NASCAR’s dirty little secrets
In an 11th-Century anecdote about St. Bridget, a connection is made between an anchor which cannot be raised, a church, and a powerful force under water. In the anecdote a blind boy goes down into the sea after the anchor, which the sailors dropped on account of a gale, and which has become entangled in the roof of a church. A year later the blind boy returns, carrying the church’s order of mass and a handbell.
— Clara Strijbosch, The Seafaring Saint: Sources and Analogues of the 12th-Century Voyage of St. Brendan
* * *
All eyes were on Jimmie Johnson at the Sprint All-Star race on May 22; his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet seemed unpassable. But “big, bold moves” were what brought Kurt Busch out of nowhere, putting the Blue Deuce in the lead in the final ten laps and staying there to the finish line, collecting $1 million purse.
Holding high his trophy, Busch was caught in a limelight which held him fast, burning the center like a frame of a movie reel stilled and bubbling next to a bright bulb. The darkness surrounding Busch is almost oceanic, and we get the sense that the shadow cast by the victor travels a long, long way in that dark, carrying in its folds all of the night’s lesser dramas – brother Kyle on the radio swearing that he would kill teammate Denny Hamlin for cutting him off and bearing him into the wall when he thought the race was his to win; also-ran Martin Truex, who had won the earlier Sprint Showdown to grab one of two open spaces in the All-Star Race but fallen .037 seconds short of beating the Deuce; Jimmie Johnson’s first spoiler victory done in by the quirky, final, 10-minute pit, coming off pit row behind Hamlin and Busch and then spinning out into a wild, slow-mo, operatic aria of turf chowing as the former champion fought his way back onto a field that had passed him for good for this race, perhaps forever.
The FOX network cameras stayed on the elder Busch and his jubilant crew, all the much richer in that moment, avoiding any glimpse at the stands which were some 20,000 fans short of the previous year’s official attendance of 145,000 and probably much closer to Monte Dutton’s estimate of 101,000. There was a greater darkness there to match the greater emptiness, a shadow great enough perhaps on the eve of the induction ceremonies of the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame to background the brilliant light focused on that coming event. It’s what passes for apotheosis, I guess, in these profane, empty-pew days.
Busch holding up his All-Start trophy is for some reason for me an anchor stuck to something further down in forbidding darkness. Why is NASCAR’s shiniest moment mired, in my mind at least, in such mud? Is there something down there which until is has been properly named cannot allow the moment its full truth?
* * *
Human vision is narrow and focused: We see what’s in front of us, pay scant attention to the sidelines and not at all to what’s over the margins or hidden from sight. (No way Jimmie Johnson could see A.J. Allmendinger’s brakeless No. 43 Ford Fusion coming at him backwards and sideways up the track when the No. 48 crashed at Darlington; “I heard ‘Caution’s out’ and bam! I got drilled,” Johnson says.) Fate—or destiny—comes at us that way.
The consciousness that would develop in the species which now has dominion over the Earth followed a direct line of sight. We work with the obvious and the common-sensical; our minds are only capable of dealing well with one thought at a time. (Sorry, multi-taskers, your hyper-media purposings defeat the very engines of progress which create them.)
Consciousness couldn’t have evolved without such filters; the flood of data coming in through the senses is so great that there is no way to hold all of that in one’s mind. That’s why time and space were invented, matrixes of containment which allow us to mark our hours and calibrate distances.
We’d go mad without these references, these cortical abstractions which give us reality in measured doses, in tiny boxes. We understand, much less perceive infinity nor eternity. (That’s why the TV series “Lost”, with its string-theory narratives, became more bewildering than the island’s wilderness terrain to all but the most rabidly, nerdily loyal.)
The absolute inversions of things in death led us to create deathless religions. The mind has depths it doesn’t understand and is perilous to descend into. Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund, was a schizophrenic; Carl Jung likened her disorder to that of one who falls to a depth a healthy swimmer can dive to; the swimmer knows how to return to the surface, where a mad or disordered consciousness is lost in the dark flow.
So, our consciousness, our insight, our ability, our mastery over all derives from a certain rage against the powers and principalities which are just too damn big to comprehend. We think sequentially, one thought at a time. Our attention focuses on the attractive, the shiny and curvy, the gilded and meaty. Time flows at us fast, and it’s hard to remember much what happened two days before, much less the particulars of a night a year ago. We cheat (especially crew chiefs), focusing only on what’s in the light before us, on the expedient, on that which provides an edge. (Hendrick Motorsports allegedly spent 10 years and a million bucks working on an oil filter which would deliver just a few extra horsepower—enough, it seems to make Johnson such a feared closer until lately.
Such an undivided silo attention, however, has its disadvantages. Consciousness has become too one-sided, grown far from its natural roots. Like the night sky in a big city, all we see are the neon signage. We look too high, we analyze too far. Great expense was going toward a Star Wars missile defense when 10 Al Quaida operatives boarded trans-continental jets with box-cutters on Sept. 11, 2001. Stage magicians know quite well that we are fooled by what we think we see, what we think we know.
The truth is sometimes large than the sum of the facts. Sometimes we are brought to an awareness of this when something unexpected happens and diverts our attention. Something gets stuck in the flow at a particular moment, like the night we meet someone at a party or a bar and miraculously, by dawn’s first besotted kiss, fall in love. Or the phone rings at 4:24 a.m. with news of a brother’s fatal heart attack. Or the World Trade Center Towers are falling, or Richard Nixon is shooting a V-sign with his fingers as he walks in shame to a departing helicoper. Or that pretty buxom girl in the minidress says Yes at my first dance. Or I spend the first day of summer vacation one year laying on your back in the grass of the side yard, staring at the clouds in the sky, wishing that moment would remain forever.
Memory holds on to such events, and reverie allows us to cherish them, calling them up again and again, joining in some cases a national conversation – where were you the night the U.S. invaded Iraq for a second time? – and in other cases playing a memory like a movie in a personal theater, replaying a moment with questions like How? or Why? unanswerable by our conscious minds. Like the hot weekend in June many years ago I spent at Melbourne Beach with a poet I was dating (who went on to become a poet of the permanent and legitimate variety, whereas I wrote on water a while and vanished), caught up in the rapture of the full moon watching loggerhead turtles come in from the sea to dig nests in the sand with their cumbersome flippers and lay their eggs, that act somehow echoed in the furious passion I had for the woman:
Our first night here was wild.
A full moon tore from the sea
faint and bloody as storms
approached from inland,
lacing the dark with hot bolts.
A sea turtle dragged her burden
of eggs across the sand.
You and I watched from our hotel window,
our bodies trilling with thunder
and salt. I leaned you back on
the table and pulled down your shorts.
Buried my face in your lap.
Sweat and cunt and coconut oil
ripening the sharp ions of beach storm.
You tore wet gasps from
the night, startling the darkness
as much as each lightning bolt
slicing from outside.
Coming again to that third
body that waits for us
beneath the basso billows of surf.
This morning you sleep,
still far off in that sea
of primal soak. The day so
brilliant white, dazed with itself.
I eat a nectarine at the table
and watch maddened dragonflies
hover and hurl in tall dune grass.
Flattened waves break
at the shore in weak curlicues.
The smell of our riot rises
from the table. All we do
these days is surrender.
Swelling for you again,
I return. A blue sheet pulls
down revealing your breasts in a wave.
The anchors which hold our attention on a thing get stuck for obvious reasons such as these. But then there are times when the anchor gets caught on something down there which doesn’t reveal itself. We have a nagging notion that things aren’t quite as they appear; that the visible is far less interesting or compelling than what the invisible order it has disturbed.
This week my anchor’s stuck on something and won’t let go. I’m going to have to swim down there and check things out. I’m not sure what I find, but whatever’s down there wants me to check things out from the perspective of depth, with some Other’s eyes.
* * *
When the Irish saint Columba was exiled from Ireland in 563 A.D. for copying a psalter in secret and then, in what was perhaps the first copyright dispute) going to war rather than give up the copy, he was forced to sail with 12 companion monks as far away from his homeland that he could not settle until the Irish coast disappeared completely from sight.
That’s how he ended up on the island of Iona, just off the southeastern coast of Scotland. Iona was a strange, wild island, recently evicted of a druid population, and before that the domain of a moon-goddess similar to Sycorax in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
Even older energies were apparently still in residence, as work on the abbey was destroyed each night by a terrible gale come up from the sea. The saint decided to vigil one night on a hill overlooking the abbey site, and after midnight a half-woman, half-fish came up out of the sea to tell Columba (in what was surely a dense, strange, brine-soaked brogue) that a water-deity had been disturbed by the monks’ cutting of the sward of His island.
In order to appease this god, the fish-woman sang in a language left of the moon and right of the sea, a man must be buried standing up in the footers of the abbey; and with a sigh like a heaving, crashing wave, the fish-woman turned and walked back into the sea.
The next day lots are cast and St. Oran’s name was pulled (other accounts of the myth say he volunteered). Oran steps down into the hole that has been dug in the abbey’s footers and stands as the monks fill him over with dirt. That night all is calm and work on the abbey’s construction can at last proceed.
Three days later, Columba wishes to look upon his dear friend one last time, and bids his monks dig up enough of the dirt to reveal Oran’s face. Lost in sad reverie, Columba is affrighted when suddenly Oran’s eyes spring open and his dark mouth begins to sing in the same brogue as the fish-woman, no longer capable of talking in the language of days:
“All you say about God and man and Heaven and Hell are wrong!” he shouts. “In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!”
Aghast, Columba cries out, “Mud, mud over Oran’s face lest he blab no more!” The monks hurry to bury over the Oran’s singing skull. Oran’s words are still repeated in Gaelic by Hebridean mothers to quiet unruly children.
* * *
As myths go, this is a fun one, because is shows how history and mystery face each other like St. Columba looking into the eerily-opened eyes of his recently-but-utterly-dead friend. The story does not appear in any official church annal; no Oran is recorded among the twelve companions of Columba (an Oran, however, was sacrificed on the island by druids some twelve years before.) Legends of sacrifice to appease the ruling deities appear frequently, especially in the cutting of the sward (disturbing the old gods). Skeletons have been found beneath entry-stones and in other nooks of ruined buildings from the early Middle Ages.
