Well, long time no write. I must admit that I’ve found it much harder to blog about my travels through American than through Central Asia—mainly, I suppose, because of the mixture of my place as an American and my audience, or at least my perspective of said entity. But I feel it improper just to cut off the travelogue abruptly, so over the next few days I’ll write some closing posts covering the ground I never got around to.
This brief post actually fits well—it’s something I intended to write when crossing from the Great Plains into the Northeast, and as such is not necessarily restricted by the spatial progression of my journey (which, to clarify, has ended—I move to the United Kingdom tomorrow). Indeed, I think this musing even works better as a nonsequential post-script to the trip, given its sweep over the land. So here goes, keeping it brief for my sake and yours.
Also, this turned out to be a very haphazard and half-composed piece. But it’s what I’ve got in me right now, so …
When first I heard the old expression, “Go West, young man,” I confess I rolled my eyes. It’s a poetic turn of phrase—elegant, concise, and layered—but the historical moment it conveys, the westward march of Manifest Destiny, just never made any sense to me. Granted, I don’t think (or at least I’d hope) that you’ll find many Americans who resonate with what was essentially a nonsensically avaricious, imperial, and genocidal chapter of our collective past, but my confusion is more gut and less hindsight. To me the very allure of the land itself, the utopian lust and vision for the West, never clicked—growing up out West, I could never figure what about the region drew millions and millions to death and difficulty, what inculcated in them a hope and a dream.
The West is a place parched and fragile, flat and endless. It is a repetition of scrubland and flatland and crisping pine forests. Save for the Pacific Northwest, which was always something historically and culturally separate from the West as a concept, the West is deserts and grazing land, a place for nomads and small communities in which, as a resident of my hometown once lamented to me, no man has any real business living.
I can see, I suppose, how one might look at that vastness and emptiness and see space—not just space physically, but an opening in which to act and stretch and run and move. Yes, it’s clear that the West could entice one into seeing opportunity, and that such opportunity translates into utopianism—cheap land, less regulation, bourgeoning industry, and all such fairy tale endings. But … well, let’s put it this way:
I think the sun is trying to kill us. Most everyone I know thinks of the sun as some beneficial Sol, the giver of life, only incidentally scorching and irradiating from time to time. But for me, the sun is malicious—it wants to cook us all, it wants to flare and engulf, it wants to penetrate and radiate and mutate. My relationship to the sun is a precarious one in which we are kept alive by the miraculous forces of nature that prevent the sun from realizing its homicidal ambitions. Consider it, the sundry and furious ways in which Sol could destroy us all and the thin knife of intervention against the sun upon which we rest our civilization.
Well, that’s how I’ve come to feel about the West as well. This place is scorched and barren. This place is beautiful, but fragile. This place is a siren to men, inviting in its eternal canvas, but ultimately it is dangerous. It was not made for men, but rather holds the seeds of their own self-destruction—the introduction of modern civilization inevitably leads to an environmental degradation and predation against the nature of the place that breeds the self-destruction of that civilization. One man sees in the sun an ally, and in the West a promise. I see in the sun a treacherous foe, and in the West an alluring dream that pulls man away from the mortal coil and towards an eternal sleep. That’s why the beauty of the West is always a caveat for me. It feels like something I should see, but at a distance. It feels like something I should admire and live amongst, but not in such a way as we currently inhabit it.
It might seem odd to attribute such active … not malice, but danger … to the West. But I believe land has agency of some sort. It does things to us. Maybe it does not do so out of motives we would call human. But it acts upon is, carries its own incomprehensible morales, histories, and motives. So I feel it valid to fear the land, especially given how inscrutable its agency is to me. So fear I do.
That’s why I always feel such great comfort when I move to the East. Crossing the Mississippi at Dubuque was such a relief as instantaneously I realized I was in a different geographic-historical zone. The East seems in the sweep of the young American history to be quite musty and sapped of promise. It’s the home of the decaying auto industry, the Rust Belt and the rotted guts of an industrial past. It’s where our old things are. But physically, it’s paradoxically youthful.
To be clear, when you’re up in the Appalachians or the Alleghany Mountains, it’s clear that the land is old. The mountains are small and rounded, beaten down through time and time and time. The trees grow up through a loamy soil, thick and deep with the carbon of previous decay. Yet all that grows out of that age is eternally young, green, and spry. There is life, eternal and resilient, there is life all over the East.
For me, there’s a utopian promise in that life. The Northeastern woodlands are a sworn oath to the potency of existence here. There’s a magic in that ability to age, holding history and depth within the earth, but to constantly renew so that the aged land is ever young, ever dynamic, and ever wise. There’s an inherent magic, a phoenix song, within the landscape much more subtle and ingrained in every element of life there than there is in the West, where the utopian alchemy of the landscape is nothing more than a blunt creation of mankind’s overactive imagination. But magic is real in the East—I believe that is so.
I believe that is so because you feel something different living in the Eastern woodlands than you do deep in the South. The South is old as well, much the same way as the East, and eternally vibrant. But the South is immortal not in the spirit of a phoenix. The South is vampiric to my mind.
A certain distance below the Mason-Dixon line, everything starts to drip. The heavy moisture in the air weighs down the trees and they grow soggy-fat, drooping with the weight of their heavy age. The leaves become ragged and everything appears to melt and blur, like the charm of a wax figure surrendering to its nature without the hand of intervention.
When I think of the South, I think of the bayous of Louisiana and the Spanish moss that hangs ragged and thick off the branches of cypress trees. I think of muggy heat blasting you, mingling with your sweat and slicking your clothes to your body. I think of the lethargy and the parasitic life growing over life and weighing it down. I think of something disturbingly sexual, impossibly ancient, intriguing and enticing, but ultimately disturbing—perhaps unholy. Vampiric, that is the only word for it.
But the Northeast—that is where I belong. I am an intensely paranoid person, and that part of America is perhaps the only place where I do not fear, existentially, the dark magic and spirit of the land. I do not see myself in conflict with nature. I see nature’s potential and power. I see a place that invites me to live. So there I shall live if ever I can … and from that distance continue to fear the Sun, the West, and the South in my own little way.