The Syntax Of Objects Tim McCreight Brynmorgen Press Brunswick, Maine www.brynmorgen.

com copywrite 2005 by Tim McCreight ISBN 978-1-929565-35-1 All rights reserved No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission from the publisher except in the context of reviews. Book design and most photos: Tim McCreight conversion to ebook: Jeff McCreight The author wishes to thank the Yaddo Foundation where these thoughts were first developed. Thanks also to Jay McCreight and Abby Johnston. syn-tax 1. Gram. a. The way in which words are put together to form phrases and sentences. b. The branch of grammar dealing with the formation of phrases and sentences. 2. Computer Science. The rules governing the construction of a machine language. 3. Systematic arrangement {Fr. syntase <LLat. syntaxis < Gk suntaxis <suntassein, to combine: sun-, together + tassein, to arrange. — American Heritage Dictionary 1 We know of our two-fold nature, how we are body and spirit, mind and matter, heart and soul. Is there a religion that hasn’t identified this, that has neglected to invent myths to explain it? Our finest selves exist in that untouchable realm of emotion, inspiration, and spirit. It is the home of philosophy and poetry and love. In that universe time does not exist, or exists only as a breeze exists over the ocean, a thin phenomenon of little importance. The intangible world of spirit sits in contrast to our material world, where gravity operates and chemical forces play out their predictable reactions. As those same religions know, we are rooted here, bound to our dancing, shuffling, weary bodies. We can dream ourselves across the heavens, but return to find ourselves curled in a chair with a cramp in our neck. We love in ways immeasurable, but are left with nothing more vast than a kiss to carry the wonder of it. Locked in the material world, we find in it vibrations from that other universe, tokens that connect us with our largest selves. We are surrounded by objects, the furniture of our material world. It is made of substance—of wood and stone and fiber—and shares at least half of our reality. We are not wood or stone, but further down, we are all molecules of this and that, electrons spinning with the fundamental energy of life. Objects surround us, as close as our clothing and as distant as public monuments. What is the language of these things? By what codes do they connect with us, embrace us, refute us, and in the end, inform us? This we could call the syntax of objects, the meaning that lies in their arrangement; the power of our relationship to each other. 2 What is my first memory of the object-filled world? I can tell myself of the experience of birth, when I was forced through a too-small space, when the limits of my physical size first pushed upon me. It probably hurt, so I learned of pain, learned that when I bump up against the physical world, it pushes back. I do not remember this, but that first encounter might have left a memory. I was then wrapped in a blanket, swabbed with water, lifted by hands, all events that excited the nerves in my waterlogged skin, awakening senses that haven’t slept since. I do not remember that, but it must have happened. I went home, a ride in a car. I was lifted, turned, laid into a crib, dressed, and bathed; all events that continued my education of the material world, helping me define my place in it. By the time my first genuine memory shows up, my understanding of the world was probably well advanced, or at least far along the path that marks our understanding of the world. Who is to say if we are ever far advanced? How much is there to the world of objects that we will never understand? By the time I was one I must have known the edges of my own body and been able to discern the physical beings of others. I could tell, if not name, the difference between my foot and my hand, my mother and my father, the floor and the wall. I would have learned by then that it hurt when I fell down, and that it hurt less when I fell on grass than pavement. In an unguarded moment, I might have learned about hot, touching a radiator or a pan just from the oven. I discovered again that the material world bumps back, sometimes harder than others. I would know, without having words to describe it, a continuum of interaction. I would know that some things felt better than others; it was more pleasant to be warm than cold, fed than hungry, and so on. I would know that I liked to be sometimes horizontal, sometimes vertical, that there was a time for keeping my eyes open and a time for closing them. Like all children, I must have once thought that when I closed my eyes, the world disappeared. I couldn’t have proven it then, and I can’t prove it now, but after so many trials, always finding things pretty much as I left them when I closed my eyes, I’m willing to pretend that the universe does not dissolve into empty space and reconstruct itself when I awaken. Of course I could be wrong about this. 3 Somewhere in my early childhood I took some responsibility for adding to the material world, or at least manipulating it in some way. After a couple years of being lifted and placed, fed and bathed, handed objects that I would examine and toss away, one day I made an object myself. Was it a lump of Play-Doh or a crayon that first came into my hand? It was a momentous day—pivotal, life-changing, and again, one I do not remember. I made a gesture, nerve impulses triggering muscle contractions that jerked a finger or swung an arm, to make my mark upon the world; my first creative addition to the world of objects. It was the most important piece I ever made. It is gone now, unremembered. 4 As my understanding of the world of objects grew, I found a forest of distinctions. They still come to me, and there must be many more I do not perceive. Objects are large and small, hard and soft, mine and not mine. They have different colors, tastes, and smells. Some roll and bounce and move by themselves. Others are still: are they sleeping or dead? I pick my nose, wiggle my teeth, and probe every sort of object I can. What does it feel like inside the dog’s ears? How long can I hold my head under the bath water, and why shouldn’t I put my hand in the toilet? I learn, through determined and anxious effort, to control the small muscles that will improve my ability to work with objects. I hold a cup, lift a spoon, and with furrowed brow eventually find the way to push a pencil with some control. A new class of objects, pencils and markers and crayons, come into my reach. I work on vast sheets of coarse-surfaced paper the color of oatmeal. I discover symbols, ideas in my head that work like words to communicate with the people around me. See, that’s a house, I say, and here is the door. They do not see it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a door anyway. Let them figure it out. I love these objects—the greasy feel of the crayon when I strip off the paper, and the way it tastes when I rub it on my teeth, not sweet, but like a drawing. The fat black pencils are long, full of drawings, and as blunt as a fable. I wish I had one in my hand right now. 5 I suppose I had favorite toys in those days but they float outside the reach of memory. Did I cry for a certain stuffed creature? I don’t remember, but I can recall a pale blue blanket, thin with wear and probably not much bigger than a towel. That is, about me-size. I wanted that blanket with me all the time, dragged it around behind me, bunched it up under my head when I laid down, and stroked it against my cheek when I sucked on my fingers. Now that I think of it, concentrating on it as I haven’t done in a quartet of decades, it occurs to me that this might be the beginning of ownership, that moment when, of all the objects in the world, I established a hierarchy and a private relationship. “This is mine,” I said, and “I want this most of all.” In a sense, it is that process that has been dominant in my life ever since. 6 Currencies are objects, and objects are currency. I’m sure I learned about barter before I learned about cash. I recall filling the hours of summer afternoons with rituals of exchange. Swapping was a sport, like swimming or playing baseball. Every kid has special stuff and a place to keep it. A shoe box under the bed for me, a dresser drawer for my best friend Teddy. We would march to one outpost, my room or his, and retrieve a handful of objects that had somehow satisfied their obligations of ownership. They had been special long enough; they were ready to be put on the market. We’d spill our collections onto the floor and sprawl out on our bellies to engineer the exchange. I remember lining up my objects—marbles, a broken pocket knife, foreign coins, caps, a real bullet casing—like a small army in front of me, my best and brightest, willing foot soldiers who would do my bidding without hesitation, crossing over the space between my pile and his, an exchange of prisoners, a transmutation of matter. My steely became a plastic army man, grenade launder at his shoulder, with his feet in a broad stance attached to a green oval of land to keep him upright. When allowance became part of my life and I learned to distinguish pennies and nickels and dimes, I had the essence of exchange under my belt already. Trading these metal disks for paper straws filled with sweet powder at the corner market was child’s play. 7 I learned somewhere along the way that objects are connected to time. For one thing, certain objects come and go in accordance with the seasons. I remember ice skates, black for the boys and white for the girls, tied by their laces, hanging from nails driven into the splintery beams in our basement. In the spring and summer I would see them, hanging like pelts, or bunches of herbs drying. I got used to them, and gave them no mind, the way we do with objects. But then some cold Saturday, months later, those same skates would appear on the kitchen floor, dusted, maybe even oiled, with a new lace or a bright spot in the runner where the rust had been sanded off. We would use them, and leave them on the porch or under the stairs, until one day, months later, when the felted grasses were half exposed and the pond had a halo of water around its edge, a flurry of activity would blow through the house like the chill air that came through the windows, opened for the first time in a long while. Like a general, my mother would direct the troops, reluctant but mobile workers, to bundle up the mittens and scarves into mothball ripened bags. Someone (was it me?) would tie those laces together, a bow the size of a butterfly, and gather up as many as could be carried and take them back to the basement to suspend them for their silent summer hibernation. By the next weekend, other objects would appear to confirm the new season. 8 Objects acquire power through ownership, or in some cases, even contact. In any museum we will find objects whose importance derives from the hands that once held them—Lincoln’s buttonhook, Churchill’s cigar case. As children we were introduced to great-grandfather’s watch, or the Bible or compass or brooch that had been in the family. We learned that objects mark time in a unique way, a spiritual internegative. I could not hold the hand of my great-grandfather, who died before I was born, but I could hold his watch and it knew the contours of his hand. No one told me how this worked; I felt it. Objects are permitted inside our veil of privacy, which makes them intimate, precious, private, and possibly obscene. Objects mingle on equal footing with other parts of the material world. The hairbrush holds the loose strands of our mother’s hair, as it will even after she dies. In touching such personal objects, we pass through a magic gate into a world of private admittance. The powder puff on my great-grandmother’s dressing table looms large in my memory. An enormous pink blossom, an icon of a mysterious feminine world I could barely imagine, or barely dared to imagine. The choices we make as we acquire objects follow us like bread crumbs dropped in the forest, leaving a trail. The objects of our public life are part of our social language. We show our tastes, our inclination, and our cultural memberships by the clothes we wear and the objects we use. But the secrets of our private lives are whispered by our intimate objects, which, being material and subject only to the laws of physics, are outside bonds of secrecy. What would I find in your bedside table, and do you want me to find it? How much wear will you tolerate in your undergarments before you replace them? Will I find tooth marks on your late-night pencil, or anxious financial worries spilling into the margins of your crossword? The material world is a shameless gossip, and like an eavesdropping child who blurts out family secrets unaware, objects lie outside the reach of our accusations or outrage. 