Notes from America (2015)
By Cynthia Daignault

It’s morning at the top of the Empire State Building. Looking out past New York into the heart of America, I think to myself, someday they’ll take this building down. I’m not sure how one demolishes a skyscraper, brick by brick or in a downward plume of dust and dynamite? Will it happen in my lifetime? No building can last forever, even buffeted like a dead tree by concrete or wires, but how much longer does she have? Years ago, I worked in the lobby—for a couple days, all dreams—in an Irish pub where I carried food to tourists. Today I find myself back again, on the eighty-sixth floor, looking out into the receding infinity. I wonder if I am seeing something different on the horizon, all these years later, from the perspective of her stately middle age or mine, and it occurs to me that she and I and this particular view from this particular angle are all impermanent.

I’ve been walking around the grounds of the Glass House all morning, considering sight lines and pruning. I painted a picture of Philip Johnson’s Glass House once. It was easy to paint; effortlessly I made a lovely work of art. Inside the house Johnson hung only one artwork, a Poussin landscape. Johnson would describe how he shaped the grounds like the painting, removing limbs and whole trees, placing structures and walls, just as Poussin would paint a branch or leaf to balance the composition and best reflect the light. I was merely painting a subject that already presents itself as a painting, as if stating the obvious—redundant, like a cover song. I wonder how many of my subjects owe their appeal to some unseen architect, a Johnson or a Poussin, how far back the chain of influence stretches, and if one can ever take credit for anything at all.  

I am reading Virginia Woolf today. A Room of One’s Own. She writes: “What is meant by ‘reality’? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech—and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates.”[i]


Driving through the green and rolling hillsides of an American pastoral, I see a rupture of color. Red fades to salmon in the bright sun. A sculpture: Five Swordsby Alexander Calder. The piece is whimsical, lumbering like a sea creature across land, yet in the title Calder suggests an altercation, weapons clashing in an open field. Gettysburg. Antietam. Shiloh. Bull Run. The Battle of the Wilderness. Farmland—rows of wheat and corn—has been the backdrop for all American wars. Land to fight for, about, and on. The red, then, is the suggestion of violence, of blood running through cultivated earth. Humor and violence, gaiety and sadness, the contradictions of a sculpture and the land on which it stands.

Begun in 1965, Empire State Plaza in Albany is the most expensive government architecture project in U.S. history, costing over two billion dollars. Mies van der Rohe said: “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.”[ii]Viewed as such, the plaza displays all the idealism, utopianism, and wealth of mid-century America. It has more Carrara marble than any other site in this country, yet it is often empty—a grand temple for no one. Beneath the plaza, there is a long underground corridor where civil servants trot back and forth to the capitol, avoiding the cold winds of upstate New York. To decorate the hall, the state purchased hundreds of paintings in a few short years. The collection is a time capsule of New York galleries in the sixties. Monumental works of Abstract Expressionism, long-forgotten Motherwells and Pollocks, covered in dirt and stains, soda splatter and handprints, paintings whose idealism, like the plaza’s, is self-conscious in the face of time and decay.

 It is so beautiful in New England today, at the height of fall, all cadmium leaves. I see that the mother of a friend has published her first poem in the local newspaper today. I stop to read it, “Gratified Desire”: “If you lifted the ‘house’ from ‘housewife’ / it would not be such a bad job, / not partnered to rooms or dust, / but to the man, / the small burden of laughing / at repeated jokes. / Who wouldn’t admire / the woman’s shining competence at love / and accommodation? / the lineaments of practiced ardor? / Yes, there’s abnegation, / but wife burns. / Enough to set the house on fire.”[iii]I think to myself that it’s a good poem, and I read it again, watching the autumn leaves aflame, blazing before the winter, screaming their impending deaths.

The story of America is no doubt a story of cows. Plants and birds and ecosystems all shift as I circle the country, but cows . . . there are always cows. A Google search reveals that there are ninety-six million cows in America right now, one for every three people, like an additional brother or sister. This would explain why I see them everywhere. Lydia Davis has written best on the subject, in her book The Cows. “They are still out there, grazing, at dusk. But as the dusk turns to dark, while the sky above the woods is still a purplish blue, it is harder and harder to see their black bodies against the darkening field. Then they can’t be seen at all, but they are still out there, grazing in the dark.”[iv]

 Like all great art, the elegance of the Farnsworth House creates a fiction of ease. Yet there is nothing easy about the house. In fact, its construction caused such conflict that once finished, the architect, Mies van der Rohe, and the owner would never speak again. To live in the house is to live on a ship constructed from idea and form, not practicality and function. The building is famously inefficient, overly transparent, and so prone to flooding that the owner might be trapped afloat for days during heavy rain. That is without even mentioning the chaos of human narratives streaming inside. Minimalism on the surface and complexity within. It makes me wonder if we are often fooled by appearances into wishing that art and life should go smoothly. Is it not more real that everything is a mess, an argument, and a flood? A perfect white cube floating on a sinking sea of impermanence? 

 Today I saw the house from American Gothic, the famous painting of the farmer with his pitchfork and wife. The Dibble House, a classic Carpenter Gothic that painter Grant Wood described as his inspiration. “A very paintable house,” he said. How quickly inspiration is overshadowed by the people who stand between it and us, because original intent is always a step removed from subject matter. Now, here it is at last, the paintable house, all alone. Is it enough? I find myself asking that question a lot. What we do for others, for ourselves, in our work, in our families. I have come to think that it is the central question in art and in life, and one that I often cannot answer. But Toni Morrison did, and I often think of what she said: “At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It isenough.”[v]

I ask myself a lot what the road means—where it goes, why it calls us sometimes to its serpentine infinity. Today I read the following in Blue Highwaysby William Least Heat-Moon: “A car whipped past, the driver eating and a passenger clicking a camera. Moving without going anywhere, taking a trip instead of making one. I laughed at the absurdity of the photographs and then realized I, too, was rolling effortlessly along, turning the windshield into a movie screen in which I, the viewer, did the moving while the subject held still.”[vi]I think the glassy windshield is like vision, and a mind behind eyes is like a driver inside a car, ever absorbing the incessant imagist string of moments, each as meaningful and meaningless as the last. As the view through a moving window, life is prosaic and fleeting and then gone.

In 1832 George Catlin traveled eighteen hundred miles up the Missouri River. On that trip he made almost the exact same painting as I made today. I had always thought he exaggerated the colors, but it turns out not. Vivid rainbow hills—turquoise, purple, and fuchsia. It’s funny that you cannot paint the coast of Maine without painting Hopper, and you cannot paint the Missouri River without painting Catlin, and you cannot paint haystacks without painting Van Gogh. I often feel like I am following sets of footsteps in heavy snow. Reading Catlin’s journals, I am struck by how much his sentiments echo my own. I am preoccupied with loss—of land, habitat, and species—and two hundred years ago so was Catlin, railing against disappearing native cultures, buffalo, and grassland. This narrative about a love of land mixed with fear of its loss contains an essential American irony. As a country we are defined by a land that our very existence destroys. I wonder if we are not always amidst a great and tragic loss, just as we are always dying, a little each day.

