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The Question in Bodies #22: Freaks (1932)

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(Freaks was made in 1932. Back then, the language used to talk around people with bodily deformities was what we'd now think of as pretty offensive. But it's the language of the film, and it's difficult to talk about the film clearly without using its language. And it's a worthwhile and humane film. It deserves to be talked about. Still. If I offend or use terms carelessly, I'm sorry. I would like to do better. Let me know. As ever, expect spoilers.)
Carnival barker:  We didn't lie to you, folks! We told you that we had living... breathing... monstrosities! You laughed at them! Shuddered at them! And, yet, but for the accident of birth, you might be one as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world, but! Into the world they came! Their code is a law unto themselves! Offend one and you offend them all!
It's a simple enough film, this, and in some ways very much of its time for most of its brief length. It comes from a period where cinema had literally only just found its voice, and you can see that a bit in how former silent actors are still grappling with how to present themselves in talking film. There are moments that look creaky and mannered now, the jolly, tinny parp of the jazz age film orchestra sometimes at odd with the images it soundtracks.

The plot is straightforward enough. At a sideshow attraction, Hans, the sideshow's dwarf (Harry Earles), although engaged to fellow little person Frieda (Daisy Earles, Harry's real life sister), falls for trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). Cleopatra is in fact sleeping with Hercules, the strongman (Henry Victor), but strings Hans along for her cruel amusement. This changes when Daisy lets slip that Hans is in fact the beneficiary of a huge inheritance. Cleopatra and Hercules hatch a plot: Cleopatra will agree to marry Hans, murder him and run off with both the money and Hercules. But the two villains are both stupid and incompetent; Cleopatra cannot hide her revulsion at the thought that she might be accepted by Hans’ peers as one of them, and her intentions are transparent from the beginning. The sideshow people, whose sense of family is absolutely inviolable, turn on her and her partner and exact their revenge.

Around this very simple plot, though, we see the daily lives of the sideshow freaks between shows, their mundane happinesses, their camaraderie. Nearly all of the “freaks” in the film were real-life sideshow performers, and they more or less play versions of themselves: Lady Olga the Bearded Lady, “Pinheads” (that is, people with microcephaly) Schlitzie and the Snow sisters, Josephine Joseph the Half Man-Half Woman, Koo Koo and Elizabeth Green the Bird Girls, Johnny Eck the Half Boy, Martha Morris and Frances O'Connor the Armless Girls, Peter Robinson the Living Skeleton, Prince Randian the Human Torso and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. In fact, this sideshow repertoire was significantly bigger than any real show had ever been, and certainly no real sideshow would have extended as far as three “Pinheads” and four people missing limbs: you'd have got one of each, and there's a sense that Browning just wanted to include every sideshow performer he can find. But what this means from a purely historical standpoint is that with Freaks we have documentation in film, and in some places the only documentation, of some of the most successful sideshow and vaudeville performers of the day, being themselves, and of a subculture that for all intents and purposes no longer exists.
It's useful here to point out that not all of these people had disabilities; Elizabeth Green was apparently just a bit funny looking and used her costume to accentuate that; there's a sword swallower (Delmo Fritz), a fire-eater, and Madame Tetrallini the fortune teller (Rose Dione). Others wouldn't be thought of as having disabilities now. A Bearded Lady is just an able-bodied woman with slightly more hair than average, for example.

The most interesting from my own standpoint is Josephine Joseph: although accounts vary, it seems that she was, unlike many Half-Man-Half-Woman performers, born intersex, and wound up using her androgyny as a performer in that very literal and not uncommon style. And it's interesting to see someone being non-binary (because expressing both parts of a binary at once is about as non-binary as you can get), and visible, the better part of a century ago. And that's deeply ambivalent because on the one hand this person gets to be non-binary and visible, as I said, but the cost is that people gawp, and laugh, and mock. But on the other hand, they're paying for the privilege and she's getting a decent cut of the profits, and in the biographical sketches of many of these people, over and over, the subtext is often, they're going to gawp anyway so we might as well make coin from it.

It gets a bit more complicated when you look at the people whose bodily deformities come with learning disabilities, people like Schlitzie and Koo Koo. Schlitzie apparently loved every second of being in sideshows, but he also apparently had the cognitive development of a young child, so there's that question of exploitation. Schlitzie was happy, and made a long lasting and comfortable living in an era where someone with his disability had literally no other avenue of gainful employment. Still, it's interesting to note that of the parade of history-busting story elements in Barnum hagiography The Greatest Showman (2017), the one that stuck out for me was that the developmentally disabled performers of Barnum's American Museum were entirely erased from the story, and for the simple reason that you can argue a Dog-Faced Boy and a Bearded Lady aren't being exploited if they're fully able to grasp what they're doing and you can make the story into one about body positivity without a worrying shadow. So no Zip the What-Is-It in your circus musical, thanks.

