Frontier moralities

February 24, 2013

If Whitman is the poet of vagabonds fleeing the colonial conceit for a breath of fresh air at the edge of the wilderness, Virgil is the poet of colonists who garden for love of an empire, domestic dreamers who dwell on the past when they look at the stars, and threaten to rise up over “tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd.”

I feel that I have lost you now, evil
times have made of love pain without relief.
The world that has lost you will replace you,
a yellow leaf framing a cluster of grapes
will shine, grief will hide itself, hope of wine
remind us of sweetness in loss, belief
in rebirth console us.

Give me the splendid sun, the trellised grape,
take back the bitter medicine of time
and give me back my solitude – the nape
of my neck longs for your hand, and I mime
your presence with my own. No rhyme
or reason is enough to make this lack
a philosophical burden.

I haven’t read Virgil, but I’m curious. The book Strangers at the Gate held my attention on a day when I had been skimming all the other library books until I’d read it cover to cover, by mixing prosody with anecdote for modern South Africa’s Latin poetry fandom. Africa has more than great migrations to offer the 20th century, and can keep a writer busy doing things other than writing, while abroad.

Airport_Mark_Lewis

Airports are also good, for writing foreshadowing to sequence.

A writer not writing will even listen enough to become a better writer without having noticed. Aspiring to something more than residence in Kenya, Karen Blixen kept too many found mottos not to be known for it, and could not refuse when Denys gave her his family’s motto, “Je responderay,” as a present – it means I will answer and give account.

She said this motto spoke to her, partly because “the Danish word for responsibility is plain ‘Ansvar.’”

She did not like to see frontier morality as an off-color idiom of polite sayings from home, about what is not intended to pass for justice so far from the courts.

“.. just the same .. and everyday, there comes a song ..”

Martha Nussbaum’s phrase “the frontiers of justice” resonates for just this reason – at the edges of the map we find an unconstructed society, where invaders and invaded have each begun losing their capacity to govern in good faith. Their ambassadors must be ready to betray the trust they cultivate at any moment, or be set upon by their own people instead.

What privacy the wild affords is false –
a public mind works on the natural world.
I can’t forget my oath, the flag unfurled
above our fort to give the weather’s pulse
an air of expectation. What promise
this overwhelming strange enchantment holds
for me teases my sentiments, but folds
before harsh terms for trade. There is but this:
the nourishment of the James River’s fish,
the closeness of the timber to the sea,
our access to the tributaries’ kings –
such circumstances dictate every wish
and govern blindly. “Subsistence first” brings
strength without warmth, our mere security.

Some people seek out the frontier with the wilderness, rather than with strangers whose laws are not their own.

Tomohiro_Inaba

Tomohiro Inaba

My grandfather retired as far from the nearest neighbor as he could without losing access to a grocery store. Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder, of company in moderation. I remember my grandfather best for his hospitality, keeping house in the Oregon woods.

Farming trees in a black bear neighborhood called airplane ridge after a small plane accident, he never used a gun there, except to kill a porcupine that tried to eat his house. A salt lick in view of the breakfast table brought in morning guest lists of deer that would scuffle over the dirt it had percolated into, when it had washed down to nothing.

Coyotes could be heard singing there at night, though the wolves had been gone for generations. Listening for bugling elk, though, you are more likely to hear the cattle sounding in the dark. Coyotes inspire a healthy fear in ranch hands, and can sometimes be found crucified on a fence line where the range is being used for grazing. But coyotes have never been that easy to run off.

Coyote is the trickster hero, everywhere he’s known to storytellers, a savior everyone is loathe to turn to, but an acknowledged genius, sure to be rather brilliant when all else fails. A thief and a practical joker, he gave the world stars by stealing a bag of sacred white corn from a goddess of the Southwest, and carelessly spilling it in the sky.

A great basalt landmark in Oregon is all that remains of an all-swallowing monster he slew in the origin story of the Nez Perce people. Even the monster that swallowed every other living thing in the world hesitated to eat coyote, suspecting somehow that this could backfire.

But coyote bathed, and rolled in sagebrush, and persuaded the world’s enemy nothing could be tastier, so that he could roast the gorgon’s vitals from within, rescuing all the demoralized survivors languishing in stomach juices but not without humiliating the only marsupial known to him.

feathered2013_charlie

“Feathered” is from The Daily Coyote (Charlie, 2013).

Baby coyotes have big voices, and make for an eerie local caroling troupe. But it’s easy to fear for them, since the national forest on all sides of the tree farm is used for grazing. Ranchers don’t mind the cattle often while they’re there, or gather them efficiently, but they kill predators sometimes.

Things have begun to change. Even wolves are showing themselves lately, from the jogging trails of Boise to the meadows above Joseph, Oregon. A few weeks after my grandfather’s funeral, neighbors gave word a wolf pack had taken on his part of airplane ridge.

7 Responses to “Frontier moralities”

  1. Mados Says:

    Hi Savannah. Your posts seem to disappear… all the ones after this one at least (I can still read them in Feedly though…)

    How is it going? I meant to ask you earlier and have been thinking about how it is going with your living situation and dogs and all that.

    Ps. Please feel free to reply via email if you like.

    • gavinpandion Says:

      I know, sorry it’s been so long since I replied to any of your comments. I decided I was unhappy with the direction my blog was taking, and the way when you get used to framing your thoughts a certain way, any misconceptions among your unstated assumptions start to pick up a momentum of their own, so confusion can just sort of escalate. I’ve been keeping most of the recently disappeared blog entries back in my drafts file for revision, but a few of them I just deleted instead.

      You must have noticed I also pulled all the comments for now, because changing the content of the blog throws off the discussion so much it seems like the comments aren’t related to the blog content any more. But hopefully I won’t be rehashing the entries I’ve republished that drastically again, so if you feel like leaving comments again from time to time, don’t worry, I’ll use the “approve” button and write back whenever I can now.

      • Mados Says:

        Ok:-) I haven’t been looking for comments, so I guess I had not noticed (not sure… it is a while since I wrote the comment above… although it appears to be dated today). Anyway I was not worried about comments:-)

  2. Mados Says:

    Sorry.. wrong spelling of your name. I actually meant to quickly check it fromt he old comments before posting this comment, but I can’t find the old comments or posts I was looking for… it seems like heaps of stuff is gone, or alternatively there is a pervasive navigation structure change and I have not figured it out yet:-)

    • gavinpandion Says:

      I’ve republished a lot of revised blog entries since you left these comments, and continued experimenting with sidebar menu structures to share links in various ways. But the menus are starting to feel more whimsical than structured right now, probably just the mood a house under renovation take on when you pitch a tent next to it instead of trying to live there while you work out the new floor plan. Mostly I’m trying to focus on getting more of the previous blog content revised and republished the way I like it for now.

    • Mados Says:

      Ah:-) Now I see where that came from. That is right.


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