Articles by Neil Murphy
[Neil passed on May 28, 2013. Whether you knew him or not, you may enjoy some of his writings from the Harbin Quarterly. Ann]
THE BUCKET LIST
By Cornelius Murphy
We love making lists. We all do it. Writers make epic lists. There’s the dreaded “Honey, Do…” list. There are check lists for this or that exercise. The lists often begin: “Things to do…”; then we add: “before we leave for Bangladesh”; “before I graduate; …get married; …turn forty”. In the case of my latest list it’s “before I kick the bucket”. Nothing new; you’ve probably seen the movie.
As a youth I was a pretty fair athlete, playing baseball and football in the sandlot and later playing soccer in college. As an adult I have been an aficionado of sport in its myriad forms, and lately a fan of world football, or “footie” as the English call soccer.
There’s a saying in England: “Some people see Football as a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.” Watching the footie and the footie reportage on television, one gets a hint of what that’s about. It is obvious that there is a ritual dimension to European sport that is unknown in this country. American sportswriters are always struck and a bit bewildered by it. Before a game, the fans in their thousands all stand and sing the team anthem. Tears misting the eyes of burly longshoremen and truckers are not unusual. Imagine, grown human beings of every stripe and social stratum singing a sometimes very silly song for no reason that makes any sense, and getting misty-eyed in the bargain. I put it on the bucket list: Go to a game of footie and sing my lungs out.
As luck would have it, on a recent trip to Germany our nephew Mike got us tickets to a game at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Elke would have none of it. “No sir. Drunks and hooligans will be raising no end of hell and barfing all over the subway. I grew up in this town. Been there, done that, thank you very much.” I would have argued that this was an opportunity to see things in a new light, but I’m very tedious when I lecture; I bore even myself.
On the morning of the game, we rode to the stadium in a train packed with fans, every one of whom clutched a twenty ounce bottle of beer. Most were decked out in fan regalia: team flags as sarongs; team scarves draped fore and aft; team caps and toques. There was no rowdiness or hooliganism, there was merely a benign and good natured booziness. At the stadium, the beer kiosks outside did a brisk business as we leisurely found our way inside and to our seats.
It seemed like any other day at the ballpark until it happened, and I don’t know how it happened. One minute we were in our seats looking this way and that, waiting for the game to start, and in the next we were all on our feet, facing the playing field. No one fussed with their stuff or fussed over their kids; the beer and pretzel vendors suspended business and stood at attention. Fans of the visiting team stood as well, in respectful silence, like Protestant visitors at a Catholic High Mass. All seventy five thousand of us sang. We sang long and we sang loud. It was moving and a bit thrilling and it was a gas.
Now, I could have gone just as easily to the Kentucky Derby and sung “My Old Kentucky Home. I could have gone to Belmont Park for the Belmont Stakes and sung Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, something that will bring a tear to the eye of a New Yorker every time. No, it wasn’t tearful, boozeful song that lured me to Olympic Stadium, and it had little to do with the footie. It was the opportunity to go native: the bane of every colonial administration; the nightmare that haunts the parents of teenagers on European holiday; the siren song heard by sailors in ports like Pape’ete, Mombasa or Surabaya since men have gone to sea. Going native is what separates the traveler from the tourist.
It was not so long ago that to travel any significant distance was to go at a walking pace. The pioneers pretty much walked from St. Louis, Missouri to Sacramento or Santa Fe or wherever. Marco Polo walked to China and back. I’ll bet he came back speaking a passel of languages and having eaten stuff his mother warned him never to touch. Marco and the pioneers were travelers, writ large. They went native of necessity; they did as the locals did and ate as the locals ate as a means of survival. Lists they might have made could have begun with “Things to do to keep from getting dead”. Those would have been, in the end, a kind of bucket list.
Since I’m fast approaching my three score and ten, survival is hardly an issue. I’m also not one to live in, or give a second thought to, the worst-case-scenario. I prefer simply to be moved and thrilled these days, to do something to put a smile to my face and a lilt to my step: grab a bottle of beer, get on the train with the hooligans and be damned. That’s the kind of thing that belongs on the bucket list. As I write this, I have re-titled it. It now reads: “Things I Can Do to Remind Myself I’m Alive”.
