The Path — Animal and Human Bodies

By Eva-Maria Simms

The paths that we walk or ride or drive have a history. They were made because someone found the easiest way to move human bodies through the landscape, and other bodies have followed and widened the path or built it into a road. A paper street, on the other hand, was designed in a completely conceptual way, on someone’s drafting table, “as if it still stood in the brain” (to use a phrase from Rilke’s Seventh Duino Elegy): nobody found it useful as a street, and it did not accommodate the true lay-out of the Western Pennsylvania landscape, which resists straight lines and geometric grids. A path has to fit into a landscape; but it also has to fit human anatomy, motility, and intentionality in order to be useful and maintained.

Understanding the path begins with understanding the human body and its Umwelt. Bodies, be they human or animal, have a particular relationship to their environment which is specific to their species. The biologist Jacob von Uexküll taught us that the same landscape has a different meaning to a human being than to a dog or a tick. He called this semiotic field the animal’s Umwelt. The dog lives in a complex scentscape which tells it who has been in this place and which way they went. Its grasp of scented layered events within one place is completely alien and only partly imaginable to humans. The dogscape has different locations of meaning in it that differ from the significant events the tick waits for, as it sits on its leave above the trail. The tick perceives only the chemical signature of warm skin passing under its bush so that it can drop down and feed. That is all the pleasure it needs, and birdsong, the color of wildflowers, the blue vista of mountains in the background do not exist: they have no meaning in the tick’s world, and the tick lacks organs of perception for them.

Human bodies perceive and use the landscape in species specific ways as well. Most of our perceptual organs, like eyes, nose, and mouth, are arranged at the front of our head and point in one direction. Our shoulders and pelvis emphasize this directionality and provide a framework for our arms and legs to be perfectly positioned to reach forward. Our senses attend to what’s ahead, and our limbs carry us towards it. Only our ears, on the sides and in stereo, are attuned to the sound that surrounds us. But walking we walk forward, seeing we look ahead.

The body determines the basic grammar of our spatial prepositions: before (ahead/in front) is the open perceptual field which calls and beckons our hands and feet; behind (back) is what we do not see, the perceptual field that is only vaguely attended and mysterious; above (up) is the sky with its shifting light-shows and weather patterns, and below (down, under) is the ground upon which we move. With our ears we can swivel around and change the perceptual field to the horizon which surrounds us, but as soon as we move we give up the round and commit ourselves to the ahead. We walk backwards only when we avoid something that threatens from in front. Our legs are not made to walk that way, and we can flee only by choosing a new forward direction away from the threat.

It is startling to realize that movement is mostly movement “a-head”, and that the space in front of the body has a different significance than the space behind the body. Ahead is a different semiotic space than behind. Ahead are the perceptions and projects we are looking for, the experiences not yet here but maybe already announcing themselves; behind is the space already traversed but left behind and only there as a memory — it is known but also soon forgotten because it falls out of the beam of attention. Ahead is the future: what is possible. Behind is the past: what is remembered. Future and past are intricately tied to the motility of the human body.

On a very fundamental level the path is an expression of the semiotic field of the body. Bodies, animal and human, are always situated and mobile. To be situated means that we are tied to a particular time and place; to be mobile means that when we move we move through a particular space at this time and not through others. The deer path snaking along the hillside is a testimony to the deer’s body-space: elegant, narrow, sinuous, surprising at times in its trajectory. It is also a trace of the animal’s history with this particular landscape. Once chosen, the deer path becomes an easy and favorite route through the landscape and it beckons the deer to follow it because it has been shaped by the deer’s gestures and conforms to the deer’s needs. It is not so very different from human built paths. Why move through the brush when the path is free of vegetation? Why find a new path when this one already leads to the water or the favorite berry patch? The history of deer-life is inscribed into the paths crossing the landscape. Deer paths are a trace of non-human beings and their history with and segmentation of the landscape.

The path, deer or human, shows the commitment that living beings have made to a landscape: here have we walked, here has been the best place for our bodies to move through this place, here have we traversed again and again. The path is an inscription of intentionality and history – deer or human – in the visible and tangible landscape which houses our bodies.
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Bingo!

