Saturday, September 06, 2008

Things Acquired Along the Way

I don’t collect many things. I’m not a collector, and my home is only so big anyway. But I do collect those little stick-pins one can place on one’s lapel or hatband or jacket pocket by pushing the pin through and latching it from the back. I collect lapel pins from significant places I’ve been to in my travels as a roving artist and photographer. I buy one from every national and state park I’ve been to, and two if the designs are beautiful. I have a jacket that lives in the truck when I travel, that I put on when it’s cooler weather, by the ocean, in the mountains, or wherever. This jacket is full of lapel pins, with more added each road trip. These are mementoes of my travels, a track of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. They also engage with my ongoing interest in graphic design, and design in general. Some pins are more beautiful or memorable than others. Some pins are designed generically, by committee, and have too much information on them; others have a single graphic image on them, and the name of the park or museum, and these often the most striking pins in terms of design. For example: I have a melting watch pin from the Salvador Dali Museum in Tampa, FL; I have a pin with stalactites and a bat on it from Mammoth Caves in KY, and the bat slides back and forth, imitating flight; I have a pin with the night sky and the Big Dipper on it from Great Basin National Park; and a pin with colorful landform shapes on it from the Grand Canyon.

This small metal-jacketed, spring-loaded notebook is a perfect size to carry in a pocket when hiking or walking some long trail outdoors. I usually stick it in the side pocket on my camera case. It’s perfect for writing down thoughts while traveling; my regular handwritten journal is too big and heavy a volume to want to carry around with me all day, as is my laptop. If a haiku comes forward, or a thought to turn into a longer poem or essay later, then I can capture it on the fly, and copy it into the journal when I return. It’s small, it’s sturdy, and it has a black dragon on its cover. What more could one desire? (Acquired in Minneapolis, MN.)

A cardboard-bodied dulcimer. I had contemplated taking along my mountain dulcimer; it’s an Appalachian style dulcimer, a good one worth a few hundred dollars when it was gifted to me some years ago. I decided not to risk it getting damaged on this trip. So, wandering through the main Goodwill in St. Paul, there it was on top of the shelf in the toy section; I pulled it down and strummed it, and to my astonishment it sounds terrific. The neck is pine, and the resonating body is cardboard, heavy-duty cardboard with a faux-wood finish. I tuned it up and made up a tune on the spot. Several people, customers and staff alike, stopped to chat with me about it, asking what it was; one thought it was a guitar. Needless to say, I bought it, and am taking it with me on this trip. I’ve already recorded a piece for the podcast. (Acquired in St. Paul, MN.)

John McPhee: Annals of the Former World. I love reading geology books, I never tire of them. McPhee’s ambitious multi-volume essay on modern trends in geology, focusing mostly on plate tectonics, is still one of the best ever. Even though I already own all four volumes in the series, I picked this up at Great Basin National Park because I realized this edition is revised, updated, and with a new, fifth book included in the omnibus. He has changed the text, and provided an index, so it was well worth the purchase, and I will enjoy re-reading this masterwork. It’s fun to dip into reading about the Basin & Range when you’re in the region. Of course, this is one of my special places, which I have previously made several poems and a video about: Basin & Range. (Acquired at Great Basin, NV.)

The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, by Mark Rothko. This is Rothko’s missing book from the 1940s, in which he wrote his ideas about art before he became well-known, and which he preserved but never published. Skimming it, I see he does not talk about his own art much, if at all, so there is no skeleton key here to the meaning of his later, sublime, almost spiritual paintings. But I always enjoy reading what poets and artists and musicians have essayed about their arts; their how-to manuals, their daybooks and notebooks, their random thoughts. Rothko is an artist still controversial and misunderstood, and an artist that speaks very directly to me because his work is strongly pre-verbal, non-narrative, non-representational, but still powerfully emotional and psychological. It is only our verbal-dominant culture that has come to be so biased about the written word over all; poets, who should know better than anyone how words can betray their intentions and meanings, are the worst at assuming that words can explain anything, reveal anything, describe anything. There are so many states of being, and experiences of the sublime, that completely transcend words, or verbal precision, or narrative description, that the presumption of poetry or writing being the “highest art form” is laughable at best, pathetically laughable at worst. It will be interesting to dig into Rothko’s thoughts about art, as I have dug into Escher’s, Mondrian’s, and other artists, not forgetting writing photographers like Edward Weston, and learned from them all. (Acquired at Half Moon Bay, CA.)

A dangling soft-fabric jellyfish, to hang from the rafters once I return home. A gift from a friend, after my visit to the Monterey Aquarium. Something to remind one of those oceanic feelings, watching the pulsing, slow, hypnotic swimming of the moon jellies there. The meditative space in the water around their translucent forms. (Acquired at Monterey, CA.)

This could too easily become a long and continuing list, since I am acquiring new objects as I go, endlessly intrigued by what I can find in thrift stores across the nation; and friends sometimes gift me with things and books as I travel and visit them. It's fascinating to note regional and local variations among what is available in different stores that are otherwise of the same category, separated only by distance. A thrift store in Berkeley, CA, carries different book titles than one in central South Dakota. It's sometimes a function of demographics: college towns, and wealthier suburbs, often have the best pickings. But not always. There are chaotic surprises. Little echoes of some eccentric local who stirred the pot, fell off the deep end, and now their chattels have ended up, one way or another, on the thrift store shelves. Will my own library be exemplary when I'm dead and gone, the books passed on and picked over by friends, or given as donation to the local Goodwill? As long as the books end up in a good home, I'm satisfied.

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