Anguish

anguishA few days ago a friend asked if the ravens in my Facebook banner ( Albrecht Schenk’s painting ‘Anguish’ which now hangs in Melbourne) were “mean”, and generously offered that those black birds might work in solidarity with the lambs. I considered a quick reply, but held back. We know enough about ravens to know they beg no simple answers. And the seemingly simple question about ‘meanness’ is actually not so simple. It smacks a bit of “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” To which Dorothy frantically answers, “Why I’m no witch at all.”  She’s just Dorothy and she wants to go back to Kansas.

And then, of course, we are left with the not so small irony that for Dorothy to complete that journey back to the world of black and white, she must in turn become a slayer of very bad witches. Which of course makes her simultaneously both a bad witch as well as one who is good.

In the Middle Ages or perhaps even long before that, the raven was perceived as a portent of death, of imminent and profane destruction. When villagers would see a dark unkindness of ravens approaching on the horizon, they knew that the armies would soon follow. Ravens are omnivores, but most of all they are carrion birds. They dine on the dead. As well, they are sentient. They have sufficient cognition to recognize men bearing arms as armies. And that armies are for one thing: the making of death. The shedding of blood. The leavening of slaughter.

The Raven does not do the killing. But his arrival serves the advance warning. And then he bears witness. And here, at least in Schenk’s image, the unkindness evokes the sadness wedded to communion.

Whenever we eat, especially when we partake of bread and wine, we are taking the flesh and blood of the Host – of the sacrificial lamb – into our own bodies. In this act, we acknowledge our own complicity in his death, and the subsuming of his power, his humility, and his promise into our selves. In the Host’s death we find our own sanctification.

The raven was born to be a sentinel. And when there’s nothing left for which to be warned, the bird must fly so that it may dine on the burnt offerings. That is his task.

When I posted that banner image just after the election I actually wondered where in that picture I figured. And today I realize it is everywhere. I am at once the bleating ewe, the falling snow, the fallen lamb, and the raven in waiting.

Perhaps ask yourself where, if anywhere, do you find yourself in the image?

dine-on-fallenGermany, February 1945

After my family left Latvija in 1944, they walked across Poland and Germany a day at most ahead of the advancing Russian troops. They were accompanied by  family friends who in turn travelled with a wounded Russian soldier. His name is now lost, but the families valued him. Though disabled he had served as a kind of farmhand. He looked after the animals and he scavenged food and he did what he could to care for everyone. One day in Germany, under the Allied bombardment, he gathered potatoes that had fallen from train cars on the side of the tracks. He lost his footing and he fell down and was crushed by an oncoming locomotive. The train would have been bearing German soldiers, or food, or even the final bodies to be executed in Bergen Belsen.

In these days, especially in the smoke and mirrors and confusion of the last few weeks, it bears remembering that there can be a world in such chaos and moral ambiguity that one can be a victim even while dining on the fallen.


img_2809The German painter Gerhard Richter, born in 1932 on the eve of the burning of the Reichstag, would grow up in Dresden during the rise of National Socialism.  Distrusting the reality of received information, he would later say that “style is violence.”

What did he mean by this?  Style is ideology. And ideology, by definition, is visionary.  It is declarative and absolute. At an extreme, it depends on discounting or even silencing the opinion or worldview of others.

When we condemn entire classes of people with blanket words – terrorist, bad hombre, enemy of the people –  without any consideration for their discrete truths or histories and life stories, we deny the complexities of reality.  We deny fundamental humanity.

This is violence.

Authoritarian ideology frames the world in absolutes: A total disaster. A complete mess.  Police and society become militarized to ward off an impending and, more often then not, exaggerated or even fabricated danger.  The urban bourgeois become enemies.  People who are different, perhaps with darker skin or a foreign bearing, are framed as “an infestation.”

Mass spectacle replaces discourse and reasoned argument.

Authoritarian ideology begins by declaring outsiders or others as terrorists, foreigners, or criminal elements.  It leads to the infliction of suffering and, if left unchecked, unspeakable acts of violence.

img_2806This happens under a veil of social confusion, but also a tragic normalcy.  Heinrich Himmler himself, the architect of the Final Solution, actually considered himself to be a good father and a Good German.  He felt quite genuinely that he was restoring his culture by ridding it of an infestation, of other strange identities, of a decadent cancerous rot.

After the war, notions even as simple as “family” or “nation” or “good” become strangely indeterminate.  A fundamental distrust of the world and even language itself may be the hallmark of those whose understanding of reality has been shaped by authoritarianism.

What can we learn from the people who in other times fell inexorably under the sway of nationalist and exclusionary ideologies? Ideology and emotional or physical violence come at a cost. Who bears it and what does it look like?

