Sera and the Wildernext

by George Sibley on April 5, 2011

There are maybe a dozen of us, sitting on folding chairs at the center of three empty acres of old cracked concrete, listening to a young man and the wind play on a long wooden flute, and watching a dancer courting the concrete.

She lies on it, slithers along it, lays her cheek on it. But the concrete is unmoved. Finally she rises and walks off into the vast flatness of the slab, past the brown stickery weeds growing out of the cracks, walks to where its flat horizontal plane ends in a long vertical plane of more concrete, while overhead a flight of geese honks toward the horizon, a distant train answers from a crossing somewhere off toward Commerce City, and the cirrus-streaked sky is what it always is, everywhere.

Watching the dancer trying to humanize this vast forlorn and empty place, my mind wanders off to something Ed Abbey wrote back in the 1970s — a newspaper article someone sent me. I carried it around for years, folded up in my first copy of “Desert Solitaire,” until that book wandered off as books do, the clipping with it.

It was a short essay about a visit to an abandoned pier or dock area somewhere in New Jersey, where Abbey lived and worked before he moved full time to the Great American Desert. The nut of the piece was his observation that that abandoned, filthy, polluted, derelict industrial remnant rotting into the water was the real American wilderness. Or the new American wilderness, something like that: basically, it was an American wilderness — a made-in-America wilderness. It was not the kind of place around which anyone would think of making a “wilderness park,” but at that point in its devolution it met the basic “uninhabited by humankind” criteria of wilderness.

To say anymore would probably be putting words in his mouth — a good way to get haunted by his acolytes, some of whom probably have that little essay laminated. But back when I first read it, that little essay made me think about my own life — a little defensively. That’s the unsettling quality of Abbey’s work, like this dancer’s work too.

At the time I was — so I thought — living on the edge of the real American wilderness, up in the mountains of Colorado, a quarter-mile or so from the boundary of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Officially Designated Wilderness Area. We were winter caretakers six miles beyond the end of plowed-out civilization. Me, my partner in parenting, our young son, and eventually our even younger daughter, who is now the dancer trying to engage, embrace the three-acre concrete slab.

Speaking only for myself (a luxury the dancer didn’t have then), I was there for the same basic reason that Robinson Jeffers sent messages back from out in the middle of nowhere most of his life:

“…for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.”

From my perspective, that pretty well says where we were, and why. I did not delude myself that we were “self-sufficient” in any meaningful way: we packed in a lot of canned goods and dry staples every fall, earned mostly by working construction on houses that represented the ultimate tentacular sprawl of “the monster,” and what I mostly did while there was try to write things that would sell in “the thickening center” from which I imagined myself to be in a kind of Byronic romantic retreat. It was not what today I would call an economically, philosophically or environmentally sustainable situation.

But that place was where daughter Sera was born, out of the Perseid meteor shower one August night. In her early years, we imagined Sera to be a “Heidi,” a child of the high places, the still pure and unspoiled places. And for a time, that seemed accurate: the first time we took her to Denver in the summer, she all but collapsed, basically passing out on the bed through the hot afternoons. I imagined her becoming a permanent resident of the High Country, like me.

But at some point, she — moved on. Moved down, I should say, down into the thickening center. She kept to the mountains into her college years, following Norman McLean to the river that ran through Missoula and the university there. She majored in dance — the daughter of two not very successful artists who did not learn from our bad examples.

But while there, she learned about a dance teacher sat Smith College in Massachusetts that intrigued her, and through a masterful act of National Student Exchange wangling, she managed a senior year at Smith on Montana in-state tuition. And after graduating, she followed her mentor to “Monster Central,” moving not just to New York City, but uptown to Harlem.

She was there to help get a very multicultural dance company started, and effort that ebbed and flowed for several years — she actually got praised, by name, in a New York Times dance review once, some kind of a benchmark for young dancers. But it was also where she began her flirtation with that other American wilderness Abbey wrote about so briefly, the made-in-America wilderness of uninhabited ruins exhausted and abandoned by industrial civilization. Our “wildernext.”

