Friday, July 17, 2009

Spirals, Splinters

For the last very long time, insofar as a week and a half is a very long time, I've been driving west and northwest and west until finally today, when I finally drove down an on-ramp by a sign marked "EAST." Every few days on the road a truck loaded with perfectly cylindrical logs will barrel along and some splintery dust will come rocketing at the car, pelting the windshield with the noise of the near-shattering of shatterproof glass. Each time it comes I wince in a face that requires actual imaginary calamity - imaginary imaginary calamity will not do, which I learn when I try to reproduce the expression for Farrah. And luckily each time so far the calamities have been imaginary, and the windshield remains dingless, or at least as ding-free as it was when we left a seemingly long time ago to head out in this general direction.

I've been thinking a lot about these sounds of rupture and breakage, especially since we managed to my probably endless satisfaction to squeeze into a packed drive from Denver to Salt Lake City a mildly harrowing trip at near-dusk down unmaintained rocky desert roads to Robert Smithson's spiral jetty, on a remote inlet in the northern stretches of the Salt Lake. It was much more far flung than this very helpful web site seemed to suggest, requiring a solid hour of driving even after we made Brigham City on the interstate to get out to the desert hills we had to cross to find the site. I anticipated that the excursion would be lightly tinged with danger, a race with sundown that would at least put us at the jetty at the golden hour. Yet I hadn't imagined the extended slow-motion anxiety of the last few miles, after we'd passed the final cattle gate and had to weave the car gingerly between the rocks jutting seemingly tooth-shaped at the tires rolling carefully past until we gave up and got out, listened at the wheels for pops or hisses, and, satisfied there were none, went to hike the remainder.

The jetty hides from view until virtually the last minute, offering in its place around a previous bend in the trail a rectilinear industrial relic of a jetty, slathered enough with salt to make us squint and wonder if we were indeed seeing ghost spirals at its tips. There have been dark rumors for a while of a major new disturbance in the area - oil core sampling that could unsettle the soil and the ecology (in industrial ways that might nevertheless be very Mike-Mulligan-and-His-Steam-Shovel Robert Smithson-y) but all human action seems to be on hold for now. In addition, according to my book of photos of the jetty, there were years when it was submerged in the Salt Lake slurry water, others when it was caked in a weird salty pink a way back from the water. Right now, though, when we finally found it, around the next bend after the next bend, it was simply a brittle crust of causeway heading out where not-quite-beach turned into flats that got muddier and muddier until there was a shallow puddle of water on the edge of the jetty just as its curviness began. I think I must have imagined the jetty I think as existing out in deepish water but it seemed clear in reality that, if one was willing to get soggy shoes, one could fairly easily traipse in the wet furrows between the turns of the spiral.

For some reason, after I scrambled down the bluff to the salty shore where the jetty protruded, I decided to walk not down the rocks of the jetty itself but beside it in the sludgy damp silt. It was here that I made the astonishing discovery of the sound of the jetty - or at least the sound of the shore next to the jetty, of the layer of salt that coated the shore and coated the jetty such that being with the jetty meant interacting with it, interacting with the silent jetty through it. This noise, crumbling under foot, was a shimmering crackle, the sound of fissuring coming from all over, of crystals shattering not in one place but everywhere all at once, the shards tinkling and chattering against each other.

I have no idea if this was simply a wonderful synchronicity but I immediately thought of the wondrously scary Smithson piece at the Dia: Beacon that piles sheets of broken glass in the rough outline of an imaginary map of Atlantis. The piece in the museum seems to beckon, daring you to lose your balance and impale yourself upon it. And yet it is silent, the shards only mutely containing the memory of the surely loud violence of their smashing and shattering.

In a wonderful lecture I went to about Smithson at the Dia this spring, an art professor named Nico Israel turned from the spiny Atlantis glass pile to look out the window at the poisoned gray gravel plot that happened to lay outside, a flat expanse memorializing a former woodsy hillock where Nabisco once dumped the excess ink waste from its boxmaking operation before the factory became a museum. Rising in pitch, he pointed passionately at the two John Deere bulldozers plunked there, either because the rehab project had been completed and forgotten, or else the actual landscaping had not yet begun. It was an impeccably appropriate, Smithson-ish landscape, totally by accident. "John Deere, like deer," he proclaimed. The suddenly scifi-ish animal-shaped tractors' implied rumble, of course, silent.

In the car today we've been listening to a book on tape of Jonathan Lethem's GIRL IN LANDSCAPE where an alien landscape of another planet is peppered with tiny, almost invisible deer, observing mutely from the shadows, preternaturally able to get out of the way. (They are called household deer, which would make a great band name if it isn't one or five already.) Outside the car a few times, heading east from Vancouver across Canada as we listened, we saw actual deer in the gully beside the highway. Farrah has taught me a driving game that, like poker, only reveals expertise after hours and hours of play: every time you see a horse, you say "zip" and get a point. Two horses, "zip zip," two points. More than three horses, "zap!" and 10 points. A graveyard near the road, "bury your horses!" and best of all the other players lose all their points: back to square one, back to the shore. Weirdly, but to the good I suppose for safe driving purposes, there are no penalties for mistakes. If, in your brisk peripheral vision traveling at 110 km per hour on the road to Kamloops, you misidentify as a herd of horses a herd of cows in cloud shadow, that's okay. You can shout a "zip zip" two lonesome deer on the other side of a barbed wire fence, no problem. "Bury your horses," still, is brutal and puts you on the lookout not only for jolly populated farms but also for cemeteries which, next to the interstate usually through a hedgerow are always lonesome and gray, a peppering of broken old stones. It is strange to be so attuned to graveyards, so elated to point one out, even just a tiny churchyard under one weedy weeping willow.

