Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juni 2006

5.6. Border Zones: Travel, Fantasy and Representation

Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Ludmilla Kostova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Mountains to the Sea

David Jenkins (Plovdiv University, Bulgaria)


Above all waters are all mountains. Walking beyond and walking within are both done on water.
All mountains walk with their toes on all waters and splash there.

(Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild 114, from the "Mountains and Waters" sutra)


I would arise and go with Annie Dillard, the exemplary American poet, essayist, and natural philosopher. I would arise and go with her to the American Northwest, to Seattle, Puget Sound, to greet the dawn.

Nothing is going to happen.... There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time. Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.... I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from the pastures; his fingers are firs; islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty lighted water like a stage. Today’s god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spread, holding all and spread on me like skin.

(Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm)

In the beginning the mountains and the sea walked together, flowed together, every day blessed by the sun. The borderlands were home to frontier freeholders , and the waters were plied by sailors as hearty and ancient as Phoenicia. As late as the nineteenth century, Ivan Vazov could describe his mountain travels toward Rila as a journey into the wilderness. For those who would seek directly, by entering the primary temple, the wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, rapidly stripping down the inexperienced or the careless. It is easy to make the mistake that will bring one to an extremity. Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild 23).

The mountains and sea were once wild and fecund, teeming with animal and marine life, and the mountain villages and seaside hamlets were the province of hunting reserves and prosperous fisheries. During the summer sun worshipers dotted the beach, and alpine enthusiasts trekked and skied the slopes in winter, but during the off season the towns remained hardy and wild, encampments of self-reliant settlers. Then one day, nobody knew exactly why, the pristine seaside backwaters and alpine retreats, like rustic wild ducks underwent a surprising transformation. The freeholders awoke to find that they were tending golden geese that sat on golden eggs. Soon the earth-movers and sub-contractors turned the villages into boomtowns.

The commons became expensive beach-front condos or gentrified alpine investment properties, tucked away behind locked gates guarded night and day. Then as if out of nowhere, hordes of real estate agents appeared, selling apartments and vacation villas that existed only as a gleam in some developer’s eye, roughed out on a blueprint. The land was auctioned off by the square acre and square meter, for surprising sums. The more square meters for sale, the more the builders would profit, and the more the agents could mark up the builders’ asking price, without having to build anything.

Matthew Arnold, an aging school inspector, looks out the window at Dover Beach, watching the dark seas heave from his rented room. He imagines a time when the sea of faith girdled the world, when it all seemed bright and new. Now all he can hear is the water receding from the world’s naked shingles, mingled with the distant thunder of ignorant armies that clash by night on a darkling plain, the discordant alarums of struggle and fright. The salt, estranging sea spoke to such brooding men down the millennia, spoke to Homer and Sophocles. For Arnold contemplating Europe from across the Channel, the sea carried an eternal note of sadness to all the borders it touched. He could think of only one consolation. He turned to his companion, pleading, "Love! Let us be true to one another."

Those words echo and ring true, and not just in rented hotel rooms late at night. "Most of humanity... has always understood the play of the real world, with all its suffering, not in simple terms of "nature red in tooth and claw" but through the celebration of the gift-exchange quality of our give-and take. ‘What a big potlatch we are all members of!’ To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being ‘realistic.’ It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporary personal being" (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild 19).

And where is Andrew Marvell when you need him? "Still, at my back I hear/ the crunch of the earth movers drawing near." Or the raucous screech of Heavy Metal. "Heavy Kmetla," the mayor of Kavarna Tsonko Tsonev, has lately turned the sleepy Black Sea town from a backwater to Bulgaria’s rock capital, booking Deep Purple and The Scorpions in the same summer, with promises of bigger bangs: head banging Manowar, sex bomb Tom Jones, and who knows? Maybe even the rockosaurus Rolling Stones. The town is most definitely on the tourist map, the "rokeri" roll in, and the cash registers play their own jingle jangle. It’s an old refrain. "Drunk last night and drunk the night before, and gonna get drunk tonight like I never been drunk before, now pass me the drumsticks and let me pound on something, the beat goes on.

