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World on a Dishtowel

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

A bit of landscape painted by Degas, perhaps—I am guessing—printed on a dishtowel that comes out of the dryer crumpled, curling at the edges, with only a deliriously delicious bit of autumnal field showing in the heap of clothes. A little girl in a straw hat, up to her neck in grasses, stabs me momentarily, stopping me dead. Landscapes themselves don’t feel anything but we feel a great deal in response to them, so profoundly that it’s reasonable to say of them that they provide a language of our interior lives.

I pulled the towel out of the heap and tried to flatten it on the laundry table with partial success. Now I could see deep pink flowers in the field: it was an August field actually, that time of combined blooming and dying. At the top was a house, nestled in mature trees, some of which leaned toward it. This was a house in one place and no other, in the bossom of a region, as it had been for a long time, a time within which, as for the child immersed in the field, the world lay safely both safely comprehensible and ultimately mysterious around us. Landscape paintings often distill that mercurial relation between our interior thoughts and feelings and the external world, linking our intimate existence with everybody who ever lived: this is the genius of landscape.

With the completion of “The Absent Hand” I finally accepted the state of self-enclosure in which we now live, within which places have become more like dishtowels in the dryer, or a part of that infinitely circulating heap of snapped photos in the distance-less realm of the screen. We are, for sure, no longer up to our necks in our fields. Here in the Times on the very same day is a photo of Lake Cochran in Patagonia, an enormous gorgeous landscape, of the kind that the paper is running often these days. This story is about he purchase of Lake Cochran by the widow of the North Face fortune; North Face being the maker of those good quality parkas, an outdoorsy wilderness-related brand that we see everywhere, even in the city in winter. After her husband, the CEO, died at 72, she bought a big piece of Patagonia, that extreme faraway place, including Lake Cochrane, and gave it to the nation of Chile on condition it be preserved as a park. That Patagonia has, in a way, become another dishtowel in the drier in the course of this transaction is a good thing: I am not faulting the purchase and gift of this glorious remote place. The transaction only formalized what was already true, that today Bruce Chatwin could not write his tale of discovery of self through exploring an almost unimaginably remote region at the southern tip of South America. I am just asking: when we are in Patagonia now, where are we? How do we ground ourselves and become oriented, how do we find ourselves--anywhere-- tumbling around as we do, hither and yon, in the drier?

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