Does anyone know what is happening in North Dakota? When I last visited the Dakotas, I found them just as they ever were: wide expanses of self-similar prairie, heritage grassland mostly used for grazing or nothing. Yet on this trip, I find the state in frenzied industry. In Minot, the cheapest hotel, an unremarkable and filthy Days Inn, costs me over $500 a night, pricing that reflects the influx of oil executives and workers. I see work camps filled with men, countless rows of corresponding prostitutes, and hundreds of hydrofracking refineries. This is a frontier-style boom. The major and irrevocable changes to the land are unmistakable. I wonder, won’t we need this land and this water when the coasts flood and the west is ravaged by drought and fire? I just thought that I should tell someone, or everyone. 

 I went looking for buffalo, and I’ve found them at last in North Dakota. I feel incredibly moved, both by how large and stately they are, but also by the millions of dead buffalo, hunted and slaughtered until only a few hundred remained. How close to extinction they were. Yet they survive, unlike the passenger pigeon that at one time numbered over three billion before being decimated down to one, Martha, in a short hundred years. Today we already have the technology to bring animals back. De-extinction. The dodo, the passenger pigeon, the woolly mammoth, the woolly rhino. Looking at this buffalo now, I can say with certainty: I would very much like to see a woolly mammoth before I die.

As I stand before it, Mount Rushmore looks so fixed, like it was always this way and like it always will be. But of course it wasn’t; to create the monument, half the mountain had to be blown off to get to the most durable granite for carving. And of course it won’t always be this way; imagine arriving the day after some violent storm or earthquake only to find the nose of our first president gone, shattered into gravel. This will happen someday. It wasn’t even supposed to look like this. The men were planned to have bodies and clothes, but the artist died and the government ran out of money. Typical. So Congress declared it finished. How unglamorous. I think of all the paintings that I declared complete when I ran out of time or money, how the end is a moveable line. And even when I am done, wind and rain will still get to have their way.


From a pamphlet at Yellowstone: “Yellowstone has about half the world’s geysers. Each has its own distinctive pattern of spray, never deviant. Riverside Geyser shoots at an angle across the Firehole River, often forming a rainbow in its mist. Grand Geyser explodes in a series of powerful bursts, towering above the trees. Echinus Geyser spouts up and out to all sides, like a fireworks display. Steamboat Geyser, the largest in the world, pulsates like a massive steam engine in a rare and remarkable eruption reaching 300–400 feet high. Castle Geyser erupts from a cone-shaped ruin, as if smoke from a turret. And Old Faithful has eruptions so predictable that they can be timed to the minute, a constant reminder that we are ever atop a planet of smoldering heat and gas.”[vii]

Today I went looking for the majestic mountain goats that populate Glacier National Park in Montana. I really wanted to see one, but I did not find any in the park and left disappointed. I headed back into town and pulled up to a gas station to refuel. It was then that a rather portly mountain goat sidled into view. He stopped a few feet from me to root around in the garbage, and to his delight found a bag of Oreos. No, no, no, I think. You’re not right. You’re not the one. No doubt this is a parable about love. We are all waiting for the goat, and if we are patient, the goat will come. However, when at last he comes, we might fail to recognize him when we see him fat and shabby, rooting through the garbage in the parking lot of an Exxon.

Driving through Washington State today, the scenery became so monumental that I found myself yelling at the windshield. “Come on . . . Are you kidding me? Now you’re just being ridiculous!” I wonder how many more Americans will experience such comical awe, as fleeting as the landscape that engenders it. It’s the last page of Gatsby,right? “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”[viii]For the last time. . . that part really kills me.


There is nothing particular about Mount Shuksan. The mountain itself is unremarkable and even its Lummi Native American name means only “high peak.” Yet it is still one of the most photographed mountains in America. The view from below checks all the boxes for a perfect stock photo: accessible by car, reflective alpine lake, frameable single peak. Recognizing this, rangers renamed the water “Picture Lake” and built a small pier with a stand for tripods. Even a novice photographer will get the perfect shot. Perhaps, then, its fame lies also in how American a story this is, like Marilyn Monroe. A fairly average girl, Norma Jean becomes the most photographed person in America. And the simple Mount Shuksan, just an average mountain, makes it onto millions of computer desktop backgrounds worldwide. In native mythology about the mountain, Shuksan is the quiet and homely wife of Kulshan (Mount Baker), a king. He has many wives, but in the end comes to love her best. Something in this haunts me—that an ancient story foretold the future. Is meaning essential and destiny predetermined? Someday soon global warming will destroy this glacial peak. Beautiful and doomed. Poor Marilyn. 

Have you ever driven through some landscape and known that it was the place you were supposed to live? Forget where you were born, or got a job, or fell in love, or raised your children. It’s something else, a magnetic core pulling you to the place where some primal part of you just belongs. I am reminded of a mythic story about Rauschenberg and Captiva, Florida. Though I’ve only heard it once, and cannot remember the details or guarantee any veracity, it goes something like this: Rauschenberg had never been to Captiva, but when in middle age he visited for the first time, he instantly declared the island his spirit place, the place from which all his work should come. Promptly he moved his entire studio and life to the island. Or so I like to imagine. As I passed a river in central Washington earlier today, I felt that pull. I began to cry. I stopped the car and sat for a long time wondering if I should rearrange my entire life to live in this spot forever. In a month, this whole valley will be destroyed by a massive wildfire, and I will think to myself, it’s better this way.

 Rivers seem to take up the legacy of their most famous travelers—Twain up the Mississippi, Catlin up the Missouri, Lewis and Clark up the Columbia. Today I find myself reversing the Columbia Expedition of 1805, traveling east out from Portland through the Columbia River Gorge toward Mount Hood. It is by all rights an astounding landscape—light as through a dense emerald, sheer rock faces, and grand, plummeting waterfalls. One time I remember driving it with a friend from the city who kept asking when we would arrive. I wondered, arrive where? We were already there. We are always there, like water in a river, indiscreet and ever present. Today I stop to swim in the water. It is very cold, which jostles my mind awake. I remember a sign down the road that quoted John Muir: “The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.”[ix]I, too, am water in a river of time.

It’s called a “lenticular cloud”: rings of concentric circles that often sit atop a mountain. The saucer-like form happens when strong winds encounter an obstruction, creating a fierce eddy.Bright colors called “irisation” can form around its edges, and so the rings are often mistaken for UFOs. In fact, their common name is “cloudships.” I looked for months and finally found one today in Oregon. A few years back, I painted clouds for an entire year in New York, one painting a day until 365 filled a room. I thought that I had made a complete index, but I realize now that even clouds and sky are entirely contingent on time, location, and context. There can be no comprehensive index of anything when the world, like the sky itself, is both infinite and constantly shifting.


