Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Performance Art

Continuing my observations on Halloween decorations: holiday decorations and other forms of yard art can be seen as a performance that householders put on for their communities. The performative nature of such decorations is seen in the African American term, “yard show.” Material culture scholars have noticed that yard shows incorporate many of the same features as cemetery decorations, so it’s amusing to note that some people convert their front yards into cemeteries at Halloween. I have yet to fathom the philosophical implications of this type of yard display.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Pumpkin Zone

As I walk up and down the streets admiring the Halloween decorations, I think about how decorations are part of the interface between an individual household and its community of neighbors and passers by. That’s because the decorations are usually on the front porches, on doors and windows, and in the front yards, which are the transition zones between public and private. Transition zones have a certain numinous quality, but also a certain dangerous quality, because they are liminal spaces.

In the case of Halloween decorations, scary-faced jack-o-lanterns and such are part of a world-wide tradition of decorating doors and other transition zones with apotropaic objects with grotesque faces to scare off evil spirits. Of course, friendly-faced jack-o-lanterns, as well as the golden pumpkins and other symbols of the harvest festival, serve to welcome the good spirits. By the way, I notice that people often flank their doorways with jack-o-lanterns or other decorations. It’s a natural desire for aesthetic balance, but it also echoes the African custom of setting a pair of gourds or pots filled with protective medicine on either side of the door.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bird World in Motion

The ancient Celts had a special reverence toward the Bird World, which they called the “ealtain” or “ealt nan ian,” (ref: Carmichael, “Carmina Gadelica”). Taking notice of the Bird World and being mindful of how it truly is its own realm enhances the daily walk.

On Monday, I saw huge numbers of robins in a field. They weren’t immediately visible, because of the way they spread out amidst the corn stubble; others were roosting in the adjacent wood margin, and were heard more than seen. A flock of blackbirds surrounded an interior pond, and some were calling, but their okarees were muffled and weird—not the clear, spring-like calls I’d heard back on the 12th. On Tuesday, bluebirds were moving through my copse; I haven’t seen many bluebirds this year, but then I’d been getting more temp work in the spring and summer. The calls of jays are regularly heard, and today, I see a constant stream of them through my copse. They don’t travel in flocks as such, but in a spread-out sort of line. My best experience of jay migration was while staying at my Dad’s beach house on the north shore of Lake Michigan, when bluejays were streaming across the dunes of Michibay, in a continuous west-moving line past the big picture window that looks out on the dunes and the lake. (I have similarly seen hawk migrations there.) Flickers, and of course, Canada Geese and Crows are regularly heard. However, since we’ve been having frosty nights, the frogs and insects are no longer a part of the sound environment. Strange to think, I could still hear cicadas as recently as September 30th, (which is supposed to be rather late for them).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Color Show Continues

Out enjoying the spectacular fall foliage, I see a lot of maple trees where the outermost leaves are reddish orange, behind them are yellowish leaves, and more toward the interior are still green leaves. My younger son actually called my attention to these sorts of trees some years ago, when he likened them to certain types of spherical, translucent lollipops that have different layers of color.

Also, Friday I walked in the town of Leslie, which has a variety of old Midwestern-style houses, plus some people with Halloween spirit. The wooden steps of one old house were lined with jack-o-lanterns, and a plush gray cat was resting at the foot of those stairs, while on the porch just at the top of the stairs sat a black cat. If I had had a camera on me, that would have made a perfect Halloween composition. Leslie happens to have a spiritualist church, so anyone walking by might want to send out a mental Hello to any friendly spirits who might be gathering there, in anticipation of the high energies of Halloween.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Festival of Colors

In this part of Michigan, the Fall colors are at their best the second week in October, and I think that today they were truly at their most splendid. For those of us walking in small towns, the Halloween decorations also add to the seasonal color. I’ve been walking in Mason and Eaton Rapids, and it appears to me that the people of Mason have more Halloween spirit than those in Eaton Rapids. (Oddly though, the people of Eaton Rapids usually have more personalized decorative arrangements around their family tombstones in the cemetery.) I enjoy both Christmas decorations and Halloween decorations, but Halloween has the advantage because it’s a better time for walking, plus the decorations lend themselves to more color and whimsy.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Blackbird Spring in Fall

There comes a day in Spring when you know that the red-winged blackbirds have officially arrived, because you wake up to a morning where their chucks and okarees ring out from every tree, in every direction, and if you look up, you see them in singles and in groups, criss-crossing the skies. Although you may have seen a few blackbirds winging along in the previous days and weeks, a sudden invasion force has arrived en masse, over night.

