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Published August 2022Become a subscriber
Dirt being so general, it’s strange that it gets turned into singular things, like the pumpkin on my table, the fly on the pumpkin rubbing her front legs together, me. I was born with an antipathy to generalisation and everything I experienced subsequent to parturition exacerbated that antipathy. Still, there are a few generalisations I can go along with, like ‘Everything that exists is good,’ as St Augustine wrote, and ‘Everything that lives is holy,’ like William Blake said. I would add, ‘Everything that lives is dirty.’ There goes a good holy dirty dermatology resident, here comes a good dirty holy mole.
The other day I saw a whole holy family – parents, a toddler, a baby, grandparents, and a probable auntie – out walking their holy hedgehog. It was on a leash and the family was trying to walk down the sidewalk, but the hedgehog kept scuttling into the bushes, perhaps hoping to snarf down an insect. The forward trajectory of the family plus the sideways trajectory of the hedgehog made for slow going. (In the hedgehog’s mind she was the one going forward and the people were going sideways.)
Another acceptable generalisation is ‘Person is dogged by death.’ Just yesterday a truck reading ‘Gutter Solutions’ nearly ran me over. En route to solving someone’s gutter problems, that truck nearly caused a different, insoluble problem. Person is perishable like grass. The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field. Person is pretty and perishable like flower.
My daughter calls herself Pastor Petunia and I think it suits her because, while many pastors put me in a refutational mood, this tiny pastor is irrefutable like a petunia. Actually all flowers are irrefutable like petunias – tulips, dandelions, gazanias, mandevillas, snapdragons, broccolis. Try refuting any of them: stand a buttercup on one podium and stand yourself at another podium and try to defeat her with your logic. Argue, argue, contend and contest, but the buttercup will not be refuted, although by the time you are finished she may be droopy.
Sometimes I feel like a general flower – momentary – and sometimes I feel like a particular flower, like the marvel-of-Peru, also known as the four o’clock flower, who snoozes all day until late in the afternoon when she finally gets around to opening up her petals. Sometimes I feel like a watermelon flower: preliminary. Nobody laments the fading of the watermelon flower.
Some days my life feels extremely preliminary. I had the sense this morning, after I left the children at school and walked the puppy in the October sunshine, that this moment was in the distant past, that the aspen leaves so radiant yellow had already fallen to the ground, turned dull brown, disintegrated. We had already carved the pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern, which had already started to look old – scarred and wrinkled and slumpy-faced – had already rotted and moulded and gotten tossed out behind the fence and turned back into dirt. The cows in the field behind my house had long ago been trucked off to a slaughterhouse. Those cow songs always sounded sad to me.
The high school juniors out on the trail with their notebooks, taking nature notes for English class, had graduated, gone to college, gotten married, had children, begun to look like old jack-o’-lanterns, had passed on. A long time ago the puppy had stopped chewing up our books and boots and dollies, had stopped barking at shadows, had grown accustomed to shadows, had slowed down, hips gone rickety, had died. My parents were gone and I was gone, and my children had had children who’d had children who’d had children, and my name was on a long list of somebody’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents.
I thought I was walking the dog on a chilly October morning, but it was all over. The crick in my neck had gone away, I had made bread later in the afternoon, or not, had gotten around to reading Herodotus, or not, had found my lost knitting needle so I could finish the blue scarf I’d started knitting last fall, or not, had perished from crashing or fire or cancer or time. Time cleaned my clock, if nothing else did.
Presidents had succeeded presidents, screeds had succeeded screeds, people trying their damnedest had given way to other people trying their damnedest. Some things are up for grabs, like jobs and dollars and votes, and are worth trying one’s damnedest for, and some things are not, like time and the moon and the stars. The Bible was always saying to ‘lift up your eyes’, maybe because when we lifted our eyes we remembered that not everything was up for grabs. (When they named ages they usually named them after grabbable things, like iron, stone, bronze, information, etc., not ungrabbable things like the moon and the stars.)
Pythagoras had been a cucumber in a former life, so he had that extra cucumber perspective on things. He had also been a sardine. Pythagoras the cucumber, Pythagoras the sardine, Pythagoras the person – Pythagoras knew there are some things you just have to roll with. If you are a cucumber, for example, you have to roll with your greenness, bumpiness, bulbousness, coolness – and, if you are of the Intimidator variety of cucumber, your intimidatingness.
