Waltzing with a Loon to the Tune of a Whippoorwill

Moondance 1Henry’s loon waltzed into the room laughing
laughing laughing at the phony moon
rising over the pond-like screen
laughing at Henry, at me, and at you too
who scorned the whippoorwilled
who loon-waltzed our way across the fall season

who tweeted twitted twisted and tallyhoed on
but what stilled the waters the antithesis of laughter
came the calm call of the whippoorwill
calling up to the ballooning moon
to Henry, Huck, Hank, and all of us who
waltzing across a lightbox screen

click click click the path of the reen
and fail to see the turn of the season
while flashes YouTube and you too
laughing laughing laughing
at the simple simple single moon
who waltzes with the whippoorwill

to the epizeuxises of the whippoorwill
the yoke on me preening for the screening
in a full no half no quarter no moon
in the turning turning turning of the seasons
as the lone loon laughs
at Henry, Huck, Hank, me, and you too

yes at you too you too you too
whistles the only whippoorwill
as the moon falls fades the laugh
and across the pond fills the screen
white going going gone the season
of the wry loon waltzing with the moon

with the dry improbably wry moon
then on the far shore you too
out of rhyme out of sync out of season
running running running for the whippoorwill
and across the pond comes a single scream
that echoes epizootically laughing

out of season the waltzing singing loon
laughing woo hoo! woo hoo! woo hoo!
the poor loon waltz in a pale fall screen

Thoreau’s Bicycle

Fall falls. Footfalls squish and squash through redorangeyellow leaves, their green energy sucked back into roots, an understandable hoarding for the winter.

The casual bicyclist dismounts for the season, buries the bike in the basement, perhaps intending to walk through the winter.

We have come to rely on the automobile to our detriment: for cars require a massive infrastructure, costly to build and maintain, that blights the landscape and harms the environment; cars are fuel-hogging inefficient, noisy and polluting, difficult to recycle; car use subtracts from walking opportunities. Even in parking lots we search for the space nearest the entrance, though that distance might be our only walk of the day.

While Thoreau probably knew of the bicycle, he didn’t ride one. If Thoreau wanted or needed to get somewhere, he walked.

In his essay simply titled “Walking,” Thoreau says he wants “to make an extreme statement.” What does an “extreme statement” sound like? “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends,” Thoreau says, “and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.” At that pace, few of us would ever be ready or able to go for a walk.

Maybe it’s an argument of definition: what’s a walk? “But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called…but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day,” Thoreau says. He tells us, in Walden, he often walked four miles a day, and would walk eight miles to say hello to a tree (“Former Inhabitants” chapter, para. 17).

“I am a good horse to travel but not from choice a roadster,” Thoreau says in “Walking.” I stopped walking when I got my first roadster, a 1956 Chevy. Cars are cool. Who isn’t intoxicated by the odor of a new car’s interior? Today’s cars, souped up with on-board, high-tech falderal, make my old ’56 Chevy seem a bicycle by comparison. To answer Thoreau’s extreme statement about going for a walk, to walk with Thoreau, we would add our cars to his list of things we must be ready to leave and never see again. It’s an argument of revolution.

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Thoreau’s Meanly Men and Manly Ants

“We live meanly, like ants,” Thoreau tells us in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden, just after he’s divulged his reason for being in the woods: to distill life, then distill it some more, until he has more than 100 proof. And if life prove mean, then he will “publish its meanness to the world.” What does he mean by meanness? The opposite of simplicity, for one thing, letting the railroad ride over us, for getting off track is devalued; today Thoreau would use the automobile as the vehicle and mean man the asphalt. His discussion of living meanly anticipates the later episode of the war of the ants in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter. But there, the ants are anthropomorphized as warriors from antiquity. In the ants he sees meanness because in the ants he sees men. But what could be meaner than the mother who “had charged him to return with his shield or upon it”? Thoreau even imagines the ant armies with military bands blowing on the sidelines just as fiercely as the combatants. Yet Thoreau anticipates E. O. Wilson, whose newest work explains altruism, communication, and cooperation as fundamental to advanced social behavior successes, both in ants and men, as opposed to competition and meanness. The fittest may turn out to be the one who can best cooperate, sacrifice, and share. Wilson considers self-understanding as vital to survival of the species. Thoreau agreed. Thoreau leaves the pond when he does because he’s called by Mrs. Emerson to come care for her family while her husband will be away on a lecture tour. Thoreau leaves Walden quickly, with an attenuated conclusion.

