Thursday, April 6, 2017
On the Two Americas
There are one-and-a-half million people in Phoenix, the so-called "Valley of the Sun", and, probably three million cars. The city has swallowed the belt-line freeway loops and the bypasses and the highways are always clogged with traffic. For several hours each day, the roads are impassable. No longer remote, the airport is surrounded by skyscrapers and the State Hospital for the Insane, once exiled to the very edges of the desert wasteland, now occupies a central location in the sprawling metropolis. It seems improbable that so many people can live in a place by nature so inhospitable – the miserable Salt River is a causeway of sand for most of the year.
Near downtown, there are strange box-car sized globules of wind-sculpted sandstone – this is Papago Park, some artificial water features among the ornamental cactus gardens in that place and, at intervals, a couple stark mountains jab up above the suburbs: the ravines on those mountains are the color of gravel and treeless even around the pale alluvial washes and the tops of the peaks are all festooned with blinking, winking, leering and jeering transmission towers and, to the north, where there are lava flows, shattered dykes of basalt cut through the neighborhoods and the stones, that seem to be broken by the implacable chisel of the sun, are covered with a black patina readily pecked away to make pictographs, whole fields of jagged rock decorated with obscure circles and rectangular torsos with little claw feet and solar emblems with radiant beams, marks left the Indians who inhabited these parts and who were slaughtered at first, beat to death by the early pioneers because it wasn’t worth a cartridge to shoot them, then, transported to the edges of the town, to Indian School and Indian Mission Road out on the desert where there are now casino resorts and golf courses with bunkers full of limpid water and weeping willow trees along the artificial streams and, in the distance, the impregnable fortress of the Superstition Mountains with its claws fixed in the face of the day...
This is a world made by men for men, nothing like the mountains and basins extending one after another in all directions. Here is the strip mall and the fast food places and the sidewalks running along the edges of busy thoroughfares, the office towers and the clinics, the car dealerships and insurance agencies and the small atriums in small commercial buildings with people in glass walled cells bending to their computers and elevators ascending and descending and a small fountain burbling merrily amidst all the coming and going, the smell of pizza in the corridors, the carpet cleaners upstairs, your ex at the Wok and Roll for the lunch buffet, a dumpster in the alley where birds of prey roost, pay at the register where she will swipe her debit card, the baby needing her diaper changed, the cars free-range in the rain with windshield wipers ticking off the seconds of your life, people on skype or internet, the hyper-links, the sniper in the tower, time to pay the piper, viper or not here in this garden plot...
In the this world of people made by people and remote from nature, plenty of things are mass-produced and, therefore, rhyme. Every Coke rhymes with every other Coke and the merchandise on the shelf is reliably mass-produced; the golden arches are always the golden arches and so on from fast food place to fast food place, everything franchised, and the signs rhyme with one another, same or similar words reoccurring over and over again; identical makes and models of cars caught up in the traffic, three helicopters working the junction between the interstates in the heat-haze and each a duplicate of the other, copying machines spitting out copies, a xeroxed world replete with exact rhymes, nothing at all like the forest and rocks and desert cactus and the lizards scurrying in and out of the sun and various scorpions their yellow armor variously dented by the adventures life has dealt them, missing legs here and there and every leaf on every tree monotonously the same and yet monotonously dissimilar as well – all of this nature is either without rhyme, or comprised of only the most approximate slant rhymes, a language like Italian where everything is assonant on one vowel or another, but the words all sound a little bit different –
So I am in the casino at Talking Stick on one of the Pima – no that’s a derogatory term – on one of the Hohokam – no that’s not right: it just means "vanished ones" and these Indians aren’t by any means dead and gone...no, it’s the Papago – no, don’t use that word, it’s also disrespectful ("chatterbox"? or "bean-eater"?) – no better to call the people by their proper and approved name, the Tohono Oo’dham ("the desert dwellers") – got to get these words right: a chipmunk or a gila monster doesn’t care what you call him or her, but a man, a human being, that’s a different matter entirely, attention must be paid... so here I am at the casino east of Phoenix, the Talking Stick resort managed by the Tohono Oo’dham nation and we are talking, over dinner, about climate change. Ostensibly, it’s a business meeting, but the agenda has long since been abandoned, obscured by cocktails and talk of professional sports, hunting, the afternoon’s golf scores, and, predictably, most of the men are Trump supporters and, therefore, climate change skeptics. Someone says that there is no reason to exercise waste, no reason to be a bad steward of the environment, but a glacier and a mountain, the sea and the desert, are not easily swayed to human ends and, therefore, no reason exists to believe that our feeble activity affects the climate.