My former lives are a little blurry to me but I’m trying to roll with this one – my toothiness, nosiness, spindliness, humanity, my age, and I like to think of my age as the Moon Age, for it’s as moony as any other age, maybe moonier, since it’s a moon-going age. I am guessing I never go there myself, though, except for musically. I have been to the moon in song.
I’ve ridden ponies in the mountains of Lesotho and played the violin in Slovakia and visited the haunts of the little blue fairy penguin in New Zealand. I’ve been to Brazil, where I was put in prison and given pizza. But the farthest I’ve ever travelled was when listening to Bach’s pieces for unaccompanied violin. An accompanied violinist has somebody providing the chords, context, atmosphere, rhythm, and background for her melody. Everything is spelled out, and all a listener has to do is sit in his chair and listen. But the unaccompanied violinist, who can play only one or two notes at a time, has to imply all the notes she’s not playing, and the listener has to imagine those unplayed notes. Made up so largely of implication, Bach’s Chaconne forces us to be fathomers.
Of course not everybody appreciates having to be a fathomer. Some people prefer to have everything spelled out. John Cook wrote: ‘The Chaconne is sublimely satisfying in its original form, yet many will agree that a single violin is only able to hint at the vast implications of much of this music…’ Because of that word ‘yet’, it sounds to me like Mr Cook is not sublimely satisfied with the original form, that actually he’d prefer a Chaconne transcribed for the organ, a transcription that dispensed with hints and vast implications and made everything explicit. Personally I prefer the original version, the moon and star of it.
Or maybe I do go to the Moon and not just musically. Maybe when I am eighty I win a go-to-the-Moon lottery and I like it so much I say I’m never going back. But I doubt it because there’s no music there, or rather, the music on the Moon is all implication, since they don’t have any medium to convey sound. Another thing is that the Moon isn’t very funny. The Moon and the Red Planet and the Yellow-Brown Planet and the Teal Planet are all grand-venerable-portentous but if you want a good laugh you have to go to the Blue Planet, which I think of as the Froggy Planet or the Piggy Planet or the Planty Planet. It could also be called the Nonsense Planet, since it’s the only planet with nonsense rats. Nonsense rats live on Trinket Island in the Indian Ocean.
Holst’s suite The Planets has movements for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, but no movement for the Earth, probably because the Earth is piggy and turtly and ridiculous. For an idea of what it would sound like if Holst had included a movement for Earth, try listening to The Planets, but in between ‘Mars’ and ‘Venus’, insert The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, featuring cuckoos, kangaroos, tortoises dancing the cancan, and ‘People with Long Ears’. People with long ears are donkeys. (People are donkeys with short ears.)
Holst’s suite was performed in public but Saint-Saëns only allowed his suite to be performed privately while he was alive because he thought it was frivolous. It is funny for dirt to write music and then think it frivolous. It is also funny for dirt to write serious music. It is funny for dirt to be musical, moody, wordy, wiggly, brainy, spleeny, hearty. It is funny for dirt to be a sourpuss or have a bubbly personality or a saggy personality or a starchy personality or a personality at all. It is funny for dirt to futz around or go bananas or go by Frank. It’s funny for dirt to get irritated by dirt on the kitchen floor; funny for dirt to invent banshees, funny for dirt to banish the banshees. It is funny for dirt to be a duck or a poppy or a Venezuelan poodle moth or to address its own planet, as did Walt Whitman: ‘Say, old top-knot, what do you want?’
Along with the hens and kangaroos and wild asses, piano players get their own movement in The Carnival of the Animals, and the piano animals fit right in with the rest of the animals. I live with two piano animals, one of whom plays ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas’ over and over every afternoon when she comes home from school. Before she started playing it constantly I hadn’t realised that the melody is really a heartbreaker. The other pianist plays Reveille at six o’clock in the morning, to try and wake up the lazy bums in his house. He does not sing these lyrics but powerfully implies them:
I can’t get ’em up
I can’t get ’em up
I can’t get ’em up this morning;
I can’t get ’em up
I can’t get ’em up
I can’t get ’em up at all!
