true stories of landless lands

55°53'2.70" N, 12°32'13.29" E
a performative reading
27 June 2013

* * * * *

One summer I got restless, as I often do, so I chose to be homeless for a while in the California mountains. I lived on top of a great big rock in the woods. I didn't have a tent, and it only rained on me once. Despite the big cats that were rumored to slink down the valley walls at night, I felt safe when I went to sleep. I felt safe because I knew that big rock had been dropped there by a glacier long before I or my parents or my grandparents or my great grandparents or my great great grandparents were born – long before anyone with a story existed – and it hadn't moved since.

There was a period when I lived with a group of rock-climbers in those mountains. They were all drifters who moved with the seasons. I liked watching them cling for dear life to the granite rock faces. For men who never stayed in one place for too long, they were forever romancing the immovable.

However, some stones are as restless as the rest of us.

Years later:

It was rainy summertime in Scandinavia when I lost a sock. I had been backpacking and this was my last dry pair. Someone suggested I throw the other sock really far so the two could find each other again. I ended up hanging on to the remaining sock for a while after that.

In the mountains again, it seems my night-flight from New York has folded the continent in half, the Midwestern plains flat, dark pages in a closed book. It is a fast sleep. I'm on my way to attend my first wedding. Dane and Heather are a perfect match. Our old friend John Rambo – who prefers we call him Nick – just picked me up in Reno. We're headed up the mountains to our old stomping grounds in the Sierra Nevada high country, and I've brought the lonely sock with me. These mountains aren't all that different from the ones I climbed in Norway a couple months ago. The weather is the same today, too. Rain.

I had been hitchhiking through Scandinavia with a close childhood friend. His name is Frank, but he goes by the name Luke. We grew up together in the Hudson River Valley. We live on opposite coasts. Once on a hike, he was telling me about this math proof he had to solve. He explained, "It's always true that at any given instant, two antipodes on the globe share the same air temperature and humidity. Actually, it could be any two variables, like light intensity and wind speed, or air pressure and dew point."

I wonder if they could also be hope, or longing.

Driving now through the wet, high mountain desert, it has already started to transform into a Norwegian meadow, with shocks of optimistic grasses and creeks marching off into the distance. Instant life – just add water. I wonder where these chapters meet. I think of being on the phone with my mother. She'll tell me when it's raining on her end of the line, and she'll ask if it's raining where I am. If it is, somehow it confirms that we still share the same world. And if it's not, well, after all, it takes time for clouds to get from New York to California, or to Norway. People like to discuss the weather when they're far away, perhaps because at such a distance, the sky is our only common ground.

Riding with the real John Rambo, I suppress mental images of the fictional John Rambo. We listen to a bluegrass band covering rock songs. At almost 9,000 feet elevation, we pull over next to a large granite dome. Thunder clouds roll in. As we hike up, John Rambo comments, "You know, I read somewhere that they found granite unique to this region all the way over in Ohio. They think it was tossed thousands of miles from here by a volcanic eruption."

We reach the summit. I drop a stone in the widowed sock and toss it as far as I can.

The moon (over there, 336°20?10?) is moving away from the earth at the same speed at which our fingernails grow. Even the largest of stones can get restless. Take the earth – it feels like we're all sitting still right now, but we're not. Right now, we're flying through the universe at break-neck speed. First off, the surface we're resting on is rotating around an axis, and then the whole sphere is revolving around the sun, on top of the fact that the solar system itself is also moving in an orbit around the galaxy's core while our galaxy is shooting through the universe, which is also expanding, so there doesn't seem to be an end in sight for this grand speed. We are hurdling through space as fast as 4,383,610 kilometers per hour, even though it feels like we're sitting still. Every time the second hand of a clock ticks, me move another 1,218 kilometers, then another, then another. 1,218... 1,218... 1,218... 1,218...

There is no sitting still. Sitting here right now, we're going nowhere fast, like the ships planted in those desert sands that have overtaken and dried the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, frozen but for the stored inertia of seafaring narratives. Camels graze beside their mammoth frames, walking on the bottom of the sea.