Dancers in New York need some kind of paying work to support their habit, and she karma’d her way into a job at Battery Park — the extension of the original park, up the side of the island, an enlargement of the island literally built on the rubble dug out for the basements of Manhattan’s skyscrapers and dumped in the Hudson River. It started as a summer temp job, but she discovered an affinity with plants, and on the strength of that, plus her affinity for working well with others, was invited back the next summer. And when the dance company finally ebbed terminally, the Park took her on full time, benefits and everything, with the title of “horticulturalist” — a dancer with one survey course in biology, but a good mind and good OJT.

While working at the park, she got a crash course in “reinhabiting ruins” on and after 9/11. She was working that day — hit the ground when the second plane went over the park full throttle a few hundred feet above them. The rest of that day and for the next month, she worked through the death-snow of asbestos and gypsum that fell on everything, turning the lower city into a temporary ruin dominated by the seven-story mountain of debris at its center. She’s one of several thousand “9/11 heroes” named in a memorial book the city created.

But — living in New York, living in Harlem. Jeez. I visited her there a couple of times. The best thing about the neighborhood she lived in was that it was in fact a neighborhood. A busy one. It was not dangerous, in the way we outlanders think of New York as being dangerous, because there was always someone around, someone watching, loafing, listening, commenting; it would have been embarrassing to try to commit a street crime there (although bodies — ODs — occasionally turned up in the little park across the street from her building). It would have been easy to find a fight if you wanted one, but nobody seemed to be really looking for one. It was my first experience at being an invisible, ignored minority. Trying to sleep up in her fifth-floor apartment (the elevator often worked), with both the humidity and the temperature of that heat-island hovering in the eighties at midnight, I reminded myself that at least it wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood; it was too damn busy, too damn noisy to be dangerous, but damn I wished the guys drinking and yucking it up down by the goddamn dumpster would just shut up for a bit …

The old apartment building she lived in was handsome, with once-polished marble in the foyer, and the elevator was probably once the wonder of the block — but it was the same marble, same elevator a century later. The walls of the apartment had that layered look that old apartment buildings get after the consequences of scores of residents have been painted over and over again.

Going out in the morning, I wasn’t depressed by the city, I was oppressed. To me, it was a city of stone ruins — ruins still inhabited, ruins even loved by their inhabitants. But it was stones that had been floated into place on the strength of dreams, visions and hopes that were either worn out or getting that way; the stones no longer floated in place; they weighed. To me, the city felt heavy with a past that was wearing out. It was infiltrated in a lot of places by tall alien invaders of glass and aluminum, but the overall feel to me was a weight of stone that was no longer buoyed by a future.

Walking around downtown, I remember coming around a corner to see, there before us, the marble entrance to one of the older Manhattan bridges, built when the city still had its magical future — a magnificent structure that seemed to say, this is not just a bridge, this is a monument to the idea of crossing. Crossing to what? Well, today, it crosses to Brooklyn, Queens, wherever, but that hardly warrants such a monumental entrance.

It was the same throughout the city, for me. The Empire State Building — again the city’s tallest skyscraper — is as graceful as a muscular mountain of stone can get, a monument to reaching (as opposed to the blocky arrogant monuments to in-your-face bigness that now don’t even exist as ruins). But it is a monument to a time when “empire” was still considered worth reaching for, not yet a dirty word. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with its cathedral towers, and went below it to the old Brooklyn Ferry dock, where Walt Whitman’s lines to “Mannahatta” are inscribed to the fabled skyline across the water — but inscribed on a fence, not a gateway.

What did Sera see here? But I remembered my father paying an early fall visit to the cabin we were living in up at our place six miles beyond plowed-out civilization. He saw no romance, no vision; he just saw a kind of decrepit cabin, surrounded by weeds and woods and mountains, where we were proposing to raise his grandson. “It’s dirty,” he later told my sister, who was traveling with him. So why should I expect or hope to see what my daughter was seeing in this slow heavy settling at the thickening center?

What I could really see was that she was working really hard to stay there. From 125th Street in Harlem where she had a sublet, it was about seven miles down to Battery Park. When the weather permitted, she bicycled down the parkway along the Hudson; other days she took the subway. If the weather turned really miserable while she was at work, she might have to lug her bicycle home on the subway. Just getting to work struck me as a day’s work. And when the summer air squatted over the city and didn’t move for days, squeezing the shit out of thousands of bags and dumpsters of not-yet-collected garbage, and even cold baths and wet sheets at night couldn’t keep the body temperature under 100 for long when the whole damn heat island was over 100 … It was a hard life, far harder than anything I had ever experienced in my retreat to the mountains.