In the Chaconne, the notes you can hear imply the notes you can’t hear; I’d say the ratio of present notes to absent notes is about one to four. It is a propulsive ratio: I once heard an ancient wispy-haired man playing the Chaconne and was propelled out beyond Cassiopeia. (They called the sixties the Space Age but I say Bach’s age was the Space Age too.) Songs with mostly present notes are not as propulsive; they will not propel you into space, though they might propel you over the backyard fence, or almost over the fence.
Too many absent notes can be a problem, too, like in the songs they sing on the Moon. But even one note – especially if Count Basie is playing it – can imply scores of absent notes. A little can imply a lot, like how one itty-bitty fossil tooth found along the Río Alto Madre de Dios implies all those hamster-sized monkeys bouncing around Peru eighteen million years ago. If micromonkey tooth, then micromonkeys.
If scarf, then knitter. If egg, then egret. If you, then your parents. If you didn’t know your parents you could still infer them from your existence and if you didn’t know about the stars you could similarly infer them from yourself. You can examine your composition – your carbon and magnesium and gold and silicon – and extrapolate the stars, because to forge those heavy elements there obviously had to be several generations of stars going kerblooey. I mean I assume you are a person but if you are a flamingo you could equally extrapolate the stars (and your parents).
In a former life I may have been a cucumber, my elements contributing to one of those Indian cucumbers three thousand years ago. I wonder if I was an intimidating cucumber. I’ve probably been grasses, probably goats, possibly doodlebugs, but I know for sure I was an asteroid. I like to remember that life as an asteroid because it helps me remember this life – the one that feels like having feet so cold I can’t sleep, like getting dragged face first through the sand by a labrador retriever, like using an oven mitt with a hole in it so my fingers get burned, like letting the toddlers in the backseat pull cattails apart, filling the car with fluff, like getting a little tipsy on pinot grigio while one piano animal plays a throbbing rhythm on the piano – ONE-and-two-AND-three-and-FOUR-and-ONE-and-two-AND-three-and-FOUR-and – and the other piano animal spins me around in an old blue chair.
Now that he’s perennially playing that rhythm it’s my favourite rhythm, right behind triple time, and although I don’t like summaries, if I had to summarise my life I would call it The Acquisition of Appreciation. I used to be narrow-minded and did not appreciate ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas’; I used to be conventional and thought that only ladies with supple legs should dance the cancan, but now I enjoy it when tortoises dance it too.
I used to think that famous people were more important than other people, but now that I have gotten to know so many people who aren’t famous, I have changed my mind. I know somebody who isn’t famous who gave me her old mixer. I know another person who isn’t famous who gave us four little bicycles her children had outgrown. No famous person has ever given me a bicycle or a mixer.
I didn’t used to love Iowa or Ornette Coleman or the sound of French. I didn’t used to appreciate goat-sounding singers, till one summer evening in the Adirondacks I heard a woman who sang like a goat singing ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ and I swear no woman-voiced woman has ever made me cry like that. I didn’t used to think that people who look like toads are beautiful but that’s definitely where I have ended up – person is pretty like toad. I assume that with time I will accumulate more and more appreciations until by the time I die I will love even blue cheese and Charles Dickens and summaries and politics and the winds in Livingston, Montana.
The world is appreciating for me – getting dearer with time. Something else that’s appreciating with time is time, and another thing is nonsense, especially as nonsense is so vulnerable these days. Nonsense rats became endangered after the 2004 tsunami, and if nonsense rats go extinct then the world will be a little less nonsensical, a little more like Neptune, more of a candidate for The Planets. I define nonsense as everything that is unimplied by the stars. Though we imply the stars, the stars do not imply us – not if we’re human, or flamingo, or cucumber – nor any of the other Earthly etceteras. If you’d been raised among the stars and nobody’d ever told you about the Earth, what about the stars would lead you to conclude that all their exploding had resulted in chipmunks? Chipmunks are curveballs. Chipmunks are surprise chipmunks.
Humans are surprise humans and if the stars do not imply humans then they really do not imply Schopenhauer, or Fats Domino, or Geronimo, or Rickey Smith, or that Rickey Smith would sing ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ with such intensity we all believed he could fly too, or that instead of flying he’d be killed by a drunk driver headed the wrong way on an Oklahoma highway early one morning in 2016. The stars do plausibly imply the rings of Saturn: blasted into space by a supernova, dust predictably coalesces into asteroids and asteroids predictably coalesce into planets and planets not unpredictably collect disks of dust. Saturn’s rings, being predictably circly, dusty, and disky are not nonsense like Earth’s rings, made of space junk.