I am here at Crater Lake in Oregon during the height of a long drought, and much of the talk is about how the earth’s warming is destroying its trees with new infestations of pine beetles. I, too, am fighting a battle, at my own home across the country in Maryland, against the elm bark beetle—the unwitting agent in the spread of Dutch elm disease, which has decimated over eighty percent of the elm trees on Earth. Despite constant attention, experts, and large sums of money, I am losing. I remember a book, The Botany of Desireby Michael Pollan, where he describes that we are in the middle of an epic war between grasses and trees. Pollan explains that the grasses—lawns but also all food and feed—are winning. Here at Crater Lake, where half of the park’s whitebark pines have died, it is clear that he is right. Someday, perhaps soon, we will see the tree like the dinosaur, an ancient giant that once populated the world in the millions but ceded its place on Earth to the short and tiny lives of mammals and grass.

It’s foggy off the coast of Oregon today, but I am staring out across the Pacific, hopeful that I might see a whale. Every dense gathering of fog could be a blue whale to these bad eyes. On the radio this week a scientist explained that whales will be extinct in my lifetime. Some twenty or thirty years from now someone will unknowingly kill the last one. Or maybe we will know, watching and waiting the eighty to ninety years of the last whale’s life, hoping to find one more, a breeding partner, until we don’t, and then he or she dies and their extinction is pretty much confirmed. There’s a tortoise like that in the Galápagos, Frank or George. I saw a film about him in biology class in high school. Darwin had found him, and by the time they shot the footage he had been waiting 150 years for someone to find a second, a mate or even just a friend, though at that point it was all but certain they never would. High school was a long time ago. I wonder if he’s not dead. Today there are still a few thousand blue whales, and I sit atop this cliff on the coast of Oregon thinking about their songs and hoping that I might see one before he or I, or Frank or George, or this whole world, is gone forever.

 How odd any postcard is . . . that one scene could stand in for a whole trip. Weird to think that one image on the front of a card might somehow represent the place that’s pictured. How can a single view of the Pacific say anything at all about an entire ocean? What of the hundreds of paintings that I’m making? Or the thousands of photographs? Or the millions of fluid scenes that run together like sediment in a river, pulled by the current of my consciousness? John Muir said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”[x]Standing here, looking out from a high cliff on the Oregon coast towards Tokyo in the far beyond, I am fairly certain that he  right.


Residents call it the “Lost Coast”—black sand beaches in a remote corner of the country. It has a primordial feel, where you can watch for whales in the icy waters of the North Pacific, where redwood forests fall spectacularly to the sand. I run out onto the beach and get my shoes so wet that I have to take them off to walk. Throwing my sneakers off, but not my socks, I let sand touch cotton, growing dense with the ocean. I can remember being on Coney Island once and watching a city boy encounter the sea for the first time. Taking his shoes off, he ran around the beach in tall, white athletic socks. I thought it ridiculous at the time. Yet it is for him that I mimic his exuberant gesture here, and I realize that there is a soft delight in heavy, wet socks dragging across black volcanic sand, as if the sand were a carpet and the ocean a flat-screen TV.

Perhaps the most spiritual place in the whole country is up in Northern California among the last old-growth stands of coastal redwoods in the Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. The Lost Coast. One time, I was driving through there with a boyfriend who’d never seen a redwood tree. When we reached the forest, he started to cry. He grabbed me and gave me one of those desperate wild-eyed looks, begging me stay there, even though we were just driving through. I’m sure he meant for the night, but he also meant forever. I said no, something about schedules, and so we didn’t. Don’t we always have somewhere to be? Aren’t we always late for something? He must have known that we didn’t have very much time left together, and that this forest, with its dense fog and silencing duff, was a timeless place where we could hide from the inevitable end of love. Now I feel some envy of the locals who clearly struck the bargain I could not, to forever evade time and fate, suspended in a purgatory of their own choosing, lost.


Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox have greeted visitors on the Redwood Highway since 1946, fixtures at the Trees of Mystery attraction. However, this is the second Babe and the third Paul. Heavy coastal rains eventually fell all Pauls and Babes. Each time one is destroyed, the other may spend years alone, as Babe did between 1950 and 1961. As recently as 2007, the thousand-pound head of Babe collapsed and rolled into the parking lot. Today I find that Paul has lost an arm, his right, which would normally be waving a friendly hello to visitors. No plans exist at this time to replace it. There must be some kind of metaphor or contextual irony in an ax man who has lost his ax arm. 


Today I am hiking in the footsteps of John Muir. He lived outside and walked thousands of miles, always enveloped in the land. When he would write about the American landscape for magazines and journals back east, he was always depicting a raw, direct experience with nature. Yet, as I write this note, after a short day hike reached by car, viewed through the scrims of windshield and camera, I realize how mediated and interior my life really is. Now dispatches from the outside are often made by Earth tourists, not Earth natives. Muir slept for years at the base of the cliffs of Yosemite before rendering an honest and nuanced description of that landscape. As an outside world tourist, I will perhaps never even know a tree, or a mountain, or the sky in any way beyond the cursory. So I wonder, is there any truth at all left in their depiction? 

The road to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite is closed. Despite the drought and lack of snow, the park is still glacial at its highest elevations. So I decide to walk the fourteen miles to the top, and for my efforts I am rewarded with solitude. I can sit alone at the top of a mountain, just as Muir would have, to regard the granite mountainscape he called the “range of light.” I heard a park ranger say that “Yosemite” is a misnomer by an early explorer who had meant to give the park the name of a native tribe. In his confusion he named the park a word that does not refer to the original people of the sacred valley, but instead means “those who kill,” “the ones to be feared,” “the harbingers of death.”


John Muir said: “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere.”[xi]It’s a simple thing to say, obvious maybe, but think on it for a moment. The sun is always rising, at each minute the Earth rolls around in orbit. We live our days in two time frames—both locked to the timeline of our own lives, moving across the days from light to dark and back to dark; and then also to the timeline of the planet, on which it is perpetual sunrise and perpetual sunset, always in all states. Muir wrote that line, like much of his writing, about Yosemite, and sitting here in the valley today, watching the sunlight traverse the park, sweeping across the granite like a hand moving across a thigh, I know why he thought more about the Earth’s timeline than his own. The light is always hitting somewhere—rock, then river, then tree, then back to rock. Dew never dries all at once. Vapor is ever rising. It is no surprise that he fought so hard to save this land, and doubly tragic that he failed.


Today I find myself in the Sierra Nevada. It is quiet and there are no animals in sight. A man on the road told me to look out for black bears, which are the only bears that remain in these mountains, though there used to be others. The California grizzly, for instance, is an extinct subspecies of the grizzly bear. “Grizzly” refers to the golden and gray tips of its fur. The grizzly became a symbol of the fierce Bear Republic, of California prior to U.S. statehood.Later, the Bear Flag, which bore a likeness to the animal, became the state’s flag, and California has since been known as the Bear State. Less than seventy-five years after the discovery of gold in 1848, every grizzly in California had been tracked down and killed. The animal remains on the flag despite its extinction, in an unintended elegy. The last hunted California grizzly was shot in 1922. In 1924, a grizzly known to roam the Sierra Madre Mountains was spotted for the last time, and thereafter the California grizzly was never seen again.