STILL LIFE WITHOUT WOODPECKER
by Cornelius Murphy
An acorn fell at my feet the other day, and I was suddenly struck by how quiet it was. Sure, there was the whir and gurgle of the laundry, the hum of refrigerator compressors, a carpenter insistently driving a nail; but something was missing. I looked up into a walnut tree whose upper branches are all rotten, a tree where one usually finds acorn woodpeckers, and noticed they weren’t there. Ever since I’ve lived here, acorn woodpeckers have made that tree their playground and larder. In the autumn, they’d drill a hole in the rotten wood, fly off to an oak, harvest an acorn, fly back to the walnut and tap the acorn into the hole they’d made. Some, it seemed, would spend their time sorting the acorns, making sure they were in holes appropriate to their size. For the rest of the year they would eat, socialize, and raise families up there. All this industry, these comings and goings, were accompanied by a laugh-like call that sounded like a high pitched “kvetch-kvetch-kvetch”. That day there was silence.
Of course, they may come back when there are acorns to harvest, the one that fell at my feet being simply a leftover from last year. That they are not here now does not worry me so much as does the willingness to be afraid they won’t ever come back. I notice myself being altogether too ready to strike a pompous posture, point my finger, and hurl anathemas at ecological criminals who infest the woodwork. It’s an easy thing to do these days.
A more difficult thing is to imagine this world devoid of all life, although somewhere in the dim reaches of the past such a condition did indeed exist. A couple of billion or so years ago conditions on this planet simply would not support any kind of life. And then, one day, there it was. Around five hundred and fifty million years ago, during what the palaeontologists call the Cambrian explosion, the earth teemed with life in what would be to us unimaginable forms (they’re nearly unimaginable to the paleontologists who study them). In the intervening eons the history of life has been punctuated by mass extinctions that have, on more than one occasion, eliminated almost all forms of life on the planet. Life, obviously, has a habit of bouncing back.
The aforementioned extinctions, however, were probably occasioned by cosmic-scale catastrophes: collisions with comets or asteroids. These days we may be faced with the beginnings of a mass extinction occasioned by the actions of an individual animal and its domesticated beasts: Homo sapiens (a self-styled “intelligent species”); the small predators he keeps as pets; and the ruminants he collects in herds. Of course, there is some precedent for this kind of thing. When the land bridge connecting North and South America formed, placental mammals from North America migrated south, totally displacing and rendering extinct an entire fauna of marsupial animals. One survivor of that invasion, the opossum, cleared out, traveled north, and thrives even here.
There was no “intelligent species” among the South American marsupials to posture and protest. And while we have no shortage of posturers and protesters among Homo sapiens, the sad fact remains that the planet is losing a species every few minutes. The hardest thing to swallow is that there’s little difference between what Homo sapiens and company is doing to the planet today and what our less sophisticated placental cousins did in South America so long ago. The fact is that life is going about the business of life, red in tooth and claw, as it has always done.
Slashing and burning or posturing and protesting, Homo sapiens makes the same mistake: taking itself and its place in the history of life too seriously. Slashing and burning, it arrogantly views nature as an enemy to be conquered and tamed. Posturing and protesting, in love with its cleverness and resilience, convincing itself that it is “intelligent”, it arrogantly forgets that it is just another placental animal trying to make a living.
I’ve heard it said that life is a natural consequence of existence, that life is immanent in the universe and that it becomes manifest when conditions are ripe. A wondrous thing. For then there is no such thing as not-life. The heads-and-tails of it is not life/death or life/not-life. There is life-immanent and there is life-manifest; these are the two sides of the coin. Life and death, extinction and repopulation, are just two aspects of life-manifest, two marks on the same side of the coin. They are life itself; they’re the same thing.
I’ll try to keep these things in mind as I trudge up the hill toward the baths this evening, but I’ll worry a little anyway. I miss the “kvetch, kvetch” of the acorn woodpeckers.