Photo by Hilary Schaper
by Hilary Schaper
In their heyday in summer, when the sun and the heat spur them on, the vines sprawl exuberantly on the stucco walls. Unchecked, they braid a thicket of overlapping shoots and leaves. Their eager tentacles crane toward the roof, cloak the eaves’ undersides, spill over the window frames, and belly up to the glass. A veil of green camouflages the wall. Our home might be a bird’s nest with bits and pieces cobbled together.
Wishing to arrest their inexorable crawl, I strip the vines from the walls. I imagine their tendrils weaving a web over the house–sealing windows, shuttering doors, barring all comings and goings, wrapping us tight within–and imprisoning us in our own home. To hack a stem, I grip its newest leaf at its furthest end, lift it from the wall, follow its trail back to its oldest, most deeply rooted tendrils, and tug hard. Somehow, though, I can never bring myself to lop the vine off at its root and to wrest from it all possibility of growth, of renewal.
Even in the midst of my purge, I admire the plant’s tangled architecture: its vertical thrust up from the ground, stems twisting into a loose trunk; its tendrils’ fanning out, etching a labyrinth of lines; its slender threads securing the stems to the wall. My efforts at extermination are only partially successful anyway. The vines leave prints–infinitesimal brown dots, no larger than the nib of a fine-line pen–witness to the stitches, which had sewn them in place. In these birdlike footprints, I discover proof of the vine’s perseverance, its confidence in itself, and its tenacity, the ability to protect against collapse. But, best of all, I divine traces of the plant’s meanderings.
A map of its creeping: tendrils shooting out in one direction, then another, littering the wall with tiny dots; dots exploding like stars, gouging the skies, and illuminating sites along the way; starts and stops, detours and cul-de-sacs, turnabouts and dead ends. Each dot–a point on a map–marks a crossroad on the vine’s crawl, a decision whether to amble on, tarry a while, or double back.
I know that my meanderings, too, leave a trace, a tendril-ly trail. A map of my crawl would highlight sites fabled and obscure, which, taken together, might suggest a shape to my life. A figure of a songbird could serve as my icon–like a token on a monopoly board–and track my movement, leaving tiny footprints in my wake.
Once, at a national park in Utah, my husband and I watched a video, which warned against walking off trail for fear of crushing old growth plants. As we trekked through erosion-carved arches and canyons, and up gravelly cliffs and domes, over the next few days, we joked about the certain peril to the ecosystem should we veer off and trample a tiny sprout. But we accepted the charge to take care and to protect against a thoughtless act. At the same time, we longed to wander, to plumb this unfamiliar landscape, to shed ourselves and our cares–lose ourselves, really–in the wild vastness and in its ephemera: the junipers’ scent, the mockingbirds’ cries, the scratch of our footfall, the seemingly immutable rock formations, and their changing hues. We yearned to abandon our known selves to the possibility of another sense of self.
On my more frazzled days, my life barrels along a zigzag course, its trajectory, a mess of pool balls bouncing between a table’s rails. I veer here and there, linger too long in one place, rush off from another, and stop short in yet another.
I imagine that were we each to look back on our life, and see our path plotted on a map–like the vine’s–we’d claim that its direction was pre-destined long before we set out, or, at least, we’d recognize a sensible shape, and feel its logic. A map substantiates our travels by framing them in concrete terms and plucking them from the abstract experiential realm. It makes sense of our jaunts and rambles in a way that we cannot know without a visual aid. Consider the astral map we’ve created to lend structure to our skies: the constellations of Orion, the Hunter, Canus Major, the Great Dog, and Pegasus, the Flying Horse. That a map lays bare our trail in black and white, lends it credibility, like a photograph, whose image we trust (though we know that it could have been photoshopped). In hindsight, we believe that these neat configurations couldn’t have been otherwise.
But, of course, these maps could have been plotted differently for they impose a structure from without–from the other side of experience–unlike the vine, which finds its way organically through the natural process of growth. Recall its architecture: a tendril might climb upward, slither horizontally, or plunge diagonally. A myriad of possibilities, like the wake of dots, testifies to the vine’s exploratory thrusts. In the beginning, the vine might send out a tentative feeler to survey the terrain. At some point, it reaches a juncture, either venturing forth on that trail, or quitting it for another. Left alone, the vine could spread with total abandon.
If we lop off that tentacle, we check the vine’s movement in that particular direction, thwart its reach and block its intersection with another tendril. We redirect the pleasure of aimless wandering even though a little paring may be beneficial to prodding the plant to bloom in unexpected ways.
