Thursday, February 17, 2011

From San Francisco to Washington

January 28, 2011


San Francisco is enshrouded in fog as my plane takes off at 10 AM on Friday, January 28, bound for Washington, DC. Only the immense television tower Mt. Sutro pokes its red and white top through the undulating gray carpet. After a gradual bank eastward, the green Berkeley Hills interrupt the expanse briefly, whereupon it continues to the Sierra Nevada, which are snowy as their name suggests. It has been a wet winter in California. The rain began in mid-November and continued with few interruptions until early January. Water courses out of vast canyons and collects in serpentine lakes behind unseen dams.

Then the mountains show themselves under a think blanket of snow. I know from experience that Yosemite Valley is probably visible from the south side of the airplane. I’m on the north. Yet the canyons and valleys I see are a spectacular sight in themselves.

After a few minutes, the Sierra slide effortlessly by and I am over the light brown and apparently lifeless expanse of the great high desert to the east. Since it is winter, this table land is now marked by what appear to be trickles of water that must be raging torrents brought to life by snowmelt. What in the summer would be dry riverbeds and mostly invisible are now dark blue or gray undulations in the earth’s surface.

We follow Interstate 80, which seems to attract secondary roads and railroads that converge and diverge from it. Then the interstate moves off to the northeast and for about half an hour there is no evidence of human habitation, not a road, not a house, not a power line. Finally a tiny smokestack appears, a single road leading to it, but there are no buildings anywhere near. Who works here? How do they get here? What do they make here - mine and refine something? What else could it be?

An occasional broad, brown valley streaked with wispy strips of snow divides the ranges of white mountains from one another. I imagine that this high desert is something like Central Asia, a territory best crossed on the back of a camel or accompanied by a caravan of yaks.

Ice crystals form on the window. The tiny television screen provided by Virgin America informs me that we are at about 35,000 feet and it is 60 below zero outside, Fahrenheit.

Cloud cover. I pick up my new traveling companion, Travels with Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, one of my literary heroes and namesake, were I Polish. I bought the hard cover at Copperfield’s in Santa Rosa for eight dollars. He begins with his first brief travels outside of Poland in the 1950s, to India and to China. Only after these first chapters does he say much about Herodotus, whom he began to read when he was still at home in Poland, trying to write about countries he had never visited during those years when communist governments were loathe to allow journalists to travel abroad:

“Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.”

Kapuscinski follows this with an essay on memory and Herodotus as the first journalist, who relied upon living informants, for there were almost no others: no archives, no records, no books. In those days, if one wanted to know about a distant place, as Herodotus did, one either had to go there or talk to someone who had been there. Or talk to someone who had talked to someone who had talked to someone . . . who had been there. Or so he claimed.

Land emerges from under the clouds again and I put the book down. This bleak landscape is transformed by snow into something beautiful, especially when the sun picks up the yellow, red, and orange of these canyons below. I focus on one great canyon in particular, bright red, dusted with snow, and sprinkled with tiny trees or perhaps sagebrush. The whole landscape looks like it could be bent into a Christmas tree ornament or a holiday confection covered with powdered sugar. Here and there a line or two in the snow marks a highway, a railroad, a telegraph line. There is an occasional copse of trees, a pond, an isolated farmhouse connected by a line in the snow to another line.

Meanwhile Kapucsinski, by way of Herodotus, ponders the nature of difference and conflict. Herodotus lived in the 5th Century BC, at a time when the Persians twice invaded Greece, unsuccessfully, yet remained the superpower on the Greek horizon. What caused the hostilities between Greeks and Persians? Or among the Greeks themselves, or all the hostilities since? Why do these people hate us? Why do we hate them? Why do the nations so furiously rage together? One might say that Herodotus walked to the ends of the earth to find an answer to these questions.

The Persians with whom he spoke maintained that the East-West conflict of the day was all started by men stealing women. A man stealing a woman was certainly the legendary cause of the Trojan War. Something had to start it. Someone crosses a line, sometimes a literal line in the sand, or soil and embarks upon a war of aggression; or someone crosses a metaphorical line, a line demarking decent behavior from indecent, beginning a long chain of stroke and counterstroke, aggression and revenge. Kapuscinski writes: “What happened? Simply this: that you have been revenged upon for crimes perpetrated ten generations ago by a forefather whose existence you weren’t even aware of. . . . in Herodotus’s world, (as well as in various societies today) the eternal law of revenge, the law of reprisal, of an eye for an eye, was (and remains) alive and well. Revenge is not only a right – it is a most sacred obligation.” Journalists and historians cover these stories well, for they, not to mention their readers, are drawn to the exceptional and the dramatic. War and conflict also demark both vast periods of time and huge expanses of earthly space from one another, between Persian rule and Roman, between Arab and Turk, between British and American.

Of course there are often vast periods of peace in between conflict. This vast land below, compared in terms of history to Europe, is remarkably uneventful. The conflicts of Europe have been well-chronicled for at least eight centuries and chronicled in some fashion for two millennia before that. There is no shortage of written records and old buildings and walls to sift through. The center of the American continent under the clouds below has been the subject of history for at most a few hundred years. There has been one major conflict, the Civil War. There has been essentially one government.

More clouds stretch out below. I doze off. When I awake, the rocky, arid west has been left behind and we are over the well-marked fields and roads of the Midwest. As far as the eye can see is farmhouses, roads and fields, with occasional stands of trees. We are in the east; east of the longitudinal line through the heart of North America that marks the border between farming and ranching, west of which there is often neither farming nor ranching, nor much of anything growing at all. Despite being east of this line, we call this the Midwest, the land of Central Time, where I grew up and came to manhood, the limitless grassland where, midway through Ole Rolvaag’s novels, the heroines go stark raving mad.

