Purposeful Imperfections

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Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann (cover art)

A smart, eloquent, and deeply personal memoir, Hold Still’s prose is ornate in a manner befitting the fecund, gnarled landscape of the American South, which serves not merely as the setting but as a primary force in Sally Mann’s life. Utterly blunt, Mann thankfully doesn’t balk at addressing life’s complexities head on, though every confession and insight seems to inspire a whole new set of quandaries. It’s a text that’s at once revealing and opaque, a tension Mann seems to revel in–especially within her art–and despite her poise and intellectual rigor, Hold Still is quite messy in places. It regularly left me conflicted and unsettled, and the process of sorting out my responses–to Mann’s art, decisions, ideas, etc.–was an engaging, rigorous, and gratifying experience.

Toward the End of Last Year

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The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick (cover art)

To my mind, The Legacy of Conquest is the single best volume on Western history, albeit I’m no historian but, rather, a mere kid from Colorado. It’s just such an engaging and succinct text, chock full of ideas that, at the time of writing in the 1980s, were groundbreaking and often controversial. A number of them still are, though, as proof of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s prowess and conviction, many have become far more commonplace in discussions of Western policy, history, and ways of life. For instance:

  1. Nature, far from being ours to control and profit from, has always proved a fickle partner. It’s one of the greatest barriers to sustaining life in the American West and has long left many of those seeking fortune there to feel somehow betrayed.
  2. The notion of property–especially land–was, and still is, one of the great conflicts between those living in the American West. Initially a mostly racially charged issue–the idea property to White settlers was wholly sacrosanct, whereas to the Native Americans it was, at least initially, fairly bewildering–property continues to be a source of class, race, corporate, and/or government-based conflict.
  3. Contrary to the still dominant view of the American West as a place for those seeking independence, the settling of the region was only possible through heavy government subsidies. The distribution of land, the control of Native Americans, and the railroads were all only possible thanks to substantial federal funding and support. We can now add many more items to this list, notably resource and public land management.
  4. Speaking of natural resources and public lands, in contrast to the prevalent ideas of the region’s bountiful and well-preserved landscapes, the West was founded on extractive industry: get in, get rich, get out. Touching on a couple of the earlier points: “The essential project of the American West was to exploit the available resources. Since nature would not provide it all, both speculation and the entrepreneurial uses of government were human devices to supplement nature’s offerings.” (p. 86)
  5. The belief that there was some kind of pastoral “golden age,” which the West still conjures, is, and always was, a myth. In fact, Western settlers often experienced the same feelings, because there “…is a pattern in Western civilization, long preceding Jefferson, to attribute ideal values to rural life that reality cannot match.” (p. 131) The same goes for natural disasters, times of resource scarcity, and other events that cause people to feel that life was simpler, easier, and better in the past. “The fur trappers coming into the Rockies in the mid-1830s could regret having missed the real boom times of decade before…” (p. 152) This nostalgia for the past is one of the longest-running misconceptions in the American West.

That’s a pretty impressive array of ideas, all of which bolster Limerick’s central thesis that, far from being a long lost, nostalgia-inducing era, the nineteenth-century West is, in many ways, very much alive in the present. Which is not to say that Limerick always gets it right, nor have many of her insights lead to tangible resolutions in the decades since The Legacy of Conquest was written. Sadly, as the West continues to grow, many of these issues continue to give rise to a strange mixture of denial and stubbornness which, in turn, often leads to more conflicts and more exploitative policies and ways of life.

Limerick, I suspect, would be the first to concede this. History, she tells us, is never resolved, nor should it be. It’s is a dialog, one that circles back on itself in light of new discoveries and modes of thought, always being reworked and, ideally, calibrated with each new generation of historians, readers, lawmakers, and Westerners. And the work is never done.

“The clashes and conflicts of Western history will always leave the serious individual emotionally and intellectually unsettled. In the nineteenth-century West, speaking out for the human dignity of all parties to the conflicts took considerable nerve. It still does.” (p. 221)

 

Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint

Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint (cover art)

Jane Jacobs’s four recommendations for successful neighborhoods (p. 124):

  1. Streets and districts should serve a variety of industries and purposes.
  2. Blocks should be short and feel comfortable to pedestrians.
  3. Buildings should vary in age, condition, and use (a.k.a. “mixed use”).
  4. Population must be dense.