Those grazing camels are the image of the end of an ocean, the birth of a desert. Now imagine the birth of a new ocean. It would be really slow, undetectable; it would feel as if we were sitting still. But imagine it starts as a deep cut in the earth, the opposing shores an arm's length apart. As the ocean widens, the first contact between shores to disappear will be touch, then perhaps the detection of a pleasant fragrance, then the detection of foul odor, and soon after, the ability to sense a person's bad mood or their affection towards you. As the shores drift further apart, you won't be able to clearly tell if someone is laughing or crying, if they resemble a person from your past, if their head is a little too big for their body. As time passes, it will be difficult to say if you know this person or if you'll ever meet them in the first place, they're so far away now. Soon, if they greet you, you won't be able to tell if it's in a language you understand, or if they even have a voice. As the ocean widens more, you won't be sure if there's someone on the other side at all. Soon, you may believe you are all alone on your shore.

If someday this ocean somehow does dry up, could we cross the desert to find each other again? And once we cross the vast distance between us, how do we arrive? The other day I was sitting at the edge of one of the lakes in the city. I saw a man across the reeds by a weeping willow tree. He looked familiar, but I didn't know him. My only explanation is that, sometime long ago, we must have been dirt together. By comparison, we're much further away now.

Heavy stones sail across the Death Valley floor in California. They glide closer and closer to the high valley walls. Some are thought to move as fast as a person walks. Nobody has ever seen them in motion, and scientists haven't deduced exactly how it happens. The easy explanations—assistance from animals, gravity, or earthquakes—were quickly ruled out, leaving room for plenty of irresistible speculation over the years. Researchers have named one of the faster rocks Diane. Death Valley is the hottest, lowest place in the Western hemisphere. In the summers, it's so hot that friends of mine have had their cars overheat and break down, leaving them stranded amid the sand dunes. Perhaps at this very moment, while some car is hopelessly stuck, Diane is sailing towards the Sierra horizon.

These are words aspiring to be a mountain country folk song:

Darkness swept in at a quarter past ten
O Diane's on the move again
But no one saw her go
Where she's headed we may never know

Don't know how with a heart so heavy
O Diane's on the move again
But she's a sailing stone
She won't be weighed down, she's meant to roam

What moves you, what moves you, Diane?
You sailing stone
I wish I could move you, Diane
Then maybe you wouldn't have to be
all alone

O Diane
Where you got to get to?
O Diane
Why don't you take me with you?

One day they'll see her
Sailin' over that Sierra ridge
One day they'll see her
Risin' with the sun over that ridge
Light as a feather
Light as a feather

One year, a fierce storm came into the bone-dry Death Valley and got caught between the surrounding mountain ridges that usually keep the moisture out. The rain cloud kept circling round and round the valley, a wild prisoner flooding the floor with reckless tears until it wept itself into nothing, making the flowers bloom for the first time in over 100 years.

Once Luke and I were driving through the Gobi Desert in Mongolia with three generations of female physicians and an uncle. There was a son, but he wasn't there because he was training to be a different kind of healer, a shaman. We were returning to Sainshand after a full day of visiting countless sacred sites around the Center of Energy, doing rituals. On the way there, the car broke down. “It's good luck when the car breaks down on the way to the Center of Energy”, said the mother. The uncle got the car working and we set off again. Then the car broke down again. “It's very good luck when the car breaks down more than once on the way to the Center of Energy,” said the Uncle happily. Alright. He fixed the car again and we made it to the Center of Energy. On the way back, the car broke down again. “It's very very good luck?” I offered. Confirmed. This time they were unable to fix it and had to call another family member to come get us. With the sunset to our backs, we could see the lights of the town igniting cluster by cluster as night slowly dropped in. The houses seemed so close, and we were honking the horn and our headlights were getting brighter and brighter against the darkening sky, but there was no established road, so hours passed as our rescuers tried to locate us. I suppose our headlights could have been mistaken for two stars. At some point, the women in the group concurred it was time to pee, and I was invited. We walked a ways in the direction of the sunset, and we all chatted as we squatted down to water the sand, still well-lit, granted privacy only by our distance from the car.

On the way to our friends' wedding campsite years ago, John Rambo and I were driving off-road in the high Sierra desert. It was pitch dark, and we got stuck in the sand. Only by chance did two rock-climber friends of ours happen upon us and help dig us out. One of them was an old lover of mine who, until then, I hadn't seen in years. We shared an easy smile.

