less and less to assist him, to sustain his fantasy, other than tourist traps and coffee mugs – or – unless he’s off on his own (Don Quixote) mental quest which unto itself requires a singularly “occluded” perspective.
Take it from me, there is no other way to traverse a pathologically “straight & narrow” world of super-malls, chained link fences, and liquor stores. It comes down to one kind of “mental aberration” looking squarely into the face of another. At least with the one you are your own navigator. Nothing is forced upon you.
With this in mind one can actually become the first postmodern cartographer if he so wishes, the first to beach himself onto an eternally new continent of discovery (in Colorado, a white curtain of mountains to the west, amber waves to the east). He can became a (sacred) geometer given the right “mental aberration.” Consider what he has to work with. Consider the faces, cuisines, stories, and dark hidden corners no one ever sees. Consider the watershed of languages (all in English) from colloquial patois to various shades of the King’s English. Some places are so local they wear their own nationality, their own escutcheon, and fly their own flag. They prove time and again that the more accurate the “official” maps are, the more inaccurate they are. In fact, they are useless. It is one of those rare examples where the most modern cartographic data is less dependable than it was a century ago.
The deeper one goes into the heartland, the more ancient and tribal it gets. These are the forgotten places. And within those crevasses are even smaller, more hidden, places – corners, rooms, backdoor basements and attics – which have forgotten time completely, they have no sense of anywhere else. This deep in, the world is “feudal” and still barters its goods and services (since there’s no money anyway) as the world did centuries ago. Paper money is cold and impersonal, it alienates. Generations stay connected by trading and are oblivious to “exchanges” outside the circle of family names, lineages, and histories. Stories and facts are kept secret, meticulously guarded.
Ironically, what helps preserve this, is its opposite – the “inline” to the other’s “outline” – the thick impermeable walls outside that ancient crevasse – those signs marking the beginning of wealthy fiefdoms, landowners and merchants, the elite minorities who own everything. Even they are oblivious to what exists on the lands they rent out to the lowborn and untitled. But what they encircle only enriches (makes more precious) those old places. They become like the eye of a hurricane, untouched, momentarily forgotten, while tempests destroy everything around them. If they stay “low” enough they manage to stay unnoticed for another year.
The surreality of this is a gated wall belonging to both mega-malls and investors. Huddled inside those walls, in the eyes of the rich, are the pestilential swamps – desolate dirt roads, stunted woods, and wretched hovels. The contrast could not be starker between “rich and poor.” Again, a medieval reincarnation of itself, castles and wastelands, fiefdoms of peasants and kings.
The journey from one to the other, from country to city, can be made through the sounds alone, through dialects. Entering the city, one is barraged with shifting identities marked by languages and accents, all clustered together but separately. It reminds us how we are not so much a “melting pot” as a “patchwork quilt” of separate but equal “sounds” – one looking out for the other to make one aria (or plainsong) . As one heads back into the country he hears that potpourri of dialects converging, conflating, getting lost in a more generic slang, what locals manufacture into an easy and relaxed Esperanto – seasoned with a “twang.” Idioms and tropes form the bulk of the language itself. The urbanite-futurist finds it inefficient and slow, but the ruralite-atavist finds it stabilizing and trustworthy.
Unfortunately, easy labels and categories (of the other) are where both ends find their most common ground. To the lowborn-ruralite the city looks to be squared in zero-sum terms – between rich and poor (of which they’re reminded of their own status every day). But to the urbanite the “other” is given more leeway and fewer stereotypes. There are “gray areas” among the impoverished, some are more deserving than others. They may be a large and luckless contingent, but they’re at least luckless artisans, farmers, ranchers, and people who may have once been successful. Living amongst those who “have” lends the acute fear of someday becoming a “have not” – much more so than being a “have not” who might someday “have” something. When you have nothing, there’s nothing to lose.
Geography, jargon, and labels aside, it must be said, lest it be forgotten, that more universal human issues are what always keep us connected. The three big human events which do not discriminate are love, poverty, and war. Unless one experiences this holy trinity himself, his life (said O. Henry) remains incomplete. All of us generally have too little of the first and a surplus of the others. When comparing love and war side-by-side, man’s biggest tragedy is that “love” is what lets us down the most. The full-time fighter/warrior is too common; we celebrate the culture of war every day. But when we speak of love (being in love) it is most always past-tense or in the subjunctive. War is concrete and visceral, easy to translate. Love is abstract and intangible, difficult to acknowledge even when it’s there. As for poverty, it is what we all have, or fear having, along with war, every single day. – Both urbanite and ruralite, rich and poor, find war (and impoverishment) the easiest and most successful of all the institutions.
Lastly, something to be said about my own “free-wheeling” through this on a bicycle. There was the world before the bicycle, and the world after it. Riding one requires an Einsteinian skill – not to exceed a certain velocity of space and time if he wishes to see something “relatively” steady on the journey. The secret of riding a bike is to pedal just hard enough to keep a preferred view ahead of him. We velocipedes must be light-of-foot yet in sync with the ball-bearings and pneumatic tires which keep us upright – while keeping a (Don) Quixotic frame of mind. Intrigue and exhaustion strike a balance.
Ultimately, the path winds around and returns us home. It’s predawn once again. We’ve been riding a full day and night. We park the bike, spend a few seconds watching the sun stretch across the new day sky and try to summon all that we remember into a succinct memory. But we’re exhausted. More time for that later, after going to sleep and preserving it as the dream that it is. It must be carefully logged and filed, protected from the destroyers of virtue and beauty. This alone is a full-time project. But as long as we keep it locked in the vaults of our imagination, hearts and minds, it will keep its purity and sanctity. It will remain its own village, in its own place and time, camouflaged by ingenuity, connected by filigreed pathways, offered up as gifts to the midnight traveler knowing the secret signs and guideposts.
It’s sometimes said that postmodernism, that vexing phenomenon enthralling us all and “these times,” is just another way of saying “Who cares anymore?” It doesn’t matter” – because nothing fresh, original or worthwhile is likely to happen again anyway. The world has gone flat and all we’re left with is cold and sobering uncertainty, empty hopes and false promises. Nothing could be a more urgent calling for the encouragement and protection of a creative landscape to call our own, and “dream-travel” to go with it. Fantasy is the only reality left, the last real frontier. It will stay virgin wilderness forever only because others can’t get to it and maul it to death. It is theater, but what isn’t?! It’s our theater., our production and script, our technicolor tour into Emerald Cities, “middle earth” shires, and down yellow brick roads – perfect for biking.
© 2018 Richard Hiatt