Distance renders the illusion of stillness and the land appears peaceful from afar. The flight path from the Cascades to the Nipponese archipelago traces an arc across the Northern pacific rim, a landscape of loneliness and geologic violence. Almost immediately after departure, the distinctive c-shaped ridge of the volcano comes visible from the portal. Sometimes called Loowit or St. Helens, it is a young mountain, yet much older than any human language. For me it is a place of original and repetitive departure, its last major eruption timed with my birth, the trees along its northern flank all my own age. The smooth alluvial slopes and dunes almost resemble skin from this altitude, and faced with such a scene, people intuitively turn to the language of the body. The ashen plains and lahar-scoured valleys often figure as scars, but I prefer to think of them as vomit, a messy process whose character is cleansing and regenerative rather than entropic. Scar better describes the irregular quadrangles that skirt the mountain’s perimeter, cleared of trees by human hand and laced with now-useless roads.
Further on, we pass over the factory where our aircraft was assembled. Its a new vessel, more graceful and efficient than its predecessors, more automated, probably the most complex object ever mass-produced, and it enables an act that has been inconceivable for most of human history: to cross the Pacific in half a day, to compress the foreign into the proximate, to float above all the scars that enable the cities to build the craft. It does so at enormous cost. The price of the day’s journey is a year’s income for much of the human population. I push the little button that fades the portal glass dark. The eyes can only watch so hard for so long. The mind can only translate so much sensation into memory between rest cycles.
After a few hours, I look down again, and the vast ice rivers of Glacier Bay loom below. Even at their summer nadir, their scale exceeds the body’s ability to relate, and yet I know they are shrinking, and the aircraft is involved in their shrinking, I can only hope that the vessel is involved in another shrinking, the shrinking of nationalism, that other great dark force that looms. These forces are bound up together and to push against one is to be tainted by the other. Each lashes back at whoever would indulge in delusions of purity. I have claimed my purpose: to force apprehension between parties and nations who would deny their involvement with one another, whose denial imperils all, and the aircraft is an instrument of suture, and like all such instruments, it is also a weapon, and having been profaned by it, I immerse myself in what is unclean, what never was clean. My body absorbs the consequences of the inevitable crime of merger and radiates the opposite of nationalism, which sounds like laughter and uncanny transliterations of onomatopoeia and smells like the familiarity of human body scent and the smoke from roasting tea as winter approaches. The smoke washes away any desire for cleanliness, and every overheard sentence, each cumulative unit of meaning arriving via new sounds and inflections renders less and less legible the obsession with guilt and innocence endemic to my ancestral land.
The city grew and the city grew wealthy. The mountains and the sea, which had acted as barriers for generations, fell to the ingenuity of contraptions. Ships arrived, tunnels bored, the foreign flowed in and out and diffused into the banal. Nobody can answer, why here? but here is where the city happened, accumulating across the plain until the people were so numerous that no other city exceeded them. Yet as the city spread, the city’s components remained small. No vantage could afford an impression of the vast Kanto plain. The houses and streets retained the impression of a small city. The city happened underground. The city happened behind closed doors. The city had no center. The residents held close to home, guarded their privacy, and occasionally emerged to rub against each other or to cross the sea. The city was a constellation, the city was full, so that when some ambition reared some new scheme, it was shunted away to the edge.
The city learned how to move people with precision. A web of tunnels went everywhere at once, so fast and precise that anyone could cross the city on a whim, but it wasn’t necessary. Every needful thing was close at hand. The airport became full and overfull, and a new one was required. By then, the nearest fields were 60 km distant, so a new tunnel was bored to bring the city to the planes.
But we opt for the Keisei Line, the old slow tracks made to connect the city with Narita town, which now serve as the airport’s back door, on whose narrow bouncing cars I watch villages and bamboo-carpeted hills slide by as dusk falls, and the trains’ slow movement denotes a different mode of relations, a mode of embodiment, more rigid than the car or the aircraft, more linear but also gentler, more humane.
The latticeworks of Japan’s rail network is complex beyond comprehension and so efficiently timed that one constantly feels pressure to board one train, then another, with only a partial certainty of its destination, so that as the train accelerates, a mild panic sets in and the train becomes a vehicle of faith, and that faith’s prophetic text is a telling distillation of Japan’s techno-geography. Something between a list and a map, the text depicts relative positions and intersections of rail lines, but bears no relation to any spatial orientation, as if the linearity of the rail line is the only interface through which various sites may touch. I must have consulted the text a dozen times during that hour, alternately gleaning its three irrefutable maxims: you have departed; you will arrive; and most menacing, but also reassuring, you are currently nowhere. Later in the week I would accumulate the confidence to violate the text’s logic. I would choose a destination, ride the metro there, then walk back along the surface to my point of origin. While the text may ignore the surface world and its continuous blending of one place into another, it does no violence to the latter’s viability. The surface pleasure and subterranean pleasures complement each other, even if no text can contain them both.
Somewhere between the center and the edge, or the centers and the edges, in what was once the center, or a center, lies Asakusa along the Sumida River, which was a center of sorts between the times of the waxing and dwindling of barges and canals as the preferred technology of movement. Then the center fractured and migrated and left Asakusa to tend its temple and its shore on its own terms, its own scale. The low-rising apartments and bridges may or may not precede the era of the elevator, but their scale does not embrace the logic of the vertical city. The streets are narrow, cars few, the density just enough to make the subway financially viable, so there is a fine hum of activity and motion that consists more of bodies than moving containers full of them. There are small shrines frequented by nearby residents and it seems that every patch of concrete is tended by someone’s broom. Some men are living in orderly cardboard shelters under the elevated highway. Everything is enough, nothing too much.
But the centers are always recalibrating for position. Next to the park, through the canopy foliage of a temple that has burned and been rebuilt over and over for centuries, a vertiginous spire pulls on the gaze. Amid the two-story houses and little lots full of parked bicycles, somebody has decided to erect the second-tallest structure on earth, the 650m Skytree, many kilometers from anything else that approaches its magnitude. It both projects loneliness and commands reverence. Essentially an homage to the mathematics of structural engineering, it rises over Sumida ward, where clusters of tiny machine shops once invented the metallurgy of miniaturization, where industries like bicycle components and small internal combustion engines were perfected by artisans before graduating to mass production. The Skytree duplicates that complexity of rivets and welds and braces but in the service of maximal load-bearing. To follow its struts and imagine how stress is transferred from one beam to the next and back, to imagine wind and earthquakes, the way that flexibility and rigidity, compressive and tensile strength may be translated into numbers and then swirled, is to become lost in a labyrinth, to realize the genius that underlies the performance of any complex system, and that most of that genius is unnamed and unremembered.