We might turn to the enveloping canvasses of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, born a few months before VE Day and the close of the war. While Richter came to us during the convulsive birthing of Nazism, Kiefer’s infant eyes received it’s horrible conclusion.

To sit with Kiefer’s pieces is to be swallowed whole in the terror of the rounding up and of the rousing of the dogs of war.

Kiefer’s mucked and unruly residue is the inevitable outcome of the pattering martial tattoo.  It’s the consequence of a seething resentful voice that declares that he will do something to North Korea, to Mosul, to Syria.  The world exists as a being that has wronged him.  And for this, he will inflict violence and war. He will eradicate his enemies, however he defines them, from the face of this earth.

img_2829In the presence of Kiefer’s paintings you immerse yourself in the ashen remains that are left after the blistering attack.

Have no illusions as to what it looks like and what will follow. There is nothing pretty, nothing kind nor valorous, nothing redemptive about it.

It is straw caked in black tar.  It is burnt feces.  Fields after a dark harvest, barren of life and able to offer no feeding. It is a world set ablaze.

The fields harrowed in the winter by tanks are sown in the spring with blood. Horses we are. Gaunt frames.  Ribbed chests exposed. Grown from this ground, we dine on dirt and broken straw.

grane_by_anselm_kiefer-_woodcut_with_paint_and_collage_on_paper_mounted_on_linin_museum_of_modern_art_new_york_city

img_2837And here, at last, we return to our raven.

In this case, the carrion bird’s leaden wing falls upon a burnt and destroyed landscape. And yet it offers a bleak shred of hope.

Is the Raven mean?

No.

He offers a bleak promise of regeneration;  of the alchemy that comes when he feeds on rotting flesh and transmutes ruined matter into language and dark winged flight.

After the murdering has been had, the very sad truth is that there’s nothing more that can be done.  Nothing will bring back the dead.

The Romanian poet, Paul Celan survived the invasion of his country by the Soviets in 1940 and in 1941 the butchering of the Jews of Cernauti by the German Einsatzkommando.  In his poem Todefuge, he would later write

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us to play up for the dance.

img_2813Yes, we can and should try to stop it.  I would really like for the ravens to join with the lambs.  And in a sense they do.  They fly ahead of the advancing armies and their squawk fills the air as if to say, “Please. Listen.  Bad things are afoot.  Fight or flee, the days are numbered.”

And if there’s no listening, then the birds are left only to bear witness.

 

 

 

img_2841In Keifer’s Sulamith, the artist leads us to the entrance of the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers.  But this hall, designed by the Nazi architect Wilhelm Kreis and intended to commemorate the perpetrator, under Kiefer’s hand instead transmutes into the terminus of the iron track and the burning flames of the oven.

We find ourselves descending into hell.

“What would you do in this moment? Would you turn away from something so dark?  Or would you intercede? Would you have the strength to gaze deeper and to feel it?”

Kiefer’s expressionism and experimentation of form is neither decadent nor abstract, but rather cemented in an amorality and horror unlike any the world has ever seen. Even more disturbing, it emerged in the very cradle of modernity, in a technologically advanced Western democracy not dissimilar from our own.

img_2818A Holocaust is not necessarily savagery in a some other savage place, but quite the opposite: savagery wrought by us. Richter perhaps challenges us to detect the darkness and violence inherent in the seemingly placid sea.

To experience Kiefer and Richter, one can learn from a generation forced to ask where their parents or even they themselves were when these things happened.  How could they stand by and tacitly allow others to be hurt?   What did they fear?  What did they have to gain?  How did they not see it coming?  How did they come to believe the propaganda?

Where do you find yourself in the picture?


When presented with Gerhard Richter’s Lesende (The Reader), the German writer Luisa Beck asks who is this girl?  And what does she have to offer?

Beck’s answer?  She is a German. And she is us. And the look on her face betrays something important. That inhumanity can be born from and live commensurate with normalcy.  As with our relationship to the raven, if ungood comes to pass and if we survive it, what will be our relationship to this girl?  If we ourselves become war borne, how will we reconcile our own inhumanity with this profile and with this face, so lovely and so hardened?

img_2804

19. The Message in the Bottle

Smiley’s Schooner

Where did all those marooned sailors ever find ink or a smudge of grease pencil let alone a stoppered bottle?  And how did they provision themselves?

For me, it was relatively easy.  I was living in Smiley’s Schooner Saloon, a bar on the other side of the Stinson slough that greets each foggy morning at 7 am with a fresh pot of coffee.  They have good wifi to boot which means I could toss bottle after bottle of raven writing into the sea until eventually a passing ship would find me.

