julius caesar, the foreskin of jesus, time to dance

Time is weird. No, wait…that’s not right. Time isn’t weird; the way people mark time, that’s what’s weird. For a big chunk of Western history, the new year began on March 1. Which makes actual sense, if you think about it. I mean, that’s pretty much the season in which life begins to re-assert itself after winter has stopped tossing its weight around.

The reason — one of the reasons — we celebrate January 1 as the first day of the new year is because Julius Caesar (yes, that Julius Caesar) decided people had fucked up the calendar, and he was just the boy to fix it. The problem was the early Roman calendar was a lunar calendar and only had ten months, ending in December (from the Latin word decem, meaning ten). Six of the months had thirty days, the other four had thirty-one. Why did some months have an extra day? Nobody really seems to know. There had to be a reason, but it was a long time ago — people forget. And really, who cares? It was fucked up, right? That’s why our boy Julius had to fix it.

Anyway, you can see the problem. The Roman year only had 304 official days. So they periodically added in a few extra days here and there (usually for political purposes), and they included a sort of block of unorganized winter days (and we all know what that’s like — it’s cold, it’s dark, one day is pretty much as miserable as another, and they all sort of blend together), and now and then they’d toss in an intercalary month of twenty-seven days. Sometimes twenty-eight days.

On with the dance! let joy be unconfined; No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet to chase the glowing hours with flying feet.

Really, considering how organized the Roman empire was, it was a terribly sloppy way to deal with time. Seasons got weird, holidays would begin too early or too late, harvest festivals would be scheduled before the harvest was ready. Nothing made any sense. Folks complained. So one day Julius said, “Okay, this shit really has to stop.” He hired a guy from Alexandria, Sosigenes, who told him, “Dude, let’s just do what the Egyptians do. Chuck that whole lunar thing and base the calendar on the sun.”

So that’s what they did. They had to create a few new months, and add in a few extra days, but they banged together a new calendar and in the year 45 BC they said, “This is the first day of January, named for Janus the god of beginnings and endings, the god of gates and passages and doorways, the god of duality and transitions. And from now on, this is going to be the first day of the new year. Party on, people.”

The people partied on, but they still pretty much celebrated March 1 as beginning the new year. I mean, c’mon…tradition. And common sense. Who feels like celebrating in the middle of fucking winter? Even after the Roman Empire (and most of the Western world) went all over Christian, January 1 wasn’t treated as the beginning of the new year. Basically, it was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Which was a pretty big deal back then. You see, eight days after Jesus was born, his folks held a bris, a mohel nipped off his holy foreskin, they gave him his name, then everybody had a nice meal. Christians didn’t go in for all that; they skipped everything but the meal, but they still thought it was a fine thing to honor the day Jesus was separated from his foreskin. (Religion is also weird.)

Eventually the Julian calendar was supplanted (if ‘supplanted’ means what I think it means — I can’t be bothered to look it up) by the Gregorian calendar, and the Gregorian calendar got refined, and science weighed in, and time was more tightly ordered, and the world became more secular, and relatively few people wanted to celebrate the circumcision of Jesus, and now when you buy a calendar at the book store it begins in January. It’s not entirely universal, but January 1 has generally become accepted as the first day of the year.

When buds are breaking and birds singing merrily, dance with me.

But it’s basically all bullshit. Thomas Mann had it right when he wrote:

Time has no divisions to mark its passing. There is never a thunderstorm to announce the beginning of a new month or year.

Really, this is just another day. A lot of folks still have to go to work, the cat’s litter box still needs to be cleaned and the dog needs to be walked, food has to be prepared and dishes have to be cleared away and washed, the snow will still fall and have to be cleared off the sidewalk, people will still be people, and you’re still the same person you were yesterday.

It’s just another day. Nothing has really changed. But so what? Sometimes what we need is a symbolic transition. A point at which we can tell ourselves this is where things begin to change. This point, right here, this is the line. From this point forward, things will be different.

Doesn’t have to be the beginning of the year. Could be a birthday. Or an anniversary. It doesn’t even have to be a temporal point. It could be any symbolic point. Once I get my own apartment, once I get my first real job, once I can run a 5K, once I graduate, once I get married, once I can afford a ticket to Spain, once I get my driver’s license, once I get divorced, once the kids have grown up and left home, from that point on things will be different. That decisive point, whatever it is, it’s worth celebrating.

