Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Grass

Reprinted from the Road to Rushmore 2010 blog about a road trip I took with two friends earlier this July. I write there as whitecrispprotectivecap.

It’s like going into one of those specialty stores in New York City that sells only one thing, like candy for instance. You have seen candy throughout your life and never paid it much heed. But here are aisles upon aisles, shelves upon shelves, of candy. Mundane candy even -- regular old Skittles and Reeses and whatnot. Nothing special. But when there is really that much of it, it becomes profound. You can’t believe someone mounted such an effort.

In South Dakota, it’s all about grass. Not even varieties of grass -- pretty much just one kind, I think. And that one kind they do very well. This grass is noble. Several times, glancing at a grass field, I mistook it for young corn. Just like everything else out in South Dakota -- the dandelions, stairwells, hotel rooms, main streets, Mahler symphonies -- the grass has room to be bigger, and it is. It has large blades. It grows tall. And its stems are spaced farther apart so that you can look down between them and see the ground like cracked, white scalp. If you pull too much grass, you’ll leave that scalp unfastened to flake away and start a new patch of Badlands.

The wind causes the grass to shimmer. It chases flashing, silvery patches like speeding dolphins breaching a water’s surface from horizon to horizon, prairie power running wild.

Continue . . .

Stürmish Bewegt: A Tornado Story

Reprinted from the Road to Rushmore 2010 blog about a road trip I took with two friends earlier this July. I write there as whitecrispprotectivecap.

Blazing across southern South Dakota on I-90, I wanted to summarize, for posterior’s sake on my Tascam audio recorder, our mid-day thoughts on listening to Mahler's 9th -- and Mahler's everything else too. With the Tascam in my one hand, we talked. But there was also this awesome storm ahead. I had already video-recorded, while riding toward Memphis, a lightning bolt on K-Os's flip-cam. So I picked that up in my other hand and started shooting the storm too.

The rain smacked the windshield sharply, startlingly, a sign that hail was mixed in. I checked the windshield for cracks.

In the back seat, Dr. Data observed that in each field we passed, the cows were all clustered against the fence in one corner. They had moved as far as the barbed wire would let them from the oncoming storm. What fear lurks behind their dull eyes when they are unable to flee and take cover according to their instincts' desire? But at least these cows are on large grasslands and not in feed lots where rain no doubt boosts the pestilence festering in the feces in which they spend their lives wading.

I would be foolish to try to reproduce K-Os’s expert technical analysis of Mahler. But his more general observation about the composer’s loose structure is very useful to me. He pointed out that Mahler’s first movements lack a clear sequence of exposition-development-recapitulation. It seems that the main theme often contains a sense of development from its first statement at the beginning; and it reappears many times throughout the movement, alternating with other material, played a differently every time so that you can't tell which time was supposed to be the actual development, and which the recapitulation, if any. It’s as if Mahler doesn’t want the listener to keep track of the structure -- he wants us to instead be lost in his drama, or whimsy.

This sheds some light on why I like Mahler so much, and why some dislike him. His liberal departure from familiar structure deprives his music of succinctness -- and lots of good, honest working folk like succinctness. They don’t have time for a thirty-minute first movement that sounds like three movements, and a second movement that sounds a lot like the first movement. (Indeed, Dr. Data, listening in the back seat most of the trip, could never tell when the movement had changed. And I, familiar with all Mahler’s symphonies, still can’t tell the changes between movements from the 3rd movement to the end in the 2nd symphony.)

But I was never good honest working folk. It’s not that I don’t work hard when I have a job -- it’s that wise choices for a lucrative career have not been my primary guide in my life decision making. When I started listening to Mahler, I had just graduated from college with a B.S. in physics. But I had known for half my college years that I was not cut out for that field. I didn’t want to work in a job that physics might have trained me for and I didn’t want further schooling in it. I was living with K-Os, ShakeThatCat, and some other folks, for $60.00/month plus utilities, in a mildewey basement; working at Kinko’s; and following a whim of trying to get some of the weirdest work I could think of, which was to work in the film and video business.

In the music of Mahler, I identified with the lack of adherence to form, the whimsy, the intrusion of flippancy into profundity. And when I did start to get work in film and video and gave up full-time work, there were lots of idle weekdays providing even more time for Mahler. His long symphonies must have been intended for the un- and under-employed, an alternative to beer or self-help.

We drove through that rain fairly quickly, and then spied what we thought would be a great grass-field shot for our photo essay. We exited the interstate, parked on a side road, and stepped out of the car into the stürmish bewegt. We had not realized how windy it was. Our ears filled with the its rumble; the grass bowed and rippled like hair under a blowdryer. We were still beneath the dark overhang of clouds, and with that wind, it seemed the rain and lightning were not done with us.

We were well rehearsed in our photo process. K-Os and I would grab three lawn chairs from the back of our vehicle and plunk them down in front of our desired background; Dr. Data would plant the camera, level it, then holler instructions to refine the composition. Then he would start the timer and jog to his seat, pushing his hair back to keep it out of his face for the shot.

During this setup, two large Diesel pickups drove past, accelerating with no regard for us. One cut pretty close to Dr. Data while he was still at the camera; the other came after Data had sat, and nearly sideswiped the camera.

