Book of Marvels
Art in the Middle of Nowhere
There is much of eerie interest in Nevada's high desert country.
As I was shooting along I-80 a few years ago, my head kept swivelingg to look at the roadside oddities. At the steam belching from the hot springs near Nightingale and the signs warning people not to stray into the scalding landscape. At the prisons and the signs warning people not to pick up hitchhikers. At the University of Reno Fire Science Academy, which was torching a building on the side of the road. Finally, I pulled over to inspect a remarkable folk-art edifice near Imlay. Remarkable, in part, because it looks as if the contents of a landfill popped to the surface and then fell into a pattern that is part sculpture garden, part backyard fort, part Death Valley Theme Park. There was no one there; even distant buildings seemed deserted. I was tempted to swipe something, but there was a sign declaring it a State of Nevada Historic Site and another sign pleading that visitors refrain from vandalism. All I took was pictures.
Thunder Mountain Monument was constructed by Chief Rolling Thunder --originally, Frank Van Zant, a Â¼ Creek Indian from Oklahoma, former deputy sheriff in Yuba City, California, and a vet who returned from the World War II with a fractured psyche-- and the hippies who gathered around him in the 1960s and 70s. Together, they created five acres of phantasmagorical structures made from cement, chunks of stone, bottles, old typewriters, cars and their parts, driftwood, road signs and over 200 sculptures. The central structure is a three-story monument that started out as a one-room trailer which Van Zant covered with cement and stones, then added corridors and stairways leading to upstairs bedrooms. The outside of the building --as well as many of the other structures that twist across the property--is covered with friezes, sculptures, bas-relief tableaux and written messages about America's mistreatment of the Indians. At the top of the monument are sinuous loops of cement, making it look as if the structure is crowned with bleached bones.
Chief Rolling Thunder committed suicide in 1989 and left the site to his estranged son, who tried to give it to the state. However, the amount of restoration needed was so vast that the state declined to do anything more than slap a historic sticker on the place....
When I first started this blog, I envisioned it as a place where I could talk about the things I wanted to write about, both in my fiction and in my articles. I seem to have strayed from that, so I thought I'd pull up this old query (for you non-freelancers, a query is a proposal for an article that you send to editors) about Thunder Mountain Monument
, which I've been dying to write about ever since I passed it on a road trip to California.
Why is this place so appealing to me? It's so forlorn, so abandoned, so mysterious, so redolent of a fevered artistic activity and vision now gone--the desert is steadily whittling it away. Lowbrow that I am, I adore this kind of art. I talked to one art historian who told me there have probably been hundreds of places like this over the centuries, where crank art flourishes and then disappears.
I also like this place because I want my own back yard to look kind of like this (although the inside of that wrecked car was really disgusting). Look at the Thunder Mountain website for more pictures; mine weren't adequate.
And I'm drawn to the human stories floating around the site. My Reno cousins heard wild stories about Van Zant and his guests over the years; I'd love to track them down. And then there is the story of his son, who has this odd legacy from his father but mixed feelings about growing up in the middle of his obsession.
I must have sent this query out to a dozen editors. No takers. I always assume that if something interests me, it's got to interest someone else, too. So I guess I'm just throwing the story out into the cosmos with this post. I don't want it to die in a Word file.
The Perfectionist's Daughter
Eviscerated scallions! What to do with them?
Up until my mother moved into her apartment, she would have known precisely what to do with them. They would have gone into the big white porcelain jar she kept under her sink, along with the coffee grounds, apple cores and other shreds of vegetation. Also along with the egg shells, which had been carefully stripped of their inner membrane and washed. When the jar was full, she would have walked out on their deck and dumped the contents into the number one compost bin ten feet below, where they would mix with the garden waste and begin their transformation--via the next two bins--into compost. Before the penultimate house in Santa Rosa, at the house back in Oroville, the trip to the compost bins was farther--down a steep path through bleached weeds and live oaks--but it was also firmly established routine. This may be the first time my mother has not had a compost pile, at least in her adult life.
It is not an overstatement to say that my mother believes there is a correct way to treat everything-- this is just one of the ways in which she is a perfectionist. There are well-defined ways in which things are cleaned, saved, reused, stored, or recycled. Amost nothing is discarded. One time, a guest in her house made himself a cup of tea. After wringing the last drops from the bag, he opened the door under the sink and started to throw his tea bag in the garbage. "No!" my mother said from her seat across the room, then hoisted herself up with her cane and hobbled across the room. "We do it like this." She took out scissors, snipped the staple holding the string off the tea bag, put the tea bag itself in the compost jar, put the string and staples in the garbage, and put the little paper tag at the top into the paper recycling. He was stunned that there was ritual applied to such a humble object. But I knew she was holding herself back from chiding him that he had missed the first step of the ritual entirely. She always gets two cups out of each tea bag. If she had gotten to the sink in time, she would have added his to the other wizened tea bags waiting for their second-chance brew, behind the stove.
But I have no compost pile here in Cleveland Heights. They attract skunks, which in turn attract my big white dog. My neighbor has a compost pile not far from my fence. When I go outside at night, I can sometimes see the skunks feasting there-- they look up at me and their eyes shine, even through the mesh and the vines.
Given my strict upbringing regarding compost, I feel terribly conflicted every time I have a handful of scallion tops or brocolli bottoms. Terrible when I've let a whole head of romaine turn to slime! I can either put it down the garbage disposal or throw it into the trash-- two terrible, wasteful solutions. Really, this stuff can sit in the sink for hours while I avoid making a decision.
But, I was just going through a pile of article ideas and came upon a clipping about vericomposting-- letting worms eat the kitchen waste and turn it into fabulous fertilizer. A company in Ohio sells kits that include a nice dark ventilated box, bedding, other stuff that makes worms happy, and 2,000 worms. I'm ordering one! I think the temperature of my basement is just right (between 55-77 degrees) for worm bliss. Then all I'll have to do is trot downstairs with my scallions and feed them to the worms. My garden is a wreck right now-- it's been hideously neglected for months--but I'll be ready to pamper it in the spring with worm nectar.
I'm quite sure I told my husband last year that all I wanted for Christmas was a worm kit. He didn't believe me.
Charlie Is Alive
My mother had a list of things that she wanted me to do--pull the tomato plants out of her garden, refill her salt shaker, move the decaffeinated green tea to the front of the cupboard where she can reach it. The one thing I really didn't want to do was to dispose of Charlie's remains and clean out his sepulchral vase. But when I walked into my mother's apartment, I saw a flutter of fins.
"He's alive!" I told her. His vase--with a plant in the top and roots in the water that he nibbles at and hides in--was slicked over with green and clotted with floating poop. My sister had been gone for three weeks, so it hadn't been cleaned in at least that long. My mother couldn't see Charlie for all the scum and floaters, so she had stopped feeding him-- she figured it didn't make sense to feed a dead fish. He had survived a week or so of light rations and, after I took care of matters, was feeling pretty swimmy with his clean vase and pollen-sized pellets of food. He's always been a shy fish, but he was suddenly showy.
The sad thing was that my 92-year 0ld mother could still hardly see him.
I visit her every three or so months in California. At each of those three-month increments, I find that more and more has been taken from her--meaning, she gets smaller, she hears less, she struggles to see. I should point out that there have been gains, too, and that some things haven't changed. She has lots of lovely new friends at the apartment building she moved to after my father's death; I tell her it's like the college dorm or sorority life she never had. She even has two new friends who climbed part of Mt. Everest when they were in their sixties. And she still loves clothes. Even though she can't read much else, she manages to peruse the catalogs and order clothes over the phone. I'm sure she enjoys chatting with the people at the call center. I'm sure they have to set aside their time-studied efficiencies and allow themselves a conversation.
But my mother can't read books anymore. This is a huge loss for someone whose life was always partly defined by what she was reading. I have a large family--four siblings, plus their spouses and their eleven grown children and their spouses--and there is a constant book swap at work. My mother always used to have a pile by her bed-- this one from Betty, this one from Dan and Sue, this one from Cindy, and so on. Whenever it was her birthday, she'd get a pile of books. It was the one thing we always knew she wanted.
But her eyes have failed her. Her wrists, too: even when she finds a book that she likes in big print (and she has issues with the quality of the books that go into large print!), the book is usually too heavy for her to hold. She still talks about books and touches them lovingly in stores. When I took her through Costco in a wheelchair the other day, she found a book that someone in the family had been talking about and held it in her lap for a while. Then she sighed and lifted it with two trembling hands. "It's too heavy," she said.
One of the last books she read was High Albania, a wonderful book about a turn-of-the-last-century woman who was ordered to travel for her health and wound up spending years in Albania, visiting remote mountain clans on horseback. My mother loved the book so much that she talked it up to her friends at lunch. One elderly couple wound up borrowing the book. They returned it while I was visiting. As the man handed it to me, he widened his eyes and said, "She's pretty smart, isn't she?"
"Quite smart," I said, and refrained from kicking his walker. Maybe the comment stung because I remembered boys saying something like this to me, about me, when I was a teenager. They seemed startled that a girl could be smart, just as this man was startled that my mother could be smart-- at least, in this bookish way.
Now she can't be smart and engaged in that way anymore. It breaks my heart.