Driving around the country, I have inevitably ended up in places I’ve been before.Like here: Stanford. My alma mater. However, driving up the grand and palm-lined entrance to the campus, I am immediately struck by the fact that I have never been in this place. We are spiraling out, like a snail shell or vinyl record, not circling. We may pass by a familiar spot, vaguely recognize a tree or tower, but we will never again pass through it. Time sees to that. Or maybe I learned that here, in a survey course on Proust: “The reality that I had known no longer existed. The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”[xii]I can remember this place as it was, and lay those memories like a scrim in front of this place. But even that feels absurd, like a bar band attempting the White Album. Is anything ever as good the second time around?

The California coast has many cliffs eroded to let the ocean pass through. Here in Santa Cruz, I see seals swimming in and out of a rocky keyhole. After some time, they come ashore and lie in the sand, not moving. They seem sick and the beachgoers worry. A ranger arrives, but explains that there is nothing to be done. The ocean is warming. Small fish, the staple of a baby seal’s diet, have been pushed into deeper, colder waters where young seals cannot follow, for they are not strong enough swimmers to go down into the depths. They will swim looking for food until exhaustion brings them ashore, to die. I am heartbroken and watch the ocean, advancing and receding through the keyhole, slowing carving the perfect arch. It is not for nothing that water will still pass through this rock long after seals no longer do.


The Lone Cypress is the most famous tree in western America. Some say it has been photographed more than any other tree on Earth. The tree is considered as iconic as the Eiffel Tower or the pyramids of Egypt. This cypress, a scrubby tree by nature, became famous for how stalwartly it subsists in one of the country’s most extreme landscapes, weathering sea and wind, earthquake and erosion. It reminds me of something Georgia O’Keeffe wrote: “Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small that it takes time—we haven’t time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”[xiii]Standing before it, I try to see the tree. I imagine that probably this tiny tree surrounded by the vast expanse of the world became so iconic because it stands as a resonant metaphor for the doomed beauty of all life; but I am only here for a moment.

There are signs of drought everywhere. Even at the highest elevations of Kings Canyon the trees look thirsty and tired. Perhaps I am projecting, but today I heard the governor announce that a current count puts the number of trees perished in California this year at over twelve million. And what of next year, or the year after? The trees surrounding me now are giant sequoias. They are almost three thousand years old. Only their remote elevation saved them from the timber mills. In three thousand winters and three thousand springs, how many countless birds have rested on their branches? Witness Trees. Vesuvius, Krakatau, Hiroshima, and Chernobyl. All I can think is that we each live just long enough to bear witness to our own death.


The Eames House, also known as Case Study House No. 8, is a masterpiece of twentieth-century design. Charles and Ray Eames conceived and built the house to serve as their home and studio, nestled in the Pacific Palisades. Originally they had designed a large house that would intersect the property’s meadow, centrally sited on the land. Plans were drawn and materials ordered, but due to wartime shortages they had to wait three years for steel beams. Over those years, they leisured at the house and spent long hours in the meadow—picnicking, shooting archery, relaxing, and considering. When the steel did arrive, they radically changed the house to sit unobtrusively at the back of the property, leaving the meadow undisturbed. How often we charge forward with the best of intentions. How rarely we get the time to consider the full repercussions of our choices. How many contemplative meadows have I destroyed in the name of expedience? 

Why are there so many donut shops in Los Angeles? I googled the question. Here’s what I learned. There are over a thousand donut shops in L.A. Famously, there are no Dunkin’ Donuts in L.A., even though there are eleven thousand nationwide. Most donut shops are run by Cambodians, even though, according to online commentators, they don’t much care for donuts. (This I have not verified.) Donut shops are perhaps the early morning complement to L.A.’s equally numerous hamburger stands. There is something uncanny about the donut being so popular in the same city that gave us California Cuisine, juicing, and the health food craze. I wonder if this is due to a parallel love of the cinematic, or the simple joy of seeing an oversized fiberglass donut roll into view on the horizon. 


T. rex lived sixty-six million years ago. The age of the dinosaurs was one hundred and eighty million years long, with stegosaurus living at the start, never overlapping with T. rex. More time separates the stegosaurus from the T. rex than separates the T. rex from the human. All humanity—me, you, our evolution, our many histories—has been lived in only the last two hundred thousand years. And in the past thirty seconds since you started reading this, more pictures were taken than in the entire twentieth century. What abstractions time and numbers are. Perhaps it is enough to say that there was once a thing called T. rex, that we never met, but that as I drive by his likeness on a highway east of Palm Springs, I am reminded that the one thing we have in common is time spent on Earth. My own time here is both everything and nothing all at once.

Gram Parsons died in Joshua Tree. I saw an interview once where Keith Richards said that every junkie has a moment when he sees the light and can either walk forward or back. Keith says that he saw that light many times, but always chose life over death, that dying in that moment is a choice. Keith is convincing. After Gram died, his friends, Hells Angels, stole his body and set it afire on the side of the road. Despite its mythos, I don’t have much to add about Joshua Tree. I will let the paintings do the talking, but there are still things they can’t tell you. Like about Gram. Or the wind. Or the strobe light of sun and shade. Or that in just a few hours this whole desert will be lit by a cobalt moon, and I will swear that I am walking on the sand at the bottom of a deep blue ocean.


In my life I have painted many rocks and trees and skies. Yet, of all the things in America, without a doubt the most difficult thing to paint has been the Joshua tree. It is a lovely tree, inspiring and shapely, so why then do I find painting it so challenging? Is it the foliage, something difficult to capture in the bulbous splaying of its needles? Is it the bark, some complication of desiccated fraying? Or is it the palm reader in Kathmandu who once told me that I am like the bird that flies away, not toward; and that I like trees that are shivering and bare in winter winds, not trees that bask in the sun like lizards on hot rocks? Looking at my hand, faceup in the desert sun, I wonder which line betrays my love for a cold, viridian forest. 

There is a road, Box Canyon Road, that connects Joshua Tree to the Salton Sea. It is a beautiful drive through badlands and box canyons, without a car or person in sight. Yet today on this road I saw a lone naked man dragging a twenty-foot solid wooden crucifix. I did not stop to ask if he needed help since I felt it was safe to assume that would defeat the purpose. And even earlier today, I saw a man on a bicycle riding down the highway in a full Star Warsstormtrooper costume. The two are the same, obviously, and I take some solace in knowing that though the forces of good and evil move across this country unceasingly, they are nevertheless held in balance by each other.

