March 7, 2015

Ideas also Ripen

I could learn a lot of secrets watching an artist work. I’m captivated by their peculiarities, their methods and obsessions, seeing which specific wounds of childhood still bleed onto their pages. 
The documentary 20,000 Days on Earth (2014) chronicles the making of musician Nick Cave. We see the claustrophobic flat of his youth, a saggy bed hemmed by walls plastered with cutouts and found ponytails, the place where he sat carving out his first lyrics. We also see the ghosts who he debates while he’s wheeling through drear of drizzly Brighton. Cave appears as a guy who thinks himself as more obsessed than genius, yet you can’t deny his range and wonderful specificity.
Yet one offhand observation followed me out of the theatre, or in this case, the meeting room of a small Chilean municipality. “To act on a bad idea,” says Cave, “is better than to not act at all.” His thinking is that ideas are neither good or bad. Don’t judge them. Give them time to ripen.
Two weeks ago, I rushed the thorny blackberry patch in my backyard, eager to harvest something before I left for the winter. With brittle, waist-high grasses, the land is less garden and more farm gone to seed.
With utter concentration, I scanned for the rare, ripe purple berry in each green bunch of hardened nubs. Most resisted my tugging. Thorns tore my finger pads, rogue branches wrapped around my ankles like sea monsters. On one hand, harvesting offered relief from writing. But for anyone who has ever done it on an industrial scale, fruit picking offers no romance. It is labor that leaves its marks.
Hot days slid by collecting popcorn clouds on the horizon. Then a steady rain, the first in months. Yesterday I returned though squeaky grass for a last attempt. The berries collected into my wooden bowl at a touch. The work was fast, rewarded by a taste of every mess that crushed between my fingertips. Piola the dog worked alongside me, always choosing the ripest fruit, no need of hands ever.
Time—both time passing and that ‘aha’ moment--is that elusive factor in artistry that requires more of our respect. How many times have I discarded an idea because I couldn’t imagine its trajectory in future time? It’s an error. A work cannot be willed into shape, but accumulates in droplets and merging currents, like a stormhead.
I look forward to my next bad idea.

May 22, 2014

Bread in the Desert

On the road for weeks in the Utah desert, I've noticed how my normal routine gets whittled down. I'm stocked with essentials: water, sunscreen, a layer. I don't have a cooler so am eating mostly dry goods. It's temporary, and a worthwhile sacrifice when a trip to the grocery store means going a couple hours off-course. It's an attitude accrued from greed, an insatiability for the wonder around you, to take a piece of it while you can.

Following a waiter's recommendation for a Capitol Reef hike I realize I've bitten off, oh, let's say a little too much. Do other people start a twelve mile hike after lunch? It's rugged, stunning even, but I'm feeling it. On the out-and-back, I finally shortcut the endeavor by reaching an outer trailhead and hitchhiking back to my start. But the campsite is still far away.

Driving north, the twisting landscape of towering red rock, sage and slickrock turns to desert grey, from cracked, ashen earth to tawny mountain buttes, naked of any vegetation, stark mineral against blue sky. In springtime, its redemption is a carpet of bee-plant yellow blooms, a glow that hovers over the valley floor. Emptiness surrounds. Not where you would expect to find a farm stand.

I pull up to Mesa Farm Market, herded in by a grinning Aussie shepherd whose name I'll learn is Zeke. There I meet Randy, a farmer whose idea for a sustainable lifestyle brought him to this unlikely fifty-acre patch of earth. His greenhouse produces organic lettuce and vegetables, an outdoor oven fires up whole grain loaves and goats produce French-style chevre and the harder, buttery tomme. The transaction isn't just commerce, we exchange history, ideas on fencing and goat laments. All to say, the desert is not empty, and for the creative and hardworking, it can even provide, and gloriously so.

At Randy's suggestion, I skip my faraway destination and make camp on BLM land by Factory Butte. Dinner is a heap of greens mixed with mandarins, bread and cheeses, a meal, that even after weeks of restaurant research for a guidebook, is the most satisfying I could imagine.

It seems no lark that I've been reading The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen. It tells the story of Daniel Suelo, a man who gave up money in 2009, lives in caves around Moab, and leads a rich life. As a friend said, "it brings all sorts of questions on religion, commerce and happiness." How possible is it to go back to the essential, and live as our ancestors did? To some degree, very. But modern problems--like dentistry, and aging, put a snarl in the simple life.

Few would go this far, though by Suelo's blog, it seems the appeal is growing. Spend any length of time in the desert and your needs will adapt, simplify and ultimately respond to the elemental. Bread and cheese.