In a place like Denver, Colorado–where I live, and which, at the moment, is growing by leaps and bounds, especially in the urban core–Jacobs’s recommendations are commonplace in discussions about what the city should look like, now and in the coming decades. But her ideas weren’t always a given, in fact they were initially viewed as crackpot, dangerous, and unfounded. Having a chance to glimpse of the origin of these ideas, and to examine their first major applications, is reason enough to pay Wrestling with Moses a visit.

Luckily, Anthony Flint’s text is also a lively biography of an astounding person: a woman without a college degree who, beginning in the 1950s, exposed political, financial, and intellectual fraud at the core of some incredibly powerful institutions and individuals. Most famously, Jane Jacobs defeated Robert Moses, New York City’s “master builder,” multiple times at a point in his career where he was more or less untouchable. It was a fight that was about as David versus Goliath as it gets.

But Jacobs’s legacy had a much larger impact than saving her community from the wrecking ball. In the process of battling Moses’s widespread brand of urban renewal, Jacobs pioneered public participation in urban planning, proved that ordinary citizens can successfully challenge authority, and exposed the democracy-undermining practice of funneling public money into private ventures. Echoes of her community activism would resonate broadly in the civil unrest of 60s.

However unwittingly, though, Jacobs’s approach did lend itself to gentrification–take look at Greenwich Village today–and Flint is careful not to gloss over this, and other, critiques. Likewise, he shows that, for all of Moses’s missteps and heavy handedness, he was very much a product of his era, and, even then, some of his projects have paid dividends (the creation of New York City’s extensive park system is one example). It’s this complexity that gives both Jacobs and Moses a well-roundedness and, in turn, renders their relationship–which provides the backbone of Wrestling with Moses–all the more intricate, substantive, and fascinating. So, while this is a biography about a humble visionary who took on a giant and won, it’s also a book about how we live now, and, with the majority of the world’s population now found in cities, how we will live.

 

Harvard Lakes

Harvard Lakes (1).

Harvard Lakes (2)

Western Slope

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Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (cover art)

In Wanderlust, the medium is a crucial part the message, as the text–like a long walk–digresses and meanders, exposing us to a vast array of ideas, experiences, and terrain. This rambling style, while hypnotic, often pulls away from a cohesive thesis, though I think that’s part of the point. Solnit seems to reject much of the tidy, virtual, and prescriptive ways of living that arose concurrently with walking’s decline, aiming to, if not wholly reclaim, at least remind us of the joys and necessities of moving, living, and thinking at three miles per hour. Whether it’s a hike in the mountains, a stroll down the Vegas strip, or a political march, Wanderlust is a compelling reminder of the role waking has played in our development–biologically, personally, culturally, artistically, and politically. Walking has gotten us this far, and, while its roles have frequently changed over the last few hundred years, it has persisted, though, in recent decades, just barely. Solnit brings a much needed awareness to what we’ll lose if we cast it aside entirely.

Fallbrook

Fallbrook 1

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Fallbrook 2

Fallbrook 3

A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland by Rebecca Solnit

A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland by Rebecca Solnit (cover art)

Drawing parallels between her actual homeland of California and ancestral homeland of Ireland, Rebecca Solnit pens a prismatic travel tale, a journey that’s as much inward as outward and as much about the act of travel as traveling in a specific locale. Book of Migrations is a kind of history book, too, one that muddies the usual takes on the past by mingling the personal and the marginalized with the ascendant and traditional.

Throughout, Solnit attempts to situate herself and those she encounters in the landscapes she walks across, but footholds quickly give way, leaving, at best, blurry insights. Yet, it’s this indeterminacy that makes Book of Migrations so meaningful, as it reminds us, crucially, of the mutability of identity, a starkly contrasting take to the far more traditional notions of character and culture as sedentary and fixed. It’s this fluidity that Solnit wants us to embrace as, like travel, its importance lies in the journey–with its motion, change, and newness–not the destination.

Wood Works

Pancho (Hatch Work)

Oaxacan Door

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