It’s 5th period in the Advanced Placement Art Class at the high school of an up-scale Minnesota suburb.
The African visitor who grew up walking the paths in Chad has been invited by the art teacher and the staff person whose job is to generate multicultural and cross-cultural consciousness. Koffi is standing in front of the Advanced Placement Art Class. The high-tech classroom with wi-fi displays the visiting artist’s Flicker portfolio on the large screen, reducing his art, it seems to me, to just one or two more commodities for sale, quickly deleted by the pressing of a key on the keypad. This is the world of the road builders…on the way to some advanced place.
The pitch-black, slender, physically fit path-walking landscape artist from Africa speaks in his third language to the privileged, mostly white, mostly single-language college-bound American students in the Advanced Placement Art Class of the road-builder society.
The road builders, says Wendell Berry (“The Native Hill”, The Art if the Common-Place), are the descendants of the placeless people who cut the forests, leveled the trees, and bulldozed their way to their ideas of what the world should be. They are the ancestors of Europeans who fled their familiar places to escape them. To build something better. Something freer perhaps, less restricted not only by law and custom but, more fundamentally, by the limits of creaturely life: time and space. They landed on the soil of the path walkers, the indigenous people whose foot paths wound their way harmlessly following the contours of the hills, rivers, streams and valleys. The artist from Chad, who represents the spirituality of the harmless foot paths and natural contours our road builder ancestors have disdained is standing before the Western Advanced Placement Art Class.
“The road builders…were placeless people. That is why they ‘knew but little’. Having left Europe far behind” says Berry, “they had not yet in any meaningful sense arrived in America, not yet having devoted themselves to any part of it in a way that would produce the intricate knowledge of it necessary to live in it without destroying it. Because they belonged to no place, it was almost inevitable that they should behave violently toward the places they came to. We still have not, in any meaningful way, arrived in America. And in spite of our great reservoir of facts and methods, in comparison to the deep earthly wisdom of established peoples we still know but little.”
The Advanced Placement students watch the paintings flash across the screen in the school the road builders have built, but they show little interest or curiosity. They ask no questions of the flesh and blood African path walker whose paintings are of the natural habitat and his sisters and brothers, the elephants, lions, tigers, zebras, and giraffes, who are disappearing because of poachers who profit from the ivory tusks of the elephants and the rhinos.
“I’m surprised and more than a little disappointed,” I say to Koffi after that class.
“Many Americans think we’re stupid. We’re from Africa. They think Africans are uncivilized,” he replies in the least preferred of the three languages he speaks fluently.
Who and what is more civil and civilized, I wonder. Many of us know that something has been lost. Something is dreadfully wrong. The students in the class and their generation are likely “greener” than my generation. But they also have drunk the poison of a linear view of history as advancement and progress. They are advancing…a step above the rest…in the Advanced Placement Class on their way to the prestigious universities that will induct them into the road builders society.
I am increasingly drawn to the simple insight of the Genesis writer who calls the prototypes of humanity “Earthlings” (the literal English rendering of the original Hebrew text) meant to delight within the limits of time and space. We are of the earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes creatures who live in one time and one place at one time, not in every place all the time, and not all the time forever nowhere.
I am on vacation…in a pool…in the Florida sun… where I dreamed of being five days ago in the Advanced Placement Art class back in frigid Minnesota. The place is Orlando, the quintessential city of the road builders. The time is 10:00 a.m. EST. The date is January 16, 2013.
I am thinking about the path man and the students back in Minnesota when it suddenly dawns on me that even here…on vacation with no obligations, no goals to meet, no deadlines, nothing to do… I am acting like a road builder.
I alone…in the pool…doing my prescribed water exercises for my back and neck. “Lift left leg. Extend both arms. Pull arms to side as left leg goes down and right leg lifts. Keep abdomen tight. Keep neck and upper back muscles relaxed.”
Doing these exercises does not require movement from one side of the pool to the other. But I am making a highway in the water, always moving forward, advancing to the other side. ”One, two, three steps…nine, ten, eleven.” Turn. Repeat trip to other side. Repeat until the counting of strokes reaches 100. And I ask why.
I get out of the pool, dry off, and have trouble just being here…alone…in the Florida sun…by a pool surrounded by palm trees and tropical birds. I turn on the MacBook Air and, as I do, I realize that I have no good reason to turn on the MacBook Air other than to be somewhere else than where I really AM… right now, in this place…I’ve entered the world of the Flicker screen. My spirit never settles anywhere except during my afternoon nap with my two furry friends back home when the warmth of their bodies calms my spirit into a kind of joyful resting place. My dogs are not here. They’re at home in Minnesota wondering where the not-so-furry member of the pack is.
I turn of off the MacBook Air and reach over for the hard copy of The Art of the Common-Place, a book meant precisely for a reflective moment like this.
“Novalis, the German romantic poet and philosopher, once remarked that all proper philosophizing is driven instinctively by the longing to be at home in the world, by the desire to bring to peace the restlessness that pervades much of human life,” writes Norman Wirzba in the Introduction to the book
“Our failure – as evidenced in flights to virtual worlds and the growing reliance on ‘life enhancing’ drugs, antidepressants, antacids, and stress management techniques – suggest a pervasive unwillingness or inability to make this world a home, to find in our places and communities, our bodies and our work, a joyful resting place.”
A tiny lizard that has lost its tail scampers up to the arm of the lounge chair next to mine. I stay still. We look at each other…the lizard looks into the eyes of the road builder whose ancestors paved over his natural habitat; the road builder stares into the eyes of the lizard.
The lizard senses the threat…his chest and throat blow up like an orange balloon to camouflage itself into safety, then sucks the balloon back in just as quickly as the road builder moves. The lizard runs scampers back into the green foliage planted poolside by the resort’s developers, the “superior” species, the road builders of Western culture who were not content with the more humble paths that followed the natural contours and limits of time and place here in Orlando.
Here in the Florida sun by the pool it is as though a tiny ancestor of the serpent in the Garden story of Genesis 3 has returned with an altogether different question. If in the Genesis myth the serpent seduces the Earthlings into believing that they will be “like God,” the lizard now returns to the despoiled garden to ask the suddenly alert but still- advancing, far from home, restless, pool road-building vacationer in the lizard’s home:
“Do you still really think you’re God?”