Now I think of it, I’m beginning to believe there’s actually something admirable about reaching that point on the first day of January. There’s something defiant choosing a day in the middle of the least hospitable, most bitter, darkest fucking season of the year. There’s something cheeky about shouting out, “It’s January First, bitches…and it’s time to dance.”

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in which i travel the world and get cheerfully lost

A couple years ago a friend alerted me to Google’s Chrome Experiments, a curious and interesting group of browser-based games and art projects. At the time there were maybe five or six hundred projects, and while I thought some of them were pretty cool and worth exploring, I was busy. So I bookmarked the URL and, as so often happens with stuff I bookmark, I promptly forgot all about it.

Maybe six months ago I heard that Chrome Experiments had reached the 1000 projects mark. That revived my interest. I found my old sadly neglected bookmark and began to noodle around, exploring the various projects at random until I stumbled upon a game called GeoGuessr — and basically pissed away all my free time for about a week. Maybe two weeks. Possibly three. Now I’m more moderate in my GeoGuessr time; I play once or twice a week — but the game still fascinates me.

geo estonia village

As the name suggests, it’s a game based on geography. The concept is simple. Using Google Maps’ Street View, the game drops you on a random street somewhere in the world. I use the term ‘street’ loosely, It might be an actual street. Or it might be a gravel road in a remote corner of the Ukraine, or an on-ramp of an Interstate Highway in the United States, or a dirt path along a newly planted field in Spain, or a back street in a mid-sized Brazilian city, or a boulevard in a major urban area in Russia, or in a suburban housing estate in Wales, or a secondary road in Croatia.

In fact, since the Google-cam can be worn as a backpack, Street View has expanded to include places not accessible to vehicles. I’ve found myself beginning a GeoGuessr game on a ski slope in Utah and on a hiking path to a Hindu temple in India.

Croatia

The ostensible goal of the game is to use the visual cues and clues of your surroundings to determine your location. You ‘travel’ down roads in search of those cues and clues, then you make a guess about your location and mark it on a map  You accrue points based on how accurate your guess is. Each game has five rounds — five different geographical locations — and at the end, you’re given a total score.

That’s it. As I said, the concept of the game is simple. Part of the attraction, of course, is the puzzle aspect — trying to figure out where the hell you are. That’s fun. Frustrating fun, sometimes. Challenging fun. But still fun.

geo dirt road somewhere4

But for me, figuring out my location (and earning a high score) is secondary. What draws me repeatedly back to the game is the power of the unexpected. The GoogleCam isn’t just mapping streets; it’s also moving through the daily events of the world, and the world is jammed full of weird, absurd, profoundly beautiful, desperately sad, fascinating stuff. Roadside shrines to gods and memorials to victims of traffic accidents.. Prostitutes plying their trade along the street. Mountains that come straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. Astonishing poverty. Exotic coastlines that make you think of pirates or castaways.

The randomness of GeoGuessr inserts you into unexpected locations where ordinary people are going about their ordinary daily lives. The reality of these lives — which are often radically different from my own — is fascinating. Kids playing stickball in the street. A young man meditating in a remote Hindu temple. A recent single-car accident in some remote road.. A man walking by himself on some lonely stretch of road in northern Norway. A woman hitchhiking in South Africa. And the GoogleCam records it all with a completely dispassionate objectivity.

geo guy walking northern tip of Norway

I do enjoy the game aspects. There’s something fulfilling about being dropped at a random spot in the world and being able to locate that spot on a map within a few meters Yet after I’ve figured out the location, I often continue to ramble around, intrigued by the ordinariness of life in other parts of the world.

I’ve begun to collect screen captures of bus stops. I’m thinking about collecting images of railroad crossings. And maybe bicycle riders. And people walking their dogs. These are things that are universal, and yet they’re all so very distinctive. The people waiting for a bus in South Africa probably have a lot in common for the people waiting for a bus in Russia. The cyclist in northern Spain probably has something in common with the cyclist in Australia, and the one on that mountain road in Utah.

stickball

Some of you who read this will be tempted to play GeoGuessr. Give into that temptation. You should be aware, though, that it’s an enormous time-suck. You’ll promise yourself you’ll only play for half an hour — but then you find yourself wondering what’s around the next corner, or over than next hill, or through that tunnel. You’ll wonder what that building is, and you’ll want to check out that overgrown cemetery, maybe follow that alleyway down toward the docks. So let me repeat this: it’s an enormous time-suck.