We are seated in a swank restaurant called Orange Skies so named because the big windows clad in Venetian blinds can be opened when the sun is setting to reveal the brilliant hues decorating the sky over Camelback Mountain. The elite side of the restaurant, requiring a couple weeks advance dinner reservations, overlooks the city, the great basin charged with the vibrating energy of the freeways and the commercial strips leaking their neon upward into the warm, dry air and the mountain, reduced by sunset’s shadows to a mere profile, a zigzag pointy thing that blocks our view of the downtown skyscrapers and the rest of the city. On the other side of this restaurant perched in the sky, the land is already in the gloaming, an elbow-shaped water-hazard luxuriating under some worried-looking willows and, far away, in this aquarium-light, the massif of the Superstition Mountains brooding over the wilderness.
I’m not argumentative by nature. You go along to get along. So I didn’t feel any need to enter into the debate about climate change. But I listened to the talk at the table and, from what I heard, it was apparent that there are two Americas exactly as pundits have observed. People from rural areas are conservative and they like Trump’s machismo and they don’t think that human beings have any real influence on the climate. Others, primarily from bigger cities, are more liberal – or, I guess, the term du jour is "progressive" – and they despise Trump and are concerned that we are killing our planet by changing its climate. Thus, two Americas exist that can barely find words to talk with one another. This observation is a cliche and, like many banalities, undoubtedly true. The question, of course, is why should this division exist.
Climate is an aspect of nature that is both familiar and inscrutable. Our relationship to nature is always complex and problematic. In The Future of an Illusion, Freud considers man’s intrinsic fear of natural forces as the origin of religion. Nature makes an "overwhelming impression" on us – a lightning strike on our lawn reduces us to quivering shock. Human beings personify nature, imagining natural forces as gods which are, in turn, surrogates for our parents. Our climate (or a discharge of static electricity) didn’t deliver the awe-inspiring lightning bolt searing the tree in the front yard – this visitation came from our angry and brutal Father, a figure like Zeus. Culture or civilization, Freud maintains, exists as a defense against nature. And, yet, culture "leaves...(a) large number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt."
Since our vision of nature is colored with aspects of the divine, and personalized for each of us as our enraged father and, perhaps, our gentle long-suffering mother, we are necessarily ambivalent about the climate. In some of its manifestations, we hate nature and the climate, a hatred that is complicated by the love that we bear to those who stand in loco parentis. It seems that there is something childish intrinsic to the debate about climate change. This is because an element of infantile neurosis (or "religion" as Freud defined it) underlies the discussion. Thus, the climate debate seems to reel unsteadily between delusions of omnipotence and fantasies of complete, and abject, helplessness.
Here is another division between the two Americas – some think themselves to be immensely powerful; others imagine themselves as helpless. Those who feel helpless often deny climate change – human beings are too insignificant to affect the climate. Those who feel powerful tend to accept climate change but their inherent arrogance renders their opinions always questionable to the other moiety comprising our population.