(Footnote: Jojo the Dog-Faced Boy successfully unionised Barnum's performers and moved with some success to retire the term “freaks” in favour of “prodigies”. Meanwhile, William Henry Johnson, aka Zip, died at a ripe old age in 1926, and his last words to his sister were “Well, we fooled ‘em for a long time.” Which I suppose underlines that microcephaly doesn't always come with cognitive disability.)
These performers can't be pigeonholed. Johnny Ecks and Schlitzie, for example, had a blast making the film; on the other hand, the legendarily vocal Lady Olga (“the longest beard in showbiz”) thought the film was “An insult to all freaks”.

(Footnote: Olga Roderick, born Jane Barnall, was so conservative that she up and quit Ringling Brothers Circus when the sideshow performers unionised, which I think shows more than anything that you can't pigeonhole the people in the film any more than you can pigeonhole anything else.)

All of these people agreed to be in the film, as far as I can tell, mainly because Tod Browning, who had run away to join a circus in his teens and who knew sideshow performers, convinced each of them personally that he wanted to make a film from their point of view – some of these people either were or became his friends, in fact.

And each of these people gets to be, well, a person. They’re all given the same respect by the camera for most of the film that anyone else would. The film’s central thesis is the cameraderie of these people, the sense of family they have. And this is underlined that among their number are two able bodied people: Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) and animal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams), both of whom accept and are accepted by the sideshow performers, the “freaks”, who neither judge nor are judged. These lovers stand as a contrast to the film’s other pair of able-bodied lovers; in fact Phroso is pretty clearly a stand-in for Browning himself, who sees the humanity of the “freaks” and wants to present them to the world. Venus, meanwhile, begins the film breaking up with Hercules, who treated her pretty badly, and entering into a sweet relationship with Phroso, and while she begins in much the same place as Cleopatra, finding the sideshow performers off-putting, distasteful even, her arc ends with her standing in solidarity with them, even to the extent of being in mortal danger for their sake.
The most developed subplot concerns the Hilton Twins, who at the time this movie was made, had only just been emancipated from their tyrannical and exploitative guardians who had trained them as musicians and dancers, but also kept them as prisoners. Fresh from a $100k settlement (and in 1931 that wasn't chickenfeed) they stayed in the same business, but happiness seemed to have eluded them. In Freaks, Daisy and Violet (playing characters called Daisy and Violet) each find love, and each is engaged to be married, and we see the difficulties of navigating that when you are literally joined at the hip. Phroso pinches Daisy's arm; although Violet has her eyes shut, she can identify where her sister was touched. And we see a moment where Violet's fiancé kisses her, and Daisy feels the thrill. This seems to have been mentioned a lot in their biography, in the way that in their closeness, they shared emotional and physical sensation.

Despite Browning's desire to celebrate his colleagues, Freaks was, however, always intended as a horror film. But of the disgusted audiences back then who killed it dead, the censors who cut a third of its running time (and the British censors who banned it for over 30 years), none seemed to get the film's central thesis: who are the monsters here?

Some American critics of course couldn’t see why anyone would sympathise with circus freaks; the British Board of Film Censors (now the British Board of Film Classification) on the other hand felt that the film was simply exploitative.

Early in the film, several of the sideshow people are showing dancing and playing in the woods. A pair of able-bodied men, a landowner and his groundsman (Albert Conti and Michael Visaroff) see them and recoil in horror; Madame Tetrallini tells them that they are children, and the groundkeeper replies: they are monsters.

But some of them are in fact children. And the film wants you to see them as children. They're all people, and even the very basic message – these are people too! – turned out to be too much for US audiences. Browning loves these people. We see Prince Randian light a roll up; Schlitzie's new dress, and his glee at it; the way the Armless Girls navigate life with their feet; the Bearded Lady giving birth.

Browning wants you to love these people, wants you to see their spark of humanity. And that includes the way that outsiders, including other circus performers, mock them.

