New Sparhawk painting, oil on canvas, 16 X 12 inches
ELSPETH, resident feral cat, in charge of the meadow.
THE BIG BANG
Drifting Through Time, Space, and
Wilderness on the Road to Mandalay
Not counting my childhood when moving state to state was someone else’s idea, I have made grown-up choices to live in jammed up cities and in desolate places for the adventure of it, for the attendant hoopla. I learned along the way that though it may come at cost, it is possible to study the avoidance of disaster to thereby survive another day. I certainly never once jammed up against anything potent enough to dissuade me from the hunt, from my journey on what I still think of as the road to Mandalay.
At 17, I drove myself across country from a small California beach town to big New York.
At 18, I went to art school in London, stopped in Paris, took a train west then across East Europe through the Soviet Union and Ukraine before I settled back in the states age 20, brief in Vermont, long in New York. Until near 30 years and a million careers tried in that electrifying town, my odyssey began anew. I left seven million Brooklynites for Virginia, immediate neighbors numbering but three.
I landed in a forest an hour west of Washington, D.C. on a modest-sized hilltop of the Blue Ridge range. My road was one of a couple of dozen long mysterious, tree-shrouded driveways which branched discretely off the narrow unlined public macadam, the main road, whose name I have forgot, a proper road which bisected my mountain.
Deep inside the dense woods were fascinating men and women: test pilots, engineers and chemists, code-breakers and map makers, retired politicians and military, astronomers, White House officials, secret agents, Navy SEALS, gun-runners, egg farmers, and writers. Some rich as Croesus and some dirt poor like me. I was paying 1/5th of my Brooklyn mortgage dollars to rent an 11 room house on six acres with all the modern conveniences, most of which I never afforded in Brooklyn. Leave NY and own the world!
The main road boasted three original bronze plaques set in stone briefly describing which acres were heretofore granted to whom by none less than our remarkable President George Washington. The highway looked to be black velvet ribbon laid down with easy style from north to south. It was additionally acreage rife with game and a bird watcher’s haven of migratory raptors and fowl. I had abandoned New York City for my wilderness experience. That’s what I got.
The second southern home for me two years later was an 1850’s log cabin on sixty acres of farmland south of Harper’s Ferry, perched on a flood plain that drained into the ferociously converging Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers 1/2 a mile away.
It turns out that a city girl can make a lot of bad judgment in the process of educating herself in the ways of wilderness living and yet avoid death. Chiefest to learn is that you rarely have some skilled pilgrim for a consult. And the rural countrysider has little patience. Even the unskilled local roustabout would only be into helping you out for his sport.
Family oriented Virginians were not comfortable with this New Yorker’s single status nor my honest bravado. My intent was to while away my John Muir/Isak Dinesen/Georgia O’Keeffe/Thoreau-inspired hours painting, sculpting, writing, and getting lost by sundown in the comforting delight of Jack Daniel’s (winter) or summertime Mint Juleps while on the porch rocker; Beethoven, a man for all seasons on the portable radio. Genuine farmers, cynical to such diversions as mine, were likely taking bets on whether or not I’d survive a month. The winter was just then delivering the thickest most dastardly blizzards of 200 years.
It comes to pass that life in the wilds is a full time job. I’d gone into all this not knowing that I’d wake to fallen trees across the only road out, or a bridge smashed free by logs hurtling a flooded creek; jump-start a 1938 Ford tractor; brave multiple snow drifts too deep to navigate on foot, days with no phone, no electricity. All of it was educational, incredibly beautiful, and loaded with drama. The wildlife was thrilling. The birds, breathtaking. The abandoned gardens, the farmland….
Have you ever snapped fresh asparagus tops off their six foot stalks and packed a fistful to eat as you walk? Marveled at the color of food growing wild? Stood at the edge of spring-fed marshland teeming with life? Traveled rapids on barn planks? Slid iced lakes on cardboard? Dug tunnels through 15 feet of snow to reach a road? Watched a twenty foot black snake circle an old stone building and drop his head into the fresh water trough, seen his jowls puff full from each drink, arch back and swallow? Felt your hair fly from an eagle’s wings speeding less than four feet over you? Watched bees tunneling a nest underground, or the massive ant hill mounds on rocky hillsides? At midnight seen the silent ballet of a red fox run like the wind on tippy toes across the crisp tops of white snowbanks, his path marked by the red bleeding catch in his jaws? Stumbled on a Civil War campfire’s rocks, still circled, ever cold? Have you shoveled new hatched hissing rattlesnakes from behind your stove into a coal shuttle and raced them to the woods? Heard the screams of night stalkers? Jumped at the earth shattering crash of dropped trees too slim to bear their iced-up limbs? Backed off downwind from a bear with her cubs? Run for the shotgun at the sight of a prowling mountain lion? Seen water animals you never knew existed, watching you watching them, both in wonder? Let baby water snakes bite you to know the feel? Run outside into dawn because a passel of screaming peacocks crash landed on your roof? Watched a day’s then night’s flood waters fill field and meadow up to within inches of your boot-toe, then (as the farmer predicted) subside? Turn your flashlight on eight, ten deer tearing across your meadow into the dark forest and never figure what spooked them? Seen wild turkeys roost in trees at sundown? Walked along a moonlit trail, felt the air move in a gust, you ducked a massive owl’s silent wings (was that an 8 foot? ten foot spread?) as he dives beyond you to his meal? Come up on hovering fragrance before the roses? Watched frogs burst from tadpole to land-hopping life overnight, carpet acres in every direction around the pond making a roaring, deafening, guttural mating song under starlight? Seen the spirits of things, conversing with old friends and strangers who were not there yet spoke aloud in your twilight ecstasies of solitude?