While driving, I listened to public radio. The question posed by the talk show host was whether Donald Trump was successfully achieving the objectives of those people who had supported him. A caller from an upper middle-class suburb was invited on-air with her question. The woman’s voice was velvety and her articulation excellent. It seemed as if she had written her question neatly on a 3 x 5 card, although she read the words expressively. Although the question was polite, it was "loaded" to elicit consensus that President Trump had violated the trust of his constituents, a conclusion that the radio host and her panel reached almost immediately. The next person on-air was calling from some small town in the north woods of Minnesota. A pack of hounds bayed in the background. The man’s voice was gravely with age: he muttered something about Hilary Clinton selling off America’s uranium to the Russians. The host took advantage of the howling dogs to cut the call short. Another couple of callers spoke sweetly, delighted, it seemed, by their own reasonableness. They also seemed to have written their tendentious questions on a pad of paper so that they could perform them with sufficient eloquence when called upon by the radio host. Each of these callers seemed to making his or her phone call from a sealed studio somewhere – there was no background sound of any kind. The fourth caller was from a little farming community – the man seemed to be riding in a tractor open to the elements. The wind hissed and burbled under the man’s words which were halting. He spent a long time asking if he was on the air and, then, repeated himself several times as to the place from which he was calling. The background noise increased in intensity. The man stammered out some invective against Hilary Clinton. "This is not really our subject today," the host declared, cutting him off. The next call was from one of the more expensive suburbs on the edge of the city. The woman stated her question succinctly and, then, said that "(she) would take the answer off-the-air." The host and panel praised her. After some discussion, another caller was invited to speak: his radio was playing loudly in the background and seemed to create an echo-chamber effect and it also seemed that he had his television turned-on, tuned to Fox, because I could hear some kind of harangue underlying his words. The man’s voice was hesitant but angry. "What about Hilary Clinton?" he cried. "She lied about Benghazi." The radio host said it was hard to hear him because of the background noise and the bad connection. The man said that he was calling from the North Shore, on the edge of Lake Superior. A dog began to bark as well. "We can’t hear you clearly," the radio host said and she cut off the call.
The two Americas occupy different locales. Rural people supported Donald Trump. They are angry, so enraged that they can’t stay on point, perturbed to the point that rage fractures their grammar. The people from cities supported Mrs. Clinton. They write their questions, carefully phrased on cards and seem to occupy sound-proof booths when calling the talk radio shows. The Trump supporters are always exposed to the weather, standing knee-deep in swamps, or atop deer-stands and the icy wind whips around them while sinister hounds bay in the distance.
A roadside attraction called The Thing? is displayed at a run-down gas station at mile-marker 331 on I-10, the highway between Tucson and El Paso. The gas station accompanied by a decaying house and some pre-fabricated metal sheds stands on a barren knoll commanding a view across forty miles of desert to the blue redoubt of Cochise Stronghold, a Madrean sky-island mountain range. (Southern Arizona is welted with mountains, really long ridges between 7,000 and 10,000 feet high. These ridge systems are uplifted fault ranges running for 25 to 50 miles in length, but only the width of a single peak – that is, just as broad as some brown and stony foothills pierced by dry canyons and, then, rising steeply to a serrated summit clad in Douglas fir and Engleman spruce, some rock domes exposed along the ridge-line like a row of incisors, the mountains, then, falling away to a similar escarpment on the other side of the ridge. The term Madrean sky-island refers the mountains as fragments of the Sierra Madre ecosystem, the southern extension of the Rocky Mountains in Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico.)
I stopped at The Thing? on a chilly morning in February, primarily to use the toilet. To the west, there is a rest stop among the wind-polished hoodoos at the Texas Canyon pass, but the place is a necessary amenity for the truckdrivers running the route from El Paso to Los Angeles, a great corral of rigs buzzing and humming and hissing amidst the stony monoliths, and every stall in the restrooms occupied, as well, by constipated teamsters coughing and gasping and farting forlornly, the uni-sex or family toilets being swabbed down by some Latino women wearing bandanas, the women’s toilets taped off due to some kind of broken pipes, and the whole place so sulphurous with fumes of all kinds that I retreated to my car, drove down from the pass, and, then, in the basin below saw that it was only 20 miles to the next exit where I could couple my trip to the restroom with a visit to the famous roadside attraction as well. The gas station at The Thing? boasts a great cantilevered white metal awning over the pumps, an archaic design that is picturesque enough as to be featured in many examples of American Pop Art as an instance of streamlined modernist design. Here the awning is like a plane’s wing mounted on stilts, a comparison that is apt because of the wind roaring over the stony rock hill three- or four-hundred feet above the desert.
