Thursday, February 14, 2008


A couple of weeks ago, when the snow was at its deepest, I walked up the hill in the middle pasture after chores. By that time in the afternoon, I am often trudging through my thoughts, barely noticing anything around me. Part of the pleasure of chores is that they happen in the same light every day, though the hour changes as the days lengthen and contract. No matter what I’m doing, I am propelled outside by the falling light, which means that I’m often doing chores mid-paragraph. I imagine that the animals are mid-paragraph too, for we are all just going about our business together.

Coming back down the hill, plunging knee-deep through the snow, I stopped. There was the print of a bird’s wings. From their angle and size, I guessed it was a barn owl. I looked across the pasture and saw a squirrel’s track, which ended at the wing-print — no sign of a struggle, just an abrupt vanishing. Going up the hill, I had walked past these marks without even noticing them.

A week later, all the snow had melted, which left me thinking about a question of ephemerality. That wing-print was a solid fact, the remains of a bone-jarring collision between two animals. One life ended there, and another was extended, but the only trace is in my mind. If I had come down the hill in the fog of thought that surrounded me while I was doing the chores, I would never have seen the print of those powerful wings and they would have left no mark in me.

I have grown used to the idea that nearly everything around me in nature happens unobserved and unrecorded. A snowy winter sometimes retains a transcript, but even those are rare. The bills of animal mortality are almost completely invisible otherwise. Who thrives, who dies, there is no accounting at all, only the fact of thriving and dying.

That wing-print allowed me to glimpse the uncompromising discipline of nature. But it will stand in my mind as the model of an almost perfect ephemerality, a vision of life itself. The snow has melted away, taking with it the squirrel’s track and the arc of those wings and my own track up the hill and the burnished spots where the horses rolled in the snow.

February 3, 2008
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

To Drive or Not to Drive: That Was Never the Question

Every now and then I meet someone in Manhattan who has never driven a car. Some confess it sheepishly, and some announce it proudly. For some it is just a practical matter of fact, the equivalent of not keeping a horse on West 87th Street or Avenue A. Still, I used to wonder at such people, but more and more I wonder at myself.

I’ve been driving now for some 40 years, right through what will come to be thought of as the heart of the Internal Combustion Era. There is no learnable skill — aside perhaps from reading and writing — that is more a part of me than driving. My senses have completely engulfed the automobile, like the tendrils of a vining plant. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, and the automobile has completely encased my senses.

That first time behind the wheel, probably in 1965, I could feel myself manipulating the machine through an unimaginable series of linkages with a clumsy device called the steering wheel. The car — a Dodge from the late 1950s, without power steering — felt more like a fallout shelter than something mobile. I had very little sense of where it began or ended. I was keenly aware of what it prevented me from seeing. A highway was just a linear succession of blind spots. As for backing up, how could you really trust what the mirrors told you unless you got out and checked? The transmission — manual, of course — was an instrument of betrayal. To drive down the road, those first few times, was to lurch through a series of unrelated states of being.

And now? I understand the richness of the phrase “second nature.” The car’s mirrors are no longer a Cubist experiment in perception. They have joined together in a panoramic view of the past, of where I have just been. I feel the road through the tires’ treads as though they were my fingerprints. When I learned to drive, I was taught to prize continuity above everything: to feel the drift of the car, to understand inertia, to ease into and out of a stop, to emulate the smooth orbital passage of the planet. Speed has turned into an extension of my consciousness.

How “natural” all this is becomes apparent when you realize how few people — still far, far too many but still miraculously few — are killed in accidents every year. If there were not some profound intuitive fit between us and these machines, we would be dying by the millions. Yes, there are too many people who drive while drunk or fall prey to road rage. But for most of us our behavior in cars reveals our innate orderliness, our willingness to get along with one another while still, soundly, keeping a wary eye out for the drivers around us.

Driving is the cultural anomaly of our moment. Someone from the past, I think, would marvel at how much time we spend in cars and how our geographic consciousness is defined by how far we can get in a few hours’ drive and still feel as if we’re close to home. Someone from the future, I’m sure, will marvel at our blindness and at the hole we have driven ourselves into, for we are completely committed to an unsustainable technology.

And it has all come to pass in just a couple of generations. My dad was born in the mid-1920s, just as the automotive moment was becoming inevitable. And now here I am, always wondering how much longer we will be driving, certain that every time I start the engine in my diesel pickup I am firing up a dinosaur technology. You could ask for no clearer sign of the bind we are in than Mitt Romney’s campaign promise to reinvigorate Detroit in an era of $100-a-barrel oil. America is full of people like me, who remember when gas was 21 cents a gallon, which is the price of admission to climate change.

I see that now. But try explaining that to me when I was 13 and learning to drive on the back roads of Iowa.

January 21, 2008
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

1 comment:

Maya Blackmun said...

What I was hoping to talk with as a group some week is why, by my account, the first piece, "A Track in the Snow," worked so well and why the second, "To Drive or Not to Drive" felt flat.

I am a big fan of Klinkenborg's writing, especially for "sense of place." As someone who grew up in Southern California, I've found he's one of the few who can wrie about the area without falling into cliches.