Saturday, April 22, 2006

The shadow of the wild

I was delighted this afternoon to stumble upon one of my favorite phenomena - the suburban wilderness. Walking back to the library after a dubious lunch of fish n'chips, I noticed a trail off the sidewalk which leads down to the drainage canal. There, nestled amongst the bamboo and poison oak, I found a sodden mattress with the usual assortment of plastic bags, aged foam containers, and a sock slung over a low branch.

An itenerate camp, for sure, not so unusual in northern California. Next to the mattress lay two girlie calendars, the two page spreads wide open. An archaeologist friend of mine who has widely traversed the eastern sierras and high desert has also come across this archetype. He calls these seasonal occupation sites "Masturbation stations."

On their own, stockpiles of pornography are a common cultural feature of the American woods. As kids wandering around in the piney woods of Georgia, we'd frequently come across piles of dirty magazines. These magazines were either damp or torn, or both. We regarded them with the full spectrum of adolescent fervor: fear, lust, guilt, and sometimes a deep need to horde. How these magazines end up here is a perennial mystery.

But what makes this site so interesting, so epic, is the alchemical blend of the soft focus girlie mags and the Holy Bible. Mattress, sin, redemption. What is at work here is more than just a place to crash for the night, but a way-station where someone periodically engages in his personal taboo. If nature really can reflect back our "ecological selves," as some psychologists say, then the American woods play the role of our "shadow selves," the dank hollows where we keep the parts of ourselves, and our society, that we disown. As this bamboo nest exhibits, the structures of our mind are part of the material record, just out of sight from the swept paths we walk everyday.

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