By Karen Zhang

Who doesn’t know bingo? But this word is known to Chinese as an English idiom—an exclamation of sudden realization about something right. Few English learners in China would know bingo was originated from a game of chance.

A few weeks ago I participated in a local bingo game for the first time. It was held in a firehouse canteen that could take up a hundred or so people. There—surrounded by dozens of participants, mostly women—not only did I get a gist of the game, but I had also tried my patience to sit in the intense vibes for a good three hours. Two women in their mid-fifties sitting next to my table were kind enough to give me prompts before every game.

An emcee sat in the center of the room, manipulating a lottery-like machine which picks a ball marked with a number from an air-swirling pool. He then placed the selected ball in front of the camera and announced the number twice. On four sides of the room were electronic boards and TV screens keeping pace with the announcer.

It turns out bingo is more complicated than I thought, simply because there are a number of winning patterns for each game—aside from the traditional patterns that five matched numbers in a row horizontally, vertically or diagonally, some games require a pattern of “No Free Space,” or “Inside Picture Frame,” or “Crazy Kite” and more. The names of the pattern were as bizarre as the patterns to me. I had to refer to a chart for every game. I felt like a first-grader reacquainting with numbers in a five-by-five box. The tension grew after a series of numbers were announced and nobody yelled “bingo!”

Some veteran players bought at least half a dozen cards. They deftly crossed the selected numbers on all of them. Simultaneously, they checked the electronic bingo in front of them. The key to success is the more you bet, the more likely you will win. I might have been the youngest participant but I was far from the most adventurous or the most multi-tasking. Embarrassingly, after half of the game, I had already grown too tired to follow the numbers. A few times I missed the called numbers. No way could I get the hang of it, I said to myself.

At hearing people shouting “bingo” at the top of their lungs, I finally witnessed how the word “bingo” originally, unmistakenly, and musically conveys the very excitement of sudden realization and surprise. Just the sound of it had made me amp up more anticipation for my next game.

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Robert

by Publius

My kids and their abandonment issues. When I discipline a kid, I always make it clear that I like the kid but dislike the behavior. And I always make clear that I won’t abandon the kid, despite the behavior.

Some kids will go out of their way to have time with me. Once a day, Robert must “have my walk around,” meaning he comes into my class and chats, this, I believe, just to make sure that I am a constant object in his life.

I think Robert would be glad if I took him home. He constantly seeks my attention, often inappropriately. And he leaves little bits of himself, papers, pens, an unfinished assignment, in my room almost everyday. I really noticed this when he left his Boy Scout manual, one of his most valued items. It gives him an excuse to return to my room.

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The Path – History and Landscape

By Eva-Maria Simms

Since my harrowing experience in the “forest savage, rough and stern” a few weeks ago I have been wondering about the difference between built and natural landscape. Most of us humans take the paths and trails, the roads and highways for granted, and we usually do not think about them. But the landscape we experience today has been profoundly modified by the paths that bisect and order it. Without roads, our country would be a completely different thing: it would probably look like the old British maps of Africa where there were many white spots indicating “unexplored territory.” Our highways create a link from a “here” (where our bodies are) to a “there” (which is a potential destination for us) and in doing so differentiate the landscape into areas of familiarity and alienness. On a smaller scale this is also true of trails and hiking paths: they create a “there” which is human friendly and carved out of the wilderness. Before trails, roads, and highways all we had was topology, “the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that”, as Annie Dillard said about the Monongahela River valley in An American Childhood.

It took a long time for the American continent to be settled by Europeans west of the Appalachians because it was very difficult to cross the Allegheny mountain range with its deep undergrowth, folded, steep hills, and abundant creeks and wetlands. The only passages for wagons were along the rivers and through the gaps they had gouged into the mountains. Annie Dillard wrote:

In those first days, people said, a squirrel could run the long length of Pennsylvania without ever touching the ground. In those first days, the woods were white oak and chestnut, hickory, maple, sycamore, walnut, wild ash, wild plum, and white pine. Pine grew on the ridgetops where the mountain’s lumpy spines stuck up and their skin was thinnest. The wilderness was uncanny, unknown.