 From a pamphlet at the Integratron in Landers, California: “This historical structure is a resonant tabernacle and energy machine, built on an intersection of powerful geomagnetic forces that when focused by the unique geometry of the building concentrate and amplify the earth’s magnetic field.”[xiv]I came here for a sound bath, a ritual spent lying down listening to Tibetan tuning bowls pitched to the frequencies of blood flow. Though the whole thing takes about an hour, it felt like the second I lay down it was already over. Sand spilled from the hourglass and blew away, but not before I closed my eyes and saw myself flying low over the Mojave Desert, looking down on a wolf running across the land. I know you’re not supposed to tell people about your dreams unless you dream about them, but I feel like someone really ought to know about the wolf. And if not you, then who?

The Mojave Desert has the darkest skies in all of America, unspoiled by urban light pollution or refractive atmospheric humidity. Today on the radio I heard a physicist explain that the universe is expanding, and at an increasing rate. Perhaps you’ve heard this too. However, what I had never understood was that as the years go by and all the galaxies around us drift away, the other planets and stars will eventually be so far off that light from their suns will no longer reach the Earth. Meaning our stars—all the stars above us in the night sky—will be gone. If life still exists on Earth, future people will look up and see only blackness. At last, truly alone in the universe. Perhaps books will survive detailing ancient wisdom about other planets, galaxies, and suns, but it will be something that can only be accepted on faith 

I spent the millennial New Year’s Eve at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. Maybe it is tacky, but I still take guilty pleasure in the scale of the lobby, with its towering sphinx and pyramid. Though I had never been to Nevada, I decided it would be the safest place to wait out Y2K. I went alone and there was no reasoning to the choice, but being back here now, I can begin to see some logic to my intuition. Mainly this: it is already the end of the world in Las Vegas. What place could be a better setting for a postapocalyptic outpost? The whole city is already a museum to a civilization that was—the pyramids, New York, Venice, Paris. It’s not that strange to think that a city already in pastiche should be more equipped for survival when the end of life as we know it finally does come, at last. 


All over western America there are mysterious standalone ice stores, kiosks where you can fill up buckets with ice cubes for a few dollars. Signs reveal that “Twice the Ice” (penguin logo) is a growing franchise opportunity. I cannot imagine high demand for frozen water. What purpose besides cooling beverages does ice serve? Ice is a relatively new fad, born at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, when cubes were served in lemonade, creating a frenzy for blocks of frozen water cut from and hauled down the Hudson River. Then the freezer took over the game, and now these. All I can figure is that these ice boxes are squatters, holding their real estate for an arid Mad Maxfuture when it isn’t ice but water that we buy from vending machines in town. But will the penguin logo remain?  

 Today, in Zion National Park, there is a mountain climber suspended halfway up a rock face. I hear he is going for a record. He pitches a small yellow tent, no bigger than his body, and will spend the night in that tent, balanced against the cliff, held in place only by his knots and ropes. I cannot imagine getting much restful sleep in such a setup. I try to think of a time when I have been that vulnerable or exposed. During my own birth perhaps, but since . . . ? Certainly not. I often compare the practice of painting to a discipline like daily exercise or sport. Yet never for a painting have I been suspended one thousand feet above the ground, pressed against the sheer face of a rock, with only a single rope to support the entire weight of my fragile body. All metaphors can only go so far.

Today I read a passage from Edward Abbey describing his reflections on Arches National Park in Utah. I sit beneath the same rocks as he did fifty years before: “Strolling on, it seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered around in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life-forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.”[xv]I wonder if that’s true insight, or if it’s just retroactive justification. Did Abbey leave someone at home, waiting? Does love flower best in freedom or are we prisoners to its bloom? 

In Canyonlands National Park I am surprised by the hoards of photographers. Hundreds of people crowd into just one spot to get the perfect shot. It is a phenomenon I have seen at every national park I’ve visited this year. There are websites that advise exactly what location, angle, and time of day will yield the quintessential picture of any given landmark. I cannot tell you how surreal it is to be in 76,359 acres of spectacular wilderness, yet every person is in one place, looking through a camera in one direction. I want to tell them to turn around. On the wrong day, at the wrong time, in the wrong direction, you might see something.

Last night I heard a mountain lion on a rock above my campsite—all night, growling. I couldn’t walk out to get water or go to the bathroom because I was certain she would pounce. Later, in the daylight, when I sat in a patch of tawny sunlight nearby, I could still feel her. As the sun began to set, I knew I should hurry back inside, to safety. I rushed to the campsite, alternately running and walking, as I wasn’t sure which gate made me more of a target for a hungry mountain lion. Scrambling into camp from above, I realized that the growling I’d heard was in fact the sound of a whirring generator hidden behind a rock. I felt safe again, and yet disappointed. Somehow the world was better when a mountain lion could fall from the sky and maul me at any moment.

 In Monument Valley the dirt is a deep blood-red tone. I expected this color from all the movies I’ve seen that were filmed in this narrow tract of land between Arizona and Utah. What I did not expect was how pink the clouds would be. The rich maroon of the ground casts a vibrant magenta reflection across the entire width of the sky, and I realize that there is a place somewhere in America where the canopy is so saturated that the clouds are green; or where fields of mustard are so lush that the sky is yellow; or where a salt flat is so wide that there is pure and shadowless white across the firmament. I’m not sure where these places are, but if you know, I would very much like to see them. 

 “Once you have seen the sign for the barn, it’s impossible to see the barn.”[xvi]Don DeLillo. So, too, here in Monument Valley. This land is the setting of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, but also of the Long Walk, the three-hundred-mile imprisonment of the Navajo Nation. Now they run a tribal national park here. It’s a bare-bones spot with scathing reviews on Trip Advisor: “Stay away!” “20 dollar admission?! What thieves!” Thieves, eh? Beneath the undercurrent of undeniable racism, more irony of course. I am happy to pay $20 to stand before these monumental views. Red mesas, islands rising up from an ocean floor of bloody sand. In the parking lot there’s a sign with a quote from the first white man to review his experience here: “As desolate and repulsive looking a country as can be imagined.”[xvii]It’s always something. Something/nothing. Emptiness/fullness. Comedy/tragedy. Thievery/justice. How shifting and complicated the west is, like weather in the desert.


Today I am reading John Ashbery. “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you / At incredible speed, traveling day and night / Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes. / But will he know where to find you, / Recognize you when he sees you, / Give you the thing he has for you? / Hardly anything grows here, / Yet the granaries are bursting with meal, / The sacks of meal piled to the rafters. / The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish; / Birds darken the sky. Is it enough / That the dish of milk is set out at night, / That we think of him sometimes, / Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?”[xviii]I think of this constantly as I’m driving. Am I the one moving toward? Or is someone moving toward me? Is there a dish of milk waiting, waiting with mixed feelings? Or did I forget to put one out? Did the cat starve? 