Likely you have, and more.
Yes, you’ve seen it too.
But this, the phenomenon of life in wild places was new to me, touching to the core. Exhausting. Sometimes scary.
There were many exceptional experiences. Not too many hours in on my experiment I said to myself: You need contingency plans in case there’s something you can’t handle.
Everything was compounded by isolation though I thought I could handle everything. I had survived a dangerous population in New York City. Alone now on secluded farmland (and I was set back on 60 acres bordered by dense forest, rolling farmland, and powerful tributaries of aforementioned rivers) I had to think around being able to reach neighbors if necessary over problematic roads in vehicles that don’t work on ice, in flood. Or which way on foot, for medical care. I pretty much figured that I better not need help. If I needed help I’d have to bring myself to it.
One January I woke in the early dark of morning. It had got hard to breathe. My fingertips told me my face and neck were swollen. Why? I’d been cutting trees that poison ivy had been growing thick on, a day of ripping off the vines and burning logs with some of the toxic plant still attached. That had to be it, though it took 12 hours before I knew what I’d done to myself. When it made itself known, by God, I was headed for anaphylactic shock.
Initially it was a minor reaction. I stayed uncomfortable but functional. I got up and dressed and had some tea. I waited til six a.m. to call the neighboring farmer’s wife and she told me not to worry, it would settle down. It didn’t. I bundled up and fishtailed the 45 minutes on ice sheet roads (in my absurd 15 year old Ford Fairlane with bald tires) to the Food Lion grocery store in the closest town, parked and went straight for the pharmacy in the back. The pharmacist looked up briefly and said: “I want you to go there, end of the counter (he pointed), pick up that pink bottle, open it and drink half now. Go. Now!”
I was feeling bewildered and open to command. I did as I was told. The relief from swelling was immediate. My entire body relaxed. I walked back smiling to thank and to question the pharmacist. He looked at me closely then said I was about (holding his thumb and forefinger separate by 1/2 an inch) this close to coma, anaphylactic shock. The pink stuff was Benedryl. I’ve never been without it since. I was very lucky. The darling man had been a medic in Viet Nam.
Now nineteen years hence, I have maintained an emergency plan wherever I lived that stands alone: Plan A. Nothing more complicated than how to get to medical help if I need it. Anything else but fire was not an emergency for at least 48 hours. I never thought to accommodate my environment to something safe or easy. I was in it for the view from a canyon’s precipice, for thrilling flora bunda perfuming the air, for roaring rivers, for turbulent skies that elevate the soul, pounding surf, pink sand; for lucky commune with wild animals if offered, for gardens of enormous variety running as they please, even amok. Years of watching people and now I was become a watcher of the land and sky around me to see what we had to offer each other, to understand who I am in it.
I have had a full, fairly emergency-free life despite some derring-do I wouldn’t a done without. When I broke my leg in a fall in 2002, my only broken bone ever, I was on a horse ranch with a lot of people within shouting distance.
But not when I had a heart attack, five short months ago. September, 2014. Eighteen years on from Virginia; 22 years out of Brooklyn, my heart gave out. I used the back up plan I’d set in motion in Virginia and had thought through the steps for this out of the way place I’m now in on the Central Coast. Despite no phone, no internet, living with a cat but no other full-time human in range, it worked again. I’m writing this out to recommend the use of a contingency plan to you. It doesn’t involve more than thinking. And possibly pen and paper, maybe a flashlight.
For three days over a weekend and into Monday I’d had a couple of episodes of severe chest pain. In each case it lasted about five minutes then went ~~ as if nothing had happened at all. The Internet diagnosed Angina. Something like 9 million Americans have it. It requires a change in diet and more exercise. Okay. I can do that. I took an aspirin and started both.
Tuesday night around 7:30 p.m. or so, one of those chest pain episodes hit hard. This time it would not end. Took an aspirin, took two, tried gardening, doing Tai Chi, drinking a Bloody Mary, smoking my (last) cigarette, walking, lying down. Over 45 minutes. The pain did not go away and was getting worse. What was this? I’d never worried about my heart; my health had always been good and I’d always been strong. But now, fast increasing, my left arm was killing me, the pain was a nightmare, like a truck crushing it by driving back and forth fingertips to shoulder. And the unrelenting pain across my chest, horizontally right to left, was horrific. I wrote it out in my journal so that whoever found my corpse would know. Then I stood up in the middle of my room and thought: This is serious. Am I dying? I looked at my left arm trying to figure out exactly where to amputate so as to end the excruciating pain.
I knew without question that whatever I did in the next five minutes was going to affect the rest of my life. I sat on the edge of the couch, and didn’t realize it til months later but the predicted life flashing before my eyes kind of happened, I was seeing something of carousel whirling in front of me, and my different ages and expressions of me on each horse that whizzed by. It lasted a few seconds then dissolved.
It was all impossible really. This could not be happening. My best friend, my big beautiful striped cat Thomas Jefferson, had not been well for a week, so I was hand feeding him. He was due for baby food at seven o’clock but I hadn’t been able to manage just yet. If I ended up in a hospital Tommy might not survive. So that was out of the question.
But the pain got worse. I wasn’t dizzy or faint. I did not want to pass out. I didn’t want to die. I was some scared and I was annoyed. I wrote a note to my neighbor who has his shop near me. He’s a marvelous guy, a saddlemaker. He had gone to San Francisco the day before. I didn’t know if he’d be back the next day but he was all I had.
I looked at my Tommy fighting back my tears, made the effort to lean down and patted his head, and said: I hope I’ll see you again sweetheart, and pulled the front door closed between us. It was one of the most awful experiences imaginable. Even writing it out now is the worst part of all this. We both needed help. It’s not supposed to work that way.
