Which is Bigger: the Earth or the Sun?

Drought stricken Salton Sea

Drought stricken Salton Sea


California, the news reports say, is in the middle of a serious drought. Freddy doesn’t believe a word of it. Freddy is a gay leather man with a pig tattooed across his chest. He rides a scooter and manages a fetish shop on Sunset Blvd in trendy Silverlake. He thinks this drought stuff is all propaganda. He also thinks that Facebook is a fad that will never become popular. He believes that we get our drinking water unfiltered straight out of Santa Monica Bay. He scoffs at the idea that there is any difference between sea water and fresh water. That’s all propaganda too.

Freddy has sources for his information. His sources are mostly people who claim to be in the know, and the source of their knowing is the source of all knowing: the Internet, font all of information past, present, and future; God in digital form.

Thin slivers.

A few years ago I met Michael Brewster, a California based artist whose seminal work uses sound as the primary medium. His work for some reason (probably ignorance) reminds me of Dan Flavin but using sound instead of light. The similarities are surface only, and there is one essential difference. In Brewster’s work, the audience actually gets within the work, moving around, changing it, and influencing each member’s experience of it.

Brewster was doing a one-night, closed to the public installation that would be only experienced by the four of us in the gallery on that night. I was asked to photograph it. Actually, I had been asked if I could photograph sound itself, and my answer, after a little thought, was no. I was up for photographing its creation, though. Those photos can been seen here.

Sound is information, and afterwards, Brewster and I talked about information. I suggested that there was too much information in the world today. Brewster disagreed. He believed there is an essentially finite amount of information. It’s the packaging that has changed. Not that many years ago, bits of information were bundled up in things like books or movies or even ephemera like magazines. The bits gave each other context. The information was curated. Some sources were known as reliable, others not so much. People have lost the ability to be discerning and to understand things contextually.

Now, said Brewster, there is the same amount of information but it’s become unbundled, broken into smaller and smaller bits that have become desperately thin. Devoid of context, they are often meaningless, but we give them the same amount of weight as always. The more ambitious reassemble them in ways that alter meaning and defy reality. The internet has democratized the flow of information, which means most of it is no longer curated, and significant chunks are curated by the ignorant and the unethical. Without context, without curation, and absent any attempt of the reader to be discerning, a celebrity or right wing radio host’s tweet is awarded the same importance, value and accuracy as a peer reviewed text book. Perhaps even more, because we don’t have time for complexity. It’s easier to just dismiss it all as propaganda.

What in the name of all that is holy does sound sculpture have to do with running?!

A lot. Let’s start with this: as you move within one of Michael Brewster’s sound installations, you become a part of it. Your movements change your experience, because your position relative to the sources of sound has changed. Additionally, your movements change other people’s experience, because you absorb sound. You are an obstacle. Sound goes into you and around you, and in doing so it is changed. And the others moving through the sculpture change your experience.

There is a lesson here about running, and a lesson here about life: Everything is connected. What we do affects everything, and what everything does affects us. This isn’t a plea for ethical behavior. It’s just a statement of fact. I don’t visit the mountains for a run. When I’m up there running I’m not a visitor. I’m part of the ecosystem.

There’s no new oxygen being made, not on the atomic level. I’m breathing the same atoms that that people, animals, plants have been breathing for a million years. On the molecular level, atoms are being reassembled constantly as part of the life processes of various organisms, including me. The oxygen molecules I need to survive are produced in part by things like viruses infecting micro-organisms in the oceans. I assume that everybody knows this, but my assumptions don’t account for Eddie on his scooter with his conspiracy theories about drought propaganda. This dirt I’m running on is part of these mountains. I will take some home on me. I’ll leave some of me behind too, my piss soaking into the dirt, sweat evaporated into the air, skin left behind on branches. And the dirt I take home that washes down the drain and ends up in same Santa Monica Bay that Eddie is so sure he is drinking from? That dirt that washes away contains mountains, and it also contains whatever the mountain lions, the bobcats, the coyotes, the deer, the birds, the snakes, and everything else has left behind.

What about just sound itself? Sound is information. When I first started running on trails, I had no idea just home much information was being conveyed, because I always just thought of sound as noise: the noise of traffic, the noise of the warring ice-cream trucks, one playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and the other Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. Information, sure, but I would determine without assessment that it was nothing I needed to know. Contempt prior to investigation.

Sound conveys so much. It gives me a sense of spatial boundary. I am aware of my place relative to the source of sound. Sometimes, in the dark for example, this is all I have to establish my place in a 3-D world.

Sound conveys warning. A rattlesnake doesn’t sneak up to you and bite. The bite is a defense, and the snake gives out a warning/threat first, by rattling.

I’ve written about this: “Three autumns ago I was running down Kenyon Devore trail from Mt. Wilson to the Gabrielino Trail and into Westfork. It was late October, and the trails were empty of people.”

