issue 261 - November 1994
ILLUSTRATION BY MIRIAM McCURDY
Inheritance of absence
What do you see if you look at the world through a gunsight? Not a lot.
And what if you approach your emotional life in the same way?
Susan Griffin brings to the surface some deep connections.
There are stretches of land scattered throughout the United States that have become so desolate they are the stuff of legends. Chain-link fences and signs warning trespassers away set them apart from the rest of the countryside – deserts in California, Nevada and New Mexico; pastures, fields, forested land along creek beds or rivers in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Washington State.
It is as if these patches of earth have been erased from existence, or at least existence as it is configured in the public mind of the last half-century of this nation. These are the dumping grounds for the United States military, places where the unintended excrescences of wars real and imagined have been hidden, shed, stored.
There are shell casings, live bullets, unexploded mines and grenades, countless chemicals and radio-active waste. Toxic substances bubble to the surface destroying vegetation, turning it brown or fluorescent. Underneath subterranean waters are fouled and carry their poisons unobserved past the gates and sentries into the surrounding countryside, towns, cities.
The effects where they have been observed are devastating. Cancers, childhood leukemias, whole communities uprooted, farms abandoned, unworkable. Armies are supposed to defend the people against early, untimely death from unseen enemies. And over centuries the most sophisticated equipment has been devised for this task. Heat-sensitive photographs taken from satellites, every kind of radar, computerized projections made from the slightest evidence. How is it then that these visible marks on the land, and the countless less visible traces of danger, escaped notice?
I am thinking of the military body. The body of a good soldier. Trained to respond quickly to danger. And yet at the same time educated away from fear and other more subtle responses. Toughened of course against discomfort, pain, fatigue, cold. Tuned to the highest possible pitch of aggression, mastery, control. This is the masculine ideal. Ramrod straight and orderly.
But there are losses. The posture does not allow for peripheral interest. Whatever is in the background disappears in the focus of a gunsight. And the quick reactions necessary in battle make the soldier speed past so much texture, detail. To identify the enemy in time one must not be looking at minute variations, only the uniform.
Of course, these habits of perception would not prepare the mind to see the intricate levels of existence in a field, valley, stretch of desert, forest, at the edge of the stream. Each of hundreds of species of birds, insects, grasses, cacti, fade into what is called background. If there is learning to be had from the land, from the ancient texts of rock, tree, or ‘layers of pollen in a swamp’ – as Gary Snyder names them – these are books unread, lessons ignored.
So this mind would not be prone to detect the path of a watershed. Not even know that water is running underground, much less that it will reappear thirty, or a hundred, or even several hundred miles later, and enter the life cycles of plants, the mouths of animals, or other people.
And as for the death of an owl, a coyote, a species of small insect that might be a harbinger of danger, how can one expect the soldier to observe these with grief? Everything in his training tells him it is his life or the life of the enemy. The other. Everywhere he looks he must make this distinction. One or the other.
And since birth he has been taught another attitude. An approach going back centuries to at least the Roman Empire where whole forests were destroyed to build the ships and palaces of expansion. Perhaps armies are the most intense evocation of this state of mind. Initiated early in life, the soldier has already learned to think of what he calls nature not only as background but also as other, and even enemy, or prey.
He has been raised with the belief that other life forms are without spirit or souls. The life or death then of a small eco-system, a pond, a hundred square miles of hot sand, red rock, inhabited by lizards, snakes, mice, has no cosmic significance and means nothing to him.
Or so he believes.
And if the meaning of these deaths are somewhere in him, he has learned to bury this in an unconscious region. Unclaimed as the lands set off by sign and fence.
I am remembering G. He was the lover of a friend in our last year of High School. Just returned from Korea, he still wore a khaki uniform. Our circle was a group of rebels and no-one could quite understand our friend’s attraction to him. Nor his to her. He gave the appearance of a leathery skin, thick neck, imperviousness to any delicacy. Talked to us for hours about the Japanese women he had had as lovers. How attentive they had been to his needs. How obedient they were to his demands. They would cook elaborate meals for him, give him massages, walk on his back, and make love to him exotically, passionately, all with no demands of their own, no complaints. None of these women had names or histories he could tell us. They fell into the background as part of a general category: Japanese women.
But at the same time he was obsessed and in love with Japan. And we all liked this in him. He took us all to Japanese restaurants. Introduced us to new ways of eating fish, a different beer; showed us poetry, water colors. Nothing in California pleased him as much as this more delicately sensual world. Because of the quality of intense presence he had whenever he spoke of Japan, one was drawn to him in these moments.
It is certainly possible to be someplace, any place and not be present in this way. By the time I was born, my mother’s father had become a kind of emptiness in himself. Most of the time he seemed scarcely present, adding little to family conversations. He had a sweet side though, through which he seemed to come alive solely for me. At these times he would tell me about his childhood or watch the Westerns with me and joke and laugh.
The unclaimed regions of a man, which military training walls off more effectively. To reveal hesitation, sensitivity, fear – above all fear – occasions ridicule. He is likened to a woman. Or a faggot. There is a subtle heritage that connects the military repression of homosexuality with negligent pollution. The inheritance of absence.
So much of modern warfare is not present to itself, takes place in the mind as if nowhere. Almost hypothetically. On a computer screen in an airplane miles above the target. Or in a room with computerized controls set to launch rockets. But this only mirrors a much older divide by which the soldier walls himself off from his own compassion, remorse, terror.
And if there is evidence? Trace deposits, toxins, as yet unkindled fire of all that has been avoided. It is best to ignore it, he reasons with himself.
But the logic is circular. Ignoring place, earth, his own knowledge, the fear in his body, the delicacy of his own perceptions. He is oddly dislocated. He is like a computer screen floating in air. Where is the ground of his being? What is his purpose? Only a marching band with a strong martial rhythm and the sound of his feet indistinguishable from the lockstep of a battalion which follows the clipped, familiar shouts of a commander, can give him back some sense of direction.
And if the parade is marching off to war, some war which he can hardly understand, which means nothing to him, he already has a sense of loss. And grief and rage because of it which will now be useful while he fights over possession of some small stretch of land, two or three acres, over which the victor will one day draw a boundary.
North American essayist, poet and playwright Susan Griffin is author of more than 20 books including Pornography and Silence and Woman and Nature. Her latest book, A Chorus of Stones, focuses on the private life of war. It is published by The Women’s Press, London 1994; Doubleday, New York 1992; and Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW 1994