The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 15 Feb 2006

In a recent post, I discussed an uninteresting travel book I had read recently, and compared it with Kon-Tiki, which is an interesting travel book. I'm sure I'll write more about travel books later; I have at least one post coming up about Kon-Tiki, and at least one about William Bligh's book about the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty. This latter one may not sound much like a travel book, but it is, and it's a corker.

But today I realized I'd forgotten to mention one of my favorite travel books of all, Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. Heat Moon lost his job and his wife, and decided that it was time to take a long trip. He got in his van and drove around the United States, staying away from big cities and big highways, driving on the little roads, the ones that are marked in blue on the maps. (My grandmother had a Bud Blake cartoon hanging in her kitchen for my whole life. It depicted an annoyed husband, driving a small, 1940's-style car, being crowded almost out of his seat by the large folding roadmap his wife was consulting. The caption said "And then, in about half an inch, you turn onto a tiny blue road...".)

Everywhere he went, Heat Moon stopped and talked to people: men refurbishing an 18th-century log cabin in Kentucky; a monk in Georgia; hang-gliders in Washington; farmers in New York and fishermen in Maine; old folks and young folks. All of them have interesting things to say, and Heat Moon has interesting things to say about all of them. You can open up the book anywhere and strike gold.

For example, on page 11, Heat Moon stops in Shelbyville, Kentucky, for dinner:

Just outside of town and surrounded by cattle and pastures was Claudia Sanders Dinner House, a low building attached to an old brick farmhouse with red roof. I didn't make the connection in names until I was inside and saw a mantel full of coffee mugs of a smiling Harlan Sanders. Claudia was his wife, and the Colonel once worked out of the farmhouse before the great buckets-in-the-sky poured down their golden bounty of extra crispy. The Dinner House specialized in Kentucky ham and country-style vegetables.

One of my favorite passages is right at the beginning:

She came back with grape jelly. In a land of quince jelly, apple butter, apricot jam, blueberry preserves, pear conserves, and lemon marmalade, you always get grape jelly.

Another is right at the end:

Order Point, Long Island, was a few houses and a collapsed four-story inn built in 1810, so I went to Greenport for gas. At an old-style station, the owner himself came out and pumped the no-lead and actually wiped the windshield. I happened to refer to him as a New Yorker.

"Don't call me a New Yorker. This is Long Island."

"I meant the state, not the city."

"Manhattan's a hundred miles from here. We're closer to Boston than the city. Long Island hangs under Connecticut. Look at the houses here, the old ones. They're New England-style because the people that built them came from Connecticut. Towns out here look like Connecticut. I don't give a damn if the city's turned half the island into a suburb—we should rightfully be Connecticut Yankees. Or we should be the seventh New England state. This island's bigger than Rhode Island any way you measure it. The whole business gets my dander up. We used to berth part of the New England whaling fleet here, and that was a pure Yankee business. They called this part of the island 'the flikes' because Long Island even looks like a whale. But you go down to the wharf now and you'll see city boats and a big windjammer that sells rides to people from Mamaroneck and Scarsdale."

He got himself so exercised he overfilled the tank, but he didn't pipe down. "If the East River had've been ten miles wide, we'da been all right." He jerked the nozzle out and clanked it into the pump. "We needed a bay and we got a bastard river no wider than a stream of piss."

I really would like to know what would have happened if the East River had been ten miles wide instead of the stream of piss it is. No Brooklyn, for one thing; and that would be a shame.

But as usual, what I planned to write about was a completely different passage:

The saguaro is ninety percent water, and a big, two-hundred-year-old cactus may hold a ton of it—a two-year supply. With this weight, a plant that begins to lean is soon on the ground; one theory now says that the arms, which begin sprouting only after forty or fifty years when the cactus has some height, are counterweights to keep the plant erect.

That's pretty interesting all by itself. I wonder if he's right? The arms do need an explanation, not just because they are weird-looking, but also because they would seem to be survival-negative. The big problem that desert plants have is the same one that desert animals have: how to stay out of the sun. Unlike animals, they can't hide in underground burrows during the day, or move to shady spots. So most of them do their best to be as narrow and vertical as possible; hence the barrel cactus and the saguaro. Deviating from this pattern, as the saguaro does, exposes more of the plant to the burning rays of the sun, so the plant wouldn't do it without good reason.

I wonder how you'd test something like that? You can't just tip a saguaro over a bit and see where the arms grow out, because those arms can take years and years to grow. (Also, it's not good for the plant, which is an endangered species. There's a reason that biologists like to study fruit flies.) Well, there's another thing on my list of things to look up after I'm granted immortality.

The Monday I drove northeast out of Phoenix, saguaros were in bloom—comparatively small, greenish-white blossoms perched on top of the trunks like undersized Easter bonnets; at night, long-nosed bats came to pollinate them. But by day, cactus wrens, birds of daring aerial skill, put on the show as they made kamikaze dives between toothpick-sized thorns into nest cavities, where they were safe from everything except the incredible ascents over the spines by black racers in search of eggs the snakes would swallow whole.

Climbing snakes, wow! One of the legends of my house comes from a nature show that Lorrie and I once saw about alligators. The show depicted a woodpecker that lives in pitchy pine trees and pecks the trees to encourage a flow of the irritating sap down the outside. This deters the corn snakes from climbing the trees to eat the woodpeckers' eggs. This show followed the slow and careful ascent of a corn snake up one of the trees. As it was almost at the nest, it lost its grip and fell twenty feet to the ground. Stunned, it gathered its snaky wits and slithered away, apparently embarrassed, into the water nearby--where it was immediately devoured by a huge gator. A corn snake having the worst day of its life.

But the cosmic balance was preserved, because the cameraman was having the best day of his life.

I can just imagine how Mirza Abu Taleb Khan would have related this same journey:

We saw some large and remarkable plants as we left Phoenix. Mr. Charles Hightower informed me that they are called "cactus". These plants grew in many surprising and diverse shapes.

[Other articles in category /book] permanent link