The Thing? occupies a cinder-block mortuary within a maze of gloomy chambers contained inside several interconnected pre-fab corrugated metal buildings. When I was in the maze, I head voices ahead of me and behind, but never saw a living soul. The treasures heaped around the main exhibit’s glass casket include rusty firearms, a dilapidated Conestoga wagon, one of Hitler’s cars, some ineptly carved wooden Indians, a war bonnet and scalps, sepia-tinted photographs of old Indian fighters and pioneers glaring down from the walls. The toilets were serviceable with a strong disinfectant stink like Irish Spring soap or deodorant. You enter the exhibit through a store retailing turquoise jewelry, follow phosphorescent and clawed monster footprints pasted to the floor as decals, pay your homage to The Thing? and, then, emerge in another store where postcards are available as well as hard-candy and Indian pottery.
I had left Tucson at dawn, uncertain as to the distance that I had to traverse to reach the Pinaleno Mountains, my destination. The freeway was silent and mostly vacant – it was a Sunday morning – and, when I exited to drive north on Arizona 191 east of Wilcox, I encountered a broad, freshly paved four-lane highway complete with a median strip two cars wide, aimed straight as an arrow toward Safford forty miles away. There was no traffic coming, none going and the road ran unerringly through rolling foothills to the Pinaleno ridge, a high green wall dabbed with white snow along its saw-toothed heights. It happens infrequently, and, yet, it happens: a road opens up before you smooth and empty and perfect, a sort of magic carpet ride and I glided north, the shadow of the mountains always at my left, the smooth wall of the ridge cut through here and there by canyons with forbidding rock buttes like sentinels at their outlets, the peaks rising up to a dome that marked the very center of the upraised welt, the whip-mark, of the thirty-mile long ridge. The dome, a brow of rock pushed up above the high, smooth shoulders of fir and spruce, was Mount Graham, the longitudinal middle point of the range – indeed, to the people in the valley up at Safford, the entire ridge system is sometimes simply called Mount Graham as if the ridge were really only one formation, a description of the Pinalenos as they are otherwise called that is, more or less, accurate. The mountain heights were dusted with snow and the land that I traversed was devoid of any human habitation, the only sign of man’s presence an electrical transmission line borne by steel-frame towers striding inexorably to the north. The east in a rift valley, I could see, a sliver of water probably impounded behind a dam hidden in the beige and maroon badlands.
The Pinaleno (or Graham) mountains are imposing because of their vertical relief. The main ridge rises more than 7000 feet above the basins on their eastern flank. The high country can be accessed by a two-lane black top road, the so-called Swift Trail, a winding and steep mountain highway that climbs to the summit of the ridge, and, then, traverses a pass to the west-facing flank of the Pinalenos. A366, as the Swift Trail, is called angles toward the high wall of the mountains from an intersection where the traveler encounters several shacks selling rocks and curios, a desolate corral offering trail rides (although no horses were in sight when I passed), a taxidermy business and some hand-lettered signs suggesting that a therapeutic massage is just the thing for someone bound to, or from, the sierra.