There also comes such a morning in autumn, and today was that morning. The redwings were in such large numbers, and so vocal with songs that are normally associated with their nesting territory, that it seemed more like spring arrival than fall migration. (At the same time, the jays could still be heard, so it’s still Jay World out there.) Later, we’ll see huge flocks, and if we’re lucky enough to be out at the right time of day, we’ll see rivers of blackbirds flowing across the sky; however, although they’ll be noisy, it won’t be the chorus of okarees, with no time to stop and party, because they’ll be heading straight south with a sense of urgency, (though there is always gaiety in their urgency).

By the way, this was quite a warm morning, with afternoon temperatures into the 80s, so perhaps the weather contributes to the festival atmosphere. I do not think we would call this Indian Summer—that pertains to certain warm days in November. If it weren’t for the fiery colors of maples and sumac, it really would seem more like Spring.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Cure is Close By

Continuing the theme of walking and finding food, Mary Hunter Austin, in her autobiography, “Earth Horizon” (1932), related how when her family moved from the Midwest to California, she was initially very dazed and disoriented—in what she described as a spellbound state. Going without food and sleep, she wandered the hills and canyons, driven by an obsessive desire to get the country to explain itself. The turning point came when she discovered wild grapes in Tejon Canyon, and feeding on them almost exclusively for two weeks, she restored herself to health and sanity

I have a theory, albeit unproven, that if a person could consume a certain amount of the wild food to be found in his or her vicinity, around the calendar, (for winter, you would have to make teas out of certain trees’ bark), that would help align and harmonize him or her with the environment, (and the spirits of the land), in such a way that it would mitigate a lot of physical and mental complaints. (I’ve never carried this out myself, because too many disruptions to my schedule prevent me from getting out on a regular enough basis.)

Kind of tied in with this, although I’m taking it out of context, Tom Brown, the Pine Barrens Tracker, cited an old Indian belief that wherever there is something that causes illness or other problems, the cure will be found nearby. So for example, jewel weed, which is a cure for poison ivy, grows in a lot of the same places as poison ivy. My extension of that theory is that if you need a tonic, your own land or your neighborhood will provide what is best suited for you.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Practice of the Wild

I've been digging through my notes to get the context of that Gary Snyder comment on walking. It is from "The Practice of the Wild," page 18: "Out here one is in constant engagement with countless plants and animals. To be well educated is to have learned the songs, proverbs, stories, sayings, myths (and technologies) that come with this experiencing of the nonhuman members of the local ecological community. Practice in the field, "open country," is foremost. Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of hardiness and soul primary to human kind. Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility. Out walking, one notices where there is food." Snyder is talking about wild country, but engagement with the nonhuman community and the search for wild food can also be carried out in ordinary neighborhoods.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Wild Harvest

Being an on-call temp worker, I’ve been away from work for three weeks, so it wasn’t until today’s walk that I noticed that apples and shagbark hickory nuts from the trees near my building had become ripe, (so I gathered some). To once again cite Gary Snyder, in an essay on walking, he emphasized how when out walking in the wild, we notice where the food sources are. I find there is something atavistic about that, that puts us in touch with our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Because I work at MSU and get deployed to different places on campus, I make a point of routing my walks through any new buildings I’m in or near, to acquaint myself with where the vending machines are, as well as other important resources like Sparty’s Snack Bars. I also feel a certain harmony with the hunter-gatherer ancestors when I’m scouting those things out.