The sacrifice of St. Oran may not have actually happened, not in the way of this legend (an Oran apparently was sacrificed by druids on the island 12 years before Columba’s Christian mission arrived) but the story survives because it bears a buried central truth over which the Christian Church was built: That certainty gets in the way of truth. The old gods may have been banished from the Christian world (Manannan was said to have fled to the outer island and hilltops and land to the far North), but they leave a troubling hue to the outer edges of the dominant light.
As this legend shows, a much greater immensity clings to the undersides of human knowledge, just as the visible universe is infinitesimal compared to the dark space which governs the celestial tides. Technology tries to convince us otherwise, but it the end its bright light is single-mindedly in the service of the light: A conflict of interest, wouldn’t you say.
Perhaps too it is much more interesting, for this post at least, to give vent to the unseeable and unsayable which founts way down under, like an broken oil pipe venting the ink of a post up from the undersides of a thought.
* * *
About the most interesting thing about the 2009 All-Star race was the appearance of Jeremy Mayfield on top of the National Guard hospitality trailer. Mayfield was then fighting NASCAR over a suspension for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy; he claims he had simply taken two tablets of Claritin D; NASCAR claims he tested positive – on two occasions — for crystal meth). Mayfield sued NASCAR and received a temporary injunction from a judge on the grounds that there was a good possibility of his test giving a false positive; he went on to rule that “the harm to Mr. Mayfield significantly outweighs the harm to NASCAR”.”
In an interview with ESPN around that time, Mayfield said,
You referring to NASCAR) use me as an example to let everybody know who may have already tested positive for marijuana, cocaine or whatever, that they haven’t got anybody for, and it puts the fear of God in everybody in the whole sport. I was a good example, a good pawn, who wasn’t going to cost them any money at all. I was worth more to them as a failed drug test then I am as a driver-owner for my own team.
Even with the injunction, Mayfield failed to make the 2009 Coke Zero 400 and 2009 Lifelock 400 races for want of a sponsor. He tested positive a second time on July 6, five days after the suspension was lifted. A federal appeals court reversed Mayfield’s injunction on July 24 and his suspension has continued to the present.
Just last week, a North Carolina state judge dismissed Mayfield’s suit against NASCAR, saying that by singing to drive for NASCAR, he had dismissed his right to file a lawsuit against them, so his claims had no legal standing.
Mayfield fights on against NASCAR, but by now there isn’t much left for him. Mayfield’s racing equipment was auctioned off lock, stock and barrel back in February – the cars, pit uniforms, helmets.
Mayfield is pretty well out of sight of the media—and the sport—these days. He’s dirty laundry, business which NASCAR finishes in its usual manner—with intolerable strength. A contract which states that by entering a race a driver relinquishes all legal recourse against his employer is pure Bill France, Sr., who enforced a “lifetime ban” on popular driver Curtis Turner for his efforts to organize NASCAR drivers into a union in order to get protection NASCAR was unwilling to provide, like death benefits. Big Bill’s error was to pick on so popular a driver – Turner’s “lifetime ban” was rescinded in just four years because the sport desperately needed some marquee names to draw fans back to the track.
Mayfield isn’t a driver anyone is particularly going to miss – over 17 years of Sprint-Cup-level competition, Mayfield had 5 wins and 48 top-5’s (Curtis Turner won 17 races in a 17-year career that was cut short, at age 48, by an airplane crash), and had struggled in his final years one of those owner-drivers who couldn’t raise enough money to keep on the track. (Robby Gordon is one of them, a driver-owner who for lack of sponsorship was forced to start-and-park at Dover.) NASCAR learned its lesson from Curtis Turner; it makes examples out of the little guys.
Mayfield’s suspension came on the heels of the suicide of former Busch/Craftsman Trucks series driver Kevin Grubb, who hadn’t competed since 2006 after refusing to submit to drug testing after a crash at a Busch Series race in Richmond. (The infield docs missed that Grubb had a concussion, and instead ordered a drug test, which isn’t usually their practice in crash follow-ups). Grubb had failed a substance abuse test in March 2004, so he was on NASCAR’s radar, and there and was banned from racing for life after failing a test in 2007. Grubb died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, and a few weeks later Mayfield was in NASCAR’s crosshairs.
Kevin Grubb, former Busch/Craftsman Trucks Series driver who committed suicide in 2009.
No one can argue in support of drug-impaired drivers racing at speeds of up to 200 mph—and it would be hard to find a driver who would argue publicly against NASCAR’s tough new drug-testing policy: But there’s something less visible at work here.
For one, I wonder if NASCAR policies the use of performance-enhancing drugs with the same vigor; we’ve seen several days this year where drivers have raced, due to rain-rescheduling, a Nationwide and then a Sprint Cup race, 800 grueling miles taxing both drivers and pit crews. Many drivers are sponsored by energy drinks like Amp Energy, Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy Shot, and use of mental-energy prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin is said to be common among the young, and easily these could be a part of any drivers’ preparation. (Jury’s not out on the safety of any of these enhancers, not by a long shot. Ritalin abuse is what probably helped set up my younger brother for a fatal heart attack at age 44.)
Drug use is ubiquitous in our culture; it’s just the illicit drugs where people on the margins make the money that are the “problem.” Although Prohibition was repealed, moonshiners continued to make their money selling on the black market, off the federal taxation grid. If marijuana ever gets legalized, imagine the sponsorship fray which would result from that.
But deeper—for this post is about looking for invisible connections—there is the point about NASCAR making a point to its drivers who is boss in NASCAR. Like most corporations today, employees’ behavior on and off the job are within the purview and control of the company. NASCAR drivers better behave like drivers of today’s NASCAR, which means there is no fighting their rule. Even vocal opposition is verboten. Mayfield’s greater sin is not that he may or may not have used drugs, it’s that he challenged the authority of NASCAR in his right to race. Like the NFL, NASCAR thinks it owns everything related to a race which bears its name, including the teams, the race images (both video and, sorry, the photos on your camera that you took at the race).
To NASCAR, racing in Sprint, Nationwide and Camping World Series races is a business agreement; Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing are vendors who pay for the right to compete in NASCAR’s arenas. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are the human face of that business arrangement, the same way you get an Arkansas-folksy greeting from a Wal-Mart employee while the company does almost all its business with offshore (Chinese) manufacturers.
NASCAR loves driver adoration, because it keeps the view averted from NASCAR. Why else have an All-Star Race, with its one slot kept open for a popular non-winner determined by popular vote? (What a coup when Kasey Kahne won the popular vote in 2008 and then the All-Star race, the good lookin’ dark horse parting Winnie’s thighs that night!)
Why else–in the year in which race attendance is falling faster than newspaper subscriptions or the Grecian Dow or the panties of a drunken sorority gal in a hotel roomful of Heisman hopefuls–unveil a NASCAR Hall of Fame? I know it’s just timing – the Hall has been planned for years, coming to fruition in this very bad one – but there is no better testament to the notion that a good defense is the more potent office than to deify yourself just when the public is beginning to think you really stink.
Like all all-powerful organizations, NASCAR suffers from a fatal abundance of hubris. By placing two of its own executives – Bill France Sr. and Jr. – into the inaugural class of drivers, beating out the likes of David Pearson and Cale Yarborough, NASCAR reveals who it thinks its real gods are. Drivers may be stellar, but NASCAR owns its universe.
For all of his perceived injustice—and he may at bottom be truly guilty of abusing illegal drugs while racing (how far is the abyss from Adderall to crystal meth for alertness on the track?)—Jeremy Mayfield just can’t beat NASCAR. That’s the message NASCAR will triumph over, whether Mayfield shows up at the All-Star race or not.
As Mayfield says, Mayfield means more to NASCAR as an example than a presence.
For me, Mayfield’s absence means far more than NASCAR’s stand in legal Victory Row.
* * *
So just what is NASCAR’s dirty little secret, behind the monstrous enterprise which acts in according with its charter? It used to be moonshine; NASCAR’s roots are soaked in still whiskey, but there was a time when the marketing folks at NASCAR tried to bury its history like St. Oran down in the foundations. Moonshine was the banned substance during reign of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution – otherwise known as Prohibition – and, after the Twenty-First Amendment was repealed on December 5, 1933, moonshine was the underground economy in the South for decades. Moonshine runners were the archtypes of NASCAR drivers, helluva guys in beefed-up stock cars beating the local authorities on noctal highways of the Piedmont region.
Not only did moonshine runners fill the early ranks of NASCAR races, the good ole boys who operated the stills built tracks as a way of laundering profits. Shade-tree mechanics who could give a drivers an edge became the crew chiefs. (Smokey Yunick would be proud of Chad Knaus.) Bill France Sr.—himself a mechanic and a beach racer–made his deals with the devils to form his fledgling National Championship Stock Car Series in 1947.
But moonshine isn’t NASCAR’s dirty little secret any more. In fact, among the exhibits at the NASCAR Hall of Fame you’ll find a working moonshine still. For many years, NASCAR tried to hide the story of its roots, but now without those roots the connection between NASCAR and its fans grows more vaporous than Gulf Oil whiskey (the latest notorious blend). It was NASCAR’s idea to call Junior Johnson—one of the most notorious moonshine runners to race in NASCAR–at his chicken farm in North Wilkesboro and have him build a still to include in the NASCAR installation.
Johnson, one of the only three drivers to make it into the inaugural class of the NASCAR hall of Fame, fought often with Bill France Sr. over driver safety issues, never getting anywhere with the Tall Guy. But Johnson was also always in it for the money; he once threatened to leave the sport to raise chickens where he was surer to make a buck. It was Junior Johnson’s idea to seek lucrative sponsorships with folks like tobacco manufacturers who were banned from advertising on TV or in print media, and it was such a great idea to France that he took it over for the entire sport. Stock cars make great billboards, and the big business of racing began with big corporate money.
