The Northern Lights forecast says not today, but maybe tomorrow. I check every day, in case the sky looks promising for the night ahead. Satellite images zero in on the northern fjords where I am on an artist residency in Iceland, with hemispheric power of 22.37 GW. And Stan Lee, creator of all that is superpowerful in both hemispheres, died yesterday.
My son, Clarke, a college student in Los Angeles, is upset about Lee. This comes on day 5 of an unraveling braid of events that began with a mass shooting he narrowly averted by minutes, followed the next day by standby emergency evacuation protocols for the fiercest set of fires California has seen in years just outside his dorm, to the next day his sister’s campus on the other side of LA experiencing an active shooter scare, to yesterday additional fires jumping freeways and cropping up closer and closer, to his school becoming an evacuation station for the entire surrounding community, to last night’s campus bomb threat and lock down.
His school sent a notice saying police presence would be high today on campus, the perpetrator is not caught. In class yesterday, the first day back, Clarke said it was just depressing. People crying, people scared. One professor, a classical cellist, brought his instrument to class and spent the whole period just playing for his students, giving them the only gift he could think of, giving them what he had.
There are not many kids who can say, now or ever to come, they were in the same room with one of the greatest storytellers, with one of the greatest believers in humanity, as Stan Lee. A few years after Dave died, I let my son and daughter each choose a special place they wanted to see just with me. Anywhere they wanted. Soph and I explored New York, went to see Wicked, walked through Central Park, ran our hands across fabrics at Mood.
Clarke chose San Diego ComicCon. It took three years to get tickets, but I did. And for four days we immersed ourselves in story, surrounded by people who cared as much about good overpowering evil as we did. We waited in a long line for a long time to get a seat in the hall where Stan Lee was set to talk. He was predictably late. He was old. But he was there. Clarke simply could not stop smiling.
It wasn’t so much the costumes or celebrities, but rather, honestly sharing that space with people who understood that sometimes when life doesn’t deliver, a good story will. In our time at ComicCon, we attended a panel with the writers of Captain America, and they spoke about process, about transitioning Stan Lee’s grasp of transcendent narrative to the big screen. We walked out thinking not so much about the storyline, not about the actors or cinematography, or even the superhero components, but rather about themes.
It was always justice. Hope. Belief. Mustering that tiny hidden fragment of strength when nothing else is left. And certainly in those years directly following Dave’s death and my health scare, and certainly in the years since, and certainly in the past five days, we needed to be reminded that those themes are part of what make humans human, they’re in us, it’s a given we just get to trust, even when we can’t see it in ourselves or in any single soul around us.
That’s part of what’s getting to Clarke, I think. This week has been an assault on what to believe, on what to trust. On top of this, for a man who built his prolific 75 year career on writing, Lee himself stood as an iconic literary convention, a metaphor, a symbol, for my son. I fell in love with Dave, partly because of his willingness to still, even as a grown man, inhabit this space of unabashed love for superheroes and what they stood for--and that all began with Stan Lee.
When Clarke was a small child, it was Dave who introduced him to every single Marvel character, who explained the differences between DC and Marvel, told him about Jack Kirby, who sat cross-legged on the floor with Clarke playing with action figures. He and both kids snuggled on the couch on rainy, wintery Sunday movie days, fast-forwarding through the age-inappropriate parts despite the protests of the Soph and Clarke. Dave and I would often joke, his job was popular culture with the kids, mine was other kinds of culture. And so we did and our kids got the best of both exposures, the best of both of us.
After Dave died, I started taking Clarke to Marvel movie premieres, until he became about a junior in high school and wanted to drive himself and his friends to opening night midnight showings. To keep up our tradition, though, Clarke would go see every movie all over again with me. Because by now I, too, was immersed in this world of Asgard and Infinity Stones and S.H.I.E.L.D.
And so Stan Lee died. And this morning my son will brush his teeth and pack up his laptop and his books. He’ll head to his classes, walk past police, smell smoke, and hope the bomb threat remains just a threat. He’ll try to focus, but I can tell he could care less about his papers and exams.
And I’m checking the satellite map to see if the skies will be clear tonight where I am, halfway across the earth from my kids. Because if I receive one single more text from one of my children in the middle of the night saying there’s a shooter or a bomb or a raging fire, I’m going to need to look up, straight up, and the sky better deliver.