The note I’d written to my neighbor said:
If this is still in your door in the morning, I’m either dead or at CHOMP (Community Hospital of Monterey). I’m having a heart attack. PLEASE KEEP TOMMY ALIVE!!! He has GOT to be hand fed, he’s not eating, food on the sink counter with the extra car key, he may be hiding in the closet. The car’s in the Safeway parking lot, please drive it back here if possible.
I got up my garden staircase, stood at the top, and observed I was still alive. Walking another twenty feet, I slotted the note in my neighbor’s door and got in my car noting I was that far yet I lived. I put the key in the ignition, cranked the engine and turned on the headlights. It worked. I was still alive. 8:30 at night. I said outloud: I am going to drive the six blocks to Safeway and not pass out or die and NOT cause an accident.
I drove. I pulled up to the welcome sight of lights and people. I thought not to park in front because I might need the car in a day, overnight it might get towed. I parked under a tree still alive as I turned off the headlights, pulled out the ignition key, opened the car door. The place seemed almost empty. My chest and arm hurt like nothing imaginable, of great intensity. I was one hundred percent focused on the lights inside like a beam to a ship at sea but wondering if I was going to make it that far.
I did. I walked up to the front doors which opened in front of me, and walked in, going left to the one cashier on duty. Two customers, one a woman who’d paid and was getting packed up, the other a man waiting his turn. I came up behind the cashier, tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to me. I said: “Excuse me. Please. Call 911. I think I may be dying. I think I’m having a heart attack.”
The bright and competent fellow turned and picked up his phone and punched up 911 before two seconds had passed us by.
What sort of magical sequences do we have set up in our brains and souls, maybe it’s a lifetime’s construction. I’d be willing to bet we’d every one of us felt it~~cert right in the knowing I am safe now. I’m okay.
I burst into tears for the first time in days, my arm pressed across my chest and clutching my left arm and weeping freely. The kind woman at the end of the checkout line came over and put her arm around me.
“Over there,” was all I could say, and we headed for the flower display. I do think of myself in maybe uncommon historical terms. There was no question even that moment I would let myself die crumpled next to plastic bags and the cache of customer discards due to get restocked. Not me. If Barbara Sparhawk was on her way out she was going to be in the middle of the flower display and that’s where I went and where I sat. I had more than once been saying really loud:
“Not now Jesus!! I have things to do! Wrong time! It’s me, remember me? Too much unfinished, NOT NOW!!”
The cashier was fielding questions about my condition between me, the kind lady at my side, and the 911 operator. The Carmel Valley Fire Department medics showed up in minutes. I was back on my feet headed through the exit while they were beside me through the ”in” door, me busy pointing to myself and shouting, “Here! It’s me!!”
I don’t remember a lot of what happened next except I started feeling okay despite knowing something had gone very wrong with my primary internal engine. I recall sitting on the curb next to a fireman. I got walked to and stretched out on the gurney and tucked into the ambulance. My blood pressure was skyrocketing. The fine fellows (were there 3? 4?) worked their miracles. They were all delightfully good looking, strong, and young so I refused to tell them my age. They said I’d be riding backwards in there, facing the back of the truck, was that okay or might I get sick from it.
Hell, I told them, no way! Why, no. Me? I used to ride outside the bright yellow Blue Ridge Mountain Volunteer Fire Department truck, suited up in boots and hat and coat and hanging onto a pole and leaning way out airborne over our folded canvas hoses, feet planted firmly on our highly polished chrome step, over the exhaust pipes, and the Chief hitting 90 mph. Go on boys, do your stuff.
I ended up attached to many tubes and machines in a bed with full bells and whistles, admitted as a patient, gussied up in a hospital gown inside the very fine Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, known as CHOMP. Nurses and doctors came and went and spoke and read my beeping monitors and consulted and queried and medicated.
By noon the next day my dearheart neighbor called me at the hospital. He saw my note, leapt into action with my cat Tommy and fed him, organized three other friends to help out, and was on his way with a buddy to retrieve my car.
Two days later in the hospital I had another heart attack which was so quickly attended to by these remarkable people that it barely had a chance to go full blown. For the next several days I was being stabilized, monitored, medicated, calmed, comforted, and fed three squares by their divine four star kitchen. What a fabulous place it is. One week later I had surgery. A stent wouldn’t be enough repair. They’d calculated a triple bypass to replace something like three 95% critically blocked arteries. When they went in they did a quadruple bypass instead. The very brilliant team of Dr Gregory Spowart, Dr Hisashi Kajikuri, and Physician’s Assistant, RN Mariselda Peralez.
The initial surprise is about five months past me now, but frankly the monumental impact of what happens to your body in a heart attack doesn’t leave you. There’s a lot of pain at first, that diminishes. There’s caution, fear, weakness….most goes with time, too.
There were other problems turning to emergency. My eyes had been going progressively bad from cataracts before the heart attack, and even worse afterward. I was able to arrange for cataract surgery, both eyes, the month of February. If it had not become a crisis of blindness on the way I’d have put it off. It’s a lot to go through, all that in a short time, and I would not recommend such doctor-packed surgical episodes.
But my God, sight! I did not dream I’d be able to have the color and depth, detail and contrast restored. I can paint. Read. Drive long distances, day and night. I will never fail to be spellbound at what I almost lost but now have. There’s another serious miracle in my life that I can see again, 20/16, unbelievable. Dr Leland Rosenblum, thank you.
I am, of course, alive, writing this, and hear often of those who don’t survive heart attacks. And what I had is just as common in 20 and 30 years olds, Triathlon athletes, long distance runners, vegetarians, and the unbelievably fit non-smokers. Life will, I suspect, never be quite the same. There is an irreversible change to everything, I know it already. Nothing seems to be the same, nothing at all, nothing at all.