Play it anyway.

right in the neck

The Athabaskan people who lived near the mountain called it Denali, which meant ‘the high one.’ It’s a pretty name for a mountain. I like it. Another local tribe, the Dina’ena, called it Doleika, which meant ‘big mountain,’ which is less poetic but still pretty accurate. It really is a big mountain.

The Russians moved into the neighborhood in 1783; they called the mountain Bolshaya Gora, which also means ‘big mountain.’ They didn’t really change the name; they just said it in Russian, which is appropriate. But the Russians left in 1867, and I suspect folks in the area just continued to refer to it the ‘big mountain’ in whatever language they happened to have handy at the moment. Because it really IS a big mountain.

denali2

Then in the late 1880s, the white folks in the region decided to call it Densmore’s Peak, after Frank Densmore — a gold prospector who was, apparently, inordinately fond of the mountain. I don’t have any solid evidence to base this on, but I’m going to guess the natives continued to call it Denali or Doleika regardless of what the white folks did. Because what did the white folks know about it? Fuck them in the neck.

Then politics happened. A guy named William Dickey, who’d been prospecting for gold in the Susitna River, returned to the Lower Forty-eight and wrote an article about Alaska for the New York Sun newspaper. This was January of 1897, shortly after Republican William McKinley had been elected President of These United States. McKinley, you see, was a proponent of the gold standard (on which to base U.S. currency) — and Dickey was a Republican who’d been a gold prospector. McKinley’s Democratic opponent in the election, William Jennings Bryan, was in favor of a silver standard rather than a gold standard. Dickey had met a lot of silver prospectors while in Alaska, and they all favored the Democrat. This is all important information because in his article, Dickey made this rather suspect claim:

We named our great peak Mount McKinley, after William McKinley of Ohio, who had been nominated for the Presidency.

Whether that was true or not, it struck a chord for Republicans in Congress, and twenty years later they made the name official: Mount McKinley. They also named the area around the mountain McKinley National Park. Basically, it was Republicans saying ‘fuck you in the neck’ to Democrats (and to all the native folks in Alaska).denali3

It seems nobody in Alaska liked the name, and most folks just continued to call the mountain Denali. Who cared what the people south of Canada called it? In the 1970s, Alaska made the practical decision to officially change the name back to the original Denali. They petitioned the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (yes, there’s actually a government agency that oversees geographic names) to do the same. And hey, the board seemed open to the idea.

Then politics happened again. The Republican Congressman who represented the Ohio district when William McKinley spent most of his life (a complete jackass named Ralph Regula) intervened and basically stopped the process. Basically, he was saying ‘fuck you in the neck’ to the people of Alaska. The people of Alaska sort of shrugged off the whole fuss and in 1975 the Alaska Board of Geographic Names (yes, the state has its own government agency to oversee its geographic names) went ahead and changed the name anyway.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter decided to change the name of the park from McKinley National Park to Denali National Park and Preserve. Basically, he was saying ‘fuck you in the neck back’ to Congressman Regula. But while the president was authorized to change the name of the park, Regula could still prevent him from changing the name of the actual mountain, which officially remained Mount McKinley. Basically, Regula was telling the president ‘re-fuck you in the neck.’Denali1

And that’s how things stayed until Regula retired. At that point Alaska again petitioned the Board on Geographic Names to change the damn name. Then politics happened yet again. Two members of Congress from Ohio — both Democrats — decided to carry on Regula’s profoundly stupid fight to retain the name of Mount McKinley. Basically, it looked like Ohio saying ‘fuck you in the neck’ to Alaska.

But the people of Ohio spoke out and told their members of Congress to grow the fuck up and stop interfering with Alaskan politics. And they did. So today, President Obama is officially authorizing the Board on Geographic Names to recognize what Alaskans have always recognized — that the mountain deserves to be called Denali because it really IS a big, high mountain.

And hey, guess what. Politics are happening. Republicans — and particularly those from Ohio — are rebuking the president’s decision. Speaker of the House John Boehner stated he was “deeply disappointed in this decision.” Senator Rob Portman decried the decision as “yet another example of the President going around Congress.”

And, of course, the proud patriots of FreeRepublic are voicing their considered opinions on the issue.

— Why not call it Glorious Jihad?

— If Hussein cared about what the people of Alaska thought, he would ask Valerie for permission to open up the northern slope for drilling. Alaskans want that, too.

— Obonzo didn’t do jack. He’s going up there to fundraise and kiss some minority @$$ for his ‘RAT comrades up there. Everyone in Alaska already refers to the mountain as Denali. The bastard Kenyan didn’t need to do anything. This is just another one of his “historical” In Yo Face Whitey Moments.