My first memory of realizing that it is possible to hurt another person without meaning to was when I was five years old. From the first day of kindergarten, I had had a crush on a boy in my class named Matthew Griffin. I knew “griffin” was also the name of a mythological creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. It was my favorite animal, I had seen it in a graffiti movie. The story of the griffin is said to have been carried along the Silk Road from the deserts of Mongolia. According to legend, griffins mate for life, and, if either partner dies, the other lives out the remainder of its days alone, never to search for a new mate. Matthew Griffin, too, was unattainable. I chased him around the playground endlessly, but he always escaped my clutches. One day, I chased him into a sandbox. Out of frustration, I threw a cloud of sand in his face. In the heat of the moment, it was the only way I could think to touch him. He started crying immediately and ran away.

Sometimes sand is carried up from the desert to join forces with the sky, never to return. Some summer days, as far north as the Arctic and as far east as North America, fine sand dust can be found on the windows of parked cars. This sand is lifted up out of the Sahara Desert during wind storms and ascends high into the atmosphere. Like migrating birds, the sands stop on the occasional car to rest before they move on to seed the sky for clouds, fertilize the sea, and paint the sunsets. By the time the sands arrive in Denmark, I imagine they're exhausted. At the northern tip of Denmark, near the place where the North Sea and the Baltic Sea meet, a giant sand dune wanders. Year after year, it staggers back and forth, bound to the land, perhaps in envy of the winged sands above. It reminds me of Sable Island, the fastest moving island in the world, stubbornly shoving its own sands further out into the sea every year. Wild horses live atop it while its shores are encircled by the debris of shipwrecks. People call it the graveyard of the Atlantic. The fast ships are frozen, the horses run wild, the island will not be tamed.

Again, I was in midair, on a flight from Hanoi to Berlin via Moscow. I thought it was funny that, while I was looking out the airplane window down onto the baking desert, I was peering through glass, which was, paradoxically, a plate of sand frozen by heat. We flew over Pakistan, then presumably Afghanistan. The high altitude unexpectedly made the landscape look like a series of serene line drawings, dark roads scratched over a camel skin surface. I was too far away to sense any tension, laughter, bickering, loss, hope, rolling of eyes. I thought of drones: both the ones that shoot photographs of the planet so I can view the world through a safe, smooth screen, and the ones that are operated through other safe smooth screens, that shoot in that other way, drones that blow things up. Within these removed frames, night never comes and the sky is always cloudless.

During that same day – that same flight – beyond the desert, across several seas, in another place most people don't often think about, a volcano started to erupt. As a result, I was marooned in the Moscow airport for two days and two nights. The volcano's Icelandic name means “Island-Mountain-Glacier”. This sudden shift in tectonic plates had turned Europe from an abstract airspace back into a physical land mass, grounding all travelers and giving them no choice but to negotiate the mountains and borders that planes usually deactivate from above. Up in the air, the planes risked flying through the cloud of volcanic ash, which would melt onto the propellers as a glass film and freeze them entirely. The Island-Mountain-Glacier had sent the hot earth up to freeze the sky. No man was an island as solitary travelers were forced into each other's company in airports across the continents. The Moscow airport remained resolutely lit in a perpetual false day. We travelers did our best to sleep even though night never came; it was like trying to sleep outside in the Arctic during midsummer, except not as fun. Meanwhile, our only updates were via the hearsay of several iPhone holders, rumors that the volcano might never stop erupting, that we would be stuck in this florescent limbo forever.

There are several volcanoes violently erupting at this very moment, the earth's center fighting to escape from the craters. Directly south of here, in Antarctica, Mount Erebus is erupting right now. There is even a webcam on the volcano rim, but since the night there is endless this time of year, there isn't much to see. To find Mount Erebus to the south, my compass needle is irresistibly pulled North, and as a result I supposedly know exactly where I am. But even magnetic north itself wanders year to year – at this very moment, it's moving toward Russia at between 55 and 60 kilometers per year. That's 6.84 meters per hour, 11.4 cm per minute, 1.9 mm per second. The very point of stability we count on to tell us where we are leads us astray from “true” north; the magnetic north that guides migrating birds and compasses, even it is free to wander off...

