Barely beginning the second week of August it’s already almost fall. Last night I sat comfortably cool in my reading chair (after dealing with the mess made by Cracker’s abscessed foot finally breaking and draining) and finished Elspeth Huxley’s remarkable “The Mottled Lizard” which begins where “The Flame Trees of Thika” ends and ends where England begins. Few people understand so well what it is to have lived in a time as much as in a place, at the crosshairs of change, and to be shot through with nostalgia throughout the rest of one’s life so that one can only drain the memories now and then like a wound that won’t heal.
While I was reading a thunderstorm went through, cutting the smoke from the fires rampaging along the east front, and raising the peppery smell of wet dust. (There would be more rain in the night.) The light, which has been smoke-filtered “bastard amber” for weeks, went yellow but remained patchy -- blued here by clouds and warmed there by light. As I read my view out the front door is my silver-leafed poplar where I saw the flicker (a big woodpecker) searching the bark earlier today after hearing him for a week. Even in Portland one of the signs of impending fall was the shriek of a flicker. But also, there the apples on the neighbor’s tree would be ripe enough to fall thumping on our garage. I only have little nostalgia for Portland, which is completely different now anyway, even more different than here on the rez since the essence of the reservation is in the land, not the buildings.
As the end of “The Mottled Lizard” approaches -- parallel to the settling and “taming” of the Kenya highlands -- Huxley turns to nature mysticism, a way of reconciling the grief. Here she is on immortality, riffing off a maggoty zebra being used as bait for a lion that never came:
“Our whole complex, living, galloping and beautiful zebra would have ceased utterly to be within a day and a night. Its carcase would be absorbed into the bodies of hyenas and jackals, vultures and beetles, and countless millions of maggots that would turn into flies.
“This, indeed, was immortality; the body never died, it became part of a cycle that would go on until the end of time, and time itself was endless. In fact the body was more immortal than the soul, which must perish when the maggots are you, for how could it be broken up? A soul was a personality, and a personality must be a whole. Its only chance of immortality, so far as I could see, was to find its way into a newborn baby as the Kikuyu believed, and, with a sensible economy, to start again. Then we should all have borrowed souls and not be able to create our own, which did not seem to make sense either.”
Part of her description of leaving on safari goes like this: “Enjoyment of the moment, the true delight in living, life as it is and not as others in the past have made it, all this returns. Each breath you draw gives pleaure, you wake with a new sense of wonder at the pure light shining on the golden grasses and the web on the thorn, and at the cooing of the dove. And the reason for praising the Lord all the days of you life, a reason certainly withheld from men in cities, comes to you: or, at least, you understand that this is not a matter of reason, whicih destroys all need for praise, but a buried instinct that you are one with all creation and that creation is positive, delightful and good.”
And yet there are passages where she recognizes that safaris, the lust for trophies and treasure, will destroy this Africa, just as A.B. Guthrie Jr. saw that the mountain men, who so loved this place where I am, were the beginning of its destruction.
Huxley writes about stars better than anyone else. She says, “I sometimes imagined that I could smell the stars, a dry, crisp smell like ice on a sedge-fringed pond at dawn. I felt elated and lightheaded, as it my blood had bubbles in it like sparkling wine and yet at the same time near to tears -- why, I could not tell; perhaps because some phrase of Alan’s had put into my mind the sombre sentence that the wings of a man’s life are barbed with the feathers of death.”
Or, a bit earlier, she says, “Everything was black and grey except the moon itself and the powdery brilliance of the great fleet of stars that so teased the mind with their numbers, their remoteness, their mystery and their power to stretch the imagination to its breaking point and beyond. Trying to understand the stars could send you mad, I imagined, make your brain burst with groping. I wondered what John (a tribal man) thought about them, and envied his capacity to accept their existence without asking why. To ask why, people said, was the basis of civilization; we floated precariously on answers that could never satisfy, and because John and his kind did not ask these questions, they were not our equals. Yet at times I wondered if they were not more sensible to accept and enjoy. Certainly in this boma John was my superior in patience, in self-control, in strength and probably in courage if it came to be tested. But then his people had not invented the rifle over his knees, whose feel must at last reinforce his fortitude.”
And there’s the dilemma. Is civilization a matter of inventing a rifle? There’s no rifle in this house, but while I was reading my toilet went on the blink, introducing a need for more civilization. I managed to revive it but only barely.
This morning is gray and the patches where the asphalt was destroyed last fall in order to dig up the street to get at sewer connections are finally being repaired. My morning classical music is drowned by a guy operating a cement-cutting machine. The smell of my bathroom project is finally displaced by the smell of hot asphalt. They say that last night the fire came down out of the Park and raced across the St. Goddard summer pasture while the water trucks stood by and let it go. The rancher objected, but in truth it’s almost time to bring the cattle back down for the winter. Next spring the grass will be much taller and greener -- if there’s water. In the ancient times, the Blackfeet managed prairie with fire all the time. They were soot-footed.
Rex and Judy Rieke were here yesterday, friends I acquired when I was with Bob Scriver. Rex is both an artist and a musician and Judy is the kind of person I always wanted to be: dependable and intelligent. We spent an afternoon of nostalgia for the Sixties when the Buffalo People were alive but very old. It was Rex who told me my tree was a silver-leafed poplar. I looked it up: it’s a “weed” brought in from Eurasia.
And so it goes in the vast grasslands of the world: exotics and natives, star-thinkers and meat-eaters, living in the moment and trying to feel back in time to the beginnings of it all. And now the wheel turns down towards winter. This morning my Vanity Fair came and I read that Christopher Hitchens says religion is “ineradicable.” Yes.