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On Seeing

On Seeing

May 3 2012

When I was 10 or 12 years old, growing up in then-rural Maryland, I used to spend most afternoons in a wood called Rock Creek Park. I could walk a long ways before encountering  anything remotely resembling civilization. One of my more curious compulsions included walking for hours to find what I thought of as “the other side.” I knew the woods had to be bounded by roads somewhere and wanted to feel the wide stretch of the place, defined by its end points.
The whole endeavor of seeking the edges thrilled me: Hauling out an old Boy Scout backpack, green canvas smelling vaguely musty, purchased at a yard sale for 50 cents; packing a lunch that included a can of something, sensing people who took long journeys needed to be keenly alert to food spoilage; grabbing a red Swiss Army knife, the sort with dozens of tools; shoving in yellow legal paper purloined from my father, pencil stub for mapping and notes. Yellow paper seemed a smart choice in case of some emergency: Injured girl hauling herself by arm and elbow to Rock Creek, fashioning a small, canoe-inspired vessel made from of twigs and a dissembled pair of elbow-length kid gloves with pearl buttons I also shoved into the backpack. The gloves were a gift from my grandmother, some piece of luxury from her more glamorous, younger life. I pictured a hastily designed and constructed vessel as a sort of canoe, with the kid gloves cut and lashed onto the twig-frame using a material we called “gimp,” a plastic twine, summer-camp staple used to fashion key chains for one’s mother.  I never had the chance to save myself in this manner and I was too young to know then what was going on: How my woodsy life saved me.
I would emerge from the woods in time for a hot dinner with my sisters and mother, then soak in our small, square blue bath. Easing into the warm water, the day’s markings made themselves known – legs and arms a Jackson Pollock canvas of scrub, branch, and briar scratches. The acid sting of water on the cuts offered me a sense of accomplishment. I didn’t bear my markings for others to see, didn’t discuss what was seen in the woods, didn’t share my future plans for exploration. Instead, I sat and soaked and reflected on small moments of glory. Finding ink berries and making a design with their dye on paper, watching a bright flash of red as a male cardinal hopped on a dogwood tree’s long, slender branches, the square-ish white flower of the dogwood tree waxy, more green and like a leaf than white and like a petal. None of it needed to have meaning, to offer specific information. I’ve never had the instincts of the field botanist, the instinct to record facts of leaf shapes, flowers, to look in order to discover and memorize as fact.

More people came. The walk into the woods was often interrupted by run-ins with other people. There were the weekend motorcycle riders, men with brown beards and pipes and questions about trails and access roads. There was the color poster of President John F. Kennedy nailed to a tree and then riddled with bullets. There were the groups of other children, invaders of a sort in my mind, arriving with hammers and nails to build tree houses. Of course it would be a lovely gift to myself now, to have detailed, hand-rendered images of that place, which remains rather fresh and alive in my mind — the creek in winter, vanishing in a chaos of summer greens, vines and leaves, its reappearance in the autumn as the leaves died and fell to the ground, as I grew taller and less interested in finding the edge, which turned out to be a not-so-distant road close to the home where a yellow school bus was parked in the driveway.

I recall the spring the bulldozers arrived, followed by a squad of dynamiters. That summer, as they dynamited a new batch of basements into the nearby woods we used to sit, my sisters and me, at a white table and eat breakfast cereal and marvel at how our house shook.

The only real inkling of what was to come was the enormous grocery store, Super Giant, that sprung up near the tiny crossroads of Route 108 and Georgia Avenue. Awfully big store for such a tiny town, my mother would mutter, pulling her sweater closer in the Arctic chill of Giant’s air conditioning.

* * *

Does everyone develop her own philosophy of place? This is the question that came to me on a chilly March afternoon — came as though presented by the long arm atop the sea called maritime layer, a layer in which I frequently live. It is not a place for all eyes and ears — the rich vellum gives the trees a ghostly appearance, distances compress. The world becomes a two-dimensional exercise in perspective.