My darling Tommy, who got two veterinarian visits with my doting friends while I was in the hospital, did not survive. He was about 13 years old, and very ill even our last week together though he didn’t show it a bit, purred til his last breath in the arms of a good friend, and Tommy and I loved each other equally which was a lot. He had a good many fine adventures with me and was a fantastic, brave explorer. He did, because of splendid caring friends and devoted animal lovers, never experience being alone while I was away, something which will move me to tears likely til my last breath. Every time I call his name out, and I do it often, my voice catches, tears held back, sometimes released. I’d done a painting of him last year, The Cat Who Loved Flowers, and he did.
You sure have a face-off with your mortality in a major medical emergency. A neighbor said he thought me strong, not just for my survival but the up and at ’em (expected by doctors and nurses) in short order. It was nice to hear, to cling to. I hope I get back to feeling strong again. As I had cried out in something of a delirium: There’s still so much left to do! And SO much more to witness, to touch, to know. I want to be here for all the dawns and sundowns and all the inbetweens I can muster.
“Jump off the cliff first then grow the wings.”
I quote an actor, sailor and explorer here, from his autobiography:
(On the road, Summertime, 1977)
“I have long been both dismayed and astonished by the disparity that exists between the world known in the dreams of youth and the world we find ourselves faced with…..They never taught wandering in any school I attended….Or that of writing a book. It’s all so mysterious and~~yes~~enchanting….the free-swinging, far-rolling time when, however rough the going you have the feeling: “Fuck it! I wouldn’t swap places with anyone else for anything on this earth.”
…Sterling Hayden. From his book: Wanderer
He was one sort of big game hunter. The quarry? Robust life itself.
About hunting and hunters of animals? I don’t know your opinion of hunting animals of course. I find that I have apparently mixed pro and con in me, which I’m not sure I knew before writing this.
For instance, up until the age of ten I thought it fine to have a raccoon cap, though I surely did not literally (nor mentally) make the bloody pass from kill-and-skin to look like Davy Crockett when I wanted one to show me off in town or playground. Likewise it did not register in me that in order to get a handsome fringed buckskin shirt like Buffalo Bob (Howdy Doody’s best friend) or a suede frock like Princess SummerFallWinterSpring I’d have to bring down and skin a buck, shear off meat and bone, and sew the garment up.
Around that time my mother owned a fox stole in which two tails met somehow at the back and two fox heads met across her breasts. A furrier’s sewed-in metal jaw allowed for attaching one to the other. On some part. I’m not sure about the protocol. Such pathetically displayed foxes were certainly big middle class chic of the 1940’s and ’50’s. I don’t remember any moral repulsion in me, though I thought it vulgar and sad. I did not covet it. I did not pet it. I did not secretly try it on.
I was around nine years old being instructed on how to traverse the rapids of the Mississippi River in a canoe on an exciting voyage of two weeks. Alongside the mighty river on our second night out I watched fascinated (with the other five children) as our counsellor (by campfire) identified, ordered us safe distance from, then caught a deadly Cottonmouth snake who’d set up camp before we had. She brilliantly trapped it behind its jaws with a forked stick (which she grabbed out of thin air a second after spotting the Cottonmouth) killed it with one swift sure knife swipe (drawn from her hip sheath), instructed us Missouri younguns about the placement of its organs, how to clean it, and before we reached home she wore it, having sewn it around her leather belt. I found it bloody marvelous. Thrilling.
I have eaten wild game caught and prepared by friends. I have not once (yet) in my life had to depend on hunting wild animals in order to eat in order to live. Though I’ve had some barren pantry stretches where I wish I’d known how to make that work.
I can catch little to medium fish, even large Atlantic Bluefish. And more common crab, catfish and trout. But I am not a true skilled hunter. Nor would I trust my survival skills in discovering the edible among a mushroom cluster beneath the mighty Sequoia, or coming face to face with the delightful fruit of an unfamiliar berry patch and being wise. Not even if distracted by ephemeral fields of seductive wildflowers.
So I am somewhat surprised that for the past few months I’ve grown fascinated by a group of people whose lives in the early part of the last century seem to have crossed brief or long, who learned the ways of desolate places, did depend on wild caught game, part for sustenance or earning a living or part for pleasure of the kill. In fact a number of them made a living out of leading expeditions through savage and spectacular landscapes for the restive wealthy. Every one of them interested in seeing how they might react if threatened with a horrible demise, yet surviving. Hunting as a way to test reflex and endurance and the heart’s strength.
I’m suspending judgement for the moment. It seems to me if I go gathering a reflection of those various lives, they had developed an emotional dependence on feral experiences; on lives lifted slightly off the ground; on nights uncommonly wet or cold or days deep or high or dawn that came at them hot or dry and bloody.
Hemingway was there too, though peripheral to this particular lot. Most all of them wrote books that were, driven by empirical experience, hard to resist.
These were European, royalty:
ANTOINE de SAINT EXUPERY ~~of a centuries-old French family. A bad student and school drop-out, he became an explorer-pilot extraordinaire adored by his country and then the world; he wrote marvelous books about being in the cockpit of the early aeroplane, spanning a clouded night sky across the dangerous Pyrenees then over endless Sahara to the civilized lights of Casablanca or Paris in honored mail-runs. French pilots, whose plane engines frequently dropped out of their planes and fell to earth, and (if they survived the landing, and if tracked by Bedouin) were captured and kept as slaves. Saint Exupery wrote about a child who lived on a far off planet with a petulant rose, sheep and volcanos (Le Petit Prince). At the age of 44 Saint Exupery was blindsided by fog-enshrouded White Cliffs of Dover on a wartime spy mission. He crashed then dropped into the sea, undiscovered until 2012.
