When I was in the fourth grade, I built a replica of an Indian longhouse using popsicle sticks and glue. That year, we were studying the Lenni Lenape people of New Jersey, the state in which I grew up. The longhouse, I learned, was a communal dwelling that was also a replica of the cosmos. In Native American Religions: An Introduction, Denise and John Carmody explain that the floor of the longhouse represents the earth and the ceiling the heavens. The sun rose on one side and it set on the other. The “good white path” through the center of the building represented the human journey from birth to death. There was a post at the center that represented the “axis” of the Earth. It had twelve levels, each representing one of the levels of the cosmos.
What, I wondered at age nine, was the axis of the Earth? Where was it?
That was 45 years ago. I live now in the age of fracture where things have been falling apart for as long as I can remember---not in my personal life thankfully (I have been blessed in this regard) but certainly in the swirl of history into which I was born. I was conceived in the months following JFK’s assassination, and I have lived entirely in the America that came afterwards, in a society convulsed by a disruptive dance of revoltion and counterrevolution. The new obliterates the old with such ferocity we are all in danger of forgetting nearly everything about how people lived before our grandparents were born. Fathers are pitted against sons, ruralites against urbanites, the religious against the secular, race against race, tradition against the new.
I have adapted to this constant hum of disruption, but I have never lost my desire to find the harmonious center. It is always with me. When we were studying the Lenni Lenape, I remember being amazed to learn that like many indigenous peoples, they did not value novelty and disruption (though both were eventually forced upon them by a dominant Western society). They passed their culture down from one generation to the next inside of a delicate silo of language and ritual. They valued a harmonious relationship between the physical world and the cosmos.
Many years later, now living in the Atlanta suburbs with my own fourth grader in the house, I find myself again thinking about what the center means. What larger reality does my four-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac mirror? Something far less cosmic and grandiose than the longhouse no doubt. Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of Thomas Pynchon's novella The Crying of Lot 49, looks down on late 1960s Los Angeles from an airplane and sees the "printed circuit board community" below. Is that it? Have we modeled post-war America on both the possibilities and limitations inherent in the transistor? What is our "good white path"? Certainly it cannot be our endless ant-like darting along the roads and highways that connect up the points on the circuit board. There must be something more than this?
I was raised with the idea of a moral center---something to do with faith, family values, self reliance, and patriotism---but this year more than others, I have difficulty locating the thread back to this ideal. The COVID pandemic has destroyed any previously held notions of normalcy. The Trump presidency has been doing this to American politics for the past four years. The concept of justice and equality under the law too appears to have disintegrated in the wake of a horrific spate of killings of unarmed black men. This is the “news” I face when I am indoors, the drama of social dysfunction that invariably finds me whenever I turn to face a screen, even when I am trying to avoid it.
So I retreat from it as often as I can, out the back door, onto the patio.
A few years ago, my wife and I paid a landscaping company to completely remodel our backyard. They planted a row of leyland cypress trees along the back fence. In front of these trees, they constructed a “dry streambed,“ which is exactly as advertised – a shallow gully of smooth stones that functions as a runoff system when it rains, and it rains often in Georgia. On the houseward side of this artificial riverbed, they planted flowering shrubs around the base of three silver maple trees. And they constructed a stone patio which takes up nearly half of the yard space at the back end of the house. This 60x20 foot slab of cement and flagstones is now literally the foundation for our lives in the spring, summer, and fall. The landscapers promised that the patio would be a “game changer” for us, and they were right. Out here, we grill, relax, play, garden, and sometimes after a fight or a bad day, we seek solitary refuge.
These days, I often sit on the patio listening to birdsong. This is my morning ritual during the summer months. I plant myself on the patio chair with my bare feet lightly touching the still dew-damp flagstones, a steaming cup of coffee or tea nearby. In an hour, the sun, which rises in the front of my house, will finally crest the roofline and drive the shade back towards the house in a steady advancing line, transforming the patio into a desert of dry, parched rock. But until then, I will rest in the comfort and equanimity of this moment.