Is the dirty secret of NASCAR that fans never truly meant anything to NASCAR but the spread of opened wallets? Remember that old saying from high school – “pussy don’t got no face”? — the same applies to how NASCAR gets its money. Fans are the easiest source to milk, pliable as they are to the vices so readily flaunted by the balls-to-the-walls NASCAR driver image. Fans’ input into the selection of NASCAR’s inaugural class was highly trumpeted, but in actuality the entire fan vote accounted for, by proxy, only one of 51 votes cast by the Voting Committee. The rest of the committee was comprised of vested interests: 8 NASCAR officials, 11 track owners, 4 representatives of the auto manufacturers; 3 each of retired drivers, car owners (including Johnson) and crew chiefs; and 14 members of the media, many with corporations who hold lucrative contracts with NASCAR (like FOX Sports and Turner Media, which owns ESPN and NASCAR.com).
Dirty little secret: NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is only incidentally an homage to the drivers who risk their lives every week to race on NASCAR tracks and whose criticisms are kept under tight wraps. Imagine a Vietnam Memorial inscribed with the names of the CEO’s of arms manufacturers and politicians and anyone else to make a buck off war, saving the smallest space at the bottom, in the tiniest of scripts, for the names of the dead.
NASCAR Hall of Famers: Suits and incidentally firesuits filled the ranks of the inaugural class.
Then you would have NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. A monument to capitalism desperate to keep the face of legends like Dale Earnhardt plastered on every visible surface (a guy who is no longer around to give his corporate owners the finger) or the face of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who knows well enough which side his bread is buttered on.
Fat cats love folksy little luminaries Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin, because they are bright shields against the unseen and unsayable truths hidden behind their aura—truths which, if they were brought to the surface, would get those secret power run out of town tarred and feathered riding on a rail.
But corporate greed is too common a foible to classify it as a dirty secret unique to NASCAR. NASCAR plays just like other big corporate players who try to monopolize their turf with a brand. Players like British Petroleum. BP already has two environmental felonies on its rap sheet (both for cost-cutting at the expense of human and animal life). BP is valiantly leading the effort to clean up its horrible mess – for who else has the know-how and the equipment? — But it’s like expecting NASCAR to say no to a corporate buck or back down on a litigation against any of the world who thinks stock car racing is a sport and not a brand.
* * *
NASCAR might point out that Mayfield didn’t do too badly, over the years, racing by Their rules, earning some 34 million dollars in 17 years racing at the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series level.
But legal fees have wiped out such fortune. Mayfield’s original legal team has filed suit for $370,000 in unpaid legal bills (it is one of six suits filed against him or Mayfield Motorsports Inc., most for unpaid bills. The IRS has a lien on property owned by Mayfield and his wife for unpaid income taxes totaling some $231 thousand dollars.
Mayfield’s fight against NASCAR has drained him dry.
Thirty four million dollars is a lot of money to lose.
But then, NASCAR’s top drivers make $30 million in a year alone between track winnings and endorsements.
Furthermore, each member of the France family is worth well over a billion dollars each.
“We are going to defend the industry against anything in terms of the policies that we have to institute,” Bill France said in January. “We are going to litigate them all the way to the end, all the time. That’s our policy.”
Of course they will. NASCAR is the sole player in its industry, and it means to stay that way forever.
Might is always right. And there’s nothing more certain than billionaires with all those pennies at stake. Keeping the dark tribe of racers down.
* * *
Sunday night my wife and I watched a 5-1/2 hour “Lost” marathon on TV, first catching the penultimate episode we had recorded on VCR, then the 2-hour clips show, and finally the 2-1/2 hour final episode. For all of that, we’re none the wiser about just what the hell that show was about. “Lost” watches more like a graduate literature student’s exercise in metafiction than a TV show; maybe that made it compelling, a devious device, like Maxwell’s Demon, for keeping viewer interest amid so many damn commercials.
My wife and I didn’t start watching the series til last summer on DVD and we rocketed our way through four seasons in about two months. We waited a couple months then to catch the 5th season on DVD last December, and have watched the final season almost in real-time, videotaping the episodes so we could at least fast-forward through the commercials. We’ve been especially addled and frustrated and with the series this season, hoping all of its profuse loose end would ravel together in the end.
They didn’t. Instead, we got more descents and doors amid much lost love and life. Whatever greater wonder they squeezed into every frame, like confectioner’s goo, was surely tempered in the final episode by all that human hurt finding a smile at last – in death.
* * *
As I said, in “Lost” there were many descents, down wells and caverns, to the bottoms of pools and the ocean, through passageways cut into the rock of an island which may or may not exist, which may be purgatory or Hell, a place where menace and wonder is always just being uttered by the lips.
Those descents were not only into depths, but also into the oubliette of the space-time continuum, with flashbacks getting replace for forward jumps, herky-jerky leaps all over the place, then those side-backs, if you can call them that, of the final season, a parallel narrative with odd connective fibers to the continued mayhem on the island.
As descents go, “Lost” was as rather crowded one, a string-theorist’s delight; but every descent is wild and hairy and agleam with possibility. John Keats’ Endymion is an explorer of ocean depths:
… Far had he roam’d,
With nothing save the hollow vast, that foam’d
Above, around, and at his feet; save things
More dead than Morpheus’ imaginings:
Old rusted anchors, helmets, breast-plates large
Of gone sea-warriors; brazen beaks and targe;
Rudders that for a hundred years had lost
The sway of human hand; gold vase emboss’d
With long-forgotten story, and wherein
No reveller had ever dipp’d a chin
But those of Saturn’s vintage; mouldering scrolls,
Writ in the tongue of heaven, by those souls
Who first were on the earth; and sculptures rude
In ponderous stone, developing the mood
Of ancient Nox;–then skeletons of man,
Of beast, behemoth, and leviathan,
And elephant, and eagle, and huge jaw
Of nameless monster. A cold leaden awe
These secrets struck into him; and unless
Dian had chaced away that heaviness,
He might have died: but now, with cheered feel,
He onward kept; wooing these thoughts to steal
About the labyrinth in his soul of love. (Book II, 119-141)
Similarly, the deeper we got into the island’s forest interior, the less sense anything makes, just as our own consciousness loses definition and clarity the deeper we dream.
What is sure is that, as Oran proclaimed, the way we think it is may not be the way it is at all.
* * *
Far more “doomy,” as the Ozzie Osbourne would say in the early days of Black Sabbath, we get this vision of the depths from Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s 1852 Moby Dick. One night, after all hands have retired below deck, Ahab inspects the decapitated head of a sperm whale that has been chased, murdered, stripped of blubber which was then boiled down for oil. The body has been cast loose, but the head is still chained against the Pequod’s side. Ahab looks down and the dead whale’s head, much as Hamlet once examined the exhumed skull of the jester Yorick, and questions what wonders and horrors that whale had witnessed:
It was a black and hooded head, and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the sphinx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet hear and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is within thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. The head upon which now the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world’s foundations, where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot, where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned. There, in the awful water land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went, hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insensate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed — while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to make an infidel of Abraham, and no syllable is thine!
Too bad Ahab is a disordered, murderous, vengeant Pilgrim, his thoughts teeming with revenge. Ironically he will find it tethered to the flanks of the white whale he intended to kill, after Moby has destroyed the Pequod with the battering ram of his head, and dives from sight forever with Ahab on board, sounding to depths where sightless Ahab can see for himself just what’s down there in the mansions of the deep.
* * *
Watching the BP video feed of that busted pipe at the bottom of the Gulf spew out a furious plume of oil and natural gas is like listening to Ahab’s soliloquy from the perspective of the dead whale’s head, seeing what we can’t or won’t. That spume, which has billowed somewhere between five an fifty thousand barrels a day into the Gulf (the low end of the estimate, which is BP’s, would save them millions of dollars of fines; the entire scientific community is behind the high end, and the Obama Administration has been slow to take sides, apparently not wanting to slow BP’s efforts to fix their problem) is a perfect symbol for the blind spot right in the center of our vision. Out of our greed and need of oil, we’ve allowed a corporate giant to drill, baby, drill, deep into the husk of the Earth with little oversight or regulation — thank Dick Cheney for that – and we have disturbed a ghost of past and present death which has furied up some 175,000 to 1,750,000 barrels of oil into an ecosystem in which oil is toxic.
Because we can’t see all that oil which has spread its vast wings across the depths of the Gulf, we do not know the peril unfolding there. If it hasn’t washed up on a beach, it doesn’t really exist. Or it doesn’t enough until it does. In this case, that blindness has slowed our reaction time to a dreamlike slow-mo; it’s like driving into a head-on collision where everything is turned to viscous mud and time stretches out to an agonizing infinity as the impending crash looms before our eyes.
In his 2003 book The Empty Ocean, Richard Ellis articulated in exquisite detail the devastation of ocean ecosystems which have largely gone unnoticed. It’s one thing so see an Amazon rain forest being razed, or drive a prairie expanse filled with the ghosts of the buffalo herds which were hunted into near-extinction; but the surface of the sea tells us nothing, for better or ill, or what is going on further down. We are “stranded on shore, watching as the bountiful sea life disappears before our uncomprehending eyes.”
* * *
It must be galling without measure to Obama Adminstration officials to allow the perp the lead role in fixing the massive mess in the Gulf of Mexico. (In a press conference yesterday where he faced the press corps — and the country — all alone, Obama confessed he “was wrong” to assume that British Petroleum had its act together in handling worse-case scenarios just as he prepared to expand offshore drilling.)
BP’s tracks are soiled with oil messes just about everywhere they go. Cost-cutting and incompetence at BP – the third largest global energy company and the fourth largest company in the world — resulted in an explosion at the company’s Texas City oil refinery (one of the largest in the U.S.) in March 2005, killing 15 and injuring 180. After the change of presidential administrations (the Bush administration was notorious for clipping the wings of the government’s regulatory agencies), OSHA fined BP $87 million – the largest in its history – for 237 safety violations that had been previously cited and 439 new violations.
BP’s Texas City oil refinery exploded in 2005, killing 15 and injuring 180, got the oil giant the largest fine ever levied by OSHA.