It better bring color and movement and particle fluxes headed for Earth, straight for Earth. It better bring exploding collisions between electrically charged particles and the atmosphere. Those magnetic poles had better catch and hold on tightly to every single piece of light, every single stream, arc, ripple, and shooting piece of glorious sun. The dark, the light, the hope, the justice, the sky, all of the sky — absolutely all of it — had better deliver. * Kalashnikov in the Sun, Pika PressBook Foreword Eventually for us all, days distill to glimpses. The burned out stars of what might have been resolve, giving into a black sky of memory, a night of settling hope, and a found morning that always arrives, advancing light and hours forward into the rest of our lives, whether we’re ready or not. Our eyes open and close the windows of days and in between we reconcile–our mistakes, losses, victories, fears, dreams, families, selves. The dimension of reconciliation depends on the kinds of stories we’ve lived. None of us escape unstained by loneliness, sadness, or hunger for something more. But some of us have survived strings of days shadowed by such unfathomable breakage that the geography of peace–of mind, heart, and country–is an acceptance of shards. And then it becomes a choice–to fling the glass into the sky to cut the wings of birds and slice at the sun, or press them into the grout of our hearts and mosaic what’s left of the world. It is my fourth week in Sierra Leone. It has been many stories from village elders, chiefs, boy soldiers, young girls, bishops, mothers, daughters, fathers, sons…people. Words exchanged around cooking fires, in mud-walled rooms, in meadows under trees, in makeshift classrooms, in zinc shacks, in hotel rooms…it has been mosquito spray, Fanta, tears, kola nuts, rats, police checkpoints, guns, dirt, heat, crowds, noise, people with missing body parts from the countless war-tactic amputations, sun on the ocean at sunset, billows of hand-dyed fabric waving against a sky that witnessed every atrocity, loss, and brutal reverberation of 10 years of war. And in the midst of all this, there were poets, the ones represented in this book who continued to write their stories, as writers do. We held a reading in a makeshift cafe, and ate groundnut cake, and gave words and pieces of ourselves away. Sometimes I think sharing what we’ve lived through is the only truth, the only reconciliation, the only form of finding forgiveness possible. The poets and I talk about this, about how to nestle in amidst the edges of memory. It’s a delicate dance, sidestepping shadow and light, telling and listening. It is my last day in this country. I have one more meeting before racing to make the ferry to the airport. Agnes was kidnapped when she was 14, at the height of Sierra Leone’s civil war, and made the ‘wife’ of a rebel commander. She birthed a child in a swamp in the bush, and finally escaped after seven years. She wanted very much to tell her story, to have it be heard, she hoped I would carry her words back to the other side of the world. She called me a carrier pigeon. We spoke only in poems, at her suggestion. Due to the war, she had access to only occasional schooling, but she knew about poetry, understood its basic mechanics. She spoke the native Krio dialect, some of which I had learned during my stay there, as well as English. We cobbled our poems together. Agnes spoke her poems and had me write them verbatim, then she asked me to answer her poem with a poem of my own to her. This call and response went on for a few hours. Agnes and I sat next to each other in a hotel room in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city. The generator kept going off, so the room would at one point be loud and rumbly with air conditioning blasting, flooded with fluorescent light, then the generator power would get cut, and along with it the lights, so the sound of the pouring rain became the background to our voices as we sat there in the dark of the rainy season, she wrapped in swirls of green and black fabric and matching headdress piled up high. I’d read our poems out loud, running my finger under the words as I read, so she could see how her spoken words looked on paper, how they had landed on the page and become a poem. We’d sit in silence for a few minutes while I thought of and wrote my response. Then we’d scoot next to each other and do the same thing. I’d read my poem, running my finger under the words, then she’d take some time to think, and finally begin to speak and I’d write. two women, from two different corners of the world, talking about war, about our kids, about the color of fabric… Sometimes the stories of those who survive are not as loud as the stories of those who do not, and sometimes stories get lost amidst raising children and finding food and washing clothes. I think about the girls in Sierra Leone, taking care of their babies born in the bush, born from rape, and now the war is over, the girls are often rejected by their families and villages, they have nowhere to go, but yet they don’t abandon the kids, they can even talk about how difficult it is to love these babies, yet they continue scraping by, feeding them somehow, continue carrying them at their hip. And in the back of their minds, the tape keeps rolling, the memories shadow them, but what is heard by the rest of the world becomes background noise, as the young girls become women, become more and more quiet. This book is a revolt against background noise. It’s a palm held up to the face of those who refuse to believe people do horrible things to one another, and more importantly, that they can survive. With grace, strength, and memory. And it’s for those who wake up each morning, in whatever corner of the world they stand, no matter what they’ve endured, who choose to bend down and gently pick up the shards, careful not to cut their fingers, because they need them to brush their children’s hair, and cook breakfast, and kiss their spouses, and wash the dirt off the face of the day–all the things we humans do, wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we live through. And on good days, we listen–to ourselves, and to each other. And we tilt the pieces of glass up to the sun to catch the light. And we call it a good life, the best one we can have under the circumstances we’re given or make or choose. And we call it survival, and we make it our own, and it’s pure, sad, joyful, it’s everything all at once, all the time, it’s the space between the tears, it’s the punctuation of love and hope, it’s the stanzas of loss. It’s poetry. *
