Monday, May 21, 2012

Mark Jack: "Bending Wall"

Why do we really use fences? Mark Jack provides a West Coast missive on made-up boundaries.
Once past the parking lots and beyond the petting zoo and the educational center; up into the minor paths, past the molting Madrone, and into the smaller pines at the top of the Berkeley hills, one can look west and see, on a clear day, all of the Bay Area. Oakland slopes down at one’s left, ending at the huge mechanical dinosaurs of the Port, while across the water San Francisco huddles amongst its hills, lorded over by the gratuitously large Sutro Tower that is conspicuously absent from every tourist photo of the city, but which is often, thanks to the fog, the only thing visible on the peninsula. The Golden Gate Bridge draws a faint, jagged line over to the luxury mountains of Marin, where, as I found recently while perusing yet another incarnation of his sort of (by this time) tired, On The Road, Kerouac describes a poor community of shacks and itinerant workers, but which is now an area of eco-mansions and small towns with a scent of artisanal ice cream and newly minted money. However, all this distant edifice serves to do is to isolate one in the hills, with the few fellow hikers decreasing as you force yourself further east. And the hills continue on with golden grasses and groves of live oak and little streams and it’s so big; the natural world is so big and free and wonderful and there are giant vultures and suddenly...a fence and beyond it, cows, and wait! There’s a road. And there is another fucking Prius on it. Damn.

The giant redwoods, the dramatic rise of the hills, the vertigo inducing cliffs at the black maw of the Pacific, all launch one immediately into a belief in “wild” nature, untamed and pure. I find that this tendency is particularly strong in California, where every other tree is gigantic, and even the most uncared for roadside shrub sprouts gorgeous flowers. The great, unfenced dream of America, which is a dream of movement, and one that tends to move west. This country finds its justification the west, where it seems impossible and foolish to fence in such powerful, vibrant nature. Yet one of the first things to be done in the protection of the pristine wilds of Yosemite was the rounding up and killing and or deporting of the indigenous peoples—their villages all burned. The untouched wild, that people like John Muir coveted, had to be imagined and built through a process of erasure and ritual forgetting. Monuments to the previous, indigenous inhabitants invite one to re-inscribe them into the landscape of memory while holding the un-peopled wild as the true vision.

Raymond Williams’ brilliant The Country and the City, opens with English poets and writers bemoaning a lost, idyllic English countryside, constantly moving into a past that in its turn bemoans a lost past. Williams’ examples stop in the 16th century with the writing of Sir Thomas More. Meanwhile I, in my wanderings through the hills, find my progress suddenly halted by a fence, separating me from some farmer’s private property. I may have been halted similarly, years before in my Western Pennsylvania youth, by the fence of a mining interest, or, even further back, the territorial concerns of some indigenous people—a term, which, by the way, is a little problematic. Indigenous, I mean, in what way? For how long does one have to stay in an area for one to be called native?  This seems to be another way in which a liberal appreciation scrubs difference into one, wholesale appreciation/depreciation for/of the Other. Williams, in his examples, comes to the point where he mentions Eden. Ah, Eden! The sacred hunting ground, wild, abundant, mythical, lost. Of course Eden had big fucking walls around it and an angel guard with flaming sword, so who’s to know?

What is it that that keeps me, on my walks through the hills of Berkeley, on this side of the fence? Am I being a good, thoughtful neighbor by not treading on private property? Do I assert my own, private self with its own private rights by respecting the property rights of this absent other? Am I just following the advice of Robert Frost’s stern, repetitious companion in his “Mending Wall”, confusing being a good neighbor with being a good person?

I’ve always preferred the often-unsung two verses towards the end of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

It seems the answer to Guthrie’s question is “No.”  All over there are fences, walls, keeping us in and out, depending on the situation; all of it sort of sinister and generally unkind, but then, I’ve seen some pretty walls, some artful ones, and some that look like walls but do not really serve the purpose of being walls and are so, what? I think of Andrew Goldsworthy and, among other work of his, that magnificent thing at Storm King. Brilliant. But even the old white picket thing has a sort of beauty to it. The desire for freedom, for unfenced expanse seems to be merely the product of just such hemming in.