Saturn is also predictably moony, much moonier than Earth. Saturn has fifty-three confirmed moons and twenty-nine provisional moons ‘awaiting confirmation’. (Saturn is keeping some moons under his hat. Like other characters compensating for their lack of funniness, Saturn tries to maintain a certain ‘mystique’.) Anyway, to be moony and provisionally moony all you have to be is massy, but to be loony and limpety and shrimpy and shrewy and eely and yakky and oaky and doodlebuggy and snapdragonny and buttercuppy and honeysuckly and hippopotamussy, being massy is not enough.
I might also define nonsense as anything beautiful, like toads and rats and hogs, those heartstoppers. Some people, like Walt Whitman, are in hog heaven here, among all the beauty; Whitman and the Earth got along like a house on fire. But for other people, beauty is not their cup of tea, and they say to anything beautiful, You can’t ‘come hither’ me! They are hog-proof, sheep-proof, mushroom-proof – Earth-proof, in fact, like those buttercup debunkers – buttercups are so bogus – who, when the debunking doesn’t work, may put on their flight gear and get in their bombers and fly around bombing the buttercups. If you can’t debunk something you can still bomb it.
The problem with blitzing flowers is that flowers are always reappearing, like remember how after the Blitz all that ragwort and fireweed popped up in London? I’ve walked through a burned forest where all the trees were charred and black and sensibly you’d expect on the ground an ashy nothingness but it was full of nonsensically pink fireweed, and nonsensically sweet raspberries. After tasting one raspberry, the baby pressed her fellow hikers into feeding her raspberries for the rest of the hike. The baby is not raspberryproof. One raspberry turns the baby into a raspberry despot and everyone around her into conscripts.
Keats wrote that ‘Twang dillo dee’ – which means ‘amen to nonsense’ – should be written across the backs of politicians and ‘at the end of most modern Poems’ and on all American books, and that ‘Twang dillo dee’ is actually inscribed across our planet: ‘Some philosophers in the Moon who spy at our Globe as we do at theirs say that Twang dillo dee is written in large Letters on our Globe of Earth.’ When I was musically visiting the Moon I looked back at Earth and I saw it! I saw how the vertical line of the ‘T’ traces the Rocky Mountains, how the ‘g’ of the ‘wang’ lies mostly over the ocean but catches, slightly, the coast of Mauritania, how the ‘d’ of the ‘dee’ curves around Sulawesi. Like John Keats, I say amen to nonsense, but my amen is sincere, and to reformulate one of his formulations, I say, ‘“Beauty is Nonsense, Nonsense Beauty.” – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Except, this definition of nonsense would include the planets and stars, however humourless, for they are very beautiful – sparkly scarlet, glowy yellow, etc. If you’d been raised in a box and nobody had ever told you about the stars; if you’d been kept in the dark all your life but had doped out the stars’ existence from studying your composition, wouldn’t you still be shocked, upon being let out and lifting up your eyes? Extrapolated stars can’t hold a candle to real stars. And if you lifted up your eyes would you ever even lower them again? Wouldn’t you get all strung out on the stars? Maybe if we could only see the universe from far enough away – if we could listen to some song so propulsively composed as to pitch us out beyond the huddle of our universe – we’d spy ‘Amen to Nonsense’ written across the whole nonsensically pretty shebang.
The Marvel of Peru. Hey, Marvel of Peru, wake up, it’s four o’clock, you’re the flower of the hour!
One of many great-great-great-great-great–grand-parents. Perhaps my great-great-great-great-great–great–grand-daughter shares with me my sloppiness and sleepiness, or maybe, with all those other ancestors contributing to her constitution, the attributes she received from me are tempered, moderated, rendered merely charming. Along with a little sleepiness and sloppiness and forgetfulness and gullibility she also possesses common sense and studiousness and resolve. I think she is perfect and am proud to have gone into her making.
Children who’d had children who’d had children. I am a first-generation violinist, a third-generation pianist, and a ten-thousandth-generation child.
Slumpy-faced. Jack-o’-lanterns really let themselves go.
Funny for dirt to be hearty and brainy. It is also funny for dirt to have no heart and no brain, like the starfish.
Funny for dirt to be hearty and brainy. It is funniest of all for dirt to be soully.