9 Just as spoken language has its double meanings and word plays, I have learned that objects are about more than they seem at first. The dish of foreign coins on a dresser are not just brass disks of a pleasing weight, but tokens of faraway places, stamped with exotic words like ruble and pfenning and peso. They are the markers of travels taken, or possibly for dreams of future adventures. They are gifts from a friend or a parent or a kind stranger. Objects come into my life laden with messages, layered like bands of sedimentary rock, sometimes bonded and sometimes ready to cleave at a modest touch. I’ve held objects, and you have too, that are filled with stories of love and betrayal and reconciliation. Meanings gather on objects like moss accumulating on boulders in the moist woods. Some of these meanings originate with me. The object was not barren before I acquired it, but its messages were sufficiently generic that they did not overshadow my own. White noise. The ugly tie tack I bought my father for Christmas when I was eight. The scholarship award I won the next year, forgotten by me but found years later in my mother’s jewelry box. The process of accumulation rolls forward; I keep the awards won by my children, far more dear than my own. These objects thicken with gravity each year. They were new once, then not new, then older, then quite old, and finally quaint tokens of a bygone era. There comes a time when few people remember when it was new—this is an important milestone in the life of an object. You might hear someone say, “Ask your grandma to tell you about that pin.” And you will mean to ask but you won’t get around to it, and years later you’ll find it among the gaudy jewelry and tangled chains on the worn felt of a loosely hinged box, and you’ll remember not asking her, and the day someone told you to, and another layer will have been laid down, the sediment still loose, for now. 10 We have a special place in our hearts, or in our hands really, for objects that have been made by hand. The hollow feeling we get from mass-produced work is not, as we might be told, because there are so many of them. We don’t care. The smooth-surfaced china teacup from a factory in Ohio is pretty, maybe, or graceful or delicate, but it can never be more than the pleasant accomplishment of a series of industrial operations. It is not-shoddy, not-rushed, not-ugly; defined only by its avoidance of breaking certain studied rules of proportion and pattern. Contrast that with a hand thrown earthenware mug. It might be one of a dozen, or a hundred or a thousand. Even if they are made to be alike, I can feel something different in each one—the slight scratch of the encircling finger groove where a tiny bit of grog dragged itself through the soft clay. The drip of the glaze tells of a split second hesitation when the cup was lowered into the bucket. What daydream stayed the potter’s hand for that fraction of heartbeat? I know that daydream, or one like it. I know the feel of the clay and sense the hypnotic rotation of the potter’s wheel as I linger over my coffee. I believe in affinities—sympathetic waves of shared sensibilities that align elements like the magnets and iron filings we played with in high school science. Like dogs or children in a park, acutely attuned to each other, we respond to handmade objects and feel cheated by the manufactured surrogate. 11 Objects divide themselves into categories and hierarchies. We discard the laundry slip but save the ticket stub. One plate we discard as soon as it chips, but another we’ll glue several times, keeping it hidden at the bottom of the pile, unsafe to use, but still something we are not ready to throw away. Materials are gifts of the earth. The rich dark beauty of walnut, the sparkle of polished silver, and the sensuous drape of woven silk. All these materials are harvested from the earth, its plants, and its creatures. But each of them requires a metamorphosis to earn our attention, and in this way each speaks volumes about skill, practice, knowledge, and care. Nature and man share the planet, or perhaps we should say that nature is the encompassing term for the living material world, in which case, man is a subset of nature. Either way, we are aware of us, a species, and the rest of it—the creatures, the trees, and the cycles that surround us. It seems that in our current stage of evolution we are removed from nature, living in climate controlled houses and flipping on a light when the sun goes down. Our food comes from a paper box, our water from a chrome-coated spigot, and our sense of time from a quartz movement device that divides the day into parcels too small for us to register. 12 There is nothing quite like the physical experience of transformation that occurs beneath our hands when we shape a piece of the earth. One of the things we learn as we work with materials is the connectedness of it all. We cannot be removed from nature, even if we try. We can abuse our connection, a skill we seem to be perfecting with each generation, but whether for good or ill, we are part of the fabric of the world, the warp to earth’s weft. Is it abuse to cut down a tree to build a chair? Have we the right? At what point does our interaction with the material world cease to be a partnership and take on the stink of domination? We’ll never know the impact of our footfalls as they press the mantle of leaves, or the value of the shavings we scatter as we whittle, or the inspiration or salvation that will come into our hearts because we took this moment to carve a stick or shape a pot. It is pretension to give it much thought. 13 Tools are a special class of objects. They contain all the power of other objects, but trip a spark, like a welder’s rod, across the gap between maker and artifact. Like teacups and armchairs, tools are laden with the formal messages of shape, structure, color, and proportion. They can come to us with only impersonal messages, the intelligence of an unknown designer, the smells of a distant factory, or they can come laden with associations. Because tools are used in people’s hands, they are especially good at carrying the human touch. Tools are usually the result of vernacular design, and just like vernacular language, the nuance of the inventor lingers. There is a reason that a hammer handle feels so good in our hand. We might say, “It feels like it was made for me,” and in fact it was. Me, the maker. Me, human. Tools, as much as any other class of object, cast a light that shines through the dark reaches of time. If I traveled ten centuries and stumbled through a village square, I would be unable to understand the language, the customs, or the culture. But passing a blacksmith’s shop, I touch solid ground: the ringing noise, the puff of the bellows and the resulting eruption of sparks will be instantly familiar. I could pick up a hammer with confidence and join the crew. I know how to work this tool—it lays easily in my hand. 14 Materials make up the texture of the world, giving us its pulp and its juice, its grit, and its gloss. Since our first days, we know the world by touching, our network of senses completely enclosing us like a web of awareness drawn up from the soles of our feet to the follicles at the top of our head. There is not a summer breeze so fine that it fails to register on our skin. Through touch we rank the world, finding our way through it like explorers in a cave. Hot, cold, stiff, fluid — we probe into the stuff around us, constantly seeking the boundaries. When I find what I am not, then I will know what I am. We delight in some discoveries so much that we repeat them, collecting sensations like leaves pressed in a book, revisited now and again, fondly. There is no thing that is not textured, no thing that does not spark our neural web. This fact confirms us in our universe, adds credence to our guesses about existence. We hear it said that seeing is believing, but that’s not the truth. Our eyes play tricks on us, seeming to delight in our mirages and apparitions. Feeling is believing; witness a handful of fresh sawdust or the thick matted tangle of oily wool as it comes from the sheep. To touch is to believe in the reality of existence, a certainty that supports us in the lonely dark. Life? I don’t know much about it but I can rub my hand along the clattering picket fence as I walk and confirm the touch and solidness and rhythm and substance, essential substance, of my world. And if I can do this, I must be in that world. Knowing nothing else, I am recreated in my knowledge of textures. 15 The trails of my sensory perception crisscross like animal tracks in the snow, a redundant interwoven circuit in which taste confirms sight, sight confirms hearing. I experience the first day of spring with all my senses at once, standing in the open doorway; battered by the daffodil sunshine, the warm breeze that will feel chilly in a month, but now, compared to yesterday, carries all the warmth I could ever want. I hear birds and, it seems, I hear the buds creaking through the moist bark on the trees. I taste it all, remembering other springtimes, and I could not say which organ of perception is active at any given moment. We are built with a redundancy that allows us to taste colors and smell textures. We wobble slightly on our feet looking at some forms, large sculptures, for instance, or boulders that rise up out of the sea. Our earliest exposures click into vast data storage equipment so that the touch of an orange in a dark room will make our mouths salivate. The blind can see with their fingers, running them lightly across a person’s face. “You’re pretty,” the blind man says, and who knows what he sees in his mind? We look at a black-and-white photo and marvel at how green the trees are. I stand in awe of the incredible acuity—in-credible, the word carefully chosen—unbelieving in the face of my ability to sniff a ghost of a scent and recreate my grandma’s kitchen from forty years ago. The taste of my child’s skin, gathered in a casual kiss as we pass in the hall is something I can savor now, though hundreds of miles separate us. All this leaves me both confident and humble. There is nothing I did or can ever do to deserve the gift of sense that I routinely use without thinking. I might spend my life in homage to the wonder of touch, and it would be a life well spent, and in the end, I would have, perhaps, pinned a tiny celebration ribbon onto its rustling hem. 16 Sometimes objects grace me with their own lessons of time, aging with wonderful subtlety, changing colors as their patinas ripen. As weeks pile into years, they open their pores, surrendering moisture to the world, wood whose memories of roots can no longer sustain, now two generations removed from the moment of its felling in the woodlot, long since sanded smooth, and oiled first with aromatic extracts from plants, and since, over and over, with the sweaty palms of the parade of people who take up this object, or sit in it, or grab it for support on the stairs. There is nothing so clearly loved, says the Velveteen Rabbit, as the one-eyed, raw-worn, lumpy creature. There is no way to recreate that most exquisite decay except by the passage of time and attentive abuse. Objects are the canvas on which these stories are painted. And yet, at the opposite extreme, and no less thrilling in its defiant way, I see in my life objects that have resisted time, taunting me or inspiring me, depending on my state of mind. The polished furniture, as glassy and graceful as when it was carted in many years ago shows back a reflection of loose skin and less hair. “What happened to you?” it says, not unkindly. “It’s just time passing, after all, nothing to come to pieces over.” It’s been hardly more than a couple decades, a cat’s blink in the scheme of things. Nothing to come to pieces over. 17 The objects we make are given the shapes we give them because of where we are in time. Fashions change, our needs change, and the things we think are necessary today will be quaint before long. We surround ourselves with objects like a sailor dropping buoys into the sea around us, thinking, for a moment, that they are marking a place. We sail a short distance and look back at the place where our wake has subsided back to calm surface, and find our buoys bobbing randomly. Did it matter that we were there once, and where was that, exactly? The transistor radios and watch fobs and campaign buttons and keypunch cards and Tinkertoys and celluloid collars and cracker jars and stereopticons and curlers and comic books and decoder rings and milk bottles and mustache combs and razor strops and blinking robots and tin cars and jointed rulers and roller skate keys and sheet music of songs I’ve never heard—these objects bob in our wake for reasons we cannot fathom, and yet we cannot leave them alone. Did I pass this way, or was it someone I knew? What were things like then, and how have they changed? How did I get so worn out, and this bit of paper stay untouched? Where is the fairness in that, I wonder? 