The E. O. Wilson reference is to a Smithsonian.com interview with Wilson, “What Does E.O. Wilson Mean By a ‘Social Conquest of the Earth’,” by Carl Zimmer, March 22, 2012.

Related Posts:

Mapping a Reading of Thoreau’s Walden

Now is the Science of our Discontent

…ant, ant, ant, ant, and ant

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World

Someday, all of the telephone poles will have vanished. They are gradually, slowly disappearing from view as the wires they hold aloft are placed underground or the signals they link go wireless. Does this mean we are improving? Is the human condition better or worse or the same as we found it yesterday, or better or worse than in 1854, when Thoreau’s Walden was published?

“What is the most important thing we can be thinking about right now?” Buckminster Fuller asked (7-8). Forgiveness, some might say, reading today’s news. Bucky invented new words. Perhaps we should come up with one that means the most important thing we can be thinking about right now.

Jaime Snyder, in his introduction to Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, suggests, remembering his conversations with Bucky, his grandfather, the most important thing we might be thinking about right now is tomorrow. Thoreau would have probably answered the question differently. He might have answered, “Today, this moment.” Thoreau probably would have said now is the most important thing we can be thinking about right now. News of right now hits so hard and quickly these days that we seldom seem to have the chance to think of anything else. Yet what passes for news today seldom seems all that new; it seems more like a rerun from something we heard yesterday. And one wonders how one might make a difference, now or tomorrow.

Fuller’s outlook regarding what we should be thinking about now was different from Thoreau’s because for the first time in our history on this planet we had reached what Fuller called, in his idiosyncratic style, “earthians’ critical moment” (8-9). This moment, which we are still experiencing, might be summed up with the title to one of Fuller’s books, mentioned in Snyder’s introduction, Utopia or Oblivion. The fallacy of the false dichotomy did not seem to bother Fuller. He seems to have believed that we are literally down to one of two choices.

Yet Fuller never lost his optimism, as his “trim-tab” metaphor illustrates. Fuller was a sailor, and sailing metaphors often serve to explain his concepts. Fuller explains that “there’s a tiny thing on the edge of the rudder [of very large ships; he uses the Queen Mary as an example] called a trim-tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving that little trim-tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim-tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, ‘Call me Trimtab'” (11).

The landscape, both urban and rural, will be improved with the disappearance of telephone poles. But the old poles symbolize communication, that we are wired, connected, ready to dial. In the past, the poles symbolized progress. Now, they symbolize retro. But there’s something, too, about the poles that I’ll miss. One finds in them symbols and signs, and the linemen are like musicians with their musical triplets connecting across the high wires. There’s a kind of beauty to the poles that only a human could have created and only a human might miss. Telephone poles and newspapers: a disappearing world. What will take their place? And how will we make a difference? Perhaps these are the questions we should be thinking about right now.


On Universe: A Conversation Between Thoreau and Bucky

Thoreau: “What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!”

Fuller: “Man seems unique as the comprehensive comprehender and co-ordinator of local universe affairs.”

Thoreau: “Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness elsewhere is all that now preserves it.”

Fuller: “This is the essence of human evolution upon Spaceship Earth. If the present planting of humanity upon Spaceship Earth cannot comprehend this inexorable process and discipline itself to serve exclusively that function of metaphysical mastering of the physical it will be discontinued, and its potential mission in universe will be carried on by the metaphysically endowed capabilities of other beings on other spaceship planets of universe.”

Thoreau: “I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe.”

Fuller: “Coping with the totality of Spaceship Earth and universe is ahead for all of us.”

Thoreau: “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions.”

Fuller: “Only as he learned to generalize fundamental principles of physical universe did man learn to use his intellect effectively.”

