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Terrible Lizards: Is There Anything More Mundane Than Lizard-Catching?

Photo courtesy of Matthew D. Kulisch

This week, our team has been discussing the Backwords Blog roots, along with our mission and methodology. Our approach to wrestling with our own histories and personal experiences, through the deepening of research. And, yes, our sometimes-departure from that form.

In light of the number of, say, “political posts” from us lately, and given the tenor of the times, the blog’s undertaking has occasionally felt like an inadequate vehicle for speaking our truth—especially to power, or to those who do not share our particular form of moral certainty. The mission and methodology of the blog, then, has struck us each (differently, and at different times in the past 6 months) as less important than addressing the timely, of doing justice through writing, of explaining (or stabbing at trying to explain) this new world we’re all suddenly in.

I was watching Oscar’s highlights last week, basking in Moonlight’s well-deserved and thoroughly-startling win, marveling at how few seconds it took for the victory to devolve in the Comments into a standoff of political platforming… One might safely ask: What does President Trump have to do with the Oscar’s? Or: What does La La Land losing have to do with the alt-right? While there are no doubt answers to these questions, I question the need of the requisite mental gymnastics to land on them.

Nevertheless, it seems politics are everywhere these days. Every subject, no matter how ostensibly removed, is an opening for some baiter to make things political. (You’ve probably heard the standard argument, a favorite of poly-sci majors and critical theorists alike, that everything is always and already political anyway…) And what passes for political discourse these days, rather than an occasion for discussion or empathy, is usually just an excuse to name-call: the political is personal these days, inextricably bound to the kneejerk reaction that rationalizes cutting a friend or family member out of your life because they disagree with you; they’re just stupid, you might say, or they make me feel unsafe, a weird marriage of dismissal and overindulgence.

Our team has had a number of discussions about this, public and private, and come to no real solution. Maybe there isn’t one. For my part, out in society, I feel a pattern has already taken hold and no amount of reasoning shakes people from the quietude of unthinking.

In a climate such as this, what good are art and presence? What purpose does reflection or personal inquiry serve when any toe out-of-party-line is likely to be stubbed out before it’s halfway across the threshold of ideas?

Photo courtesy of Matthew D. Kulisch

And in light of this, there’s a place and a story I can’t shake. In the early autumn of 2008, I drove a box-truck full of tooling and tent poles to Vernal, Utah to put on a wedding. I don’t remember much about the couple in question or the décor, and even less about the town and her people. It was rural Utah, so certainly it was some form of dry and conservative. Even for mid-September, it was extremely hot outside as I worked. Not my cup of tea.

The job was odd for another reason: my regular supervisor, a close friend called Grant (who died unexpectedly late last year), was absent with other plans and I was setting up the event myself. A member of our sales team, Michelle, a blonde no-nonsense woman in her 40’s, was coordinating the event for us and had brought her family to Vernal for the whole weekend. Her two sons, Jackson and Hayden, were conscripted to assist me: one short, mop-haired shadow tailing a second shadow, pimply and high (like a paler, adolescent James Franco from Freaks & Geeks); together we were a kind of three-headed hydra for the weekend, me pointing to a task and they begrudgingly following suit. All weekend.

When the wedding finished on Saturday, Michelle insisted I remain—it was a three-hour drive home—and she didn’t want me driving alone, plus (not so secretly) wanted me to continue looking after the boys. Dinner and breakfast were promised to me, in addition to the per diem for a hotel room. Michelle had a destination in mind, too: The Dinosaur National Monument, 20 miles east of Vernal on the border of Colorado.

Dinosaurland, as it’s called, is a 200,000 acre park, open to visitors, home to dozens of paleontological dig sites, and a number of curatorial exhibits, serving to inform and excite the public about the story of dinosaurs in American prehistory. Established as a federally-protected tract in 1938, and up from the original 1915 allotment of 80 acres, Dinosaurland is sandwiched between the Yampa and Green rivers—the only signs of moisture for miles in an arid plateau that was once part of a primordial inland sea.

Photo courtesy of Matthew D. Kulisch

On the Utah side, visitors can see:

“…the world-renowned dinosaur…where dinosaur digs have uncovered a wealth of prehistory. More than 1,500 fossils are still embedded in the cliff face here. Half a mile from the quarry, you’ll find the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall and Visitor Center. You can take a shuttle bus in the summer between the Visitor Center and Exhibit Hall. In other seasons, rangers lead car caravans up to the Quarry.”