Genetics of PlaceEssay from Bruce Haley’s photography monograph, Home Fires, Daylight Publishing Sixty-five million years ago where the San Joaquin Valley sits now, granite slammed into granite, shifted and pushed its way up through the Earth’s surface, forming mountains and creasing the land at the base of those towering peaks, creating a place for rivers to flow with runoff and sediment. Within that basin, one of the most fertile valleys on the planet was formed. A series of tectonic processes molded and remolded the underlying structure of the plates that held the soil in its palm. A repository of rocks filled the inland sea, still nutrient-rich with marine and paleozoic sediments. What exists from before will imprint on what is to come, even in geology. Bruce Haley spent his formative years on a small ranch in the southwestern portion of the Valley, in an area between Lemoore and Riverdale known as the Island District. Not the sort of young man who was easily contained indoors (setting a pattern that would last a lifetime), he ran the land, rode horses and dirt bikes across the fields, and grew up. The land holds memories and footsteps, that while washed away or covered up with new growth, or pavement, or crops, are still there underneath it all. Somewhere. Haley has walked a lot of Earth, and won awards for the way his camera accompanied him along the way, from Burma to Romania to Nevada where it’s possible to wander and never be found. He’s anchored his life in the land, now under vast and unpredictable sky in another valley, this time in the far northeastern corner of California. You reach a certain age and the inventory of experience—of people who have passed through, some staying, some not—and of plans—made and lost and seen through—is a long one. There is an inevitable culling, and looking back and then forward and then back again, reorienting, reorganizing, realigning to correct the dead ends and roadblocks on the map we began drawing of ourselves back in childhood. It’s difficult, perhaps the hardest, fiercest choice of all, to look at the truth. Because truth changes, sometimes daily, and it’s exhausting to keep up with the contextual shifts and altered meanings when we see more of what surrounded us, from parents who we hope tried their best, to reconciling all our own mistakes and misjudgements, all of which stack and accumulate to land us exactly right where we are. It could be worse, it could be better. And that’s the truth. The truth of the San Joaquin Valley is crowded cities, strip malls, abandoned buildings, farm debt, and dust. It’s also still fertile with Class 1 soil, and the major roadways buzz with truck traffic carrying massive amounts of agricultural products that feed the rest of America. It’s corporate farms and big money, it’s small farms and dairies struggling to survive, it’s poverty. It’s generations of home and family, it’s migration out and away, and immigration law ensnarlments. And that’s the truth. We humans and our history are riddled with dichotomies; we spend the years of our life reconciling while navigating that inbetween space between the good and the bad, the sad and the happy, the dreams and realities. ——— The rivers and tributaries lace and interlace, knot up, dry out, flood, and leave their mark. In good years—in good decades—the crops are green and lush and abundant, irrigation snaking its way as man-made streams mirroring the Earth’s, flowing, abundant, life-giving. In hard years dust particles veil the valley and blur the view out across the horizon, out across what one thinks they see, have always seen, or know. Everyday begins with a line. Sometimes, through the smog, or early dawn haze, it’s a blur, other times sharp like a pen line drawn straight across paper. Tire tracks wind and we work to understand the boundaries of home. Across the American West, numberless dreams of the 19th century resolved themselves in the San Joaquin Valley. Hammer blow by hammer blow, foot by foot, railroad ties stapled steel to Earth. Picks and shovels and sledgehammers rang on metal. This is the thing of myth and legend. Standard gauge rail line arcs up and over and around, and less than a century later, black lines of asphalt draw themselves up and over and around, rows of trees, rows of tilled soil, plow ridge and furrow, crop borders, fence lines, property lines, county lines, bread lines, immigration lines, pipe lines, telephone lines, tree line, skyline, electrical line, assembly line, water line, and always, the only thing that is always, the horizon. We become invisible. Then try to make sense of our life by looking at every single thing around us. Now, this Valley is a place where rain is luck, and politics, fate. And the truth, like most truths, complicated. Tell it like it is. Strike slip motion formed the San Andreas Fault. Strike the rail tie. Slip on water management. Watch the momentum of loss. ——— Here and there. Then and now. The intersection is constantly shifting, and this is the line Bruce walks with his