18 The world is grown, but its objects are assembled. Pieces compiled and jointed, arranged, rearranged and wired together. There is a kind of tradesman called a joiner, and though the word has an old-fashioned feel nowadays, it remains potent. Through objects we learn seams; those places where the pieces are joined. They are hidden or obvious, finished or rough. They tell a story of coming together or of pulling apart. Insofar as our body is an object, it is a seamless creation, unless perhaps you want to count the navel, though that’s stretching the point. Sliding my hand from my neck along my arm, it rolls over the bony contour of my shoulder, and if I squeeze I can begin to sense the ball and the socket that lies under the cartilage there. I slide my hand down to feel my elbow, a different kind of joint, with its own special tricks and limitations. The wrist is a mystery, and at that, just an overture to the jumble of pegs and sockets that make up a hand, held together by stringy stuff I cannot imagine. Among the thousand simultaneous wonders that bombard me when I hold a baby is the knowledge that the tiny five-fingered wad of flesh, no bigger than a robin’s egg, is a fully packaged hand, all parts intact, yet the largest piece is still smaller than a sparrow’s beak. Can this hand become large enough to grasp a hammer, or throw the spindle across the weft, catching it and flinging it back? It is beyond belief. 19 The body has it own way of knowing things: the feel of a baseball in your hand, or maybe a roll of pennies. We would know these things anywhere—hand them to us as at the top of the world under a starless sky and we will identify them without a pause, almost without thought, because this information does not need to pass through the brain. It travels from fingertip to voice, or at least it seems that way. There is comfort in this, in the way our bodies understand relationships all by themselves. It tells us, if we let it, that there is a level at which the universe participates in a physical understanding that embraces all creatures and all objects. In this preconscious place there is a universal language; perhaps gravity is its alphabet. Our involvement with objects—especially our impassioned involvement with objects—is the way we extend our ladle into that world. We dip our cup through craft and architecture and engineering to test the measure of the material world. To test the world, and our size in relation to it. 20 We move along our senses like a deep sea diver, climbing down the anchor chain of our experiences, hand over hand, to guide ourselves through life. It is exciting, and part of the earnest effort of being human. There are times when we hone our senses, like wine tasting or rock collecting—occasions of painstaking educated comparisons. We take delight in our refined sensibilities, showing off to ourselves and our friends. I believe this is Shaker; I thought that was an Australian merlot. This endeavor is as common as breathing, and perhaps almost as necessary. Our senses link us to the material world, and objects are the cobblestones of that world. They are spontaneous and derived, large and small, fresh and ancient, personal and public. We define our march through time by these comparisons, or by the database against which we can make these comparisons. I wonder if the wine tasters ever take a moment to wonder at the dazzling acuity of their senses —I assume they do. We should each have shrines in our houses to honor the gift of sight and touch and smell and hearing and taste. 21 There is a logic in the way parts go together that we can learn best through process. Children do not play with wooden blocks by sketching out on paper the possibilities for their arrangement. The chisel teaches the wood about mortises while the carpenter watches. When the potter thrusts the pulled clay handle onto the body of the mug she has just taken from the wheel, the physics of moisture, viscosity, and osmosis conspire with gravity and the entropic urgings of the universe to decide on the shape of the curl that unites the pieces. Like an ocean wave arrested at the moment before breaking, the clay arcs over itself in a miniature tube, cracking at the edges with energy so minute only careful inspection will show it. The potter cannot design this joint, no matter how good she is. But if she is a master, she has the power to allow it to occur. Nature provides us the text and syllabus in our course on joinery. Each spring she offers a refresher class on sprouts, in case the dark evenings of winter have let us forget how life attaches its parts. Seed to sprout to bud to stem to tendril to stalk to sprig to leaf to limb to trunk to taproot to the tangled tresses of roots so thin they snap like hairs if we stroke them. This is the logic of the flow of life, repeated in rivers, in our bloodstream, and in the paths humans make across the crust of the earth. Shame on us if we forget it. There are no excuses. And there is more here than the mechanics of the joints. A second lesson shows us the urgency of these unions, the tenacious striving that is integral. Think of the tree clinging at the mountainside, the way those same roots wiggle and prod the rocks to find purchase. The union of mesquite to desert crust is a fierce coupling, gradual as these things go, but perhaps the more tenacious because of it. The piñon and the joshua and the saguaro stand against the barren horizon like ancient mystics: leafless, sere, yet living despite the arthritic appearance. Those roots have pushed great stones aside in their reach for water, and having found it, they will not let go. There is the joinery of copulation, and in the way a parent feeds its young—a fecund inventory of complementary shapes and rituals that we copy in our mundane needs. It is only a single trill in the symphony of invention that is our physical world. In the midst of this apparent master plan, it would be easy to overlook the random joining systems, or perhaps more correctly, the systems whose logic lies outside our understanding. We look up and see cirrus drift into billowing towers of nimbus: How did that happen? Running inside to fetch our mother, we pull her by the skirt hem onto the porch, Come see this, but it has changed again in the moment we turned away. We linger at sunset, hours later, while the same clouds (or is it their children, or the seed pod of tomorrow’s dew?) mingle in ways that defy understanding. Nothing in the universe is at rest. The stationary boulder, apparently so fixed and firm, is a tumultuous nest of molecules that churn in their miniature world, rolling like soap bubbles in a bucket. And inside them, at a region we can only penetrate through intimation, we struggle to imagine the cloudy paths of electrons, for whom movement is existence. There is no standing still in matter. Movement is life, and life, even in what we call death, continues to move. There is this in the universe—a great reaching out, a perpetual moving on. 22 We see all this in our clumsy working of materials, which is why we must do it. We shape the wood, and it warps to correct our imposed curves. We weave the fabric, but it is gravity that provides its form. And so on down the line, name the enterprise—we yearn for control and manage often to fool ourselves into thinking we’ve gained it. This is a child’s game that we play with the cosmos. Our bodies know this lesson, for seconds at a time perhaps, as they bend and tug at the structure of the world. We are poked with splinters, and burned with chemicals, not unkind scoldings to remember our place. We push against the forces of nature, urging time to go faster, as for instance, when we want the look of age on our freshly-minted objects. It is a sham and shows up our impatience for what it is. A child can see the difference in a passing glance. The green of the copper gutters on the cathedral is not the green of our bronze figure in the foyer; the comparison is ludicrous. Oh, we are entitled to harvest the knowledge of our research. Let us confirm the artist’s opinion that this lichen-colored patina is more appropriate than the shiny wheat color of the abraded sculpture. She is right and perhaps wise to harness the power of chemistry in the acids she applies. The reactions of the alloys to the carbonates follow similar rules; chemistry is a mechanical unfolding in most of its actions. But the world of made is not a world of born, and if we are wise, we will find sympathetic rhythm with the beat of time known by materials. 23 abacus, abattoir, A-bomb, accelerator, accordion, ace, ack-ack, adhesive tape, adobe, adz, Aeolian harp, aerial ladder, aerophore, aeroshell, aerosol bomb, aerostat, afghan, afterburner, agenda, aggie, agitator, aglet, Agnus Dei, aiguillette, aileron, air bag, air battery, airboat, airbrush, air conditioner, aircraft, airdrome, airfoil, air gun, air letter, airliner, air lock, air mattress, Air Medal, airplane, air pump, air rifle, airscrew, airshed, airship, air sock, air splint, alarm clock, Alaska, alb, album, alembic, alforja, alidade, alkalimeter, almanac, alpaca, altar, altarpiece, altar rail, alternator, althorn, altimeter, Amati, ambo, ambrotype, ambry, amen corner, amice, ammeter, ammunition, amphora, amplifier, ampoule, ampulla, amtrac, amulet, anadem, anaglyph, anastigmat, anchor, ancon, andiron, anemograph, aneroid barometer, angle bracket, angledozer, angle iron, angle plate, animal crackers, anklet, anlace, anna, annals, announcement, annulate, annunciator, anode, anorak, antenna, antependium, anticathode, antimacassar, antipasto, antler, anvil, aparejo, aperture card, apparatus, appetizer, appliance, applicator, appliqué, appurtenance, apron, apron string, Aqua Lung, aquaplane, aquarelle, aquarium, aquatint, arabesque, arbalest, arbor, arc, Archimedean screw, arc lamp, area rug, argyle, ark, arm, armature, armchair, armet, armillary sphere, armlet, armoire, armor, armrest, arquebus, arras, arrow, arrowhead, artifact, artillery, ash can, ashlar, ashtray, aspergill, aspirator, assagai, assemblage, astragal, astrolabe, athletic supporter, atmometer, atmospherium, atom bomb, atomic clock, atomizer, atom smasher, attaché case, attention key, attenuator, audiometer, auger, Australian ballot, autoclave, autodyne, autoharp, automatic pilot, automobile, autotransformer, awl, awning, ax, axle. That is a list of objects drawn from the Second College Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary. It does not include medical terms, architecture, or the names assigned to plants and creatures, although all of those are objects. This, of course, is just the As. 24 We live in perpetual truce with the material world, like business partners who prosper because of their mixed talents, but lift a suspicious eyebrow now and then, anticipating betrayal or intrigue. We need materials to sustain our lives, from the clothing and blankets that keep us warm, to the tools we use to raise and prepare our food, to the structures and furniture in which we house and protect our bodies. But this same material world can harm us. The hammer that builds the barn can break a thumb. The blade that cuts the wheat can also draw blood. We learn to control objects, ostensibly in order to bend them to our needs, as when we learn to sharpen a blade to carve the plate to serve the meal. But is this not also the passing along from one generation to the next the vital survival skills of protection? Master this knife, we say, lest it turn on you. Control the fibers and the loom, because only if you understand the basic urges of materials can you hold your place in creation. 25 Along with language, myth, agriculture, and performance, objects make up what we call culture, the unbroken thread of human activity that connects us to the earliest members of our species. What do you know about, let’s say, a chair—though any object would suffice. You were placed in dozens of chairs before you were old enough to crawl into them yourself. How many times was the word projected at you before it made sense? Chair: Can you say chair? Chair. Chair. If we were not so needy in our desperate desire to make sense of the world, this endless torrent of noise would drive us mad before we were out of diapers. But we manage, somehow, and learn the boundaries of this class of objects called chairs. They all have certain things in common, yet they differ in other ways. Chairs are for sitting on, and usually have legs, and generally sit on the floor, except when they rock or glide, or roll on wheels, and so on. What we learn about chairs we get from our world, from the chairs in our lives. We learn physically: Sit here can you say chair sit still. The chairs in our culture, like the word and the means of teaching it to children were similar for our parents. The chairs of their childhood answered to a different fashion, but were essentially the same, just as their parents spoke with a different accent, but managed to convey the sense of the thing. Trace it back and tell me where it begins. I can’t do it. I get lost in the echoing distance of the task, straining back to other languages, translated from one to another. This thing you sit on, what you called sedia, we now call chair. Can you say chair? 