“I stopped at a stream crossing and was looking around. I heard a sound and wondered to myself “who is playing the maracas?” I looked upstream, and saw nothing. I stepped across the stream, looked back, and realized I’d been standing right next to a rattlesnake.”

Sound is often communication. The snake, which does not speak English (or French, or Spanish, or Bobcat) is communicating in a language that almost all of us understand. You don’t need to get fancy and start trying to read between the lines when a snake rattles. Nor should you dismiss it as propaganda. The snake is speaking loud and clear.

You’ve got to drawn the line somewhere.

I signed up for an online dating thing.

It’s tough out there.

It always seems to work like this: I spot some cute gal. We are a 96% match. (That’s as high as it gets for me in LA. 96%. The 99% matches are all in Portland.) She’s sporty looking, athletic, minimal or no make-up. She likes music involving banjos. She prefers kissing in a tent in the woods over kissing in Paris. She has nice legs and modest breasts – I prefer to run in the mountains and not have them adorn my girlfriend’s chest. She shows no concern about what’s in the contrails, does not rage against Obamacare, displays no paranoia with regards to black helicopters. She never once mentions the gold standard or Bitcoin. She doesn’t say “should of” and she’s got the whole its vs it’s thing down. She’s into trailrunning. And she only lives 4 miles away. It’s a match made in heaven.

And then we get to The Question:

“Which is bigger, the Earth or the Sun?”

She answers “the Earth.”

And my heart just fucking breaks.

Some of my female friends think I need to bend a little on this one.

Can’t you just roll with it for a second….I mean, maybe she thinks it’s bigger because it’s more important to her…” says one. “Learning to be flexible is important.. No one is perfect,” says another. One more chimes in with “It’s a matter of perspective isn’t it?”

But it’s not a matter of perspective. Perspective does not change pure fact. The sun is larger than the earth. Approximately 1 million times larger, according to NASA.

I guess not everyone thinks this is an important thing to know. Big picture stuff, and all that. Not so important to day-to-day life as, say, is “Interstellar” worth seeing or should we wait until it comes out on Netflix?

Don’t shut the tap.

I prefer to surround myself with people who ask questions, and who are interested in the world around them. To me, interest means engagement. I want to be surrounded by people who are engaged in the world they live in. Not everyone is.

There is a well known trail runner from Santa Monica. He is a tireless and effective self promoter, and he has made himself into the face of Southern California trail running. We run on the same trails. He experiences them in a very different way than I do. He talks about overcoming his fears, and he discusses situations on the trails that have made him fearful. He talks about what his mind feels, and what his feet feel, and how his legs ache and how his brain tries to convince him to go no further – all experiences I can very much relate to. What he never writes about are the trails themselves, or anything external to himself, unless it presents an obstacle to be overcome. It occurs to me that these experiences could be had just as easily running on the road, or perhaps even on a treadmill. His experiences seem incomplete, a function of time and distance but not of place. I, on the other hand, am fascinated by place. The place, for me, is mostly the San Gabriel Mountains. They have a rich history. The trails within them – the trails we run on, and I know just about every one of them – have a history. There’s the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada, one of the three great American trails known as the Triple Crown (the other two being the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail). There is a subculture of through hikers that I find fascinating.

There are all the other trails that share join and follow the PCT and/or each other – the Silver Moccasin Trail (for which Boyscouts can earn a Silver Moccasin Patch and a Silver Moccasin Award), the Gabrielino Trail (which shares trail with the Silver Moccasin, and is named after the Tongva/Gabrieliño people who used to live in those mountains). There’s history like Thaddeus Lowe, the Mt. Lowe Railway, and Echo Mountain, or all the trail camps down along the San Gabriel River, once, not so long ago, a real river with the best trout fishing in Southern California.

Beyond the San Gabriel Mountains, there is an extraordinary world – the world we live in – full of extraordinary people, extraordinary cultures, landscapes, deserts, mountains, prairies, tundra, jungles, flora, fauna There are huge differences between languages, and languages intertwine with cultures, and both are often enmeshed with religion. Architecture reflects both period and the culture of the period, which means the religion of the culture, which is why a cathedral in Italy might fill you with a sense of the majesty of God even if you walked in an atheist, whereas a cathedral in Spain reveals the severity of a dark and brooding God; reflections of different times in the same Catholic Church. Everything is a part of everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. All of it can fill you with a joy and amazement that is as never-ending as you desire it to be, because you and only you can shut the tap to that wonder and joy.

Don’t be like most people. Don’t shut the tap.

A quote from Sylvia Plath

“I want to taste and glory in each day, and never be afraid to experience pain; and never shut myself up in a numb core of nonfeeling, or stop questioning and criticizing life and take the easy way out. To learn and think: to think and live; to live and learn: this always, with new insight, new understanding, and new love.”

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