Propelled out beyond Cassiopeia. One thing I noticed while I was out there was that the stars were obeying Albert Einstein rather than Isaac Newton. If you want the stars to obey you, being a physicist is not enough – you also have to be a violinist.
Geronimo. What do you mean, ‘Geronimo Who?’ There’s only one Geronimo. Have you ever heard anybody talking about the Geronimos?
Tulips and dandelions. Never has there been a wave of dandelionomania like that one wave of tulipomania in seventeenth-century Holland. Never has anyone given forty acres in exchange for one dandelion. However, as the price of dandelions has never risen, so their price has never crashed. The worth of dandelions is not bestowed upon them – nor is it removed – by the market. (Actually this is true of tulips too.)
Dandelionomania. I know two children who are dandelion–o-maniacs.
Chipmunks are curveballs. Chipmunks are unique among curveballs in that they pitch themselves. They are stripey little curveballs pitching themselves around the forest gathering hazelnuts in their cheeks.
Surprise chipmunks. Just ask the people who recently arrived on the planet how surprising chipmunks are.
Acceptable generalisations. Another one is ‘Rabbi is bigger than rabbit.’ The littlest rabbi is bigger than the biggest rabbit. Actually never mind, I forgot about Ralph. Ralph the Rabbit weighs forty-two pounds and is way bigger than a baby rabbi.
When I am eighty. Isn’t a number a funny adjective to apply to a person, as in Anna Maria is nine, Andre is thirty-seven?
Lift up your eyes. ‘Lift up your eyes’ is different from ‘Roll your eyes’, although sometimes when I am rolling my eyes I happen to catch a glimpse of the stars and then I stop rolling my eyes and keep them lifted up.
If you are a flamingo. If you are a flamingo, you are very expensive, because so many stars had to be spent in the making of you!
If us, then stars. We imply the stars, and we also employed them. Weren’t we clever to employ the stars in manufacturing our elements?
The stars do not imply us if we’re flamingos. Extrapolating flamingos from the stars is like extrapolating Emily Dickinson’s poems from the alphabet.
Accumulation of appreciation. Another thing accumulating for me is good choices. When I was young my choices were between good things and bad things. It is bad to smoke cigarettes and good to not smoke cigarettes: choose. It is bad to eat Cheetos and good to eat carrots: choose. Now almost all my choices are between good things and good things and good things and good things: it is good to do laundry and good to answer emails and good to read Dostoevsky and good to practice the violin: how to choose? Not smoking cigarettes is simple and easy, like being in a room with one squirrel and not sitting on it. But now I have to choose between all these good things where doing one of them means not doing another of them, like if I fold the laundry I’m not reading Dostoevsky and if I read Dostoevsky I’m not making soup and if I make soup then I’m not walking the dog, and I feel like I’m in a room with so many squirrels and not sitting on one squirrel means sitting on another squirrel and so all I ever do is sit on squirrels and apologise to squirrels.
Made of so much implication. There are books as well as songs whose implications fling you into space: Basho, Emily Dickinson, and the Book of Job come to mind. Also there are books whose gravity pulls you into orbit around them. Leaves of Grass is such a book, like a red hypergiant star – open it up and you will be permanently captured. Other books are like asteroids and can be safely cracked without fear of circling them for the rest of your life. You have to really try and orbit an asteroid.
Walt Whitman. Dead poets are sometimes dismissed because they are dead but I feel more dismissive of dead poems than dead poets.
Some books pull you into orbit. How much orbital power Flaubert possesses I do not know because I have never opened his books. Eleven years ago I bought Bouvard and Pecuchet but have yet to open it up, and nobody has ever made me read Madame Bovary.
Planty planet. Earth is the plantiest planet but not the planetiest planet. The word ‘planet’ comes from an old Greek word for ‘wanderer’, but the Earth, locked into its track around the sun, is not all that wandery. The really wandery planets are those rogue planets roaming the Milky Way, unattached to any star.
Buttercup debunkers. I feel that my calling is to counter-balance the buttercup debunkers. I do this by buttering up the buttercups.
Amy Leach lives in Montana and is the author of Things That Are and The Everybody Ensemble. Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays, The Best American Science and Nature Writing and numerous other publications, including Granta and A Public Space. She has been recognised with a Whiting Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.Read more