Somewhere out of all that — mostly out of the park and her work there, I am guessing, but maybe also out of the mountain of 9/11 debris on top of the growing weight at the laboring heart of an industrial civilization growing older — out of all that, she hatched the idea of going back to school, and next thing we knew she — a dance major — was applying to graduate schools in Landscape Architecture. And she got accepted, back in Colorado at the University of Colorado-Denver campus.

Where she now seems to be evolving toward some kind of a vision for the reinhabiting, the resurrection of places like the wilderness created by the world from which Ed Abbey and her father were in retreat. The late afternoon event on the concrete slab was the culmination of an independent study in which she was applying a dancer’s perspective to a place similar to Abbey’s piers — a place worn out and left behind by the forward march of America, a made-in-America wilderness that was what was left of a row of abandoned warehouses after two of them had burned, opening the space up to the sky and the rain of nature in the form of precip, wind and seeds. “For the cold, abandoned feeling already present in the space,” she said in her paper about the study, “what is offered is an excellent starting point for seeing the human body in a landscape where the code of industry is written.”

In Abbey’s terms, she is exploring the wilderness — but a rougher wilderness than Arches or Maroon Bells-Snowmass. In Jeffers’ terms, she is engaging the monster — but at the end of its age, not its beginning, and not as an adversary, but as a researcher wondering how it can be restored to some kind of life.

In the spring term, she will be designing “Roots,” a journal the Landscape Architecture program puts out. The theme for “Roots” this year is “Forgotten Spaces.” “There are some places that cling to life through decay,” the prospectus for the journal says. “They exist, not as they once did, but rather in a suspended state where neglect and time have displaced their former purpose.” Such places (like the three-acre concrete slab) “are peppered throughout the urban landscape and beyond, are quite likely undesirable, and assuredly have untapped potential.”

One July weekend when she was only five, Sera and I hiked through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Officially Designated Wilderness Area, to visit friends in Aspen — I’m not sure what I was thinking, a five-year-old on that kind of hike. We were under-prepared for the amount of snow that was still on West Maroon Pass that year, and the nastiness of a July afternoon snowstorm that caught us; I had to posthole up to the pass, carrying Sera on my back, to the shelter of a rock on the other side where I put her in a sleeping bag for a while to warm up. I was too terrorized myself by my own unpreparedness for how really nasty it had gotten to feel cold or tired.

Warm again in the woods below the pass, the storm transformed into a cold but gentle mountain night. We were full of the exhilarating gaiety you feel when you realize you’ve done something stupid but gotten away with it. We laughed when I charred our wet socks trying to dry them out, laughed at the new pair I made for her by cutting the fingers off an old pair of wool gloves.

But I can’t help but think what a relatively tame wilderness mine is today, compared to these abandoned, poisoned, haunted “urban wildernesses” for which she is beginning to develop some kind of a still-embryonic vision for restoration, resurrection, reinhabitation — but by some new “code” for the land, not the “code of industry” in which the straight line, flat plane and monstrous rectangular enclosure dominate, constructing an efficiency that might inadvertently starve whatever it is in humans that leads them to dance.

It is both a proud and forlorn moment for a father, to realize that, somewhere along the line, after your years of tending, extending and pretending to lead, show, set examples, et cetera, your offspring have sprung off into some totally new and unanticipated arena of life, where you are only going to be able to watch from the near edge, wondering what the hell they are doing — and marveling as they do it. The wildernext.

Senior correspondent George Sibley is a writer, father and retired educator living and working in Gunnison, Colo.

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lou skannon April 8, 2011 at 6:26 pm

a new definishun of wilderness. i’ll betcha most people don’t think about it — but sometimes when i’m in an area not officially designated i will stop and think: people don’t come here, much, or often. it’s “wilderness”. B T W George, were you wintertime caretakers up in Crystal? (a job offered me ‘n spouse, which, in hindsight, we shoulda done)

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