Saturday, November 26, 2011

intimate geography

Three months in a new city, a new job, new circumstances of life, and there has not been a lot of time to reflect.  In California I got used to seeing far: up towards the hills, down onto the thoroughly settled streets below, across the water, the consoling twinkle of the Bay Bridge lights, the contours of Marin, the bold geography -- human and physical -- reassuringly legible, and after a few years, comprising a map I held and knew inside myself.  I like to let my eye move over these distances, and there is a special freedom gained, a healing salve received from these views and the many transformations and contrasts they contain, which take one out of oneself, supplying the energy of an exchange with a dedicated interlocutor.

In Portland, there are views to be had of the forest that surrounds the city -- to the east beyond Mt Tabor and out towards Mt Hood, and, from the westward looking window of my apartment, beyond the tamed, variegated leafiness of trees that line streets and shade houses, you can just see the top of a dark ridge of forest that lies somewhere on the other side of the Willamette River.  The climate and ecology here, even within the city, feel like they are of the forest.  My road is thick with wet fallen leaves; only the asphalt thwarts the regenerative processes of the forrest floor.

West from my window.

There has not been a lot of time for the regenerative reflection and leisurely wandering of the eye or mind, nor, alas, for the cello.  I now realize even more how my learning to play the cello was bound up with the writing of my dissertation.  The combination of relative solitude and a peculiarly singular focus in the dissertation-writing period (which I'm not necessarily harking back to as idyllic from this vantage point; it also bred its own moments of difficulty and dissatisfaction)  happily admitted another idiosyncratically singular focus into my near-daily life--the cello.

The cello also became bound up with the growing sense of connection and at-home-ness I felt living in the Bay Area.  I realized at some point in California--at a time that I think coincides with the beginning of learning to play the cello--that I was particularly vulnerable to, and derived great pleasure from, inserting myself into, or allowing inside of myself, stories and experiences that all laid down some deeper or more densely braided sense of connection to this place.  One simple instance, which never failed in giving me that pleasure, was taking the road from Berkeley to El Cerrito to where I had my cello lessons -- Colusa Avenue that winds northwards, probably about mid-way between the hills and the bay.  I simply loved knowing the way, possessing an experience, confirmed regularly, of everyday life against the backdrop of this landscape.  After the early years of myopic preoccupation in a place to which I had no links, personal or historical, other than to the university that welcomed me there, I had finally acquired a sense of something larger that I could at once hold inside myself and find myself participating in.  (I'm sure such a sense is a rather fundamental psychological need that must be met in order for us to experience fulfilling self-realization -- but it's curious how in the case of my years in California, all of this found a vivid articulation through my relationship to landscape and geography.)   

There were other things too, of course: playing the cello, I met Matthew, who had been born and lived all his life in California, and who is someone in whom the past lives vividly and so close at hand and as an abiding constituent of the present -- something which comes through in his stories -- and was one of the first things I noticed about him.  Through him, more of the map and more of the past of Berkeley and of California came alive to me.

Before I went to Yosemite for the first time in late spring 2009, Matthew told me a hilarious story of a visit of his own there, with two musicians who were brothers, and an older eccentric friend of theirs, Howie, one of Berkeley's cast of colourful characters (who I did then once meet, and who sadly died last year).  

In the room where I had my cello lessons, on the wall above the place where Matthew's own cello stood elegantly in its velvet-lined wooden box, was a striking photograph of a woman smiling and seeming to call out with joy from the picture.  She was leaning at an angle of about 45 degrees with her arms stretched out above her head to another large slab of rock above -- so that it almost looked as if she hanging or dangling from the granite.  The woman in the photo was Margaret Rowell, Matthew's cello teacher, and the picture was taken in Yosemite.  The photograph expressed an energy which seemed to come from the unlikely opposing forces captured in that instant.  There was a tension in the stretched body, but also an ease and delight.  The angle she was stood at was so unlikely that it looked as if it could have only lasted for a moment, but was, in fact, perfectly supported by the rock above and below.  The portrait was taken relatively close-up, but the scale of the rocky surroundings is still palpable, and the photograph spoke at once of the body's smallness against this backdrop of its liberation and life.

Yesterday was the first day that I have allowed myself to wander in Portland.  I went to Washington Park where the city begins to meet the forest.  I looked for the views of Mt St Helen's and Mt Hood, but either the cloud or the trees, or my own poor orientation, obscured them.  Then I went to Powell's Books (the largest independent used & new bookstore in the world, occupying a whole city block in downtown Portland).  I found myself in the photography section, looking at books of Yosemite, and found there an edition of John Muir's 1912 text "The Yosemite," in an edition with photographs by Galen Rowell, the son of Margaret, a climber, explorer and photographer, who had died in a plane crash in 2002.  The book was dedicated to "My mother Margaret Avery Rowell, whose lifelong passion for Yosemite started with a visit by open touring car in 1916."  I recalled Matthew also telling me of how Margaret played cello in the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite.  I obviously never knew these people and my links to them are vague and fragile, negligible, even, but suddenly happening upon these connections again yesterday was deeply restorative -- wandering reflection, the eye traversing distances, and entering into a dialogue that extends over decades and landscapes and enters, for a moment, into an exchange with the stories of lives that were closely wed to those landscapes.

After these three months of feeling like I had been acting only on one plane, with only the most proximate visible to me, feeling like only one thing is of any consequence--survival in this new working situation--it was revivifying to let the eye and  mind wander, and to see the transformations and connections that compose a larger picture of distances and proximities, and to let the energy and value that we attach to some of the more distant things let itself be felt in life again.

Galen Rowell, Sunset After a Storm, Yosemite Valley, 1970.
Galen Rowell, Clearing Storm over El Capitan, 1973.

From John Muir's The Yosemite
"These beautiful days do not exist as mere pictures--maps hung upon the walls of memory to brighten at times when touched by association or will... They saturate themselves into every part of the body and live always."


Krugthethinker said...

This is so intensely beautiful--the writing, the experiences, the photographs. I am so happy that you had a day to wander and hope there will be many more soon! XOXO

ellisjardepawa said...

Can't seem to find "comments" link, so I'll piggy-back onto this one. I, my jr. year of high school--in Livermore, circa 1963, had a semester's worth of Saturday group 'cello lessons from Margaret Rowell at San Francisco State--[was it every Saturday? every other? 1x/mo?]. At some point I did see that photograph of Mme. Rowell (we didn't call her that--I forget how we addressed her. Have attempted to find an online posting of it without success. This is as close as I've come, your blog. Do you know of any online copy of it? Wasn't it published in National Geographic at some point?

Any leads on finding a copy appreciated.

Lisbeth W. Jardine
Port Angeles, WA