11. Return to Bangor Mall
We get to Bangor, we eat dinner outdoors, appropriately next to a fountain, at a burger and beer joint downtown. We get up at 6:15, have the Comfort Inn’s “continental breakfast” (about which one might ask, “Which continent?”) and head out into Mall World, where the Comfort Inn is conveniently located. At 7 a.m. on Sunday sd have the place all to ourselves. Once again we park in the Borders parking lot. Vaughn gets out her large-format camera and her tripod. It’s quiet. She sets to work and I wander off with the digital point ‘n’ shoot in my pocket. I know not to get in the way when she’s working.
This time I go past the low fence that makes a visual boundary between the parking lot and – should I call it nature? I head down the slope into the tall grass, toward the water, wade through some high weeds that stick burrs to my socks, and small trees and vines and cattails. As I get closer to the water, in a spot where it narrows and is hidden by plant life, I flush three cormorants out of their peaceful resting spot. With a flurry of wings they burst out of the reeds and come to a stop in the middle of the pond, where they float, looking around at me warily. I guess I made them come out and start their day before they wanted to, but they aren’t too upset about it. They’ll be part of Vaughn’s pictures. A good thing. I start photographing too, the reverse of what I shot last time, the view looking up from the edge of the stream. The works of man, in the form of Staples and Borders, loom over cattails and bushes and saplings. The stores are definitely elsewhere now, from this point of view. The onramp of I-95 defines one end of the valley, but from below, the passing cars and trucks cannot be seen. I can’t be more than fifty yards from the fence, probably less, and I’m in a completely different space. Certainly a person up there on the pavement could not feel, even from that short distance away, what it’s like to be down here at the water surrounded by plants. I have no sense that this is anything but nature, despite what’s around it. I keep working my way along the bank, pushing aside the plant life. There is no evidence of a path; it must be that no one comes down to the water. And why? When the walk to this beauty is so short? What’s stopping them, or stopping me on most days except now, when this project has given me a license to think well, it’s for my writing, it’s my work, I need to get closer. But really. Why stand at the fence, which is just a wooden guard rail two feet high, and act as though it were an impassable barrier, a pane of plate glass against which I can only press my nose and think oh look, nature, if only I could get to it? There’s no secret; just walk.
Another cormorant flies in and lands on the narrower neck of water below Wendy’s. The last time we were here, I saw a woman who worked there methodically and unhurriedly sweeping the edge of the parking lot with a broom, an oddly domestic scene as if this were her side yard, above the brook, and she were the homeowner devoted to her home place. I wish I’d been able to photograph that, but she was too far away for anyone to notice her in a picture, and I didn’t try.
I’m beginning to see Mall World as land rather than pavement, made up of gradually rolling rises and lower spots between them. Macy’s is perched on high ground, Wendy’s is a little lower but still well above the stream. I can almost imagine the mall back to its former life as a cow pasture.
I move on, and while I’m looking at another potential photograph by the side of the pond, three small birds fly up and light in a tall shrub near me, ten feet away at most. At first I think they’re goldfinches, but because they don’t go away I get a good look at them and I see that they’re smaller and plumper, not as yellow as goldfinches, with longer narrower beaks. They know I’m there – they visibly look at me – but I hold still and they don’t mind me. I’d love to take their picture but they’re much too tiny to show up in a photo and I’d probably scare them away by pointing the camera. It seems to me that this place is almost a wildlife refuge. Odd but maybe true. Refuge from the encroachment of people. But these birds, whatever they’re called, are letting me share the space with them and this seems like a touching willingness on the part of nature, like a message that if we would just learn to play nicely with it instead of breaking everything, the natural world would still be ready to let us. Honestly, how anthropomorphic can I get, and what business do I have saying anything about scientific method?
For two and a half hours we move around the area taking pictures. Slowly the sun gets higher, a few cars show up in the lot. The café at Borders has opened and people are coming to drink coffee there. They don’t walk over to the edge and enjoy the view; they park their cars and go right inside. As I’m photographing the stream coming out of the culvert under Bangor Mall Blvd., a woman walks by on the sidewalk above. She doesn’t notice me. Or maybe she pretends not to notice me, because a person doesn’t belong down there.
Eventually we decide we’ve done what we came for; we check out and head back, taking with us a Saturday copy of the Bangor Daily News. In its sports section is a story headed “Projects can hurt restoration of salmon,” and lo and behold it’s about what happens downstream from the very place we’ve been. A small stream called Meadow Brook runs down from the mall area to the Penobscot River, and when you pave over the land, more water flows into the stream; when there’s more flow, more sediment goes downstream and it builds up at the mouth of the brook. Salmon come up the Penobscot (score one for nature), which is a tidal river. They enter the brook at high water, but when the tide goes out, because the mouth of the brook has silted up, the salmon find themselves trapped in a pool they can’t get out of, and they die there. The hero of the story is a state biologist named Richard Dill, who waded through multiple layers of bureaucracy and got the necessary permits to dig out the channel.