It is winter now in Southern California. The vine, a sinewy skeleton, hangs from the wall still. Its stems, lean and brittle, splinter easily. Constellations of tiny dots swirl around them, recalling Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. As I stand before the wall, I am tempted–as I always am with a Pollock canvas–to search out a design, a plan. But, I hesitate, not wanting to superimpose a plot, assign an intention, or shortchange the composition’s happy surprises, and its random intelligence.
Though some consider Pollock’s paintings haphazard creations, the result of “anarchic surrender to sloppy accident,” as MOMA curator Kirk Varnedoe explains, they emerged through “an intricately ordered constellation of methods.” The artist toiled to set the paint in motion, to set its course in a particular direction, choosing the area on the canvas to pour, the angle from which to pour, and the way in which to propel his arm to make the pour. His technique included “the orchestrations of quantities, speeds, rhythms, and densities . . ..” Despite all of this, serendipity and chance intervened, rendering the painter unable to control each aspect of his work. Pollock noted that he strove to “let the painting come through” and to eliminate “any recognizable image.” It is as though the painting, like the vine, has an innate sense of itself, which Pollock–a handmaiden to its expression–only assisted in realizing.
Knowing when to wander free–that is, without any recognizable image, previously plotted, or pre-ordained path, puzzling out when to pause, forge ahead, or shift course all together–one searches, I search, out ways to balance a desire to ramble with a more conscious habit of plotting.
At a museum recently, I overheard a young woman laughingly admonish her friend, “We have to get better at getting lost.” Her friend tagged along, several paces behind, down the stairs, her fingers loitering on the railing, until they reached the lower landing, and rounded the corner into a light-filled gallery of modern art.
These words, hinting at an expectation that the young women would likely get lost again, seemed to upend the normal assumption that we know where we are at all times. The task one of them set for herself was to become more comfortable with getting lost, rather than trying to avoid it. Or, perhaps, her words signified a readiness to abandon the need to know her whereabouts, her direction, and her destination.
One winter afternoon years ago, my husband and I climbed the steps from our house onto the street. At the top of the stairs, we turned right. Plows had pushed the snow to the sides of the road, creating ten-foot mounds, leaving only a narrow alley in which to walk. We trudged on–blind in a sense–for the drifts hid the street signs, mailboxes, driveways, and houses that we habitually used to situate ourselves. Soon, we lost our way, unsure of where we’d been, unsure of where we were headed.
Only the snow existed, only the white, only the sameness. Though I felt anxious about being lost, the streets opened to us in ways they never had, freeing us to explore, to start over, to re-conceive how to proceed, and how to navigate through now unfamiliar terrain.
A similar sense of disorientation–and re-orientation–occurred at the James Turrell exhibition at LACMA. After ascending a steep flight of stairs there, too, I entered “Breathing Light” (2013), a large, empty white room into which “a computer-driven sequence of changing electric lights” was being projected (as described by Christopher Knight in his Los Angeles Times piece, “The Light in James Turrell’s Eyes”). The colors of the light melted one into another: fuchsia into lilac into deep azure and on through the spectrum. The Museum’s notes accompanying the exhibition explain that the artist engineered his work “to entirely eliminate the viewer’s depth perception.”
Though I knew that I was standing on one side of the room, I could not gauge my distance from the wall. Turrell had stripped me of my customary manner of understanding myself in space, transporting me to an unfamiliar realm, and thus from seeing light as it reflects an object, to perceiving it, in his words, as a “physical presence,” without impediment or interference, and, by extension, to perceiving myself by a different measure.
And yet, I’ve also had the contrary experience of getting lost. Once in Paris with a friend, we decided to part for the afternoon, she to shop, I to walk along the Seine. Though she always travels with a map, I prefer to rely on my nose. As we turned from one another, she reached out and spun me in the opposite direction for I was headed away from the river, only a couple of blocks away. I hadn’t realized that I was lost. The small café across the street, the bakery at the corner, and the shop a couple of doors down were all familiar. But outside of the microcosm of that single block, I had no sense of my whereabouts.
I think of Ray and Charles Eames’ film, Powers of Ten, which situates a picnic scene within the limitless context of the universe. As the narrator explains, the film explores the relative size of a thing in the universe and the effect of distancing from that thing by a power of ten. Every ten seconds, the film jettisons us ten times farther out from the original scene and widens our field of view by ten times. From a close-up shot of food set out on a picnic blanket, the camera moves out to the people on the blanket handling the food, and then to the entire lake at which the picnickers are gathered. It conveys us one million light years away from this scene and then reverses the process.