During the reign of Island-Mountain-Glacier, Rome was the only airport still open in Europe, a make-shift refugee camp for incomers. Due to a fortuitous event of mistaken identity, I procured a rare ticket to Rome under the name “Lisa” with some French last name. I determined that she wasn't there, and I was, so I was able to leave.

I was seriously anxious, since I was flying with the airline Aeroflot, a name which sounds uncomfortably close to “bellyflop”. The pilot took the long way out of Russia, all the way around Europe, over the Black Sea and across the Mediterranean, intersecting the route of the Sahara sands migrating on the wind from Africa, on their way to the Americas and the Arctic. All I could hear was my internal fear-narrative and the whir of the galloping engines. On the other side of the frosted window pane was a deep cold I could imagine but couldn't feel, and, in place of the ominous volcanic ash, I envisioned the soaring, vagabond desert sands flying alongside me, or perhaps hitchhiking on the wing. After being grounded in the Rome airport for two more days, I managed to hitchhike from there up to Germany with some very friendly Hamburgers. We drove through Switzerland via the Gotthard Tunnel, an experience that flattened the Swiss Alps as if they were the plains of Holland. Space annihilated in favor of time. It was like the smoothness of a landscape when flying, but somehow upside down.

Before that, I had been to Russia one other time.

I rode backwards as the train ambled away from the Pacific Ocean, from east to west across Siberia. As I moved, I thought about traveling back in time: Russian expansionist time, geological time, time-zone time. I set my watch back an hour, then another, then another. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to go backwards, to start again? My destination was Baikal, a massive lake that holds one-fifth of the world's surface freshwater. It's acclaimed for its purity and has alleged healing powers – so say the shamans. Scientists say that someday, Baikal will become an ocean – the world's fifth ocean. Someday, this lake will taste like tears. I arrived at Baikal. I washed off the journey in the clear water and sat on the still-continuous, undifferentiated shore – a unified shore, one day fated to break apart and send its inhabitants drifting to ever-distant reaches. As I focused on Baikal's calm surface, I imagined the undetectable tectonic fury beneath. I called up an arsenal of images in my mind: all the painful things, all the things done wrong, all the things I wish we could take back. I imagined all of humanity's lonely distance – that other fifth ocean. I held these things in my mind and made it a mission to cry on saltless Baikal's shore.

Karen Blixen once wrote that the cure for anything is saltwater: sweat, tears, or the sea.

There was a time hundreds of years ago when sailors didn't know how to determine their longitude, and so seafaring was a risky business indeed. In order to know where they were, captains either would need an unreasonably detailed map of the heavens (combined with a cloudless sky), or would need to know the precise local time at sea, which was not yet possible since the timepieces available couldn't keep time very well in the wet, salty air. People went to great lengths to resolve this quandary. Around the same time, the “powder of sympathy” was a current form of sympathetic magic, whereby, if someone was wounded, a remedy was applied to the weapon that had caused the wound in the hope of healing the injury it had caused. This powder was also applied to solve the longitude problem at the suggestion of an anonymous pamphlet from 1687 entitled "Curious Enquiries." The pamphlet theorized that a wounded dog could be put aboard a ship. The animal's discarded bandage would be left in the trust of a timekeeper on shore, who would then dip the bandage into the powder at a predetermined time and cause the creature to yelp. With this punctual pain, the captain of the ship could know the time while floating in a field so vast that perceivable distance no longer existed. There are no records of the effectiveness of this procedure.

When I lived in New York, I was bitten in the eye by a dog. It's a long story, but in the end my eye remained unharmed except for a severed tear duct. The doctor said that if I didn't have surgery to reconstruct it, I would be weeping for the rest of my life. When I was very little, I had an elderly neighbor whose eyes never stopped weeping. Even when she was happy, she looked sad. After the surgery, I couldn't cry out of my right eye for 6 months – I literally had to swallow my tears. Apparently, mermaids can't cry. Perhaps it's because they're already bathed in saltwater and there's no need.

