Monthly Archives: April 2010

Beavers for Indiana

Every River where the current was moderate and sufficiently deep, the banks at the water edge were occupied by their houses. To every small Lake, and all the Ponds they builded Dams, and enlarged and deepened them to the height of the dams. Even to the grounds occasionally overflowed, by heavy rains, they also made dams, and made them permanent Ponds, and as they heightened the dams [they] increased the extent and added to the depth of the water; Thus all the low lands were in possession of the Beaver, and all the hollows of the higher grounds. Small Streams were damned across and Ponds formed; the dry land with the dominions of Man contracted, every where he was hemmed in by water without the power of preventing it: he could not diminish the numbers half so fast as they multiplied, and their houses were proof against his pointed stake, and his arrows could seldom pierce their skins.

— David Thompson and Richard Glover. David Thompson’s Narrative, 1784-1812. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1962. p. 198-199 | http://www.archive.org/details/davidthompsonsna00thom

Indiana needs more beavers. In an earlier time (the 1600s), I suspect the Indianapolis area had plenty of beavers. The terrain and the many tributaries to the White River are well-suited to beaver life. Like most states, however, beavers were extirpated from Indiana in the mid-nineteenth century to feed the market for fur and perfume. According to the Indiana DNR, a breeding pair was released in the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in 1935.

A few, potential descendants of this beaver pair from Wisconsin now live in the EcoLab, a 55-acre wetland on the Marian University campus. E. and I were there, recently, for a cloudy, wet walk. It was a good day to be outside; my, now cancer-prone, skin appreciated the cloud cover and I appreciated the mostly empty trails. In addition to the ruins of Jens Jensen’s landscape design, the beaver lodges are probably the most popular feature of the Lab. I was pleased to discover that a sign explaining beaver lodges failed to follow a colony to its latest location, but instead pointed to a shrinking mound in a dry pond. The lodge was sprouting a fair sized shrub, so it has been vacant for at least a couple of years. Occupied lodges are visible elsewhere in the Lab, but not near the signage.

Arriving in the late morning, we did not, however, see any beavers. In fact, I have seen only one non-captive beaver in my lifetime. Last fall I was fishing roughly a mile north of the the Crooked Creek tributary. At day break I was knee deep in the water and casting in the mist. I saw the beaver for at least 30 seconds before it saw me. Swimming my direction (it seemed huge), it paused gave me a quick look and dove with a very loud slap of its broad tail. If any other beavers were within a quarter mile, they were fairly warned. I have spent a lot of time fishing on the river’s east bank, but I have yet to spot a lodge in the area, so I’ll guess that this beaver a) was house hunting, or b) has a lodge somewhere on the west bank.

With a life mostly “lived” outside and preferably running on trails or fishing in silence, I have spotted my first beaver after moving to the nation’s fourteenth largest city. Why are they here? And now? Perhaps the urban beaver benefits from access to public land. Farmers and suburbanites may be less beaver-friendly. Perhaps, while municipalities pause to deliberate, the animals keep munching, dam building, and girdling trees. In other words, while people argue, urban beavers are allowed to fell fresh planted saplings … at least, until someone wraps them in four feet of heavy chicken wire.

Now that I have seen one beaver, a few lodges, a couple of dams, and plenty of bank-side tree damage, I want to see beavers everywhere. There’s a heap of bark chips in the elementary school parking lot … beaver lodge. There’s a flooded alley behind the Walgreens … beaver pond. The neighbor’s midsized basswood is dying … again, in another time, it would have been the work of a beaver.

In 1955 Indiana counted 1,695 beavers, in 1998 Ohio counted 25,000, in 2008 Wisconsin counted 68,800. How many beavers are in Indiana? I’m guessing, probably more than 20,000, but less than 60,000.  In other words, not enough. When all the beavers return, Indiana’s portion of the estimated 100-400 million beavers in this country prior to the arrival of the fur trade, they will be a nuisance. Restoration will look like destruction. We will do battle and if we call a truce, life will be different. Then, if I’m a beaver’s neighbor, I’ll be a nuisance too.

Gray

A view of downtown Indianapolis from I-70Gray days, but running.

Twice now, I have seen in the Catalpa tree, just off the Monon, between I-65 and I-70 (the “north split”), a Northern Mocking bird. In this season, he is singing at a volume above the nearby traffic. Two weeks ago, I saw (probably) the same bird on a fence bordering the nearby soccer fields. Then, when I stopped to listen, he flew a distance further away; now, he sings and preens with little notice. The bird is a mimic, maybe, but I sense little in the manner of scorn.

Cows Errant

Going BovineLibba Bray’s Going Bovine ends better than it begins, but, nonetheless, ends with a journey to nowhere. The lead character, Cameron, discovers his life (like all humans) in the process of losing it. Unlike most humans, however, this discovery is made under the influence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease–the human version of mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Prior to the diagnosis, Cameron is an apathetic, sarcastic, suburbanite, teenager. In the first sixty pages or so, readers learn just enough about his “friends”, his musical tastes, his parents, and his early childhood, to sustain another 420 pages of his BSE inspired hallucinations.