The paparazzi offer predictions (are they sanguine or dire?) of a Black Sea Megalopolis that will stretch from Balchik Tsarevo and on to the Turkish border, where the vast herds of dazzled, frazzled tourists will teeter in and totter on, on their seven-day, all-inclusive holidays, snapping their fingers to a stageful of heavy metal groups and chugging beer by the tons-full. (To be precise, according to those who were keeping score, eight tons of beer were consumed at the Scorpions concert, to wash down the more than fifteen thousand kebabche, and who knows how many thousand kiufte? The garden of earthly delights, to be sure a scene worthy of Breughel: a sloshed army of would-be investors surrounded by packs of hucksters and get-rich-quick artists howling welcome and have we got a deal for you! Here is your bed and your breakfast, and dobre doshli.

Places like the Rila Wilderness and the Pirin National Park may still be almost as pristine as they have always been, but they are also highlighted and underlined as selling points in the advertisements and tourist brochures. The ski resort of Bansko, soon to become the Balkans’ largest parking lot, has engaged established hotshots and proven winners, Tombas and Klammers, Ghirardellis and Mittermaiers, aided and abetted by the National Football Coach and sometime snow bunny Hristo Stoichkov, attended by the glitterati with big pockets, dreaming of a time when the august governing bodies will see the mountain retreats now under permanent construction as worthy venues for a Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, there are hundreds of Taoist and Buddhist peaks in China and similar Buddhist and Shinto-associated mountains in Japan.... Pilgrims might climb thousands of feet, sleep in the plain board guesthouses, eat rice gruel and a few pickles, and circumambulate set routes burning incense and bowing at site after site (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild 99).

The investors keep coming, lured by the cheap promotional trips to the mountain and seaside retreats, plied with the local cuisine and strong drink, coddled by real estate agents who double as tour guides, at their clients’ beck and call. The would-be buyers come from England, Scotland, and Wales, Ireland and the Netherlands, ready money in hand. Apparently, they believe what they are told: that their investments are bound to double and triple in a few years, when Bulgaria joins the Union. The investors generally have no intention of occupying the residences they buy, but will rent them by the day or week to vacationing Italians, Spaniards, Germans, and Austrians, a hundred Euro a night, two hundred....

And the seaside resorts’ pristine beaches have disappeared under umbrellas for hire, casinos and strip joints do a very brisk business, the boardwalk kiosks offer anything and everything, most of it cheap kitsch and glitter, gingirea. The land is plowed under, gutted, then fortified with concrete and turned into a jumble of high-rise apartment complexes and swell hotels. The cumulative effect is like a total eclipse of the sun. Greed exposes the foolish person or the foolish chicken alike to the ever-watchful hawk of the food-web and to early impermanence. Preliterate hunting and gathering cultures were highly trained and lived well by virtue of keen observation and good manners... stinginess was the worst of vices (Snyder 92).

Alexander Pavlov, one of the richest men in the Balkans, long associated with the holding company Multigroup, a hotel owner and developer at resorts such as Borovetz and Arbanasi, steps out of his Mercedes in Sofia and is gunned down. Georgi Iliev of Plovdiv, also of Multigroup, a man rumored to have bribed and threatened his club, Plovdiv Lokomotiv, into a national football championship, walks out of his Sunny Beach pleasure palace, the Buddha Bar, and is gunned down amidst his phalanx of security guards. The investment banker and insurance executive, Emil Kiulev, worth around 500 million dollars, is assassinated on the streets of Sofia, shot fifteen times while sitting in the back seat of his BMW, on his way to work. They say he owed the Russians money he couldn’t pay. How much money, how much land does a man need? Or a woman, since the grieving widows of these men have been somewhat comforted by their late husbands’ vast bequests.