Tōkyō was once notorious for harboring the world’s most expensive plots of land, but it is actually pretty easy to finds voids in the urban fabric, places where the eye may wander and focus near infinity. This act of resting the eye’s muscles until they reach into the distance, while still giving it a place to land, may be a kind of necessity, a reset for the nerves. A craving for it may arise, something like lust, and providing for that craving may be part of what makes a city viable. It hems in the desperation for flight. The Skytree provides for some of that need. It’s visible form nearly anywhere in the way a stratovolcano may dominate the landscape for hundreds of kilometers around. The fatigued gaze longs for that single-pointed distance sometimes. Other times it needs an expansiveness that has width and there are also fields of emptiness sprinkled throughout the city: the surface of the river, the lotus ponds at Ueno, the rock gardens and weedy back yards of the shrines. And there is an even finer-grained, accidental provision for the faltering gaze. The default ground surface in less invested areas is a fine, compressed granite gravel that comfortable holds mu, the same quality of unfullness that the rock gardens seek to evoke. The playgrounds, ball fields, and derelict lots all have this quality, and tend to arise unanticipated in the visual field. This ready access to vacancy makes for a city that invites the gaze in as much as imposing itself.
Wherever there is an interior and exterior, there must also be a border, and that border must have a gate, for everything begins outside, and an interior has no meaning unless someone, sometime, entered it. In Tōkyō, that border is often a shoji, a moveable plane of material, wood or paper or glass or metal. The old temples and farmhouses were built with walls almost entirely of shoji so that they could be opened entirely and their interior would dissolve into the landscape. Where houses and shops touch up against each other, their public face tends to emphasize opacity and the gates only open to those who have some prior knowledge, some established means of contact.
Illegibility can also be a means of limiting access. Many businesses are unlabeled and the street layout is said to have been optimized to generate confusion in intruders. Indeed, navigating the back alleys of Tōkyō without a mobile device is a prospect I’d rather not contemplate. All of it is mediated by shoji, which become now a wall, now the absence of a wall, blinking open and shut like so many horizontal eyelids. The elevator has them, and the subway car ingests and ejects through its metallic maw.
With so much demarkation, so much infrastructure of privacy, implications arise about the nature of exteriors. One crosses the shoji’s threshold and expects to be seen, to become immersed in contact. One consequence is an enthusiastic collective embrace of the camera, which Japan both manufactures and consumes by the millions. The camera’s focal-plane shutter is very much like a shoji, another mechanical eyelid, imposing a veil of ignorance most of the time, then blinking open to sudden exposure. Unlike the biological eyelid, the camera shutter’s default position is closed. Or it was until recently.
The oldest shoji have little divots to catch a finger to push them along their rails. Later, motorized shoji were developed and activated by a button. Now in the button’s place is a little ‘don’t touch’ sign, for one’s mere presence is now enough to activate the transit without need for contact. The camera shutter followed a similar trajectory from manual to remote to automatic activation, then finally to shutterless, always-on, all-seeing cameras, the shoji that will open for any body and the one that must sense the proximity of a specific key card.
The visual field in this moment is dominated by the gaze of the security camera. In a large city, one often sees them, and one assumes that one is seen by ones that one cannot see. In the midst of this data-gathering onslaught, one assumes that visual privacy does not exist. So, out on the streets, I repeatedly pose my daughter and capture images. Inevitably, other bodies flit around the periphery of the frame and imprint themselves on the captured image without being themselves its 'primary’ subject. Occasionally, I’ll capture a passerby from a stealthy angle, and that is when I begin to feel invasive. To be the object of attention, to appear, is somehow different that squatting in the fringe pixels. The always-on camera may produce a flood of data, but it is unable to sort meaning from meaninglessness, and so serves as a bad proxy for the deliberate gaze. By selecting meaningful angles and moments, the manual gaze gathers 'more’ data than the automatic one. It appends a metadata marker to each captured image, inviting a reiteration of the original call to see. In this way, the manually activated shutter release penetrates the subject and becomes 'digital’–mediated by the digit, or finger.
My final moments in Tōkyō were the most intense, departing from Shinjuku station during the morning rush. I had always wondered why only some of the subway platforms had an auxiliary set of sliding doors attached to the platform edge that aligned with the train doors and opened in unison. Then as I descended the escalator, the crowd throbbed and smashed into itself. The gates were a levee holding back the deluge of bodies from falling onto the tracks. It would have been alarming had I not already accumulated a familiarity and absolute trust with the people of Tōkyō. As seven or eight bodies pressed me from all sides, I knew that the flow would carry me, that this process too was designed, that there was no struggle, that every person was holding onto responsibility for everyone else, that some collective knowing would discern the train’s capacity, and would match it exactly and not exceed it. I thought to reach for my camera, but my arms were locked to my sides, every line of sight was interrupted by bodies, and Tōkyō had entered me enough that at that moment I cared more for the comfort of my unknown companions than for some trifling visual memento.
Sometimes exile implies exit, sometimes not. A city can be full, and full of holes. I’ve spent 12,000 days within walking distance of this site. I remain among imprints of absent bodies, felt and unseen.
dance fills the body and the body contains it and overflows. a danceless body is a docile body. to persist in dance is to be undefeated. dance is a threat. dance cannot be edited or assimilated. in dance the body eroticizes its passage through ambient media. all bids at control include a stifling of the dance, either by refuting it or by scripting it. normativity’s regime invites its adherent to live without dancing, or to imitate another’s dance. both of these tasks are impossible. cease and desist from enforced stillness, allow the dance, be not defeated.
Most cities are flat; some are built on hills. Old cities are built on top of themselves. New cities are stolen and then jealously guarded and decorated with stolen spoils extracted from a broad hinterland. But Hong Kong is none of these things. Hong Kong expands inside of itself and in its making, unmakes every notion of what a city is. No amount of experience or theory about cities in general would enable clear anticipation for an encounter with Hong Kong, and no amount amount of attention to Hong Kong could render it knowable, for it changes much faster than one can re-encounter it. It’s innards and nethers are a fractal of ever-changing proportions, obviously ordered, but just as obviously in a pattern too complex to grasp. It’s a city of non-euclidean geometries where one is forced to abandon the markers that calibrate and orient the mind., as if ideas like surface, horizon, and shore were suddenly stripped away, and in their absence such reductive abstractions are shown as unnecessary, even as impediment, for rather than reading as foreign or exotic or confusing, this configuration of spacetime is highly intelligible to the human mindscape, and perhaps even intuitive to a mind inoculated and sheltered by awareness of anicca, the inevitability of impermanence. Hong Kong is more designed, more built, and more accommodating of the uncontrollable surge of anicca than any elsewhere, more like an umbrella than a roof, just enough protection, never wasting energy trying to control a storm.