My mother had a poster of a mountain in her office when I was a child. It was a stock poster, maybe a gift from a client. It’s strange to happen upon a place and feel as if you’ve been there before, even though you haven’t. I drove into a quiet valley in southern Colorado today, overwhelmed by familiarity, at last entering the scene from the poster. Maybe it was like that for my mother, too. When she got divorced, I asked her what she would do, where she would go. “Colorado,” she said. We’re from Maryland. She’d never lived in Colorado, but perhaps she’d been there everyday, staring from her desk at the crisp and perfect reflection of the Rockies on a placid alpine lake. How many times will we reset our lives? I suppose that’s the comfort of the west, just knowing that it’s there, that if we needed to run, we can pick up and start again from scratch, at the base of an unsullied mountain.


I am driving through the San Juan Mountains near Lizard Head Pass, so named for a peak that looked like a lizard head. Driving around America, I have heard many people declare that their town is the most beautiful. So, too, I met a man down the road in Rico, Colorado, who told me that this stretch of land takes the prize. I smiled with all the usual courteousness, promising to check it out on my way east, but not really believing him. Yet, driving through here today, I realize he is probably right. Someone had to be. For many years, aspen trees were believed to be the largest organisms on Earth, since groups of them are in fact one organism; but recently a particular honey fungus in Oregon measuring three square miles in size took the crown. So, though these trees can no longer claim to be the biggest creatures on Earth, they may at least still claim to be the most beautiful. But what do I know about honey fungus? 


Lizard Head. I looked at the rock for hours, straining to see the metaphor of a reptile. I never saw it, though I could imagine it. Later, a ranger told me that there was an avalanche at the turn of the previous century. From the newspaper: “The smaller spire which was formerly inconspicuous by the side of the head, is now standing, single and alone, pointing to the sky, a lone sentinel of last night’s upheaval. Millions of tons of rocks, conglomerate and earth went down without apparent cause of reason.”[xix]The lizard is gone. Any memory of what once was is long forgotten, just as everyone who ever saw the rock is dead. Yet, the name remains, a hint at the shape of the past, like the lettering on a tombstone.


Sedona is a town famous with the new age set for its vortexes. As many times as it’s been explained to me, I’m still not sure what a vortex is, but there is no denying the feeling of mysticism pervasive in these hills, undiminished even by the hoards of visitors. Evidence of the vortexes is seen in the twisted juniper trees and in the packs of wild javelina, who seem to possess preternatural powers. Look out! They are vicious critters, rodents that look like angry pigs. Tonight I bought a beer, but before I could take a sip the javelina came and carried the bottle away. Oh well. It is generally good luck to pour a drink out for your dead friends, especially so close to a spiritual vortex. 


No matter how many times I visit the Grand Canyon, no matter how familiar I think it will become, I am still left speechless each time I approach that edge. It is a landscape that could never transmute to the commonplace, that is always psychedelic and otherworldly, like the chartreuse color of the water against the deep vermillion of the rocks. I am speechless, but Edward Abbey managed to say this of the Colorado River: “Night and day the river flows. If time is the mind of space, the Colorado is the soul of the desert. Brave boatmen come, they go, they die, and the voyage flows on forever. We are all canyoneers. We are all passengers on this little living mossy ship, this delicate dory sailing round the sun that humans call the earth. Joy, shipmates, joy.”[xx]This is the story of every traveler across America, by foot or by boat or by car. Such a quick and tidy metaphor for the Earth, ever floating through the rapids of space.


Standing here, at the edge of the canyon, I remember something the artist Jason Moran said: “If you hear Thelonious Monk play a run that goes from the top of the piano, OK, he has opened up the Grand Canyon with that. He’s the river that’s carved this entire space that we call the Grand Canyon.”[xxi]I like thinking of the river as an improvised solo, coming down from the highest notes in the distance to the bassiest core of the Earth. Trickle down, stop along the way to sound a note where the water bends. A melody cleaves the world in two: noise from silence, structure from chaos. A canyon, then, is the silence after the rupture, an empty space to sit and contemplate the significance of what’s happened.



I could not love the saguaro cactus more, the tall cowboy, ever waving to me. I see him everywhere, my old friend, always rounding the corner to say hello. And perhaps I start to take his presence for granted. For then, just as suddenly as he first appeared, he is gone. I have driven too far east or north. I miss him and his wild gesticulation terribly. I wonder if we will ever cross paths again. I wonder how many more times I will see him on this drive, or in my life? Or how many more times I might see a black bear, or a sunshower, or a sequoia tree, or an American buffalo, or my own mother, or my best friend? It’s all desert until it’s not.


Biosphere 2 was an intentional community outside of Tucson, built to study human life in an enclosed colony, as if on Mars or the Moon. Biosphere 1 is the Earth itself. The project was undertaken not by NASA or big science, but by one eccentric millionaire who solicited civilian volunteers to populate Biosphere 2. One can admire the populist spirit of the endeavor, built and staffed from the ground up; yet, without the structured oversight of expertise, bureaucracy, and accountability, the project took the human turns one might expect. Participants infamously snuck in pizza, weed, and LSD for wild nights of sex and partying, and beyond that there were myriad missteps in the science. Clearly, we cannot live in the next Biosphere until this one is truly gone. And even then, human survival seems to be fighting pretty long odds.  


There is a small town perched on the edge of an open-pit mine in Bisbee, Arizona. I meet an old nudist there. Bruce. Every night we walk to the local cowboy bar, a honky-tonk with more taxidermy javelina than patrons. He tells me about all the women he’s slept with. Then he tells me that “the time of women is over,” for he can no longer score the pretty ones and never had any interest in the rest. He is the very picture of the sad loner at the bar with his whiskey and his memories, but I feel his regrets throughout this whole town. Is it any wonder that, living on the edge of an open-pit mine, all one can think about is the void—all that was, all that was taken away?


There are places in this country that feel wholly separate from the rest, like Ajo, Arizona. It has a European atmosphere, with an old town square enclosed by a historic cathedral, mission, and opera house. Cats by the dozens roam the plaza, laying out in the sun and splashing at birds in the Spanish fountain. I do not see one person except for a comely, black-haired girl selling coffee at a café. Some part of me wants desperately to buy an espresso, to populate the scene, taking a seat on the wide patio, on the edge of the empty square. However, I have seen enough of the Twilight Zoneto know that if I take that seat, I will likely never leave this town, the cat town; that I will no doubt become that girl, locked forever in reenactment, as I am now fairly certain that Ajo is merely a mirage at the center of the Sonoran Desert.


Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and all its cactuses are in full bloom today. I am the park’s sole visitor. I drove through seven border patrol points on my way here, but as a white woman in an American pickup truck I am of little concern to ICE. It is strangely beautiful here, though I can feel a buzzing sense of malice somewhere just beyond the gates. There is no water, shade, or food for hundreds of miles; there are coyotes smuggling immigrants across hardscrabble desert; there are cactus poachers who come in the night to steal three-hundred-year-old succulents for collectors and mescaline enthusiasts; not to mention the scorpions, heat, and rattlesnakes. The park is an eerie, quiet, and peaceful DMZ in the middle of an ongoing war zone, much like an organ pipe cactus—a stalwart oasis for birds and butterflies amidst an arid ocean of death.