Who wouldn’t wonder where all that start-up money for the resort development comes from? But the boom is still in full swing, so nobody asks too many hard questions, even as the death toll among Bulgarian executives and urban warriors rises. These are the highest rollers, the entrepreneurs who goose the golden goose for the last of its eggs. If they live long enough, they may stifle the goose entirely, before they remember that their Balkan paradise was a free gift and not a promotional gimmick. Even those who would like to go back, who think they hold return tickets to the Shangrila they once knew, will be sadly disappointed to find their return tickets are really one-way. [For Buddhists]...greed, hatred and ignorance are intrinsic to ego, but... ego itself is a reflex of ignorance and delusion that comes from not seeing who we "truly" are. Organized society can inflame, pander to, or exploit these weaknesses, or it can encourage generosity, kindness, trust. There is reason, therefore, to be engaged in a politics of virtue (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild 92). In Bulgaria, the "politics of virtue" could well be another, smaller, but ultimately more profitable business: ecotourism.

Consider this:

What the nation has been calling democracy is really only mediocrity rising in high places - mobocracy.... Interior discipline of trained imagination is needed for good citizenship, and needed to adapt modern machine craft to such higher uses as would expand and enrich the quality of all human life.... But first we need a new aesthetic - also a new idea of what constitutes "profit"; a new idea of what constitutes success; a new idea of what constitutes luxury. Beauty in all its phases as a native must grow naturally among us here. Else no life is worthy life. Machine power, decentralized and better distributed, more directly and simply applied to humane purposes, is the clear basis of any practical expression of social life.... Developed machine-age life, as luxury, must consist of more appropriate use and intelligent limitation of machinery in devising new patterns inevitable for life in the New... but this only if the creative artist is there in his true place; the machine in his hand as a tool.

Are these the words of a pie-in-the-sky pseudo-philosopher? An irresponsible dreamer? A goofy mystical aesthete? No, these are the words of America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, written almost fifty years ago (Wright, The Living City 90).

At the end of a largely factual book, a study of thirteen centuries of Western travel in China, a British historian recalls the following observation made by the emperor Yung-cheng: "In an undistinguished reign, this emperor, Yung-cheng (in 1727) wrote one fine day a comment on which, pondering the past, we may well conclude: ‘The people of the world are bigoted and unenlightened: invariably they regard what is like them as right, and what is different from them as wrong, resulting in mutual recrimination.... They do not realize that the types of humanity are not uniform and that their customs are also not one, that it is not only impossible to force people to become different but also impossible to force them to become alike’" (Nigel Cameron, Barbarians and Mandarins 419).

The border between thing and name blurs. Naming names - putting things in their rightful place, drawing up blueprints or marketing plans - too easily becomes the heady promises of the developers, the method and what passes for the soul of science, the scope of jurisprudence. All of these exercises of power de­pend on inscribing an "inside" and cordoning it off from an "out­side," then building walls, defending the fortress, hiring the guards. Those who don’t agree with business as usual, who show up without sufficient dough, re, mi, or who have not been given an express invitation to the festivities, are generally viewed with suspicion, targeted and made scapegoats, ultimately ejected as cranks and troublemakers, though the great circle dance goes on, round and around. The temptation is too great, the rewards a palpable Elysium, the forces of social control so formidable, the powers that run the world well-nigh unassailable.

(A political cartoon from Der Standard, purchased at the Vienna Westbahnhof on Friday, December 9: George Bush Jr. fans the flames of a campfire on his small island, while billows of soot and smoke blow across polluted waters into the faces of all those gathered at the Weltklima Gipfel - the World Summit on Climate Control. "Kyoto what?" he asks. "Ich kann euch nicht verstehen .")

Is this really the way the world is, or has to be? No, this is the way we have made the world, in our own distorted image. This is what our children will inherit, and their children, for as long as we inhabit Gaia, our fragile island home. They should be ashamed of us. They should do what they can to stop us. As the nineteenth-century Massachusetts wildman, master of convivial solitude, and enlightened Luddite Henry David Thoreau once said, if the machinery we erect has as its purpose exploitation and injustice, we must do what we can to break the machine, whether that machinery is blatantly in the service of corrupt power politics, serving profit at all costs, or self-serving, self-satisfied intellectual posturing. As our latter-day Northern Californian wildman Gary Snyder, ever-reverent dharma bum, says (putting us in our place):

All our literatures are leavings [too] - of the same order as the myths of wilderness peoples, who leave behind only stories and a few stone tools. Other orders of beings have their own literatures. Narrative in the deer world is a track of scents that is passed on from deer to deer with an art of interpretation which is instinctive. A literature of bloodstains, a bit of piss, a whiff of estrus, a hit of rut, a scrape on a sapling, and long gone. And then there might be a "narrative theory" among those other beings - they might ruminate on "intersexuality" and "decomposition criticism" (112).

