I suspect the air quality remains poor this morning, a condition that is problematic for me. Like many who were in the iron lung, my ability to manage allergies and other bronchial concerns is compromised; I am also adversely effected by bad air days. As a result, I must attend carefully to anything that might lead to infection. Fortunately these concerns are not life threatening, as they may be for many people with more compromised breathing; respiratory infections were frequently fatal for those who remained in the lung post acute infection. Still, an over abundance of pollen, and pollution from those ubiquitous Midwestern power plants (particulate matter that pools here in the valley) do have an adverse effect on me.
As humidity and heat rise, I am more likely to experience cramping, lethargy, and pain. One of the very odd side effects of the Polio virus is a loss of dopamine producing cells in the brain; another is damage to the reticular activating system in the brain stem. Together, these changes can be quite bothersome, providing considerable barriers to getting things done. Add in humidity and either heat or cold, and I can find myself quite stuck. To make matters more complex, aging after acute Polio is often characterized by increasing fatigue, a condition worsened by heat, denigrated air quality, and humidity. All of this leads to a complex, lived, bodily experience of place and time, and of the changes that occur in both.
As an artist I am also interested in the ways art can express, and create a record of, our collective experience of place. Lately, I have returned to looking at, and thinking about, modernist landscape painting from about 1890-1950, focusing mostly on painters born in the U.S.. Childe Hassam, Marsden Hartley, and Milton Avery, and many others, created magic with their transformations of our landscape. Yet, their work presents, I think, a paradox for the contemporary viewer, for they were capturing a world that is both ours, and other. Seeing familiar places through their eyes, we are reminded that the natural world we inhabit is very often a badly degraded version of the one they witnessed and loved. (Our air and water quality is better though!) Seeing the world through their eyes, we are reminded the world suffers as our human population, and our hunger for “more,” increases.
How painful we both love the world and inevitably wear away at it simply because we are here! (Contrary to popular belief, technology does not address the problem, as improvements in energy savings tend to translate into more energy use, and further environmental degradation. ) Who, I wonder, first noted that we tend to destroy what we adore? We gather in beautiful places, like national parks, to replenish our sense of connection to nature and the sacred, then simply as a consequence of our sheer numbers trample that which we hold dear!
Increasingly, we are invited, I think, by ideas of the virtual and the ideal, to withdraw from our increasingly fragmented and suffering world, and to take refuge in the drug enhanced and virtual. Why remain in touch with fragile nature when we can move into a simplified, safe, perfected world of our own making? Why not simply escape knowledge of the suffering we invariably create, and must inevitably experience?
One of the most terrifying experiences reported by us Polio survivors who were in the iron lung was that of withdrawing from it. On one hand, being strapped onto a thin mat-covered board within a metal tube respirator was terrifying in itself. Yet, given one entered the lung because one’s diaphragm was paralyzed and one was literally suffocating, the prospect of giving up the protection offered by the lung was also terrifying. I remember well the ambivalence inherent in the process of “weaning.” At first, even thirty seconds of trying to breath on one’s own was exhausting and filled with terror; yet remaining in the lung might mean social and physical isolation, a sort of shadow existence, and most likely an early death from respiratory infection! Such choices! (A few Polio survivors lived long, fulfilling lives in iron lungs.)
As I write I find myself wondering whether our culture’s preoccupation with the “undead” reflects our struggling to navigate lives in a degraded, and degrading, world. I’m also curious how we might go about resisting the many invitations we receive to leave this suffering, beautiful, terrifying world of nature and humanity, and seek comfort in the virtual, for I imagine that staying present to the world is our only hope if we wish to save it, and ultimately, ourselves.