26 It would be incorrect to say that we have our knowledge of colors through objects. That would leave out sunsets and flowers and the entire spectrum of skin. But we are not far off the mark to say that our love affair with color is played out through objects, because it is there we can revisit the sunset and all the rest. In the face of nature, we stand dazzled and mute—the sight of a field of wildflowers moves us in ways we cannot express. We are stunned into silence. In objects, through the enterprise of craft, or art, or collecting, we celebrate these moments as we make them personal. As the whistled tune is to the symphony, the inlaid box or the embroidered pillowcase is to the vistas of nature. In this way we rub off a tiny piece and take it in our hands, carrying it into our lives so we can enjoy it. Objects give us opportunities that are rare in nature. We cannot, for instance, slide our fingers along the downy mantle of a woodpecker as he sits on the tree in the yard. We’re lucky to even make him out, high up there, flying off almost as soon as our eyes lock onto him. But in the silk scarf we can imagine the feel of him, and rotate the colors in our hand. Even more, we can wrap the scarf around out throats and in a theatrical way, be something like the bird. We can be like children playing dress up, only instead of our elders’ old clothes, we wear the colors and textures of the world outside our window. They come from somewhere, after all. 27 There is a category of objects we call devices in which parts move, gears turn, and information is revealed. As we think of the words—apparatus, instrument, gadget —images creep into our consciousness. A 19th century engine of engraved brass, with flywheels, cogs, and springs, or, more up-to-date, putty-colored boxes with blinking digital bars of light. Whether they are for exploring the starry skies, or for probing ourselves, like the funnel-pointed light beamed brusquely into our ears, the objects of this family share an allegiance to information. They delight us because of their spin, and click, and precision, but they exist in order to measure the world. They are tools, but a special genus of the species, a branch of the family tree with special status—cerebral, aloof, of high purpose. Do you remember being handed the family binoculars as a child? The cord was looped around your neck, just in case, and you were carefully positioned, anchored and stable, before the transfer was complete. Have you got them? nervous hands asked before letting go. Ready, got it? Be careful… We squint and adjust the binoculars, folding them like a slow butterfly to match our smaller head, the two circles before us merging into one and swelling out again when we go too far. We go slightly nauseous as the small disks of the world so close before our eyes rush past in a dizzy blur. We might have jerked the glasses down for a second and used our naked eyes to steer our gaze, then tried again. The wonder of it, of course, is a momentary thing, and can never be repeated. For most of us it came and went so fast we cannot recall it, but just once, we were startled to see the vast and disarrayed world compacted and pressed into those twin black tubes. Ever after we will know what to expect, and will cloak our unarticulated loss in a bluster of familiarity, a cocky assurance with the miracle of magnification. Devices bring this out in us. It is perhaps ironic that the more we know, the less we wonder. Standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, we stupidly ask the ranger, “How deep is it?” She answers, ready for the question, filled to bursting with data, but her proper response should have been a wild exclamation: “What are you, blind! It’s tremendously deep, you fool! Look, it is deep beyond comprehension, so wide you lose yourself in it, off your personal dials, needles spinning like weathervanes in a whirlwind. What can a parade of numbers add to the crashing, delectable tumult of your senses? Be still and wonder, you idiot!” Instead she will smile and quote a figure, and you will nod a thank you, as if this measurement makes you feel less paltry. In fact, it only shows up our weakest side, our trembling insecurity in the face of wonder. 28 Our fascination with devices is universal, a lingua franca of opened watchcases and sliding pistons. Want to draw a crowd: Squat on the sidewalk and dismantle a parlor clock. In five minutes you’ll have a circle of eager advisors, pointing and chatting as if you were at work on the engine of the universe. And maybe that’s the rising point of our perpetual intrigue with instrumentation. Would it be far wrong to trace the supposed ascendancy of the species through the measuring devices we have invented, and the increasingly outrageous increments they measure? Once we kept time by sunrise and sunset, and that was enough for us. We saw the rotation of seasons, and marked the times of growth, harvest, and decay. That was enough for us. Water clocks with their sinking, one-holed bowls, candles with horizontal divisions to pace their erosion, and grains of sand passing through a narrow channel all imposed the sense of regularity on time—as preposterous a notion as any we’ve devised. Any child knows that time is loopingly irregular, freighted or empty depending on a vast complex of factors, but some ancient wag hit on the idea of consistent units, and set us off in a direction that has carried us to atomic clocks that measure units of time no human can comprehend. The astrolabes of five centuries ago are wonderful to behold. Substantial disks of brass, nested several deep, pivoted, geared, ingeniously contrived and marked with assured black lines to pace out the declensions of the planets, and perhaps the cogwork of our fate. For this is what they were about, those brilliant and befuddled dear astronomers, peering up into the night with their crude telescopes, plumbing the geography of the cosmos from a passing glimpse. We admire their courage and their genius, all the while chuckling at their naiveté. The instrument-objects are our ticket to those times, our cultural aide-de-memoir of a simpler time in our life as a species. But don’t you wonder what will be said of our current instruments in a hundred years? Will it take that long, do you think, for our atom-splitting, electron-driven, nuclear gizmos to become antique? When we look at the brass wheels of the medieval astronomers, our awe is mixed with fondness, perhaps because of the compelling humanness of their devices. Their maps were ornamented with flags and monsters, and their glowing celestial sextants are fecund with notations that catch in my throat. Galileo had his eye on the heavens, but his hands were busy with brass, scraping it even, and truing the seams of his instrument. I’m told that the information of these antique men in their funny clothes and odd names is useful, and it must be so. We send spaceships to rendezvous in the distant void, and they seem to find each other. I believe it is so. But I am more drawn to the brass astrolabe, pulled to this object like the passers-by on the street. Look how it works—this pushes against that, and it makes this wheel go around. Imagine that! 29 Objects, being physical, have mass. They have a shape—usually one that remains mostly constant. Of course there are objects like balloons, whose shape would best be described as a continuum from a minimum point to a maximum size, but most objects are more easily classified. The pen in my hand is a certain size and has a certain shape and except for the superficial modifications I make by chewing on it or using up a smudge of ink, it’s pretty much the same now as it was when I bought it. And having said that about objects, I have said it about myself. Like the balloon, I require a range to describe my size. My shape will change but allowing for these qualifiers I remain pretty much the same from one day to the next. I have the form we call human—one head, two arms, a torso; the conventional package. This being so, there is a scale relationship between me and the objects around me. At any given moment I can define that relationship with extreme precision: the pen in my hand, weighing exactly one-half ounce, stands in a relationship to my body as the ratio 1:4800. I could make the same kinds of comparisons in volume, dimension, and shape, the latter especially requiring many words. Though this sounds like a ridiculous activity, it is nothing I don’t do every day. You too. We move through life by making comparisons to the world around us. Our equipment for this is one of the masterworks of creation, but because it is so constantly in use and so rarely out of adjustment, we take it for granted. Consider the selection of a piece of fruit from a bowl on the kitchen counter—almost without thinking you take in the color of the banana, the texture of the apple, and the position of the grapes. You weigh this data against your stockpile of comparison information and determine which piece is the freshest, or most appetizing at this moment. You do all this while carrying on a conversation. Because people of the same age are generally the same size all over the world, our sense of scale is a universal language. Benvenutto Cellini, an Italian goldsmith in the 16th century, wrote what amounts to one of the earliest textbooks in that field. He talks about a finger’s length of metal, or a piece of rock the size of a fist. This works because of our intuitive, body-founded understanding of scale. These are not precise measurements, but they convey his information with immediate clarity. Further, he knew that the measures were general—even in the Renaissance, people came in different sizes—so he’s not only telling how much, but also providing a tolerance range. 30 People have individual notions about scale, outside of the obvious differences dictated by our physical bodies. A tall, heavy man will have different idea of “big” than a petite woman. That much is predictable. But two people of equivalent size will also have very different tastes in scale. Some people like things big—open spaces, large buildings, oversized clothing, and huge furniture. Other people prefer small spaces, miniature objects, tailored clothes, and a restricted landscape. In some instances these preferences are formed in response to specific experiences. We can imagine that a terrifying experience of being locked in a closet as a child will incline a person to avoid tight spaces. It’s not difficult to believe that a similar, less dramatic situation exists in other areas of our life. Another possibility is that there is something inside us, hardwired into our brains, that inclines us to one end of the scale. I enjoy miniature objects, always have. As a kid, I was more likely to lay on my belly and watch ants crawling through the stalks of grass than to stand on a hill and look over the valley. I drew small, wrote small, and invented tiny gadgets to simplify minor tasks. I grew up to be a jeweler. At the same time, I’ve known people who always seemed too big for the space they occupied. They emit an energy field that seems to sweep objects off the shelves they pass no matter how carefully they tread. They buy trucks rather than sports cars. They have trouble sitting still. These people, whose natural inclination is toward larger things, can be dumbstruck in the presence of a miniature object, perhaps because it is outside their usual range. If they are forced into contact with a small object, for instance through a piece of jewelry or the magnificent coloration of a beetle, they gape in double-layered wonder. So brilliant… and so small! 31 Objects have names and names are shared electrons that hum between the poles of me and not-me. Names connect me to the world and fundamentally affect my appreciation of it. Who has not had the experience of learning about something apparently new, only to find examples falling all around them as soon as they have the word? Before you knew the word “transom,” the small windows were invisible, then after learning it you find every house in the neighborhood has one. Did people work all night installing these things? Could it really be that you were missing it all this time? The world is a confusing place and we need all the help we can get to navigate its surface. By naming things, we clarify the distinctions that separate them. The nomenclature of our everyday world stacks up like bricks on which we can climb to a better view. As our ability to discern details increases, and as we need closer descriptions, we learn the distinctions and their names. The process continues into areas of specialization so narrow and meticulous that only people with a special interest know the words. From geology to Greek theater, dirt to drama, every field has levels of naming that reach to extremes of specificity. This is necessary, because until we can locate the edges of a thing, until we can describe its boundaries and define the ways it is different from other things, we cannot fully know it. By locating it with a name, we lift it free from its affiliation to similar things. When the object becomes not “a little box” but a “16th century engraved silver vinaigrette,” we lift it into a new light. We turn it this way and that and see more in it than we did before. Our pride of accomplishment is terrific, an indication of the importance of naming objects. 