Lately, it has occurred to me that my patio is like an island. In Book V of The Odyssey, Odysseus is introduced for the first time as a man stranded on an island called Ogygia, which in Greek mythology was the navel of the sea. It too is a paradise of trees and birds. Homer describes it sumptuously (from Robert Fitzgerald's translation):
A deep wood grew outside, with summer leaves
Of alder and black poplar, pungent cypress.
Ornate birds here rested their stretched wings--
Horned owls, falcons, cormorants--long-tongued
Beachcombing birds, and followers of the sea.
Odysseus is shipwrecked on Ogygia after a long string of adventures in which all of the men who had set sail with him from Troy have perished. For seven years, he has been nurtured and cared for by the demigod Kalypso, who is also stranded on Ogygia, having been banished to this island by the gods for supporting the losing side in a cosmic civil war. Nevertheless, Ogygia is a paradise in which Odysseus will never grow old and never die.
This is how I have come to regard my patio. The navel. The center of my universe. The place where time stands still.
I have some cause to believe this. The seasons that force change upon rock are millennia in duration, so to stand upon this patchwork of flagstone and look out at the seasonally evolving greenery behind my house is like standing on an island. Time does appear to slow to a crawl out here, and though this may sound illogical to cynical, overly pragmatic ears, I can feel eons of geologic time under my bare feet. I have felt this sensation before in the Adirondack Mountains, at my family’s place on Schroon Lake. There, as a boy, I would sometimes sit for hours on one of the big weatherbeaten granite boulders that are scattered along the shoreline. Each one has seen thousands of centuries, having been thrown up from the volcanic tumult, thrust to the surface, cracked, split, weathered by millions of sunny days and rainy days. Tumbled by glaciers. Split again.
On my first day in this house, I opened the front door to see a green hummingbird hovering at eye level over the front porch, as if to welcome me to the neighborhood. There is a town park behind my house with two ponds, and the tree cover of oak and pine that begins in the park continues throughout the neighborhoods that surround mine. Birds are everywhere. To date, I have seen sparrows, mourning doves, robins, bluejays, bluebirds, cardinals, goldfinches, hummingbirds, crows, common grackles, Canada geese, red-tailed and white-tailed hawks, Eastern Towhees, wood thrushes. Black buzzards and turkey vultures sometimes flock on the cell tower behind my house. I have heard but never seen owls out hunting at night. On any given day in the Spring, Summer, or Fall, the air is full of birdsong, stereophonic and carried on the breeze.
Today, I can also hear the CSX train passing through downtown Marietta, a mile away. I hear voices from the park, high pitched child sounds. A car door slams. A basketball dribbles, a quick staccato, then nothing, then a single bounce followed by another. All of this is far off and indistinct, but I can tell that the children are on the playground, no more than two or three of them. The basketball player is alone.
The basketball court is supposed to be closed because of COVID, but somehow the kid got in.
My instincts tell me all of this. They fill in the details somehow. On the subject of birds, however, my instincts are virtually blind. We evolved to live with birds---we must have---but I have no idea how we are interdependent. The birds I see every day are neither predator nor prey, and even if they were, how would I know this? Would I read it in a book? In a Wikipedia article or on a blog or on an app that allows you to record birdsong and identify it with access to a vast online database of birdsong?
Last year, sitting in this very spot, I watched a red-tailed hawk hurl itself into my backyard, talons first, to snatch up a small rabbit that was standing not ten feet away, hidden in shadow. I could feel the force of its wings stirring the air and hear the tremulous but elegant thrust of feathers as it soared back into the sky, all part of the same fluid motion. The drama was over in a few seconds, little more than a blur in my peripheral vision. And I was left to think, as I often do out here, that I am irrelevant to the hawk, a mere blur in its peripheral vision. So often the birds have reminded me of my place in the natural order. I am the blind, lumbering giant who builds enormous habitats but is no obvious threat, at least not from the bird's limited evolutionary perspective.
Earlier this year, in May, I watched a rather industrious robin building her nest in the trees at the back of my neighbor's backyard. I could not actually see the nest from the patio, but I could see the bird as she flew back and forth across the width of my yard with leaves and sticks for her nest. She had discovered a treasure trove of nest-building material in my other neighbor’s gutters and was making trips to this cache and then back to her new nest and back again by flying across my patio, low to the ground, with her construction material clutched in her beak.