The horror is of course that the film’s monsters are able-bodied. While the “freaks” are kind and accepting, Cleopatra is disgusted by them, and unable to hide it, even though her stupid, transparent murder plot depends at least on her being able to lie.
In the most celebrated sequence of the film, the “freaks” hold a party for Cleopatra and Hans’s wedding. They fill a loving cup from which they all drink, and they chant.
We accept her, one of us!
We accept her, one of us!
Gooble gobble, gooble gobble
We accept her, we accept her
Gooble gobble, gooble gobble
One of us! One of us!
And it’s a joyful moment, where everyone is included, everyone is joining in. And Cleopatra, drunk, recoils in horror.
Cleopatra: You… dirty! Slimy! Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here! Get out!
She ends the party, screams at them, and dismisses them all, while Hercules laughs. She is the outsider here, but refuses their acceptance. She refuses to be part of their family.

And they turn. We see the way that the sideshow performers watch Cleopatra and Hercules. A counterplot hatches. In the stunningly filmed climax, the “freaks” take their revenge, and this was the part that was too much for the British censors, who objected on the grounds that while all through the film we are encouraged to recognise the common humanity of the sideshow people, at the last, they're still portrayed as monsters.

(Footnote: Freaks is an interesting case of changing classifications based on prevailing social attitudes. It was banned by the BBFC until about 1963, when it was finally classified with an X certificate (the equivalent of an 18 today). In 1994 its video release earned a 15; in 2001 it was reclassified as a 12. I watched it with my 10 year old son, in fact, and his most telling comment was, “They shouldn't call them freaks. They're just different.” Which I can't argue with.)

We are still supposed to be on their side, after all, and the dissonance involved in accepting both their humanity and approving of what they do at the end was simply . The film isn't framed any other way, and it's underlined by the way that Hercules comes to kill Venus, and Phroso and his fellow performers rescue her, even while they're coming for the murderous trapeze artist.
And the film's most disturbing element is the fate of Cleopatra. We don’t see what they do to her, only the result, where she is the legless, deformed “chicken woman”, unable to do anything other than squawk, and unable to earn a living anywhere else.

But this isn’t such a bad ending. If the full range of human expression is permitted to the sideshow people, why isn’t revenge part of that. We are often disturbed by the idea that a person with a disability might not be a saint, we often assume it, but why don’t people with disabilities get to be vengeful or violent? It’s just as prejudiced to assume that people with disabilities and deformities are always saints. They’re not monsters, but very few people are; the film has spent most of its hour-long running time underlining that. But it’s precisely because they are so decisively human that they have the right to be the sort of people who want revenge, and revenge taken entirely out of their solidarity with each other, a solidarity that is openly extended to anyone who will take it. The worst punishment they can inflict on Cleopatra is for her to become one of them – and she is now one of them, and no doubt is afforded the solidarity of acceptance among them because she’s not going to get it anywhere else – not because it’s the worst punishment they can imagine, or that being one of them is a sentence, but because it’s the worst thing that she can imagine, and "freak" is the worst insult she can bring herself to level. 

An original ending, now lost, would have shown an emasculated Hercules alongside her, and they would have performed a grotesque and comical duet, which suggests perhaps that her forced transformation is a reformation, a new life with the classic sting of the fable. She is humbled. She is brought to a low that is explicitly and uniquely her low, and from her actions. All of this is very human.

Freaks is a compassionate film that shows people being people, and the thing about people being people is that sometimes people need to express their darker emotions. I don't know if it's exploitative. I don't know if it's an insult to the differently bodied. But it's a document of some of the most talented people of their era, and a story that allows people with disabilities the gamut of human feelings. People need to have that darkness to be whole. To suggest otherwise is to deny their humanity.

Want to read more of my film criticism? We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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Nothing but Braided Stream

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I spent a summer living in a tent in Alaska. Salmon that swam up the river rotted in motion, sprouting with flowery mould. The Eskimo woman I cleaned hotel rooms with told me there were gnomblins by the moss rocks and we would die if they saw our eyes. We shat on the grey stones and the shit grew long, silken white hair that stood up on end, but the shit was neither eaten nor washed away. The power was not yet visible.

Our tents grew unclean and stank. Mildew skins grew on our vinyl floors and walls. We stuck whole garlic cloves in our water bottles to keep the stink down. Knots of madness got tangled in the rushes and cold swamp mallows between the grey banks, hell breaks of rotten liquid dissolution, wrack in the leaves. Voids of grey skies rained for months, brought no summer, spawned an endless, intimate, foggy entropy.

Answers were all around but still invisible, sodden-soaked into each grain in the mile-wide of braided stream, hidden next to but dominant of the blacktop snaking to the glacier. Everywhere but invisible, god. There on the sharp hillsides, enfolding us in cold rock and grainy diluvian soil.