Walking across the pan of salt, I also thought of the sound ice makes, breaking. I remember my dad and I, an unseasonably warm day after a cold snap a few winters ago, taking a canoe out on the Sudbury River outside Boston to row in the open water between two raised and sinuous furrows of blocked out ice. As we disturbed the water, our wake would flood up from time to time onto the ice and the sheets would cleave in huge cracks with an unfamiliar, soprano keening. I started working on a poem a couple years ago that included this noise and as I wrote the creaking violence became transmuted willy-nilly into the crumple of an ice bag as it sags under a warm tap in the kitchen sink. Deer become household deer, ice becomes household ice. Enormous and unassimilable is assimilated.

From the trail coming in, the spiral jetty is deceptively small; Farrah stayed on the hill at the overlook with her camera and reported my near-disappearance as I threaded my way along the flats on the strand. From a distance, it might be the whorl of a fingerprint, an artist marking his canvas, leaving the mark on the scene of the crime.

The fancy glass plates my parents had when I was growing up had a ridged spiral on the underside, an opaque swirl of glass winding towards the center. Hairline cracks in these plates must be virtually invisible which is why, a few years ago, my mom scrubbed at one in the sink after dinner one day and put here finger right through, cutting deep into the flesh and partly severing the nerve. For many months she had a button sewn to the tip, stretching the nerve back out from where it had sprung itself back down into her finger; even now long after the button was taken off and the nerve repaired there is a odd buzzing when she touches a certain patch of skin just right just wrong.

On my fourth finger of my right hand I have a strange, subtle dimple that runs across the tip and then bifurcates into a teensy scar where the finger was smashed between two bowling balls at a third or fourth grade birthday party and then put back together miraculously. My piano teacher deftly negotiated the plaster cast on my arm as it was healing by teaching me the complicated left hand part of a melancholy Bach partita where all the important melodic action was in that hand, bouncing over the other.

I have never been fingerprinted but it surely would show up as a distinguishing characteristic; really, I am simply lucky that it healed, that it could have been put back together. Smithson might have labelled the pile of broken glass on the museum floor Atlantis to declare the glass irretrievably broken and the irretrievably broken glass beautiful. The spiral jetty is not really a jetty in the sense of a breakwater or a dock, though when I was researching the possibility of swimming in Salt Lake, I read a posting from someone who insisted that they had taken a wonderful dip in the water off the tip of the spiral. Whatever you do, articles I read admonished, do not get the salt water in your eyes - it is seven times as salty as the ocean and will burn terribly. One might want to rub it out with ones fingers but they too will be so salty as to only make it worse. The thing to do if you do is to suck the salt off your own fingers before you try to rub it out.

Now we are back up against the Rockies but thousands of miles away from the Spiral Jetty, days later, heading the other direction across North America and finally I have a free night in Salmon Arm, BC, to write all this down. As I was getting ready for bed earlier tonight, I slipped on the strangely canted Holiday Inn Express shower floor and gave myself a bruise on my back and my elbow but, very luckily, I broke nothing and am basically unharmed. Earlier, yesterday, Farrah called me a klutz when I leaned in to kiss her on the back of the neck in the morning and accidentally bonked our heads together. (Klutz comes from a Yiddish word meaning "wooden block, lump," which is to say, unbreakable.) I do this sort of thing a lot but I suspect everyone does. My grandfather, before I was born, heard a noise downstairs when he was in the shower and slipped in his rush to get out and fell straight through the glass shower door.

Someone told us that they heard that the spiral jetty had been recently worked on by some people perhaps from the Dia foundation or some other interested party, stones added to recuperate the years that surely must be wearing away at the jetty even in the still edge of the lake. When I visited the wild horses ("zap") of Assateague and Chincoteague Island off Virginia a few years ago, I read how a channel dug through further north, near the Delaware-Maryland border, was slowly eating away the the sandbar and would eventually threaten to erode Chincoteague itself, sending the salt out to sea. Repairing the spiral jetty seems both wonderful -- if it weren't still there, I could never have visited it -- and also somewhat Sisyphean. The salt seems endless and timeless but the wind comes in across the water. And then there is that possibility of real industry coming into the bay of the lake nearby, drilling for oil.

A drawer between the two front seats in our car grows fuller and fuller with receipts from gas stations, as we fill the tank about once a day, watching the mountains get humpier, then flatter, then sharper, then humpier. (My car gets pretty good gas mileage, though for some reason it demands 90+ octane.) This is all extraordinary luck, though there is no such thing as luck. The little bruise on my back is already healing.

On the spiral jetty website, the Dia reports that, as of February, the oil drilling requests were on hold as the gas exploration company undergoes corporate reorganization due to falling oil prices. Even so, the update continues, the firm anticipates that they will indeed resubmit the application to drill in the future.

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