BERYL MARKHAM was two or three years old when her British father, C.B. Clutterbuck, who loved all animals, moved his family to Kenya to expand his career to Africa and set up stables to breed, train and race horses. Beryl’s mother went back to civilization less than a year later without her child. The father stayed and got famous, taught Beryl well about tame and wild things; the native children were her jungle companions, she learned to hunt with a spear, was gored by a lion, trained and raced horses, and led a life of the most stunning independence imaginable. The six foot tall, glamorous athletic blue eyed blond fell in love with airplanes and set unique flying records and wrote one fabulous book about her doings which is poetically beautiful and stirring to the core.
The gutsy Dane, adventuress and writer KAREN BLIXEN also led me into delicious far off places. I’ve loved my hitchhike on her magic forays to the fantastic (nom de plume Isak Denisen): the spartan human kindness of Babette’s Feast; the expansive Out of Africa; the curious Seven Gothic Tales. As well as her fascinating husband, lovers, movies, articles, and through casual reference to her fellows on similar trails in the three or four decades from 1900 next on. She wed an amiable royal cousin Baron Bror von Blixen for his title and her chance for an extraordinary life. They were in their early 20’s when they moved to Africa on her money to explore, to hunt, to farm. Along with sharing the most rare sort of life in unequaled landscapes under endlessly clarion skies, providing themselves an opportunity otherwise impossible in rigid Scandinavian society, and a chance for Karen’s ingenuity and courage to bloom large, Bror soon abandoned her (and their farm) for big game, lengthy safaris, short wars, and other women. He also infected Karen with syphilis, gotten from his casual romps with native Kenyan women. The Baroness never recovered in full from the toxic, devastating cure of the venereal disease, though she never stopped loving or admiring Bror. Indeed, though the alliance was unexpectedly costly she swore she never regretted it. She outlived him by 17 years; he tragically died at 60 from a car accident in Sweden~1946; she said she missed him til the day she died.
DENYS FINCH HATTON ~~the swashbuckling son of an Earl; his mother~~daughter of the Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Codrington. He was schooled at Eton and Oxford, Captain of Cricket Eleven, President of the Music Society. In 1910 Finch Hatton traveled to South Africa where, on the west side of the Great Rift Valley he bought acreage–then gave it up to a partner to manage. Denys Finch Hatton went hunting. In Kenya he was close friends to European royalty including the Honorable Berkely Cole, aristocrat, brother-in-law to Baron Delamere who ran the Kenyan white colony. Denys Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen fell in love. After she separated from Bror, Finch-Hatton moved in with her on the coffee plantation she’d built and continued to work for its success. Denys took the Baroness on her first flight. He also taught neighboring Beryl Markham to fly a plane, brought her along on his safaris, and shared her love of Africa. Karen Blixen returned to Denmark. Markham eventually flew herd-spotting flights for Bror Blixen’s safaris; they had become close and admired each other’s unique skills with wildlife, shooting, safari organizing, and flying.
I’ve read their own words, biographies about them, their autobiographical notes on each other. I invite you to drink at this deep remarkable well of human experience. It will boost your imagination, your spirit, and your courage as it has mine. I’m not sure the order of introduction matters; leap in anywhere.
It’s BROR VON BLIXEN’s autobiography, African Hunter, that I’m reading now and that after already liking him a whole lot as portrayed in the movie Out of Africa by Klaus Maria Brandauer I confess to adoring the fellow again, only 100 pages into his book. Von Blixen came from a royal shooting and hunting culture in Sweden, thought of as a birthright, and a means of testing the mind’s cunning, physical skill, and durability. He prefered at least a stand-off. The animals obviously were not armed with guns. But the bullets fired (or misfired) did not always hit a mortal target yet wild prey were armed indeed with claw and tooth and athletic endurance. Baron Bror von Blixen never freed himself of severe malaria gotten from Africa, the bouts lasting his whole life never killed him. He reportedly withstood sickness and injury with an enviable constitution. Markham reported that Blixen dropped in place on the safari trail one day from malaria, unable to get back on his feet for 24 hours of convulsive fever after which he stood up and continued on his mission. He had numerous close calls with death brought on by furied elephants, vicious buffalo, violent boar, hippo, rhino, and self-respecting lions. Bror was generally loved and admired by men and women for his wit, deep friendships, good heart, and lust for adventure at any expense. Bror Blixen fell head over heels in love with Africa. He had come from a wealthy, titled family but turned from them and at 25 years old, headed (with Karen and on her money) into the dark continent to use the shooting skills, bravado, and determination cultivated by the aristocratic Swedes who had born and raised him. The irony of his death, a man who lived so dangerously stopped by an automobile in town, stunned his friends.
In 1928 the Prince of Wales first found Bror and Karen in Arusha en route to Nairobi, and ordered up a lion hunt. They developed a friendship and a common new interest in photographic and movie safaris. Bror later said getting a wild beast to come nose to nose with a camera you were holding was no less heroic than standing your ground with a gun.
Through their own writing you will not fail to see that side of any of these characters as blood-thirsty; self-involved; even sadistic. But you also need your imagination picturing the life which is a hard translate into our present day 21st Century, cosmopolitan world. They killed lions and elephants when possible, leaving the younger, lighter-weight tusked elephants and rhinos (under 100 lbs) for a later day. There were menacing man-eating lions near villages, happily hunted down and killed to stop the human slaughter, in one case over 60 residents. There was skinning the bounty to send off as trophies to delighted and grateful European nobility. And the especially handsome monetary reward of feeding the Asian aphrodisiac market for horn and tusk. They organized horseback hunting, men racing in full gallop across the Serengeti, across rocky plains after buffalo and lion (animals good in spurts but not endurance) and the speed, the roughly cratered ground, the salt sweat and saliva burst up from their horses as they hung tightly with their thighs and arms, being swatted by the odors of the trapped prey, and becoming the conquerors, hunting for murder and finding it and feeling lively from it.
