when all directions are South

when all directions are South

San Francisco, California
October 26th, 2012
231 days until the Arctic Circle journey

It occurred to me that most of my life has been lived on a grid. A grid has four cardinal directions: North, South, East, and West. And each of the directions has a character, informed by associations and affiliations.

If you hail from North America, in general, the word “North” reflects somewhat blue and tastes like snow. It is the place from which the monster storms descend. Even though we live on a sphere, North is undeniably, uphill.

If you scrape away that layer, North will give off a bloody, metallic scent with an edge of gunpowder wrapped up in a carpet bag. This is the civil war layer and it is still fresh. North has hard edges, and is, as far as humans go, moving at speed and doesn’t have time for you to catch up. North is a merry-go-round being pushed by the big kids.

Beneath and uphill of that North is a very still, very deep wilderness. People North gives way to Creature North, and creature is not necessarily animal. This North is where big mystery has a big house with a big door. Big enough for redwood trees to be potted plants. In the North, the unnameable still covers more ground than the named.

South, at first glance, is warm and welcoming. But it is ruled by water: either too much or too little. The deserts are so quiet that the wings of ravens passing overhead sound like laundry drying in the wind. And the wind is an ear that places itself against the ground and listens to everywhere. The South, and it is always referred to in that way: the South, is balmy and temperate at its shores, but is mostly vast, dry ocean bottoms veined with lava floes inhabited by kangaroo mice, and horned toads, and scorpions, and small, nimble owls. In this South, when it rains there is a glorious, momentary springtime of two-inch-high flowers, and plants that bloom once a decade. Tortoises climb the gullies with their transparent neck-skin stretched taut, letting the raindrops fall into their eyes.

There is also the South of hollows, of dry flies and potato bugs. This south has a green sky and stinks of wet horses and ozone. It is full of chiggers, and tastes like orange soda. This South is full of old, old rivers, with old, old catfish singing in the mud. No amount of weather sealing will keep the crickets out of your garage here. In this South, dirt devils wander the back roads, and gypsy moths shroud the willows, and when it rains the sky and the water swell into one another, forgetting that things that need to breathe air live between.

Beneath that layer of South is a throat full of story. Every creature there knows the story and sings the story at the top of its lungs: during the day the bumblebees fly the story from rose to weed, and the parking lots are jammed full of orderly stories, and the traffic lights keep the flow of stories moving. But in the evening, the story glides back out into the dusk. Then the cicadas pass it from tree to tree like a cigarette, and the fish take deep gulps of it from the surface of the rivers.

There is still the East, and the West. The Occident and the Orient. The traditional and the edgy.  The uptight and the flaky. The barbarous and the enlightened. Rivals (seemingly) in attitude and approach. These are the stereotypes of East and West. (The implication being East versus West.) Maybe this is because of that invaderly tide over the past 200 years, against the counterclockwise spin of the earth, to push West, to push to the new and far edge. Westward movement is deliberately hopeful, while Eastward movement is to return. West tastes like dust and is piercingly bright. East is the smell of thunderstorms and asphalt.

None of these descriptions will ever be enough. My directions are not everybody’s directions. My directions are my directions, but these sensory maps do have overlap.

When I take my journey to the Arctic Circle, there will only be one direction: South. And all that I have described will be contained within the place that I am not. I don’t think I ever understood the idea of exploration the way I understand it now: it’s not so much about going where you haven’t been, but about seeing where you were.

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