Cities seem to metastasize, and participation in them seems ever more nearly impossible, but Hong Kong goes even further, and in that further place there is a letting go wherein the noise and the crush of bodies suddenly mesh into something viable. They crystalize into a matrix that was not visible or foreseeable at the half or three quarters point. There is no effort at coexistence with inefficient anti-urban forms. If North American cities feel like too much, even at a fraction of HK’s density, it is because they are intensifications of non-urban forms like the parking lot and the suburb rather than expressions of the distinct organism that cities are.North American cities are an intensification of the geography of separate-but-equal, which is never equal and never really separate, where cars and bodies compete for space and leave little room for anything else. The residents feel it as a hellscape, but pressed to propose improvements, they cite more accommodation of cars in more lanes at greater expense, with more enforcement, better engineering, or, failing that, wholesale abandonment of urban forms and flight to the cloistered hinterlands. Tripling or quadrupling density seems suicidal, but Hong Kong shows that more is less, that a city is entirely unlike an intensified suburb or a small town grown large. A city constructs its own logic. It demands a trust that as scale changes, methods must also change, and old methods must be discarded. It’s a letting go in which two contradictory aspects clash and merge in this most concentrated crucible of humanity, small enough to walk across in a day, yet complex enough to be indecipherable by any single gaze. Superficially, the letting go of predatory laissez-faire capital seems to dominate, but just beneath it is the embrace of the feral, the trust that existence tends toward harmony of countervailing forces rather than domination. As in any ecosystem, the predators and and the others dance a web into being, a web that none of them design. The result is a web that resembles an ecosystem perhaps more than any other since humans walked out of the wilderness and invented cities.
I am walking down a passage about six meters wide. It will become a familiar scene, but right now it is my first active gesture toward the city after a day and a half in the no-place of transit. Leaving the hotel was complicated. All the building’s limbs point toward malls and train stations. Finding a door to the street required asking directions, crossing the rear taxi entrance, and descending several escalators. For the second time in my life, I had to ask “how do I get outside?” The first was in a Las Vegas casino. It was an omen. In HK, hallways are the street, and escalators lubricate all movement. Their unceasing conveyor motion suggests both an offering and a mandate, both a merciful respite for the weary, and the enforcement of flow on those who may otherwise indulge in a pause that rippled into delay for the thousands queued behind.
Beneath my soft shoes I can feel little stripes in raised relief pointing down the passage. I can close my eyes and follow them until they switch to a patch of dots warning of a stair or corner. Built into the trail’s warp to guide the blind, they also serve to imply a course, to impose suggestion onto that anarchic being, the pedestrian. A window appears and I see the street below. I’m on a bridge. I descend a staircase and glimpse the sidewalk in a convex mirror.
Very suddenly, I arrive at a curb. I have wandered outdoors into the densest cluster of humans ever assembled: Mong Kok. The streets are narrow and the only vehicles are buses, taxis, and work trucks. Back-to-back fourteen story apartment blocks line the corridor and extend appendages into the skyspace. Overhead, signs fill every space out to the street’s midline and laundry lines and air conditioners hang suspended over the sidewalk all the way up. Bodies spill out of the doorways and subway exits into a cauldron of commerce. The air is humid and tropical and pleasant aromas belie the notorious air pollution.
Capitalism never was one thing. It speaks many tongues. It’s Cantonese dialect is as elegant as it is ruthless. The product is the thing, flowing from production toward desire with as little fuss as possible. Competition is rampant, vendors congregate, buyers get in and get out with minimum affect. Advertising and corporate mid-level managers are unheard-of. This is how commodities flow through cities without friction. It is visible in nearly any city in the world and Mong Kok is its acme. Some North Americans read the abrupt quality of discourse here as cold or rude, but it is quite the opposite. Affective labor is necessarily collaborative, a script with two parties, and people here wouldn’t presume that you want to play along. The crush of bodies is exhausting enough even if nobody demands your attention. Efficiency requires that jobs be done with an economy of gesture. Adding verbal labor to the labor of production and transaction would be wasteful in a system that cannot afford waste. Any semblance of privacy in such a place requires an intentional, orchestrated convergence of averted gazes and greetings left unspoken.
I grasp my daughter’s hand and turn up a side street where the path is effectively a tunnel of orchids and potted citrus trees in a choreographed jungle, like a forest, familiar, but more so. If I lived here, I would want to buy them all and carry them home on the subway only to realize that my whole apartment was smaller than my North American bathroom. Indeed the ubiquity of retail action combined with extreme constraint on personal space implies an equally scaled waste stream, but it has another curious effect too. Value, prestige, usefulness are all spatially compressed within the object. In a city with few personal vehicles, where homes have no public exterior, the body is the site of public display, and displays of wealth are compressed into handfuls: wristwatches and flakes of jade as dear as a luxury car. But the smaller the object, the easier it is to counterfeit, which has a leveling effect, and there is a swagger detectable among all classes.
Fifty meters on, the tunnel of orchids opens onto a path under a railroad berm that is thick with vendors selling caged songbirds and live crickets in plastic bags. There is an old man sitting there. He is stationed. His hair is oiled and slicked back, he has enormous gold sunglasses, and he flashes us the kind of imperturbable grin that is only credible when it includes several gold teeth. His presence would feel equally inevitable if we stood in Las Vegas or La Paz. He’s the kind of man that can magnetize children and animals and effortlessly inflict existential crises onto bourgeois spectators. Tiny passerines squeak and trill in chorus all around us. Nothing can control this city. Nothing needs to. Nobody can domesticate it or halt its metabolism. Its a big gentle beast that could devour us but doesn’t, a benevolent dragon, and we have arrived into its belly.
Hong Kong is a living experiment in the removal of all barriers to concentration. The result is a space distilled to a few essential ingredients: bodies, buildings, a mesh of transit corridors, and displays of information. Bodies occupy almost every meter of the street at almost every hour. Buildings touch upon the sidewalk and each other at an average height of fourteen stories over entire districts, so that each block is effectively a cube or mini-city. Signs fill the space overhanging the street from about 3 meters to 10 meters high. In older neighborhoods they are mostly neon, while newer buildings are so extravagantly lit by LEDs so that discerning night form day is sometimes uncertain. Its a simple enough geometry that maximizes spatial efficiency. A cost compromise between land value and construction costs dictates building height, so that HK has never had the world’s tallest buildings, but it has the largest collection of very tall buildings and certainly the highest density of built indoor space over whole areas. At such a density, the entire ground floor and often the floor above it is continuous small-scale retail of the most extraordinary variety, often clustered by industry, much of which serves other industries. One street has a row of stores selling bales of plastic bags to other storekeepers. Another was a row of restaurant supply houses. Another was mostly taxi mechanics. Many building interiors are quasi-public space so that hallways become streets in themselves, more like enclosed versions of the world’s Chinatowns than like malls. The street-like environment is reinforced by the fact that these passages are often the best walking routes and serve as transit as much as shopping space.
Walking happens on at least three layers, sometimes indistinguishable. Many streets have elevated, continuous skywalks over the road lane, which pass between and through buildings. Outdoor escalators hoist people up the steeper streets, and underground passages ensure that there are often a dozen entrances to one subway stop, spanning half a kilometer or more. These tunnels, which connect to the buildings’ basements, are often the fastest way to cross the neighborhood even when not using the trains. There are few landmarks underground, but I came to fondly anticipate the pair of buskers under Canton road, who would sing Karaoke Cantonese pop songs through PAs attached to their wheelchairs.