In the intermountain west, most highways run sensibly parallel to ranges of mountains. So it is always exhilarating to turn from the main way and aim your car uphill at the peaks. This is particularly the case in Arizona where the basins are flat and treeless and the way to the heights commences by ascending great tilted ramps of desert. You can see in all directions and the foothills are crumbling badlands that decorate the crest of the rising land and, since the grade is modest (at least, at first), you can drive fast up the straight way to the summit. The land-ramp narrows and drops off on both sides of the highway and, in your rear-view mirror, you see the flat, featureless terrain falling away below something like the way landscapes recedes under an airplane that is taking off. The distances turn blue and foggy green and, after a couple miles, you have climbed two-thousand feet, all in the open so that your height is apparent and dramatic, great raw canyons gaping on both sides of the narrowing arrow of causeway rising into the mountains. The desert yields to grassland and, then, small, crooked trees dotting the chaparral become more dense, speed limit signs warn you to slow down, and, then, you reach the first of the curves, so sharp that it can’t be navigated at any speed exceeding 35, more curves, now marked to 25 and, at last, 10 and 15 miles per hour, the grade increasing so that the car seems to labor under you as it swivels its way upward among tawny banks of broken rock and groves of trees that have now become a squat and tormented forest. The highway welts the bluffs overhead like the mark of a whiplash and you can see the asphalt above you riding shelves of exposed cliff.
The curves become incessant and dizzying, but the trees are now straight, a forest of fir and pine with little clearings littered with deadfall. At an elbow in the road, a tongue of asphalt licks uphill, a parking place where the motorist can rest from the curves and look at a picturesque field-stone bridge built by the WPA and marking the original track of the Swift Trail. The bridge is single-lane but rugged – it arches a twisting gorge that is dry at this time of the morning: the sun has not yet begun to melt the snow lodged in the woods uphill.
For a couple ascending miles, the road seems to mark the edge of the trees and there are exposed places plunging down into canyons. Then, at about 7,500 feet (the snow-line on this weekend is at 7,200 feet), the slope decreases a little and the road is on the shoulder of the mountain, a place that is not exactly flat but less steep, a lonely collection of summer cottages, all of them sealed for the winter, at Turkey Flats, although there is nothing level here at all, the forest rising gently upward through its meadows, a series of shadowy, snow-dusted chambers rising to heights that are now invisible because you are among them.
The road, then, makes a surprising move, turning sharply and flattening out to follow the contour of the mountain around its side, a long elegant curve that transports you to the backside of the mountain, the reverse of the ridge. A marker tells you that the road is now 9000 feet above sea-level. The west-facing ridge is very steep dropping vertiginously down to the desert. A single truck, longer than a bus, carrying a clutch of big logs chained together roars down the road. Where did this come from? Otherwise, there has been no other traffic of any kind, coming or going on the Swift Trail.
On the west side of the ridge, the road slopes gently upward, cut across a terrace just below the high-peaks. The snow is knee-deep on both sides of the highway but the road is completely clear. In the valley it was 54 degrees – here the temperature is 29. I roll the window down. The silence is complete. After a couple of miles leisurely traversing the woodlands, the road reaches a place forking upward as wet, rutted gravel, an ATV path, the main highway marked with a sign that "Pavement Ends" and a locked gate. An elevation marker reads 9600 feet. I back up and turn around.
A quarter mile from the end of the road, a turn-off marks a vista over the desert basin to the west of the mountain range. I park and get out of the car, shuddering a little in the cold. On the west side of the mountain, it’s still shadowy – the sun isn’t sufficiently vertical to illumine the woods and the diving slope of the ridge falling away to the desert below. Two mule-deer amble across the road, seemingly not too concerned by my presence. A smaller deer, a calf it seems, follows, too shy to look at me directly. I can see 100 miles maybe more, down between a couple of tall, dead trees, pale as the columns of an ancient Athenian temple – the wind has stripped both the bark and the limbs from these old fellows and they stand upright, thorned with the places where their branches have broken, marmoreal, making a foreground to a panorama that seems to show the entire earth, but the earth as it was before climate change, before the cities, before the Apaches, before any human being walked these heights. Across the enormous expanse of yellowish desert, I can see no cultivated land, no roads except, perhaps, a couple of inconsequential scuffs in the basin, bald patches that start nowhere and go nowhere. Looking straight down, I can see a flat between small hills capped with eroding pinnacles. On the flat, there seems to be a trailer, although at this distance, I can’t see for sure, and, perhaps, a wrecked earth mover. Here and there, greenish ribbons mark water, although you can’t actually see the lake or stream or the seep, just the gradient of burnt brown to yellow to a pale green. At least, five mountain ranges are visible from here – all of them enigmatic, impenetrable, remote. This is the other America, a world that seems to be entirely devoid of any humans and any trace of the human, except of course the road from which I am viewing this spectacle. The deserts and the blue archipelago of mountain ranges run out to the limit of my vision and I can see nothing marking the presence of man.
