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Envy of Angels

J Mark Bertrand

Untitled What God must have told Adam makes no sense to us now. The problem, as Robert Farrar Capon saw it around the time of writing An Offering of Uncles, was that we had a sense of space but no sense of place, we always knew what time it was without realizing what it was time for, and we were content to be told what had happened never asking what it had happened for –– never even grasping this was a question that could be asked, let alone answered.

Capon summed up the dilemma with a kind of metaphor. A gray flannel man cruising down the turnpike in his automobile, stopping at one service plaza after another, each of them as identical as it was artificial, on a journey to nowhere through a manufactured landscape.

The solution, Capon figured, or at least the beginning of one, was to go for a little walk.

When you travel by foot the space you’re accustomed to traversing becomes a place again, a landscape you cannot pass through without first entering. This enlarged ground throws up challenges in the form of hills your car would flatten. It slows you down. It tests you. Scenic vistas yield themselves, spots you never would have suspected the existence of when speeding by, but their unanticipated beauties must be earned. On foot, you learn that the best views are only visible to those who arrive at them winded and aching.

My own recent habit of walking has born out most of this advice, though my landscape hasn’t yielded any marsh reeds. Yet. After a month on foot I knew my neighborhood better than I did after six years’ acquaintance from behind the wheel.

Along the way, Capon advises, you should pluck a marsh reed and bring it home with you. Tall as it is, the reed can only be carried like a prophet’s staff, or a king’s scepter. You will feel silly, which seems to be the point. How you get where you’re going matters. It matters, too, what you carry. In surprising ways the journey forms you.

Unlike us, the salaryman of Capon’s imagining still had somewhere to go. His places-become-spaces retained a physical presence at least. They could be found on a map. (And after half a century, if you travel from the generic chain store suburbs of one city to the next, Capon’s critique has lost none of its power.) Our spaces are becoming more ephemeral, though, as they become more virtual.

We travel them without feet and without cars, too. Without bodies of any kind, we find ourselves “present” in places which have no actual location or landscape, places that exist nowhere but the server farm, where they are as apparent to the eye as thoughts are when you gaze at a brain. I’m not sure where the marsh reeds are to be found.

The power of the reed, by the way, isn’t the embarrassment it causes, the make-believe prince or priest you become while forced to carry it. No, the power comes from realizing that there is no cause for embarrassment at all. A priest, a king is what you are. It’s what human beings were made to be.

Dominion over the land is ours by right, and whatever blinds us to the existence of the land, whatever makes us forget it exists or that we exist — that we are more, much more than disembodied desire — whatever does this to us is a usurper. That’s what God was telling Adam, more or less. “Do what you like; it’s yours,” Capon has him say. “Only look at its real shape, love it for itself, and lift it into the exchanges you and I shall have. You will make a garden the envy of angels.”

What we’ve made the land is anything but that, which might explain why we seem to measure progress in terms of removing ourselves from the landscape, even removing ourselves from our selves. The staff and the scepter are as embarrassing to us as the marsh reed would be, perhaps more so. It makes no sense that it was ever otherwise.

(Cover art from the first edition of An Offering of Uncles )