It’s there for sure, no good pretending otherwise. There are other ways they could have felt life. I am not of that time or world, and excuse my slipping off it’s previously important cause to me now, because it is incidental to what draws me to them. I no longer care about the hunting. The more I read I also find them honorable and compassionate. And I need more of the other stuff of them. There were explorers like Thor Heyerdahl who did not seek to draw blood and I loved him first.
What draws me to them is this: I read each one’s story with their inclusion of bristling, chilling, dangerous discomfort. Tracking through unforgiving jungles past herds and packs of man-killers. Getting lost with no saving equipment or supplies. Making an airplane runway by hand out of dense thorny thicket in the hope of being spotted, found and saved. Crash landing their primitive planes on savage turf and only oneself to rely on, then finding a way to safety with a broken, bloodied body, and disoriented mind. Lost at sea and having only hope on which to ride safe to shore, which is somewhere, that way, maybe. Of weeks unending spent under roughest circumstances, without bathing, enough food, or water. Or out for weeks, then camping with companions, killing and staging animals for bait, preparing and eating rough cooked meat, and the jungle life altogether.
Well, read and picture it because you will not see it exactly spelled out on biographical pages, or often see an actor or actress spotted with blood, rarely looking anything less than laundered, starched and pressed. But these are the men and women who would skin a lion in the wild places, spot where they were shot to ground. Or would uproot the tusks from newly dead flesh with knife and chisel out of massive still hot-with-life creatures weighing thousands of pounds just shot between the eyes or in ear or into mouth. They got not just dusty but bloodied, the kind of detail of this particular breed of persons we might get to know more with the full picture. Karen Blixen I am guessing was a tough, imaginative, violent little broad more than the tidy, plucky cream-puff she has been played and Africa brought out the savage waiting in her, released it. I want to know her better, that aspect of her for what it might teach me. I did not think I knew her, nor any of them, not real knowing. Unless you imagine all the particulars of a life you can’t.
Or unless you live it too, in some way.
Nonetheless, it is a fascinating period seldom celebrated so much as it may deserve. I believe these lives were overshadowed by near biblical events, the dreadful horrors of WWI (1914-1918), the Russian Revolution of 1918, the Stock Market Crash (1929) and the Depression (1929-1939). History so carefully recorded disaster, not superficially or falsely, but through all that sordid angst and despair and death we fail to cast equal light on the swift and stunning growth of mankind’s freedom as the roads and skies were opened wide and conquered, lives of striking adventures were lived and written up by men and women. This makes me curious. And I suspect along with seeing the gore we need to see, to cherish, to honor, to cleave to, and search out the excitement of being alive.
The stupendous birth of flight was 112 years ago~1903~Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Thank you Wilbur and Orville Wright for your perseverance and sacrifice. You both nearly died trying to be airborne as others similarly experimenting did die. You gave the substance to human dreams of flight since the dawn of time.
Then there is also this:
Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Night Flight ~ 1932,
Beryl Markham: West With the Night ~ 1934
Baroness Karen von Blixen: Out of Africa ~ 1937
Baron Bror von Blixen: African Hunter ~ 1938
Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Wind, Sand and Stars ~ 1939
Consuelo de Saint-Exupery: The Tale of the Rose ~ c.1940’s (An autobiography of their life together, by the wife of Antoinne; posthumously published in 2000; it was discovered 2 decades after her 1979 death; written in the ’40’s and hidden away by her.)
For good measure (both of which you must read):
Jack London: Valley of the Moon ~ 1913
and half a century later:
Sterling Hayden: Wanderer ~ 1963
There are of course so many more. The Europeans were typically aristocrats, the Americans were not. And such a defining and oft forgotten boon to human beings is that America was uniquely, singularly, originally to the human condition and experience….classless. It’s what’s meant by American exceptionalism. It still exists despite detracting arguments to the contrary. It cannot be said or examined or celebrated enough. You do not need credentials to become anything under the sun. Europeans, indeed all other cultures on the planet were restricted by birthplace, heredity, education, accents….all unflexible. We didn’t like it and we sailed west.
But this interesting mix, it so pleases me to discover and re-discover these unusual women and men who took off into places brightly lit and dark as pitch to better understand themselves, the times and places and planet they live on, and have~~at the very least~~one hell of a romp in the process.
On a numberless page in the start of Wanderer, American actor Sterling Hayden dedicates his book to his wife. He writes:
To Catherine Devine Hayden
Who had the heart
To join with me
Into the Abyss
Where books like this are written
Thanks, Sterling Hayden. And those who came before you and after and the breadcrumbs you all left along the path
for the rest of us. Yum.
MISSING CIVILIZATION. OR MAYBE NOT.
To Live and Die For
LA, NY, SF, LONDON, PARIS, ROME, ETC
Recently a close friend, exhibiting a combination of harumph and tender concern, turned critic on me. Not the first acquaintance to note that I live somewhat isolated either, which was her complaint. And furthermore, that my insistence on doing so is to live dangerously. It was said with sympathy; a pinch of pathos underneath. She is a kind woman who encourages my endeavors generally.
She and her husband are retired teachers, scholars still living in their college town near the roosts they once ruled with considerable prestige. They remain honored by and involved in student and instructor life covering a broad span of age groups, associations with fellow educators of every stripe, and community doings. It suits them perfectly. I would never dissuade either husband or wife from their choice. But anyone knowing me would swoon at our obvious differences. My friend just supposes a woman living quietly alone (whose social life is fulfilled by traversing Safeway’s aisles three times a week) might be pitiful. From her point of view, of course.