The first puff of smoke came late one night in the shape of a Facebook message.  It was from Brett Baer.  Where was I living, he asked? It sounded like Northern California.  He had just moved to Bolinas from Texas, he said.

You need to work kind of hard to get to Bolinas.  But there Brett was, most likely within relative sight of where I then sat.

I guess it made sense. And the fact that it does leads to the story of Brett and the story of the Craftsman Buffet.

And those truthfully can’t be told until we first tell the story of the very first boat.  But before the very first boat, there was  the chair.  And there was the table.  And before the Chair and the Table, there was Gerry Coon.

The Host and the Kill

20111219-091557.jpg

Time to get back with the program.

I found him in the morning while walking Mango. He lay on the side of the road at the other end of the 40 acres, his body fully intact. His chest cavity still had a trace of warmth, though rigor mortis had started to set in. Without any real clear intent, I picked him up, much to the chagrin of a waiting turkey vulture that immediately took flight.

I thought he was beautiful. He was heavy, heavier than one might think. Carrying his dead body, he felt something like a small dog. The pelt was thick, and the tail less pliable than it looks. His teeth and claws are predatory, ready to sink into any small vole – or wounded raven, perhaps – that he might happen across.

It all led to the basic question that ultimately faces everything: how best to send him on?

I could bury him, though that seemed respectful only in our world in which we seek to hide the look and stink of death. A waste of a perfectly good carcass, as Kerry Hardy would put it. I could gut him and do something with the luscious pelt, but I felt his native form was too beautiful to render into ornamentation. I could only screw it up. Kerry suggested eating him. Anna, of course, was worried about hydrophobia.

It took a good day for the answer to present itself.

This morning I drew a knife neatly down the middle of his chest and peeled back the pelt revealing the rose bloom of his chest. Lacking animus, his body now existed nearly exclusively as matter. But not quite. His matter still contains resident within a potency. We call it vitality. Enough that other creatures may seek to take it and draw it into their own.

We call this eating. On one side of the divide: sacrifice. On the other, rendered by consumption, it becomes the sacrament and the eater the sanctified.

Isn’t that ultimately what it meant in the transformation of the Host?

I took the body of that poor coon and splayed it on the roof of the old chicken barn out beyond our house. It’s within clear line of sight of our deck and bedroom windows. In a few days it will begin to stink.

If I’m lucky, the neighboring creatures will be hungry enough to overcome the fear of this place and of us. You all are welcome here I say to them. To the ravens. To the crows and vultures. To all the scavengers. I want them to come to this home and feed.

It really is time for me to get on with it. We have a wonderful home. And I’m back in it.

Here’s the invite. If you’re wild, I’ll feed you raccoon.

For the rest of you, I have a table to build. And things to grow. And kill. And render. It will be beautiful and delicious.

Come. You’re all welcome. It’s time to sate the hunger.

 

The End

A raven was born, and wounded, and lived for a short time in this world.

He was taken at night by an animal.  He could offer no defense.  I knew straightaway where to go.  I found his severed head at the base of towering redwood tree.

Poe, I write this to you.

I am so sorry I was the cause of your destruction.  You believed in me and I kept screwing it up.  You did your best and I was the one who pulled the football away.

I don’t know where a raven’s spirit goes when it dies.  But I want you to find it within you a way to forgive. But forgiveness may only be in the province of humans, an unnecessary convention unsuited to the ways of birds.   I can listen for you and your own.  I can assign meaning.  It’s only an assignation, but it’s all I know how to do.

And in the end, what all do you care for my mortal shit?  You’re birds.  You do  your justice and sup on the departed.

Final Days

Our furniture arrived in the middle of September.  Two movers hefted and shoved and carried on their backs more possessions than any being should have to bear.  They got it all in our house.  I brought Poe home that night from Occidental.  His eye was blind, his feathers falling out, he refused to preen or care for himself.  He spent the night inside, afraid to leave his courier cage.  In the morning he emerged and shit all over our dining room table.

He stayed with me while I unpacked boxes.  I spread packing paper across the floor and he receded into it.  Unable to see, he squawked and panicked whenever I approached him.  He could no longer perch, so he sat on the papered floor.

In the day I set him up outside on the lawn and he caught sun.  I fed him apples and cheese, that he no longer touched.  In the evening, he hopped onto the porch and walked inside.  The house was in chaos, boxes and junk everywhere.  I felt sick to my stomach and so did he.  His watery shit ran across the floor.  His sounds were few, just feeble cries.