— Mount Barack….in honor of Bareback Mountain

— stupid bammy has to interject himself into normal people’s lives like the narcissist he is

— This is the work of a tyrant.

— I’m surprised it’s not going to be Kilimanjaro to make Zero feel more at home.

— Islam could easily be involved. Pakistan is close. Jihadis are everywhere.

To be fair, not everybody on FreeRepublic is a lunatic. Many of them have pointed out the fact that most Alaskans want the mountain to be called Denali. They don’t necessarily object to renaming the mountain; they just object to President Obama renaming the mountain. Basically, the people of FreeRepublic are saying ‘fuck you in the neck’ to the president.

Barack Obama

But hey, it’s a done deal now. And it’ll be Obama’s smiling face we’ll see standing in front of Denali on the national news tonight. And guess what he’s basically symbolically saying to the folks of FreeRepublic.

Right in the neck.

somewhat true detective

“Yo, Greg, you should watch True Detective.” That’s what everybody kept telling me. “Great acting,” they said. “Lyrical cinematography, complex characters, clever plot,” they said, “all wrapped up in a realistic crime drama that takes place in the South. You’ll love it.”

So I watched it. The entire first season — eight hour-long episodes — over the last four weeks. And hey, they were mostly right. I did love it. The acting was terrific, just like folks told me (I swear, Matthew McConaughey never blinked once during the entire season), and the cinematography was artful. I suppose the characters could be seen as complex, but they’re pretty much right off the Stock Character–Complex Model shelf. We’ve all seen the Marty Hart character before, the hard-working detective who drinks too much and thinks too little. And the Rust Cohle character is basically Serpico, the Cerebral Cop, quoting big chunks of Thomas Ligotti, who is the High Lord of Anhedonia. It’s the quality of the acting that makes these characters interesting, not the characters themselves.

true detective tree2

The plot? Well, it was fairly predictable. Let’s face it, there’s nothing original about two detectives solving a nasty crime committed by powerful people who use their influence to hinder the investigation. That said, the plot was elevated by being beautifully structured and through the mostly masterful pacing. I say ‘mostly’ masterful pacing because there were a few scenes that were stretched out because apparently HBO requires a certain number of minutes devoted to young women showing their tits and ass. (Disclaimer: I’m not opposed to tits or ass so long as they’re organic to the story and don’t disrupt the pacing; but c’mon, the only reason they included some of the sex scenes — including the pointless image in the opening sequence where we see a woman’s naked ass above a pair of spiked stiletto heels — is to attract a young male audience.)

But a realistic crime drama? Well, no — but nobody really expects this sort of show to be realistic. Real life investigation can be pretty dull, after all. However, I did appreciate how the writer, Nic Pizzolatto, demonstrated that good detective work often involves a buttload of time sitting alone in a room sifting through old files and public records. That facet of investigation almost never makes it to the screen. It doesn’t quite make up for Pizzolatto’s wholesale lifting of dialog from Ligotti, but you have to give the guy props when he deserves them.

So yeah, True Detective was excellent television and I’m really glad folks recommended it to me. But nobody — not one person — told me that True Detective was a classic Southern Gothic story. And lawdy, that’s the heart of the whole goddamn thing.

true detective house

Some of you are probably saying “Southern Gothic? I have never heard of this Southern Gothic. Qu’est-ce que c’est Southern Gothic?” Allow me to ‘splain.

Southern Gothic is a highly atmospheric literary genre grounded in the decay — both physical and moral — of the Old South aristocracy. Southern Gothic (and I’m just going to start calling it SG on account of I’m lazy) stories usually involve the decline of Southern gentility into perversion, grotesquerie, and madness. The descendants of antebellum families that once owned plantations and slaves have been reduced to living in house trailers parked out in the country, and they’re working odd jobs. The slaves are gone, the plantations either sold to Yankees or fallen into dilapidation (or worse, turned into tourist venues). The cotton fields have been plowed under, replaced by strip malls and big box stores.