With his brain rotting in his skull, “mad” Cameron, is a much nicer guy. Also, he “has” more fun. His hallucinatory journey mirrors the adventures of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. Like DQ, Cameron has a guiding muse, a diminutive side kick, an unreliable means of transportation, and demonic adversaries. Unlike DQ, who actually wanders the Spanish countryside, evangelizing for his vision of a chivalric order, Cameron’s body never leaves the hospital bed. Except for the rotting brain and an occasional drip from the IV, his body has no part in the last 400 pages of the book. Although Cameron has a lot of imagined fun and the book ends on a happy note, the wet dreams are dry. In his hallucinations, the once apathetic teenager discovers that living is loving: “to live is to love and to love is to live”. And so, his Sancho becomes a braver soul; the social snobs are undone; he listens to good music, reads better books, and goes on a road trip, and (most importantly) sacrifices his own well-being for the good of his compadres. … Achievements all, but achieved only in the brain burning haze of Cameron’s imagination.

If, therefore, readers are to take Going Bovine seriously, by which I mean, to read it as more than a parlor trick, more than an improv-styled assembly of loosely disguised elements from “popular culture” for teenagers, the book ends not far from where it begins: a selfish character discovers himself in an equally selfish “life” of the mind. In the book’s closing chapter, Cameron, fading from physical life, asks his Dulcinea, “Hey, Dulcie, was any of that real?” She replies: “Who’s to say what’s real or not?” Beyond Cameron’s BSE self, “reality” has only a small part in the novel. We learn very little about the “real” people in his life and Cameron is mostly oblivious to how they carry with him the burden of his illness. Cameron is lost to them; lost in apathy, lost in illness. Who’s to say what’s real? Perhaps, that task should be left to the people who outlive you. Yes, Cameron had a great “ride”, but it was, in the end, nothing more than a self-indulgent, fruitless, adolescent trip.

Reading what I have just written, I see that most will conclude that I did not like the book. This is only partly true. In “reality”, I hope that it finds plenty of young readers. Going Bovine, the winner of the 2010 The Michael L. Printz Award, is more than a clever book. I would put it before Harry Potty, before Twilight and spawn, before (in other words) most of the escapist, corn syrup publishers market to “young adult” readers. Like most books, however, Going Bovine is a long, long, long way from Don Quixote.

Read Don Quixote.

Appetite

Friday, I took my two sons fishing on the banks of the the White River in Indianapolis. Although signs caution against eating the fish, and although the banks are littered with bits of refuse from the nearby sewer gates, the tail waters of the 16th street, Emricksville’s dam are a very popular place to fish. On this warm spring evening, we joined by six people at the east foot of the dam. Nearly an equal number had lines in the water off the west bank. Due to the crowd, were were a bit downstream of the best fishing, the place where the water turns back against the current and gives the fish a deep hole, an easy swim, and plenty of churned up food.

The boys were, more or less, constantly hung up on the bottom. One exclaimed “A bass!” and set the hook well into the snag. The other fared better, but wound in his bait far too quickly. Retrieving more than fishing. All-in-all, we did manage to catch a dull looking bluegill (hand-sized) and two smallmouths (fingerlings). The first fish of 2010.

I started fishing in farm ponds in my sixth or seventh year of life. I feared cattle, horses (sometimes), stray dogs, and (mostly) the neighbors. My mother feared that I would drown. Although I have had fishing buddies, and although fishing with the kids beats trying to hold a conversation, I still prefer it as a mostly solitary activity, banks and wading. Light gear, big fish, tiny fish, good weather, bad weather, fishing.

Large fish can be a challenge and a thrill (they’re usually “smarter”, after all, they’ve been around long enough to get fat), but tiny fish are jewels. The fingerlings we caught were streamlined to a size slightly larger than their gaping mouths. They were little more than shiny appetites with a slime coat. All three fish were caught with minimal tackle, just a hook and a wiggler on four pound test. We tossed the bait five meters out and let the current wash the offering downstream. A catch was marked by a pause and a strike by the tiniest tick on the line. The boys wanted to hold each fish, but I only let them touch with a single finger tip. There’s only so much handling a tiny fish can take. Released, I hope the fish are finding plenty to eat or are becoming plenty to eat for some other creature.

As for us, we went to a local Chinese restaurant. After trying to scrub the river sewage off our hands, we took advantage of the buffet. I ate some, but mostly watched as my new teenagers each shoveled in four heaping plates of noodles, egg rolls, and fried won-tons. They topped off this deathly mix of greasy, simple carbohydrates with a heaping bowls of soft-serve ice cream. Full, they had very little to say during the drive home. At this age, they are still, very much appetites. For much of our lives, it seems, we are more appetite than a self. Or do we ever cross over? My sons are what they eat; I am what I have eaten?