32 Who thinks objects are magic, raise your hand. Do you need convincing? Think of the power of last summer’s seashell, found by accident behind the dresser on a darkened winter afternoon. Did the air just get warmer? Or think of a shirt, borrowed from a friend and never returned. An oversight, you said, though that’s a half-truth. The scent of the other person is long since washed out, yet in your mind’s olfactories, it lingers. Or think of the artifact, long part of the family heritage, that comes into your hands—grandfather’s pocket watch, or a prayer book, or a whetstone or a rosary. Those fingers you knew, if you knew them at all, those withered, skeletal fingers, touched this thing, stroked this metal or leather, many years ago. Our mind drifts. Those fingers were plumper then, and perhaps raw with chores that have since given way to other demands. Those fingers churned butter, or cranked a car—the telephone keypad was out of sight, around the corner we call future. Or think of the rediscovered toy. You hadn’t thought of it for years then see it at a flea market. What is it? A board game, or a doll, or cap pistols in tan-colored plastic holsters? A child-size kitchen, or a rubber sword, or a sheet metal dump truck, or a potholder loom? You buy it, of course. It is an artifact of historical dimensions. It is comfort in a changing world, a familiar face seen across a room crowded with strangers, suddenly precious to you. Of course you bought it, and you cannot explain why. Or think of the charming, clumsy child’s drawing preserved from a kindergarten class. Is it yours, or your child’s, or a niece’s or a nephew’s? It is youth: precocious, innocent, and earnest. It is a snapshot of an avalanche, a moment impossibly captured. We cannot believe our eyes. Can anything this full of life and love exist in the world? How am I lucky enough to have this awkward, poignant object in my life. What did I do to deserve this? Or think of the work in progress, a knitted sleeve or a model ship, there on the table in the corner, the parts laid out for work. These are objects ripe with potential, eager for completion, but courteous enough.to await their turn. There is a unique pull to these things —they are filled with the hours of work that has gotten them this far, too far to turn back. Yet they exist most fully in our minds. They are only scraps to the casual observer who has not seen the pattern or the plans. The difference is me, the maker, the one with the vision. I am life to this sweater or this model. It needs me for completion, for life. It is a tiny universe, but I am its god. 33 When I am at work with my hands, shaping materials into an object, I work with an attention that is different from the focus I bring to other activities. It is as if the pathway that flows from hand to brain, or more specifically, to that center in the brain that understands materials, as if that pathway is unique from others. When I am in contact with material—sanding wood or molding clay, for instance—I stand in a unique relationship to the universe. It is tempting to say this is special, or even beneficial, but that would be overstating the case. It is different from what happens when I am in a social situation, and different from times like this, when I try to capture thoughts in words. Though I can get frustrated when I’m making something, even then there is a peculiar calm contained in the process. 34 Objects retain this attentiveness. They carry whatever it is that distinguishes this aspect of human endeavor from others. That is why we take such delight in handmade objects, and part of what is missing in commercial products. Objects made one at a time celebrate the immediacy of materials. Sporting events are almost always broadcast live. We have little interest in watching them when we already know who won. This is inconsistent with the fact that many viewers would say they watch the game just for the pleasure of the action, and really don’t care which team comes out on top. The ballet of the players straining and leaping is just as graceful if seen the next day, but somehow, we’re not interested. Similarly, despite the ease of access and improved quality of performances on compact discs, we go to concerts, where we put up with the shuffling of the audience and the pillar that partially blocks our view, just because it is live. Maybe the more accurate term is alive: that is, not frozen in time. In the case of music or sports or theater, we go to watch real people moving through real time. We understand in our bones that there is no faking it, no going back, and no trick photography. We thrill with the tightrope walker and with the kindergarten marching vegetables. There is an immediacy that keeps us on the edge of our seats. We leave the performance wanting to do it again, already eager for the next occasion. In the world of objects, a parallel situation exists through sensitive interaction with materials. It can be a subtle language, and one that improves with training, but even a child can sense the difference in a general way. There is a vast difference between the china teacup and the earthenware mug. There the differences come from different clay bodies, processes, and aesthetics. We are not surprised that there is a radically different feel when our lips touch the cups. But it is possible to make a mold from a hand-thrown cup, one in which the trailing grooves of the potter’s fingers are part of the form. And we could cast that mold in coarse brown clay and fire it in just the way the potter fires her one-of-a-kind pieces. But no one will be fooled. The mold-cast mug, even with its finger grooves and drips of glaze, will radiate a different kind of energy than the work of the hand, just as the videotape of last week’s game is not half as good as being there. 35 I remember a description printed in the newspaper when I was a kid about a crusty irregular bar of material that was called “solid lightning.” It was a chunk of glass found in the desert; a strike of lightning in the sand had generated enough heat along its trail to fuse the silica and borax into glass. Some objects are the embodiment of time, solid time, fused rigid into something we can hold in our hands. I’m thinking of a carved boxwood bead about the size of a golf ball I saw once. It was carved four hundred years ago, shaved into existence with slivers of polished steel that we can barely imagine, by a person now unknown. The sphere hinges open to reveal a stacked scene from the life of Christ, with tiers of angels, apostles, and saints ranked like members of a choir, each tiny bearded figure no larger than a grain of rice, many of them smaller. All of it the color of Spanish tiles, somehow laid in among pointed arches and tracery, polished so smooth it shone like a well-rubbed acorn. The talent of the carving was incredible—outside the reach of imagination. Yet there it was, credible or not, the physical thereness of it was a chokehold on my shirt collar. I was struck by the hours and days and weeks of pinpointed carving that went into that bead. Talent of that magnitude was too extreme to make sense in my life, but time, as it was embodied there, had an almost tangible quality. It related to me because time is an ether I move through. Holding that piece in the palm of my hand—a religious experience if ever there was one—is to take up those hours, to suspend there in my encircling palm the hunched muscles and cramped joints of the carver, to cradle in my own span of time a life lived and gone. Touch your finger against it, the gentlest poke, as you might test the skin of a soap bubble, and you feel the solid wood against your fingernail, just like how many dazed witnesses who have held it before you. You hand it back to the keeper of the treasure, holding your breath, and when it is lifted safely away, you shudder a ripple that travels through your shoulders and into the soles of your feet. You feel older, instantly, as if the weight of the months of carving have been added to your history, the time debited on your personal account. It’s a sad feeling but one you are willing to endure because if it were true, those months were the best of you, your most noble accomplishment. They say that energy equals matter, and somehow this famous formula is at the root of bombs and satellites. It doesn’t mean anything to me. But I know that time and matter are carved of the same substance, because I have held it in my hand. There is traffic in the street, but even as I walk alongside it, I can hardly hear it, I am miles away… no, that’s not true—I am years away, still reeling from the weight of time held in my hand. 36 I believe we love certain objects. Of course there is enthusiasm: “I love your new shoes!” but I’m thinking of genuine love, something lasting that comes from deep inside us. I’m thinking of the jam jar glasses you remember from your grandma’s cupboards, or the BetsyWetsy doll or the Christmas music box. Let us take it as fact: we love certain artifacts. And if this is so, do they love us back? Can we say that the chipped mug that has sat everyday on the back of the sink, or the porkpie hat with the coffee colored sweat stain around its rim do not feel for us too? Who is to know if there is not some reflected passion, or if not passion, maybe a reverberating energy, like when the ripples started by a stone tossed in a still pond reach the edge, surround the rocks there, and recoil back toward the center? Is there an echo of connection between the intimate, memory-scarred object and the need of a living being? I think there is. We hold the family heirloom—the prayer book or paper fan or stack of letters tied with a pale blue ribbon—and we know they have been waiting for us. Maybe they do not need us, perhaps that’s too strong, but they are glad we’ve come. We somehow complete the circuit and allow the energy to flow. In the world of Apocalypse, there are no objects. Like withered plants in an untended garden, they will resolve to dust when we no longer come to visit them, even the gold and the jade carvings that have lasted so long will crumble and corrode. Love is built that way, a force that perpetually sails out and rebounds. It picks up speed as it goes, gaining strength and amplitude as it recoils from source to object to source, eventually hitting a pace that blurs distinction. This is true in the universe, and so it is true of our possessions. They own us as much as we own them, and learn from us the courtesies of the bond. We must be kind to the material outcroppings of our lives, not because of insurance values, or sentiment, or good citizenship. We must treat the special objects of our lives with decency and tenderness, because that is what we want back from them. In the dark and lonely night, we need to know they care for us. 37 Objects are the infinitely rearrangeable letters of our tangible alphabet. Materials and the objects we shape from them connect us with our corporeality. We stake our claim to the planet, doghouse by doghouse, marking our path through life not only by our systematic accumulation of skills but with the tangible objects we leave behind. 38 Objects are bound up with anthropology, sociology, and cultural psychology. Much of what we know about ancient cultures we have learned or surmised from artifacts. Many early races left their epics not in written language, but in gold and ceramic and fiber. If it were not for the fabulous plates and hair ornaments of the master craftsmen of Thrace, the Thracians would be known to history as a nomadic, primitive tribe, as they were for centuries, until their treasures were unearthed. The Etruscans are known to us as makers of mind-bending granulated fibulas and collars. We can learn about the people of ancient China through their fabulous bronze castings, where our awe of surface competes with our respect for technique. These artifacts, and the thousands of others that whisper to us from their humidity-controlled cases in museums around the world, tell us long stories if we are patient enough to listen. A Hellenic gold earring, to choose one from the vast catalog, tells us of a culture that could support such a wonder. The advanced quality of the workmanship makes it instantly clear that this was formed by hands prepared for the task. The fact of the earring, the simple fact that such a thing exists, tells us that this culture had developed categories of work, currency, and hierarchy. To see the earring, even once, quickly, is to understand that these people knew education. Such workmanship is not invented and perfected in a single generation; it speaks of training and the accumulation of successive years of trial and error. This at the very least speaks of family stability that allows a parent to train a child, and opens the possibility of training centers, the seed crystal of our polytechnics, where individuals of a certain aptitude are selected out with a destiny in mind. This tells us of a culture with confidence in its future. When we are really convinced the world will end, the schools will be the first thing to go. This gold earring tells us not only that there were wealthy people in this culture, but that they valued beauty. We do not know what other pleasures they spent their money on—they might have raised armies, or commissioned music, or retained a battalion of slaves. But we know that delicacy of curve and fineness of form was valued as worthy of great expense. The images of artifacts swarm with the stories of the long dead. In their amphorae, beakers, plates, jewelry, scabbards, tomb furniture, and robes we see their mythology laid out. We can see, if we look thoughtfully, what they considered beautiful and how they treated their children. We see their definition of joy, and watch them sort out the mysteries of death. We do this by cross-comparing the artifacts of our life; a thrilling, dangerous enterprise of invention and discovery. What do we use to decorate our coffins and tombs? Our eating utensils, and sleeping chambers, and money holders? What objects sit in places of honor in our lives, and which ones are pushed to the back of the cupboard? Because we eat and sleep and raise our young and cry out in the darkness of the night like all the members of our species who have come before us, we are entitled to ask these questions. We are responsible for the answers. 