The characters in SG stories struggle to understand the world around them and find some way to fit their lives into modern society. Drug addition, alcoholism, confused sexuality, sexual paraphilia, mental and physical deformities, religious depravity or fanaticism, poverty, alienation, violence, the supernatural, illegitimacy — tie all that up with a bow of futile and pointless family pride and you’ve got yourself a classic SG story.

true-detective-episode-2

That sort of moral and spiritual degradation isn’t unique to the Southern Gothic genre; literature and film are full of examples of the moral corruption of European aristocrats. We’re talking everything from Count Dracula to the Marquis de Sade to Charles II of England. It’s not just power that corrupts — it’s also unquestioned privilege. Privilege allowed folks to whip and/or rape the young village boys and girls without any fear of consequence. Society can take that privilege away, but the desire to continue whipping and raping doesn’t necessarily go with it. That means the unwholesome behavior has to become more secretive. That’s been universally true. What makes the corruption of SG stories unique, I think, is its relationship to heat and defeat.

Heat is debilitating. It reveals itself through sweat, and sweat lubricates Southern Gothic stories. Sweat, not perspiration. In SG literature, sweat suggests either labor or animal lust. It suggests either being out in the field doing a job — which indicates a lower social status — or you’re driven by a sexual desire so strong that you ignore the fact that it’s just too damned hot to fuck. Either way, sweat suggests you’re not the master of your own behavior. All the decent, privileged people, after all, are sitting on the porch, sipping something cool and fanning themselves. They may perspire, but they do not sweat.

true detective detectives

In True Detective, we see all the main characters sweating — all but the Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle, who is never seen outside an air-conditioned building. He’s metaphorically still sitting on the porch, watching the lower classes laboring away. Except, of course, when he puts on a Mardi Gras masque and works up a sweat doing something really horrific to young girls. (We never actually see what he does; all we know is that it makes hardened law enforcement types scream when they see it.)

But more than the Southern heat, it’s Southern defeat that really counts. Yeah, we’re talking about the American Civil War again. We’re talking about the cultural resentment at the loss of status, property, income, and privilege. Loss — that’s really the wrong term. In SG stories characters don’t feel they lost their former status; they feel it was taken from them — stolen from them — and that sparks a deep, underlying current of bitterness.

In True Detective we see echoes of that bitterness mostly in the character of Errol Childress — the chubby, scarred, perpetually sweaty pervert who is descended from an illegitimate branch of the Tuttle family tree. He’s not only been deprived of the privilege his ancestors enjoyed, he’s even deprived of their name. At one point, the two detectives who are investigating Cohle happen across Childress and ask directions. They drive off while he’s still speaking — an insult he’s able to shrug off because, as he says, “My family’s been here a long time.”

true detective childress

There’s another thing we see a lot in Southern Gothic stories: symbolism. At the beginning of the series and very near the end (and periodically throughout), we see an old, gnarled tree standing alone in a corn field. The tree looks ancient, like it’s been there forever; its roots are deep in the land. The field, on the other hand, is relatively new and the crops are planted around the tree. The depravity of the Tuttle/Childress clan has been around a long time; it’s anchored to the land and it’s still here despite recent changes of society. Society, in fact, has shaped itself around the Tuttles, and left them largely undisturbed (while the Childress family has been left in a sort of socio-cultural backwater). The Tuttle/Childress family tree has many branches, and branches show up all over the show as bizarre clues and as set decorations. The symbolism is obvious, but not overwhelming.

There are lots of flaws and problems with True Detective. For example, it never bothers to explain the references to The King in Yellow or Carcosa (both of which come from classic gothic horror stories) or their significance in the murders committed by Childress. And then there’s this: what’s the story purpose of Cohle having visual hallucinations? They’re almost completely ignored except in the first and last episodes, and I can’t see how they contribute in any material way to either the plot or the character development.

true detective tree

But the flaws and problems are, I think, minor when compared to the overall success of the show (and I’m talking about artistic success, not commercial success). True Detective was an absolute pleasure to watch. But dammit, it’s not really a detective story. It’s Southern Gothic, baby, right down to its depraved heart.

i kinda don’t hate facebook

Yeah, Facebook. You hate it. Everybody hates it. It’s a timesink, an annoying distraction, a bog of pointless announcements and idiotic quizzes, a morass of maudlin appeals for support from people you barely know (or don’t know at all), a fixed point attractor for every cute cat video ever made (and usually made badly), a wasteland of recipes you’ll never make and articles you’ll never read. Facebook is an utter and complete waste of bandwidth. Everybody agrees. I agree as well.