Damp woods, reason, beauty, stumbled prone next to the Apocalyptic Orgasm River. Love glowed and grew and shivered and freshened, raindrops on an undulating river, and rotted like a dead dog under the porch.

Apocalypse spilled all over the slopes that beheld the river. I thought I wanted the mountains, or thought the mountains wanted me.

Wrong all around.

The river carried silt.

We were three: me, Tief and Delf. After a few months, we finished up our jobs, packed our shimmelig tents, drove away, went “hiking” – which really meant we got lost and battered. Twice; first in one landscape, then at another.

Tramping over river stones in the Wyoming Hills of Denali, thinking of lost loves, Delf said he wished he had a string and could draw all his guts out now now now now, slowly, slowly. Dump them all over the river bed for the bears to eat.

I tumbled in the river, was rushed some metres downstream, lost my glasses to the grey milky flow. Moments after, we got lost in creeping bushes, head high and wet, on the western bank. Exhausted, we tented on moss, us and our food scattered amidst the red-black, pencil-thin stems of the hill creep, abandoned to whatever stupidity.

The next day, random blind ascents of smooth green hill slopes that disappeared into grey banks of clouds.

Brutality of defeat, incompetence, pride, competition. Inexorably crushed by the visible we could not see. Is that a rock? Is that a bear? Will we die here? Or is our pride so big we think this little bit of rain, this little bit of forgotten mountain, this little bit of bear, rock, stream, beach, bush, wild, will turn us into this summer’s frontpage? Is that death right there on the hill, or just pride?

Seeking the apocalyptic orgasm but afraid to get in bed with it when its glistening eye crept open where the ever steepening scree slopes met the mist. It was me who convinced us to turn back.

Couldn’t see it.

The bear in the river bed came out of the bushes and menaced us a bit from fifty metres. Showed us its side, maundered towards us, changed its mind, ramble-rumbled back into the bushes it had come from (and where, delirious from failure, we would later sleep, food strewn in the bushes like raw guts).

It was the fox that got me, though. Within moments of the bear, the fox came out of the bushes, trotted to within a few metres of us, as if saying hello, and went back into the bushes.

I was tempted to take it as a sign: elusive beast, smiling trickster.



Just a fox. Looking for undigested meat-bear-shit? Hoping we were dead but salvageable?

The bear – a warning? Shiva bone dance? Just a bear.

We were still ignoring how big it all was. All of it. Focusing on the fox. Illusion of the mystical. Thinking we were saved by the fox.

Lice, death, lameness, funk, stink, chiggers, ticks. Toiling about on the lower slopes of the Wyoming Hills, aphids on bird legs.

Afterwards, Tief and I left Delf in a town, and he dropped from my consciousness so fast he may as well have sunken into the sifted stones there on the riverbeach under Denali’s dominance on our accursed and misunderstanding trip to Denali’s most wretched and forgotten backcountry.

We left him to hitchhike out on his own, and Tief and I fled to the centre.

* * *

I dreamed of god once. Autumn in the dream, high on slope, golden bear and bamboo grass. Boiling clouds, perfect calm, sound carrying for miles.

Decaying wooden two-storied hutch whose boards crumbled in your fingers like dead skin after soaking. Upstairs in this particular hut, god, up the ladder. But I couldn’t get up. Every time I tried to climb the ladder, ball lightning, discharge, aftershock fallback.

There was a corroded rusty pipe sticking jaggedly down out of the hut’s outer wall, busted off like a broken glass bottle, blatting audio feedback spattering from it like epileptic Morse code. I knew it was the devil, but spent time listening. Not dangerous, ol’ devil. Just there.

This too all wrong, as dreams tend to be: god like a man, a saint, a withered mummy, a hermit, a presence, a mind, a thought, an intention, a will, a devil, a beauty, a holiness. None of that.

* * *

By the time I got to Alaska I wasn’t looking for god anymore. Just summer work money on fishing boats that never materialised and left us riding our bicycles to the Subway to be Sandwich Artists and vacuuming up crumbs in the Wyndsong Lodge. We would blow our profits on Denali and Wrangell.

Tief and Delf and I showered with the homeless and sailors in the port public toilet and picnicked in the fjord-side park, accepting overflow overkilled halibut from the tour boat parties that flocked the park like overgrown, stinking gulls. At the Wyndsong two other seasonal transients helped remove calcified gum from the carpets under the beds, harvested leftover sacks of bread for next day’s lunch. One: a desultory East German who told me my late twenties flesh-heap was nothing but decay from here – my body had outlived its biological usefulness and was no different from the flowering salmon in the brook. Two: Eskimo, though in her baseball cap and Wyndsong terrycloth pullover she had to tell you that for you to know. Forceful and frank, sleek yet fat, our supervisor, happy to clean a toilet, careful to tell you lots of stories about her brooding boyfriend.

