July 31, 2013

shard / 21

Anyway, thanks.

July 25, 2013

July 22, 2013

July 19, 2013

July 13, 2013

July 10, 2013

July 5, 2013

Koreshan, the Pirahã, and me

The notion, in the age of grace, that one place is holier than another is suspect. My friend Kay, a fellow iconoclastic Catholic with whom I hung out, along with several renegade nuns and radical Jesuits on Staten Island, illuminated this with a certain tang when a friend told her, on the eve of her pilgrimage to the Holy Land, “I’ll pray for you in Jerusalem.” “Thank you," said Kay, “I’ll pray for you in my garage.”

That some places seem holier, though, is understandable, some because their otherness makes plain the otherness of the world in which we actually live. They feel, in their very remove, like home, or a sacrament of it, for which “we poor exiled children of Eve” yearn. Others, a familiar and beloved picnic table in the park, a favorite café, or Kay’s garage, are sanctuaries despite, or even because of, their sheltering mundanity.

For me, a touch of the godforsaken, with its undercurrent of the divine, will always invoke a powerful magic in my soul. This is a treasure deeply buried from early childhood, when I was free to roam field and stream and woodland path, any and all of the seventy acres I dared confront or befriend at our summer cabin in Michigan. This was the other, Waldenesque, side of the young impresario who by fifth grade was organizing entertainments, producing plays, impersonating Elvis at parties, and who adored roller-coasters. Yet, the sight of a milkweed seed floating on a breeze would seize my heart with a longing for the cabin, for its solitude and mysterious sufficiency, that could bring tears to my eyes.

And now, fifty years later, my leisurely tour, mostly by kayak, of my personal monasteries (expanded now to include barrier islands and tropical sunsets), and my quest for those as yet undiscovered, continued last week at Koreshan State Park.

Only fifteen miles from Chez Jeaux, Koreshan State Historical Site is a 300 acre tract on the banks of the Estero River. It was founded as a utopian community in 1894 that was ceded, once the dream had collapsed, as most do, to the state of Florida in 1961 by the four last members. The Koreshans had a loopy cosmology. An impractical social order. But they left the State of Florida an enchanting piece of real estate, a legacy more constructive than many.

A popular winter destination, it is all but deserted in the summer, as many Florida parks and beaches are. I booked a couple of nights there last month, my chief aim to kayak the river, and try for Estero Bay.

I checked in at the ranger station, where I was loaded with maps, guides, and literature by a delightful, bosomy, senior ranger who reminded me of my high school typing teacher, a salty take-charge Jewish lady with a golden heart, who knew what it was worth, and indomitable good will.

Base camp Thursday afternoon. It's hot in Florida in June, as expected, but by morning I would climb into my sleeping bag. After getting comfortably ensconced among the sabal palms and long-needle pines typical of the area, I broke out my ancient little Sterno folding camp stove and cooked Spam (for the nitrite) fried rice that I'd prepared at home, and kept in the cooler, along with a stash of cherries and grapes. Protein and fruit is my mainstay on these outings. Rabbits, furtive but not unduly alarmed, are a frequent sight on the trails and around the campsite. I assume they are not an approved menu item in the park, even for hungry campers. I chastised myself, in a passive sort of way, for not taking a photo of one. A stubborn antipathy toward such responsibilities sets in fairly soon in a setting like this. That and a different mind set: it simply doesn't occur to me. Looking at things is enough.

The Koreshans planted a lot of bamboo. You can hear them bending and creaking in the breeze. There's an easy and meditation-inducing trail that leads from the campsites to the historical village.

Only a handful of the original buildings remain. This cottage seems to be self-camouflaging, almost absorbed into the colors of its surroundings. The Koreshans had good taste in bridges, and built a couple of charming ones, turn of the century style. Is there a simpler motif than the cross, reverberating through history in spite of itself, showing up everywhere, from the foundation of the world...

By dusk I had explored the rest of the park, and checked out the kayak launch. Back at camp, I cooked a light supper and packed it in for the night, reading by lantern an article in The New Yorker about the Pirahã, a tribe in the Amazon whose language has stumped researchers for decades. It has no evidence of recursion.*  They live and perceive, it seems, in an eternal now.

"We were still unpacking," John Colapinto writes, "when a Pirahã boy, who appeared to be about eleven years old, ran out from the trees beside the river. Grinning, he showed off a surprisingly accurate replica of the floatplane we had just landed in. Carved from balsa wood, the model was four feet long and had a tapering fuselage, wings, and pontoons, as well as propellers, which were affixed with small pieces of wire so that the boy could spin the blades with his finger. I asked Everett whether the model contradicted his claim that the Pirahã do not make art. Everett barely glanced up. 'They make them every time a plane arrives,' he said. 'They don't keep them around when there aren't any planes.' Sure enough, I later saw the model lying broken and dirty in the weeds beside the river. No one made another one during the six days I spent in the village."

I turn out the lantern and ponder the Pirahã in the dark. "Sufficient for the day," I think, "is the trouble, and artifact, thereof." A passing shower drifts by, just enough to drum me lightly to sleep. 

Morning brought a day that seemed near-perfect for an excursion. Winds on the Estero are attenuated and mild. I ate a light breakfast, packed a thermos of coffee, a jug of water, a flip-top can of tuna, and a bag of grapes, and drove down to the launch...

Video clips are best viewed in HD if you have high-speed. Set playback to 720 (HD) in the control bar (gear icon).

The delicious sensation of "nudging yourself off dry land into the buoyant glide of the world’s largest domain" never gets old. Once past the marinas and Cracker towns and assorted other settlements on the north bank, the river was bliss. An occasional house appeared on the shore and drifted by...