Well, she had handed me that “you are isolated” observation about a week ago, despite knowing me. And though I have not spent much of my time on earth living my life to either mollify or impress people, what my friend said remained echoing in my head as a sort of curiosity to me, not yet entirely dismissed. Therefore I leapt to her theory when I awoke this morning to the sound of talk broadcasting up the coast from Los Angeles. It emanated from the radio I have on most all night next to my pillow. All the pretty things around me, my paintings filling my walls, shone back into my eyes in the barely pale blue moonlit air but would not block the talking man.
Not once identified by call letters or geographically telling adverts I couldn’t miss the home base: glossy Hollywood. A world I don’t notice much. This was a stunning reminder of why. Floating into my consciousness the unknown man’s voice saying (in a morning-drive-time-guy’s easy banter):
”So, we have an Iranian trainer, a woman, Jane and me, we both have this Iranian trainer, we share her, and she can really kick ass, she could kick your ass, and she has a really thick REALLY thick accent and barely speaks English so I’m teaching her I give her English words, I tell her go easy on me with workouts because I AM A PANTYWAIST and I AM A WUSS.
So now that’s all she calls me:
‘Hi, Pantywaist, Hello Wuss.’ “
Then he dove into Los Angeles news: a wretched man living in a tent on Skid Row lost his contest with a policeman over the officer’s gun and got shot dead. Then the story of the young high school photography teacher everyone loved who hung herself in her classroom so at the start of school today her treasured students found her corpse.
It was still dark out. I’d heard that news through the night along with abundant theories. I heard the talk of Netanyahu coming to make the case for his country inside the indifferent heart of America’s political hive, and all the radio hosts and caller notions about it. I drifted through wake and sleep, opinions of my countrymen and countrywomen a low buzz in my ear.
But I couldn’t go beyond the opening salvo I’d heard, the Hollywood radio guy. I knew he was a type who really existed; didn’t doubt it for a second. I was really impressed by his high score during what couldn’t have been more than a 30 second spiel. I propped myself up and opened my eyes and by moonlight I counted the points on the fingers of one hand.
He and his wife/girlfriend/significant other
(1.) Had a personal trainer! Wow. Who
(2.) They shared! Wow. And
(3.) It’s a Woman! Wow. And
(4.) She is Iranian! Double wow! And
(5.) He teaches her English words which she uses…..to ridicule him!
I mean, wow, think about that. Followed by exhibits of compassion: he’s hip but he cares. He’s perfect! I was hopelessly inadequate in very short order, no match for any of his world and hadn’t begun to consider my failures. I do not have a foreign personal trainer. Even worse, though he hadn’t gone into it, I have not been asked to design designer sneakers, and was never arrested for public intox and indecent exposure off The Yacht In Dubai. Hollywood (I’m isolated so would I know?) is not presently (trying very hard) to find me.
Since the radio guy identified the trainer as Iranian, I’m betting that’s a big plus to him and his like-minded audience. The one-up from that would be, oh I don’t know, let’s see…..having a retired ISIS chef? a reformed suicide bomber for his chauffeur? For all I know that may have been covered in the second hour. He was way cool.
So then, lasooing the flotilla of my friend’s remark about my isolation, I thought:
Hah. Lookie there. See what I’m isolated from.
I used to swim with these fish. Ah yes I remember them well. Maybe I can be forgiven for my long overdue retreat. Maybe I even earned it. For most of over three decades back east and again on the west coast up until about a decade ago I had been keenly involved in the competitive world this radio man represented though I grew increasingly skeptical of its worth to me.
In fact, the Pantywaist DJ with the Iranian Personal Trainer was very much of a type I’d overdosed from. There is a non-stop, radioactive effort by such to out-do one’s contemporaries, neighbors, the world, in order to leave everyone else feeling small. I just don’t hear it much these days because I, well, I isolated myself from it.
I know its toxic pull. I know it is not hard to get caught up once you turn the knob, open the door, find the curiously isolated looking-glass, fall through, and on its other side to land in a room where you inspect and partake of bottles labeled Taste Me, Drink This, Go This Way. (Had Lewis Carroll’s generation done detox, a bottle might have been inscribed ”Colonic”).
I reflect on my (isolated) life (so far) in the face of all this, and kind-hearted protestations from more socially minded friends. Where, after all, am I now. Where did I head; where did I get; does it serve…or am I off the mark.
Well, I am virtually residing in a botanical garden night and day where the sunlit air glows green, the moonlight coaxes pale tropical blooms, and abundant flowers of every hue prosper. It is my heart’s desire since infancy. I paint my paintings and write my stories, in both cases to continue learning how I may master those crafts which I embraced increasingly over the years to the exclusion of other imaginings. These are things which bring me pleasure. And I have only just discovered gardening. From what I have witnessed and been told I contribute in some small measure not just to myself but to the pleasure of those in the world who have found my work and like it.
So far, so good.
A little over a decade ago I was hired as Assistant-to-the-Cameraman on the new, wildly popular Survivor TV show; this was Survivor-Africa. It was too deliciously cool and actually a lot of fun, paid well, and got me somehow a much coveted admission to the Director~Producer’s Guild. It wasn’t very far afield from what I’d been doing over the years preceding it in NYC, but my first such excursion on the western frontier.
