Imagine the following: you board a train to journey across an unknown continent, bound for an uncertain destination. Each day, through the window of your lonely compartment, unexpected vistas appear, each bearing little relation to the one before it: an inland sea full of small icebergs; cardboard shanties tumbling down an eroded range of hills; a boy leading a partially flayed cow through a flooded field; a ruined hermitage above the tree line. One day the train stops in a bustling city at an imperial station covered by a vast wrought iron canopy with a glazed roof. I enter your compartment and sit down across from you. Perhaps you are reticent and introspective, the kind of person who places your baggage on the seat next to you so that the newly boarded travelers will not interrupt your solitude; or perhaps you crave company, smiling at each potential traveling companion, hoping they might rescue you from the vertigo of your own thoughts — either way, it is unimportant. For whatever reason, you feel a familiarity, as though I am from a dream, and a feeling of warmth flows over you. As the train pulls away, new scenes appear beyond the window and I begin to tell you stories; some seem to relate to these vistas, while others might involve memories of myself or others, or the life I think you may have led, but again, it does not matter: my voice pleases you and you are glad to have words spoken loud, they are like the music of Scheherezade. Still, there is no overarching plot line; like the landscapes beyond the window, incidents and themes seem to repeat and evaporate, but not in a way that quite suggests a narrative. Then it occurs to you that this isn’t so much a train journey as a book with no binding, full of loose, unnumbered pages, a circular book, that by its very circularity, has no beginning and no end. As its pages slip through your hands, reordering themselves, the same fragment might recur three times before a new one appears, and you wonder if perhaps these pages, my words, the view beyond the window are no more than your own thoughts, magicked into being by the lulling motion of the train. One day we reach the outskirts of a city. Engine works, industrial buildings, and suburban houses pass by. The sky is grey and you feel a sense of déjà vu. Listening to my voice, you realize that with every story I have told, I have been saying goodbye to you, and that I love you beyond measure. By the time the train stops at an imperial station covered by a vast wrought iron dome, we are both weeping. Outside the window, men and women in hats and raincoats drift about the platform in the damp winter half-light, forming and re-forming like flocks of birds, and each of us thinks it is the other that now collects their belongings, disembarks the train, and disappears into the swirling crowd, lost forever.
King of Weeds
The single lane that led out to the mudflats was unremittingly bleak, swept by horizontal rain spat out from a broken line of swiftly moving clouds that scudded low overhead. Moments earlier we had been in a secret country of hamlets and small holdings hidden behind serpentine hedgerows and overgrown ha-has, but now the landscape had turned desolate, as if it had heaved itself briefly above the sour grey waters before giving up and collapsing slowly back into the estuary. As we struggled along on our bicycles, the mudflats became visible, stretching almost as far as the eye could see to a thin line on the horizon, the distant brown ocean. Persuading Orlofsky to accompany me here had been a struggle; even then he was prone to bouts of crippling anxiety and indecision. Now of course it was a battle to keep up with him as he hammered into the distance towards the end of the peninsula where the river and sea merged somewhere in the mud. There were no signs of habitation, just occasional lean-tos or small collapsed sheds; the land was clearly not farmed, yet neither did it feel the least bit natural, and I wondered what these were for — perhaps cockles and winkles had been gathered here once. It was unimaginable that the flats produced anything remotely edible now, given the preponderance of industry up the estuary and the presence of a nuclear power plant further along the coast. In the distance, the goal of our dreary pilgrimage finally appeared: a squat and ugly chapel built of rough stones and bricks during the Victorian austerities. The primitive yard afforded a better view of the flats, and I could now see the ribs of boats, old cars, and behind us, in the distance, the winches and pipelines and piers of the power station, all sticking out of the endless mud, perhaps destined to become fossilized when the rising waters covered everything in a great alluvial blanket.
The inside of the building proved as blank and charmless as the exterior, with no hint of Anglican trappings other than a gaudy banner of the Man of Sorrows himself, floating incongruously above a line of Italianate hills that bore no relation to the flattened mudscape outside. We heard a car pull up, and were joined in the chapel moments later by the doleful man whom I’d spoken to earlier on the telephone. It was unclear whether he was the parson or a caretaker, but he did nonetheless have a proprietary air about him. After exchanging some nonexistent pleasantries, he walked over to the banner, and, pulling a rope, rolled it up to the ceiling to reveal the hidden mural we had come to see. It showed a greenman, standing in a salt meadow like those outside, his open arms beckoning in the same position as the figure on the banner, but rather than compassion or love or human suffering, his eyes communicated all the pain of living, growing wood, ceaselessly cracking, splitting, and dying over the course of decades and centuries, insects boring into its static flesh, droughts withering its roots as the years rolled by without relief. Our guide told me that on Loafmas Eve, when he was a boy, the entire congregation would come dressed as greenmen, even the priest and choir. Above the figure were painted the words “Ecce Arbor,” and I realized why I found the vision of the mural so terrible: this savior was both the flesh of the man and of the crucifix itself, the passion of the Christ but also of the hewn wood he was nailed upon, sap and blood flowing as one, bound eternally together in mutual sacrifice. Thanking the man for his trouble, we remounted our bikes and pedaled off into the disconsolate world, noticing for the first time that there was not a tree to be spotted in any direction, as far as the eye could see.