Ravens and warblers, flickers and perhaps even the great ivory billed woodpeckers lived out their lives here. They nested and raised their young, fed on plants and insects and in turn were eaten by larger predators like hawks and owls. They were part of an ecosystem that had evolved, through ice ages, droughts, and temperate periods, in these hills and valleys for millennia. Few human beings had ever intruded.

In the river valleys grew American Sycamores with massive trunks that reached heights of up to 130 feet. Sycamores are a member of the planet’s oldest clan of trees, the Plantanacea, which have been around for over 100 million years. A French expedition to the forks of the Ohio from 1749 reported that 29 men could fit side by side into the hollow within one of these great giant trees. In 1770 on his journey down the Ohio River, George Washington recorded in his journal a sycamore measuring nearly 45 feet in circumference at 3 feet from the ground. It is almost unimaginable that trees like that dotted our landscape. How many centuries must it have taken for the seedling to grow undisturbed to such a size? How long for it all to be hollowed out from the inside?

The great confluence valley of our rivers and the landscape that flanks them was sparsely inhabited by the native peoples, who came here to hunt and bury their dead and who settled along the flat banks of the rivers. There are traces of Paleo-Indian presence carved into the bluffs along the rivers’ edge: caves, rock shelters, and burial mounds that are up to 20.000 years old. Later the banks of the Ohio were Iroquois hunting territory, and then Lenape, Seneca, and Shawnee built villages up and down the forks of the Ohio. The rivers were their highways. They had also found a walking passage through the Allegheny Mountains and their traders kept the trail open. French traders established trading posts along the Allegheny and Ohio rivers in the early 1700’s.

Today you can find stretches of a path up the steep cliff side to the top of Mt. Washington which is still called “The Indian Trail”. It is said that this was the path that young George Washington took when he climbed up the bluff to survey the landscape of the forks of the Ohio for the crown in 1753. Two years later Washington accompanied British General Braddock’s expedition of two regiments, which marched from Fort Cumberland across the Allegheny Mountains and into western Pennsylvania. Following a path Washington surveyed along an old Native American trail, over 3,000 men built a wagon road 12 feet wide which would become the first road to cross the Appalachian Mountains. Braddock’s wagon road became later (1811) the first federally sponsored highway and was to be called “The National Road”. Braddock’s road was the funnel that allowed settlers to leave the eastern colonies, pass through the thicket of the Allegheny Mountains, and travel on to the Great Plains and West.

Where there is a path, people follow it and human history begins. Before the path there is only natural history and the eternal cycle of birth and death in the forest, “the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”

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Dance Review: The Pillow Project’s Second Saturday Speak Eazy

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

“Second Saturday” at the Pillow Project keeps getting better and better. To call it a “happening,” rather than a performance or show, is right on target. Who else in the city combines the most happening art, dance, music and culture, and turns it into something that feels like the hottest underground club in town? Pearlann Porter, that’s who.

The company’s Point Breeze hub, “The Space Upstairs,” was jam packed Saturday night. Not surprising, as they are typically full for the regular monthly event. The theme this time, “The Speak Eazy,” featured sounds of the 1920s to the 1950s by musical guest and host, Vie Boheme.

Boheme and her band kicked off the evening by explaining the subject matter they considered before putting the show together. Prohibition, public drunkenness, and “the threat of the woman’s mind” all made the list. To go along with the topic, Porter announced that there would be a secret password to receive the “bathtub gin” after 10 p.m. The stage was set.

“Can I have some movement?” Boheme ad libbed as her band began a smooth swing. Audience members lounged throughout the space on vintage couches, chairs, high tops and floor pillows, waiting for the first dancer. “I said. Can I have some movement? Boheme asked again.

As usual, the dancers seemed to appear out of nowhere, like they walked in off the street and decided they had to express themselves through movement that instant. All of the dance was performed in Porter’s signature style of “jazzing the music,” a technique she created that uses improvisation to physically express sound.