Walking through windowless corridors with moving sidewalks, sometimes inclined, sometimes flat, sometimes morphing into escalators, its easy to lose all sense of elevation and become vertically disoriented. The human brain evolved to spatially calibrate in a landscape that includes a coherent surface. It can adapt well to flat indoor space, but enough escalator rides without any outdoor reference point will eradicate any sense of height.
Hong Kong’s visual space is defined by absolute competition for attention. The only constraint on the size and number of signs overhanging the street seems to be the tensile strength of the cables that weave through each other to preserve the signs during typhoon season. The presentation is so complex that it can be difficult to find a well-labeled business even with a map and address in hand. A better strategy is to wander and see what the city offers. Classical economic theory holds that in such a market, an infinite number of well-informed buyers and sellers will negotiate prices and tend toward perfect efficiency, but HK’s spatial constraint demonstrates the absurdity of that model. There is simply too much information to become well-informed, and providence becomes a dominant factor. There is also extreme pressure to be efficient in the display of information, so signs display condensed facts with little hyperbole or persuasion. “Sichuan-style noodle” or “$€£¥ RMB x-change” is enough to match parties to a deal. Display of the product itself is much more effective than display of descriptions of the product.
Bodies swarm into and through every crevice at a pace that implies correlation between efficiency and consistency. A top speed of 5 kph enables continuous flow with no formal organization and a minimum speed of 3kph. A taxi might achieve an average speed of 5kph by combining frantic bursts with unexplainable standstills, along with a collateral damage of frustrations, collisions, pollution, expense, and the necessity of a robust infrastructure of engineering and enforcement, meanwhile occupying a physical space out of proportion with their usefulness. Walking achieves a similar result without any of the side effects. No technocratic campaign or government health authority promoting active lifestyles was necessary to make walking the dominant transportation. It was simply an overwhelming norm that detests idleness, waste, and taking more than one’s share. With bodies so dominant and so efficient, a clarity arises about the absurdity of attempting to design public space around a separate-but-equal ideal for bodies and cars. They cannot coexist. HK refuses to make any public accommodation for private cars and bodies spill into the vacancy. Cars are pariahs everywhere, but North Americans prefer a mutual enabling over the elaboration of scorn toward those whose cumbersome posturing costs everyone else their time, their health, and even a place to stand.
Of course, some bodies cannot walk. But cars are not necessarily a liberatory force for them either, and for every person who is unable to walk, many more cannot drive. With no public expenditure to subsidize cars, there is plenty of money for high accessibility standards, and with most of the population using busses and trains every day, economies of scale translate into extremely convenient and frequent service and low fares. Even though HK’s bus and train fares are about one third of New York fares, the system is one of the very few profitable ones in the world. When a car is the only solution, there are around 18,000 taxis to serve over 7 million people with 1.3 million daily rides. The taxis require no parking space. Private cars are never convenient transportation in the central city, and exist only as a status object for the super-rich.
In cities, as in nature, many forms cannot readily hybridize and coexist. Each kind of organism is only viable within a habitat that serves its needs. The walking body has proven its viability in cities over hundreds of generations, but nowhere has providing every human with a car proven successful, and nowhere do they mix well.
Where one configuration gives way to another, lines rather than gradients are natures norm. There are coastlines and timberlines, ecotones that declare transformation and don’t fizzle. They are usually a site of acute activity. Melded biological communities are associated more with traumatized, ruined wastelands. HK mimics this pattern and reaps its rewards. Where the high-rises end, the jungle begins, threaded with twisting roads plied by double-decker busses exactly the height and shape of the overhanging canopy. Sitting on the upper deck next to the windshield feels like flight. The jungle gives way to little beach villages. These proven ways of life–the city and the village, the bus and the train, the walking path and the elevator–account for most of human existence, and each feels flush with its own integrity. Each delivers a psychic cleanliness that murmurs up like a surprise when arriving from a car culture. A body that has always been ill cannot speculate about what health would feel like. It’s an ineffable sensation, as gentle as it is thrilling. It may also be disorienting, and to some a familiar cage is more desirable than the strange glow of wellness. They may be desperate to capture others. They may strenuously build a story about the inevitability of their little world. They may wrap their cage in darkness and block all lines of sight to avert this one truth: flying through the jungle on a bus to a little beach feels alive, and idling on a suburban highway doesn’t.
There is a moment just after dawn, when jet-lagged foreigners arise to seek breakfast, when the sun dances on the banyans and the sidewalks are yet vacant but for the few workers delivering propane by bicycle. The city has two shifts, work and shopping, and both start and end late. The city shows its raw polished bones in the dawn light, like an old, trained body, damaged, repaired, sinewy with a latent strength that could flatten some young athlete, but wouldn’t bother. These buildings, like these bodies, are a husk, not a display. Their meaning resides in the energy that flows through them, and that energy is gathering now. The subway tries to manage rush hour by halving fares from 7-8 am, but it doesn’t work. The trains are mostly vacant until the moment of necessity, then fully saturated for the next sixteen hours.
In most cities, following a crowd leads toward some temporary congregation, but in HK the crowd is everywhere all the time and moves in every direction, with one exception. Around 8pm, there is a slight tendency of flow toward the waterfront platforms at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. Across the harbor, a strip of towers is perched on a narrow band seized from the sea. The large swells toss even large vessels and hint at the depth of those waters, which gave HK advantage as it grew. Like so much here, the waters surface only whispers suggestion at what it might conceal. Just as Monk Kok displays the total competition for efficiency in the use of residential space, food preparation, and retail traffic, Central HK displays ruthless competition for prestige, and every evening the shrines to global capital fight a proxy war with light, a perpetual arms race to have the largest, brightest display with the newest technology. The coal plant on the next island over makes the show possible by supplying both the electricity for the lasers and the particulate pollution without which the beams would be invisible. The lights are synchronized, inadvertently operating as a distilled metaphor for capital’s dance, where supply chains are so complex that intricate systems of cooperation are essential, but firms constantly seek to outmaneuver each other for market share without breaking the trance. All along the shore, a soundtrack alternates between an arrogant masculine voice and a delicate feminine one, between militaristic rhythms and saccharine pop music. The tones and emotions are more vivid to me than if spoken in my own language, in which verbal content would supersede the subtler language of feeling.