The entire animal kingdom visible from this spot is similarly indifferent to me. A few weeks ago, I watched a chipmunk stealing seeds from the birdfeeder at the edge of the patio. He made two dozen trips from his burrow in the front yard to the birdfeeder and back again, each time with his cheeks packed with seeds, each time glancing over at me to see if I had moved from my chair.
I have watched a big female painter turtle lumber up from the park, picking her way carefully across my yard, one glacial step at a time. She found a quiet place in the neighborhood to dig a hole and then lay her eggs. Weeks later, I saw a hatchling the size of a silver dollar skittering across the walkway at the side of my house, headed for the pond in the park. This dance of life reels past me each day as if I don’t exist.
My time out here reminds me that I am still at least partially alive in cosmic time, like the stone underfoot. I breathe unfiltered air. I smell the trees. After dark, I listen to the chorus of night insects and tree frogs rising and falling around me. There are moments during these escapes from the house in which I experience a profound sensation of stillness, as if I have become a tree, rooted to place, unable to move even an inch in any direction, unable to speak, except for the sound the wind makes as it passes over and through me.
It has often occurred to me that out here, surrounded by trees and the sounds of life, I am free to collapse back into my natural self, the hunter-gather within. I evolved to live that life, not the one that lies behind me in the house. The moment I step back inside, I will instantly return to the life of screens and appliances the faux reality of social media. Viewed from indoors, the suburban lifestyle feels like a thing that I have plugged myself into, the way a charger plug slots easily into a wall socket. The house feels like a conduit for money and consumer goods, approving this purchase and not that one, watching it all slide by in an undifferentiated swirl of plastic.
The patio, on the other hand, envelops me in the sensations I was born to know---my instincts. In a more enlightened age, before the Enlightenment laid waste to them, I would have been taught to know and respect these instincts, to channel them for the greater good, to harness their power, but in this life, they are allowed to atrophy. Laid overtop of them, like a computer virus hacked into me against my will, are the desires that supposedly make me a civilized person.
It would be an understatement for me to say that I am not impressed by civilization. In their groundbreaking work of philosophy and critical theory Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argue that "Abstraction, the tool of enlightenment, treats its objects as did fate, the notion of which it rejects: it liquidates them." They lament the ways in which the enlightenment discourses of reason, science, and mathematics have laid waste to the particularities of myth, magic, and the prehistoric religions. "Enlightenment is as totalitarian as any system," they write. It smashes particularity, reducing everything to numbers, subsuming everything into "universal interchangeability"---all so that we can deliver civilization efficiently through a wall socket or a wifi router.
Interestingly, Horkheimer and Adorno devote an entire chapter to Odysseus in their takedown of the Enlightenment. They depict him as a "prototype of the bourgeois individual," a model of self-restraint who is able to resist the sloth and indolence of ordinary men, all in the service of advancing civilization. In one particularly memorable passage, they discuss his encounter with the lotus eaters, a society that lives off of a narcotic flower that makes people forget their homes. "Whoever browses on the lotus succumbs," they write, "in the same way as anyone who heeds the Sirens' song or is touched by Circe's wand. But the victim does not die...The only threats are oblivion and the surrender of will." They will live in idyll, forgetting their homeland, of course, but also in a state of bliss in this "fertile land."
Some of Odysseus's men leave to go live with the lotus eaters, but he will have none of this. He drags his men back to their ships and forces them to leave with him, lashing them to their oars, his eyes ever set on the return home. In doing so, he has unwittingly doomed them. By the time he is shipwrecked on Ogygia, they are all dead.
Odysseus spends his days on Ogygia “scanning the horizon of the sea” his eyes wet with tears, his heart again groaning for home. The god Hermes convinces Kalypso to let him build a raft and leave, which he does. I sympathize with Odysseus, but from the first time I read The Odyssey, I could see the other side as well, that Odysseus is foolish to leave. Had I been in his place, I might have tarried longer with the lotus eaters or stayed another year in Circe’s bed. I might never have left Kalypso and her island. But then, I am no Odysseus.