The next day, at home, I consult the bird book. Those little yellowish birds are Wilson’s warblers. Or rather, “Wilson’s warbler” is what we call them; what they are is something else again, something that cannot be said. Walker Percy wrote a wonderful essay called “Metaphor as Mistake,” one of my all-time favorites, about this very thing: why it is so crucial and so desirable that language should always fall short in its effort to say what something is. The name we give to that plump, yellowish bird, Percy would say, is laid alongside the experience of the bird, and the gap between the name and the experience-in-the-moment is the space in which knowing lives. In Percy’s childhood, a hunting guide once identified a certain thrilling bird as a “blue-dollar hawk,” to young Walker’s delight. His father later corrected the name to “blue darter” – much to his disappointment. The effort at greater literal accuracy somehow diminished the experience of the bird. The use of the “wrong” symbol (“blue dollar”) had somehow preserved the “so distinctive and incommunicable something” (68) that struck the boy unforgettably when he saw the hawk fly. As Percy says in his essay, “There must be a space between name and thing, for otherwise the private apprehension is straitened and oppressed. What is required is that the thing be both sanctioned and yet allowed freedom to be what it is.” (73)
Metaphor, by definition, is “G” thinking. A metaphor calls something what it is not – “all flesh is grass”; it creates new meaning by putting heterogeneous things together. Maruyama is no critic of art or literature, but I think he’d like John Donne, or the Surrealists, because they’re “G” thinkers all the way. What Percy is saying in “Metaphor as Mistake,” at least as I read it, is that language itself works because words fall short. Between the one who urgently wants to know (“What is that bird?”) and the one who gives the name (“That’s a blue-dollar hawk”) there can be the moment of intersubjectivity because language cannot say it all. “That which I privately apprehend . . . you validate by naming in such a way that I am justified in hoping that you ‘mean’ that very ineffable thing.” (73) Meaning, then, is a relationship and a mystery; it is something absolutely distinct from measurement. Or to put it another way, metaphor allows the river to own itself.
Pretty slick, I think, pleased with myself. Then a minute later: yeah, but how to apply this? And how the hell do you bridge the gap between that and science? Or is there not a gap after all?
One of the few parts of Robert Rosen’s argument that has actually occurred to me before is about scientific measurement. In natural science, when you measure something, you tend to do it by means of some equipment that takes the place of human senses. Not only because your instruments can perceive something your unaided senses can’t, but because the measuring instrument cuts out the interference and potential distortion of human subjectivity. If we can all agree on the units and precisely calibrate our measuring instruments to a known standard, it doesn’t matter who operates them: the measurements will be objectively accurate. The consequences of this ability to measure precisely, using universal standards, are everywhere in our lives. It’s hard to imagine how different our way of life would be if we didn’t have this capacity. Just for starters, the industrial revolution would never have happened.
But at the same time, though no one wants to give up all the inventions and discoveries we benefit from, there’s a problem or two lurking in the phenomenon of scientific measurement. It’s easy to over-value it, to forget that uncalibrated human awareness might be capable of picking up something crucial which the instrument can’t detect. It’s too easy to assume that what is measurable equals what exists. The measuring instrument itself may be objective, as “objective” is defined by the rules of the game, but it was designed by people and it embodies some theory of how things work, some concept of what needs to be measured in the first place; it excludes some other picture of the world. It’s not that scientists don’t know these things, the problem lies more with the rest of us, when we don’t think critically about science. Right? I’m once again aware of getting in beyond my depth. It’s making my head hurt trying to catch the elusive thought that would connect this measurement stuff with what Walker Percy says about language and meaning. Percy’s whole argument says that there is a kind of meaning – experiential – that is actively squelched, squeezed out of existence, by literal and objective measurement. The problem has to do with symbolization. Scientific measurement is or claims to be a perfect symbolization of reality. The temperature at this moment is 16 degrees Centigrade, the atmospheric pressure is 1025.2 millibars, and so forth. Percy’s argument is that only the imperfect symbol can allow us to communicate the “thing as it is.” So from that point of view, the exact, perfectly symbolized measurement carries a definite message: the experiential meaning, the inscape, the beingness of a being – that stuff doesn’t count. Which, given the fact that we live subjectively, not objectively, is like saying that our everyday awareness, our sense of being alive in the world, doesn’t count either.