Down at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, where the plains and hills of the mainland reach their southern terminus, the remnants of a vast nautical culture are visible, in which ferries and docks are the city’s nodes, slowly, inexorably carrying what needs to be carried. Flows, seen and unseen, traverse the city’s arteries: signals, fluids, commodities, rays, emblems. At their junctions, centers of transformation and exchange arise, sometimes feral, sometimes sculpted and edited into monuments to capital’s stylistic impotence. Where the ferries to HK island dock next to the Guangzhou ferries, a mall complex paces Canton road for a kilometer or more. Finding an entrance is difficult. It seems to funnel the mainland tourists into its corridors straight from the dock while scorning the canyons of Tsim Sha Tsui, whose merchants have perfected the art of wild commerce. Eventually, I find my way in through an underground passage. The malls are often most accessible from the subway platforms. The shops within are indistinguishable repetitions of each other and of the malls anywhere. The Chinese script is the only indication that the European luxury brands have made landfall here far from their place of origin. I walked the corridors with the intention of gathering details to reconstruct here, but such a project fatigues me. The place is devoid of life, like a well-dressed corpse, and I find my gaze wandering to the polished marble surfaces and thinking on the tectonic forces that made the stone, and of the workforce of migrant women who clean the portions of the city where capital presents its gameface.
Along the skywalks on Sunday, the women set up shelters of cardboard mats and umbrellas where they picnic, exchange manicures, and converse in tagalog. There is so little space to let go in this city, to collapse free from gazes. The thin film of an umbrella is the best protection available. The corridors trod by bankers six days a week are, for a moment, the only abandoned space usable by a public yearning to occupy together. They gazed with tremendous sadness as I passed by with my daughter. Are they estranged form their own children, caught up in capital’s conveyor belt, whose collateral damage is sometimes maimed bodies, sometimes bodies enslaved to the point of expiration by fatigue, but more often simple loneliness? Capital’s game may be read as a contest for loneliness, where the victors achieve their own estrangement by recruiting the unwilling into a forced imitation of their aversion to any intimacy. Harbour City is their trophy, a display of wasted, empty space in the city that showed the world just how far concentration can go. It withers me now to think of it and my mind leaps and pounces across Canton road to refuel.
I walk east along Haiphong road and under one of the few expressways that bisect the city. I duck beneath the pillars of its sloping on-ramps into a maze of scents. A little village is churning out good things to eat under the bus-covered slab of road-cum-roof. This is Haiphong Cooked Food Centre and Temporary Market. The entrance is lined with vegetable vendors offering raw noodles, hand-formed tofu, and a few-score varieties of the bitter greens that are dropped into noodle soup to barely wilt just before a bowl arrives into my custody. Next, a row of halal butchers with planks covered in bright plastic and fresh goat heads. Their impeccably British english and the slightly loser cut of their jackets suggest that this is one of HK’s few neighborhoods that is not overwhelmingly Han Chinese. Next comes the cooked food area, a hall of shared red plastic stools and tables with lean-to kitchens set up around the perimeter. For the first time, I encounter a space where english is neither written nor spoken. One of the stalls has plates of raw meat and vegetables arranged on a countertop. I point to one with Chinese broccoli and slices of fermented Chinese sausage and the cook throws it into a hot wok, then brings me a bowl of rice and a plastic pitcher of earthy tea. The plate arrives back hot with a glaze of oyster sauce. The meat is tangy and sweet, dark and translucent, like candied salami, rich with umami. The warm tea seems to activate the food and glow fills my entrails. I feel not just fed, but fertilized, ready to face the streets again.
While Tsim Sha Tsui has a slightly lower residential density than Mong Kok, the sheer congestion of bodies is unsurpassed. Haiphong Road seems to consist of a perpetual reiteration of the same four stores: the jeweler selling jade bracelets and buddha pendants, some for over US$100,000; the camera dealer, each with identical inventory tightly arranged on window shelves; the Chinese apothecary with their herbal preparations and bulk animal parts; and the luxury wristwatch vendor, who strenuously maintains the pretense that a watch is a legitimate tool and not a mere ornament in the age of the mobile phone.
My apartment entrance is a narrow staircase leading up, open to the street with no door. Mohamed is waiting there with his reliable smile. His job is to bring in business to the tailor shop on the second floor, but he also operates as the building’s de facto doorman. With so much visual saturation in signage, many businesses rely on the personal touch of salespeople loitering in front to catch the attention of customers. Mohamed offered me a custom suit of course, which I declined, and he’s also offered a bit of friendship over these few weeks. He’s usually smoking with his coworker Iqbal, and like much of HK’s population he lavishes fond attention on my blond North American daughter.
I walk up the seven floors of dirty stairs to our small flat and make another cup of tea. Pu-erh is the city’s drug of choice. It’s dark but not astringent and enables a steady alertness and tolerance that coffee would subvert. One more flight of stairs and I sit on the building’s roof. Access to such a space is an extreme luxury here. Rumors abound that rooftops are the city’s prime site for informal housing. With no space on the streets, the evicted set up improvised dwellings complete with utilities on the tar-paper roof decks. They are the current heirs to Kowloon Walled City and the ineradicable force toward informal dwelling that expresses itself wherever official forms fail to deliver.
Across the street from my building, I look out over Kowloon Park. I’m just above the canopy and the banyan trees sway in defiance of any fixed spatial referent. Straight down, the heads of the crowd bobble in similar motion. Across the park, past the mosque, a large cubic hotel bears a sign in gentle, friendly typeface: “The Mira.” Mira means to watch, and in one of those rooms not long ago, Edward Snowden handed over his leaked documents to a team of journalists, an event that has already attached itself to HK’s ever-accumulating myth.
Back on the streets, I wander around Tsim Sha Tsui picking up things I need from various merchants behind little doorways: a bag of kimchi from a strip of Korean groceries, flakes of fake jade to give people back home, a pressed wheel of aged tea. There is a cat with an elaborate bauble necklace on a stoop and she relishes a bit of attention. This is how the world does business: a constellation of merchants anticipating basic needs with none of the overhead of corporate headquarters and subsidized parking lots. Another layer exists in secret, behind coded language and a series of gatekeepers, which adds expense. I don’t know where to access illicit products here, and I don’t care, but I’m sure its within 100 meters of here, behind a few backs and a few doors. There is a middle layer too, a grey market where appetites and desires are fulfilled in defiance of juridical desire, but the merchandise is not valuable enough for enforcement to be cost-effective. Here are unlicensed restaurants, hacked mobile phones and counterfeit DVDs, easy enough to find just outside the city’s most prestigious sightlines. In most cities, these products are displayed on tarps or tables along the backstreets and hauled away each night, but HK’s spatial compression has pushed them in and up along with every other component.
