Monday, March 28, 2011

The Crossing--and reflections

I am a nervous traveller.  No matter how short the journey, I agonise over plans, timing and the like.  Heading down to the train station last week for a few days’ trip up north was no exception.  I’m sure I looked anxious to anyone else who was down at Amtrak, just as it was beginning to get light.  I pace, I check the time, I check my ticket, and then repeat.  It was with a sense of relief that I boarded the train to Sacramento.

As the train wound around through Richmond towards Martinez, it passed through a battered industrial forest, reminiscent of some of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic landscapes from The Road.  There were the old piers that simply disappeared into the water, first the planks rotting away, then only remnants of wooden uprights, decaying in the water remaining.  And there were the decrepit sugar mills, built in an era when industrialists, however minor or local, took pride in the grandeur of their undertaking.  Elegant brick structures, now showing more signs of wear than of activity, they loomed over the train as it made its way out toward the water.

McCarthy was on my mind because I was reading the second of his border trilogy novels, The Crossing.  Unlike The Road, this story is set in a world that is very much alive, though no less morally fraught for it.  Billy Parham rides up into the New Mexico mountains on a winter morning.  Mountains, which rose up “blinding white in the sun.  They looked new born out of the hand of some improvident god who’d perhaps not even puzzled out a use for them”. 

As in all of McCarthy’s landscapes, violence lurks beneath the majestic and virtuous-seeming surface of the landscape.  Nevertheless, there is something in particular about civilisation (embodied here by Billy Parham’s journey into Mexico) that bodes ill for the character of people’s relations to each other.  Perhaps it is the lack of space, the proximity of people? 

Across the strait on the train, the sun was higher in the sky, and the mothball fleet, anchored in the delta, cut an impressive figure against the light clouds through which the sun strove to burst.  The wetlands extended some miles alongside the tracks to the north of the bay.  The fields were flooded, and the stalks of reeds and grass that pushed up through the shallow waters were brown.  The fields were mostly empty.  Two Canadian Geese had built a nest amid one field, and one of them stood atop it, staring across the open landscape.  In one stretch of flooded field, an armchair floated out in the centre, perhaps not long for the terrestrial world, but surely carrying some story with it.

Then the train made its way across the causeway toward Sacramento.  The river, swollen by days of rain and the freeing up of the lakes was up around the causeway, turning the valley into the “great inland sea” that the engineers of the last century sought to tame.  The water was a grey-brown colour, and out in the middle of the vast expanse, stretching for miles in either direction, it looked almost placid.  But then, around what days ago had been a hillock, a stand of trees, or a battered-looking telephone pole, water surged powerfully, coursing along its route as a reminder that our ability to manage that thing we call “Nature” is tenuous.
I met my dad at Sacramento, and we headed up the valley, which gradually rose as we neared Redding, before we veered east into the foothills, passing out of the small towns to wind our way among ranges that slope up into hills that funnel stock along the valley, keeping them close to the creek that pushes its way through the fields, in which you can see a drift of wild hogs or a herd of elk in the mornings, their breath forming a hovering silvery cloud above them if it’s cold enough.  Today there was only a Bald Eagle, perched above the river.

I once had a dream of riding through this landscape and seeing the hills, which turn brown and dusty in the summer before the green begins creeping back with the winter rains, covered with houses, tract homes, and lined with paved roads.  I’m possessed, as many of us must be, of the same kind of nostalgia for another time and another world.  But it was a world, McCarthy reminds us, that might never have been.  The reverence attached to history is a thing men feel.  One could even say that what endows any thing with significance is solely the history in which it has participated”.  These meditations, sprinkled throughout The Crossing, lull the reader into a reflexive mood before disaster strikes. 
At home, the next morning, avoiding the driving rain which turned periodically to hail and beat an irregular rhythm on the tin room, I returned to The Crossing

The most haunting and gut-wrenching 100 pages I’ve ever read later, we are looking down at a she-wolf, brought over the border into Mexico in one of life’s “doomed enterprises”, “alone in the pit and she was a sorry thing to see.  She’d returned to the stake and crouched by it but her head lay in the dirt and her tongue lolled in the dirt and her fur was matted with dirt and blood and the yellow eyes looked at nothing at all.  She had been fighting for almost two hours and she had fought in casts of two the better part of all the dogs brought to the feria”. 

When Billy leaves the pit, his journey seems to be at an end, but in other respects the story is just beginning.  But I needed a respite from the tension that had built up, and the horror in seeing the wolf reduced on the pages before me to the wreck in the pit from the wolves who ran “on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world [...] Loping and twisting.  Dancing.  Tunnelling their noses in the snow.  Loping and running and rising by twos in a standing dance and running on again”, Billy able to “feel the presence of their knowing that was electric in the air”.
Outside it was snowing, and the dog periodically got up from her spot by the door to come across the floor and sleep on my feet.  Until she got too warm nearby the wood stove and wandered back to her mat, nails clicking on the hardwood floor. 

Why is it that McCarthy’s novel is book-ended by episodes—for it is in a series of such scenes, powerfully vivid, that The Crossing unfolds—involving animals: the wolf, a horse, a dog.  Picking my way along the bank of the creek that cuts below our house and into the large acreage owned by a logging company that abuts us, I wondered how ideas about nature and the sentience of animals holds such power over us.  What has made the environmental movement the most successful grassroots campaign over the last 50 years in the U.S. (with an even longer history)?  Why do people write in droves about the immoral culling of elephants in South Africa and yet debate the merits of intervention in a Libya, a Rwanda, a Sudan on cost-benefit grounds? 
Do the wide-open spaces—often much more shaped by human habitation than we’d care to admit—speak to a different side of us?  A better side?  That’s what many of us would like to assume.  But McCarthy is not so sure.  Because although a gypsy along Billy Parham’s way assured him “that the way of the road was the rule for all upon it...that on the road there were no special cases”, Parham’s experiences hardly seem to bear this out.  Unless it is from a misunderstanding, a wilful misreading—in the aid of maintaining faith of some kind?—of what those rules might be.

 On the way back to Berkeley I put these complications out of my mind--something we seem to have no end of capacity for doing.  I enjoyed the drive up the snowy dirt road to the paved road, passing through forests and fields, cows and horses standing stock still in the open as heavy white flakes drifted down around them.  Down the foothills across the ranges.  Wild pigs rooted amongst sparse live oak trees across the creek, untroubled by our passing.  Two bald eagles maintained watch over the water running in the creek, through the deep ditch it has cut over the years.  And a herd of elk, some 40 strong, grazed amidst the cattle, as unworried by their presence as by the wooden fence posts and stretched barbed-wire, neither of which could hold them in or keep them out. 

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