A year later, BP shut down oil operations in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, due to corrosion in pipelines leading up to the Alaska Pipeline. BP had spilled over a 5,000 barrels of oil in Alaska’s North Slope. The corrosion was caused by sediment collecting in the bottom of the pipe, protecting corrosive bacteria from chemicals sent through the pipeline to fight this bacteria. Where other oil companies routinely cleaned their pipelines to avoid this condition, BP did not. In May 2007, the company announced another partial field shutdown owing to leaks of water at a separation plant. Their action was interpreted as another example of fallout from a decision to cut maintenance of the pipeline and associated facilities. And in October 2007, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation officials reported a toxic spill of methanol (methyl alcohol) at the Prudhoe Bay oil field managed by BP PLC. Nearly 2,000 gallons of mostly methanol, mixed with some crude oil and water, spilled onto a frozen tundra pond as well as a gravel pad from a pipeline. Methanol, which is poisonous to plants and animals, is used to clear ice from the insides of the Arctic-based pipelines.
The list for BP goes on. It’s no wonder, really, that BP now holds the record for the worst man-man environmental disaster. Leading up to the blowup, a congressional memo cites crucial error in judgement where BP sided on saving a buck rather than ensuring the Deepwater Horizon well’s safety:
1. BP decided to have Haliburton install a simpler, cheaper from of cement casing to enclose the well rather than a safer, more expensive double-casing.
2. They decided to replace heavy drilling fluid with lighter saltwater before the well was sealed with a cement plug. When Transocean employees questioned the decision, a BP official told them, “Well, this is how it’s gonna be.”
3. BP let workers from Schlumberger, a drilling services contractor, leave on the morning of the explosion without conducting a special test on the quality of the cement work.
The Deepwater Horizon rig, exploded, on fire, and soon going down, down, down.
Then (the congressional memo shows), a series of equipment failures, mistakes and missed warning signs precipitated the blowout and fire. A series of abnormal indicators — about pipeline pressure and the flow of drilling fluids in the five hours before the explosion — that should have been “warning signs” of trouble, according to the memo summarizing BP’s report. In one case, BP’s investigator told lawmakers that a “fundamental mistake may have been made despite” an indicator of a very large abnormality.
None of this might have happened had government industry regulators had been doing their job, but as I said before, the Bush administration’s coziness with Big Oil mandated a light hand by regulators. Over the past decade, there have been nine inspector general reports and ten from Government Accountability Office critical of the Minerals Management Service, which is responsible for regulating the oil industry. In the most recent one, the inspector general describes inappropriate behavior by staff at the Minerals Management Service from 2005 to 2007. Federal regulators responsible for overseeing drilling in the Gulf of Mexico allowed industry officials to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil and then turn them over to the regulators, who later traced over them in pen before submitting the reports to the agency. The report also found that inspectors had accepted meals, tickets to sporting events and gifts from at least one oil company while they were overseeing the industry. Investigators said one inspector may have been under the influence of crystal methamphetamine during an inspection.
Although there is no evidence that those events played a role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the report offers more evidence of what many critics of the regulator have described as a culture of lax oversight and cosy ties to the oil industry.
Some industry experts have speculated that the Deepwater spill and the report’s findings could explain the sudden resignation this month of Chris C. Oynes, who led the Gulf of Mexico region for the Minerals Management Service for about 12 years until he was promoted to a senior position in Washington in 2007, Nothing like promoting incompetence and rewarding negligence.
Well, now the deep ocean of the Gulf is ruptured, and even if BP’s latest, desperate attempt to cap the spill is successful – the “top kill” procedure, as of this writing in its 15th hour – the Gulf of Mexico is so awash in oil that it may take decades for the ecosystem to recover. No one know for sure, since so much of it is swashing around out of sight, and much of the marine life is disappearing behind a cloak of depth we can’t see through.
BP’s “Top Kill” procedure was stopped and restarted in the hopes of getting shutting down the plume of oil and natural gas which has been dumping into the Gulf of Mexico for the past 35 days.
When will we learn that we can never trust the Powers to be responsible for their actions? The dirty little secret of Big Oil is that the pussy it plunders has no face; the world is its split, pearl-robbed, gobbet-gobbled and thrown-over-its-shoulder oyster. Big Oil only understands More and has the clout to destroy the world to get it.
* * *
There is a tale of what happened to St. Oran when he harrowed three days and nights beneath the footers of St. Columba’s abbey at Iona in the 6th century AD:
It is commonly said that the People of the Sidhe dwell within the hills, or in the underworld. In some of the isles their home, now, is spoken of as Tir-na-thonn, the Land of the Wave, or Tir-fo-Tuinn, the Land under the Sea.
But an Islander of Iona discovered that the Shee no longer dwell within the inland hills, and that though many of them inhabit the lonelier isles of the west, and in particular The Seven Hunters, their Kingdom is in the North, under the Fir-Chlisneach, the Dancing Men, as the Hebrideans call the polar aurora. They are always young there. Their bodies are white as the wild swan, their hair yellow as honey, their eyes blue as ice. Their feet leave no mark on the snow. The women are white as milk, with eyes like sloes, and lips like red rowans. They fight with shadows, and are glad; but the shadows are not shadows to them. The Shee slay great numbers at the full moon, but never hunt on moonless nights, or at the rising of the moon, or when the dew is falling. Their lances are made of reeds that glitter like shafts of ice, and it is ill for a mortal to find one of these lances, for it is tipped with the salt of a wave that no living thing has touched, neither the wailing mew nor the finned sg’Adan nor his tribe, nor the narwhal. There are no men of the human clans there, and no shores, and the tides are forbidden.
— From Iona, by Fiona McCleod (William Sharp). London: William Heinemann, 1912
* * *
Last summer my wife and I, in celebration of my 52d birthday, traveled to Melbourne Beach on the Atlantic coast of Florida for a night and a day, staying at an old-Florida motel which sat right on the beach. It was not her sort of place – our room was roughened up by years of family presence, a bit dingy and dirty, sandy in a way no broom could properly sweep up. When we celebrate her birthday later this month, we plan to stay at the Vinoy Renaissance in St. Pete, a swank, restored 1920’s hotel with all of the things which make a woman papmered. Last year it was ocean my way, and while she fled into town the next morning to seek out thrift stores, I languished all morning on a deck chair looking out on the Atlantic in August, naked except for swim trunks, glistening with tanning oil and sweat, wholly given over to the glittering cerulean swash of the sea and a brilliant white beach, scarred here and there by the tracks of egg-laying sea turtles.
Easy to become addicted to such blue sublimities, wouldn’t you say? A slave to love, as the romantic Bryan Ferry once sang. But, we are told by Rilke in his Third Duino Elegy, surface beauty hides monsters of the deep:
It is one thing to sing the beloved. Another, alas,
to invoke that hidden, guilty river-god of the blood.
Her young lover, whom she knows from far away—what does she know of
the lord of desire who often, up from the depths of his solitude,
even before she could soothe him, and as though she didn’t exist,
held up his head, ah, dripping with the unknown.
O the Neptune inside our blood, with his appalling trident.
Listen to the night as it makes itself hollow. O stars,
isn’t it from you that the lover’s desire for the face
of the beloved arises? Doesn’t his secret insight
into her pure features come from the pure constellations? (transl. Stephen Mitchell)
Appalling, that such a blue blue ocean morning in August could have such a rank, plundered underbelly, torn wide by claws grown fierce and thirsty and long and cruel by the actual story of the sea’s pillage and ruination by human hands. It is that “guilty river god” who is so teased into tumescence by the sound of cars blasting round a womb-, woman-shaped oval. Call it a guilty pleasure, if you like, but racin’ is a celebration which hides behind its bright the black spoor of the Gulf.
* * *
Loggerhead turtles famously nest on Florida’s east coast, but it is their Gulf cousins—the Kemp’s Ripley’s sea turtle—which is tugging at my attention today.
What’s unusual about the Kemp’s Ripley sea turtle is that of all the varieties of marine life which can be affected by ecological disasters in the Gulf, only the Kemp’s Ridley relies on the region as its only breeding ground.
The Kemp’s Ridley is millions of years old as a species; its ancestors truly swam with the dinosaurs. As recently as the 1940s, they were so plentiful that tens of thousands would come ashore on the same day at Rancho Nuevo, a Mexican beach in Tamialipas State, to lay their eggs.
Then came pollution, collection of their eggs for food and aphrodisiacs, the nets of shrimp trawlers.
The Gulf began to empty of the Kemp’s Ridley.
Then came the Ixtoc I blowout in 1979, which spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, covering the turtles’ primary nesting place.
The sea turtle population fell into the hundreds during the 1980s, but since they have recovered to about 8,000 adults.
Now comes the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Soon comes the silence.
* * *
My blues for the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle are strummed from its murky fate. And why not? The best guitar picks are made of tortoise shell. Greek mythology credits Hermes with creating the first lyre by stretching strings across the shell of a sea turtle who had given his all for music. Today the best guitar picks are made of tortoiseshell, and pickguards on guitars are made of the same material. (Tortex is a material created to replace tortoiseshell guitar picks and have gained wide acceptance, sparing our ocean cousins a good amount of their skins.)
The ancient Mexicans ranked the turtle next to the goddess of flowers, while the Toltecs believed their ancestors rode on the backs of turtles in crossing the sea to arrive on this continent.
A guitar is a boat for crossing all the way from I to Thou.
It is a bridge over troubled waters.
But the music dies without a teeming depth. Oil-basted Delta blues sound like shit: muddy waters no one cares much to listen to.
* * *
People have always had a hard time understanding Jimmie Johnson’s reign over Sprint Cup competition over the previous four season; there is nothing in his demeanor which shouts, “Champion!” the way one felt watching Richard Petty or David Pearson race. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick drive like champions; they’ve always strained so hard at the bit that it seems they’d as soon wreck on the last lap going for the finish as settle for a points-management top 10.
Jimmie Johnson tried to drive like those boys last weekend and it got him a 13th-place finish; the cool closer has morphed mid-season into an apparent also-ran who frequently can’t finish.
Things aren’t faring any better for Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Jeff Gordon is a perpetual 2d-place finisher, Mark Martin’s back in the pack and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is faring miserably, finding tracks cruel and his car a wild, unstable ride his crew can do nothing to fix.
Do you get the feeling that we’re seeing the end of the Hendrick Motorsports era? It’s an odd feeling, as if some species of racing was disappearing.
As human ecologies go, watching Jimmie Johnson fade from Sprint Cup competition is like finding a oil-slickened Ripley’s Kemp turtle dead on the beach: a wave of something washes over me which is sad and homesick for times which may never be recaptured.