Among the millions of storefronts, Chungking Mansions looks remarkably unspecial, just a few stairs in green marble. The entrance width of around four meters does seem to intimate an enormous interior, but nothing suggests its status as Kowloon Walled City’s commercial descendant. The spatial configuration within is something between the logic of the street and the mall. Barkers and hustlers come form every direction, courteous but assertive, anticipating my needs and naming the merchandise they imagine would meet them. It’s a fifteen story concrete block of deregulated architecture and trade. The upper floors are reputed to be the cheapest guest lodging in the city and Western backpackers make up some portion of the traffic. Steel rolls cover little alcoves. Each business may be only three or four meters square. About half are either south asian restaurants or mobile phone dealers. Clearly there is a web of relationships and wholesale trade beneath the public face of proceedings. There is luggage for sale, sex magazines differentiated by ethnicity, every kind of thing that might maintain a traveling body for the sake of carrying on more commerce. HK is famous for deregulation of imports and exports, and Chungking Mansion has become a port for re-export of small goods. One researcher estimated that 20% of the mobile phones in Africa have passed through this one building.
Hong Kong is very nearly a city of pure commerce. With very little agriculture or manufacturing, trade is its lifeblood. It displays the inexorable urge toward exchange in plain view. Wherever desire combines with capital, trade follows, and that trade is a fundamentally denationalizing force. It incentivizes confrontation with an other, so that HK feels cosmopolitan even in the midst of extreme ethnic homogeneity, with about 85% Cantonese-speaking Han Chinese. The umbrella of deregulated finance and diplomatic ambiguity signifies shelter for the global elite. Newly wealthy PRC tourists come to buy the emblems of luxury in retail complexes tailored to meet every whim while concealing the origins and uncannily narrow scope of such whims. Meanwhile , Chungking Mansions and its satellites matchmake desire with commodities in the lower echelons of the market. The transaction itself attains a sanctity, so that when needs are fulfilled, there is nothing to do but to keep transacting, to strain and yearn toward stranger and grosser whims. The body occupies space. It has appetites and organs and a personality, and the city is the body writ large. Scale is arbitrary, and none of it bears any meaning except in aggregate.
A city shows a different face to the resident, the visitor, and the historian or statistician. Each brings a kind of numbness, but also sees in a wavelength that can penetrate certain veils. In combination, these visions can illuminate the interplay between distinctiveness and universality, for every city has a personality, yet living close together poses certain problems for which one solution is too compelling to resist. Every city has busses and motorcycles and five-story concrete apartment buildings. Every city has caffeinated beverages for sale. But every city has its own norms, its own script for public discourse, its own mode of dress that is common there and rare everywhere else. The imperatives of the market have influenced every city, but style, innovated by the residents, in dialogue with migrants, constantly fluctuating, persists in posing a countervailing force, everywhere and always. Like the LED lights that overpower HK’s night, what appears a full spectrum white is actually assembled from components: red, blue, and green. A system as complex as a city, especially this furthest of cities, is too intricate for anyone to grasp. Only intuition can guide the gaze toward certain details and their promise of gradually assembled meaning. A North American can draw on a racist legacy of compartmentalizing HK as exotic, mysterious, or unintelligible, but that would be as lazy as it is cowardly. Paying attention can render familiar even a thing that cannot be understood.
I’m still dazzled. I’m still nauseous. I’m still yearning to get back inside.
A jungle is the antithesis of surveillance. A fog of leaves and vines interferes with sight as much as movement, which is disorienting and also comforting. It makes a good hideout. One can neither see nor be seen, and so the swampy floodplain where the neighborhood bluffs tumble down and collide with the wide river is an ideal place for private business. It is also a kind of litmus test, the wilder pole in a spectrum of authority. Those who feel safe in the presence of ubiquitous automated cameras, security personnel, and space designed to anticipate their every need, project all their fears onto the jungle. They may feel watched, but by whom? The unknowing has substituted the safety net of control for an umbrella of darkness. For those who pass through the domain of men with an unshakable awareness of the capricious aggression underlying all bids at security, invisibility feels like safety. The jungle’s canopy is an embrace. Can these modes live and let live?
A domesticated stripe of tarmac bisects the swamplands, and some visitors cling to it as though leashed to some invisible mandate. No signage grants official permission to stray. This subspecies of human can be identified by their ritual invocation of chit-chat, which apparently bolsters the implied guarantee that their Sunday stroll deliver a predictable encounter with urban nature. This breed carries optics and texts treated with the latest weatherproofing technologies, but knows none of the old names. They consider fences meaningful and fret over the tents and mattresses that have cropped up along the gravel bars.
Set foot to soil and everyone speaks the ancient, universal tongue of encountering a stranger: nod, make a display of harmlessness, then move on. Occasionally, someone will offer to exchange a dram for a smoke or share some choice information about edible plants or fishing conditions, but underneath it the assumption prevails that others desire privacy. This is the fringe environment of a city where people are pushed around and crammed together against their will, the only refuge from the echoing growl of machines, a place for teenagers and adults to disappear into their chemistry experiments and investigate each other’s bodies, a place to set up camp during the ebb tide when the voracious furnace of finance has seized one’s home, then vehicle, a final resting place for those worn out before they are old. Impermanence rules here, a place too valuable to escape notice.
An old, wide river that passes through flat country is both a barrier and a magnet. It is almost always inhabited on both sides and those sides change constantly as swirling braids are carved, then abandoned. The water rises and falls with the rains, and this river, 200km inland, occasionally flows backward at high tide. As the only thing resembling a line in natural geography, rivers encode borders, but they also offer the easiest transport. Equipped with a canoe, a paddle, and some flat water, a person can haul six or eight times their weight with only the power of their body, an ancient, unsurpassed technology that has led humans to choose riverbanks for their settlements. At the same time, a river has two banks, and each encodes a mode of otherness.
Power accumulates unto itself and what begins as a ripple or hint of advantage accretes into a pile, then a hoard. Walls are constructed to hold back the river’s winter surge, but then the hoard exceeds them and another barrier rises, further out, a concentric web of protection. Inside, everything is an accessory to control. The river bank is an ornament and a defensible line. The flat water’s surface marks a sightline toward barbarian territory. On the western bank, everything is foreign, everything watchful of the moment of precarity, when someone goes off script. The east bank also absorbs all, but without molding it into an image of itself. Nothing is foreign because there is no script. My twelve- thousand-some days have all been there, within sight of capital’s domain, but not of it. The river was a prophylactic, the floodplain a buffer from which to see without being seen.
An island lies between the jungle bank and the risen city, although it is more like the opposite of an island–an atoll, a hole in the river invisible under the muddy veil of surface tension. The river carved between the volcanoes until it reached sea level, then started dumping its load of rock into itself in the form of a gravel bar. Herons shat there until the soil hosted black cottonwoods whose roots sutured the bar into a semi-permanent land mass. Men came, and their crude ambitions were intoxicated with stone as a metaphor for permanence, and with stone’s man-made embodiment, concrete. They dug the island’s center out until the lagoon was deeper than their tallest structures, unwittingly confirming their impotence to exceed the river’s might. Now the island is a ring, and beneath it a cold entropic hell where the corpses of buildings are thrown when men’s tastes change as to what shape concrete take. In late summer, the water drops and narrows. Pleasure boats creep toward the jungle, their radios clashing with the drum kit one of the river’s permanent residents keeps on his scavenged flotilla. At nadir, the tidal surge reverses the flow twice per day, bringing lamprey and sea lions far inland. A pulse of barges carries irregular slabs of concrete back to the lagoon, the quarried remains of good shelters abandoned before the onslaught of redesign. Its easy to imagine the lagoon as a storage unit. How long before the moon and the tides will conspire in their cycles and posses men to take what was already taken, then untaken? By then, labor may be obsolete and artificial intelligence will inform the humans of the shape of their own desires.