My sense of place, on the other hand, is so circumscribed that it includes only the most proximate landmarks. I lack a sense of my larger environment. I believe that this inability to understand myself within a larger context is consistent with my personality, for I am one whose eye and interest are often drawn to the details–to what some might consider the minutiae–rather than to the big picture.
Still, I don’t like using a map. Were I absolutely honest, I’d confess that I’m not especially competent at reading one anyway and that I lack the ability to connect the grid of lines on a map to my location on an actual street. Another time in Paris, before setting off to meet a friend, I glanced at a city map to confirm the direction in which to walk. Soon, I was lost, having circled the same long, stark block several times, before realizing that I’d returned to exactly the same spot, on the same side of an official-looking stone building, under the same row of French flags. I felt dizzy, a ballerina stuck in a spin, arms flailing, a foot dragging to arrest the endless twirling. The map was no help despite my efforts to align it in the direction I faced.
Not all maps chart the physical world, though some plot terrain equally wondrous and mysterious. Take, for example, the networks of our central nervous system or of our DNA sequencing. Others outline social, political, or cultural regions. Historical timelines plot the dates of important events. They, like a map of our lives, create an illusion that history couldn’t have unfolded in another way, that events had to occur, as we, in retrospect, have charted them.
Even a painting can be a kind of map. The young women mentioned earlier were entering a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in which David Hockney’s Large Interior, Los Angeles, 1988, hung. From high above, Hockney surveys an enormous living area. Splashes of brilliant color animate the space and carve out a multi-planed ceiling. Red, yellow, blue, pink, and orange chairs dance against the background of the blue rug and wood floors. Beyond, through a large window, green foliage shimmers under the sunniest of skies and the swimming pool throbs in royal blue and white stripes. Hockney’s map is a creative rendering of a particular interior or of a purely imaginative one. It promises nothing other than the painter’s vision, his inner sense which guides the way he sees, the way he navigates through space, the way he depicts a room he has observed–or not.
It may not vary that much from other maps, which, though invisible, we sense on a different level. Consider that our yearnings–those visceral stirrings, which reach and crane like the vine’s tendrils for some ineffable thing–are a kind of map, one able to steer us in directions no drawn map can. They lend a dimension absent from a paper map. These stirrings are a deep knowing–a wisdom, perhaps–borne of intuition and experience. If we are quiet, if we are still, if we listen, they can guide us through an internal landscape, and perhaps shed light on how to proceed step by step.
I remember driving along a dusty back road in Northern California, gazing up at the Giant Redwoods–their bright green needles, a sharp contrast to their rust brown trunks–losing myself in the seemingly endless reach of their uppermost branches, in their crevassed wood, and in the dappled ground at their base. Piles of golden leaves edged the narrow lane as it wove exquisite curves, listing one way, then another, hooking me, suspending me, until resolving into flattened planes. Bright orange and periwinkle wildflowers sprouted in patches by the side of the road. Dry eucalyptus bark hung over thin fence rails, like stiff sheets on a clothesline. A faint scent of smoke lingered in the air.
I had never before set foot on the road I was traveling. I doubt that I could have located, even imprecisely, my whereabouts on a map. Though I sensed that a main road was not far off, I didn’t know the direction in which it lay or how to reach it. I guess I was lost. But, as I dipped and climbed the road and drifted off onto spiraling lanes, the land tugged at me with a kind of familiarity. Terry Tempest Williams has written, “[e]ach of us harbors a homeland, a landscape we naturally comprehend. By understanding the dependability of place, we can anchor ourselves as trees.” I know the nearly indescribable sense of home that her words express. My yearning is for the sere, yellow-brown mountains flecked with silver-leafed sage, lavender, ceanothus, and greenery of all hues–gray and blue, olive and apple, moss, forest and chartreuse–in the foothills’ rolls and curves, in the generous canopy of the prickly coastal oak. I know the milk chocolate-colored bark of the manzanita, a shrub native to the California chaparral, how it appears purple in certain light and flakes off to reveal an inner core of an almost unimaginably smooth orange tone. And so, though lost–though apart from my usual surroundings, though map-less–I knew this land as intimately as the vine knows its terrain, creeping across the wall, wandering here and there, trusting the innate stirrings that spur it on.