This isn’t just exaggeration for effect; lots of thinkers are impatient with the notion of consciousness. Intellectually, it’s a mess and you can’t point to it. But I’m a novelist, which means I specialize in messy thinking, and I have a massive case of attention excess disorder when it comes to ordinary human awareness and all that it experiences from day to day. I can’t help it; that’s who I am.
If metaphor and measurement are competing, mutually exclusive explanations of reality – but that’s the old “two cultures” business that’s been said a thousand times. Don’t be a bore. Okay, but then what? Try to apply some of this stuff I claim to understand. The explanations only have to compete in a world defined by “H” thinking. “H” requires one ultimate universal principle of truth; “S” and “G” do not. I could say that instead of competing, measurement and metaphor are part of the same ecosystem, in this case a mental one. How do they work together? “S” says they maintain homeostasis – their interactions always gravitate back toward an equilibrium. I imagine Vaughn saying Give me an example. Which I can’t. “G” says they work together in ways that generate new patterns of interaction, new mutually beneficial relations. Example, please . . . this is effin’ difficult, isn’t it?
I need a break. I’m not so sure I’m ever going to be smart enough to answer this, and I definitely am not right now. It’s time for a dose of physical reality. I get on my bike and head off to Alewife Brook Reservation, where Blair Pond is, and where I followed the stream that I have since learned is called Wellington Brook. After Blair Pond, it flows under the Boston & Maine tracks and into the Little River, which I’ve seen on a map and a Google Earth satellite photo but not in real life. The first place I encounter it is a bridge on Fresh Pond Parkway. It’s silted up. Mud-colored and very shallow. Turtles are sunning themselves on a capsized shopping cart half-buried in the mud, barely protruding above the surface. Slightly downstream, geese are resting in midriver on one leg. I wonder if the amount of silt in the Little River has increased since so much of the land near it became paved. Or is there a dam somewhere downstream? There certainly isn’t much of a current. Was the Little River like this three hundred years ago? There is a culvert under Route 2, and it’s possible that could be acting like a dam, creating a bottleneck. I’ll have to check that out later. But now I go the other way, upstream toward Little Pond.
In pretty short order, I find a broken-down dock that I can stand on and look more closely at the river. In the mud-colored water, big mud-colored carp swim slowly, barely moving, their dorsal fins poking at the surface and making spreading ripples. In the shade, carp and water are almost exactly the same non-color; where sun hits the water in midstream, the water is more a cloudy yellow and the carp are still dark. There’s about one fat carp’s thickness of water between the silt of the bottom and the surface of the river. As they lazily swim, or root around being the bottom feeders they are, they stir up clouds of mud behind and around them.
I spend a long time picking my way along trails, or what I hope are trails (or else I’m lost), among the cattails and reeds and undergrowth – and sumac and birch and various unidentified trees. I cross a little tributary on a plank someone has considerately placed there for the purpose; I find gorgeous moss growing on a pile of what I eventually recognize as crumbled asphalt. How did it get there? Through tall cattails I see the top of a new-looking building, adorned with skinny silver chimneys that echo the vertical plants. I doubt the architect built it with this view in mind. I see two fat groundhogs, at least two apparently monarch butterflies, bumblebees at work on the orchid-shaped flowers of jewelweed, a woodpecker and some largish interesting birds that I can never get a good look at before they fly away. A sign at the entrance to one of the trails says there are woodcocks in the reservation – is that what those birds are? I’ve never seen a woodcock, I think of them as exotic creatures that live somewhere I don’t. Once again, it’s amazing how far I seem to have traveled once I’ve dived into the plant life. The walk is short, yet it yields two remarkable things: expanded space and expanded time. Why haven’t I taken it before?
Down one trail, at the end of it apparently, I find a blue tent, like something a camper would buy at L.L. Bean and take into the Maine woods. Someone living there. Down another trail, a much less middle-class encampment, with plastic crates and beer cans and sheets of plastic hanging from trees. A gray-haired man, probably my age, silently looks out at me from within the habitation that has been made there. We make eye contact. I say nothing and leave. Homeless people – this is their home. Will they still be there in winter? Both encampments are marked by cloth or clothing tied to branches by the trail as a sign: this place is lived in. On the way out I find wild grapes hanging in bunches. They look ripe, and I eat one. It is not sweet but definitely tasty. Do the secret inhabitants of this area eat them? I would, if I lived there.
