The Thin

I’ve often pondered here on the blog my relationship with my locale. I live in an older residential area, where many of the older homes were probably built in the post-war boom. I went to a high school built as part of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s—it has a fallout shelter and is solid brick and stone.

The area is on the western fringe of East Texas’s pine forests, and the area is hilly. The trees have often been kind to me. The winds have often inspired me.

Long, long ago, the region was sea floor.

There are plenty of wyrd locales and spirits of the area. There’s a generally ignored space beside someone’s house under the shade of two trees (or, probably, one tree) that stands out as quite attentive. I have a friend who grew up in one house that was routinely haunted, a haunting he attributed on reflection to the tree on one side of the house and the decidedly unusual (for most American homes) layout that seemed to encourage odd flows of traffic and attention inside. He remembers another home where his mom had done some early ‘70s Wicca-ish stuff in the backyard, but her banishing game probably needed work. It was there that he remembers a visit from three kids dressed in fashions a decade behind who were just floating next to the tree, touching it (looking as if they were standing on branches), having a chat with his little brother.

Elsewhere, the urban, industrial decay I passed by when I was growing up always caught my attention, and as the aging structures have grown more abandoned—industry has moved on, but not the area, so much—I can feel and hear and see someone’s moved in out of human sight. In the country areas, there are the odd boulders, clumps of trees, the lone tall tree, odd hedge-like lines grown wild. Before I moved a few years back, I remember finding the top of an otherwise flat boulder that was under a squat but distinctive tree, ringed with thorn and bramble with just one way in without stumbling through the countryside’s viny equivalent of barbed wire. There are places like that all over, but they’re usually ignored. Indeed, I had the sense that boulder and tree and thorn maze had deliberately hidden themselves—I’d passed by before—until my last month in town.

The indigenous peoples of the region—Caddo, Wichita, and others—often moved through on a seasonal basis, but there was plenty of colonization and “Indian Wars” as the territory went from being called “Arkikosa” by the northern Caddo to being the outskirts of the Spanish-then-Mexican Empire. Eventually, Texas’s “founding fathers” committed their extended land and cash grab, since romanticized with things like the Alamo legend and all that Texas mythology with which the state likes to drape itself. I’ve noted my dad finally mentioned—in passing—how the area had enough lynchings when he was a kid “to make Dallas look civilized.”

The dead are, of course, simultaneously under the hills but also often out and about, though the area’s primarily Protestant, Baptist, and Methodist populations have tended to hedge the dead into cemeteries and photo albums, at least for how those populations perceive them. It’s a kind of half-assed exorcism of the dead by way of ignoring them most of the time.

I’ve been dreaming of walking up and down these residential and other streets and back ways and in run-down buildings for decades. When I finally started to pull on that thread more, I could see how there’s this very ephemeral—compared to the land and trees and hills—layer of human discourse that felt and looked like brittle, packed-down newspaper. And these days, I walk these streets often for exercise, but also in an attempt to connect more mindfully, more attentively to the area.

As Gordon White begins his Magical Geography and Spirits of Place course for Q3 2018, I’ve been reconsidering my gaze and movements. I spent years embracing lethargy and moving as little as I could. I began walking as part of a broader lifestyle reorientation: I decided I would exercise while quitting smoking and restricting my diet, or at least being mindful of my diet. Early into this new lifestyle, I found myself profoundly dissatisfied and almost frustrated by my environment.

You see, Texas cities are mostly flat, filled with strip malls, parking lots, freeways, residential neighborhoods, telephone and power poles and lines, and lawns in various states of decay. Of course, I’ve just described much of the experience of late capitalism human spaces in the US. And I have had the chance to see the Gulf (of Mexico) Coast, the Rockies and forests of Colorado, the Grand Canyon, Tennessee’s backwoods (in passing), California’s redwoods, parts of London, and the deserts of New Mexico. In comparison, North Texas seems rather boring. Even thin.

What do I mean by thin? I mean thin like cloth can wear thin, like how nerves can wear thin. There is a depth of experience, affective response, memory, and realness about, say, Mount Massive and its surrounding countryside (which I visited as a child) than where I live. Some of this comparative thinness is just a matter of scale—Texas scrub has a hard time competing with the Rockies—but I suspect far more of this thinness results from how humans relate to the landscape. Many of us look with shallow gazes, and we are easily distracted by power lines, strip malls, and motorways. I would also wonder how much I was too thin, only able to see thin things, shallow things.

Mount_Massive

Mount Massive (by Rick Kemple, Jr.)

So, as I reflect, I wonder how much I had to remediate not only my self in terms of lifestyle and how I was fashioning my physical body, not only my emotional and spiritual life at the time, but also my ability to see and experience. At the time, one of my spirit allies told me to look up. When the sky was vivid blue with clouds, this was easy—this was invigorating and inspiriting. Sky and wind had me feeling far better about myself and about being out walking for exercise. And even on days when the sky was less immediately arresting, I could retrain my gaze to focus on where the trees met the sky. Essentially, through the power of selective seeing, I could look past the strip malls and more to see something that was far less thin and far more nourishing for me at the time. I also began noticing how plants and animals and weather wore their way through the human façade on the landscape, creeping in and through in ways that actually helped me ponder the rewilding of myself in the culture I spent so much time in.