We got our grassfield picture. Then I wanted to record my beloved grass blowing in the wind. I’ll write some other time about the grass. At that moment, it sounded like all the NFL cheerleaders' pom-poms in a cardboard box being shaken. I knelt next to it and tried to shield my Tascam from the wind using my body and my hat, but this was futile. The audio has distortion and other afflictions. I’m not proud of it. But you can hear a little if you want.

Our vehicle, Entropy, was parked by an intersection of gravel roads amid the fields. We saw another shot we could take in a different direction from the intersection, so we walked about 20 yards and started setting it up.

A minivan approached us. This was the third vehicle to encounter us, and I was thinking that this time, we’d be asked to leave. Its window came down and a woman called from the drivers’ seat.

“Are you taking pictures of anything particular?” she asked me.

I wondered what secrets this land held that she might not want us to photograph. Signs from aliens hidden in the grass? Minuteman missiles? (I’ll get to those in another entry.) I explained that we were taking pictures of ourselves for a photo series, and we liked the scenery. I was ready to be completely diplomatic if she were to accuse us of trespassing or something.

She looked at Dr. Data and K-Os on the road ahead. She seemed to be thinking over what to say next, as if my response had any authority, any weight worthy of consideration.

“Well . . .” she hesitated, as if I might not want my time wasted by what she had to offer. “There’s a tornado back there.” She pointed back through the intersection toward a hilltop where some other cars were parked, and some people standing around.

Several things went through my head.

1. She doesn’t own this land. She’s just a gawker like me.
2. K-Os once had a close-call with a tornado and might not want to dally with this one.

I looked at Dr. Data and K-Os who were looking at me. Data might have actually said “Tornado?” before I said, “Guys, there’s a --”

3. “TORNADO!!”

K-Os said, “We’re outta here.”

I struggled to voice a thought. Something had been left out of this woman’s information, and I needed to know it. After an agonizing second for formulate my words, I blurted it out.

“Is it going away from us?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Guys, tornadoes have been known to change directions,” said K-Os. Chaotic in nature, he should know.

He and Dr. Data had grabbed the chairs and were walking toward the intersection. I grabbed the tripod and camera and walked just ahead of them. I didn’t know if we were headed toward the car or toward the hilltop where we could see the tornado too. I asked K-Os if I could run while carrying his camera.

“Long as you don’t trip,” he said.

So I jogged up the hill. At its top was a small car with some kids sitting on its back trunk, looking over its roof. Upon my approach, a young mother got out, frowning, and ordered the kids to get inside the car. The father, in the drivers’ seat with his window down, was a dreadlocked white hippy. He pointed across the blowing grass. Beneath much of the cloud was a solid mass of rain, but to the right of the rain I could maybe see some points extending from the cloud to the ground.

“It was touched down, but it’s not right now,” he said. The status of being touched-down or not seemed important throughout the conversation of these native South Dakotans.

I couldn’t tell it was a tornado, really. It was like looking at distant celestial objects through a telescope. I had to take the expert’s word that I was seeing it. But the cloud ceiling between us and the tornado did appear to have concentric “rings,” like overhead ripples, centered on what he was pointing at. Something “circular” was definitely going on. And the wind was unnaturally fierce, whereas, in NC, once a storm has passed, the wind is over.

I think it was Dr. Data who first suggested we take a photo essay picture in front of the tornado.

K-Os spoke against it. “Come on guys. It’s a tornado.”

“It’s a tornado!” said Data. He set down his lawn chair. I gave him the camera and took the other chairs from K-Os and positioned them in the grass. I feared the wind would blow the camera over on the tripod, but it held. Resigned, K-Os took his seat next to me. Data framed up the shot and we got it.

(Days later, on the way home, we looked over our Bison series photos and decided that the tornado photo was not worthy of the series. You can hardly see the tornado, and without that, there’s no apparent point to the picture. Plus, our hat and hair are messed up, and we’re angled funny. K-Os said the photo should never appear anywhere at all, but I insisted that it was valuable as documentation of this tornado experience. So he said I could show it here if I emblazoned on it “Not In Bison Series.”)

We packed our chairs up and headed back to the car. Dr. Data wondered out loud if we should chase the tornado.

"NO," said K-Os. "We're the lawn chair guys. We're not the storm chasing guys."

That night, in our hotel room, K-Os happened to look over the footage I had taken while approaching the storm and talking about Mahler and cows. Centered, in the frame, was the gray mass of rain and cloud where the lightning was; but to the left of this storm center, there were some peculiar conical clouds. In the video, we could hear that he had actually commented on these clouds. The whole scene, with the main gray mass on the right, and the conical clouds on the left, was a mirror-image of what we saw from the hilltop at a greater distance after passing through the storm.

So basically, we had driven straight into a storm that included a tornado, though the tornado was not directly in our path. And I had videotaped the tornado purely by accident, while blithely talking about Mahler and cows and whatnot. At the time of this writing, if we weren’t already safely wrapped in the humidity, allergens, and insect-noise of home, I’d say we’re totally toast out in the Wild West -- we’d step right on a rattlesnake thinking it was a throw rug, or get our heads bitten off by a mountain lion while trying to feed it beef-jerky.

K-Os selected for us the best footage of the tornado. This accidental shooting of it was far better than what we saw from the hilltop. I’m so glad we have it. Honestly, it might be the highlight natural wonder from our whole trip.

Continue . . .