I recently edited a geology book for a professor in Germany, and the book covered all the problematics of building stones and monuments exposed to the weather. The authors describe saltwater as the most corrosive substance of all, and, even though a structure may not be directly on the seashore, salt is ejected from the ocean into the air, and then later rains down to reap havoc on permanence. Last week I wandered into what I thought was a park. There, the people were transformed into stones. Some of the very old stones looked as though they were young, but they weren't; they were just aging well in the deep time of the cemetery. I passed the dry mound of a new grave and had the immediate thought that someone should water it. But then I quickly realized that there was of course nothing to keep alive underneath. Here at the museum, there is the stone that Karen Blixen discovered in an old wall on the property. It has a carving in it that appears to be a hand. Puzzled, Blixen had asked an expert why it was a left hand and not a right hand, and he told her that it actually was a right hand, just turned. The god was inside the stone, reaching out.

Along the western shore of Lake Baikal lie thousands of the most perfect skipping stones. These most perfect skipping stones lie patiently on the shore for ages upon ages, pregnant, waiting for the day when a human hand – the one thing in this world designed to help the most perfect skipping stone fulfill its grand purpose – finally gives it motion. The right human hand can throw the most perfect skipping stone with such skill and finesse as to set it into endless, blissful motion. Then, the most perfect skipping stone can defy descent. It can make it all the way to the other shore, as if there were no friction in this world. As if a body could never be stopped, as if there were no sinking below the surface.

Carving our sea arc from Japan up through Russia, Luke and I took an eighteen-hour ferry ride from Sakhalin Island to the mainland. It was a slow and serious Soviet boat. The only other person on board who spoke English was a proudly sober Russian man with a gold tooth whose favorite expletive is “Fuck Moscow.” We met him because Luke had walked off for two minutes and I immediately got hassled by a drunkard. He had intervened and reassured me with a friendly flash of gold. He spoke several languages, because he normally worked on an offshore oil rig – a kind of giant, man-made island hundreds of kilometers out in the open sea – with men from all over. After a months-long working season, he was now reunited with his wife and two daughters and headed home. We all squeezed into the family's cabin. He asked me if I wasn't homesick. Luke laughed, “She doesn't have a home.” That night, our cabin was at the very bottom of the boat. I tried to get to sleep, knowing there was an ocean on the other side of the wall. I imagined falling through the room's floor and sinking to the ocean floor.

Right now I'm sending a message to someone on the east coast of the United States. (Send.) This information, at the speed of light, travels across this field to the nearest mobile phone tower, then hurries into a wire pathway that stretches west of here, across towns and along highways. The wires brush up against tree branches, birds sit on them and squawk, children tangle old pairs of shoes in them. When it reaches the westernmost coast of Denmark, this message dips with the wires into the ocean and makes its journey along the sea floor. There are no short cuts or jump cuts – the cable draws an uninterrupted line from Jutland to New Jersey and comes up for air in Newark, where it again flies up to whip around and through buildings, catching fallen leaves and streaking tourists' photographs, until it reaches its receiver, who now can know that I said, “Are you there?” And a conversation begins, our every single word touching the ocean floor.

A study was conducted in the 1990s to find out what image people around the world find most beautiful. Based on an extensive survey spanning 17 countries, it has been proposed that the most common ideal of beauty is a landscape. Quoting the American philosopher Denis Dutton, “This landscape shows up today [on computer desktop wallpaper,] on calendars, on postcards, in the design of golf courses and public parks, and in gold framed pictures that hang in living rooms from New York to New Zealand. A landscape that just happens to be similar to the Pleistocene savannas where we evolved. It's a kind of Hudson River School landscape featuring open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees. The trees, by the way, are often preferred if they fork near the ground. That is to say, if they're trees you could scramble up, if you were in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water in a bluish distance, indications of animal or bird life, as well as diverse greenery, and finally, a path. Perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful even by people in countries that don't have it. The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples, for human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience...” The image of a meadow under a blue sky is reminiscent of the landscape our ancestors came from, where they were before they got restless and wandered off down the path to a distant somewhere else.

Because everyone has one leg that is a little shorter than the other, mechanically, we can never truly walk in a straight line, but rather, we're built to walk off course. Our anatomy allows us to walk great distances, but also literally leads us in a large circle, perhaps back to where we started from.