Writing my most recent book, On Corruption in America, I noticed a pattern that gave me pause.
The last time the industrialized world was beset by political and economic practices as corrupt as today’s, it didn’t seem to make much difference who was in charge. (I mean the period from 1870 through 1935 or thereabouts.) Under both U.S. political parties, conditions were comparable. They included the wanton and often sadistic exploitation of humans and other living beings, as well as the landscapes that were their homes. All so a handful of men and their families could grow so rich they rolled cigarettes up in hundred dollar bills and smoked them.
I looked further afield. Under every political system, I discovered — under the German empire, the British monarchy, the French republic — conditions were comparable. And then, after the string of calamities that wracked the world in the first half of the 20th century, those countries all enacted comparable reforms.
I seemed to be observing some deep tide of history, moving in its own rhythm. All the desperately fought political struggles, all the protests and strikes, seemed to have had little bearing on its course.
This realization caused me to reconsider my work: the years of policy advocacy, in government and out, the op-eds, the research tailored to decision-makers. It’s not that I regretted having conducted those studies or made those arguments, or deemed them worthless. It’s just that I began to wonder if we shouldn’t also be trying a more oblique approach.
This page is devoted to such an approach: to fighting “elsehow.” It is not about corruption. It is about a deeper and more heartrending matter, an ill that makes corruption possible. Here I address our relationship with the rest of the natural world. I address it Elsehow.
And so we have come back around to May, ushered in with life-giving rain, after a dry spell.
I went seeking
A rock and a poem –
A rock that’s a poem.
All of them are.
I found trees:
A cedar, sacred,
Bent double to break
Its fall off the face
Of a cliff.
Above its inclined spine
Of feathered green.
I found others, upright
In their demise,
Clothed in rows
Of fungus frills.
Mottled or flayed,
Flopped on the ground
Or over a branch
Where the river in spate
Had draped them,
I found rags
Of discarded bark,
Like shreds of cloud
Torn apart in a westerly gale,
Or the translucent skin
Left behind by a copperhead,
From her encasing.
Perhaps the tree’s eyes,
Some invisible light,
A furled world,
Of unfounded truth.
So. It appears I now live with an artist. Without a by-your-leave, she moved into the loft. Some artists are like that: so involved in their creative energy, they can get a bit oblivious.
As collagists often do, she works in multimedia. Most of the pieces in this gallery are drawn from a single series, "Kitchen Table Collages." One, "Still Life with Unfinished Wooden Spoon" (with a yellow background), is a stand-alone response to my own creative efforts. The minimalist "Study in Yellow and Silver" is another stand-alone, while "Still Life with Sycamore Bark" (above, middle) represents a single work in a separate large-format series.
I will confess that the first time I saw her, I flinched. She was darting across the kitchen rafter. But there was something about her... For one thing, hair on her tail. Perplexed, I did some due diligence.
Portrait of the Artist
Ratatat (so named for the way she drums with her back feet when standing her ground) turns out to be no ordinary rat. A medium-sized rodent -- more than a foot long, to be sure -- with a furry tail, and large, round eyes and ears and exceptionally long whiskers, Neotoma magister, I learned, inhabits rocky areas, caves, outcrops with deep crevices, and riverbanks with an abundance of sandstone rocks and boulders. Dwellings are located in forests featuring oaks, maples, hickories and tulip poplars, or birch-hemlock mixes.
You could hardly compose a more precise description of Wolf Hollow, where my cabin is perched on a spine of sandstone 360 million years old, overlooking the Cacapon River.
Species fact sheets include some surprising descriptors: “Solitary.” “Meticulously clean.” Scientific inquiry, while clocking the animals' tendency to collect piles of “debris,” such as feathers, twigs, and bottle caps -- not to mention eyeglasses, hairbrushes, silk scarves, sandpaper, files, socks, yarn, bones, pens, Tunisian incense, and airline boarding passes -- has failed to reach a convincing explanation for the very deliberate arranging of objects extracted from diverse locations that takes up hours of Ratatat’s attention and effort each night.
By what measure are humans the only artists?
Ratatat, in her apartments in the loft, eating ferns.
November 8, 2022.
Will you fight them
On their grounds in their words?
You will lose
Fight with the cry of the osprey,
The stillness of the bittern –
The small one, stalking.
Bring the patience of the ancient
Birch, who spreads her body and papery skin
As table and cloth for the possum
Eating sweet paw paws
And leaving a trail of seeds.
Fight with the grasses’ red tresses,
The fragile fireworks
Of the tiniest flower:
The star of the heaths.
Bring to the fight the flavor of raspberries,
Glistening jewels, clasped in their crowns of thorns.
Bow your thorniness down
And reach for the ground
In limp surrender
And root yourself there,
As Raspberry does,
And, so anchored, grow strong.
Fight with the snake’s silken passage
Out and back in
Through the holes the woodpecker made
In the loftiest pine.
She leaves her skin behind.
And pours up that pillar
And along the rafters of the world.
Fight with the yellow and grey
Of the towering clouds before rain.
Make of your thigh-bone
And sound a note
That shatters the gold-
Plated walls of their blasphemous temple,