Marfa, Texas. Donald Judd felt that once a work was placed, ideally it should never be moved. Here his cement cubes have sat and will continue to sit into the long foreseeable future—in this brushy desert under the big sky of Texas. The landscape makes the work so much more meaningful. The iterations of a cube are the story of all nature. Shifting patterns of time, light, weather, biology, and love. We should all be so lucky, to have a major work permanently installed in the landscape that necessitates it. Here, I feel sorry for all those cubes that sit in windowless museums, untouched by the sun and the incessant desert winds.



Today I am visiting the main building of Judd’s armory, converted to hold his Hundred Cubes. I find the building replete with leaks. There are myriad Tupperware containers placed to catch the water, as there seems to be neither the money to fix the leaks nor the money to buy proper buckets. Falling water makes a lot of noise. Dropping from such a height into these different-sized containers, the sound, of varying pitch and frequency, reminds me of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. Polyrhythmic and atonal. The oddity of the many containers and their music has me convinced that perhaps this is a contemporary art piece. When I realize it’s not, I think, how lucky we are that when we’re dead we’re not around to see what time and other people do to our most beloved things.


Donald Judd said: “I think some of the things that I deal with Edward Hopper has probably dealt with also, since it’s somewhat the same environment and I have pretty strong reactions to what this country looks like. It looks pretty dull and spare, and you like this and dislike it and it’s very complicated.”[xxii]Judd could be talking about America, or Marfa, or his own works, those cement cubes across the hardscrabble plains. I know what he meant, though. How is it that something so simple—the four sides of an open cube—can become so complicated? And so what, then, of life or love—shapes of infinite complexity? It is no wonder that people are driven mad by the wind. 


There is a moment on the Rio Grande in Texas when you cross the river and the world shifts from the desert west to the verdant south. All at once, arid cactus for Spanish moss, sand and rocks for swamp and water. You might think the change would happen gradually, but it is instantaneous. I was so shocked by the sudden transformation that I turned around and drove it a second time to see what I had missed. I thought, there must have been some liminal space I hadn’t noticed. But there isn’t; there is only east and west and no place in between. The river is a hard edge. Even looking at the road atlas, you can see it. The background paper shifts from white to green at the Rio Grande, a great divider, a river that cleaves east and west, green and brown, wet and dry, Mexico and America, ever caught between two irreconcilable and opposing points of view, a binary place without ecology for compromise. 


Today I cross the Mississippi for the second time. I return. “Ol’ Man River.” Somehow, I always thought it would be grander, given its outsized reputation. But it’s simple and nondescript: a cloistered crossing, kudzu and railroad bridges, and overgrowth from quiet banks. I don’t know if that makes it more disappointing or more impressive that a legend could be made of a river so modest. It makes me think of the poem by Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: “I’ve known rivers: / I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. // My soul has grown deep like the rivers. // I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. / I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. / I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. / I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. // I’ve known rivers: / Ancient, dusky rivers. // My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”[xxiii]How right Hughes was about the muddy waters. Hello, brown river.


Mississippi. I am five miles from the crossroads, the mythic intersection where Robert Johnson traded his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play guitar. Before coming here, whenever I heard someone say “the crossroads,” I formed a mental picture of two dirt roads meeting beneath a harvest moon, some twenty miles from the nearest shack. I thought it would look like that, but realize now that I was imagining 1930, the year Johnson struck his deal. To stand at the crossroads today is to stand at a busy intersection with a gas station and a fried chicken chain. Legend has it that Johnson was warned by prophecy that he would die drinking poisoned whiskey, but he was an alcoholic and would never turn down a drink, and so it was that he died in a bar, poisoned by a man he cuckolded—on my birthday, but in 1938—at the age of twenty-seven. We are all running to our fate.



I have to go to Graceland, because you just do. “There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland.” I would often listen to my father singing along with Paul Simon. It’s startling to me now that at the time my father sang those words, in 1986, Gracelandwas not a classic but a new record, only just released to a world that had no idea what had already happened. I’ve been to the house before, twenty years ago. The thing that strikes me this time is how much smaller it seems, modest in its ambition despite the kitsch, dissipating in scale as years go by. Is this because I am another twenty years further away from Elvis? Does he get smaller as I move forward in time, like when you drive away from your childhood home and watch it shrink in the rearview forever? Like Kerouac: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye.”[xxiv]Or as Paul Simon said, “losing love / is like a window in your heart . . . Everybody sees the wind blow.”[xxv]


I have driven over ten thousand miles and I can say without hesitation that the most prevalent site in the entire country is the Dollar General store—so prevalent that once I began to notice this, I took great interest in every one I passed. With its partner stores, there are some seventy thousand locations nationwide, which explains why they cannot be missed. Everyone thinks that the story of middle American commerce is about Walmart, but the Dollar General serves a larger swath of American communities, many too remote, too poor, or too small to get a Walmart. Really this is just another example of how misinformed I am about how life is actually structured and lived in the heartland of America.


I’ve wanted to make a piece for a long time about the way that a mountain range fades into nothing as it recedes into the distance, each layer lighter than the one before. Atmospheric perspective. Fog rising up, and light bouncing out of the valleys and back into the sky. You see that scene a lot in the Great Smoky Mountains. The Smokies would not be a national park but for George Masa. A hundred years ago he captured that exact scene of dissolving mountains on film. Masa was a young Japanese immigrant, and he dedicated his life to the preservation of the lands that make up this small eastern park. He gave image to this landscape and led so many others to fall in love with it through his pictures. Now the park hosts some ten million visitors a year, as compared to the four million who visit the Grand Canyon. Maybe it’s a humble landscape, but there is glory in even the quietest of moments, as in the most average among us, like the everyday experience of fog ascending to pink sky in early morning light.


The Angel Oak is one of the oldest trees in eastern America, having lived over fifteen hundred years. Folklore says that the ghosts of slaves appear in its branches as angels, giving the tree its name. It is one of the most famous trees on Earth, and considered a holy site by those who trace it to religious conceptions of a Tree of Life or World Tree—a tree on which the entire sky and heavens rest, whose branches and roots envelop the world and connect all people on Earth. Today there are protesters, for a developer is planning to cut down the surrounding forest, endangering the tree and its root structure. They hand out pamphlets and recite a passage from the Bible: “She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.”[xxvi]The end may come by development, or flooding, or hurricane. Though the oak’s demise is inevitable, it is certainly a tree to which I would chain myself, to protect it if only for a few more hours of life.



Frank Lloyd Wright believed that all life springs from the natural world. Following this ideal, he sited Fallingwater atop an active waterfall, its currents passing through the home. This atypical siting is the house’s genius. Yet to live on a river is to be beset by endless mist and moisture. Falling water. Rising mildew. Deadly mold. Beauty is the idea of nature. Yet life on the ground is ticks and wolves, floods and droughts, earthquakes and fires. In a painting nature is the peaceful sublime, but in life it is an uncontrollable force that could kill you at any moment. Original and primal terror. This contradiction is the truth of the house, and of life, teetering, like a cantilever porch that will someday inevitably crash to the ground. 