In our material world, committed to ever-greater accumulation so as to satisfy ever growing appetites, our initial point of departure, our imminent and transcendent home, constantly recedes - as mirage-like, other attractive destina­tions and lucrative investments multiply. Will there be no transcendence beyond these ruts, sloughs, and luxurious labyrinths? After the rules have been invented, the laws codified, or the programs designed, the machinery runs on its own. But our human being is not, need not be, mechanical or predetermined. We make a grave mistake to allow the machinery of greed to run on unchecked. Between I and Thou, between desire and its expression, repression, or fulfilment, there needs to be room to move, to turn around, to go back and do our best to start over, to repent of our wrongheaded actions and false starts. Legend has it that a great Chinese emperor galloped past a peasant by the side of the road, then reined in his frothing team of horses to ask directions to a certain destination. The peasant informed him that he had made a wrong turning, that he must go back the way he came and start over, and follow the signs. But the emperor, being an emperor, was imperious. He refused to take advice from someone so lowly. Sure of his power, he drove his horses on, and all his power only led him farther and farther down the wrong road.

We can appreciate the elegance of the forces that shape life and the world, that have shaped every line of our bodies - teeth and nails, nipples and eyebrows. We also see that we must try to live without causing unnecessary harm, not just to fellow humans but to all beings. We must try not to be stingy, or to exploit others. There will be enough pain in the world as it is. Such are the lessons of the wild. The school where these lessons can be learned, the realms of caribou and elk, elephant and rhinoceros, orca and walrus, are shrinking day by day. Creatures who have been with us through the ages are now apparently doomed, as their habitat - and the old, old habitat of humans - falls before the slow-motion explosion of expanding world economies (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild 4-5).

A child once asked: What are the mountains? What is the sea? And Snyder answered:

"Mountains... have mythic associations of verticality, spirit, height, transcendence, hardness, resistance, and masculinity.... Waters are feminine: wet, soft, dark "yin" with associations of fluid-but-strong, seeking (and carving) the lowest soulful, life-giving, shape-shifting.... The two are seen as buddha-work partners: ascetic discipline and relentless spirituality balanced by compassionate tolerance and detached forgiveness. Mountains and waters are a dyad that together make wholeness possible.... ‘Mountains and waters’ is a way to refer to the totality of the process of nature. As such it goes well beyond dichotomies of purity and pollution, natural and artificial. The whole, with its rivers and valleys, obviously includes farms, fields, villages cities, and the (once comparatively small) dusty world of human affairs" (Snyder, The Practice of the Wild 101-2).

The hard-working Hartford insurance executive, Wallace Stevens, a bear of a man, once went walking along a beach in Florida on a warm evening, where he heard the murmur of the waves advancing and receding, ebbing and flowing, as Arnold had a century before. Wallace Stevens: a relatively contented, relatively successful businessman, yet not dull or dulled - ever-thoughtful, always listening. Kierkegaard might have called both Snyder and Stevens "knights of faith," who learn to turn the leap of faith into a daily walk. Stevens was always looking for signs, wherever his journeys took him. He discerned such a sign, an idea of order (an intimation of immortality, perhaps), in the whisper of a song above the ocean waves that mingled with them and turned their churning rush into something intelligible, a song.

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, the veritable ocean.

An aging man on a beach hears the sea and something more, an oversound, the harmonic vibration of human artifice and artistry, a melody crossing the water, where many a king has gone, and many a king’s daughter. It is the music of borders and origins, gateways and distant portals beckoning. It is:

The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins.

Wherever we go, however much we appreciate what a living city can give us, we carry this dim inheritance with us, the sound faintly heard: here, now, always. It is something wild and free that leads us to the end of ourselves, toward another life that inhabits us. Perhaps it is the sound of water, whether oceanic or the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore. Like the Irish poet and senator William Yeats, and no doubt like you, I have heard it too.