Rereading Michaux

Michaux: a writer I have tried to dislike–self-absorbed, self-fascinated, tripping on mescaline, driven to the semi-silence of the sign, flippant, sliding in and out of mockery, in and out of savage honesty, cloud writer of seamless syntax, a shape shifter, flight straight out of costume, writing the human nude.

Michaux. I am reading Michaux again.

If you are new to Henri Michaux, two translations of selected writings are readily available. David Ball’s Darkness Moves (U. of California P, 1994) provides a wide selection, including excerpts from the mescaline chronicles and a couple of notes on ideograms and art. Ball can be more accurate and more plain spoken, but I still prefer Richard Ellmann’s Selected Writings: The Space Within (New Directions, 1968). New Directions Paperbooks are the perfect size for my poetry reading habits. Unassuming white, black, and gray tone covers; 5×8 inches, and less than an inch thick; this is the measure of a book that you can carry around, one thumb in the spine, until the pages come unglued. I also enjoy the en face translation; with the French on the left page and the English on the right page, the reader can be a full partner in the translation … or at least, one can presume to be one. A left eye for the French, a right eye for the English, a nose for the bridge.

Ball’s Darkness Moves is a fine translation, and it’s not his fault, but I hold a grudge against California Press for having rendered Mallarmé’s Collected Poems as a coffee table book. Like the cover, the translation is full of pastels and cloying sentiment. Although not nearly as large as the Mallarmé book, Darkness Moves is also too big and likewise burdened with too much commentary from the translator. I prefer poetry at a slow walk and Ball’s translation is just too unwieldy for a single hand. It’s a read-it-on-the-couch book. Ball can be too serious as well. It’s a difficult quality to put your finger on, but it’s there, a wooden tone. The diction is fine, but Ellmann’s translation is warmer. Ball reports the poems in English; Ellmann lives them.

The beginning of Michaux’s “Intervention”:

Autrefois, j’avais trop le respect de la nature. Je me mettais devant les choses et les paysages et je les laissais faire.
Fini, maintenant j’interviendrai.

Ball’s translation of the above:

In the past, I had too much respect for nature. I would stand before things and landscapes and let them do what they wanted.
That’s over and done with: now I will intervene.

And Ellmann’s translation:

In the old days I had too much respect for nature. I put myself in front of things and landscapes and let them alone.
No more of that, now I will intervene.

I read French with a dictionary, which is to say, I do not read French. So, maybe the original shares Ball’s want of humor. How would I know? And why should I care? Sometimes, however, Ball wins for clarity. From the beginning of “Nuit de Noces”:

Si le jour de voces Noces, en reentrant, vous mettez votre femme à tremper la nuit dans un puits, elle abasourdie. Elle a beau avoir toujours eu une vague inquiétude…

Ball’s translation of the above selection, “Wedding Night”:

When you come home on your wedding day, if you stick your wife in a well to soak all night she is flabbergasted. Even if she had always been vaguely worried about it…

And Ellmann’s, “Bridal Night”:

If on your marriage day, returning home, you set your wife in a well to soak for the night, she will be dumbfounded. No comfort to her now that she has always had a vague uneasiness…

So Ellmann is stranger and Ball is plainer. At any rate, if you want as much Michaux as you can get in English you’ll need both translations. Ball retranslates only “thrity-three pages” from the Ellmann book and leaves much of the early Michaux writings (the really fun stuff) untouched.

Not many people can be a Richard Ellmann, but I hope, someday, an equal talent will take on a few of the single Michaux volumes and translate them as entire books. If you’re reading this and you think you can write, please start with Mes propriétés (1929). By my count, Mes propriétés includes fifty-nine poems. Ball and Ellmann together translate only twenty-four of these. “Intervention”, quoted above, is from My Properties and so are many of my favorite Michaux poems. Because I’m lazy (“The soul loves swimming”, see Michaux/Ellmann’s “La Paresse”/”Laziness”) and I’m getting tired of this, I’ll end with a few sentences from “A Dog’s Life”, also from My Properties, the Ellmann translation, of course:

As for books, they wear me out like nothing else. I don’t leave a single word in its own sense or even in its own form.
I trap it and after some struggling I uproot it and turn it finally away from the author’s flock.
In a single chapter you have thousands of words all at once in front of you and I have to sabotage them all. I feel I must.

References:

Michaux, Henri. Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. WorldCat | Amazon
Michaux, Henri. Selected Writings: The Space Within. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp, 1968. WorldCat | Amazon
Mallarmé, Stéphane, and Henry Weinfield. Collected Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. WorldCat | Amazon
Michaux, Henri. Mes propriétés. Paris: J.O. Fourcade, 1929. WorldCat