The Plains by Gerald Murnane

gerald-murnane-the-plains

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances. (P. 13)

And so it begins…this novel made me think a great deal about our own country—even tho’ I finished reading it well before the 2016 election results were decided, I was already well aware of the division between the coastal, urban areas and the rural areas, especially the open plains. You know, those “fly over” states in the middle—the Great Plains, the “Bread Basket” of the nation, amber waves of grain and all that salt of the earth stuff. I know there are some who look at that part of the USA map and think, “those red state people who love Jesus, take the Bible literally, and don’t believe in evolution.” Whatever. To each his own, they’re not hurting me none, and I mean them no harm. You’d be surprised, we are more than what we seem, more than anyone can imagine. Being from Upstate New York, I’ve seen a similar difference between town and country—Upstate vs. New York City. There are Upstate people who would love to cut off from NYC, many of the “us” up here resent the audacity of those city slickers trying to impose their highfalutin ideas on us simple folk in the great, lake effect, cold, white north—take that as you think best, it can go either way. The people of the Midwest and the people I bump elbows with outside of the realm of the academia bubble in the Upstate regions are pretty much from the same cloth. And they feel left behind, the forgotten America. Even though, I’ll never fit in with them,  I do admire them for their honest, hardworking ethics. Even the ones who are a hard scrabble lot who don’t know better, they chronically do dumb things, and wind up doing time in jail for petty nonsense they shouldn’t have done. I always sympathized with the ones on the outside, even if they didn’t understand me at all, the ones who I befriended, tipped their heads with curiosity and gave up on figuring me out. I wasn’t a threat, just different. They’d talk, I’d listen to their stories. For as long as there’s civilization, there will always be differences, factions, groups, and each has their own ideas of how things are, and what is right—or wrong. See…this is what I love about books, they get you thinkin’ about stuff…even if the stuff has little to do with the book, there’s something about reading that turns on the brain to travel in and around…

The plainsman’s heroes, in life and in art, were such as the man who went home every afternoon for thirty years to an unexceptional house with neat lawns and listless shrubs and sat late into the night deciding on the route of a journey that he might have followed for thirty years only to arrive at the place where he sat—or the man who would never take even the one road that led away from his isolated farmhouse for fear that he would not recognize the place if he saw it from the distant vantage points that others used.

 There were historians who suggested that the phenomenon of the plains themselves was responsible for the cultural differences between the plainsmen and Australians generally. The exploration of the plains had been the major event in their history. What had at first seemed utterly flat and featureless eventually disclosed a countless subtle variations of landscape and an abundance of furtive wildlife. Trying to appreciate and describe their discoveries, the plainsmen had become unusually observant, discriminating, and receptive to gradual revelations of meaning. Later generations responded to life and art as their forbears had confronted the miles of grassland receding into haze. They saw the world itself as one more in an endless series of plains. (p. 18)

Wow—think about it. Ain’t it beautiful—universal truths and all that—can you dig it? I thought you could.

The same landowner began to describe other influences that he felt late at night in the more remote wings of his house. He sensed sometimes the lingering persistence of forces that had failed—of a history that had almost come into being. He found himself looking into corners for the favourite pieces of the unborn children of marriages that were never made. (P. 23)

I spent some time west of the Mississippi—a friend and I drove 13 ½ hours on Route 10 from Houston to El Paso once, (that was enough.) I saw a changing landscape along the way, from humidity drenched heat to baked desert dry—a big sky, a broad expanse all around with the ribbon of highway cutting through, and then the shimmering haze of distant horizon—the horizon, the future, the place you’re trying to get to—or get away from—depends on how you want to look at it, I guess. I was far from home, and passing through, looking for something outside of myself. I hadn’t written a book yet, but wanted to, I just had to find what I was looking for out there in that horizon—that periwinkle blue future distance.

…the famous ‘tint of the horizon’… what moved them more than wide grasslands and huge skies was the scant layer of haze where land and sky merged in the farthest distance…talking of the blue-green haze as though it was itself a land—a plain of the future, perhaps, where one might live a life that existed only in potentiality on the plains where poets and painters could do no more than write or paint….a landscape that was wholly illusory…the zone of haze was as much a part of the plains as any configuration of soil or clouds…they esteemed the land of their birth for the very reason that it seemed bounded continually by the blue-green veil that urged them to dream of a different plain.(bits n’ pieces stitched together from P.27)

 …an “art of the horizon.” (P.29)

 Anyone surrounded from childhood by an abundance of level land must dream alternately of exploring two landscapes—one continually visible but never accessible and the other always invisible even though one crossed and recrossed it daily.(P. 36)

 This obsession with explorers. Please don’t misunderstand me; it’s a worthy task we’ve undertaken. But that vision of the plains we’re all looking for—let’s remember that the first explorers may not have been expecting plains. And many of them went back to their seaports afterwards. Certainly they boasted of what they had discovered. But the man I want to study is the one who came inland to verify that the plains were just as he’d hoped for. That vision we’re all looking for… (p. 46)

It depends on what you’re looking for—the filmmaker who proposed to make a film about the plains—The Interior—it never happened, at least, not realized in a tangible way that was initially proposed—he was really a writer not a filmmaker, and got caught in the trap of expectation.

…I learned in time that I was considered by a small group to be a film-maker of exceptional promise. When I first heard this, I had been about to reply that my cabinets full of notes and preliminary drafts would probably never give rise to any image of any sort of plain. I had almost decided to call myself poet or novelist …or some other of the many sorts of literary practitioner flourishing on the plains. Yet if I had announced such a change in my profession I might have lost the support of those few people who persisted in esteeming me…A few of these men argued even that the further my researches took me away from my announced aim and the less my notes seemed likely to result in any visible film, the more credit I deserved as the explorer of a distinctive landscape…It suited the purposes of these men that I should continue to call myself a film-maker; that I should sometimes appear at my annual revelation with a blank screen behind me and should talk of the images I might yet display…No one afterwards could point to a single feature of whatever place I stared at. It was still a place out of sight in a scene arranged by someone who was himself out of sight. (bits and pieces stitched together from pages 109-110.)

He came, he saw—he stayed. If he left, something would’ve come of it. (I’d like to think so.)

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