This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.
~ John Aubrey, Brief Lives (Edward de Vere)
In Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights we find the brief tale of “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind,” in which something similar happens. A rich and powerful merchant, Abu Hasan decides to marry and throws an opulent wedding feast. Finally, summoned to the bridal chamber, “he rose slowly and with dignity from his divan; but in so doing, for that he was over full of meat and drink, lo and behold! he let fly a fart, great and terrible.” The wedding guests pretend not to have heard anything, each of them “fearing for his life.” But Abu Hasan flees, like Edward de Vere, and travels the world for ten long years. When he finally comes home, hoping all has been forgotten, he discovers instead that people high and low now date certain events by whether they occurred before or after “the night when Abu Hasan farted.” The moral of the story, I suppose, is that there’s no starting over again once you’ve put yourself in bad odor with the neighbors.
It seems natural to me that someone who likes to be outdoors walking under the trees will also like to be indoors reading. Both are woodsy activities, the first self-evidently so and the second for the reason that paper has been made primarily of wood pulp for the past two hundred years. There is a special relationship between books and trees, and the reader and the hiker are not rarely the same person. Anyway, reading and hiking together make up 95% of what I would rather be doing at any given moment. I’ve never felt there was any disagreement between the two activities. Our library at home I consider a little forest, and any little forest makes an excellent library.
It’s one of the better parts of living where we do in coastal Northern California that we’re able to hike comfortably year-round. It never snows at sea-level (at least not since I was a child), the rain in winter is infrequent enough, and the heat in summer is rarely severe. In addition to the numerous state and county parks where you might go exploring there are dozens of undeveloped open space areas that have been purchased and set aside by altruistic civic groups. In fact, there are so many of these public open spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area that I’ve never managed to visit even half of them. All told, they must contain thousands of miles of hiking trails.
This past weekend, hiking in the Sunol Wilderness area (my photo above), I unintentionally terrified my daughter by reminding her to look out for mountain lions when passing under oak boughs. Hiking in the woods here isn’t entirely safe. In addition to the mountain lions there are also rattlesnakes, and no end of poison oak. I’m lucky in that both my children like to hike almost as much as they like to read. But the little forest of books at home has its dangers too. Physically or intellectually, certain books are still out of reach. Perhaps it’s wise to anticipate threats. A little preparation can make the unexpected discovery of wild eyes staring at you from the branch above less frightening, and more thrilling.
Mountains of salmon. My youthful misadventures in Alaska are recounted in an essay published today over at The Dabbler.
When it does not give you trouble it takes it away – takes away letters and telegrams and newspapers and vistas and duties and efforts, all the complications, all the superfluities and superstitions that we have stuffed into our terrene life.
~ Henry James, The Patagonia
James’s narrator refers to travel by ocean liner, but the same might be said – and has been said – of wine and war, sleep and sex, gardening and gambling, illness, sports, reading, television, and death, among other things. I’m spoiled, I suppose, in that I have any leisure at all, though I’d like to have more. Enforced leisure might help to dispense with the guilt. Tourist cruises sound awful, but I wonder, do they sell passenger space aboard container ships?
After several hours of concentrated work, my skull sometimes suggests to me, by a quick twinge or a sound like a cube of ice fracturing in water, that it might explode. That’s when I like to step out for a walk.
I try to notice things. As an activity, walking and noticing things makes me feel better – especially when there are things to be noticed, as in the city. I notice almost entirely with my eyes, rarely with nose or ears. To dredge up after the fact the smells and sounds of a city block is almost impossible. I’m tempted to invent them: the customary noise of automobiles and voices, the odors of bus exhaust, women’s perfume, and alleyway urine. But I forget these things as soon as I notice them. I remember what I see.
Walking the other day near my employer’s San Francisco offices, I noticed:
- Fading signs painted on the sides of red brick warehouses advertising hundred-year-old fruits and vegetables
- Overpriced furniture boutiques and salvage retailers without a single customer inside
- Bearded and sockless hipster entrepreneurs talking on phones outside of tech start-ups with comical company names taped to their windows
- A bronze squiggle sunk in the concrete of the sidewalk to commemorate the ancient shoreline before the tidal flats were filled in and built up
- Small dogs on leashes, led by their owners from glass apartment lobbies, anxious to shit on the curb
- Tourists posing for photos in front of the statue of Willie Mays at the ballpark across the street
- People in general rushing to be casual and expose as much bare skin as possible to the surprising warmth of the afternoon
Regarding that last item above: I don’t generally endorse the notion that things fall apart inevitably, that each succeeding generation is morally lesser than that which preceded it. I prefer to imagine recurring cycles of growth and decay in the social organism. I do blush, however, at how we like to dress ourselves these days. I rather wish that men were less content to look like transients (unless they are transients), and that women were less content to look like prostitutes (unless they are prostitutes). Which is not to say anything against either transients or prostitutes as a class. I might be equally dismayed if everyone chose to dress themselves like soldiers or trapeze artists.
Completing my walk, I returned to the office. I only work here once each week. It’s a perfectly nondescript four-story converted warehouse when seen from the outside. On deciding against the elevator, however, I discovered that it’s in fact bewitched – or at least the stairwell is. For one thing, it’s incredibly hot. Then, somehow, in the space of those four floors, it manages to include 90 steps and eight landings, six of them with doors. Behind one of these, I can only assume, the devil keeps a satellite office.
Some of the loveliest mothers have the most ghastly looking children.
Dancer Irene Castle with her pet monkey Rastus, circa 1915. Library of Congress.
Today over at The Dabbler they’ve published one of my older posts – on the glorious irrelevance of literature – in slightly refurbished form.