Climbing Mt. Tamalpais, one is kept to trails so as to not damage the delicate natural land around one, meaning, paradoxically, if one wishes to enjoy the wild, uncivilized, surrounding nature, one must not enjoy it, at least not in terms of its openness and expansiveness.

I think maybe, a fence is most beautiful when one jumps it. The most beautiful fence is seen from the top as the body passes over, gleefully examining what could be on the other side. Even merely transgressing with my eyes the boundaries between public and private, profane and protected, allows me to think on such places as untouched, pristine, or, not mine, privately another’s, and what that could mean. I need a space that I feel to be other, that I might contemplate as such and thereby assert my self as some, though intertwined with all, separate thing. I am not one with nature. Nature as such only exists because I have built some fence around it and called it nature. I think we rebel against fences, and simultaneously rejoice in them. With this thought, I am drawn again to Frost’s poem.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down…

And then with those lines perhaps we are suddenly talking about something else.



  1. I am surprised the concept of the pastoral did not factor in here. It seems germane to the general argument and it raises an important point.

    Being that we are, ourselves, aspects of nature. What we create, our cities, are not unlike the bacteria that popular our bodies, of which there are 10 times more than living cells. Or like a cancer perhaps, a concept made popular by Mr. Smith in The Matrix. Both of these things, bacteria and cancer, are natural.

    The pastoral understands this. All of nature is a construction, there is no "pristine" or "wild" or "pure" nature. Nature is, itself, something defined by's true state is not really what we think it is at all.

    For instance, one only need think back just a few thousand years to the last ice age. Nature existed in a wholly untouched state at that point, it was wholly "pristine", and yet there was less life and more sterility than anything humans could have wrought. (Haha well barring total nuclear annihilation...and even then I don't think the earth would be such as it was when there was no land whatsoever uncovered by ice on the planet.)

    Anyway, this isn't an attack on you Mr. Mark Jack, for I can tell by your writing that you are far smarter than I. It is more of an invitation. The pastoral? Wilderness? What is natural?


  2. The idea of the pastoral did occur to me while writing this post, and in fact informs much of what I wrote. However, I chose to keep from using that term as I feel it to be a bit too muddled, or existing only in negative terms with the fence or field wall being one of the primary negative definers of what constitutes the appropriate space for the pastoral. The pastoral as such is that which is not urban or, maybe, that which is unbuilt. Strangely enough, I can’t think where urban or some similar term operates in any corresponding sense. Because pastoral poetry, for instance, often engages in criticism of the city dweller and idealizes the shepherd or farmer, that idealization never seems to entail an actual positive stance but one which suggests loss as the ultimate constituent understanding. William’s book, which I cited above, does a good job, of confronting these tendencies of the pastoral with great, close readings of English poetry and prose. England is the site of constant romanticisation of of an idealized past. It is so constant, because the English countryside has been quite thoroughly built, demarcated, urbanized and other such, un-idyllic things, for long before the English began to have a sense of themselves even as English, so it is a fruitful set of literatures to with which to work.
    Anyway, I agree with you that “nature is a construction,” but this leaves too much unsaid. What, for instance, is derived from such a construction, and/or what is suppressed? The valuation of land that is dubbed “pristine” is undertaken with concerns no different than the valuation of any other product. It does seem a little trickier, though. I don’t want to get too involved here, in the comments, but I think you bring up a good point, anonymous, and it allows us to (hopefully) to grasp the ideology at work on our landscapes and ourselves. Clearly the fence denoting private property is one thing, but that boundary that invites one to see the unpeopled space as purer to the peopled, but eminently necessary to a sort of ethical or moral populace is a little bit stranger. Well, I don’t really know what the fuck I’m talking about, but thanks for the comment.


  3. Thank you, Mark.