Loess: Common Denominator

“My words echo / Thus, in your mind.”   –Eliot

One of the pleasures of reading, the kind of pleasure that comes only with the accumulation of decades spent among books, is recognition.  When a writer reflects the words of an earlier writer, either playfully or seriously, he or she is complimenting the reader by assuming recognition, the perception not only of the source but the richness that comes with the superimposition of the original and its re-echoed version.

I was reading about a dust storm in China in Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones.  The book is a fascinating nonfictional account of modern China and its current complex interactions with the West.  Hessler, a Westerner, has spent most of his adult life in China as a teach and a journalist.  he writes at one point of taking a camping trip near Xituogu, a village among mountains northeast of Beijing in the shadow of the Great Wall.  One night he takes refuge in a tower of the Great Wall when a dust storm blows up, bringing with it loess, the windblown sediment that has buried many of the archaeological remains of China’s past over the centuries.

Hessler writes:

Loess was general all over China.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the fields of Anyang and the city of Bejing.  Around two o’clock in the morning, I tied a shirt over my face, zipped up the bag, and finally slept for a couple of hours.  Jagged dreams.  The loess made a clipped sound as it struck the tower and all night it fell, upon all the living and the dead.  (p. 276)

Any English literature student knows that Hessler, lying in his sleeping bag, is thinking of James Joyce.  At the end of his story “The Dead,” the last and longest of the series that constitutes Dubliners, Gabriel Conroy has a dark epiphany of his love life and his empty soul.  The last, most eloquent, paragraph concludes:

[S]now was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Hessler is not having an epiphany, nor is this his “last end,” but the sense of being buried alive, at least symbolically, comes out.

Such recognitions are fun for this reader.  Surely, as in all good journalistic prose, loess is more.  Or at the very least Hessler’s loess is everybody’s gain.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.



Yesterday we decided to see what the downtown area of Palm Springs was like. We’d been told when we rented our car that the small area along Palm Canyon Drive and Indian Canyon Drive had she’s and restaurants. And we knew that the art and Indian museums were there too. We had driven down this strip a couple of times coming back into town from driving trips.
We didn’t know what challenges parking would be, but it turned out that there was unlimited free parking in a garage at the south end of the strip. There were already diners eating early lunch under roofed open-air cafés, so e of which we’re offering early happy hours. The sidewalks of Palm Springs have their own Hollywood-style stars, though not all the names are household–many producers, writers, and radio people from earlier eras.
The Cultural Center for the local Indians was small but informative, featuring historical origins and more recent misperceptions of their culture. Some of the quotations and statements were pretty egregious, from Gen. Philip Sheridan to John Wayne, who said in the early 70s how selfish the native peoples were to want to keep all this land for themselves. We liked the small outdoor area where native plants used by the people were planted and explained.
We walked down to see the famed Seward Johnson statue of Marilyn Monroe, all 26′ of her, holding down her wind-blown skirt. Then we pressed on to the art museum itself, a pleasant surprise. We got a guided tour of the special exhibit, George Catlin’s many buffalo paintings. It was culled from the Smithsonian’s holdings, and created an interesting angle of vision. Our guide had done lots of research about buffalo/bison and Catlin, so we came away illuminated. The beautiful modern museum building building held quite a good collection of modernist and postmodern works, especially small sculpture. There was also a good collection of Indian artifacts and current regional artists.
This excursion gave us food for thought as we lounged poolside in the late afternoon.