I poke some buttons in front of me and the little red airplane appears in northern Iowa near the Minnesota border. Usually the plane follows Interstate 80 most of the way across the country. Some weather and wind pattern must have made the pilots wander a couple hundred miles north. A carpet of clouds again gains command of the landscape. After a few minutes the first shadows of evening appear on the undulating surface as we traverse Lake Michigan, whose waters accentuate the blueness.

A few seats in front of me an infant begins to cry, gurgles, then carries on as if it were being wantonly strangled. Then just as quickly as the fuss began, it goes back to sleep and all is quiet aboard the jetliner.

As the clouds below carry on their dominance, I return to Herodoscinski and his Niebuhrian meditations on the nature and madness of man, about Croesus and Cyrus settling their differences and embarking upon the conquest of the Massagetae, who lived east of the Caspian Sea. Cyrus wanted to rule over this land, cooking up some story of Massagetaean trespass from generations earlier to justify his invasion. What must the two kings have talked about as they rode along in a golden carriage drawn by horses while the soldiers plodded along, often driven by the lash? Did they talk at all? This Cyrus, whom the Greeks dreaded and despised, whose son and grandson the Greeks despised even more, was nonetheless beloved by the Judeans. Isaiah referred to him with great praise and many commentators claim that Isaiah believed Cyrus to be the Messiah.

Cyrus, for all of his faults, was a monotheist and took pity on the Judaean monotheists his Babylonian enemies had taken captive. On the theory that an enemy of his enemy was his friend, he returned these captives to Jerusalem along with a check for their temple restoration and neighborhood rebuilding fund. I’m not making this up.

The years of Persian domination, roughly 500 – 320 BC, were good years for the Jews. They were good years for the Greeks as well, but in spite of the Persians, not because of them. The Persians ruled Judea benignly. It was after Alexander took over on his way to conquer the world that things really deteriorated in the lands of the Bible. Alexander died of drink – and various other excesses – before he was thirty, leaving a vast empire for his generals to quarrel over. Quarrel they did. Civil wars resulted. Nonetheless, great cultural exchange and development ensued. In the middle of it, Jesus of Nazareth lived and died. Thanks to Alexander bringing the West to the East, his message spread around the world through the common language of the day, Greek.

Cyrus’s expedition ended in disaster. He and his army were slaughtered near the banks of the River Oxus, in the heart of Central Asia, by the Massagetae and their warrior queen, Tomyris. She found his corpse on the battlefield afterward and shoved his severed head into a wineskin filled with blood, saying, “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall.”

An occasional glance at the many tiny television screens aboard reveals news of demonstrations in Egypt. Kapuscinski takes me there on a brief trip in 1960: “My initial glimpse is in the evening, as my airplane approaches Cairo. From up high, the river at this time of day resembles a black, glistening trunk, forking and branching, surrounded by garlands of streetlights and bright rosettes defining the squares of this immense and bustling city.” He explains recent Egyptian history: “In 1952, Nasser, then thirty-four, led the military coup that overthrew King Farouk; he became president four years later. For a long time he faced strong internal opposition: on the one hand Communists fought him, and on the other the Muslim Brotherhood, a conspiratorial organization of fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists. To combat them both Nasser maintained numerous police units of all sorts.”

Kapuscinsky then reports in almost magical realist fashion what it was like to live in this police state. He arrived with a bottle of Czech beer, drank it his first night there, then faced the disposal problem: what to do with an empty beer bottle in a country where alcohol was strictly forbidden? He dared not leave it in the waste paper basket in the hotel, for it would be discovered and reported. He decided to walk out in the morning, bottle wrapped in a paper bag, and drop it into the first garbage can he could find. Unfortunately, there was someone eyeing him at every corner, lurking in the vicinity of every garbage can, watching everything that moved.

“The street now turned, but beyond the turn everything was exactly as before. I couldn’t throw the bottle out anywhere, because no matter where I tried, I encountered someone’s gaze turned in my direction. Cars drove along the streets, donkeys pulled carts loaded with goods, a small herd of camels passed by stiffly, as if on stilts, but all this seemed to be taking place in the background, on some plane other than the one on which I was walking, caught in the sightlines of perfect strangers, who stood, strolled, talked, most frequently sat, and all the while stared at what I was doing. I grew increasingly nervous, and as I started to sweat profusely, the paper bag in my hand was getting soggy. I was afraid that the bottle would slip out of it and shatter on the sidewalk . . . “

Eventually, he returned to the hotel, bottle still in hand. He went out again late that night, whereupon, under cover of darkness, he quietly deposited the sanctioned bottle in a garbage can, returned to his room and fell exhausted into bed.

Why did Kapuscinski read Herodotus, whose information was so dated? He provides numerous clues throughout his journey. Perhaps the most intriguing comes at the end, when he quotes T. S. Eliot from a 1944 essay about Virgil:

“In our age, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name. It is a provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turns and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the peoples on the globe, be provincials together . . . ”

He traveled in order to escape the provincialism of space and read Herodotus to escape the provincialism of time.

The sky fills with color as we approach Washington. We descend through the clouds and the lights of suburban Virginia appear below. There is snow on the ground. The streets glisten, framed by bare trees. The plane makes one big turn as it approaches Dulles Airport, once considered impossibly far from Washington, and we feel at last the reassuring impact of the runway beneath the plane. We have traversed in five hours what Herodotus in his day could not have completed in a lifetime.