This one had a fieldstone seawall that you rarely see anymore. It was guarded by a fearsome serpent. It's the colorful ones you have to watch out for, though some are impostors that mimic their lethal cousins, benefitting from their badass reputation...

I found a riverside clearing, about an hour into the trek, and about two-thirds along the way to Estero Bay as it turned out (see map above) that looked promising. I paddled in for a rest and a bite to eat...


There was a view of the river to the west. A couple of hammock trees near the water. It was just what I was looking for. I named it The Koreshan Anchorage and entered it into the monastic network. I strung up my hammock and made a little camp.

There’s something about a hammock. Once in one, floating in space, I unwind so fast it’s a struggle to stay awake. The one I carry is a 13-ounce ultralight that can hold 250 lbs. With a little mosquito netting and a light rain fly, you don’t even need a tent. Of course the beauty of traveling by kayak is that you can carry all the camp with you that you need. The Koreshan Anchorage was now on my radar for an overnighter on a future outing. I poured a cup of coffee and read about the Pirahã... 

"Gonçalves, who spoke limited Pirahã, agrees that the tribe has no creation myths... When pressed about what existed before the Pirahã and the forest, Everett says, the tribespeople invariably answer, 'It has always been this way.' Everett also learned that the Pirahã have no fixed words for colors, and instead use descriptive phrases that change from one moment to the next. ‘So if you show them a red cup, they’re likely to say “This looks like blood.”

I put the magazine down and look up to watch the river. It looks like the river. I zone out, mind like water, suspended body both tugged by, and withheld from, the earth below, a delicious standoff. After a while, a kayaker floats by. "That's the life!" she calls out to me. So that's what I look like. I wave. "I'm learning..." I call back.

After about an hour, it seemed past time to shove off. Soon after taking to the water again, the river opened up and acquired an oblique solar sparkle. Lovely. “There’s a boat,” I thought. “Up ahead. Veering north. Fishermen? Out of the bay?” Was non-recursive thought natural to human beings after all? They slowly passed, too preoccupied with the trolling at hand to notice me.

I pushed on for another quarter hour, at most, and found myself in the river’s twist to the northeast that I recalled from the map, but much closer to the bay than I realized. I thought I was only halfway there. By this time huge white cumulous clouds were building in the sky, and having misjudged my location, thought it wise to turn back lest I be caught on open water in a storm. Daily showers are the norm this time of the year, and so far I’d been lucky. But it was a luck I thought unwise to push. My romp on Mound Key would be for another day. Another day soon...

Barring a mishap or unfavorable weather, the trip home always seems shorter than the journey out: familiarity compresses time, for once, instead of expanding it. The sense of civilization once again drawing near intensified my desire to linger. A little beach on the side of the river appeared, at the edge of a promontory, a flagpole high, unusual for this part of the world, and with a hint of angles, like those seen on Mars suggesting human interference.

I found the location on Google Maps, and inserted the kayak to show the scale.

I dragged onto the beach and set off to climb what appeared to be a kind of path, whether natural or already traveled was not clear, up the steep slope.

A survey from the top revealed a strange landscape. The topography below had the mien, somehow, of an abandoned construction site, a small clearing overtaken by weeds, and odd little buttes and sandy knolls and young scrub, surrounded by mangrove.

I went down to have a look, descending into a hot silence. That’s when it hit. A deerfly dove straight for my neck and scored. Then another. Then a squadron, maddened by opportunity and rage, swarmed around me, making their crazy zig-zag deerfly sorties at my face.

I ran for the boat, swatting the swarm with my hat as best I could, but with marginal deterrence. I reached the water and suddenly, just as abruptly as they had attacked, the little demons retreated and were gone.

What fresh hell was that? I checked the sky for vultures, thinking a recent kill may have drawn the beasties to such an odious place, but there were none. Well, anyway. Some neighborhoods are friendlier than others, and not so far apart. I shook my wet sneaker, as a testament against it, and climbed into the boat.

Back on the water, a sense of serenity returned. I passed a house flying rainbow flags...

Well fuck me! Someone I know? Someone I should know, if I don't. I'd half a notion to pull up and shout a greeting. "That's the life!" Not that I would. But it did cross my mind. But I didn't.

As clouds piled up in the sky, which turned out to be decorative only, an ache, the good kind, the souvenir of a day amiably challenged, was gathering in my body. The boat ramp was a welcome sight.

Back at camp, I sit down at the picnic table and boil water for tea. While it steeps, I listen. The electronic buzz of an insect, a cicada perhaps, its love song, swells and shrinks, in the woods nearby. Distant loony calls and sudden urgent chitters greet a deepening sky. A scouting raccoon, or a darting rabbit, unseen, crunches a leaf. And the wind, like surf on the shore, rises and falls in great rushes and retreats in the long-neddle pines.

“Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real," I read, "the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions - and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word xibipio as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience - which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. ‘When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipio - “gone out of experience..."

Absentis tamen non oblitus. Amen.

The drive home always seems a little surreal after just a couple of days off-grid. “Peripheral but amiable... civilization as novelty.” Back at Chez Jeaux I left everything in the truck except the cooler and what remained of the groceries in my “kitchen bag”. I stopped to pick up my mail. I opened a letter from a law firm that seemed to suggest that as a business owner I may be eligible for a settlement from BP because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. So that’s where the vultures were. The novelty of civilization restored was wearing off fast. I threw it away, going xibipio on its ass, and climbed the stairs. Chez Jeaux looked like home.

*Recursion is the ability, unique to human language, and thought by some to be hard-wired in the human brain, to assemble sentences with one thought inside another, a hallmark of abstraction. It allows people to create sentences of never-ending variety, what linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt called "the infinite use of finite means."

July 4, 2013