Thoreau: “The harp is the travelling patterer for the Universe’s Insurance Company, recommending its laws, and our little goodness is all the assessment that we pay.”

Fuller: “We are faced with an entirely new relationship to the universe.”

Thoreau: “Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.”

Fuller: “Can we think of, and state adequately and incisively, what we mean by universe?”

Thoreau: “Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.”

Fuller: “But the finite physical universe did not include the metaphysical weightless experiences of universe.”

Thoreau: “The universe is wider than our views of it.”

Fuller: “The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omnitransforming, event sequences.”

Thoreau: “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

All quotes, juxtapositions around universe, taken from Thoreau’s Walden and Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder]. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben]. Print.


Transition: From Walled-in with Thoreau to Take-off with Buckminster Fuller

“We can never get enough of nature,” Thoreau says (297), yet we will soon have turned the entire planet into garbage. But, as Slavoj Žižek has said, we must learn to love garbage, for it reflects our imperfections (Examined Life, at 1:04:40). “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds,” Thoreau says, in the Walden chapter titled “Conclusion” (303). He was aware of the pun. In “The Ponds” chapter, he says, “I detect the paver. If the name was not derived from that of some English locality, – Saffron Walden, for instance – one might suppose that it was called, originally, Walled-in Pond” (173).

“The universe is wider than our views of it,” Thoreau says (299), yet he’s limited to worldwide travel in wooden boats. But he’s aware of the limitation, and the ambiguity of his predicament: “The other side of the globe is but the home of our correspondent. Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing” (299). Travel, for vacation or business, amounts to the same thing, for we cannot vacate ourselves, but must bring us with us on any trip. Thus Thoreau proposes that we travel to “whole new continents and worlds within [us], opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought,” for “there are continents and seas in the moral world” (300). And why should we make such a trip? “How worn and dusty the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world” (302). He “will pass an invisible boundary” (303). How will he pay for the trip? “Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul” (308).

“What is the most important thing we can be thinking about?,” Buckminster Fuller asked his grandson on the way to LAX (8). Thoreau comments, as if riding in the backseat of the car, “My neighbors tell me of their adventures with famous gentlemen and ladies, what notabilities they met at the dinner-table; but I am no more interested in such things than in the contents of the Daily Times. The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose, dress it as you will” (308).

And a planet is a planet, Fuller might have responded, and how will we address it? “What are men celebrating?,” Thoreau asks (308). Thoreau was not a specialist, and he celebrates, in Walden, his non-specialist skills, the ability to cross over the boundaries of disciplines. This is why there are so many ways of looking at Walden, and why Thoreau (like Fuller) was an inventor – his vision was not walled-in by the format of a specialized discipline. Buckminster Fuller was also a non-specialist who avoided the traps of specialization and categories (because, as we will see Fuller explain, specialization leads to extinction). And specialization leads to artificial categorical definitions of all kinds that place claims on individual lives: “This ‘sovereign’ – meaning top-weapons enforced – ‘national’ claim upon humans born in various lands leads to ever more severely specialized servitude and highly personalized identity classification,” Fuller says. “As a consequence of the slavish ‘categoryitis,’ the scientifically illogical, and as we shall see, often meaningless questions ‘Where do you live?’ ‘What are you?’ ‘What religion?’ ‘What race?’ What nationality?’ are all thought of today as logical questions,” yet, Fuller says, “These questions are absurd” (p. 31). The specialist is the go-to man, yet Fuller says, “All universities have been progressively organized for ever finer specialization. Society assumes that specialization is natural, inevitable, and desirable” (25), dangerous assumptions, for, as Fuller says, “society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking” (24).

Thoreau was a comprehensive thinker, but he only glimpsed, in his criticism of the railroad, the damage that was to occur, or how worldwide poverty would belie his dictum, “Love your life, poor as it is” (307). He would have been appalled at the costs we’ve incurred, the lack of generalist and comprehensive thinking. Thoreau’s Walden was published in 1854, Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969. The juxtaposition of the two works (though published 115 years apart) creates a dialog between Thoreau and Fuller, a conversation that might suggest answers to where we’ve been, where we might have gone, where we appear to be headed, and where we still might have the possibility to go.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder].

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].