I would come to the Potomac River often as a child, walking down to the shore to collect newts and frogs. I remember bringing tadpoles home in a jar, but I do not remember ever raising frogs, so clearly I failed at some important step in aquatic farming. There was a tree swing here that was the definition of summer. It had been swinging for a hundred years, the rope replaced whenever it frayed. I am sad to find that it has been removed. I had heard that there was an accident, and I imagine how local gossip travels, like water in eddies and pools. Here, as in so many places I have seen on this trip, I find the land empty, unpeopled. Are we becoming inside creatures? I was less outside than my grandparents, and they less than theirs, and so on back a thousand years. Surely there are still newts and tadpoles, but I wonder how many people know about them. When was the last time you held a newt? 


There are statues of George Washington all over the country. The ubiquity and obviousness of the subject makes them invisible as art. Yet, not only are they art, but almost all of them are in fact the same piece of art. Each can be traced back to a single sitting between the famed sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon and the president, during which a life mask was made, which Houdon then sculpted as the face we see on those many statues. The statues you see today are copies and hybrids made from that one head, with the clothes or bodies often changing. I wonder if Jeff Koons’s works will suffer that same fate. If people of the future will think that metal balloon dogs were just the anonymous de facto sculptures of the time, that every corporate office needed a balloon dog, just as every state house needed a Washington. What is the difference between art and monument? At what point does a public statue become a monument and cease to be an artwork? 


There are two ospreys that nest right behind my house. This particular pair summers on the Chesapeake, fishing and raising their young each year. Ospreys mate for life. When the weather gets cold, they migrate separately to Brazil or Venezuela. The two will not see each other until they return in the spring. Always to my house. Upon returning, they spend the first week circling each other, falling back in love. Then work, collecting sticks and building a nest. Then babies. Then goodbye. In a way, every year of their lives follows the same cycle as one human life. Birth, love, work, children, death. Yet while we only make that journey once, ospreys will do this loop twenty times.  


I remember when they built the National Aquarium in Baltimore. I remember coming to the dedication and seeing dolphins for the first time, or was it seals? It’s such a fixture on the harbor now that it’s hard to remember a time when the waterfront was steel factories and docks—a grimier, sootier, more carcinogenic time. The building is such a staple that I have ceased to really see it. But today, writing about it, I notice how odd and silly a building it really is. What a strange architectural choice those colored triangles are, all quirk and kitsch. The building is industrial in its concrete, but aspirational in its glass, like the city itself. Every time I return to Baltimore, I think, odd though she may be, there is no city more beautiful. Home.



Chestnut Avenue is the street where I grew up. A childhood home has a centripetal force, so that if I get within fifteen miles, by sheer muscle memory I start making the lefts and rights that put me back at my front door. The pull. One time this happened to my father and me. We were doing errands nearby . . . and then somehow we were on Chestnut Avenue . . . and then we were parking . . . and then we were getting out of the car . . . and then we were inspecting bushes and hedges to see what the new owners might have changed . . . and then sneaking around the back to get a better look . . . and then lying in the grass in the cover of night, on our stomachs, like snipers, watching a man making pasta, and a young girl in the glow of a television set, and a woman getting undressed for a shower. Ever we are crawling slowly closer to retake what once was ours.


Having just driven across the country both ways, I can tell you with certainty that if you make the crossing, please do it from east to west. Following Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion just makes more historical sense. Moreover, there is a swelling narrative arc traveling east to west, from bustling cities, through open plains, to the Rockies’ climax, and then down the gradual denouement into the grand conclusion, the Pacific Coast. That is an epic tale with a happy ending. Everything just gets grander until you reach that golden coast. Whereas to start in California and then cross the mountains on a slow decline to the I-95 corridor is a tragic fall unprecedented in literature. How lovely that though we read from left to right, our country prefers to be read from right to left.


In 2012, New York City decided to light the Empire State Building in color: LEDs themed to events, holidays, and teams. Looking at the building, I always think of Warhol’s Empire. To make the movie, he pointed his camera at the building, shooting hours of grainy black-and-white 16mm film. Looking up now at the building enrobed in the velvet of midnight, I realize that in the past the nocturnal city was always seen in black and white. Lit only by the warm glow of white incandescents, New York was monochromatic, just like its films and photographs. Pollock. Motherwell. Winogrand. Stieglitz. Klein. Presently we see the city at night in a cartoonish array of LED color. The night skyline has a Disneyed, Epcot Center look. So the Warhol, which at first looked real-time and then faded into document, slips now into artifact. And someday we will view the film as we do a shard of an earthenware pot in a glass museum case, as just a shadow that has little resemblance to the body of our consciousness, or the shape of the world. So, too, with Light Atlas. Or maybe this has already happened.













[i]Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own(London: Hogarth Press, 1929). 

[ii]Mies van der Rohe(New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1953).


[iii]Rebecca Okrent,Boys of My Youth(New York: Four Way Books, 2015).


[iv]Lydia Davis, The Cows(Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2011).

[v]Toni Morrison, Tar Baby(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981). 

[vi]William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America(Boston: Little, Brown, 1982).

[vii]Pamphlet (Yellowstone National Park, c. 2015). 


[viii]F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925). 

[ix]John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1938).


[x]John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra(Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911)

[xi]Muir, John of the Mountains.


[xii]Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).


[xiii]Georgia O’Keeffe: Exhibition of Oils and Pastels, January 22–March 17, 1939(New York: An American Place, 1939).


[xiv]Pamphlet, The Sound Bath, Landers, CA, c. 2015.  


[xv]Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968).


[xvi]Don DeLillo, White Noise(New York: Viking Penguin, 1985).


[xvii]Report by U.S. Army Captain John G. Walker, in The Executive Documents Printed by Order of the Senate of the United States, First Session of the Thirty-Sixth Congress, 1859–60, 15 vols. (Washington, D.C.: George W. Bowman, Printer, 1860). 


[xviii]John Ashbery, “At North Farm,” in A Wave: Poems(Manchester: Carcanet, 1984).


[xix]Mancos Times-Tribune, December 29, 1911. 


[xx]John Blaustein, Edward Abbey, et al., The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey(New York: Viking Press, 1977).


[xxi]“Jason Moran strikes up the band—and a conversation—to enthrall new jazz listeners,” PBS News Hour, June 16, 2014, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/jason-moran-strikes-jazz-conversation-enthrall-listeners.


[xxii]“The Archives of American Art Oral History Program: A Preliminary Guide to Tape-Recorded Interviews,” Archives of American Art Journal 8, no. 1 (1968): 1–9. 


[xxiii]Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).


[xxiv]Jack Kerouac, On The Road(New York: Viking Press, 1957).

[xxv]Paul Simon, “Graceland,” track 2 on Graceland, Warner Bros., 1986.


[xxvi]Proverbs 3:18 (New International Version).