P. Driving west from Austin through the hill country and up an uncontextualizably long section of I-10 where the speed limit of 80 seems painfully slow, the trees become shorter and shorter until they disappear completely, and at some moment, imperceptibly, you enter the West.
Texas is not known for its parklands. In fact, it has the country’s largest percentage of private land ownership -- 84% of the state’s 171 million acres are privately owned and not greatly accessible for rambling.
Nor is Texas usually associated with countercultural impulses. Austin has a growing reputation in this regard, though longtime residents will tell you the city’s fundamental character is being threatened--or perhaps has already been rooted out--by gentrification and development. No, most Americans think of Texas and hear strains of commercial country music, the affected drawl of George W. Bush, and the roars of the large vehicles that busy its urban highways.
For these reasons the far west corner of Texas comes as a consistent surprise. There is tremendous space. There are vibrant enclaves of genuine American weirdness. There are artists and desert rats and cultural expatriates, different-drummer libertarians who want to get away from the government. It feels like a different country, yet it is still, charmingly, Texas.
The uninitiated are likely drawn to the area for one of two reasons. One would be the town of Marfa, which began its life as a railroad stop but in recent decades entered a restless new phase as an unlikeliest mecca for minimalist-inclined artists from New York. Driving in from across the emptiness is a dramatic experience. The ranchers are still there, yet most of town has begun to feel like a pocket of Brooklyn in the middle of the desert. There are art galleries and boutique clothing stores. There is a huge installation of aluminum sculptures in a decommissioned airplane hangar. There is a small public radio station, a beautifully curated bookstore, a cafe through the side door of a small house serving potato-jalapeño soup.
Marfa has received some press lately, but it doesn’t jump off the map, and most visitors to far west Texas are there because of a green area that does: Big Bend National Park, straight south of Marfa along the titular bend of the Rio Grande. The great exception to Texas’ preference for private land ownership, Big Bend is immense, dwarfing. Simply getting there makes a significant impression; from the “next door” community of Marfa the drive takes about an hour and a half at 75, the land in between stark and intimidating.
Big Bend is a powerful place, inviting to quiet and thoughtlessness and the contemplation of contrasts. Most of the park sits at a low elevation, open desert that hugs the river and expands widely to meet the plains north. But then there are the Chisos Mountains rising a mile into the blue Texas air. From Emory Peak, the crow’s nest of the Chisos some 8,000 feet above Austin, you see 180 degrees of Texas and another 180 of Mexico. The Chisos Basin is a comely bowl of a valley where they’ve placed a generally agreeable visitor’s center and lodge. A cut in the mountains to the west opens a view out across the desert below to Terlingua and Lajitas.
Terlingua, home of an internationally famous chili cook-off, is another former mining community that was abandoned for decades before, for some reason, people started moving back in. I picked up a book called Why Terlingua? at one of the shops in town, a little collection of locals’ stories. It was full of anecdotes like, “I asked around to see if anyone was living in the dynamite shack, and they said no, so I put a door on it and I lived in that dynamite shack for nine years.”
The river flows a ways south of Terlingua. With a good enough vehicle you can traverse the national park’s backcountry roads and camp right along its banks. Seen from its banks or from the mountains above, it’s hard to fathom the profound consequences that resulted when someone managed to tell everyone that one side of that river was the United States and the other side of it was Mexico. Standing by the river it seems awfully futile and arbitrary. It is just a river. It has two sides.
One time I was there in the park in late May. It was 108 degrees outside when we pulled into our campsite. There was barely any choice but to sit in the river, and that’s what we did pretty much all evening, as the expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert and Mexico loomed out to the south and the quiet Chisos towered above us.
P. Jürg Frey is a quiet Swiss gentleman who writes stark music extreme in its precision and clarity. The music mediates between sound and silence, between meaningful motion and absolute stasis. He plays the clarinet and is known as a member of the Wandelweiser composers’ collective. In 2012 American pianist Andy Lee released an album of Frey’s piano music. It opens with a fifteen-minute piece called Klavierstück 2, a mysterious set of piano chords floating in a dusky non-teleological ether. Sometimes a chord is repeated, for a little while; at other times the music simply stops. We seem to be perhaps going somewhere, but clearly we are going there slowly.
After five minutes, all activity halts and the pianist plays a simple perfect fourth -- an E and an A at the center of the keyboard -- 468 times. This interlude lasts for seven and a half minutes, which is half the length of the piece. Your perception is forced to shift. Now there is no forward motion at all; the music has ceased to be horizontal and become a stationary, vertical construction. The only horizontal, progressive elements, the only temporal landmarks, are now emerging from your own consciousness. You notice your patience ebbing and your attention focusing on the steady repetitions. You begin to allow sounds from outside the music to enter the experience; you notice the subtly changing state of the world outside the piece.
A friend of mine recently suggested we might be better off if we could perceive time not as a passing or loss, not as something we can spend and waste like currency, but simply as a slow and inexorable shifting of light. Like sitting in the river that 108-degree day along the Big Bend, too hot to go anywhere or do anything, watching the clouds pass and the sunset proceed. A sunset is not divisible into any meaningful, discrete component stages. It is a shifting thing. It is change.
Finally, the E-A perfect fourth relents to another interval. The music continues for a few more moments, the opening’s soupiness counterbalanced with some higher, clarion sounds. And then the piece is over.
P. The Voynich Manuscript is a colorfully illustrated book handwritten on vellum in a mysterious, unknown script. It has been dated to the early 15th century and is suspected to be from Northern Italy. It is named for Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who owned it for a time; no one knows who wrote it, or why. No one knows what it says, or if in fact it says anything at all.
There are drawings on many of the pages. These largely fail to provide much in the way of textual clues, though they do fall into broad categories (plants, stars, etc.) that suggest an organization of the book’s content, should this content actually exist, into roughly six sections.
Studies of the script suggest that syntactically and on grounds of letter frequency it seems to be a semantic language, but professional crytographers have been at it for a good while now, and no one has made any progress decoding the thing. If, in fact, there is a code at all. The regularity of the printing suggests that the author wrote easily and continuously, without the stops and breaks one would expect in an encoded text.
So perhaps the script is not a cipher but an invented language or an original system of transcription for a non-European world language. Perhaps the author was a mystic, writing in a stream of consciousness while experiencing altered states of being. And yet the text is so consistent, with recurring word patterns and glyphs and shifting layers. It seems to suggest content, and yet the closer one looks, the more this content blurs out of focus.
There are many competing theories as to the book’s authorship. Many incredulous people have proposed the book to be some sort of hoax. This idea says more of the theorist, so leery of being hoodwinked, than it does of the text. And the hoax question is less one of meaning and more one of intention; what was the author’s purpose in creating such a book, and was he or she putting us on?
If it is nonsense, it is extremely careful nonsense, nonsense of the highest possible order. It isn’t immediately clear whether this would make the document more or less remarkable.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues