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Winter 2000, Volume 17.2

Essay

 

John Nizalowskiphoto of John Nizalowski.

Bridges


John Nizalowski has an M.A. in English from the University of Delaware. His work has appeared in New Mexico Magazine, Southwest Profile, Telluride Magazine, Bloomsbury Review, Albany Review, Blueline, Harp, The Listening Eye, and elsewhere. Currently, he is an associate editor for Pinyon Poetry and teaches creative writing and composition at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado. He lives in Delta, Colorado, with his wife Patricia and daughters Ursula and Isadora.

 

We are sitting under a white fantasy, a rigid structure of plastic and steel resembling a circus tent, waiting. On the stage, a string of uninspired folk musicians have been running through their paces, singing of cowboys, mountains, and ponderosa pines; their earnest faces upturned as if pleading for a vision of the eternal. We find it instead in the grey skies, the sun sliding towards the northwest, the tree lined Clark River, the green rise of the nearly treeless, buffalo humped mountains. Beyond the stage and its assembly of black, rectangular amps, an old tan brick office building from before the first world war rises ten stories or more. I can just make out through one open window a poster sized photograph of John Lennon. A few buildings away, a group of men stand on the rear landing of the Stockman's Club Bar, beers in hand, joking and gesticulating, their laughter punctuating the evening like a boxer's sharp jabs. Far off, a train moans as it heads for the passes over the western mountains.

I am in Missoula, Montana with my Peruvian friend, scholar and poet Roberto Forns-Broggi, and we are waiting to hear Barry Lopez read. Lopez's appearance is the climax of two conferences—the Wilderness Watch and the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). I am here for the ASLE conference, an exhilarating and exhausting three days of papers on the relationship of literature to environmental issues. Many of these papers portray a world in the grip of corporate greed and power, and the environment in inexorable decline. It is a depressing vision. But the Lopez reading is the conference's clear apex, so we wait, uncomfortable in the metal folding chairs, anxious to hear this major nature writer's clear, wise voice, hoping he will give a response to this dark portrait.

To ease the wait my mind drifts. I think back to the walk across the bridge over the Clark River, which links Missoula's college town to its downtown. At the bridge's center, an old man stood fishing, complete with tackle vest and faded brown fedora. Smiling, he greeted everyone who passed, as if the ghost of Norman Maclean, the patron saint of writers and fly fishermen west of the 100th meridian, had manifested on the bridge to greet the scholars on their way to hear the author of River Notes.

Ghosts. I think of my son, who would have been seven years old but for his death. I travel back further, to my father, gone now for nearly twenty years. I easily picture him in the autumn woods of upstate New York, hunting through the earthy musk of decaying maple and oak leaves for mushrooms—the modest, white capped specimens he called field mushrooms; the twisted labyrinths named morels; and the little brown capped ones that he labeled pipinki in respect for my grandfather's Carpathian roots.

My father has much to do with why I am in Missoula on this cool, late summer evening. Chained to a factory job forty to sixty hours a week, he yearned for the earth and forests of his farming youth and escaped to them whenever he could. In the woods he possessed a deep wisdom born of love, a love he passed on to his children. Although he hunted deer and fished for trout for much of his life, by the time I was born he had begun devoting his forest journeys almost exclusively to the search for edible plants and mushrooms. There were days in the late spring when our entire supper emerged from the forest—field mushrooms and wild scallions sauteed in butter, steamed fiddleheads and milkweed sprouts, dandelion greens and sliced Jerusalem artichokes tossed in oil and vinegar. So, when I was a boy, the single action Winchester rifle and the pump action shotgun, though carefully cleaned and oiled, hung unused on their back room rack across from the woodstove, next to the wool coats.