This remediation became ultimately, I suppose, a remediation of my ability to see the world and myself, though that process is always ongoing. The sky’s infinite depth, the wind and the trees and more helped me recover my depth and my ability to perceive and access that depth.

That said, on reflection, I have to acknowledge that the paths I follow on these walks—and wherever I walk today—are tightly constrained: streets and paths marked out by city planners and architects and committees. I walk streets and sidewalks and lawns arranged to showcase particular features and to constrain access to very particular locales. Even the nature trails I’ve had access to where I’ve lived are curated paths. To find an otherwise untrod passage (I can’t call such a route a path or trail) I could navigate was always amazing, and to find secret paths was its own kind of exciting.

These secret or ignored spaces always feel—for lack of a better word and please pardon the esoteric cliché—liminal. It’s almost as if you’re off the plan, off the map, and I have to wonder just how much human attention and what kind of attention humans give remakes the interiority of our environments. There’s something similar I notice with the abandoned spaces—abandoned industrial spaces adjacent to railways, or just the railways and the space on either side of them as they cut through the countryside and cities. Outside of normal human attention, that thin human attention that seems to flatten the world around us, it’s almost as if the world has space to breathe again. And when you are in such a space, you can breathe, as well.

Or maybe you can suddenly find yourself suddenly experiencing a depth you’re unaccustomed to. I think about stories of tourists visiting expansive, awe-some countryside and pan-icking at that awful expansiveness, that far deeper reality that humans too often flee from in order to safely peer at from behind human facades and digital displays.

And I have to wonder how much that perception of the thinness of the world is purely a result of human thinness. I am aware that the area I live in has had many hauntings, many spirit encounters: the kids in the tree, peoples’ experiences of abduction during sleep paralysis[1] ranging from hags to spectral hounds to shadow people to grey aliens, multiple hauntings tied to indigenous and family dead and the landscape, poltergeist activity tied to harbinger entities witnessed by multiple witnesses at multiple times, and more. At that point, I have to acknowledge that the land I live on has plenty going on—or can—I just wasn’t looking beyond the surface of streets and the fronts of houses.

I also have had to consider what it means that I often “look past” my immediate environment in order to access those depths. I pass families’ homes often, but I am often focusing on the landscape, the trees, the sky—the roads and traffic and other persons—rather than the homes of the living. I will often comment to myself about particular homes. I will like such-and-such house for these reasons and hate such-and-such for others. How much of the locality am I ignoring in looking past to the landscape? Well, from one perspective, quite a bit. However, I don’t particularly want to peer into people’s homes and their lives. Most of them are rather…well…thin. Most of them are also, to be frank, rather Texan. The solution, I suspect, is to be otherwise engaged with the community in whatever terms I can manage.

I also have to wonder about instantiations of “larger” (deeper?) phenomena. I have two crossroads near me, though they’re too trafficked or exposed for midnight shenanigans. That said, they remain quite markedly crossroads. One is a four-way crossroad of a street east-to-west with a creek on the south and a waterway (often more moist or dry than full) northwards. I know the name of the creek, and she helped me make real contact with the river her mother. This is also my Devil’s crossroad for certain work and offerings.

There is also a three-way crossroad: a street comes in from the east ending in a T and against a hillside where wild mugwort grows. The south road in the T ends very quickly—a street that ultimately goes nowhere but a fence abutting against another residential development. The north road continues back into the neighborhood. This crossroad feels more strongly of, well, crossroad. I have had multiple avian and scarab/beetle syncs occur here as well as other suddenly-rather-real moments. After some recent PGM spelling with Hekate, I found myself being shown something rather pointed about the interiority of matter, and that came forth again as I dropped off the offerings from that spell at the crossroad, along with three coins (they seem to appreciate this). I could see, in a sense, the fractal “function” that is three-way crossroad there—that this arrangement of paths does crossroad-ness—and how crossroad spirits populate them or can be accessed through them. I also wound up glimpsing something about what’s actually “underhill” from this crossroad and, really, under where I’m living.

Anyway, I think I have been realizing how westerners’—and myself included, even when I didn’t think I was—thinness has flattened the world for westerners. In so doing, we’ve talked ourselves into thinking that world is nothing that we can’t cut up, ball up, and make into whatever we think we want. But even as we’ve used this perception of the world to do great violence to it, we’ve also inflicted that violence on ourselves, for I have started getting a better sense of how embedded I am into where I’ve lived. I have grown more aware of what my depths have been doing even as I was otherwise blind, and she has been off in the countryside, in the city, amongst trees and the dead. In turn, I have begun smelling, though perhaps also “feeling in my bones,” the land in ways that remind me of moisture and oak leaves and the cooling autumn air when I was younger even as the heat of this 2018 summer will continue into September.

[1] While sleep paralysis has a physiological component, to discount any super natural or spiritual component as being merely “superstitious” or as being purely a result of neurochemistry is to cling rather doggedly to materialist assumptions while discounting—indeed, while rather denigrating—the well-conserved beliefs of cultures past and present about sleep paralysis. One has to wonder how much the physiological phenomena represent the physiological expressions of the larger experience of sleep paralysis.

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