As Orlofsky and I crisscrossed the Great Plains in an obsolescent silver railcar from the era of Sputnik and Gemini, I pondered the secret apocalypses of the Inner West. We have all seen Dust Bowl era images of dirt-faced croppers and rusted tractors, of windmills and silos barely peeking out from newly formed dunes of dust and grit, but such murderous outbreaks of criminal weather proved to be an all-to-frequent occurrence throughout the region. Small holders were recruited from the stoic populations of Scandinavia, among the toughest people on earth; on their arrival in the Lesser Nebraskas, they found dense carpets of switchgrass that defied any attempts to plow it. When they finally managed to dig it up and build primitive turf houses, the exposed topsoil beneath was almost immediately sucked away by the long lines of tornadoes that regularly migrate across the plains. Huge temperature drops turned out to be not uncommon; birds, frozen solid, would fall upon the bodies of children, caught unawares by sudden, bitter atmospheric inversions while out playing on otherwise mild winter days. Why else, in the iconic mythology of Outer Kansas, would a girl have to be pursued by flying monkeys, tortured by witches, set upon by little people, and misled by fraudulent magicians before finally concluding that there really is ‘no place like home’? The author had apparently spent three years beyond the Dirt Meridian and been traumatized by the apocalyptic storms he had experienced there. It turns out the small-scale farmer is no match for such incomprehensibly vast weather; most people have migrated from what farmland remains, leaving the battle to be fought by armies of enormous machines — but even these live on borrowed time, as the aquifers shrink, and the soil becomes so depleted that whitewashed churches and farmsteads now sit stranded atop small knolls above the surrounding fields. Bicycles, tractors and other machinery parked next to such structures have been known to roll down into the furrows and be inadvertently plowed into the soil, fouling the groundwater still further. Now there is talk of abandoning the entire steppe and returning it to the bison, creating a kind of American Inner Mongolia. I imagined cartloads of buffalo people, dusting the city grime off their long coats and hopping the boxcars back to Jewell and Garfield counties in their ancestral lands of Greater Montana.
Orlofsky became animated as I described the enormity of continent-sized weather systems colliding over the central plain. Outside the train window, a black wall had formed where the great air masses met. Perhaps we would see hail, thought Orlofsky, who told me that this region was famous for the huge size of its stones, including the Vivian Rock, a mighty ball over 8 inches in diameter that fell on a partial ghost town in Lower Dakota. These of course pale in comparison to megacryometeors, huge chunks of ice that fall mysteriously from the sky with little reason, often on cloudless days — some have postulated that these might be formed by run-off from airplane toilet systems, but despite the peculiar poetic justice of having our own excrement raining down upon us, no feces or urine have been found in any surviving examples, including a refrigerator size chunk that fell through the roof of a Mercedes Benz factory in Brazil. As we drew closer to the black wall, I watched in fascination as dirts and soils were removed from the storm’s margins and hoovered directly upward into the cloud, as if bored by the monotony of gravity. I wondered if the train itself might be lifted spinning into the thickened air, which now seemed to be boiling with funnels and whorls, and once again thought of Baum, who had awakened just long enough from a stroke-induced coma to tell his wife “now we can cross the shifting sands” before disappearing into his own uniquely American oblivion.
Images (from top to bottom): Babel; King of Weeds; Buffalo Commons
100 Views of the Drowning World
Kahn & Selesnick
Against a backdrop of ecological decline, this memoir/travelogue follows Dr. Falke (the narrator), Count Orlofsky, and Madame Lulu, three members of an itinerant theatrical troupe known as the Truppe Fledermaus, as they stage absurdist performances in various locations including Europe, England, America, and Japan. In these performances, often staged in nature with no audience, the Truppe are as apt to commemorate the passing of an unusual cloud as they are to be found documenting their own attempts to flee the rising waters of a warming planet, or using black humor to comment upon the extinction of bats or other animals.
The beautiful images and corresponding text vignettes represent an enormous effort by these artists and rewards repeated visits, as even one reading is a commitment and with each visit to this collection, the story will have been again re-imagined.
100 Views of the Drowning World is available to order here.