I had kind of done with careers. I had been waitressing at the wonderful Little Swiss restaurant in Carmel. I had time on my hands, the wisdom of age, and liked the cameraman so I said yes when asked and off we went. We traveled all over the country, maybe 10 different states or more by car and plane hauling 11 huge aluminum suitcases of equipment, tracking down and filming the still secret hand-picked, yet-to-be-announced contestants. In each case when packing up to leave we’d have time for a meal and chatting with the excited winners of Round One. Only once did a contestant show curiosity about my life and the cameraman’s life. She was a twenty year old gorgeous physical specimen, a kick-boxer and model, on the doorstep of a terrific career, about to be a TV star and win a million bucks, bright and educated, and she asked about us.
Had the cameraman indulged her with an answer revealing his life, beyond currently shooting several TV series and Survivor, she’d have learned that in the ’60’s he was the first to play electric violin and did so with The Mamas and the Papas; was an early courageous rock climber; climbed The Himalayas twice; got into film and was currently an Extreme Sport filmmaker who shot documentaries, and the occasional Hollywood spectacular.
When she asked me, I told her this:
I am living on a horse ranch, in a barn’s tackroom on a hilltop out in Carmel Valley. Out the door in the hundreds of acres of pasture in front of and around me are two donkeys and a mule, three goats and a ram, cats and dogs, opossums and skunks, owls and raptors, coyotes in the hills, rattle snakes, wild boar, mountain lions, dragon flies, frogs, and bugs. And closest at hand were 150 spectacular boarded horses, all filling the exquisite scenery owned by a multi-millionaire who rented the odd little painting studio to me which I’d remodeled into a home. On weekends I help manage the ranch weddings. I am writing a novel (NOISE), painting paintings and trying to get published. And I spend days on end not talking to anyone.
My earlier careers in politics and journalism I did not mention.
To my amazement, she said, near bursting with enthusiasm at the thought: “OH! How perfect for a writer and artist? How fantastic is that! I want your life! “
“You do?” I said,. “No kidding. I don’t know, I never lived like this before quite. I like it a lot. It amazes me that I’ve seen more people in the past month on the road doing this than in six months on the horse ranch, how I normally live.”
“But that’s what writers need, and painters. The solitary life.”
In New York in the 60’s when competition was rough and fevered youth pressed in against the established grownups who dominated the Madison Avenue galleries, the Hampton houses, MOMA, scholarships, and got the Guggenheims (or at least to sleep with lusty Peggy), any bon mot crediting legitimacy in ART was sought and borne with pride. It was a strange time when rules were changing and vanishing and the world appeared to have lost all ability to identify what meant something to their hearts as being a valued litmus test in the field of paintings, drawings, and doings of passion. It was 1967. I was three years back from St Martin’s School of Art in London, a stint in Paris, Berlin, Poland, jaunt across Europe to the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and again in the USA, in Vermont. And still in motion, back to NY which I’d lived in and left in 1964. Oh what troubling stumbling turmoil was every waking step, what nightmare filled daylight, what falling, standing, skidding to find my way. Was I a painter. How would I know. I would accommodate the trappings to encourage and pretend, to see if I was faking, if anyone noticed, if I cared, and to see where that led. Through sheer good luck, and simultaneous with renting a third floor loft in Chinatown next to the Manhattan Bridge and a movie house featuring Chinese Action Adventure films and Manadarin Opera, I achieved the miraculous. Printed on heavy paper, sanctioned officially with a number recorded in officially sanctioned record books, to be stationed: IN/ON/AROUND THE FRONT DOOR PREMISES, were the three magic words that put me in very nearly a class by myself: ARTIST IN RESIDENCE. Well, who cared except the city which chose not to be sued by the estate of the crisply charred artist living in a loft building when mostly you couldn’t and didn’t and barely anyone wanted to and no one suspected you there. Primarily, this was a notice to the NY Fire Department that some idiot painter was inside after 5 pm and before 8 am, possibly asleep, and find him/her please if you see flame and smell smoke. Very few loft dwellers were in the city. Somewhere in lower Manhattan shortly after he died, the widow of Thelonious Monk sold the fixtures for the loft they’d lived in, which included some lighting installed, and Monk’s piano. I went to look following the ad in the Village Voice. Whatever the pitance, and raw display, it was more than I had but I saw it and wept for him and his gentle widow years later when I learned what made it happen. Like my loft in Chinatown it was stark. It had the wonderful-ugly of old New York City buildings of brick and wood with huge windows, the foul sweat of cramped labor, city soot too ground in to ever lighten, seamstress laughter, lads hard at light manufacturing. Sweet memory worth more than the multi-million dollar galaxies of pampered drug addict stars of any business that sterilize what had been more precious than they’d ever know. And now, in honor somehow of all the dozen peculiar places I have found to live is yet another for this artist in residence. This bungalow is tiny, the ceiling is low, the windows few. But the expansive meadow, the vast garden growing right up to the building’s wall are fragrant, colorful, enchanting, and cause me to swoon every bit as much as the 12 foot by 8 foot loft windows of Chinatown, the seven story building that shook when the trains raced across the Manhattan Bridge next to me close enough to almost reach out and touch, and the lyrical alien kung fu rising from the theatre below. Sounds and smells of a city. The palpable soil of uncovered land. I suspect that all geography and architecture are worth celebrating.
Where We Start and Where We End Up
There are so many lessons to be had in the course of a day it astounds me. We may gain an education by thinking outloud, viewing something new, going for a walk, or even (as described by Reverend McGee) while asleep:
Hearing a thud in the night, and further alarmed by her child’s crying, the mother ran to her daughter’s bedroom where she found her little girl on the floor, in tears.
“My child! How did it happen that you fell out of your bed?”
“Well,” said the child, “I think I stayed too close to the place where I got in.”
Which is the sort of experience that may be tucked in a pocket and referred back to over an entire lifetime. We are more in danger of falling if we insist on staying put. It’s just antithetical to human nature.
Watercolor illustration by Barbara Sparhawk, Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, Bed in Summer.