Local Geographies: Three Kinds of Document

This afternoon, after the rain broke, I went running (jogging) through my neighborhood, a citrus suburb that leans against a sliver of marshy, protected coast. The beauty of the rich green strip between the dense, humanized local environment (organized around U.S. 101) and the Pacific will make you happy to live on Earth, and so of course some ghouls want to “develop” (a verb we should put on probation) it into a pleasure dome for millionaires. Right now an anonymous Saudi investor owns it, but thanks to this area’s crazy liberals and the civic codes they have gotten enacted, s/he can’t destroy it yet.

My ‘hood is beautiful too, though. It is a shakily middle-class area that has evolved into a low-key, vernacular garden suburb. The hummingbirds are loud here, and we actually have honeybees, because over the past four decades the properties have mostly relaxed back into the land: almost every owner or renter maintains some mixture of vegetation—my tiny studio’s kitchen garden hosts California poppies, nasturtiums, sunflowers, aloe, two kinds of lavender, potatoes (I haphazardly buried a few moldy ones), mint, sage, shallots, and an elephant bush that is held up by two stakes and a web of steel wire. In the local argot the area is called “Noleta,” because although it is technically an unincorporated part of Santa Barbara County, it is culturally and economically scruffy, more similar to oceanside (southern) Goleta than central SB. I am grateful for the place in a way that exceeds my usual vain doings. After almost nine years in California my favorite parts of the state—a real American state but also the mental condition attendant thereon—are its humble parts.

With that preamble in mind, here are some texts that encounter and carefully document various local environments. May your habitat be sustainable, y’all.

  • If Adam Weinstein hadn’t written this, Ken Layne would be my favorite Gawker contributor, although he is apparently now leaving the site to run his own. Recently the man went on a walking tour of the region we have been told to call “Silicon Valley, ” and in Layne’s account, “Heart of Blandness,” the creepiest thing about the motherboard of the corporate tech sector is its physical banality: in material terms, it is just a constellation of heavily armored office parks set amid a congeries of infrastructure that has been crumbling since the Clinton administration. When the workday ends, the employees are bused (in private buses with tinted windows) back to their homes in San Francisco, where people who don’t work in Silicon Valley find it increasingly hard to afford to live.
  • Nineteenth- and twentieth-century America might have had a thing for the idea of Wilderness, but the nation’s greatest lyric poet wrote about nature in a town in Massachusetts. In this one here, Emily Dickinson looks at a snake; in this one here, Emily Dickinson reminds you that besides Shakespeare, nobody can bend language like she does, twisting it till it sounds eerily familiar again, like a tape of what happened inside your head when you stepped outside. If you don’t have a copy of the definitive edition of Dickinson’s notoriously complex archive, why do you even speak English? Do not trust the Google results, because many published versions of Dickinson’s poems mistakenly attempt to “normalize” her language and ignore her strange seventeenth-century capitalization habits, intentionally dropped or distorted punctuation, and seeming gaps in logic. Instead, buy the R.W. Franklin reading edition linked to above. It costs like three gin-and-tonics. If you went to college and don’t own it, do not talk to me about books. Ride or die Dickinson.
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –
Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality
But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
  • In November, after about thirty people who know more about music than I do told me to, I downloaded Action Bronson’s mixtape Blue Chips 2, and since then I have bumped at least part of it at least part of every day that I’ve been near a speaker or a headphone. Do you like it when populist MCs with deranged lyrical gifts team up with DJs who prefer fun instrumental tracks? No? Then stop reading this blog. Yes? Then use a search engine and get the mixtape for free. In the meantime, here is “In The City” (feat. Jeff Woods), a short punchy track Bronson hides in eighteenth place on a collection that is, in this critic’s humble view, fucking bananas awesome.


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