Eventually, I get to Little Pond – which is not so small, in fact – and loop through Belmont on my way home. I come to a brick townhouse development on the shore of Little Pond called Hill Estates. It reminds me of the Mill Brook Apts. It’s as boring as possible from the street, but the back side, on the water, is an inviting, gradually sloping lawn leading down to the pond. I get off my bike and as I walk along the grass shaded by big old trees, I come upon a plastic animal in the middle of the lawn, staring out at the pond. It’s about the size of a German shepherd, but it has the tail of a fox; its muzzle is broken off. It seems to be made out of sculpted plastic foam that is eroding over time. Its surface is pocked and its coloring is uneven, but this doesn’t actually detract from its appearance. I figure it was put there to keep geese from hanging out on the lawn and covering it with geese poop, but as soon as I start taking a picture of it, it strikes me as more of an art work. If this were installation art, what would it be saying? Something about man and nature, or I’ll eat my yellow bike helmet.
I come upon a pool of clear water in a low spot in the lawn, maybe twenty by thirty feet in area, and six inches deep. Did the recent rain put this here, or has it been here all summer? No telling. I’m building up a list of places I need to come back to, and this is one. It looks like the vernal pools that appear in spring when the snow melts, then fade away in summer, but it’s still here in September and I don’t know the name for this phenomenon. In parts, it’s bordered by a stand of taller plant life; in others it has no edge, the grass of the lawn continues into the water. At the back of this pool, two more plastic foxes stand looking in different directions. It would be easy to read them as a snarky commentary: see, we replace nature with a tacky plastic simulacrum. But that’s too predictable. If this were an archeological site, what would we call these fox statues? Totemic animals, guardian spirits of the place. Fragments of an animistic nature religion. Maybe they still are that, today, or maybe they’re just styrofoam geese discouragers. The joy of messy thinking is to see them as both at once. It’s somehow even better when two house cats start having a fight in the distance – real animals (domesticated) who ignore the artificial ones (man-made but “wild”), actually having a fight, which is what the plastic foxes threaten the geese with, but never deliver. Even the geese, which are wild, have decided to domesticate in a sense; they seem to have given up migration in favor of permanent residence in Boston. The natural and the contrived, the wild and the domestic, are tangled together and can’t be teased apart.
I know I’m projecting my ideas on the landscape, but is that all bad? How are we ever going to not be creating a human construct of “nature,” one way or another, as long as we’re here to relate to it? So then, rather than being squishy and feebly romantic, maybe an anthropomorphic view of the natural world is, in a sense, the only kind we can have. If this is so, then the question is not whether I will project some human qualities upon the natural world, but what kind of human qualities they’ll be. If you hook this up with epistemology, you can say that it’s much more difficult to detect our projection of, to use Maruyama’s word, mindscapes than it is to detect that we’re thinking “bumblebees are my friends,” which I often do, though I think it with a grain of salt.
So what I get to by a roundabout route is, maybe we ought to work on how we imagine nature as a way of working on our relationship with it, and we can do this work both by creating metaphors and by knowing measurable facts. Like those plastic foxes. In a sense they are an imaginary “nature.” They are created by humans and they don’t precisely resemble any actual animal. When I come along and photograph them, maybe they become a metaphor for our place in the natural world. They are also a fact in the environment, not just by physically being there, but also because . . . maybe they keep the geese off the grass. In which case they actually interact with living creatures.
Is this collaboration with nature? I don’t know. In the conversation between geese and people at Hill Estates, a lot is going on. The geese have decided to live in Boston and for sure, they must like Little Pond a lot. Here’s a nice big expanse of grass at the water’s edge, an excellent spot for them to hang around and forage when they’re not on the water. People enjoy them, people are probably happy to have geese going about their daily lives around them, but people don’t enjoy greenish-blackish cylindrical geese poops squishing underfoot when they walk across the grass. What to do? Well, they could shoot some geese, barbecue them on the lawn, and eat them, and probably the others would decide to stay away. Geese are not dumb. But using a little imagination and putting the plastic foxes out there is like substituting language for shotguns; it’s like finding the right words to say so that people and geese can coexist. And if it works – which it seems to, at Hill Estates – that perhaps even says the geese have heard what we’re saying and agreed to play along.
At home I ask Vaughn, “What’s the difference between a plastic fox decoy and a plastic fox statue?”
“Intention,” she replies at once.
Yes. But whose intention, remains the question. The person who put it there probably didn’t mean it as an art work or a spiritual totem, but if I choose to see it that way, what’s stopping me?
If you take the instrumentally reasonable fox decoy, holder-at-bay of geese, and layer over it an unintended but imaginable meaning, it “is” something different, your relationship with it is a different relationship. It is now both an object of utility and an object of play. It’s a fake fox but a real statue. Perhaps this is what we don’t have enough of when we think about our relationship with nature: play. We’re so busy worrying that we may have irretrievably fucked things up that the imagination shuts down. And right now we need all the imagination we can get.