39 The objects of the past, especially the ones that made contact with the human form, tell us interesting and specific information about the people who came before us. Curious about what kind of a couple the Washingtons made? You can see George and Martha’s clothing at the Smithsonian. Not a painting, not a chart of their measurements, but the actual breeches and shoes and periwigs. In a glance you will know how they compared to you, whether he was as tall as your father, or she as slim as your aunt. We can know the size of the pharaohs, and of Cleopatra and Caesar. But more vital than that, we know them in our flesh, we understand the chafing of the stiff collars on their necks and sympathize with the tight shoes. Time disappears at such a moment, centuries collapsed into a pane of glass no thicker than the museum case. We stand looking through, simultaneously seeing our reflection. 40 Do the objects in our lives respect us, do you think? Does the china teacup appreciate the extra nudge I give it when I set it back in the cupboard, to make sure it isn’t too close to the edge? When I hang up my tattered jacket, and pause at the frayed collar as I square it on the hanger, do you think the universe notices? It seems possible to me. I notice that some people get on better with objects than other people. Like dogs, or children, some people have a knack. I remember a classmate in high school whose drawings were always immaculate, even though he stored them on the same crowded shelf as me. Where my drawings were abuzz with the static of smudged knuckle prints and faint creases, his paper resonated antiseptic purity. Was it something extra in him, or something missing in me? Perhaps someday science will decide there is ether after all, an invisible syrup of emotional fields through which we swim, aided or blocked by the objects in our lives. Maybe there is a formula, as yet undiscovered, that will explain why the candy dish from your mother-in-law shatters when tipped over on the carpet, but the porcelain ornament you’ve had since your third Christmas seems disaster proof. We are told that cows give more milk when certain music is in the air, and that plants grow better when they are spoken to. Has anyone hooked their machines up to our pencil sharpeners and coffee mugs? Should we be crooning to them before we turn out the lights? And what if we did—what will it look like, a world of benevolent objects? Will they coax from us sweet memories? Will they lull us into ridiculous nostalgia, lush with fragrance and the sound of children playing in a distant schoolyard? Do they have it in them, assuming they like us, to stretch time like a freshly laundered sheet, air dried and fragrant, billowing over us, as ripe as a fruit and as endless as the sky? 41 The fragile click of chopsticks, like a distant telegraph key… The thin metallic scrape of the steak knife as its edge traces the hardness of the plate… The insistent nervous drag of the spoon as it is spun on the polished table… the colorless annoying scratch of a compulsive tic… The threatening, unkind collections of creaking sounds that break from the side chair, its joints dried in the winter furnace draft… Objects traffic in the sound of our life, adding a dimension of familiarity and surprise. Let’s start the day: the electronic beep of the alarm clock, or the disembodied too-hearty voice of the radio announcer is followed by our intuitive sonic inventory. Without knowing it, we tune in to the hum of the refrigerator, the gusty rumble of the furnace, and the first communiqué from outside: a bird, or rain on the roof, or the brutal scrape of a plow in the street. We swing our feet out, hear the complacent tiny sound of the sheets being rearranged, muted from their crisp snap of last night. They’re tired, they seem to say, been working all night—go away and let them rest. And it continues: the deep complaint of wood against wood when the dresser drawer is wrenched out, the thump of the toothpaste tube when we set it back on the sink, a half dead animal whose familiarity should offend us. The confident, always louder-than-expected, slap of the glass set back on the porcelain sink. We surround ourselves with objects, chosen with care in some cases, and almost randomly in others. Do we really care about the color of our toothbrush or the shape of the soap? Maybe. Some people do, and they’re right to pay attention if that makes sense for them. Just as you are free to ignore the same information. But what about the clicking and thumping and scraping and beeping and bumping and whooshing and sighing of them? What about the curtain of sound invented by our physical world, complaining its way through the hours and the seasons like a flock of opinionated creatures with little else to do but voice their complaints? How do we put up with it? Is it worth it, I wonder, to tolerate the incessant clatter? Does it help us locate ourselves in the landscape of our lives, or is it like the traffic noise that filters into a city park, a tired reminder of something we’d prefer to ignore? 42 In our minds we can soar from mountaintops and leap tall buildings in a single bound. We slide across frictionless time like otters in a pond, outside the crude logic of gravity. In our minds we appear in two places at once, or convene distant friends for their counsel. We blink and reinvent landscapes, gathering contradictions together like so many wildflowers pulled into a bundle: Himalayan grandeur under a desert sky, with the fragrance of a woodland stream…childsplay. Is there madness along this path? It might be that the mystics and smiling lunatics have lost themselves in this airy world of imagination. Like small boats that were poorly tied to the pier, they have slipped their moorings in the night, and followed the invisible tide. With nothing to stop them, they drift out of sight of land, rocking in the gentle swell of sensation, buoyed by the musical ocean of their own wonder. Objects are the outcroppings and shoals against which we can anchor our lives. The coffee mugs and rocking chairs and watering cans and knitted caps remind us of the nature of things. Things age. Things wear out. Things can’t be in two places at once. Things have mass and form and substance, and operate lawfully. We are things, too. Objects are the attachment that holds the two planes of our universe together, the interface of our physical selves and what we call mystic or spiritual. The screwdrivers and vacuum cleaners and hairbrushes and grandfather clocks stand up from our lives like a million miniature spires, the Velcro that engages with the nap of the ether to hold our cosmos intact. Color? What I wonder is, do you dream in objects? 43 We’ve all been on the edge of lost. Driving a car, maybe, or walking on an unfamiliar street, tennising our eyes from the address-giving slip of paper in our hand to the buildings, seeking a recognition. Deep inside we feel the first agitation of something unpleasant, like unearned indigestion—the sinister whisper of panic or frustration that we beat back by lifting our chin and blinking. Not yet, a voice in the skull murmurs… I’m not lost yet. And then we see it. The road sign or house number or landmark that tells us where we are. The degree of our anxiety is told, finally, by the measure of our relief. We chart our way across a room by reading the thousand signs we find there. The chair with the splayed arms and the grease stained back belongs to the owner of this house—I’ll take the wooden rocker next to it. The carved Chinese ivory ball on its delicate pedestal sits just off center in a polished circle that shows the fine layer of dust on the sofa table. Who picked up this object, and what was he thinking? Our feet test the plushness of the carpet as we examine in a sweep the deep claret polish of mahogany furniture, muted embroidery, the glass vase, the books, the slow brown figures in once-polished brass. We smell lemony furniture polish and the dust in the drapes and the distant sour smell of a cold, sooty fireplace. We could be here to sell encyclopedias, or to meet our lover’s grandmother, or to pick up bottles for the Scouts. We are invested in this musty room, through the clutter of the physical objects that define it. We might have a vision of ourselves in the scene, like a cameraman dollying up near the high ceiling, looking down on ourselves as we pivot stupidly, blinking as we arc vectors of sight that section up the space. Our memory of the moment—and that’s all it is, one moment among millions—is made of wood and metal and earth and fabric. It is hooked onto the objects of this room with the same vinegary moment of relief or recognition. The slip of paper in our fingers hangs limp, a map no longer needed. We haven’t crossed into a new world, yet. We know the weight of a brass letter opener without needing to touch it, the temperature of the polished wood. We know this place because we know the stuff of which it is made. Not yet, a voice in the skull murmurs… I’m not lost yet. 44 Things push against each other. There is a physics of friction to describe the forces—whether it’s getting your sleep-warmed body out of bed or a hundred-car freight train up to speed across the prairie, a great deal is known about the way things press against each other. Poems have been written about the way creatures lean into each other. The trans-species electricity of stroking the living engine of a horse’s neck, or the billowy softness of the ears of a rabbit. Touch both delicious and painful. The tissue paper skin that lays slack on the back of an old person’s hand, like a freckled silk hankie covering a pile of bones on a plate… The touch of a parent’s lips against a peach-surfaced baby’s head, not a kiss, but the lingering touch of unmoving lips. There is the benevolent touch of tool upon material, like the blonde sausage curls released by a plane sliding along wood. This generous stroke could be a meditation: whole temples could rise up to practice it, with moist pine boards stacked in the courtyard, and a froth of shavings deep enough to slow your walking as you passed through. Imagine the sound of fifty planes at work, the fragrance that would hang in the air! After a day of releasing from each board its treasure of peelings, the novitiates would massage each others’ shoulder muscles, and feel spreading through them the warmth of their task, like the responsibility of time. There are touches that wear away and touches that accrue. The touch of the stream on the rocks it rolls over, peeling off molecules every second of every day and every night, not stopping since the beginning of water. There is the mimicking touch of the carpenter’s sandpaper on the back of a chair, hollowing out the bosom of its slats to the perfect shape of repose, stroke by stroke. And the aggressive touch of the woodcutter’s maul, splitting stubby logs in a single moment of contact, flinging the halves like two cans scattered by boys with firecrackers, rolling in the sawdust-covered dirt of the woodlot. There is the touch of the plasterer’s tool, leaning into the work from his hips, concentrated on the geometry of pressure that will approach the impossible Pythagorean flat. The touch of fingers on a keyboard, the sliding palm smoothing out a starched tablecloth, the large sand-colored wooden spoon gently bumping the walls of the cut glass pitcher of iced tea. I can imagine the touch of one object against another. In the clatter of silverware as it is tumbled together in the drawer, and the unhearable thump of clean clothes as we press them into the drawer like commuters in a train car, individual moments spring through my mind in a lightening catalog of touching. The bloated two-color head of a wooden match against a rock, the squeaking groan of tree limbs that rub against one another when the wind finds the forest, the sound of a pool ball running along felt, the thrum of sisal rope straining under a load. Suddenly the world seems very much about touching, each creature and object like the brook water, passing over our different beds, maybe depositing a molecule of oil or grit, picking up a grain of something else. The banister shows the passing of a thousand hands, the granite steps of the courthouse are swayedin the center though no steel has touched that block since it was quarried a century ago. We touch and are touched all day and all night, yet rarely acknowledge the potency of the transaction. The world is a turbulent galaxy of transformation, and we are among its agents. We go about our mission incognito, pretending not to notice. 