This show happened to coincide with the Pillow’s Summer Intensive Study Program, which meant that Porter’s students had the opportunity to perform alongside professionals. One by one, they made their way to the open space, reserved for artists, and let the keyboard, bass, drums and horns infuse their bodies with early jazz. Boheme, also a dancer, interacted with each performer, singing to them in acknowledgement.

In between band sets, DJ Jay Malls provided sounds of that period on original 78 records. The quintessential scratchy sound accompanied classics like “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Boheme encouraged people to mingle, enjoy a drink at the bar, or even a hot dog from the Franktuary truck parked outside.

To add to the entertainment, Jordan Bush created spontaneous drawings throughout the space. Special guest, Alaina Dopico, read her poetry while a duet of dance emerged. And new “fellow” of the Pillow Project, Riva Strauss performed part of a solo to premiere in full this fall. She described the piece as “an awakening…coming to a conscious understanding.” Dressed in a long, blue, fitted gown, she danced on a gold structure, raised from the ground. Although her face was masked, the intensity and articulation of her body communicated the emotion clearly.

It is hard to say when the evening ended. Porter’s functions can go on well into the early morning hours, and only the most passionate last that long. I was asleep before the stroke of midnight, filled up with the thriving art of Pittsburgh’s unconventional, and the hope that the secret of “Second Saturday” makes its way, in loud whispers, around the city.

 

 

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Ghetto Hawk

by Publius

Today, after school, I stood by a yellow bus. I looked up and saw a broad wing hawk swooping down on some pigeons. Poor pigeons, I thought. But as the hawk narrowed on a single pigeon, it turned abruptly. The hawk overshoots. Then the pigeons begin to swirl around the hawk, swirl in such a way that the hawk can’t get at any one pigeon. The pigeons use what they have, speed and maneuverability. It turns out the hawk can’t corner worth a damn. As they get to about 30 feet, the pigeons scatter in all directions, hide in this crevice, beneath that window sill, between those chimneys. A clean get-away.

That’s my students. That’s me. We’re the pigeons. We use what we’ve got. And we live to fly another day.

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The Path

By Eva-Maria Simms

The new trail behind Olympia Park snakes through the wooded landscape in switchbacks, over suddenly erupting water runs, and along blackberry brambles and elderberry bushes which are seeing full sunlight for the first time ever. We take trails for granted, but I have walked the same landscape before and after the trail has been built, and I can tell you that it alters the mood of the place completely.

Last weekend I walked the new trail, which is still under construction, up to the point where the graded and benched surface ended. Ahead were only the small orange flags in the landscape which marked where the trail crew would continue their work. It had been a great walk so far: dappled sunlight, sweet birdsong, easy walking, blackberries that were reddish green and still unripe, but which would be ready in the coming weeks. I could see a few flags ahead, like the crumbs of Hansel and Gretel’s bread, and decided to follow them. I knew this landscape, and had been in this area before, so I was sure I could find my way. Somewhere close by must be the little cliff with the open area below which my students and I had cleared of trash and debris, and from there led a deer path to a fallen tree where I hid a geocache four years ago. How difficult could it be to find my way?

At first the trail meandered along the hillside, but soon I found myself in overgrown territory. I bushwhacked through knotweed that was taller than my head. My shirt got caught by thorny brambles and I had to stop frequently to untangle myself. I deliberated if I should turn around, but my feet carried me further and further. How far could it be? I was in the middle of an American city, after all. I pushed forward. The next flag was up the hill and behind arm-thick hanging vines. I pulled myself up by holding on to small trees and shoving the kudzu out of the way. The terrain was suddenly very steep and the valley to my right fell down into a ravine. Where was I? Somewhere in front of me was the ball field at Olympia Park, but how far away was it? My view ahead was blocked by a tangle of fallen trees, and the deer path seemed to snake alongside it. I suddenly realized that there were no more flags, neither ahead nor behind. When and where did I lose the flags?

