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An Altar

When did I first encounter graffiti for myself? Beside a parking lot, just close enough to be noticed through the trees but too far back to recognize, a little up a slope, at the end of a trace left by its seekers – an altar.

It seemed to me like an altar – not a place for worship, but a place for rites. A low, long trapezoid of rain-dark concrete. From the unknown depth of the leaves that hid its base it rose like the peak of a buried pyramid. It may have gone deeper than I imagined: I later identified it (I forget how) as the base of one of the struts of a world war watchtower for German submarines.

The surface was covered in scrawls and scratches of nonsense and gibberish. There were English letters, English sounds and arrangements of sounds, but no English meanings – no regularity of language or code, only the dreamlike suggestion of meaning that can be grasped onto, but not held, smooth, slippery, bottomless. What promise of secrets! Surely if there were deep unseen machinery in the world this was the place to discover it.

I copied down a small page full of symbols and signs. I have lost it since – but even while I kept it I avoided looking at it. It felt like admitting an intruder.

Those who carved and marked this altar meant only secrecy, not mystery, and only privacy, not ritual. I was a child Kircher of small-town hieroglyphs, willing significance from mere meaning.

But to know that I was foolish does not cheapen the experience. Nature shows its dominion in more than overgrowth and decay. Nature guides the accumulation of anonymous and inscrutable human marks as surely as it guides the tracks of vines and the webs of spiders. Such places feel sacred because they bear witness to what we otherwise conceal: we, too, are part of nature. The god who loves his beetles is the same god who loves us. We are building his altars.


Sometimes the most effective insult is the one that is not obviously insulting. First you are insulted; then you insult yourself with the awareness of your own ignorance. But some insults are insulting only by convention. This is the case with reinvention. “You’ve reinvented the wheel!” But why not reinvent the wheel? You might learn something.

Reinvention is either repetition or reconception. Repetition achieves the same result by the same method; reconception achieves the same result by a new method. Repetition, while it may be valuable for the repeater, is valueless in itself; reconception is valuable in itself because it adds to understanding.

Repetition is valueless in itself because it is wasteful. It has value for only three conditions: first, where the desired invention is unattainable, but its use is familiar; second, where the idea of the invention travels faster or more freely than its workings, and can be reinvented more efficiently than obtained; and third, when the waste of reinvention is outweighed by the desire for the habit of invention. The third value is mine.

Invention is not itself a faculty, but it is the simplest combination of the faculties, employing reason, memory, and imagination in equal proportions. That old threefold scheme is incidental – any division will do; what matters is the equality of its parts. Invention is that use of the mind which is limited not by the power of its parts, but by the speed and life of its connections; not by its strength, but by its agility.

Invention requires practice; but because it is an act of all faculties, the usual methods of practice – set problems, which exclude memory; études, which exclude imagination; and exercises, which exclude reason – cannot develop it. It must grow with a round habit, equal on all sides. For this, it requires real problems: problems that arise in useful work and productive projects.

Yet most of the problems we encounter in our work and projects have already been solved. For the sake of efficiency, speed, and husbanding our mortal time, research and reuse are usually the right choice for any problem considered alone. But what of problem-solving generally? Invention is a habit; and there is no habit of invention without reinvention.

Reinvention is valuable for the reinventor, as practice. But in itself, an act of reinvention can be valuable in two ways: the public value of a new approach; and the private value of understanding. And these values, though independent, may coexist.

The value of a new approach is obvious in mathematics, since only in mathematics is the result of each approach demonstrably the same. Transcendent numbers transcend the awkward operational definitions by which human beings named them – the ratio of diameter to circumference, the rate of interest perpetually compounded – they are rediscovered again and again, the world’s true eternal conspiracy, everything traces back to them, they are behind all the fronts, inside all the shells and shadows. The sums of infinite series, the falling of coins on grids, the charted growth of flowers – there are an infinity of ways to reinvent them, and every way adds to our mastery of the world by revealing new shapes under which these our permanent companions can be found – culminating in the glorious abridgment of Euler’s identity.