The Quarry was under construction when we went in 2008. In fact, poor planning (and the presence of Michelle’s aging parents) left us with little more than enough time and energy to hike a mile loop-trail around the Visitor Center.

It was, by most accountings, an unremarkable visit. Michelle and her husband, Todd, shuffled around the grandparents and their young daughter. Jackson and Hayden followed me like bored cats, at once lazy, at once bursting—like the tiny lizards skittering between stones amid the uneven ground. Jackson caught one with his foot, halfway-tripping, the pressure from his tennis shoe sandwiching the creature between rubber and rock, enough to open its belly into a red smile. This is not a metaphor for anything: Jackson held it between his fingers, the lizard’s tail already shucked off in distress or pain; we watched as it breathed little last breaths with its tiny gaping mouth. He tossed it between some boulders. A mundane death.

Photo courtesy of Matthew D. Kulisch

Does that little lizard mean more for having met its end in the same place as the fossilized bones of Utahraptors?

I wrote my first prose-poem after that death. A poem which got published in my English Department’s literary journal, Enormous Rooms, the following term. So the trip has a special allure for me, despite its dull opacity to any casual observer, despite the virtually-nonexistent readership of so small and insignificant a journal. Dinosaurland and that trip are meaningful, part of a web of association that only makes sense if drawn and shared.

I don’t have grand overtures for you about how art or creativity will save us, definitely not any about how writing about art will save us or why it is important. Moreover, there are other places and communities and peoples, nations even, who see art and creativity as inherently political—and view the role of the artist as a disrupter of the powerful, resistor of tyranny, even as voice for the voiceless. (Not generally in the United States, that’s for sure…) Should we be focused elsewhere, on something more important?

I do know that Jackson killed that little lizard. I saw it, and then made it into a poem.

Photo courtesy of Matthew D. Kulisch

That seems enough reason for me for the poem to exist–even enough reason to note its occasion now. When Mahershala Ali was asked at the Oscar’s last week, after winning in the category for “Best Supporting Actor” for his role in Moonlight, how it felt to be the first Muslim American to be honored by the Academy, he simply said:

“Regardless of one's theology or how you see life or relate to worshipping god, my job as an artist is to tell the truth and connect with these characters as deeply as possible. One's spiritual practice I do not believe it's relevant unless it gives you a way into these people that you have to advocate for. I'm proud to own that and I embrace that. I'm just an artist that feels blessed to have the opportunities I have had.”

I used to think that artists like Ali were dodging the point with statements like these. Now, I’m not so convinced.

In unwavering actuality, Ali seems less interested in the context of his performance–acknowledging it, yes, but not dwelling on that context–than he is in the greater context of shared humanity. Here, truth is transcendent of political or religious ideology. And I mark Ali’s humility at trying to approach this greater truth through artistic expression.

It seems to me that art, or the occasions from which it arises, are not particularly important in the light of history or doing justice. Art remains or it doesn’t. And, if you’re lucky, an art historian or theorist comes along later to attach (usually not reattach–this is the work of curators and academics) the piece to its larger context.

Even the most political of artists are also subject to the way that art changes an experience in the doing of it. As the novelist, William Maxwell, says in his book So Long, See You Tomorrow:

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”

I’m deeply wary of people who attach too much significance to occasions–even to art making. I sense minds rearranging an event to retrofit a purpose and narrative more closely aligned with their views. And while it may be true–to steal from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta–that “artists use lies to tell the truth,” I find their truth more humbling and worthy of exploration than the politician or pundit who recruits art into a ready made example of his own worldview. More authentic than the blogger who purposes art as a sword for justice.

The fact of the matter is that–in the very least, the art itself, if not the act of writing about it here–is indeed an inadequate vehicle for speaking truth to power, for convicting the stranger of your own moral certainty. Art speaks individually. It gets voice and gives voice individually. It uses lies to tell the truth, rearranging purposefully–but not in service to any political ideology we now possess.

Like Jackson falling onto the body of a lizard and making a poem, art resists easy explanation. It’s lies. If it’s good, we get some insight into our shared humanity from it. I think that’s good enough.

Stay Backwords,

Matthew D. Kulisch

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