“Daddy, when your book is published, are you going to be, like, a famous writer?”
“I mean, not right now. But maybe in two hundred years, or something?”
“But I guess monkeys might not read your book. Because we might evolve back into monkeys, you know.”
Isaac Babel’s war diaries. It’s not just the Red Army that imagines it’s fighting for a new world; on the Polish side the new state, the Rzeczpospolita, has only been in existence for a couple of years. Does it help to explain the brutality on both sides, that they both lay claim to the future? Probably not. After a point Babel despairs of explanation. Part of his job is to explain the coming marvels of socialism to the terrified families on which they’re billeted.
In 1920 there are still so many Jewish towns about, so many shops and synagogues. Reduced and scrambling, but extant, expecting more centuries of hard survival.
A Rzeczpospolita is a fragile thing. A people less so, and yet.
To reach for the historical lens, and think of the present as past, is not a matter of removing the obligation to act where one can, nor of washing out morals in blanket fatalism. One speaks of historical tragedy as one wouldn’t speak of geological tragedy.
The live trees, the dead trees, in Sequoia National Park. Venus can’t happen here, they said—
R.’s first day of second grade. Her class is all boys, the second grade is all boys—where have the girls gone? Private school? Oregon?
She puts on a plaid dress and leggings, elliptical hoop earrings, gets on her scooter, very chic, J. follows her around the corner to school. I get on my bike, clicking chain I still haven’t tamed, arrive at the office and am told, thanks for your recent supererogatory efforts on the big data project. I say that the portage over the steepest part of the mountain is over, and hope it’s true. The head of our department comes in, sees us all standing at our desks typing—“How can you do that all day?” We don’t know.
Lots of new people at the zendo, young and scruffy: must be the start of term? An older woman asking about the timing for a certain ceremony, is told, “We’ve had a lot of calendar-related challenges recently.” Low, fast fog, the sun keeps fading in and out, God’s mad hand on the dimmer knob. R. and J. both reading by lamplight when I get home. They’ve already eaten, I make myself a five-minute dinner out of the first things I find in the fridge: kimchi, carrots, last night’s orzo, fried eggs on top. I call it “Marco Polo Goes to Incheon,” and make a couple of extra gyoza for R., who’s still hungry. Quiet, warm.
Nothing’s on fire in Kings Canyon itself, but the burn follows you around and stings your nostrils, and the vista turnoffs that are meant to open onto miles of rock instead show a blank blue-gray. You feel like you’re driving into the void. (Bashō: mist and rain, can’t see Mount Fuji, interesting...)
Up on the trail were live pines, and blackened trunks and limbs shining with mineral deadness from some earlier fire. That’s the world, half alive and half dead. The world to come, half alive and half dead. (I read somewhere that Venus isn’t a possible scenario because Earth is too far from the sun. We’re just the asteroid, powerless constituents of the asteroid.) Squirrels, robins, woodpeckers, nuthatches, lizards, flies all moving around, doing what they know.
I got to a stream, a gust of wind came up and then a huge report, much deeper than gunfire; I thought some idiot must be setting off artillery from the cliffs. Then one of the huge blackened trunks slowly began to tip, shedding branches against its neighbors as it gathered speed, slammed to earth thirty feet away and raised a huge cloud of reddish dust. I was there to hear it. The birds did nothing for a space—thirty seconds?—but the wind and water were still moving, and soon the forest’s whole quiet machine started up again.
An hour before sunset I took the shorter trail to pay respects to the sequoias, which have a lot of companion manzanitas growing between—because their shallow root structures are compatible? Because the taller trees don’t grow thick and light gets through the canopies? I was so exhausted and happy that night in the tent cabin, curled up with my novel from Brazil and my old jazz guitar, practicing chord shapes up and down the neck. Cooked chili on the camp stove and ate it looking west, washed out the pan at the bathhouse and used it for granola the next morning at first light. I actually wanted to get up early. I’ve hardly had a coherent thought from start to finish in years.