I know, it’s just racin’; but something tugs at me there which goes deeper for want of a proper enough name.
And I could be wholly, entirely wrong. Hendrick Motorsports is so well funded, managed and driven for success that my head tells me they’ll figure it all out. Johnson is too cool a competitor to fall prey to rasher instincts.
But something in my gut waves a fin at me, and in a sea-turtle voice whispers something I can’t quite translate, like an oracle of the Sibyl. My tongue can’t quite twist into the blue brogue of the dream and so I feel just bluesy and bittersweet and somehow sadly homesick, even though as usual I’m sitting here in the blue easy chair in our living room at 4:26:02 on a Wednesday morning late in May in Central Florida, sprinklers slusshing the garden with moisture, the moon overhead almost full, almost defining a dark curvy shape standing next to the birdbath whose eyes are pure quicksilver, lucent as the moon and deep as the sea.
* * *
Adolescence was, for the psychotherapist Annie Rogers, “a time of shattering and beginnings.” The victim of unspeakable act, at 16 Rogers stopped speaking. “I realized,” she explains in her book, The Unsayable, “that whatever I might say could be misconstrued and used to create a version of ‘reality’ that would be unrecognizable, a kind of voice-over of my truths I could not bear.” Silence passed for the compromise of sanity.
Over time, Rogers came to believe that she had been called by the archangel Michael to end human suffering by translating “the voices of angels for the world.” That got her landed in mental institution; there she got help for her affliction and she recovered.
Rogers went on to become a Harvard professor and clinical psychologist working with abused and abandoned children – a classic wounded healer. Her approach to treating her troubled and sick charges was different from the cognitive-behavioral therapies which had been developed for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. From her reading of Jacques Lacan, she believed that a powerful, even controlling part of each person, the unconscious, “insists on knowing the truth, even if the truth is a shocking and costly retrospective.”
But how to go into that greater psychological depth, so aswarm with faceless devils and angels? She would have to learn their dialect, their manner of speaking in the dark with dark words disguised as compulsions and manias.
To Lacan – and Rogers — the unconscious is “structured like a language” – but it doesn’t read like any book except, perhaps, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or view like any TV show except, perhaps, “Lost.” Madness is a protective shroud around shocking facts about the self; according to Rogers, the therapist’s job is to listen in to the code of symptoms and verbal motifs to find out what the unconscious is “saying by not saying.” It is to learn to speak in the language of angels, particularly the psalms of Michael, ferryman of the souls of the departed to heaven.
Rather than denigrating the unconscious as simply the chaos from which consciousness emerged from, Rogers believes the unconscious is the greater brain, free to see things in the essence beyond the conscious limitations of time and space. In the proper therapeutic hour, years dissolve and the chains are lifted from the wounded child dumped into psychic limbo.
The archangel Michael is a deity of truth, and the unconscious, according to Rogers, “insists on knowing the truth, even if the truth is a shocking and costly retrospective.” His sword is the tongue which can speak finally of unspeakable things, thereby cutting loose the chains of mania and addiction.
“St.. Michael” by Raphael, here defeating the bugaboos of the unconscious.
The language of truth, then, is both dark and difficult: clarity requires both Michael’s sword and a voyage in his boat. The head of Oran needs to be unearthed and allowed to speak in the Gaelic of the Otherworld, or Underworld, or Land of the North. “The way you think it is is not the way it is at all!” was Oran’s cry, soaked in the dark depths he had been buried in.
No wonder that the water deity who called for Oran’s sacrifice in order that Christian civilization could proceed was, in truth, the old Gaelic sea-god Manannan, who in the Christian dispensation would be named St. Michael.
* * *
Glenn Albrecht is a philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Western Australia, a place which has seen many changes in the local environment. Sustainability is an ecological term meaning the ability for an ecosystem to remain diverse and endure. Much of what’s going on in Western Australa (where coal mining is laying bare huge swatches of the countryside) and around the earth is that ecosystems are failing to do sustain themselves, primarily due to the harmful influence of human activities such as overfishing, deforestation and warming the climate with greenhouse gas emissions.
And spilling oil at an incredible and so-far-unstoppable rate into the Gulf of Mexico.
These effects are disturbing to the locals; they cast a pall which uproots what he calls a population’s “heart’s ease.” “People have heart’s ease when they’re on their own country,” he says. If you force them off that country, if you take them away from their land, they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life.” Albrecht coined the phrase “solastagia” — a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain), which he defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’”
Aboriginal Australians or Native Americans who have been displaced from their homelands feel this perhaps the most strongly (and it is perhaps why alcohol abuse is at its worst on the reservation), but anyone who watches an ecology unravel in their own back yard grows solastagic. It is, according to Albrecht, a form of depression induced not by the events of the personal human environment one grows up in, but comes from the wider environment we share with the rest of the species of life on this planet. As there is human depression, so there is an eco-depression, a planetary mental illness. In fact, Albrecht believes that our psychology is way too limited as it now exists; that only as we treat the planet, only as we learn to allow Ridley’s Kemp sea turtles to voice their strangulating despair over the ruination of their nesting grounds by spilled oil can we ourselves find a route to healing.
Melanie Driscoll is the director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society’s Louisiana program, and she’s worried about what’s she’s seeing and the effects of the spill we won’t see. Many sea birds will die at sea, and marsh birds will die in marshes where they can’t be found. The true devastation on the animal population will probably be out of our sight, and as visual creatures, that means that the worst effects of Deepwater Horizon’s underwater gusher will stay there—out of sight, out of our mind.
And the horror of it is that the animal populations have no instinctual equipage for saving themselves. Driscoll told NPR,
One of the things that really strikes me being on the beaches is watching the birds with no care in the world, just going through their normal behaviors -courting, chasing each other, running in and out of the waves, probing in the sand, eating marine life.
They get no foreshadowing or forewarning. They don’t see this coming. They can’t go to a grocery store and buy safe water. We have the ability to modify our behavior to reduce our threat level, and they don’t. They don’t even know there is a threat, so it’s very poignant watching these birds engaging in these incredibly hopeful activities – nesting, you know, going out to feed, bringing fish back to babies, and knowing that they have no idea what they’re bringing back to their nests.
When you read this, do you feel a wave of solastagia wash over you like I do? My wife and I plan a trip over to the Gulf Coast in a few weeks, just a couple night’s stay on the St. Petersburg bay where we can get a brief respite from the overwhelming freight of disappearing middle-class life, putting behind us for too short a while ever-deepening worries about money and employment and housing and health. I hope to find a beach to walk while we’re over there, perhaps while my wife shops; it’s been almost fifteen years since we were on Longboat Key in a condo my wife’s parents’ once time-shared, but I still recall how blue the Gulf of Mexico was that shatteringly bright and hot July afternoon was, the water ironed almost flat and almost a cobalt hue of blue all the way out to the horizon. The Gulf is so shallow off the western coast of Florida that you can supposedly walk for miles out into it and keep your head above water.
As of today, the slick is still hundreds of miles offshore the west Florida coast. According to Pinellas County Admnistrator Bob LaSala, protective measures are first being planned for areas such as mangroves, grass beds and other coastal breeding grounds and wetlands – habitat. Beaches will have to take their lumps, because booms don’t work as well in open water where there is wave action. The plan is to have volunteers ready to go if needed to “efficiently and effectively clean up and restore as fast as possible,” LaSala said.
Still, anxious eyes look toward Florida’s beaches for this Memorial Day weekend. Cancellations are being reported at beach hotels from the Panhandle to the Keys. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has give an all-clear for Florida’s west coast beaches at least for the holiday weekend.
But something of it reminds me of the movie “Jaws” – the fearsome image pervades in the mind. Would you want your kid to emerge from the surf with gloop of brown oil shit hanging down from his head, or see a mouthful of tar balls when he smiles?
And with the hurricane season just weeks away, anxiety over a massive influx of oil onto beaches and wetlands all around the Gulf simply heightens my solastagia. (The storm surge for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 reached 25 feet around St. Louis Bay, Mississippi.) And then there’s the eastern coast of Florida, which is much more vulnerable to the effects of the spill because the Loop Current which snakes around the center of the Gulf and then heads south round the tip of Florida hugs most of the eastern coast of the state before being picked up by the Gulf stream. Oil drilling off the coast of Florida has been prohibited for decades just for this fear, and now it strikes from a little ways further out.
I was baptized at Melbourne Beach when I was 14 years old. The new baptism which is slowly creeps into the loop current of the Gulf somehow stinks of St. Columba’s abbey pressing down on the wild blue of Manannan.
What is perhaps worst is the thought of a pristine sunny beach with the knowledge that so much blight and death is just a ways further out. “We are stranded on shore” – picking up Richard Ellis again from The Empty Ocean,
… watching as the bountiful sea life disappears before our uncomprehending eyes. For many species, what we do—or don’t do—in the coming years will make the difference between existence and extinction. In some cases, it is too late to do anything; the sea cows, great auks, Labrador ducks, and Caribbean monk seals are gone, probably to be followed into the black hole of extinction by barndoor skates, thorn-back rays, Patagonian toothfish, Chinese river dolphins, Ganges River dolphins, and the little Gulf of California porpoises known as vaquitas. Weep for them—and listen to the words of William Beebe: “The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” (8)
* * *
If there is a path to ecological mental health – a re-unification of our separate human psyche with our roots, our homeland, our earth – then we must name our illness and banish our wrong-headed conceptions about dominion and human priority. We must woo our Beloved Earth again. The cure for solastagia is what Albrecht calls “soliphilia”: “the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet and the unity of interrelated interests within it.”
And this must come before the last Kemp’s Ripley sea turtle swims forever off into the murk.
* * *
If dominance by any one species is bad for an ecosystem – especially the global one – then dominance by one racing team – and more specifically, by one of that team’s drivers – may not be all that good for the sport. Maybe Jimmie Johnson is NASCAR’s dirty little secret, the champ of smarts and cool and technology and strategies. Jimmie Johnson is NASCAR’s Frankenstein, a thing of such brightness that all else falls into indifferent shadow. Jimmie Johnson’s dominance has emptied tracks and killed the merchandising of Greg Biffle t-shirts and Matt Kenseth caps, Jeff Gordon #24 rear-window stickers and Kyle Busch stadium seats. Fans suffer from the solstalgia of racing which cannot be retrieved from the four brimming championship trophies of Jimmie Johnson.
Alternately, then, there is a racing soliphilia – the hope engendered by Jimmie Johnson’s fade this season. Out of his diminishing light come shadowy presences to the fore, Hamlin and Harvick and Kyle Busch, making this season seem more contentious, less resolved at the midseason. Maybe the wing really was Johnson’s victory plumage. Maybe without it he is like Samson without his hair or Superman fitted with Kyrptonite bling.
Perhaps Jimmie Johnson’s fade is akin to the world’s hope that homo sapiens will too disappear, lulled into atrophy and disinheritance by the very tools that once gave it prominence.
Perhaps. A lot of truth there, surely a mouthful; but the it is still not entire. Something still holds the anchor fast.
* * *
Alcoholics are bound by a dual demonism: they have an allergy to alcohol which produces an unusual affect – not hives or breathing problems, but a thirst for More – crossed by a cruel mental twist which compulses them to return to the bottle’s solution again and again, no matter how much they lose in the process. Out of a 100 drinkers, only 5 will become alcoholics through their extended drinking (others suggest that that five percent of drinkers were born with the genetic abnormality which prevents their livers from properly breaking down alcohol, creating the ballooning affect of drunkenness which feels like freedom).
Studies also indicate that of that five percent of the drinking population who are alcoholics, 95 percent of that number will drink themselves to death or die from alcohol-related falls or other accidents (including DUI crashes). They will throw everything away – marriages, homes, beloved dogs, savings, credit, stolen booty, every shred of personal dignity – for that privilege, forever trying to resuscitate that ghostly Golden Moment they used to enjoy after a few drinks before the ghastly fangs of oblivion bit down.
Alcoholics Anonymous, perhaps the most effective program of treatment for alcoholism was founded in the late-1930s upon an unusual set of principles: 1), that for the progressive, chronic alcoholic, there are only two alternatives – either to drink oneself to death or accept spiritual help; 2) that the program of AA consists of attending AA meetings regularly and working through, with a sponsor, the Twelve Steps of AA, each an ego-deflator which allows the individual to have the sort of spritual experience which makes them happy with their sobriety (and a happy alcoholic has no need to drink) and 3), the only way for a recovering alcholic to maintain sobriety was by intensive work with other alcoholics, believing that only an alcoholic can talk with a suffering drunk.
AA Founders Bill W. and Dr. Bob make a hospital visit to a bottomed-out drunk.
It is what is known in therapeutic circles as “the talking cure” – that by finding a way to articulate one’s disorder the recovering alcoholic is able to be freed from the chains of compulsion and become a viable, happy member of society. They return from the dark woods free men and women – so long as they stay surrendered to the principle concepts and continue to give back everything they have received to another.
Some 200 other fellowships used the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to address other addictions such as narcotics (with sub-groups for specific addictions to cocaine, crystal meth, marijuana and pills), Internet porn, gambling, compulsive overeating and sexual craziness. The only thing that’s different about each of these groups is the specific substance its members are powerless over; the rest of the work is the same. And in every fellowship, recovery means finding words for the unsayable and finding and living in the language of truth. For one who has been released from an unspeakable, deathly compulsion, the sense of freedom is something akin to becoming reborn, but I suspect what happens – over a difficult yet very simple, straightforward process – is that a person is freed to re-enter their own skin and find a home there were before there was the prison of infinite midnight.
* * *
Joe Weatherly was one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. Weatherly won NASCAR’s first All-Star race in 1961 and won the points championship for the next two years. He was also one of moonshine’s luminaries, the kind of guy who loves the illicit edge a little too much for anyone’s mortality.
Joe was a boisterous, boozing, fun-loving man. He enjoyed playing practical jokes. He showed up for practice one week dressed in a Peter Pan costume.
He and Charlie Turner drove a pair of purple team Fords # 9 & 99 that they referred to as the “Wild Hogs”. One week the two showed up at the track with a live purple pig. NASCAR told them to find the pig a home – away from any NASCAR track.
Racing the 1958 Rebel 300 at Darlington, Weatherly and Turner traded paint in factory supplied Fords – giving each other repeated “pops” in the left-rear quarter wall. While Ford execs in the stands seethed, the fans would go wild. Unhappiest of all was car owner Ralph Moody, who had to pay for all the repair bills. That’s how Weatherly and Turner both earned the nickname “Pops.”
During the annual Daytona races, they kept an apartment on Atlantic Avenue that became a notorious party pad. On the walls were pictures of girls and when the regular lights went off and the blacklights were lit, the girls lost their clothes while everyone grinned whiter than moonshine.
Joe Weatherly’s party pad in Daytona.
At Daytona one year, both Turner and Weatherly rented cars and were racing each other down A1A. The race was to see who could reach their motel first. Joe weaved over and smashed into the side of Turner’s car. Turner returned the favor. In their wake, glass and car parts were scattered all over the road. As they neared their destination, Turner slowed. But Weatherly, who was racing for a bottle of Canadian Club, kept his foot to the floor boards. Joe kept on going, and drove right into the deep end of the motel swimming pool.
Joe got out of the car, collected his bottle of CC, and then immediately opened it and toasted his “victory” while standing in the motel parking lot, dripping wet.
Weatherly was leading the points race for a third year in a row when he pulled into Riverside, Calif., for the road race of Jan. 19, 1964. He was a superstitious man, spooked by the color green or the presence of peanuts at the track, beholden to talismans and ritual. But those quirks, that scar, didn’t prompt him to use a shoulder harness. When he crashed on the 110th lap, his unrestrained head smacked into a retaining wall.
He died of facial injuries.
What a guy. What a drunk.
NASCAR has cleaned up immensely since the days of Joe Weatherly, strictly policing the lives – and compulsions – of its drivers both on and off the track. But when it comes to addiction, wild horsepower can’t keep a drunk from his bottle or a doper from his ice.
I wonder in which year NASCAR will finally allow the wildest bibbler of Junior Johnson’s moonshine still to stand next to him in its Hall of Fame.
* * *
In stock car racing, what saves many drivers from falling too far into these addictions is perhaps that they are addicted most to racing and the glow of fame it brings.
As far as I know, there is no Racers’ Anonymous. No program for that jones for speed and noise and precipice-riding.
It’s estimated that 70 percent of Americans drive over the speed limit. Of that number, there is a much smaller segment of Americans who zoom their cars in illegal street races. Like alcoholics compared to the drinking population, it is in drag racing that the mortality rate soars. Street dragsters have none of the safety equipment you’ll find in a Sprint Cup car, harnesses and belts and car design which allow a driver to walk away from complete shatter. Street racers smash and die.
* * *
Bad boys Allmendinger, Waltrip and JC France.
In one month in 2009, three NASCAR-related drivers – A.J. Allmendinger, Michael Waltrip and JC France, grandson of Big Bill France – were all arrested on DUI charges. Stripped of his licence, Allmendinger was allowed to compete in the Talladega race the next weekend (drivers do not need valid licenses to participate in NASCAR races) and afterward suspended by NASCAR for the rest of the 2009 season. Waltrip had made a u-turn and t-boned a Harley Davidson in Moorsville, NC. France, who was driving a 2007 Lamborghini and had also been arrested for possession of cocaine, was let off by a judge who ruled that the Daytona Beach cop who arrested France was operating out of his jurisdiction. This allows France to rejoin his Brumos Porsche-Riley racing team.
Just last week, former NASCAR driver Jimmy Neal got into a 140-mph chase with cops in California last week, driving a silver Corvette. He was charged with DUI.
* * *
NASCAR’s biggest corporate sponsors early on were Big Tobocco and Big Liquor – RJ Reynolds sponsored the Winston Cup Series from 1972 through 2003, and Busch Beer, a brand of Anheuser-Busch (which also sponsors the #9 Budweiser now driven by Kasey Kahne), sponsored the second-level NASCAR race series from 1982 to 2008.
With tobacco and booze finding greater social stigma, eventually those big brands fell by the wayside, the Winston sponsorship replaced by NEXTEL/Sprint—a telecommunications company—and Nationwide Insurance taking over from Busch. Both of these concerns involve bad money in the next millennium, as cellphones become a ubiquitous appendage of the digital community and auto and home insurance profits soaring following the advice of consultants to always pay out low and threaten to hold claims up in court forever should someone demand their due. (One industry group estimates that insurers only paid out $70 billion of the estimated $135 billion in property damages from Hurricane Katrina.)
One story from the recent news offers some perspective. Recent statistics show that teenagers send, on average, about 25 text messages a day, with some individuals sending out as many as 300. Cellphone-talk replaces conversation, and the relative anonymity of cyberspace allows for a level of discourse which descends to the depths of, well, whale shit.
It was a text message from 13-year-old Josie Lou Ratley that set 15-year-ld Wayne Treacy off, leading him to track her down to a bus stop next to her middle school and beat her so badly with his steel-toed boots that she lies recovering from brain damage in a hospital, unable to speak two months after the attack and relearning basic skills such as reading and recalling the days of the week.
Treacy had sent Ratley a threatening message, to which Ratley replied, “K, u make me giggle.”
Treacy: :”Watch how much you laugh when I strangle the life outta you!! You’re f—–. You said the wrong thing to the worst person.”
Ratley: “Threat me alllll u want I think its funni.”
She later texted: “Stop txtn mi phone rapest n if u dont care jus stop tryin me k,” N jus go visit ur dead brother.” (Treacy’s brother had committed suicide the previous year.)
Treacy’s response was immediate and vicious: “UR F—ING DEAD! I SWEAR TO GOD I’M GONNA KILL YOU. I’LL F—ING FIND YOU! YOUR ASS IS COLD, DEAD MEAT M—–F—–!”
It was raining that day, and Treacy did not want to spoil his new tennis shoes, so instead he put on his brother’s steel-toed boots. Then he got on his bicycle and pedaled three miles from his home in Pompano Beach to Deerfield Beach Middle School. And did the deed.
Wayne Treacy and Josie Lou Ratley, before and after Treacy’s attack.