In the spectrum of intellect mathematics is usually placed at one extreme, poetry at the other; but here, in the uses of reinvention, these extremes touch. All poetry is the reinvention of poetry; reinvention on new models and in new contexts: some new model perception (a flea, a red wheelbarrow), some new model interaction (the death of a lutenist god, the speech of a leech-gatherer), some new modeling context (splendor in the grass, dark Satanic mills, the worshipers who must tighten the bolts unwarned). And poems are not alone: much of technology has been reinvented: what was built on rumor before the plans arrived, like the cotton gin; what was reinvented blindly to avoid infringement of a patent, like the PC.

The private value of reinvention is to advance understanding. The simplest form is the imperative to recast another’s thoughts in your own words. But this is not really students’ business. By rephrasing students better remember another’s understanding; but by reinvention one better understands. Indeed, where the strictures of licensing and regulation, and the friction of custom and community, outweigh the benefits of study and imitation, the rational course is to reinvent what you would know, instead of learning it. The hard parts are done already: you know that it is possible, what it is good for, why it is needful; the usual limits of human ability and conditions of human fallibility hold; the work is a matter of filling in blanks, which can usually be spliced with pieces of other disciplines.

All intellectual activities can be divided into those where reinvention is useful and those where reinvention is necessary. Those in which reinvention is useful but not necessary are the sciences and design; those in which reinvention is necessary are the arts, and the professions.

There are new things to be done in science, new discoveries to be made, new instruments leading to new worlds of exploration; and there are new things to be done in design, new needs to answer, new patterns to define. Here the effort of reinvention could always be applied to invention.

But in the arts and the professions nothing is really new. To choose two, there is nothing new in literature or law. We cannot add new behaviors to those that Homer and Shakespeare knew; we cannot add new patterns to those that Aristotle and Machiavelli documented. If something in literature or law appears to be new, then it is gibberish, or it is deceit, or you do not understand it. Nothing can be done in either that is not an reinvention; yet we must do both, and for the same reasons: partly because life commands it, as it commands the yearly reinvention of flowers; but more because we who desperately need them cannot otherwise have them.

The criticism of literature and the philosophy of law do not create and do not decide law or literature; they cannot in themselves save or sustain anything. Shakespeare, however praised, without quoters and imitators, would be forgotten; a constitution, however respected, without reinterpreters and reformers, would obsolesce.

One generation passes away; what they loved and revered we cannot learn to love and revere from them. Their love is dust in the ground, their reverence collects dust in attics. We can love the life they loved and obey the law they obeyed only for our own sake; we must reinvent them, not even to maintain them, but just to learn to see them. We cannot see how the world was built for us until we have rebuilt it for ourselves, knowing that all we build we build only for those who come after us to tear it down and rebuild what we will not recognize.

Power Outages

Once all the work is done and nothing remains but waiting and biding, you may as well romanticize an unavoidable difficulty. So long as you avoid forming a sentimental attachment, to romanticize lets you force some benefit from an experience that would otherwise only humiliate and exhaust. True, it would seem more honest not to romanticize, to bear difficulty as difficulty without renaming it opportunity or insight; but life is not long enough for such purity. We work with what we get.

Long power outages are a good example. They waste time, they subtract days from habit and use. And here in Louisiana, where such power outages are usually due to hurricanes, they mean the labor of cleanup and repair and the horror of the radio. After Katrina, without power and thus without TV, I saw none of the sights that, as I have read, horrified the nation and the world; but I heard the voices. I heard a woman in terror calling from her attic as the water rose around her feet; I heard a radio host, in a soft radio host’s voice, tell his caller that the best thing for her to do would be to find something heavy and break a hole through her roof. I don’t remember if she called back. (I was in the audience; by the time my own property was accessible, volunteers were being left idle or turned back.)

A long power outage is a kind of experiment in material culture. The result is not the present collapsing into the past, but a barrier giving way so the past and present can mingle. You learn strange things about familiar objects. A paperback book, for example, cannot be read by the light of a single candle. The pages will not lie flat; they shadow one another. Two candles are required, one for each page.

More interesting is how thin the habits of technological life are. Only a week passed before I was rising with the sun and turning in at nightfall. Food preparation became so difficult that orderly meals reappeared. I found myself dreading the waning of the moon and the nights of unappealable dark that followed.

