Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chasing the Intangible

If this book could be more, could show more, could own more, this book would have smells....
It would have the smell of old farms; the sweet smell of new-mown hay as it falls off the oiled sickle blade when the horses pull the mower through the field, and the sour smell of manure steaming in a winter barn.
~ Gary Paulsen, The Winter Room

If my camera could be more, could show more, could own more, my camera would have smells. So too would this blog, this two-dimensional medium which prevents me from conveying the scent emanating in the wooded area down along the river by Father Hennepin Park.

As I walked the trails last Thursday, alone over the lunch hour, I was taken aback by the perfume of the trees and shrubs. Up above the river banks we have city trees, city shrubs. Lovely they may be, but all I smell when walking down the street is car exhaust and olives from the Greek deli on the corner. I forget that plants have smells. I forget that nature in its natural state is stronger, bigger, more forceful.

All I could think, then, was of the preface to The Winter Room by Gary Paulsen. I first read it in sixth grade, or more accurately, my teacher read it aloud to the class. Few books really stick with me from my preteen years, an era marked by largely disposable juvenile fiction. The Winter Room stuck with me.

The yearning in his words (quoted above) captures the inadequacy of expression, the inability to ever take a moment and present it in entirety to another. How do we really communicate? How do we make people understand our ideas and our experiences? As I walked the tree-shrouded path, I wanted to make my camera take a smell-picture. I wanted it to suck the scent of the blossoms into its lens, reflecting and imprinting it for others to relish.

But it couldn't. And neither can books. Books and blogs can't have smells, tastes, texture. And that is a shame. That walk was lovely, and I would have liked to share the air and all its heavy humid scents with you.

Along the way I came across a man sitting cross-legged on the edge of an overhang. He was posed as if meditating but in his left hand he held an unopened book.

Was his book, like this blog, inadequate in that moment? Both fail in comparison to moments like these. Nevertheless, it is our nature to try to grab hold of fleeting impressions and to try to convey them to one another as best we can.

If this blog had smells, this blog would smell like spring leaves and tightly closed blossoms, slowly warming under weak afternoon sunlight, It would have a sweet, wet floral scent, one which I thought was lilac until I smelled the distinctly different scent of lilacs the next day. If this blog had smells, it would smell of damp soil, slick with the morning's rain, and crushed green grass.

If this blog had smells, it would smell greener and wilder than any breath inhaled along a city street. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Minnehaha Falls: A Little Laugh

And he journeyed without resting,
Till he heard the cataract's laughter,
Heard the Falls of Minnehaha
Calling to him through the silence.
"Pleasant is the sound!" he murmured,
"Pleasant is the voice that calls me!"
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Suggestive of a little laugh, Minnehaha translates to "waterfall" in Dakota, making Waterfall Falls a clumsily redundant appellation.It's a beautiful word, however, and trips nicely off the tongue.

Minnehaha is also the love interest in Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha," an ill-fated beauty who succumbs to famine and fever in a winter wasteland. Though the poem is written in an awkward meter (trochaic tetrameter, better used in Finnish epics than in English) I love the lines "And he journeyed without resting/ Till he heard the cataract's laughter." 

Did Longfellow think that the "haha" in Minnehaha meant laughter or was he just amusing himself with words? Or am I reading too much into his phrasing?

Regardless, I applaud his choice of the word cataract, which in this case means deluge of water rather than an abnormality of the eye. Perhaps cataract was in common usage in his day or perhaps, like me, Longfellow thought scoring thesauruses for obscure synonyms was fun.

Cataract is much like the Spanish word for waterfall, "catarata." A strong, hard word, catarata suggests a steady drumming, a rat-a-tat cadence reminiscent of the waterfall come summer. Right now all that can be heard is a deafening, rhythm-less rush. It seems Minneapolis' fourth snowiest winter and rain-soaked spring have made this cataract more likely to damage the auditory rather than visual faculties.

But I digress. This is not an English class, nor a lecture on etymology. This is a walk in the woods. This is an escape. Or perhaps it is all of these things. That's the beauty of a good wander. Everything begins to connect until you feel that you are part of a world that is not only so alive in the present moment but is also burgeoning with the past.

Do these little flowers have a history? Known as Creeping Charlie, ground ivy, gill-over-the-ground and Glechoma hederacea, the purple trumpets are both loved and despised. Some, like my sister, uproot them as weeds. Others use the plant for medicinal purposes or eat the greens in salads. And some, like me, take photos and contemplate the fact that Glechoma looks like glaucoma.
Glechoma, glaucoma, cataracts. My eyes feel fuzzy. Is that background supposed to be blurred?

Oh, that's right, it is. That's me playing with my new camera. Do you like it?

Friday, May 13, 2011


Regent's Canal, London
Its days as a trade route done under by railways and lorries, the canal lays silent and heavy. Rare late afternoon sunlight casts long shadows and unmarred reflections and a sleepy warmth lingers in the air. Don't drink the water, little birdies. Under the mirrored surface lies a layer of sludge.