It is, however, a place where the brain and body are free to float, untethered from the distractions of foregrounds, backgrounds, and other permutations of “grounds.” Then, only one ground. And so a person inclined to sit around listening for the specific music of the world may be able to hear this question — tucked safely into the physicality of ideas, as though slipped between the pages of a book.

Such a question is rarely uninvited; that is, I had spent the morning reading about John Cleves Symmes and his theory of a hollow Earth. Whenever I hear the word, Earth, it brings my mind to a specific place. The place changes, of course, but the path is the same.

It seems hilarious in our times but the idea of a hollow Earth was actually pondered and written about by esteemed scientists.  Beginning in the 16th and then nudging into the 19th century, scientists joined this discussion. In 1692, Edmund Halley advanced a theory that the Earth is composed of a series of inner concentric spheres capable of sustaining life. But it may be Thomas Burnet’s Telluris sacra theoria, later expanded and revised in an English version The Sacred Theory of Earth, that offers the most fetching and complex design ideas for a hollow Earth. Burnet envisioned the planet as a “Mundane egg,” with the shell the Earth’s crust and a yolk nestled in the interior. It has been written that Burnet’s geocosmic vision of the planet Earth also functions as a kind of microcosmic sacred theory of the psyche.

Among the most interesting facets of these imaginings are renderings of actual designed orbs,

The British Library

This design describes a series of concentric orbs, nesting one inside the other. The portal into these worlds existed at the poles.The fact of the theory’s ongoing persistence is also illustrated in the U.S. Government’s funding of an expedition to look for the portals. The U.S. Government funded an expedition looking for this point of entry – known as Symmes’ Hole for John Cleve Symmes, who vigorously advanced ideas in the early 19th century. If I type “hollow Earth theory” into Google Chrome, I find 235,000 hits in .25 seconds. Among them are an expedition planned for later in 2012 to the freshly ice-free Arctic Ocean to finally confirm the long-understood but carefully concealed hole to the center of the Earth. As these ideas of place faded from scientist’s minds, they came to reside in the imaginations of writers, Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne and Ralph Waldo Emerson among them. Emerson’s American Transcendentalism was a place where nature existed as a system of concentric circles. Emerson’s essay, Circles, is considered to be the first, true American essay of place and person, and he declared the circle to be the “highest emblem in the cipher of the world.”

You admire this tower of granite, weathering the hurts of so many ages. Yet a little waving hand built this huge wall, and that which builds is better than that which is built. The hand that built can topple it down much faster. Better than the hand and nimbler was the invisible thought which wrought through it; and thus ever, behind the coarse effect, is a fine cause, which, being narrowly seen, is itself the effect of a finer cause. Every thing looks permanent until its secret is known. A rich estate appears to women and children a firm and lasting fact; to a merchant, one easily created out of any materials, and easily lost. An orchard, good tillage, good grounds, seem a fixture, like a gold mine, or a river, to a citizen; but to a large farmer, not much more fixed than the state of the crop. Nature looks provokingly stable and secular, but it has a cause like all the rest; and when once I comprehend that, will these fields stretch so immovably wide, these leaves hang so individually considerable? Permanence is a word of degrees. Every thing is medial. Moons are no more bounds to spiritual power than bat-balls.

* * *

September and October are the most beautiful months in the Presidio – a Spanish word meaning a place of defense or a garrison, meaning also my home, a national park once home to armies and loaded-gun emplacements, a place in its earliest days designated by its location, overlooking the Golden Gate and the bay and sea, as somewhere good to set up a post for observations.

So I come now in their footsteps, or bootsteps, but the place I observe and walk is under restoration. The guns and their attendants closed shop one night in the 1990s and through a special act of Congress, a fort and base and post became urban park and reclamation project.

Our home is a mid-century townhouse, with split-level, brown-carpeted stairs and sliding windows. From the orange couch, the view is due west, towards the Farallon Islands and the setting sun.

So. Now I stand watch for the Presidio. From my post, I observe rats chewing – grass and when the weather turns cold, my cabinets. I can’t really hold it against them. Where else are they supposed to go? It’s me who has invaded their urban wildspot. Then red tail hawks, aloft riding a stiff breeze. Hovering around my backyard fountain, Anna’s hummingbirds under the watchful gaze of scrub jays. Night comes and companionably ambling across bark and cement, benevolent banana slugs. Less pleasant the raccoon family residing in the cypress tree in my backyard. Then the 11 p.m. visit from our local skunk. Finally, the last, doomed quail huddling under a small shrub.