That is a genuine connection with the past: old poems have been a little different ever since. It was, I think, more genuine than the recreations of re-enactors and the lives of sects that reject technology, for we were not leaving technology; technology had left us: we were not withdrawing from society; society forgot us. No officials came to check, no functionaries offered help. Not for long, but for long enough, we were out of touch and beyond help.

But which past, and in which parts? Technology requires knowledge, and the limit of knowledge is the limit of technology. Nineteenth century technology with twenty-first century knowledge is twenty-first century technology. And there was always the car for spiritual refuge – the spaceship of the piney void.

Of course, the same event was much worse for others, who never had the chance to romanticize. But all of us are better prepared now – another Katrina would not rival the first. And as technology miniaturizes and gadgetizes, its empire of propane, lithium batteries, and LEDs does not abdicate when the wires go cold.

A power outage interrupts habit; and like all interruptions of habit it discovers by contrast. Life is lived mostly by a borrowed pace: observing paths, speed limits, hours, appointments; following, catching up on, awaiting. A power outage, in suspending all these rhythms, shows what is very hard to see among the lights – shows that these rhythms are not things that you have made part of you, but things that have made you part of them. And you must measure what you give to each in the knowledge that it can take everything you have to give.

And then, suddenly, the lights come back on; the screens are alive again, the voices have faces again; you stop thinking about the weather; the hours are yours again to use, to apply or to waste. Now you can rest; now you can smile at what strange thoughts there are to think when thinking is all you can do.

Kalashnikov's Dream

[The atom bomb is a common subject of literary meditation; and in the history of the 20th century Kalashnikov’s dream was at least as important as Szilard’s.]

Now that the battle is over Mikhail lies in his sickbed
 Dreaming of faraway home, dreaming of battles to come.
Thinking of windmills, thinking of lawnmowers, hoping for good work
 Something to earn him a place, something his country can bless.
Russia his motherland, cruel cold mother who knows and commands him
 Exiled his childhood land, gave him a freezing wind
Russia his motherland, spendthrift spending her children in millions,
 Loading her sons into trains, planting the fields with their bones.
Russia his mother is dying, bleeding from hundreds of deep wounds
 Counting the men to a gun while they have a gun for each man.
Mikhail was gentle, but Germany’s evil buries his conscience
 Killing his slow-fingered friends – nothing to raise but their hands.
Surely the soldier who fights for his homeland should have a fair chance
 Armed with a gun of his own, faithful through muddying rain.
Germany makes them so complex, even the parts have their pieces
 Numberless sockets and springs, pistons and delicate prongs
Some piece always remained when he put them together in secret.
 Though they would fire the same, surely each piece had a home?
Mikhail was trained for the weapons of farmers, lawnmowers threshers and grain mills,
 Even if he had a plan – still he would work all alone.
All that he knows is that all that is useful proves to be simple,
 Simple, plain as a pole; useful, sure as a nail.
All that he knows is that all that is complex is useless,
 Fickle as gamblers’ cards, faithless as diplomats’ words.
Raw with the shame of his innocence Mikhail drifts off to deep sleep
 Thinks of the friends he has lost, thinks of how vain were their boasts
Dreams of a faceless rumor he heard told somewhere in darkness
 Telling the news of a bomb, news of men bottling doom
News of the race for a weapon whose hell fire godlessly damns men,
 Peoples a city with ghosts, blinds with the dawn of its blast.
Cold in his thin sheets Mikhail dreams of a way to do better
 What is its use at the last, leaving nothing but waste?
Mikhail dreams of a weapon cheaper than shoes for the soldier,
 Gun for the beaten and lost, gun for the faceless and least.
Gun to make every man equal, gun to take meaning from conquest,
 Empire only a dream, something that lived out its time.
Armed with their own strength men need not fear the machines of the new age,
 No more be ground by the wheel, no more be slaves for the call.
Simpler even than simple, simpler even than instinct
 Easy as sitting to cook, easy as lying to sleep
Obvious pieces that fatefully fit and have joy in the fitting
 Clip slams home with a click, chamber charged with a cock,
Thumb on the lever to let loose, take aim and hold tight,
 Tolerant pistons jerk, blow back drum rolls bark.
Restlessly Mikhail dreams in his sickbed here where the world ends,
 Far from the fate of his name, far from remembering home.