Under Our Feet

As we tread upon the ground, we tend not to think of what lies beneath our feet. I thought about this after I wrote yesterday’s blog post entitled “Mission Creep.” The small size of the cemeteries at the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez missions in Southern California troubled me because of the large number of bodies said to be buried there. The Catholic Church did not sanction cremation at that time, so literally thousands of bodies, mostly of Indians, were interred over a 65-year period in these small burial grounds.

I live within walking distance of Kuruvungna Springs, a place where the Tongva or Gabrielino Indians congregated f0or ceremonies or just a fresh drink of spring water. It is entirely possible that as I walk along Santa Monica Boulevard and the streets feeding into it I am walking on the bones of Indians who died in the area—at least those which weren’t carted away by dirt haulers as the area was built up with multi-story commercial and residential buildings.

And then I thought of a great English writer who thought the same way. The quote is from an essay by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) called “Hydriotaphia, urn-burial, or, A discours of the sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk ….” The 17th century English is hard to read, but I promise that it is rewarding.

In the deep discovery of the Subterranean world, a shallow part would satisfie some enquirers; who, if two or three yards were open about the surface, would not care to rake the bowels of Potosi, and regions towards the Centre. Nature hath furnished one part of the Earth, and man another. The treasures of time lie high, in Urnes, Coynes, and Monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time hath endlesse rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth it self a discovery. That great Antiquity America lay buried for a thousand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us.

Though if Adam were made out of an extract of the Earth, all parts might challenge a restitution, yet few have returned their bones farre lower then they might receive them; not affecting the graves of Giants, under hilly and heavy coverings, but content with lesse then their owne depth, have wished their bones might lie soft, and the earth be light upon them; Even such as hope to rise again, would not be content with centrall interrment, or so desperately to place their reliques as to lie beyond discovery, and in no way to be seen again; which happy contrivance hath made communication with our forefathers, and left unto our view some parts, which they never beheld themselves.

Sir Thomas Browne

The reference to Potosi is to the fabulous silver mines at the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) of Potosi in Bolivia. The mines are at an altitude of approximately 13,300 feet (4,050 meters).

Wherever we may go, we are walking a very few feet above the remnants of the past. We tend to forget this as we follow the latest trends and knock ourselves into a digital frenzy that only hastens us to our own grave.

Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise Flower at Descanso Gardens, February 2020

Indigenous to South Africa, the bird of paradise flower (Strelitzia reginae) has become a welcome interloper among the flora of Southern California. I remember when I first saw one, my first response was, “How exotic!” Now I almost tend to take them for granted, they are so widespread.

It is amazing to me that mankind has succeeded in shuffling the flora around all around the earth. I was amazed to see eucalyptus trees in the Peruvian highlands. Even more amazing to me were the jacarandas in Buenos Aires, flowering as they did in November during the Southern Spring. (But then, jacarandas are native to South America.)

The same thought hit Henry David Thoreau writing in The Maine Woods. On his three trips to Maine, Thoreau is disturbed by what man had dome to the trees of Massachusetts. In the Maine of the early 19th century, that shuffling of the trees had not yet occurred. What had occurred, on the other hand, was massive logging. It was rare for Thoreau and his co-travelers not to come across old logging camps far into the interior of the state.

Joe Polis, a Penobscot Indian Who Traveled with Thoreau

One result of man’s interference is the potential loss of important species. On his third trip to Maine, Thoreau traveled with an Indian, Joe Polis, who told him that every plant was medicinal to the Penobscot Indians, and went on to demonstrate among several examples which Thoreau showed him.

After the White Man pretty much replaced the original population, we lost a great deal that they had learned over thousands of years.

All the Babes Are Leaving

Tawny Kitaen (1961-2021)

One way to tell you’re getting old is to see what happened to all the babes of the 1960s and 1970s. I was surprised to hear that Tawny Kitaen had passed away. Not that I was a big an of hers, but never was there such a moniker that screamed B-A-B-E in Neon All-Caps. She was one of a troupe that included actresses like Joey Heatherton and Ann-Margret and “celebrities” such as Prince Andrew’s main squeeze Koo Stark and Profumo Affair bad girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies.

I suppose it is inevitable if you live long enough. I still think of Sônia Braga, Jenny Agutter, Françoise Dorléac, Dominique Sanda, and Maria Schneider. They were beautiful, and they populated my dreams as a young man. Now that I am no longer a young man, I can see that all of us are on the same journey through life.

RIP Sujatha and Little Mac

Sujatha and Little Mac Together (Which Is Which?) in 2013

In yesterday’s post, I wondered what happened to the elephants at the Santa Barbara Zoo. When we got home yesterday, I looked them up on Google and found that both had died, Sujatha in 2018 and Little Mac in 2019. Although I have no pets, I have felt a sense of loss for these two Indian elephants who had been together at the zoo since 1972. You can read more about them in this article from Radio Station KSBY’s website.

