Rants from the Hill: Anecdote of the Jeep
"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.
1919 was a pretty decent year, all in all. The Grand Canyon received protection as a national park, the 19th Amendment finally gave women the vote, the world witnessed the end of the war that was to have ended all wars, and American heroes including J. D. Salinger and Jackie Robinson were born. Of course the news of 1919 was not all good. The Volstead Act initiated prohibition. Liberace was born. 1919 was also the year of the Great Molasses Flood, in which two million gallons of viscous, saccharine goo from a ruptured distillery tank flowed in a 15-foot flash flood down the slot canyons of urban Boston. And American poet Wallace Stevens had the bright idea to put a jar in a wild forest in Tennessee. “Anecdote of the Jar,” his 1919 poem documenting this bizarre experiment, begins this way:
“I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.”
I’m no expert on poetry -- which is obviously the province of weak-willed and self-absorbed people who don’t appreciate more aesthetically significant activities, like listening to baseball on the radio -- but this poem has always struck me as patent horseshit. Anybody who has been to Tennessee will testify that nobody there leaves empty any jar that is handy for holding spent shell casings, dentures, poker money, or corn liquor. And I doubt we need a poet to reveal the profundity that a jar is round—especially not a poet so lazy that he’d rhyme “hill” with “hill.” Most troubling, though, is Stevens’s haughty denigration of wilderness. Slovenly? I’m guessing the wilderness is at least as clean and well-ordered as the closet of your average poet. And does he actually believe that his little jar can make the wilderness rise up and relinquish its wildness? We’ll get more truth from Wallace Stegner than Wallace Stevens, I think. After all, Wallace of the West wrote not only that “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” but also “I despise that locution, ‘having sex,’ which describes something a good deal more mechanical than making love and a good deal less fun than f******.” With that kind of wisdom and literary expressiveness, can anyone be surprised that Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize? And while it is true that Stevens deserves some credit for having once punched Ernest Hemingway in the face, it should be noted that the blow broke Stevens’s hand, after which Papa H. proceeded to administer a humiliating drubbing.
I confess, however, that my certainty about Wallace of the East’s misunderstanding of wilderness and wildness has been challenged by my recent discovery of an unusual piece of trash in a remote desert canyon out here in the Silver Hills. A few weeks ago I was hiking some knobs and draws about three miles northwest of the Ranting Hill when I emerged from a rocky traverse and suddenly spotted the wreck of a Jeep Cherokee in the canyon bottom below me. It was a captivating sight, and rather than being appalled that this lovely spot had been littered with a wasted car, I was instead fascinated by it. First of all, the Jeep was no beater, but was instead a late-model vehicle, and it was cherry red. This is significant because we don’t drive red cars in rural Nevada, where we live by the tacit but inviolable rule that “look at me” colors should be confined to places like suburban Connecticut, where Wallace Stevens lived. And then there was the fact that the Jeep had been blown to smithereens by everything from .22 pistol rounds and peppered shotgun blasts to the heavier damage inflicted by high-powered rifle fire. In one sense the Jeep was still a Jeep, but in another it had simply become a large, red, perforated object which, like Stevens’s empty jar, resided awkwardly in a place where it didn’t belong.
There was also an appealing sense in which the Jeep had become naturalized. Its bright red had already begun to fade in the unrelenting sun, and the winds channeling through the throat of the canyon had covered its seats and floorboards with alkali dust. Giant, white poopsplosions on the crumpled hood showed where a raptor had used the Cherokee as a hunting perch, while the interior of the vehicle had already been repurposed as a packrat nest -- one woven not only from sage branches and studded with owl pellets, but also consisting of tail light shards, tufts of carpeted floor mats, foam from shredded bucket seats, fragments of shattered mirrors that glinted from deep within the stick nest. Jackrabbit tracks surrounded the ruin, and taper-tipped coyote scat was nearby.
Then there was the mystery of how the vehicle came to rest in this inaccessible place. It could have tumbled from the cliff above, where an obscure two-track marks the route to an old test hole that was hand dug by pocket hunters who hoped the silver in the Silver Hills wasn’t all played out, but the Cherokee didn’t show structural damage consistent with rolling. Or, it could have been wrecked before it arrived here, maybe dropped by one of the CH-47 Chinook helicopters that use this remote desert for training exercises. Both explanations were unlikely. And while it would be extremely difficult to drive a vehicle to this spot, it did at least seem possible. If that’s what actually happened, this could have been the work of teenagers, who hotwired the car in the distant city and took a joyride that resulted in more of an adventure than they bargained for. Or instead the car may have been used in the commission of a crime, after which the crooks needed to make it disappear. Or maybe the road trip that ended here was taken by some desperate man -- a poet, perhaps -- who went out one evening to buy a loaf of bread, began to think too much about his past, and just kept following these remote desert wash bottoms until he finally ran aground in this sandy canyon and could sail no farther. Maybe he climbed out of his Cherokee, stood for a moment with the door wide open and the radio playing, took a deep breath of the sage-filled night air, and then simply left the keys to all the doors in his life swinging in the ignition. Perhaps while walking across the open desert by starlight he was transformed, and at daybreak he reached a gravel road, flagged down a hay truck, and vanished into an uncertain new future.
The Jeep isn’t a jar, but its presence in this isolated desert canyon raises some of the same questions posed by Wallace of the East’s empty vessel. To inquire into the story of the wreck is to ask for its meaning, which is a question that I prefer not to ask out here, and one that I never ask of granite or sage. As Stevens’s poem seems to predict, though, the Cherokee has become a landmark in my imaginative cartography, a location I frequently visualize and seem magnetically attracted to. Now when I set out to visit the spring, or collect blue quartz, or track pronghorn, or search for owls’ nests, I often find that the arc of my walk is deflected toward the wreck. The wilderness of the desert does seem to rise up and surround the blasted Jeep, much as Wallace of the East claimed that the wilderness of a Tennessee forest encircled his jar. Stevens is right that the presence of this cultural artifact has altered my relationship to nature in this place. But I believe he is wrong to suppose that any jar or Jeep can deprive this land of its wildness, for if the Jeep has been deserted, in the sense of “left behind,” it is also becoming deserted -- made a part of this spectacular arid landscape, into which it is already vanishing. Here is no antiseptic, effete placement of a hollow jar, but rather a site of wreck and abandonment -- one infested by rodents and bleaching to pink bones in the sun. In some sense that I do not yet understand, this perforated chunk of industrial waste confirms my sense that wilderness, which not only surrounds the Jeep but swallows it utterly, remains undomesticated here. While the wreck adds a dot to the imaginative map of my home territory, it also reaffirms that this is a vast, unforgiving, wild country in which our ultimate stranding remains absolutely certain.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
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Images courtesy the author.