45 Some plastics have the ability, once bent, to return to their original flat shape when reheated. This quality is called memory. I wonder if the objects around me have a memory. I know they are not conscious, and that consciousness is necessary for memory in the usual sense, but I’m thinking of a special kind of memory. Is the marble that I lost as a child trying to find its way back to me? Imagine the frustration of such an effort, dependent on hitching rides with a cast of characters who pass by, a simple binary decision process as the marble decides in each case whether to be found or not. Allow this eight-year-old to pick it up on the hope that he is my neighbor, or stay put and wait for the next person who comes along…? If objects have a material memory like the sheet of acrylic, what if they could choose to exercise it or not? Imagine the toy fire truck, once bright red, now faded, left out in the sandbox for weeks. What if it could will itself back to red again? 46 What do I know about objects? I know that they fall into two categories: grown and made. I know that many of the qualities I’ve been thinking about relate equally to both categories. We can love the beach pebble as much as the plastic doll, and take from each reminders of time, and sense and connections. In the case of organic objects, our involvement is in finding. These things have been made—by nature, by God, by time, by cellular division, by sedimentation, by seasonal decay. What brings them into my life is the moment of discovery. Wow, look at that piece of driftwood! Can it be coincidence that it was tossed on this beach on this day, at my very feet? We delight in our discovery, and honor the object by bringing it into our lives. The other category of objects is made, products of human hands. These objects occupy a long span, from the casual object of a few moments enterprise to monumental constructions like the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal. They can be as big as the Great Wall of China, or as tiny as a computer chip. The world of made is chock full of powerful objects, and brimming over with things that are trite. Some come from the heart, and some ignore our sensibilities. Some are masterful examples of intellectual accomplishment, and some are clumsy, ill-considered designs. There is no station on the continuum of human experience that cannot be matched with an object. We are brilliant or dull, inspired or banal, good or evil and so on, and we have projected those qualities, our human nature, into the objects that fill our world. 47 Knowing that making is a human activity, what do I understand about the world through making? How much of what I know have I learned from the transformational process of rendering raw material into a finished thing? In my metaphor of language, objects are like the words that make up our vocabulary. By extension, the origin of words, etymology, is like the process of making, the origin of objects. Philology, which is the study of language, is paralleled by aesthetics, the examination of why we choose the objects we choose to decorate our lives. It is a rare word, perhaps one in a thousand, that pops into existence from nowhere. Far more commonly, the need exists before the word. When amplified sound was invented, it was found that the noise of the electronic components would travel to the microphones, pass through the amplifiers and come out louder, only to travel back to the microphone, where it was remagnified, making a bigger noise and so on to create an annoying sound. The amp was feeding sound into the area, which was picked up and delivered back to the mike: feedback. First the phenomenon, then the word. Choose another word—they all have similar stories, though most require a knowledge of languages to trace them back to their origins. This is true of objects too. People have been sitting, we can assume, for years and years. As long as they’ve had… well, for a long, long time. After sitting on rocks, stumps, fallen logs, somebody came up with the idea of dragging a log closer to the fireside. And maybe hacking off an uncomfortable lump, and pounding in a recess to make it more comfortable. Next came a back, arms, a cushion, and in a blink of the cosmic eye, we have vibrating Naugahide loungers showing up in living rooms from Bombay to Boise. All objects function in some way, just as all words describe “real” things. But some words, like apple, describe a tangible, almost universally recognizable object, as opposed to concepts like fear or love or whimsy. These are real, of course, but cannot be defined by pointing a finger. Paintings and symphonies function—I won’t want to be in a world without them —but not in the same easily recognizable way as a chair or an axe. I’m no philologist, but I’m tempted to say that the words for physical objects predate the words for concepts. It seems like the commerce of life among people needs to say, “Throw the spear,” before it needs to say, “I disagree with the teleological conclusions of your metaphysics.” Our most primitive ancestors looked in wonder into the night sky, but come dawn, they went hunting. Probably chairs and spears came before vases and mirrors, but this should not imply a hierarchy of value. In Maslov’s Hierarchy, the urgent requirements of our physical, animal selves are listed first, followed in descending order by the other qualities that contribute to our lives. This is not a moral judgment, but a recognition of fact. We can go longer without furniture than we can without food. In fact if you’re hungry enough, you won’t even think about furniture. Certain needs, like food, water, protection, and shelter must bemet before we can concern ourselves with emotional security, pleasure, concern for the future, and so on. These things are not less important, it just happens that we can live without them longer. Is there a similar hierarchy in the world of objects? Or perhaps we can use the same model to talk about the attributes of a single object. Let’s go back to the chair: First it must support a person’s weight, and be stable, and not uncomfortable. If it doesn’t do these things, it’s not a chair, at least in the usual sense. Once those requirements have been met, the chair can be painted, carved, gilded, elevated, put on rockers, or covered with gemstones. There seems to be a hierarchy of function. In language we have many words that say almost the same thing. Boy that’s a big dog. A huge dog, an enormous dog, a vast and gigundous dog. Somewhere in the history of language, somebody decided the perfectly workable word “big” wasn’t enough for the moment, so he or she looked around for another, or cobbled something together from a couple ready-mades (rollercoaster), or listened to the sound (squawkbox). And if there was a need for such a word, it passed into usage. That’s how dictionaries keep getting thicker. In the syntax of objects, the chair begets the stool, which has offspring like the milking stool and barstool. These objects feed back into language, as when a decoy bird was tied to a stool to set a trap (stool pigeon) from which we get the person at risk who will give up information to be let off the hook, (a stoolie). But that’s another story. Objects flow from our desire for them like language springs from the act of living. The grunts of Homo sapiens developed into the language we use today, and that in turn continues to develop into the language that will be used in the future. It is a dynamic system. The objects that fill and fulfill my physical life grew out of need and wonder at the material world. Just as every child enters the world language-less but able to coo, each maker enters the world unaware of the existence of furniture and crockery, but armed with the ability to discover them. 48 Objects absorb, or at least some of them do. Big time. Sponges, napkins, cotton balls, gauze, terrycloth, loam, charcoal, sawdust, sand. These materials and things made of them will absorb fluids, which have a way of being where we don’t want them sometimes. And many of them will absorb noise, which also drips into some unwanted places. Some materials, like paper fiber, can absorb both, while others, like foam rubber, are better at one than the other. But what about materials that absorb other, less easily measurable things? I have a glass paperweight that sat soaking up the sparkling, sun-catching dust motes in my great-grandfather’s study for a couple decades. It sits beside me as I write. And what of the drawers of baby clothes that were worn by our now-grown children, and the sled with the bent runner that hasn’t been used in fifteen years, and the Parcheesi game with the chewed pieces (Were their teeth really that little once?) and the weathered slabs of wood nailed across the lowest horizontal branches on the maple in the backyard? These objects absorbed something, and they hold it like a saturated sponge. Memories, yes, you could try to put it in a single word. They hold memories, we say it that way, but in fact the memories are electrical impulses that crackle in a microscopic language of synaptic explosions in our brain. These things do more than trigger that snap-crackle-pop we call memory. These things are those times and events, because they are physical. The tree house wood is precisely that shade of gray because of the summers and winters it has been hanging there on the tree. It has been painted by moonlight while I slept, has been littered with seedpod and sap and fallen leaves and sheets of ice. It holds the gouge where a carved initial began, but was never finished. Not the memory of the letter, but the torn wood, the clumsy drag of a dull pocketknife. We usually use absorbent materials as shortlife vehicles to transport something from one place to another. We wipe up a spill on the counter, take the sponge to the sink, and squeeze it out. We don’t worry about our snow soaked mittens, because we’ll toss them in the sink or bathtub and the melting ice won’t make a mess. We’re used to using absorbing objects in that way. But I wonder if we take full advantage of the other kind of absorption that goes on in the life of objects. Rosebud. 49 When a large branch falls across a brook and lodges in place, it starts to collect the bits of debris that float past. Leaves and grass and twigs will stick to it, and these in turn will snag more leaves, and string, feathers, flowers, perhaps a milk carton or Styrofoam cup. It is the process of accumulation, a natural rhythm of life, and one we can find in hundreds of other examples. Leaves make a lush damp mat on the forest floor, the ocean paints its tide lines daily, our hands grow calluses, and our faces are etched with the memory of our expressions. Making objects is a process of accumulation that allows us to gather up time like leaves floating downstream. The log is our activity—the pot, the chair, the stonewall or the granulated brooch. The moments of our life and the talent that is linked to every second drift past, usually drifting along into nothingness. But when there is a physical object in their path, they stick. The five minutes spent sanding a surface smooth is not important by itself, but like the grasses that accumulate to become a thick fabric across the stream, these actions stack onto one another, just as the objects we make pile up in our lives. See the object maker looking back over a life’s work; the hundreds of pieces made, each taking its portion of time, each a syzygy of inspiration, talent, perseverance, and material. These also pile up, the whole of the mass being something different from the individual pieces, as strong as they might be. Why do you think we mount retrospectives, those grand shows that celebrate the lives of artists? We are like naturalists unraveling the stream dam, wading in up to our hips to peel back the accumulated mesh, saying, Look, this is the first twig, and here is the leaf it caught, and then came this bright blue feather. We are fascinated by this process, made plain to us in the objects that accrue. We are captivated not because it is a rare process, but a common process rarely seen. Particularly as more of us are making less with our hands, we yearn for the physical evidence of the hours that have floated by. 50 It is hardly necessary to say that nature is a busy machine, never idle. Every moment of every day and night the tides churn, the rivers flow, winds tumble across the hillsides, moisture pulls itself into clouds or throws itself at the landscape. There is never a moment when these forces are not at work, carving the rocks of the mountainside, smoothing the riverbank, nibbling up the asphalt on a country road, redesigning coastlines, compacting the landfills, polishing seaglass, pressing the fallen trees into the mossy earth, and twisting glaciers around vast peaks. If we could get far enough away—far enough in distance, in timescale, and emotional attachment—we could see the planet in the hands of a busy, distracted child, Nature pressing the globe like a snowball, squeezing, slapping, patting it here and there. Forces of nature. Objects offer a microcosm of these actions. What is sandpaper if not the descendant of Sahara’s siroccos, the relentless winds that polish the outcroppings until they shine? When we carve, squeeze, scrape, layer, gouge, and abrade we are mimicking nature, learning from her the rhythms of creation. This is an immensely valuable activity, this follow-along of the Great Maker. We stand like children in our first dance class, earnestly watching the teacher as she lifts her arms, or bends at the waist, or swivels her head gracefully from front to profile. We try to repeat the process, lacking the grace and the confidence, but true in our earnestness. She repeats, patiently, grandly, timelessly—lift, turn, bend. We repeat, never achieving the compact effortless power of the master, but each time coming closer to the essence of the motion. As wonderful as they are, the primary power of objects lies not in their existence but in their coming into existence. Our species is great at collecting, and the mark we leave on the planet and perhaps the solar system will have a lot to do with that. But more essentially, we are makers, Homo haber, man the maker. We chop and scrape and sand the stuff beneath our feet, restless and unstoppable in our tiny efforts to trace the power of Creation. 