Apparently, despite their size, Indian elephants do not normally live as long as humans. In fact, after 40 years they are considered to be due for geriatric care. Little Mac had to be euthanized at the age of 48.

My relationship with the animals at the Santa Barbara Zoo surprises even me. It is a small zoo, walkable in a couple of scant hours, but I feel more strongly about the birds and animals there. Why?

Gemina, the Giraffe with the Deformed Neck

I had become enamored of a giraffe named Gemina who died of natural causes in 2008 despite a neck that went off at a ninety degree angle. Despite her neck, Gemina lived a greater than normal lifespan (by six years) and had normal offspring. When I heard that Gemina had passed on, I was disturbed, hoping that she did not die in inordinate pain occasioned by her disability. Apparently she didn’t. She received excellent care at the zoo and was widely mourned.

So now that the elephants are gone, their home will be turned into the “Australian Walkabout” some time this summer. I will continue to return to the zoo whenever I can so that I can see my other friends there.

Does Anyone Want To Be Unhappy?

Well, Now, That’s Hardly a Surprise

Happiness is a very fickle thing. At one time or another, we all think that it can be secured and held on to and never let go. Perhaps we associate it in our minds with wealth, or finding (and retaining) the ideal spouse or significant other.

But then I always think of one of our former millionaire accounting clients who entered into a deal from which he expected to lose his fortune. So he blew his brains out. After the funeral, it was discovered that the deal far from depleting his fortune added considerably to it. It helped pay for a first class funeral.

In Buddhism, there is something called the Four Noble Truths, expressed by Gautama Buddha as follows:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving [taṇhā, “thirst”] which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

The term “bhikkhus” refers to the Buddhist monks to whom this teaching was addressed.

Essentially, desires and cravings lead to suffering. Happiness is something that just happens and is not necessarily linked to our desires. But it is almost always transitory. In my life, I am sure I have been happy for minutes at a time in my 75+ years of existence.

So I hope that Sharon Stone appreciates what happiness passes her way.

Vastness Breeds Craziness

America Divided? Look to the Land and Its Myths

This evening, two thoughts came together in my mind with a kind of grim ferocity. On one hand, I am troubled by the 74 million voters who backed Trump in 2020. Where did they come from? And why?

On the other hand, I read a wonderful essay by Geoff Dyer entitled “Ranging Across Texas” in the July 17, 2020 issue of The Times Literary Supplement. Dyer is one of those writers whose words set me to thinking. Ostensibly, his essay is about his experience reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. In it he quotes V. S. Naipaul who, in writing about John Steinbeck, says, “A writer is in the end, not his books, but his myth. And that myth is in the keeping of others.”

My ideas on this are still not well formed, but I am thinking that there is something about the American landscape and its vastness that gives rise to the crazies who belong to the Oath Keepers, QAnon, the Proud Boys, and others. In the narrowness of the European continent, people have to work together at the risk of repeated mutual slaughters. Americans, however, can hole up in a small town in the middle of nowhere and be as crazy as loons.

America is vast, particularly the West and the Great Plains, where much of Trump’s support is concentrated. (The rest is in the South, where the Civil War is still being contested in slow motion.)

In one of his essays, McMurtry writes:

In time I came to feel that there ought to be some congruity between prose and landscape. You wouldn’t adopt a Faulknerian baroque if your story was to be set on the flat unbaroque plains of west Texas.

I remember my visits to Patagonia where, in the rain shadow of the Andes, where there is almost always a howling wind, there is a similar history of crime and even anarchy.

We don’t much celebrate Columbus Day any more, because we are becoming more acutely conscious of the fact that we massacred millions of Indians for their land. In Patagonia, that was even more of a crime: There are relatively few aborigines in Argentina after the “Conquest of the Desert” of General Julio Argentino Roca in the 1870s.

I guess we have always tried to paper over our crimes with fine thoughts. We just have to recognize, in the words of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, “Hieronymo is mad agayne!”

Return to Normal? Fat Chance!

A New Calendar Does Not a New Reality Make

We always tend to make too much of holidays like New Years. Let’s face it: All it means is a new template overlaid on the same old time period. Although I will probably still be awake at midnight, it is only because I am usually still awake at midnight. I don’t really care about somebody dropping the ball on Times Square, and I certainly will not watch any Year in Review shows or other New Years specials.

When I was a little kid, I marveled that in the year 2000, I would be 55 years old. That seemed so old to me back then. Now that I am twenty years past that milestone, or should I say millstone, I am not so quick to generalize about the passing of time. That what time does. It passes.