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

That sound, both human and the veritable ocean, is the rush of time (Mandelstam’s shum vremeni). But it is also simply the stream we "go a-fishing in." That’s what Thoreau calls it. "I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars" (Walden 71).

Des Menschen Seele
Gleicht dem Wasser:
Vom Himmel kommt es,
Zum Himmel steigt es,
Und wieder nieder
Zur Erde muss es,
Ewig wechselnd.

The human soul
Is like water:
It comes from heaven,
It returns to heaven,
And inevitably
Returns to earth,
Ever changing.


Of ourselves and of our origins: the border to a far country from which we have all come, to which we return when as sparrows we fly from the mead-hall. Now (in the world that is always now) a veterinarian’s assistant, part-time sheepherder, and brilliant essayist, Diane Kappel-Smith, is travelling through the high back country somewhere in wild Utah, to spend the summer herding sheep. She will often be called upon to help with the difficult births. "Afterward the ewe would lick mud and wet from its lamb with a frantic whickering delight and I would stand and wipe my face on my sleeve, which was salty with I don’t know what. Pressing my face against my horse’s neck, I tasted horse and horse sweat and rain. All things had become inextricably mixed. The medium of our common life began with this sea that flowed over us" (from "Salt," in Best American Essays 1995 149).

What is it about salt, a substance so humbly domestic and unprepossessing? It seems we can’t live without it. "Armenians... salt their newborn babies... so did the Jews at the time of the prophets. They washed a baby in water, salted him, and wrapped him in cloths... this promise [to Aaron and all the Levites]: "a covenant of salt forever." In the Roman Church baptism, the priest places salt in the infant’s mouth" (Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm).

The god of today is rampant and drenched. His arms spread, bearing moist pastures; his fingers spread, fingering the shore. He is time’s live skin; he burgeons up from day like any tree. His legs spread crossing the heavens, flicking hugely, and flashing and arcing around the earth toward night. This is the one world, bound to itself and exultant. It fizzes up in trees, trees heaving up streams of salt to their leaves.... The joke of the world is less like a banana peel than a rake, the old rake in the grass, the one you step on, foot to forehead. It all comes together. In a twinkling. You have to admire the gag for its symmetry, accomplishing all with one right angle, the same right angle that accomplishes all philosophy.... We’re tossed broadcast into time like so much grass, some ravening god’s sweet hay. You wake and a plane falls out of the sky. (Dillard, Holy the Firm)

This hieratic image recalls others, both stark and metaphysical, in Dillard’s Pulitzer-prizewinning journal of all weathers, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

"I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. ‘Do you think I made the universe in jest?’ Allah demands. No, divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal that neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part .

(Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek 270)

One last journey, one last sight to see: the American poet William Meredith, a smiling, public man lately enfeebled and rendered almost dumb by a series of strokes, is taken by his Bulgarian hosts to see the masks of gold housed in a necropolis near Varna. Looking down at them, he is brought up short, troubled by the feeling that they look up at him as attentively, with as much interest, as he looks down at them. Their calm, inscrutable features are those of ancient nobility and fierce warriors, noble savages preserved for millennia, now at rest and on display in a glass case in a seaside museum. Just another stop on Meredith’s guided tour, for such a ragged coat upon a stick as this, it can only be a welter of sights and sounds joined by "and" and "and." But these masks are different, definitive. They are personae that speak to the poet out of a silence as final as a whirlwind, in speech hammered past words into beauty and truth. Meredith translates their vast silence into veritable human speech, in one of his finest poems. "We are only clay and gold," they remind him. "Clay and gold, passing from one condition to the next."

AUTHOR’S NOTE: When delivered at the Vienna conference THE UNIFYING ASPECTS OF CULTURES in December, 2005, this was a power-point presentation accompanied by some fifty photographs that I took in Bulgaria and elsewhere. I am appending one of those photographs.

© David Jenkins (Plovdiv University, Bulgaria)

5.6. Border Zones: Travel, Fantasy and Representation

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