images. Where he grew up, the rural roads and farm parcels still hold memories of his 10 year old self, but the land itself has vastly changed over the past 50 years. The wild and silent rock faces, the looming mountain peaks of the remote valley where he lives now (and which will be the subject of Volume II, forthcoming), seem to still be owned by the Earth. You can look out for miles and it’s a view that could have been seen 100 years ago. Perhaps that this rare corner of the state is characteristically rooted in its own ancient memory is what drew him there, to land, to build home in his adult years. You can look at images from these two bodies of work – Bruce’s photographic explorations of his past and his present – and see through his eyes the same gray sky, a similar narrative of forgetting and remembering. The wistful bend of winter tree limbs arc like hard memories, the kind from our childhood we try to forget but can’t. Panning out across the San Joaquin Valley travelling 65 mph along highway 198 or 33 or 41 (where Bruce’s father Ernie Haley had the auto accident that eventually took his life), the pumpjacks, the trash piled up in places, the abandoned buildings, and even the path of powerlines alter the view. Things change in this life. Sometimes they break and can’t be put back together again. But the haze and rose-tinged light, the bluffs off in the distance, the endless dirt roads if you peel off the main and follow the tire tracks to somewhere…all of that remains year after dusty year. Dairies stand empty, or are in the process of being demolished. The basketball hoop standing like a sentinel is missing its net. A puddle of water accumulated at the shoulder mirrors the sky, as if asking for rain. Wouldn’t matter if the clouds dumped for days. Water resource management is embedded and embroiled in policies that are often described as labyrinthine, and which have knotted up on themselves for decades. You pull on one thread, and it only tightens another – surface water, groundwater, aquifer, pumping, land subsidence. So, hopeless? No. But you cannot hide from the past. There’s a theory in trauma work that the body remembers. There’s a whole lot of data on cell memory and elevated disease rates in trauma survivors, manifesting in every room in the body. Cells band together to force the remembering, a form of protection, maybe. Damage control. And often, just plain damage showing up in the form of autoimmune disorders or cancer. We remember. The soil remembers. Our skin remembers. Our histories carry forward and play out in relationships and choices; the San Joaquin Valley’s history holds our footfalls and embeds them in the ancient hard clay still impacted under the surface of that region. ——— There’s a lot I don’t understand about the world, but there’s a lot I still believe in. Home in its purest sense is a lot like a Haley photograph. In his images, there is no digital artifice – nothing added, nothing removed, no multiple exposure stacking or stitching, and no cropping. It is what it is. He either gets it with the press of the shutter, or he doesn’t. That moment is there because he sees it and in seeing it, he holds it, and makes it last. Nothing lasts in this world, positively nothing – except the split-second truth of the moment we’re in, when we’re in it. Everything converges at that point, our memories and all the history holding us and the Earth. No promise is ever truly kept, not by the Earth, not by any single one of us. Nothing lasts. Except what was lost and then is found again. Memories cycle like that. And if we’re lucky, and if we look for it, history is constantly cueing the future, concrete and abstraction, linear and emotional intermingling. Perhaps it’s that way with the San Joaquin Valley. The patches of desolate, dusty land lingering out to the horizon still hold the fertility of new growth, whether from seeds planted or stubborn dreams. The soil still carries remnants of an ancient sea, and the tectonic plate fissures are still visible, still waiting to heave a sigh again and ripple the surface, and our future with it. One of the characteristics of both the French Impressionist and American Tonalist painters was an emphasis on atmosphere, that which is implied, felt, in what is unclear. The haze carries hints of stories that the viewer then composes. Bruce sometimes quotes Camille Pissarro who said, “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” More than probably any other artist, Bruce draws deep inspiration from Andrew Wyeth, a man who spent long, solitary days wandering the land near his home and capturing its essence in paint. The world was out there, exotic and waiting to be discovered, but it was the earth right there directly underfoot, the quiet pastures, the neighbors in the farm next door, the utilitarian and tumbledown structures against snow and hill and sky, that held enough wild beauty and insinuation of what it means to be human by looking at the land, to capture Wyeth’s attention for almost the entirety of his career. “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show,” Wyeth once observed. In many ways the photographs in this book pivot around that thought, fragments of story of Bruce’s childhood, of building a life forward, of home that is made as well as found; scattershot sounds and sights carried in his mind from famine in Somalia and wars in Afghanistan and Burma he covered for years; glimpses of drought and man-altered landscapes; birds overhead, sheet glass motionless sloughs reflecting the sky. And particles of light sifting through the dust to wash pastel as far as the eye can see. Anyone walking alongside Bruce when he heads off-road and toward the horizon, camera in hand, eyes panning noticing the loose watercolor palette and trusting the light, would wonder at such silence.