Still full of the moss of the woods that the Wyndsong intruded on, she believed in the gnomblins and told their story so strongly I averted my eyes from the strip of naked, spindly pines between the road and the lodge when I passed. They were in there. We all know death is cramped and cribbled up in between the slippery rocks half-buried in the hummus of tart pine needles under these gliding grey skies, everywhere, everywhere, and so her explanation seemed as good as any that summer as we sought cash by wiping the waxen cum, piss and shit of others from the sleek formica bath units, and flirted with the apocalyptic orgasm that could rain like anvils from the twenty-three hour light in the nightless skies, or creep on us like a doughy, crinkled gnomblin, surprised at lichen-scraping amidst the rock, all its fingernails torn off and algae growing in the folds of its neck, hostile to all that is wrong because nothing is right. Crawling and scuttering by the time-pickled thousands over the rocks between us and the river. Cold beach roaches, invisible until seen.

* * *


Work done, beaten by Denali, for the end of the summer we two remaining incompetents, Tief and I, went hiking in a place called the Goat Trail. It’s a little bit of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, in the same way and at the same scale the street you live on is part of the country you’re in. Wrangell is the largest National Park in the United States, bigger all by itself than some states. For all that, it is an unknown nothing, inhabited by two tiny dot-like towns of a few citizens, connected to empty portions of paved mid-wilderness Alaskan highway by long, treacherous gravel roads that slurve between flat bog wastes and scarped riverbank abysses like an engineering dare, an impossibility of forced convenience. Connecting humanity to ashy death.

Town (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

There weren’t any trails from the collection of subsiding wooden structures known as McCarthy beyond the end of one of these roads (the road slashed away by river, the town marooned on the other side, connected only by pull-cart-on-wire). Wrangell-St. Elias is not a National Park like we’re used to, with nice brown wooden signs and happy yellow-painted groove-letters cheerfully announcing “Rainbow Spring 3.4 miles.” It is a swath of country declared frightening by awed surveyors, a vast blot of natural dominance left to be that way because what else. Defeating development and enterprise. It contains an entire, dead, abandoned mining town. But no trails, no trailheads.

We looked downcast and convinced an idle bushpilot to fly us into the backcountry for half price – he knew even that money was more than we had to waste.

Entry (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

Boom. We were dropped off by tiny bi-plane in an area so slagged with natural destruction as to daunt the eye, bewilder expectation. Here, gravel mounded into high hill by glacier. There, glacier crumbled like hundred year old frozen cheese, sledgehammered on a cold fall evening against the slate-block of the river bed. Turbulent effluent flowed out from below, blocked all paths.

The watery plain dominated in turn to meaninglessness by the hills. “Mountain” is too dramatic a term; they were too big and split, riven, wrecked, huge, rampant to slot into the mystery and pleasant greenness of “mountain.” Too big and primeval. Call them hills, disappearing into rack of cloud that didn’t know land from sky. A stirred broil of the elements, water, earth and air, needing nothing of fire to show the natural world can destroy itself in its own making again and again.

We’d flown over glacial rivers that could swallow Manhattan in one gulp, beasts that defied my scientific understanding of them by lapping and overflow the valleys between the peaks, like dough swollen over the lip of a bowl. Aren’t they supposed to be produced by mountains, not consume them? They looked to shunt aside the peaks. They formed vast, blank white pools that filled the all. To call our plane gnat-like in the face of all this is to exaggerate: dust.

Droned loudly over all that and set down on a scar of scraped-up gravel in a convenient flat spot in the available vastness, Skolai Pass, the beginning of “The Goat Trail” we were to follow.

Mind, there was no actual trail.

Route (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

Everything was wet, strangled in chill by the onrushing early-August autumn.

In our minds, Tief and I were about to dare something on this Gauguin-gone-mad canvas, but we were soon to know there was no “dare” in it, just the struggle of ants against the enormous flood of time and space. Our egos were to be stricken from us like winnowed grain. We were to be husked.

The pilot tipped us out of the plane like misshapen ball bearings carelessly discarded in a thousand-acre junk-yard of rust and fresh, torn metal.

Filings. Shavings. Blown from the palm of the hand of a giant into a waste of scrapped iron, copper and steel.