It’s a frightening prospect in a way. I feel very lonely and cold. Of course, these heights that I occupy are well-known. People have scrambled to the top of every peak. Indeed, Mount Graham, the highest point in the ridge, is capped with a famous astronomical observation point, a solar laboratory and, during the Apache Wars, the cavalry communicated by way of a heliotrope, a sun-catching mirror, at that summit – trails lead to a lake twenty miles away and all the shallow, dancing creeks falling down the hillside have names. In fact, every crest in the ridge has been named. But what about the desert basin, the innumerable small knolls and valleys – have these broiling, featureless places been named? What about the slashes I can see between low bluffs seventy miles away, the striated plain? Have those badlands been named? The small hillocks wearing broken rock like crowns? Has someone visited those miniature peaks of gravel? It seems to me that I am overlooking hundreds of square miles never trodden upon by the foot of man.
And I am also watching the weather: far out on the desert, a dust storm is ploughing up the sand and dirt – I can see plumes of dust rising toward grey, shuttered-looking clouds danging fringes of rain that will never reach the earth. A mountain range at the limit of what I can see has attracted gloomy clouds that arc up into the sky. Patches of slate-grey sky alternate with open oculus of blue heavens. From over the diffraction grating of the mountain, long greenish rays pierce the distance.
How can man have any influence over all of this? In one of Gary Snyder’s books, there’s a moment when a hiker looks across a blue and white sea of peaks alternating with snowfields and remarks: "And this all has a senator." Except as Snyder is quick to point out: "not really." Who speaks for this immeasurable distance, these weather systems, the clouds overhead, the cactus crouching below me, the columns of sepulchral dead white trees? From this perspective, the notion that man could have any impact on climate seems improbable, not to say ludicrous.
Two things happened. Rocks fell from a cut over the road behind me. The rocks were loosened by the snow-melt. Some sun was now burning over the wooded forest top and a drizzle of downhill rivulets began to sing and some of this moisture caught in the face of the stone over the highway, riveted I now saw against collapse, but chiseling out a hundred pounds of so of debris to spalsh down on the asphalt. The noise was unnerving and abrupt and I jumped about a foot in the air. Then, I heard something rustle and I looked to my right – a powerfully built hindquarters of some sort of feline flashed a white underbelly at me for an instance as the animal swiftly descended from the edge of road down the steep drop toward the desert. I didn’t see the front half of the creature, only its rear: two powerful limbs anchoring the beast and a great tail ringed in white and fox-brown. This also unnerved me and, so, I hurried to my car and began the trip through the saddle in the peaks to the east-side of the mountain and the switchbacks curving down into the valley.
I stopped at the elbow in the road where the WPA bridge was located. Now the gulch was musical with waterfalls. On a boulder, there was a tribute to the Safford businessman who had "visioned" this trail and the "recreational area" at Turkey Flats. The boulder had been iced like a cake with snow and the letters seemed to weep. The Safford Rotary club was responsible for the plaque.
Additional note: Bassariscus Astutus or the ringtail cat is the Arizona State animal. Sometimes, this mammal is called a "civet" cat. The animal looks something like a powerfully built fox with a long ringed tail.