Twenty yards in front of me lay the huge, silvery trunk of a fallen tree across my path. Wasn’t this the place where I had hidden the geocache when the giant dead tree stood as a sentinel in the landscape, and hid it again later after its fall? I tried to climb over the dead trunk, but it was more than four feet in diameter and on the slope, and I could not push myself up on its slippery wood. Pulling myself alongside it I slid over the roots and a very unfriendly poison ivy patch and down the other side. There was no geocache anywhere, and now I really had no idea where I was. Looking back over the trunk I could no longer tell where I had come from and was not sure I could find my way back to the trail. This was not a sweet, hiker friendly tamed landscape. The brambles and the poison ivy were doing their own thing, the robins were eying me suspiciously, and big trees came down without anybody witnessing their death. As a human I had no part in this. The thorns scratched my arms bloody without care; the poison ivy had probably left its insidious, toxic molecules on my naked skin for a later painful warning. I panicked slightly, but thought that going on would eventually get me back to civilization. Pushing forward I slipped in the mud and my foot sank into a runnel which suddenly seemed to spring up from the ground. My leg was covered in cold, dark brown slime up to the knee. Why didn’t I bring my cell phone? What if I wandered around the folds of this forest forever and could not find my way home? Who would come looking for me here? What if I got injured? How many hours before dark?

Then I remembered that all hillsides in Emerald View Park have a top with houses built right up to the edge. If I went up the hill, and not forward, I should find a street eventually. And sure enough: climbing up the slope and pushing myself through the thicket I glimpsed the neon yellow of a caution tape which the trail crew had strung around an abandoned foundation. Above it was the paper street I had crossed before. I was so surprised to come out in this location: space seems to have followed a different geometry in the trackless woods, and time bends itself around winding runnels and fallen trees when there is no clear path.

Dirty, scratched up, tired, and chastened I left the forest behind. I thought of the opening lines of Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno:

I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

Indeed: what is the savage forest, and how is it changed by the straightforward path we build through it?

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Cousins

by Publius

I once taught in an inner-city middle school, in which I was one of only two white people, both of us teachers.

A student once asked me, “Hey, cous’, what page we on?” I run a rather formal classroom. So I turned to him and said,

“Mr. Knight, I’m white and you’re black. Do I look like any cousin of yours?”

“Honest, sir, it depends on what side of the family we’re talking about.”

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Dr. Dog

by Publius

Black folks use the word “dog” in the same way white folks use “pal” or “buddy.” It’s familiar. It’s friendly. But it’s not suited to formal discourse.

So Victorio says to me, “What page we on, dog?” Then gapes at me, knowing he’s crossed a line.

‘That’s Dr. Dog to you, sir!’ We pause. Then we all laugh.

From now until the end of the year, I’m Dr. Dog.

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Danny

by Publius

Danny. Danny. Danny.

To borrow a line from my favorite show, The Sopranos, “Between [his] brain and [his] mouth, there is no interlocutor. “ He’s a good spirited kid. He’s not mean. We’ve grown fond of each other. But he just does what he does and says what he says. And the school system offers absolutely no help.

Today, I snag him as he walks behind a girl, her eyes wild in torment, as he keeps repeating, “Let me see your coochie. Let me see your coochie. …” I send him back into my room.

Last semester, when the med students were here, they ask, “Does anyone know what a homosexual is?”

Danny shoots up his hand. “That’d be butt-fuckin’ faggots.”

“Well, ah, ah, that’s not an, ah, an appropriate term. Anyhow, does anyone know what a lesbian is?”

Danny shoots back, “That’d be Alexander’s mama. Alexander’s that fat little negro sittin’ right in front of you. You can go ahead on and smack his black ass back to Africa, if you like. He don’t mind.” Alexander has some feelings about all this. At which point I have to quiet a small riot.

And stuff like this happens with Danny almost every day.

His mother is an alcoholic. His father is nowhere to be found. There is a succession of live-in boyfriends. And the mother still refuses, after all this time and repeated requests, to give Danny his meds.

When the mother disciplines Danny, she hits him with a closed fist. I know this because I stopped her once before she hit him.

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Danny, The End

by Publius

The paperwork has finally arrived for Danny to be sent to special ed., or what now goes by the current cliché, a “resource room.” We first put-in for his transfer back in August, as I recall. If I were to count all the time the 7th grade team has taken from instruction, this to attend singularly to Danny, it would be counted in full days of instruction.

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