While I saw these guns every day, I never knew about my father's Navy issue service revolver until after the heart attack took his life. Locked in his file cabinet, the revolver was another of his war secrets—like his memory of watching a friend burn to death in the tortured hull of the Chester, a heavy cruiser torpedoed off the Australian coast during the dark months of 1942, when the war hung in a perilous balance. My father had told me of the weeks he and his crewmates spent on the Chester as it sat helpless, dead in the water, all of them petrified that they would be found by a Japanese air patrol or by another enemy submarine. He also told me of the letter from my mother, unopened in his shirt pocket when the torpedo hit. After the blown bulkhead was sealed off and the emergency over, my father remembered the letter and pulled it out, only to find that his body's sweat had transformed the words to drops of ink that ran off the pages in a blue-black stream of news from home and professions of love. He told me these stories, but he never described the friend who burned before his eyes. The memory of that friend's torment would wake my father in the middle of the night, terrified and shouting, body drenched in sweat, even thirty years after a Japanese mini-sub had fired its torpedo deep into the Chester's metal flesh. This tale I would learn from my mother, five years after my father's death.

At that time I was teaching at Virginia Tech and living with my wife Patricia in a one bedroom house in Pembroke. Pembroke is a small village which rests in the limestone gorge cut by the New River, and Norfolk and Western coal trains daily pounded past our home, their whistles echoing through the gorge, their rumble carrying for miles, especially during the quiet summer nights, when thousands of moths circled the street lamps, drawing bats by the dozens.

Once, Michiyo Ishii, a friend from graduate school, came to visit with her husband, an entomologist. Michiyo was a Faulkner scholar from Japan, and when we were in class together I was always fascinated by her copies of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury with their neatly written notations in Japanese ideograms. The first time I visited Michiyo and her husband in their Newark, Delaware apartment, I was surprised by their dwelling's total lack of anything Japanese. Picasso prints hung on the wall, and on the music stand at the living room's center, a Mozart score waited for the violin resting on the book strewn, glass-topped table. Similarly, when Michiyo visited Patricia and me, she was also surprised by our reproductions of Hokusai landscapes and the copy of Mishima's Death in Midsummer on the night stand. Picking up a clay teapot graced by a bamboo design, she laughed when we told her a Maine potter had shaped it. "I thought for sure it was Japanese," she said to explain her amusement. And thus we had formed a bridge.

Bridges. At the ASLE conference, Shoko Itoh, a scholar from Hiroshima, found connections between Thoreau's nature imagery and medieval Japanese poetry. Leonard Scigaj, a professor from Virginia Tech and an old friend, described links between quantum mechanics and the poetry of Pattiann Rogers. As we crossed the bridge to arrive at the white tent fantasy, Roberto and I noticed that some stencil wielding protester had etched the sidewalk with black letters spelling out, in chronological order, sites of unwelcome American military incursions—among them Guatemala, El Salvador, Greece, Vietnam, and Peru, the latter bringing a rueful smile to Roberto's face.

And now we're on the other side of that bridge, and at last, as the sun slides closer to the world's western edge, Barry Lopez stands before the microphone, flanked by the black boxes which will pitch his beautiful voice all the way to the Clark River's far shore. He begins by reading a eulogy to Wallace Stegner, and an essay on the wisdom of indigenous peoples. His oval, bearded face bears an almost startled expression, but his calm voice possesses a subtle strength, a restrained but convincing passion. He speaks of the dangers of capitalism, of its lack of any values beyond profit, of its sweeping disregard and destruction of native cultures. He challenges us to embrace love instead of power, and to do so soon, before the planet dies from a contagion of greed.

He finishes with "Lessons From the Wolverine," a short story about an airplane mechanic who, while exploring the Arctic, encounters a pair of spiritually powerful wolverines who guide him on a dream journey to his soul's center. Lopez reaches the story's climax, and the mechanic feels himself rise into the sky to peer into a Milky Way strangely transformed by the wolverines' spiritual energy. He hears a voice, one of the wolverines, say, "This is our power." Just then, a double rainbow breaks out in the eastern sky over Missoula—a Navajo sign of power and blessing. Unaware of the many colored fire behind him, Lopez reads on. Several people leave their seats to be able to see the rainbows free from the tent's cutting edge, Roberto among them. When he returns, I see that while his bearded face is smiling, there are tears in his sweet brown eyes, and I know that we have both passed through a profound transformation, like Arthurian knights at last beholding the holy grail deep in a sacred grove high on a distant mountain.