51 Objects exist in Big Time, but the process of making seems to focus itself in compacted moments of Small Time. Objects outlive their makers. They speak to us of other times, of old-fashioned clothes, or quaint devices and alternate lives. Objects connect us with the Pharaohs and with our great-uncles. Because wood and clay last longer than flesh, the thing itself spans Big Time. It is perhaps ironic, then, that as I am working on a piece, it is the moment that most interests me. It is a rare craftsman, I think, who makes work for the museum vitrine. I do not make work so it can be gazed on by a progression of people. I make my pieces for the moment of encounter, that fleeting, distracted, twinkling moment when a person comes to my work, lifts it perhaps, and leans toward a window to catch the light. That is the moment when the piece comes to life, when the spiritual EKG of the thing goes beep and makes a peaked line on the monitor. 52 A sure way to check on the color of your blood is to stroke a cat from tail to head. The exercise provides a quick lesson in orientation—a sure (and painful) reminder that the universe is built of flow patterns. We learn this again when we carve wood, where the intelligence of the grain precedes our efforts. Fabric has a warp and weft that guide a tear, and the crystals of metal, though less obvious than woodgrain, have a profound effect on the strength and behavior of metal. Objects teach us that orientation matters. Or to say it another way, that matter has orientation. This is a key to connecting with the world, and those who work with raw material have the blessing of learning the lesson at first hand. It is a lesson the animal kingdom probably understands in its synapses. Just as bees and birds know the time rhythms of the planet, so they know to press against the breeze, or gather the lift of a warm current easing itself over a knoll. We make our roads by blasting through mountains then wonder why the hillsides collapse. We’re stroking the mountain from tail to head and don’t even realize it. As physical beings, we operate on the face of the landscape. We move through space, erect structures, and furnish them with tools and devices that make life comfortable. We build rooms, cart in tables and chairs, and splash a little color around to brighten the place up. Orientation plays a role here, as indicated by geomancy or what the Chinese call feng shui. We can sometimes feel it ourselves when we enter a room and are surprised to see windows or doors that strike us as oddly misplaced. This is the urge that leads to midnight furniture rearranging, that makes us turn the den into a bedroom. It just feels right, we say. We have stumbled onto one of the orientational axes of life. Objects not only teach us lessons about this, but offer examples in miniature. The objects in our lives, and here I’m thinking of things no larger than household furnishings, and perhaps as small as the trinkets that we set on our dressers and windowsills, these objects provide opportunity to explore three-dimensional space. Like generals moving toy boats and tanks on a map-covered table, we shift the rocks and shells and candy dishes of our lives around, testing the distances between them, watching as they catch the light, or sink into the half-dark of dusk. They ask to be rotated an inch to the right, or moved closer to the window, and as we oblige we see again that there is a hidden structure in the universe, the invisible meridians of the cartographer. 53 For all their differences, religions have at least one thing in common: they address that part of the human experience that is nonmaterial, related to spirit. And yet we approach religion armed with objects—ritual tokens and artifacts. Cathedrals are choked with statuary, paintings, candles, reliquaries, alms boxes, vessels, milagros, censors, books, tables, kneeling benches, icons, reliefs, vestments, memento mori, plaques, carvings, inscriptions, entombments, tapestries, engravings, and stained glass panels. We speak of spirit, yet we come before the Unknown Void laden with objects. Why is this so? Perhaps it is because of the surety of objects, their touchable-ness. Like a child clutching a stuffed animal as he enters a darkened room, we intuitively seek the consolation of touch, the assurance of substance, as we come near a realm so far removed from our physical experience. And too, objects are repositories of time and value, and in this way become a currency for the spiritual. Religions throughout the world tell stories of gifts brought before the high throne, from frankincense to flower petals. The sanctification of objects benefits both the material world and our spiritual ambitions. We have a long history of making objects; that’s what I’ve been writing about here, the apparently inborn desire to touch-and-taste-and-shape the stuff of the world. The arts of weaving and pottery and metalwork and woodcarving and stonecutting and mosaic and tile painting and embroidery were not intellectual constructs, but sensual gropings of preliterate animals. The drive to fashion objects is basic and deep within us. In this regard it runs parallel to religious fervor, or the yearning to connect with the Great Spirit. 54 There is a gap between what we can imagine and what we can create. It is a raw wound that will not close, the constant reminder of our limitations, and it is constructed of material objects. Consider: we can envision the proper tool to peel an apple. It will be infinitely sharp, able to remove the peel and nothing more, incapable of cutting flesh or drawing blood. This tool will cost almost nothing, last forever and never need cleaning. It’s an easy design to imagine—a child can do it. Yet each attempt to make this simple knife is thwarted. We blunder along with steel and flame, teasing ourselves with infantile alloy adjustments that don’t begin to measure up to our dreams. In the end we are humiliated by our visions, damned by the grandeur of our designs. And who is the messenger of our defeat? In what currency is our failure made plain? The wood and stone and plastic and metal and fabric that surround us, that tempt us with the appearance of control. It is this more than anything else, our clumsy scratching at the material world, that in the end shows us our limitations. 55 There is, of course, a difference between a symbol and the thing itself. A dollar bill isn’t worth much in terms of its paper and ink, but it stands for a quantified amount of time, talent, or goods. A twenty dollar bill costs as much to make as a one, but it signifies more value. This use of symbols is basic in human culture and can be found around the world. Objects are great signifiers, containing as they do various proportions of intrinsic value, learned significance, workmanship, skill, portability, and durability. We use objects to symbolize religion and in the stories that explain the tenets of religion. In this way the cross stands for divine intervention and the prayer wheel symbolizes the cycles of existence. They are ciphers, characters, tokens, glyphs, that stand in for something else. In most cases they are religious, but not Religion. But in some cases, objects cross the line between representation and reality. They are no longer symbols for what is sacred but become sacred themselves. In the Christian Medieval period in Europe, the trend to sanctify objects was responsible for tremendous feats of architecture built to house sacred relics. Bones and organs and the clothing of holy persons moved past the role of representing those people, who in turn represented adherence to a value and belief system. The objects themselves were understood to be holy, to contain powers beyond our normal sphere. What makes an object sacred? In that case it was a combination of ecclesiastical governance, popular enthusiasm, and cultural predilection. There existed what we would today call a “mindset” ready to believe in unearthly phenomena, there was a well-established clerical hierarchy with an apparatus for distributing policy, and, we must assume, there was some personal or cultural benefit in the belief. It gave the people something they needed. In contemporary mainstream thought we are less likely to make that plunge today. We are careful thinkers (or so we believe) and skeptical of mysteries, even as many of us yearn for them. Reading of ancient miracles, we are more likely to explain them as flukes of linguistics or neurological excess than to see them as clearly defined moments of sacred intervention. 56 The world is carved out by light, created each dawn from the greasy clay of twilight, hewn as the angle of incidence grows, lending solidness to the forms of the world. To a blind person, solid is a single sense, the proven press of flesh against matter. When everything is night, there is no shading, in vision or in perception. But to those with sight, objects float in a shifting current, pulled into the crisp contours of graspable form for an hour, only to drift into a murky semi-solid as the light fades. Photographers are the choreographers of this dance; they learn the moves and practice alternate arrangements. You think it is a brick, they say, and think it would shatter that window, but see how little you know. At the moment of illumination, there is no window and the brick is a bird. It is a function of light, like dreams and sometimes, like love. I had a balsawood airplane with a plastic propeller on a hook and a red rubber band that ran down the underside of the fuselage. I would wind it for a whole minute, the rubber knotting up into piles of twisted sinews, then I’d stand up on my bed and launch the airy craft toward the ceiling. The propeller spun so fast it disappeared, or at least transformed itself from a twisted red stick into a pale red circle. Movement revealed through light becomes a different object altogether. It is alchemy. 57 The world is so full of materials, we hardly know what to do. The damp smell of pine wood is so sweet that I pause when I catch its scent. Walnut, as brown as last year’s fallen leaves, raises a perfume when I sand it that I can recall a week later and smell on my clothes even after they’re washed. Oak has a double pattern of grain within grain, like looking at the ripples of a brook and seeing the bed of the stream at the same time. Cherry is warm like a memory of fire, and ash has the aloof austerity of the Shakers who used it. Serviceable, it says curtly, its grain rich without being showy. We hardly know what to do with the shine of polished silver, and the shushing burnished surface of a metal well-handled. The tracks of a thousand grains of dust have scoured the brooch into a deep well of light that sends back visual echoes. The oiled nut-brown of copper we can taste on our tongues, like the acid yellow of pale brass, its zinc leaching almost as we watch. The sound of the bell is a function of the alloy, but the bell of the choir is not the bell in the tower, where green the color of moss beds lays like a skin on the dark metal surface, lays like a layer of resonant sound. We hardly know what to do with the textures of cloth. From our mother’s laying in to our own laying out, we are encompassed by sheets—simple cotton sheets, our winding cloths, through all our nights. We wrap ourselves in wool in the winter, silk on cool summer nights, and cotton for next to the skin—cotton as white as paper, as white as smoke, as white as the underside of certain mushrooms. There is the diagonal growth of twill, and the dauntless optimism of gingham, the haughty brocade and the muted familiarity of oxford cloth. In our sleep we feel the fabric on our skin, we pull it up to our necks for half of the year, and throw it off for the rest. We fall in love with colors and slide our arms into them, then cast them off next season for something better. Except for the white; we never really get over the white, the first sheet that swaddled us in the maternity ward, the last sheet we’ll know in the morgue. There is so much power in the materials of the world, we hardly know what to do. It’s all we can manage to keep our eyes open. About the Photos The ghosty, soft-edged forms of pinhole photographs do not pretend to show us the real world—instead they offer a modest alternative, a shadow that comes easily to our eyes. The images in this book were made in an electronic simulation of pinhole cameras using the digital device built into a Zire 71 PDA. No manipulation was used.