As William Butler Yeats wrote in his play The Countess Cathleen:

The years like great black oxen tread the world,
 And God the herdsman goads them on behind,
 And I am broken by their passing feet.

Despite everything, I wish all of you well. May the New Year bring you peace, health, and prosperity. And if it doesn’t, just soldier on.

Yet Again: Uayeb

That Weird Time Between Christmas and New Year

To date, I have written four posts about the Maya “month” of Uayeb or Wayeb, which consists of the last five days of the Haab Calendar of 365 days. The Haab calendar has twenty months of eighteen days each, which isn’t quite enough to make up the full complement, so the Maya added a short stub of a month containing the five “nameless days.”

There is also a Maya god named Uayeb, who is the god of misfortune. That sounds about right.

Scott Stantis Has an Intuitive Understanding of Uayeb in His Cartoon Strip

Here is a link to my previous posts on the subject:

Below is the Maya glyph for the “month” of Uayeb, or Wayeb (kind of looks like a tiny-headed god flexing his muscles, doesn’t it?):

I am amused by how well a Maya calendrical belief fits in so well with our civilization, in which the days between Christmas and New Year and almost universally considered as dead time.

So don’t make any big plans until the New Year. But you kind of knew that anyway, no?

A Long Flight to … Where?

This may sound strange to you, but I am surviving the rigors of self-quarantine because I am good at lying to myself.

The Coronavirus Quarantine Is Sort of Like Jet Lag

I have on occasion taken some longish flights to Europe and South America. The ones to Europe are particularly problematical because I arrive early in the morning after a night that has lasted for only a few hours. I know that if I drop into bed upon check-in at my hotel, I will awake while it is still light; and I won’t be able to go to sleep until the next morning.

So what do I do?

  • First of all, I pretend to myself during the flight that I am somehow outside of time, and that during the flight, time has no meaning.
  • Most important, I set my watch to the time zone of my destination. Nobody else I know does this: They insist on holding on to the time zone of their city of origin.
  • When I arrive, I stay awake until it is a reasonable bedtime in my destination.

When I went to Iceland, for example, I arrived in June—when the sun doesn’t set until the wee hours of the morning. I ate extra meals, went on a walking tour of Reykjavík, and finally collapsed in bed while the sun was still up around midnight. I woke up refreshed at an acceptable time the next morning.

So what does all this have to do with the coronavirus? Fortunately, Martine and I are retired, so I could pretend that this whole period of the outbreak is like a long flight to nowhere.

A Nook of My Library Circa 2002

I have in my apartment several thousand books as well as hundreds of films on DVD. With my subscription to Spectrum Cable, I have access to hundreds of films for no additional cost using their On Demand service. Plus: As a member of Amazon Prime, I have access to thousands of other films.

So on my “flight” to nowhere during this seemingly endless quarantine, I am reading 12-18 books a month as well as seeing 25 or more feature films a month. (And in between reading and film viewing, I do all the cooking and go out for walks.)

I realize I would be in a radically different situation if I had to worry about a job, but fortunately I don’t. I have to worry that that madman in the White House may decide to cancel Social Security or destroy the value of the American dollar, but other than that I am not dependent on the workplace—though I am affected when restaurants are shuttered, museums and libraries closed, and so on.

There is an 1884 novel by a French writer named Joris-Karl Huysmans called Against Nature (in French À Rebours) about a dilettante names Jean des Esseintes who, instead of actually going on a vacation, does an armchair traveler “staycation” and is happy about it. The epigraph to the novel is a quote from the 14th century Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck:

“I must rejoice beyond the bounds of time…though the world may shudder at my joy, and in its coarseness know not what I mean.”

The Strange Case of Ion Aliman

He Won a Landslide Vote Despite the Fact That He Was Dead

It happened in the small town of Deveselu, Romania, of some three thousand inhabitants. The ballots had already been printed up with his name on them; but then Aliman died in Bucharest of Covid-19 on September 19. I could see this happening in the U.S., but not in quite the same way.

You see, Aliman was up for re-election, and the voters of Deveselu really loved him. “He was a real mayor to us,” one woman voter said. “He took the side of the village, respected all the laws. I don’t think we will see a mayor like him again.”

After the funeral, dozens of villagers visited his grave. “It is your victory,” one of them said. “Know that you will be proud of us. Rest in peace.”

A Small Town in Southern Romania

Obviously, there’s going to have to be a new mayor; but it’s not going to be any of the candidates who opposed the late incumbent. They’ll have a new election and vote in a replacement. I get a nice feeling, though, about the voters of Deveselu. If that happened here, no doubt a number of Americans would be gunned down and there would be a general feeling of hatred and paranoia. Maybe we can learn something about democracy from these Romanian villagers.