Except I don’t. Not really. Oh, I complain about Facebook, but the fact is I rather enjoy it. Every day — every single goddamned day — there are at least half a dozen different posts on Facebook that I find worthwhile. Or more than worthwhile. I find posts that make me think, that connect me to ideas and places and people and things I find fascinating, that give me information I want or need, that amuse me or delight me. And yes, yes of course, there are lots of posts that annoy the hell out of me. Sentimental pap, or faux inspirational quotations, or stupid hateful stuff about Obama, or stuff about…I don’t know…cars. Or basketball. But every single day, for me the good stuff on Facebook outweighs the annoying stuff.

For example, this morning on Facebook an Irish photographer, John Baucher, alerted me to the work of an Arizona-born artist (David Emitt Adams) who uses the wet-plate collodion process to create powerful  and photographs of the desert on old discarded tin cans found in the desert. It’s the perfect melding of subject and medium, as well as a profound statement about the effect of humankind on the environment. Adams says,

“I have never known this landscape without the forgotten debris of urban sprawl. Today, the notion of land untouched by the hand of man is so foreign it might as well be make-believe.”

David Emitt Adams

 

And this morning on Facebook, Barış Kılıçbay, a Turkish scholar, shared a short video edited by Jacob Swinney, in which the first and final frames of several films are shown side-by-side. It sounds simple and obvious, but it’s actually surprisingly sophisticated and compelling. It offers some real insight into how a narrative is — or should be — deliberately structured.

 

And this morning on Facebook the Des Moines Bike Collective posted a video about the Idaho Stop and showed me a photograph of an 83-year-old woman who’d stopped by the shop for help fixing a chain on her bike. The collective regularly posts information about cycling and how various urban areas are working to make cycling safer and more convenient. They also frequently feature local folks who are doing cool bike-related stuff.

bike collective - janet

 

And just now on Facebook, British science blogger Elise Andrew (who runs the brilliant I Fucking Love Science page) posted a link to an interactive exercise in speculative zombie epidemiology. By inputting a couple of variables (such as the kill-to-bite ratio and zombie velocity) and picking a location for Zombie Patient Zero to appear, you can follow the pattern and rate of a zombie epidemic in the U.S.

That dark area in the Midwest? That shows how in two weeks, a single zombie in Des Moines capable of walking less than one mile per hour and infecting 85% of the people it bit would have spread the infection far and fast enough to envelope both Minneapolis and Chicago. Who wouldn’t want to know that?

zombie infection rate

 

I don’t any of these people, really. I’ve never met John Baucher, though we occasionally correspond and we communicate frequently on Facebook. I have no idea how I came to know Barış Kılıçbay — through a friend, or a friend of a friend. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is that our small interactions on Facebook have occasionally made my day more interesting. I’m not a member of the Des Moines Bike Collective, but I know they’re a force of good in the community and two or three times a week they inform me about something bicycle-ish I’d otherwise never learn. And I only know Elise Andrew through IFLS, but she’s expanded my understanding in dozens of science-related fields.

My point, if you can call it that, is that although Facebook really is horrible, it’s also really pretty terrific. If you like zombies. And bikes. And movies. And wet collodion tin can photography.

to dedicate a portion of that field

There was a great deal of fuss yesterday about the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And rightly so; it’s beautifully written — simple, eloquent, thoughtful. In fact, it’s hard these days to appreciate just how thoughtful it was.

That’s partly because we tend to think of it as a ‘speech’ — as an act of public oratory. A stirring and moving speech, to be sure, but basically we tend to see it just a speech given to an audience to dedicate a cemetery.

Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

A cemetery. A burial ground. A graveyard. Yes, we all know the Gettysburg Address was to dedicate the ground on which the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. For us, that’s history. For Lincoln, it was a recent event. The dedication took place only four months after the horrific three-day battle. Nearly eight thousand men were killed. Nearly thirty thousand were wounded or went missing (‘missing’ might mean the men ran away; it might mean they were simply obliterated). Many of the wounded were still convalescing in Gettysburg when Lincoln gave his short remarks. Coffins were still stacked at the railway station where he arrived.

The battle had been so savage and so many people had died that almost immediately afterwards it was clear that something astonishing and awful (and I mean awful in the oldest sense of the term) had taken place at Gettysburg. Something so appalling that it was necessary for the entire nation to pause a moment and recognize it.

Dead troops at Gettysburg

Dead troops at Gettysburg

Why did Lincoln wait four months to dedicate the battleground? Because it took that long to gather the dead, try to identify them, and rebury them. That’s right, rebury them. We forget that the battle took place in the first week of July. Try to imagine eight thousand human bodies (many of which were dismembered) scattered over several hundred acres. Imagine five thousand dead mules and horses. Imagine the July heat, and the stench of decomposition. The noise of bluebottle flies was said to be deafening.