The lagoon is visible from only one spot along the river bank. The ring of island spared from excavation acts as a veil where elderly cottonwoods conceal the industrial equipment within. It’s a noble tree, whose nobility arises from its insistence on neither resistance nor complicity. It keeps to itself, absorbs abuse, and persists. If severed by beavers it will regenerate manyfold in a coppice. On the downstream tip of the island, herons have made a rookery of the cottonwood crowns, only to have their nests stolen by bald eagles: the laborer and the looter vying for terrain. At the first hint of spring, the cottonwoods, ever fecund, drop their unwanted leafbuds full of sap that smells like sex. Now visible just above the crowns, a new rookery is being woven of steel, higher than all the others, the fortress’ rhizomes spreading upward and outward upstream along the western bank.
I have been watching them through binoculars, there across the river, and I have learned their dance, although the steps matter only very little. The main thing is to diminish oneself before one’s possessions, to render the body as a neutral husk and wrap it in things that mark one’s residence in the fortress without distinguishing oneself from the others there. I have watched them for thirty years, over there, and now I can pass into that domain unnoticed. It is impossible to discern whether this is just now possible, or if the dance is so crude that I could have learned it in just a day or two. The trick is to pretend that you are not watching, and that you don’t know you are being watched. When your foot falls onto the surfaces over there, which are not earth, but antiseptic coverings over the earth, the knowledge that dandelion and plantain are absent beneath your footfall will travel straight up your leg in a stinging retort, but your facial gestures must not display that you have acquired this knowledge. Your peripheral vision must double upon itself and become half-glazed. It must appear that you pass into the terrain assuming that it anticipates your passage and makes way for you. You must display the indifference of one who does not watch for obstacles because they have been absent for so long. But if you actually adopt that indifference, then your purpose will be void, for you are here to infiltrate and surveil. All this I could have learned in a day. What took years was to grasp the trick of it: not to try too hard. Each moment over there I will be subject to a thousand gazes, but they are weak gazes. They have never faced the necessity of cultivating attentiveness as I have. The brute force of their kind of watchfulness becomes a flood of data and it is easy to blend into the noise. Too exacting a performance becomes signal, and once signal is detected the herd mind locks gazes onto it in unison.
An unfinished bridge has made landfall just past where the jungle gives way to the concrete plant. An anonymous costume and a projection of certainty allow me to cross it undetected, then move past the barely-inhabited medical facilities along its far ramp. The few visible bodies are undifferentiated, having been sculpted into similar shapes with exercise technology. There are few cues to distinguish public and private space, while the presence of security personnel and the expressions of contained panic on people’s faces imply the paramount importance of the distinction. Rules matter here, but nobody will say exactly what they are. The awareness of their subtle mandates must be hereditary here in a fully conceived habitat where nobody has yet been born and matured. I pause to mentally manufacture the blend of caution and arrogance that will permit me to carry a camera without attracting attention in this theater of gazes poised for any wrong move, the thrill of enforcement’s pounce promising to inject a moment of release within a lifetime of blandness. Coming from a people who have little power, but cannot turn off the power they do have, I can penetrate these people with a glance and make them desire me. It’s a dangerous game. They won’t acknowledge the desire, they will read it instead as a desire to vanquish me, to break the mirror that my gaze inserts into their gaze and to cut me with its shards if I linger. I permit myself this little indulgence, this distraction a few times and siphon its energy, then get back to work infiltrating and carrying back the evidence.
They live in towers higher than any tree, clad in glass so that the canyons are a hall of mirrors, eradicating the thou and reflecting the I in a feedback loop. A little patch of architected scape hosts a berm covered in untouched cloudberries. Dogs are abundant, but no wild organisms of any kind. Rumors circulate among the pumped artificial streams that the towers are only half inhabited, that the flats are portfolio lines to stash capital extracted from Canadian bitumen. Nearly every object is labelled with a mini-treatise touting optimism about technology and a sturdy forbearance with “resources.”
The light fades and the fauna retreat. I backtrack until I see a patch of soil. I reach to touch it and its microbiome blends with mine in a complex, soothing harmonic. My lower eyelids relax and a single silver hair falls and becomes earth.
First the smell, like an ultimatum. If you proceed, it will be on terms not your own. No coddling. What occurs here occurs not for your benefit. You may enter and leave self-contained, otherwise you will obtain no view from inside this container. With luck, the land will swallow you and spit you back out, although you will not be intact. You will be modified, your options diminished, although a certain clarity may arise about the ones that remain. You will know something you don’t want to know, and if you resist the knowing, dysphoria will become a vindictive tide. Your senses are not calibrated for these reference points. Land, water, and air are indistinct. They seem to occupy the same space all at once, both expansive and constrained. And there, where the elements converge, a being so perfectly at home, so perfectly at rest, whose presence speaks that this world was made perfect for someone, but not for you.
What draws the gaze and makes it linger? What halts the eye’s fluttering dance? Beauty usually can’t. What soothes rapidly becomes tedious. A larger force must override pleasure-seeking and offer a larger reward alongside its abrasive aspects. Once perceived, that larger force can become an object of desire–a desire more like love than addiction. That force is unplanned, or part of a plan too complex to understand, so that the encounter remains new. No matter how much additional attention is invested, revelation continues to flow. The unplanned land and its inhabitants have this quality, and I like to think that images can carry some of that force too, so long as they shun every cliche. The conventions of nature photography have mostly been about soothing a public alienated from the wilds, but soothing platitudes never allay pain for long, and if the cataloguing of scenery has been one of photography’s most relentless projects, the land and its creatures are too inexhaustible to be so easily contained. Every moment outside of brutally planned environments is a brand new revelation for those who cultivate attentiveness, and image making is a conduit for sharing sense-work with those who have attention but not access. There is so much more to see. Here is my offering. It is not soothing or beautiful. It is not even mine. It is an invitation, a filter, and an envoy.
Summer is an ill-fitting costume on this land. In the rain, it becomes itself. Every surface is more vivid. The humidity carries sound and scent further, but both remain subtle. Processes here are slow and ancient, and motion imperceptible. Growth and decay exist in enough proximity to extrapolate the full cycle without witnessing the changes. Even on flat terrain, walking feels more like climbing as boulders and fallen trees punctuate every potential line of traverse. Lines of sight are constrained and camouflaged as if concealing some inner sanctum via distortions in the fabric of space. Many people who have inhabited such places have told myths of walking for a long time and ending up in the same place. Indeed, direction is another sense that is inadequate to this place, and one is humbled to realize that no amount of knowledge, skill, or equipment is a guarantee against getting lost. A forest is neither friendly nor hostile. It is merely indifferent–to my safety, to my aesthetics and politics. I’m here to let go of my aesthetic concerns and find an aesthetic that belongs to the forest. I capture the spaces and creatures as they present themselves, without editing as I go. I will edit later and linger with each image–especially those that violate some compositional convention–in order to absorb what the forest tells.