The Goat Trail is no trail, but a way, direction, or idea. In places there is a scratching of path, but it may have been made by boots, may have been made by deer, may be an illusion you’re putting together for the convenience of your preconceptions. There is no sense in making it anything more, as the hills, water and wrack of sky and earth constantly remake and erase what is, a stirring of the folds of the mother.

We set out over a lip of moraine and down the river valley – here a stream, a violent trickle – that was our “route”: “follow the river for a few days ‘til you find the other airstrip in the flats; I’ll pick you up there.” Those were the pilot’s directions, either assuming we had more skills and knowledge than we did, or inured by death of self-supposed outdoorspeople in these parts to the point of a shrug: dump off the grub-worms, see if the birds eat them. Maybe you get a caterpillar in a few days. Maybe you get bird shit. All the same to him – nice guy, the pilot – but he’d been subsumed by the all here long ago.

Within an hour or two, telling ourselves all this was okay, we’d come to our first complete erasure of human endeavor and intention. Some torrent or other minor unheard local cataclysm had torn a rent down the hillside like a drunken butcher’s cleaver on raw, open cow flank. Widish, deepish – an orange gash running up into clouds and down into can’t-see-where ripped the hillside we needed to cross into a wet mulchy crumbling sand full of trickling brine. Nearly vertical and, for any normal hiker, impassable. Meaning not that we were somehow skilled beyond “normal,” but that on any other “hike” we’d at this point have just turned around: “oh look, the trail is gone!” But we were young dudes with no cell phone, radio or anything louder or more impactful than our voices, and the only thing that was going to get us into contact with the human world again was walking across that gash and going on and on and on, a couple of days, to an imagined airstrip somewhere down and below in this infinity.

We ventured into the gash gingerly, gamely. This was probably the last point of the trip that we treated the whole thing as if it was supposed to be this way, as if the danger of the gash wasn’t as bad as it looked, as if yeah, we just weren’t used to it, and this was just like being on a boardwalk to a nice pond, being worried we’d trip on a nail or get a sliver. Yeah. We just had to do it, we thought: get in there and get through it. “It will be fine.”

It would not be fine.

In a prelude of the days to come, as we were smeared by clayey mud and tempura-battered with bits of rock and sand, and slid about in the sticky crevice, I dislodged something large and chocolatey, a “rock,” I will call the biggish chunk of crumbling butterfinger that slid out of the gash-side I was clinging to, glanced off my elbow and careened into the nothing.

There was no time to pause to be startled; I still had to finish outliving the gash. I felt fine; it didn’t hurt much. Yet. I reassured Tief, and, in that oblivious moment – “this is all perfectly normal and fine!” – we chose to ignore the fact that anything bigger, even that rock itself in different orientation, could have taken me with it and put an end to all of it right there.

We climbed out of the gash on the other side and found a spot to sit in the dead grass and patchy soil. My elbow began to hurt – a lot. It swelled up, a vast fleshy mass, instant tumor, alien invader. A pulpy cantaloupe-sized flesh-ball dangling from the back of my joint. My offended mortality had put its fingers in its ears and puffed out its cheeks – “no no no this is not happening!” – and defended my brittle bones with an amorphous, swollen version of itself. I was more bemused than afraid, but that progress through the gash was the end of our nonchalance.

We’d passed out of the realm of “hiking,” and knew it. We now were animals scrambling on a hillside – nothing more.

There are linear trips from which I can count the camps. Precise pieces of trail, discrete phases of map. This isn’t one of those.

We camped somewhere that night, left enough time for the next day to be a “day off,” wasting time we didn’t know we didn’t have. For our “rest” day we hiked up the hillside to a large plateau of a consistency unfamiliar. Soft and quaky, yet easily bearing our weight. Not bog-like, but a springy mat like poorly consolidated rubber ten feet deep, or a hundred. By turns barren and brown and dirty, by turns diseased by sprays of wispy stubborn plant. I had the uneasy feeling we should get out of there. The terra firma below our feet wasn’t firm at all, a shaky hardened pudding that felt like it could swallow us up.

Dayhike (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

We ate a picnic, ran a series of stupid arguments. It’s dirt. It’s dirt-covered ice. It’s a glacier. It’s not. It reminded me most of the time I stepped onto and stood on a dead deer’s chest outside of a hunting lodge in Minnesota without realising it until I felt the rib cage start to give under my feet.

I felt the land could consume us the same way my melonning flesh had metastasized my elbow the previous day.

We wandered about on this springy deathtrap, disputing pointlessly about whether great literature needs to have an exciting plot or not to be “great.” We both thought the other obtuse, stupid, and deliberately not listening to our point.