Now try to imagine the task of cleaning all that up using Civil War-era technology. Picks, shovels, muscle. The horses were burned; the men mostly buried in quickly-dug shallow graves, many of which were later washed open by heavy rains that fell in the second week of July.

Confederate dead in shallow graves at Gettysburg

Confederate dead in shallow graves at Gettysburg

The grisly work was done by Union troops, by captured Confederate soldiers, and by unfortunate townsfolk who’d been dragooned by the authorities. The town of Gettysburg, at the time of the battle, only had a population of about 2500. Fewer than half the number of the dead.

In the four months between the battle and the dedication, the organizers bought the land on which the battle was fought, they laid out a design for where the graves would be dug, they re-interred most of those bodies, they telegraphed invitations and coordinated a public dedication (Lincoln, by the way, wasn’t the main speaker; his job was to present some brief closing remarks after the main speaker was finished).

To do all that in 120 days was a remarkable feat.

Dead horses at Gettysburg

Dead horses at Gettysburg

And don’t forget this: the war wasn’t over. The outcome was still very much in doubt. There’d never been anything on the North American continent remotely like the ongoing slaughter of that war. They were more than two years into the war, there were already nearly a quarter of a million casualties, and nobody could guess how much longer it would last. That’s what Lincoln faced when he went to Gettysburg. Read his speech with that in mind, and you’ll see he wasn’t just dedicating a national cemetery; he was telling the nation there was more to come, and asking them to maintain their resolve.

Lincoln spoke about the “unfinished work” and “the great task remaining before us.” He acknowledged the uncertainty of whether the nation “or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Despite all that, he talked about the necessity of an “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Confederate dead laid out for burial at Gettysburg

Confederate dead laid out for burial at Gettysburg

To stand on the site where so much death and destruction had taken place, to tell the public there would be more of the same, and to ask the public to accept the necessity of sacrifice on that scale in order to maintain an ideal — that’s just astonishing. What’s even more astonishing is this: the people agreed to accept that burden. The war would stagger on for another year and a half after Gettysburg. Tens of thousands more would die. Lincoln himself would give the last full measure of devotion before the end.

Think about that. Then think about this: there are people in this nation today who talk of seceding from the Union because they dislike a health care policy. There are people in this nation today who talk about secession because they believe the president isn’t a Christian, or because they feel their taxes are too high, or that someday they might not be able to purchase high capacity ammunition magazines.

And those people consider themselves to be patriots.

aimless, but not pointless

It’s probably got something to do with the transitional seasons — spring and autumn. Summer and winter are seasons of certainties and absolutes; you know what you can expect: heat and cold. Spring and autumn, though, are seasons of flux and movement; they’re about the passage from one absolute to another.

Maybe that’s why I feel a greater need to explore the countryside in spring and autumn. That’s where you witness the change.

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Saturday began as a dark, cloudy, stormy day with no real promise of improvement. I had good reasons to stay inside — a book doctoring gig that was overdue, household chores I’d put off for too long, photographs I’d taken the week before but hadn’t yet uploaded. Valid reasons to stay home. But I felt restless…and here’s a true thing: I almost never feel restless. When I do, I usually give in to it.

So I went to a nearby lake, with no purpose in mind other than to noodle around and see what there was to see. It was raw outside, miserably damp, and the light looked infirm. But there’s always something to see at the water’s edge. Lake, brook, ocean, river, doesn’t matter — there’s always something to see.

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Then the clouds began to fail. The sun took a shufti, and started to wriggle and squirm through the cloud cover. And soon the day had become lovely. It didn’t get warm or anything, but it became comfortable. And the light…lawdy.

I’m sort of stingy when it comes to photography — maybe because I learned to shoot using film. I’ll lift the camera to my eye fairly often, but I don’t always press the shutter release. I’m not particularly conscious of my reasons for shooting or not shooting. All I know is sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesn’t.

I was out at the lake for about an hour and a half — ninety minutes — and I took about ninety photographs. For me, that’s a LOT of photos.

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They call it a lake, but in fact it’s a reservoir built in the late 1960s and 70s as part of a flood control program. It’s hard to believe these days, but it wasn’t that long ago when the U.S. government spent big money on big projects that benefited regular people in a big way. Not only did the massive construction project itself provide a lot of jobs, but the finished lake supports a large community of small businesses.