Think on this wonderful level of discourse – what may become the language of the land as the digital generation ages but fails to grow up – when you watch one of the Miss Sprint Cup girls smiling like the dickens in her chaste black and yellow jumpsuit there in Victory Row. If she looks like someone from outer space in that suit, perhaps instead she’s up from that depth where words fail us utterly.
I just wonder what will happen to us when we lose the capacity to speak at sea-level, lost in a massive spill of oily illiteracy. Will that bad stuff be then doomed to the depths, bereft of any capacity of ours to ever name them? As our waters’ cerulean takes on a petroleum hue, will they silence us inside a dirty little secret gone mad?
* * *
There are many folktales in the Celtic tradition which account for how various bodies of water came to be. Lough Neagh is the largest lake in the British Isle there was once a well, where a water woman named Muirgen was charged with covering the well every night with a stone. One night she forgot and a flood issued forth, creating the lake.
Another legend is that a holy well once existed in the locality, blessed and sanctified by a saint with wonderful miraculous powers of healing; provided that every patient on leaving, after cure, carefully closed the wicket-gate that shut in the well. But once, however, a woman having forgotten this information, left the gate open, when instantly the indignant waters sprang from their bed and pursued the offender, who fled in terror before the advancing waves, until at last she sank down exhausted, when the waters closed over her, and she was no more seen.
But along the track of her flight the waters remained, and formed the great lake now existing, which is exactly the length the woman traversed in her flight from the angry spirit of the lake.
It is said that down deep, under the waters of Lough Neagh, can still be seen, by those who have the gift of fairy vision, the columns and walls of the beautiful palaces once inhabited by the fairy race when they were the gods of the earth; and this tradition of a buried town beneath the waves has been prevalent for centuries amongst the people.
So it’s important that when traversing down a deep well – OK, this post – one is careful to finish the work one set out to do.
* * *
Anybody still out there? I’ve talking about NASCAR’s diry little secrets, trying to get down to the bottom of them. One more tale from the track. Right about the time of Mayfield’s suspension last year and the suicide of Kevin Grubb—outsiders accused of unsanctioned oblivions–Carl Long was driving in the practice for the Sprint All Star race when his engine malfunctioned. His team changed engines, and, in accordance to NASCAR rules, turned the bum engine over to NASCAR for inspection. NASCAR found the engine, which Long purchased from a “reputable builder” who fields engines for several Cup teams.
NASCAR measured the engine at 358.17 cubic inches — .17 more than the legal limit. Long was suspended 12 races and docked 200 points – 200 more than he had for the season; his crew chief, Charles Swing, was fined $200,000, $50,000 more than the previous record; and team owner DeeDee Long (Carl’s wife) was also suspended 12 races and docked 200 owner’s points. For a part-time driver at the poorest end of the Sprint Cup field, NASCAR’s decision was a career-ending one, a public lynching to underscore a point.
“If you talk to any of the race teams in the garage, they’ll be real quick to tell you you don’t mess with engines, tires and fuel,” Cup Series director John Darby said. “We’ve all heard that for years and years and years.” Darby said NASCAR hasn’t dealt with an oversized engine since car owner Junior Johnson and crew chief Tim Brewer were suspended 12 weeks for violations at Charlotte in 1991. Their suspensions was reduced to four weeks on appeal.
Long also appealed his sentence, but the only budge from NASCAR was to reduce his suspension from 12 to 8 races, with no change in the fine or points penalty.
“It killed my career,” Long says. “I really didn’t have much of a [driving] career, but what it did was, it killed my working career, my [ability to] work for different teams.
“A lot of people heard the very first deal – suspended from NASCAR. Period. That’s everything, trucks, Late Model.
“The owner and the crew chief are the ones that are held responsible for the [fine]; the owner is my wife; the crew chief a good friend of mine. We were trying to do all we could to race. It’s kind of hard to go to the track and tell you wife that she can’t go, though.”
Carl Long shakes hands with Bobby Allison in 1975; Long celebrates his first win in 1984 at Orange Co. Speedway; Long with wife DeeDee.
Now, Long works as a marketing consultant with Car People Marketing and with Extreme Motorsports Inc., an insurance group hoping to offer policies for crewmen who go over pit wall on race day.
He sold his Sprint Cup car but still has his Nationwide and ARCA cars. But he can’t really afford to race them.
“You just can’t get enough money to get to the race track,” he says. “Owning everything, it will cost me a minimum of $10,000 or $15,000 just to get it to the track. To pay the entry fee, buy the tires, pay for the hotel room, pay 2-3 people to help, I’ll spend between $10,000-$15,000.
“So you get to the track, and if you only pick up a check for $16,000 or $17,000? Plus, you’re gambling $15,000 that you make the race to begin with. If you miss the race, then you’re out. And I don’t have the $15,000 to gamble. I’m still paying the bills from last year.”
NASCAR has changed Long’s suspension to apply only to Sprint Cup races, and he’s managed to attempt a couple of truck races. At Dover this May, long finished 11th, giving him the best NASCAR win of his career.
So Long fights back, but his big NASCAR dreams are mired in a reputation NASCAR decided to ruin because, as with Jeremy Mayfield, an oversize engine Carl Long is a lot more valuable to NASCAR than 40-year-old driver fighting to stay on the track with the big boys.
If you accept Mayfield’s ban from NASCAR and you can accept that Kevin Grubb was the architect of his own destruction, you can accept the career-ending penalty against Carl Long for putting an immoderate engine at play. A long, high slope separates these two from the drivers who race on the best-financed, most lucratively sponsored teams. You won’t find these guys cluttering up NASCAR’s future except as poster boys for the ends of defiance.
But if something nags you about these guys – something which is cloaked in NASCAR’s PR ink – then I think we have uncovered another of NASCAR’s dirtiest secrets, one I personally can related to. Just last week, NASCAR sent me a letter threatening litigation against the blog I maintain for our company called NASCAR This Week which features all of motorsports reporter Monte Dutton’s work, plus racing pictures and videos and snaps of track cheesecake. The letter said we were told we were in violation of trademark laws for using NASCAR’s name without their permission.
But, as I found out in conversation with the NASCAR’s marketing legal counsel, that wasn’t what was bothering the NASCAR powers; it was that we were attempting to monetize the blog with text ads. The scant revenue we get from those in no way balances out the effort I’ve put into the site for the entrepreneurial company I work for; it’s more of a test case for finding and building a niche in cyberspace.
Our text ad revenue – all of those pennies – is what offends NASCAR so much they’re ready to litigate to shut us down. Like Mayfield and Long, we’re the sort of low-hanging fruit with which NASCAR can make its example to the wired community that it is not beyond the reach of NASCAR’s absolute rule of its sport.
I passed the letter on to our corporate lawyers and now they’re trying to determine whether it’s worth my parent company allowing NASCAR This Week to exist. I hope they won’t tell us to pull the plug – a simple name change dropping all NASCAR reference would be the easiest fix, or losing the text ads, which were never enough to fund the operation, anyway. If it was all about money, the point sure would be moot. But I think NASCAR This Week gives a prominent view to one of the best damn racing reporters around, at a time when that tribe is fast-disappearing. (Newspapers, in their frenzy of cost-cutting, are dumping everything off ship which is weighing them down, and so the field of print motorsports reporters has halved in the past couple of years.) Fans of the sport are wealthier for our existing, even though no one makes more than a damn cent. Maybe that’s noble for the enterprise: maybe journalism, in order to be free of influence from “the business side” of newspaper, ought to go non-profit, though I have no idea how highly-trained, professional journalists will be able to make mortgage payments and raise families in the new digital dispensation of Free.
Print journalists in the pit at track media rooms don’t hold a candle any more to the sexy glare of television “coverage” – just don’t call it journalism.
I guess I now qualify as a dirty little secret which NASCAR feels quite justified in rooting out. Their might is the denial of my commercial right to use their ubiquitous name in a website devoted to the events of their sport.
“It’s just business,” as Vito Corleone would say, decapitating a beloved horse of an opponent to make a point. Or how did Brian France put it — “We are going to defend the industry against anything in terms of the policies that we have to institute. We are going to litigate them all the way to the end, all the time. That’s our policy.”
Of course, we’re seeing plenty of evidence of the ends of such dominance. British Petroleum’s dirty little secrets are all coming to light now – how are we supposed to be surprised?
* * *
Now to tie things up at last. NASCAR’s dirtiest little secret has everything to do with folks like British Petroleum, for at the root of that gusher at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is a need, a thirst which only that ugly spuming fume can resolve, normally in pipes which hide the gnarly flow from our sight. Any surprise here that NASCAR’s dirtiest little secret is the very thing which makes stock cars, like every other car, go zooming round the tracks of our life?
And the root of that dirty little secret is that that thing of darkness is wholly our own; it belongs to all of us, with our unnatural thirst for racin’, for all things loud and extreme and politically incorrect. Blatant rapine has such an instinctually satisfying grunt to it, like taking a shit on your neighbor’s front yard or taking indecent liberties on the teeneaged baby-sitter who you pay to take care of your beloved little ones. Obscenity howls with satisfaction from the predatory wolves we still are.
This weekened it’s the big one, the Coca-Cola 600. Each of the 35 or so cars which will qualify to race gets about 4.5 miles to the gallon; each car will consume about 133 gallons of gas. The entire field will gobble up about 4,500 gallons of gas.
Me, I’ll use up about 2.75 gallons of gas for my day’s 50-mile round trip commute. Nationwide, automobile drivers will consume about 378 million gallons of gasoline – about 71 percent of our country’s daily oil consumption. Those millions of barrels of oil floating around loose in the Gulf right now are just a drop in the bucket, a shot glass-ful of moonshine compared to our thirst for petroleum.
So the Coca-Cola 600 is the pretty face of NASCAR’s dirtiest little secret, a secret is shares with every one of us who gets behind the wheel of a car to go anywhere today. NASCAR’s longest race is also its most damning one for the planet, but no one takes much notice. Perhaps as excesses go, we could call NASCAR the Kevin Grubb of gas guzzling, obscene, low-hanging fruit of a far more generous and insidious dirty secret we’ve managed to keep hidden until Deepwater Horizon failed in every way to quietly siphon out our next night at the well.
A drilling pipe is the neck of a whiskey bottle which pours it all out for us.
A guitar is turtle who gave everything it was for song.