We were actually arguing about what it means to be friends, whether you have to talk all day to be intimate together, and why youth must cover love with noise. Hate. The shivery surface under our feet noticed us not at all.

We’d camped at a place where the once measly torrent of above had become something rather more and merged with a broad flow choked with floating ice that emerged directly out of a glacier that was, like, right there in front of us, man. We had to cross both of these top forks of the “Y” shaped confluence to get out of there. The Y-stem was too deep and wide.

We were terrified.

Our jaunt on the quaking pudding now a night behind us, we contemplated the obstacle with the morning sobriety of necessity. Our sense of the real, and of our scale in it, continued to winnow as the land humped up bigger and bigger and pissed all over us. Here, at this knupf-point between the arms of the hills, at the fight-nexus where the river and glacier beat each other up, the natural was churned into an uneasy broil.

We’d begun to see bears on the other side of the river: where we had to go. The lone, close-up bear of Denali was now replaced by multiple far, seen, real bears, plus imagined ones, roaming about in this flotsam of hungry-early-fall. They shat piles of pure jellied berries that looked like blood mass. Everywhere. As it did most days that summer in Alaska, the grey gloom in the upness spat rain on us, and the damp air we lurched through was coldish. The sunny jaunt on the hill carcass the previous day was wiped out and we faced another moment where it was just us two prideful flesh-piles getting our faces ground into the hillside of mixed slate and calcified shit.

We crossed the first river without incident, schooled into caution by my falling in Denali and losing my glasses in a stream which had looked shallower than this one (I now put in contacts each morning with dirt-rimed fingers and took them out, dry and brittle, in the soggy tent each exhausted evening).

The second fork, the one coming out of the glacier, defeated us. It was broad, braided and confusing. We pointed out various routes to each other, utilising sandbars in the middle, or not, but each time soon found a channel too deep to wade, too fast to dare, too frightening to lower ourselves into. The water was literally ice cold, fresh glacial melt, carrying mini icebergs up to the size of a dorm-room fridge. They bumped off our legs and hurt considerably. Within an hour or so of multiple failed attempts and retreats, in and out of the frigid water, we were too tired to cross, too worried about hypothermia to try.

In this state, judgment reduced but the far airstrip a terror-inducing absolute – get there or stay here – we determined to climb across the tongue-end of the glacier.

We had zero experience in glaciers between us – rather, just enough reading to be terrified of them. We had no idea of the best way of doing it.

Just as we’d gingerly lowered ourselves into the hillside-gash two days previous, we simply clambered tiredly up onto the thing. And there we were. These are our lives.

That glacier may be the least flat surface I have walked on. Imagine your jumbled tray of ice cubes in your freezer. Take it out and melt it some until needles and collapsing globular-topped spires appear. Churn up a can of broken peanuts with some spoiled sour cream and sprinkle that on top. Dump several tablespoons of feta cheese on that. Refreeze. Now, you sized perhaps as big as a no-see-um, cross it.

That is your Wrangell-St. Elias glacier tongue that day. Whether this is typical or not I don’t know; it is the first and last glacier I have crossed.

Aside from the impossible ups-and-downs and arounds-and-abouts, another unforeseen problem crops up: your view of anything but the decaying glacier itself is blocked by the spires and towers, and you get lost. The river that is flowing underneath reappears in spots internally, as the structure is rotten: the glacier does not end in a flat, neat line, but a melty, chaotic catacomb. I was acutely aware that the whole thing might collapse under as at any moment, simply break away. For the first time in my life, I experienced fear as a physical sensation: I might as well have licked copper emulsion plates for the taste on my tongue. I was jolted into a hyper-awareness of being alive, but there wasn’t much to me: just fear and this ice. Radical reduction of self, ego, time, space and life. A bit of wafted fear, plastered against riven snow.

And we were fine, and lived, and climbed off down the other side. Some might say we had a good story to tell. We felt like fools. What were we doing here? Who were we? What the fuck was going on?

We were now in the main valley, but we’d lost a sense of ourselves somewhere in the valleys above. The devil had opened the door the minute we’d stepped out of the plane – “come on in, boys!” – but it was only now that we knew we were in the room.

It was here, in this valley, that the religious experiences of my life came to a sudden end. That’s twenty years ago now. Since then? No seeking, no thinking, no wondering. I was about to get my answer. Right now.

Identities erased, tamed, embarrassed. We headed down the valley. The river to our right was soon a raging beelzebub you wouldn’t want to cross in a canoe. But the airstrip was on this side, on the left, somewhere on ahead. So all we had to do was stumble across the rocks a few more miles, picking our way between the spindly cedars and splashing through the outliers of braid. Right?