Tunnels of foliage give way to a beach of rounded rocks and alder leaves. The smell called me here, and there it is: a rotting coho, the carnivore become meat, a small monument to nitrogen flows. Most of the flesh has liquified, but not enough to present as the elegant purity of a bleached skeleton. It is hideous and putrid and issues an undeniable call to linger. What it imparts is not pleasure but meaning, which is a pleasure that lingers. There is reward in endurance, in finding the right amount of friction and trusting that its meaning will become clear later. Here’s another secret: here in the temperate rainforest, there is sunshine. The clouds have a rhythm, and between them, channels of light more glorious than any desert or tropical paradise. The land’s contours siphon all the light and water into moments of coalescence.
Will you spend a whole minute, or more, with these images? They tell something to whoever will listen. What appears motionless is merely unwilling to reveal itself to a hasty spectator.
There is another stream back in the city, once home to coho. Usually cities are superimposed onto a watershed and streams are crammed into tunnels under the streets. But at the fringes of all of earth’s cities lies a buffer zone where the excluded go to set up shelter when the architects and financiers enact their schemes deeper in the city’s entrails. Here, haphazard neglect means the stream still flows between sunlit banks lined with chain link and bramble. Car parts and glass line the shore and the odor is more synthetic than rotting flesh. There is a narrow bridge of creosote timber and blacktop, and half a block up a little street, a simple white duplex. I was born there. The front yard is an ample concrete slab, as if the builder knew that whoever lived here would have a robust involvement with derelict cars and the various tasks of triage that coax life from them. Now the same people whose ancestors turned a floodplain into a city of steel walls have shifted their desires. They still want an aesthetic of control, but now with botanical overtones. They want back the stream they once relegated to the scorned classes. They have taken the houses, levied taxes, cleaned up the waterway, and programmed the habitat. Yesterday, coho spawned there for the first time in decades. Capital’s whims are as erratic as they are relentless. During the cannery era, salmon were the cheap protein that gave a low-wage workforce physical strength. Now they serve as yard ornaments for a post-urban pastoralism. My ancestors have moved on, in constant migration, like the coho, swimming upstream, in flight from capital, further on, toward the headwaters.
Fire touches everything, eventually. Eventually, it touches something dear. The hubris of infinite precaution finally fails, then reconciliation becomes mandatory. Despair probably happens, but that too is temporary. Latent procedures activate. Poise turns to strike. Cyclic dialectics tilt toward the young, the fecund, the meek, the haggard. After a short interval, little evidence of cataclysm remains except a few charred limbs.
Two years ago, I received news that one of my dearest places had burned in wildfire. That high desert oasis had hosted my initiation into backcountry living at age seventeen. I had taken my daughter there as soon as she could walk to anoint her into the wilds with those artesian waters. It is a mostly uncharted place, hidden if not remote, so information about the fire amounted to a few scratched lines on a map. I feared the worst.
I was never part of a family that owned a second home or some tract of scenic property. Like so many working-class Westerners, I always considered the wild commons my second home. It’s an expansive way of mind that also makes certain conceits impossible. The wilds don’t stay the way I left them. They are their own manager. To sustain and persist in wild homemaking requires submission to change, an acceptance of designs that one does not design or commission. I confess I never envied the propertied. Ownership beyond a primary dwelling seems a nuisance that acts as a drug on the consciousness. It sows delusions of control, mythologizes protection from the unpredictable. Wilderness has been my drug of choice, and wilderness is always changing, yet always familiar.
Fire scars are less obvious in the sage steppe than in the forest, and I had forgotten about the burn until I was halfway down the trail and ready to seek shade under a large juniper I remembered from the last trip. The tree was missing and a charred stump stood in its place. It was spring and the desert was at its most colorful. Wildflowers bloomed all around and the bunchgrass was green during these brief months. But many of the junipers had become snags and some of the sage remained only as black skeletons. The landscape seemed more alive than usual. Rings of flowers grew around the snags where they had previously been deprived of light and water. Insects and birds were abundant and diverse, and over some small berm would be a cluster of surviving junipers.
As I descended the canyon, I noticed that none of the stream-side plants had burned. The cluster of tiny springs that formed a microcosm of tributaries along the floodplain remained intact. Down here, most of the junipers were dead. The ponderosa pines were charred around the base but seemed unperturbed by it. Some of the birches and willows had burnt up, but already had two meters of bushy new stems coming up as replacement. And on a steep slope formerly dominated by a thicket of juniper, a forest of mullein was rising. Because mullein is a biennial, its age is obvious and almost all of the plants were in their first or third year. Apparently the latent seed had all sprouted at once in the spring after the fire. The second year, they set seed, and now the next generation was beginning among the desiccated seed-heads of the first. The timing was written clear as a calendar.
To a human, whose main threat is other humans, there is no place more tranquil than a desert spring. It is a crossroads where everyone comes to drink, and a fragile truce prevails. As I behold the intricate food web of this world-in-miniature, I reflect on how evolution has endowed us with complex sensory systems and information processing brains, with the happy result that we can read the emotions of other creatures with moderate accuracy. Up on the rimrock, alertness prevails, fatigue and hunkering down are ascendant. Near the spring, my companions are relaxed, the strangers I encounter are warm and friendly, even the rattlesnake seems in a gentle mood as she warns me not to step closer. I believe that all vertebrates, at minimum, posses this emotion reading capability, and can thus participate in a collective de-escalation of fear response. Plants probably make a subtler contribution. The fire has done nothing to diminish this experience. The landscape feels cleansed rather than war-torn.
Every year, in the spring, my household enacts a purge of possessions in preparation for the summer’s scavenging. Needs shift, and we give objects away to friends and neighbors in an event that is both ritualistic and practical. Afterward, the house feels open, poised to receive. Dust, memories, and tightness all diminish. Ideas shift too. I grew up in a small room I shared with my brother. We had bunk beds and about a dozen Smokey the Bear posters evangelizing fire prevention, which I now understand as coded protection for the timber industry’s state-subsidized profits. My daughter shares her room with her pretend friend, Fire, who was born in a volcano and now happily cohabits with us. Fire is friend to all who would befriend her; who would tolerate her creative destruction; who would carve out a space in themselves for the untamed and untamable. The desert also feels friendly now after the fire. Here is no post-apocalypse but a jubilee and reboot. Fire may be inevitable, but cataclysm is not extinction. It is prelude.