The story ends. We all stand, and the applause runs in great waves for the deep truth of Lopez's writing, and for the rainbow miracle that still glows in the darkening sky. Lopez smiles, bows, and steps down from the stage. The magician is gone; the center has departed.

Roberto and I again cross the bridge. The evening has grown cooler, and tendrils of autumn sting the air. Below, the river's rippling waters are nearly black. Still in awe of Lopez and his rainbow, Roberto tells me of an Andean Indian legend. In it, the world's deceased children create rainbows by throwing the light from their souls into the sky.

And for a moment I slow my walk, for I know now that he is there, that my son is with us, sending his light into the sky to confirm the sacredness of Lopez's words. And my father too—grey, bearded, granting a benediction to Lopez, to my son, to the children who died in Hiroshima during that blinding nine seconds at the war's end. All of them are there, creating the bridge between us and the spirit world, creating the bridge between all souls, linking my father to that Japanese warrior who torpedoed the Chester and killed my father's friend in the ship's hot blaze. Another train whistle blows in the distance, as one did the night I discovered my son had died. A black feather floats in the wind. The sun at last sails beyond the earth's western rim, and the rainbow vanishes. "Love, not power," my son whispers in my ear, before passing into the earth. My father nods in agreement, takes the hand of his Japanese enemy, and shows him a white mushroom. They pick it together and smile, before they too fade into the thunder heads to the north.

And we are left alone in the vast dark over the river. Even the ghost of Norman Maclean is no longer there. Now we are back, alone in the realm of sulphurous fumes, of air conditioned board rooms a hundred floors above the earth, of black stenciled names on cracked concrete—the Philippines, Nicaragua, Grenada, Lebanon.

"Yes," I say to Roberto, who has grown silent after his tale of the rainbow. "Love, not power. But how do we accomplish this, here and now?" The enormity of the task overwhelms me, and I can feel the day's benediction slipping. Ahead, the bridge gives out onto the street. There is a cluster of small store fronts, mostly glass and brick, many of them dark. One, however, is a blaze of warm yellow light. Roberto, sensing my downward drift, grabs my arm and points.

"Look, the cafe." He pauses and laughs, for it is such a small step. But it is at least an action, and it will help us face the growing darkness. "Come, I'll buy you a coffee. We have much talking to do."

So we enter the light, my Peruvian friend and I, amidst the steam and warmth, the dark wood tables and racks of books, an archetypal place poet Ed Sanders calls "the rebel cafe," and we drink the dark beverage, and we talk and we plan well into the night, and indeed, that rainbow carries us forward until the dawn's first glow. As the saying goes, we didn't change the world overnight, but it was a beginning.

 

 

Broadacre City

[In 1935, Frank Lloyd Wright revealed his plan for the ideal city suburb that featured a low population density, auto-oriented ease of access, individual farm plots and more. Called Broadacre City, Wright's plan was never built.]

On the surface, Broadacre City seems to have had little influence on suburban development in the U.S. Our edge cities lack Broadacre's efficient road system, its artfully designed housing, and its green fields. Nevertheless, Wright's city and our cities look a lot alike.

For one thing, he anticipated many of the commonplaces of today's suburbia, from underground power lines to highway overpasses. In providing for market places that would also appeal as "pleasure places," Wright foresaw an America in which spending money would be a principal recreation. He also foresaw that his sprawling plan would produce a new kind of social life, held together by roads and telecommunications.

Broadacre City is predicated on personal mobility. Like most Americans, Wright saw the car as a liberating technology that would resurrect the Jeffersonian ideal of an independent yeomanry working the land.… — Portland Oregon based writer James Krohe, Jr., "Wright had it Right," Planning, December 1999, p. 17

 

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