We had one more night, but we feared time now. We decided to head for the airstrip, camp there.

Not to be.

The tributaries that spilled out of the eroding hills were sometimes rivers in themselves. Better experienced now, or simply inured, we crossed some easily. Then, nearing dusk, we found one so fast we could hear rocks banging together as they rolled along the bottom. We stared at it dumbfounded, sat on the ground-round rocks.

The sky pressed down. Darkness removed light. Time bubbled and frothed. The infinite was very small, because of what was behind it. People we knew were dying. We were alive.


What is it? What is it?

Ragged, the hillsides humped up into the clouds. Immensity beyond imagination. Around us in every direction, the park stretched for hundreds of miles. Immensity of nothing. Total defeat. Time a fluid, blowing around in the wind. Fragility and finality. The claw-hammer power of the hill’s deafening hand. A triumph of the infinite so complete it does not dwarf or awe you. It eliminates you.

The tributary here was narrower than the ice-float-tray at the head of the valley, but ridiculously much deeper, faster. Patently uncrossable.

Well beyond the end of our rope, we pitched camp next to it. We despaired, we thought we would die, we hated and loved each other no less.

Hereabouts (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

Braids heaps, dumps slag. Raven pelt. The unguent flow of rock glaciers, dirty like soot, rotten curd, oozing the slowest of total destruction. Scaled to kill. Crumbling, morphous, eternity’s pestle, god the mortar. Dwarfing totality. In the lowlands, weed clot in the brack under tannin pine, the egregious suck of organ-mud blacker than bitum. Chew grubs out of dead logs. In the towns, tin roofs perishing to time, gone brown with rust, not assaulted but overwhelmed by the forest. Gravel underfoot crunches, then is soaked with the brine of deterioration, churning back to mulch. Defeat of timber, bolt, screw, dirt-clogged pipes. Graves dot fields. Molten and frozen hell. Silt river teeth. A takeover not friendly or peaceful – a savage and indifferent aggressor, blind and sweeping. Death a scattering, life a brief and unnoticed taking. A decay of the eternal into dust. Threat, fragility, purity. Cauldron of shattered cement. You can fight it and it will let you, but it doesn’t know you are there.

We both saw it, knew it.

In the morning, refreshed, sane again, without god bashing us in the face, we hiked upriver far enough that we crossed the stygian headwater at a point where it didn’t reach our knees. In the bright sunlight, we pretended god hadn’t crushed us, and ambled easily to the airstrip. The drizzle began again. The pilot came and picked us up.

We acted as if nothing had happened.

The truth was we’d slept in the bosom of god, trundled across its ass like blind beggars for days.

It exists and is around us at all times, but does not care. Though we are pieces of god ourselves, we are less than nothing to it. Yes, it is easy to fall into the pathetic anthropomorphising fallacy of seeing the hills, the all, as brooding, evil, hostile. Or great, good: unforgiving but benevolent.

They, it, god, are none of these things. To god, we do not exist. No zen recognition of emptiness, this: no, it is elimination of self, annihilation of meaning. Our stay is less than temporary and transient. In the face of god, our time does not exist.

We were overmatched, helpless, pathetic, utterly uncared for. The hills were as indifferent to us as the Big Bang to space. The landscape made all other landscapes look like toys. Total indifference. Total, total indifference.

End (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

The post Nothing but Braided Stream appeared first on Dark Mountain.

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Think Entangled, Act Spooky

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Derrick Jensen: Forget Shorter Showers

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“…don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

We have waited eight months for an article like this. Do take the time to read it.

Read here


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152 days ago
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By darkstar in "The Constitutional Crisis is here. It's been here." on MeFi

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"I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible."

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I'm not sure how much more on the nose you can get, except to point out how the Parable of the Good Samaritan demands that we take care of travelers in distress, even to the point of feeding, clothing, housing and providing health care.

Or, indeed, that Jesus himself was eventually murdered by the lawful government of the day.

I swear, the gross, willful obtuseness about some of the most fundamental teachings and themes of Scripture makes me so angry at the Evangelical Christian movement and their eagerness to embrace authoritarianism and hatred when it suits them. It's why I eventually had to give up the ministry — I just couldn't remain a part of such hypocrisy and wickedness.
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Meritocratic failure

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There is an interesting review of Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure from the University of Catania (the main University in Sicily). They start from the idea that there is a Gaussian distribution of talent (as I understand it, this Gaussian distribution is just a normal distribution, so if, say,... Read more
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