We all live atop a tall sand dune, dense with trees, although less dense than when we first arrived, when the deliberate and ineffable desire to remove trees and unwanted shrubs and plants, the removal and reclamation of a dune landscape began. We live amidst iterative urban park design, or to put that into plain English, the times are changing here in the Presidio.

This ceaseless pursuit of beauty catalyzes our curiosity. The place is one giant tangle of ideas, abandoned forts and baracks, adobe uncovered, reclamation of creeks and springs, remediation of dumps, scavenging scrap — bath tubs, fixtures, kitchen sinks — and finally the reconstruction of our major thoro-fare.

I walked down the hill to watch them take the road down. It’s a rare opportunity — to see a major demolition, covering three days, 24-hours a day, taking down an elevated road in 15-minute chunks. Wars, earthquakes, other natural disasters tear apart roads, too. The image that stuck — two jackhammer machines punched into old concrete, making a white mist of dust and this image of was framed by the bay and its white sailboats, and the wind kicking up the crests into white spray. What also struck was how few people had come to watch at that moment – I stood alone with a camera crew from the Spanish-language news channel, three boys en route home from Little League, and a group of Japanese tourists. But our small band shared an exuberance and delight for the sound and feel of it — the screeching, tugging, and general pulverizing.

As I walked the length of the orange barrier, setting the site off from the viewers, I saw a single shrub clinging to its cement home. I saw the wind-blown soil first, then the seeds dispersed, then one hopeful sprout, then a dash of green, then this pouf of leaves. I don’t know if the plant reclamation people will come and save it. And its lonely, adaptive existence wanted to be labelled courage by me, and wanted it to be set aside somewhere in the forest, an homage to its endurance and fortitude. But this idea only underscored how small our notion of beauty is when we see something true.


About Leslie Carol Roberts

Leslie Carol Roberts is the author of Here Is Where I Walk: Episodes from a Life in the Forest (Nevada, 2019) and The Entire Earth and Sky: Views on Antarctica, (Nebraska, 2008; Bison Books, 2012.) Recent work includes the The Gigaton Ice Theatre (Performing Ice anthology, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); the Eco-Thoughts column in The Believer magazine (2019-ongoing), and the Late, Great Golden State, published by The Bellingham Review. In 2018, she founded the ECOPOESIS project with two architects, Adam Marcus and Christopher Falliers, which creates messaging and forms around climate change. They hosted ECOPO 1 in SF in 2019, with the philosopher Timothy Morton as their invited guest and discussant; in the summer of 2019, Leslie was on the road in France and the Maldives conducting research and interviews around ecologies as part of the Architectural Ecologies Lab, of which she is a member. In 2020-21 Leslie is a Resident Artist with the Al Balad Fellowship in the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, enacting ECOPOESIS around desert landscapes. She gives talks and workshops in the US and abroad around writing and form-making around ecologies --with ecologies being defined broadly to include the instantiated systems of neo-liberal capitalism that allow for the destructive, cruel, and disastrous environmental systems of these times -- from extraction technologies to instantiated racism, misogyny, and income disparities. Over her international career in journalism and creative writing, Leslie has written hundreds of news stories, features, and essays for newspapers, magazines, and journals, in the U.S. and abroad, including The Christian Science Monitor, The Bangkok Post, The St. Petersburg Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, the Iowa Review online, Ascent, and The Bellevue Literary Review. Roberts, a Fulbright Fellow, is Professor and Chair of MFA Writing at California College of the Arts. An avid outdoors-human and traveler, she is at work on two books -- one continues her work in the Antarctic humanities and the other is a gothic feminist horror novel. You can reach Leslie at leslier7@gmail.com


One thought on “On Seeing

  1. Fascinating — looking forward to reading Here Is Where We Walk when it’s published.

    Posted by ARG | May 17, 2012, 1:57 am

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