I apologized, but apologies don’t matter a whit.  I couldn’t make it any better.  I told him if he could meet me half way, I could help him.  But I couldn’t do anything if didn’t want to make it better.  It was his choice, I told him.  And if it was too much to bear, he could end it.

All he felt from me was chaos and fear and anger.  And in the end, perhaps it only left him bewildered.

Anna drove a night and a day to get to us.  She had the chickens and dog and two of our cats loaded in with her, and I released them all hoping Poe would find them familiar friends and be happy for company.  He hopped away and buried his body and head against the rocks.

I knew Anna didn’t want him in the house.  So that night I set him on his perch outside.  I gave him a sampling of meat and cantaloupe and water.

I told him everything would be alright. And that’s how I left him.

Talk to the Animals

Her name was Ariana Strozzi.  And she ran a place called Skyhorse Ranch.

I’d been given her name by someone in the coffee shop.  She worked with animals, I was told.  She knew a lot about birds.

A few days after returning to town, I fetched Poe from Occidental.  Penny was right.  He looked to be a complete mess, missing feathers, agitated, afraid to come near me.  I know of someone who maybe can help you, I told him.

That day, I took Poe to Valley Ford. We descended into that overcast channel west of Petaluma that leads on to the ocean. We drove up to Skyhorse ranch, a horse farm high on the hill overlooking the barren valley.  I pulled past the horse corrals to the house.  Ariana welcomed me at the door.  She appeared collected and thoughtful.  She invited Poe and I into her house and allowed me to take him from the carrier.

Ariana led workshops on interspecies communication, primarily with horses.  Animals were her thing.  They operate on the level of feeling and to be with them we need to quiet the noise inside ourselves.  She wasn’t part of the rehabilitation community and was a renegade of sorts.  On her own she worked with a whole range of predatory birds.  Hawks, peregrines, owls.  And ravens.

Ariana had done her graduate work at UC Davis.  While there, she had developed a system for wing rehabilitation using intensive physical therapy wedded to bird instinct. When she finished, she had been recruited to help with condor reintroduction on the North Rim. Her job would have been to prevent the birds from human imprinting.

Ariana felt that the ravens see everything and they know in deep way what we’re about.  She told me a story.  A while ago, her marriage was falling apart, she told me, and she didn’t want to admit it.  She was up at the ranch at the time, and the birds would come to her, they would follow her where she went and caw incessently.  Until one afternoon in a rage she stood outside her barn and called out what she had known all along and and she shouted and screamed to the birds and the world and the birds were at last silent.

I sat in the living room with her and Poe.  He sat on her table and she watched him, unconcerned as he shit over her living room floor.  She fed him meal worms. She was concerned about his thinness and his diet.  He needed field mice and insects, she said.  He sat calmly in her presence and preened.  She confidently took Poe by the legs and body and thrust him through diving motions again and again.

It wasn’t good, she said.  His right wing was damaged and fused shut.  His left wing seemed paralytic also, and his left foot wouldn’t grip properly.  In the diving motion he failed to respond instinctively by thrusting out his wing.

I doubt he will ever fly again, she said.

And if I take him to a wildlife refuge? I asked.

They’ll put him down, she said.

He can’t be a raven.  But can he live a life, a full life? I asked.

She smiled.  He can, she said.  Absolutely.  It’s clear that you have a special bond, she said.  You know one another and he trusts your presence.  He can be a happy member of your family.  He craves social interaction.  You can integrate him into your family.  When you eat, he can sit with you at the table.  He can be with you as you go about your day.  Stimulate him, pay attention, work with him and his life can be as full as any.

I thanked her.

I knew what I wanted to do.  I wanted to do this thing we call life, diminished though it may be.

Betrayal

He believed in me.  We were friends, in a strange way bound to one another.  Abandoned into this world, I would like to think that he wanted to believe in me.

But I was busy.  I was distracted.  I was trying to take care of my daughter. To get her to school and coach her on homework.  To buy a house and an adjoining orchard.  To talk to my wife.  To be married to my wife.  I don’t know what he thought, but I believed he just wanted to see me.  I visited best I could, but it became sporadic.  And then I left.  I had to go to Telluride and then Hopi to help with the movers.  Penny and Michael and their daughter Loren stepped in.  Each morning one or the other would try and they would feed and sit with him.

Penny called while I was away.  Poe wasn’t doing well, she said.  He seemed sad.  He was hiding away.  He seemed to miss me, she said.  He had stopped preening and a wasp had stung him in the eye and it was swollen shut.

He just wanted me to be there for him, to listen to him, to give him hope, to tend to a broken wing.

But isn’t that what betrayal is?  Distraction?  An increment of cuts?