A post is a well getting to the bottom of things, where darkness in glory sings, and every dirty little secret is revealed and reveled in, that I may at last walk away.
* * *
When my wife and I were at Melbourne Beach last August, I wrote the following poem about that homecoming … Call it a bit of soliphilia for a solstagia that I fear is going to get much, much worse in the coming months …
WALKING MY BAPTISM’S BEACH
It’s been years since I walked the beach alone like this:
Years since I’ve soaked in the sound of the surf mill
And the waves at my feet washing over in birth-waking foam
Then hauling back with a force that beckons and receives
Each wave a rolling possibility become a life in one dying
Rise and fall, an ecstasy which sighs I dye and does, never to return,
Whose ebbing force undermines yet clarifies the next wave
Always to some degree–without that sad recede waves would
Be extinguishers, an ill trope eating in from the coast til
All continents were devoured & subsumed, til waves to endlessly
Strolled the globe in one, set, rhythmic order, a fixed number
Never to arrive or consummate, like Dante’s damned, the trope of
Eternal rolling with no beach to collapse on as the moon as heaven’s heart
Cries ever for lost lovers. So the death of each wave today is good,
It gives the shore a constancy, steadfastly shaping each wave’s dying sprawl;
Looking south as I walk this August morning I see that the line of that
Greeting always changes, one wave running high another stopping low,
Ingressing further here and less there, never perfect except in rhythmic sum,
Each wave-death a voice in the chorus of watery selves all sighing
Inside the receding runnels of foam “I, too, am a child of God.”
Today’s walk is a prayer to those origins, the sun in full summer, fiercely
Hot already at 9:30 a.m., the wave-mill a dull cerulean pattern of rollers,
Glimmering in the glassy wave-front that folds over into silvery-white foam.
The beach today is torn with the tracks of two dozen or so loggerhead turtles
Who came out of the ocean last night, trudging their luggish leathery bodies
Turned black under full moonlight while sea and sand both burned,
Dragging slowly up the sand to a destined spot where each stopped and began
To kick and furrow in the sand with their fin-paws and then settled down,
Grunting slick thick whitened eggs into the pit. Finished, each tried
To cover over their gestating brood as best as any sea beast alone on treacherous
And could manage and then turned back, lumbering down to the shore and
Back into the vicious but known waters of their home, visible ten yards out then gone,
A round darkness in the night’s moony tide finished with her perilous harrow
Millions of years old, diving into a wave curl and down, back to the abyss.
All that remains of that wild scene this morning are tracks and whorls scarring the sand
Every fifteen yards or so as I walk this deserted stretch of beach (it’s county
Land which prevents development, become a favorite spot for nesting loggerheads).
Each nest abandoned to the elements which rule the nature of sea-turtles,
The whole matter of birth an eruption, clawing-out and race for the sea amid the
Wild flutter of birds, weaving and diving to grab off morsels of frantic sea-flesh.
All that’s for another day; mine is to walk with the echo of those nest-
Builders dark and slick with salt still heavy in the waves, a tide of mothers
Come to pass eggs from their wombs into the shore’s. Now the
Beach is impregnate with instinct’s ancient thrall and this morning’s tide
Seems to know that, each foamy exclamation of dying wave with a soft maternal note
Close to a hum as it hauls back over my feet, singing softly to all those buried eggs
The way my mother once sang over me at Jacksonville Beach when I was three,
Her voice and the oceans fusing into poetry’s swash in my ear.
It feels good to walk this way, so good though now there is a cost which
Freights everything these days—the heaviness of age, sorrows siloing in
The heart—you know, the I’m Gettin’ Old Blues–: my wife was so unhappy
With the room we rented for the night, for this singular trip to the beach for
My 52d birthday, it was right on the beach, perfect for me but far too shabby
For her taste. As I unpacked my few things she sat on the edge of the bed, began
Griping about the grubbiness of the room, the grit on the floor, the bedcovers feeling
dirty. And then began weeping. “I work so hard to earn the $140 we paid for this room,
Is THIS all we get for that much money?” It was a 2-hour drive over from inland
And the thought of spending so much of what little we kept simmering as we
Ate at a fish grill (80 bucks) and went to see “Julie and Julia” at a crowed
Theater ($17.50 alone for tickets); back in the room it all boiled up and over
And we argued far into the night, she complaining about our inability to
Have real fun as a couple apart from our work, all our differences in taste and
Inclination brought into sharp focus by this shabby seaside motel room that I fell
In love with when the hotel manager showed it to us – right on the beach!!!
While all she saw was grubbiness and cheapness, where she would have so much
Preferred to have stayed at a seaside resort where she would be taken
Care of in full measure and recognition of the cost. Of course she was right as
She usually is when we argue though in another way it’s just her difference from me,
She takes no comfort or solace in what a walk on the beach has always
Provided for me since I heard my mother sing with the sea 49 years ago.
It’s why we rarely go to the beach; it’s why she shops in Melbourne this morning,
Searching about for lace for her business, leaving to me this magnitude
Of sun and sea, walking the brilliant morning’s shore singing my old hallooes
To God and Mer and Poetry, augments I believe though from exile.
Balm for my soul, perhaps, but I am a married man and these tesseras of
Water are primaries I must live far from in my vow to make a happy fruitful
Home inland. For me it’s almost never this real shore but the fancied one
That’s ever fold-and-crashing in my ear when I sit on my chair in our living
Room when begin to write, the garden outside in moonlight the two firmaments
I choose to live by and praise and make hallow with love. I believe the ocean washes
Inside me without this actual beach—I must or be doomed to a dessicated,
dried-out life too far from his water’s edge, like a sea-turtle headed the wrong way,
Getting ever more lost in the inland reaches of a soul, slowly crossing highways
terrified by the headlights and horns, crunching over unfamiliar scrub and grass
Crying arias without hope of ever finding the beloved salt again. It’s been
39 years since I was baptized in waters close to these, years since I
Made visits with one and then the next wife with a girlfriend inbetween,
Each time trying to impossibly merge woman with my moon’s water,
My deepest inward thrall proving actual love’s bitterest rival, defying
The notion I’ve always had that the whole point was to bring the two at last together.
Beth and I consummated our love for the first, long-awaited time in a room
At the Sandy Shoes Motel just a quarter mile up the road from here
In December of 1995—it has since converted to condos and apartments,
Thus leaving us to the Sea View Motel. It was the coldest on record for that
Night on Melbourne Beach, 31 degrees in perfect full-mooned splendor,
Too cold and windy to walk the beach but enough to cocoon us together
In a bed where we made our future’s nest together, the one we live in today.
We honeymooned for a night at the same hotel a ten months later and that
Was the last time we had made our way here. A long time ago, almost too long
To not feel too long evicted from the real womb-heart of the ocean; but I’m game,
Lord, I’m back and walking the shore with that old Bob Marley tune
“Is This Love That I’m Feelin’?” like plainchant in the ancient seaside chapel
Of Saint Columba laying in the sand on the shore of Iona, singing the Three
Fifty Psalms every night to the mad dark ocean, each psalm carved of water
And battling their every turtle-shaped demon, every monster in the old polytheistic
Order which teems and schools the lower reaches of the heart, rising at night to
Feed on the souls of sea-longing men who too close to their waters’ edge.
All of my poems I’ve posited in this tide, each one like a wave that arrives
From dark continents a half a world away, coalesced into a caesura’s rise
And fall, ending in a last sentence, a final line, ebbing to a silence where
I think I’ll never write another poem again, brooding in darkness until
Another wave appears: And though the sea will serve up waves til the moon
Fades altogether from the sky, I have little else to say: For me these waves
Are for younger men still on fire and in lust, hungry and raging for
Ecstasy’s wild blue tide enough that they must walk naked here, plunging
Stone-hard prongs of desire deep into a pussy of blue salt, slishing and sliding and
Sperming the surrsurrations curved at their hips. Gone, like my brother’s gone,
The guy I walked Cocoa Beach with 30 years ago, the both of us believing
So hotly in the dream of oceans. Gone, like my interest in heart for so
Much has gone, somehow lost at sea with him, my old belief in aquatic
Lacteals my mouth could never milk. Only the work remains, day after day
Of labors like wave after wave of the sea, each come to naught in the measure
Of things, each labor somehow undermining the next in these difficult times
Where treading water is a specie of success, an nth measure which keeps
Us from going down and down and down. It’s now the same damn day over
And over til I will no longer be able to work like walking down the shore,
Til my ashes are scattered onto the blue and fallen to depths where God
Takes his full measure of men who foolishly straddle waves riding
The water-steppes to Love. But for now I walk, if only for this one day,
Perhaps my last here. I’m grateful for the sand and the feel of water
In such measure, in the pleasure of the sun on my face and back,
For the total immersion of walking along eternity’s salt fray as the sea
Cries to the land and grinds it down to sand, beating that old cold lunar drum
Which composes all tides and moon-moods, poems too long to matter
Except that they may engender the next fool lover’s words, words which
May die in their mouths or be picked off by the ravening beaks of
Life’s modern imps (like the cancer which eats the guts of my co-worker’s
husband). Perhaps, perhaps, one or two will make their way through
Their art back to water and be free in that dangerous wet element,
As I will be free when this long damn poem’s finished at last.
I walk out and stand hips-deep in the surge, letting wave after wave
Crash softly round me, feeling the muscles of each most in the recede,
That hard hauling back to God. Lord, I pray, You’re here in this heart
Of my heart: Take me and make of me what you will. The sea once
Gave me the words of that prayer, washing over me in a single wave
On the morning that I was baptized on Melbourne beach at 14.
I remit that prayer here with this long psalm of surrender and
Pointless indentured love of the sea and its washes, whether I ever
Come back again. Washed, hauled, prayed through and done,
I trudge back to shore and begin the long walk back to the motel.
Ghostly frigates of storm clouds far out to sea, more clouds building
Just inland and not another human soul in sight, just as it’s ever been.
Deep in the heart and loin of God I thus walk home, the washed-up
Relic of one man’s singing blue bone, alone and in love and ready
To work on the life that remains, with or without the verse, borne
Again from the sea, walking the remainder of this mortal bourne
A happy if emptied man, headed home to his moony dark humid garden
And the real life which is nested there and which still comes to life here.