The lake is a major local recreational area. It’s popular with recreational boaters, with hunters, with anglers, with hikers, with bicyclists (there are bike trails all through the area), with picnickers, with photographers (I saw one guy with a 4×5 view camera), with campers. All of those people spend money on their hobbies. They buy boats and jet-skis (and have them repaired and moored at marinas in the summer and stored in the winter), they buy fishing and hunting gear, they buy bikes and cameras, they eat at local diners and buy gas at local filling stations, they buy camping gear and rent camping sites at the many campgrounds, they buy sunscreen and mosquito repellent, they buy beer and soda, they spend a metric buttload of money every year. All because the government built a 26,000 acre flood protection reservoir. (All of which is to say ‘Fuck you, Tea Party Asshats!’)

DSCF4220bIn the summer, this lake is busy. It slows down quite a bit in the autumn, and on a day that began so cold and unwelcoming it wasn’t surprising that there were so few people to be seen. There were a few people bundled up but still zooming around in boats, there were a few folks fishing, there was a guy with a dog, and another guy wrestling with a large format camera. Lots of gulls, a few deer, some dead fish, a different hawk every few yards, no obvious raccoons or weasels (though a lot of tracks), finches so tiny you could fit two in a teacup.

It seems so quiet when you first arrive — but soon you realize how much sound there is. The waves, of course, and the wind through the grasses. Distant drone of boat motors. That ridiculous but somehow still moving plaintive cry of the gulls. Soft rattling of dead leaves. It seems absurd that the world could be so quiet and still so full of noise.

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At one of the many official recreation spots there’s a bath house for swimmers — an open air place to shower and change in and out of swim suits. It’s a purely functional building made of formed concrete. It looks rather like a failed student project from the Soviet School of Architecture and Design. It ain’t pretty.

But, again, the light. Light has the capacity to turn even a butt-ugly bath-house into something interesting. For a moment, anyway.

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Here’s an odd thing. When I first arrived at the lake, I spent most of my time looking out at everything. Looking out at the horizon, out at the trees and out over the water, out at the buildings and the shifting clouds. But the longer I was there, the more I began to look down.

Looking out, you tend to see the larger world and the things you notice are large things. Looking down, you notice the smaller world. A world of small stones and tiny plants and odd-looking insects and sand and dry broken bits of wood and dead grasses and clusters of cockleburs. Along the lakeside, it’s a universe of cockleburs.

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Cockleburs are really rather fascinating. The seeds, of course, are hard ovals covered in spines. The spines are actually wonderfully-formed hooks, though the tiny hooks are difficult to see without close study. But c’mon, who really looks at a cocklebur? Nobody. You just want to get the wee bastards off. Off your shirt, and off your pants, and off your socks, and your shoes, and Jeebus on toast I’ll bet the damned things could stick to tank treads.

That’s the point, of course. The spiny hooks are an incredibly efficient and effective mode of seed dispersal. But what’s really cool about these remarkably annoying plants is that they’re classic examples of photoperiodism. They’re what’s called short-day plants, plants that only bloom when the days begin to get shorter. Short-day plants have a protein that actually serves as a photo-receptor, which is incredibly cool. What’s even more cool (if you like this sort of thing) is that the photo-receptor isn’t triggered by the amount of light during the day, but by the amount of dark during the night. Short-day plants should actually be called long-night plants.

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But wait — there’s still more cool but weird cocklebur stuff. That infuriating egg-shaped seed pod generally holds two seeds — one seed grows the next year, the other seed waits and grows during the second year. It’s a marvelously effective way to insure the perpetuation of the species. If you were to pick a few of those irritating burrs off your socks and boil them, you could make a tea that’s moderately effective at relieving nasal and sinus congestion. Or, you could use the plant itself to make a yellow dye. Seriously. The cocklebur belongs to the genus Xanthium, which means ‘yellow’ in Greek. It got that scientific name from a 17th century French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who was aware that the plant had been used for centuries by the Greeks to create a yellow hair dye.

So the next time you have to pick cockleburs off your shoestring, remember to give a moment of thought to what a truly remarkable plant it is. Then throw the irksome little bastard away (which, of course, is exactly what the irksome little bastard wants).

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An hour and a half, that’s all the longer I was out there. An hour and a half, and the clouds began to move back in, the wind picked up, and the air took on a dampness that made it seem colder than it was. An hour and a half, and if I believed in the soul I’d say mine was replenished in that time. Ninety minutes of mostly aimless walking and looking and shooting photos.

And another ten minutes picking the damned cockleburs off my clothes.