Saturday, August 18, 2007

Chipmunk, Chipmunk Burning Bright

Recently I've been reading "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy and "Burning Bright" by Tracy Chevalier - and interacting with our local chipmunk. Since a good amount of the book-work takes places outdoors in our cool, elm-shaded, side-yard I am frequently able to do both activities if not simultaneously then at least alternately.

"The Road" is a novel about a father and son traveling alone in a post-apocalyptic and largely unpopulated world. There are times when The Road is practically too much to bear, with its demonic vistas and cities with "cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell." The combination of a hope-deprived world crumbling into nothingness and McCarthy's astringent, horrifying prose imagining all too believably the depths to which a shattered humanity can sink, makes for an emotionally devastating experience, and one not quickly shed. (

"Burning Bright" by contrast is historical fiction featuring the 18th & 19th century English poet and artist William Blake of whom I remember nothing from college other than:
TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Earlier this year I had read and enjoyed "The Girl With the Pearl Earring" by the same author. And I expect that this novel will follow the same formula about the interactions between everyday life and the artistic imagination - how the former directly influences the latter and how the last-mentioned reinterprets, abstracts and converts the first into art.

On the non-literary side is the chipmunk - the newest member of our yard-pet family and by far the most personable. We have had several others of this species in years past. This latest one however has made the biggest effort to make himself noticeable to us by continually appearing in places and situations that demand our attention - sitting on the ground next to the sunflower seed storage pail looking up at me as I fill the bird feeders; burrowing through the pachysandra while I work in that garden; scooting from plant to plant in the vegetable plot when I am picking tomatoes; or simply walking up in front of Mars and me as we are reading in our lawn chairs, sitting up, and staring at us. Although he keeps himself at a non-touching social distance he nonetheless seems to have made himself right at home.

The father and son in "The Road" on the other hand have no place to live and are continually working to get by in an utterly barren, totally nonproductive landscape. They sustain themselves by continually changing locations in search of more accommodating weather and an absence of other survivors, and by ferreting out leftover food and clothing that has not already been either destroyed, ruined, or picked-over by the "bad guys" - a few of whom appear briefly in the story.

"Burning Bright" is as different in mood from "The Road" as are the "c" sounds in the names of the respective authors. Most of the plot deals with the efforts of the Kellaway family, principally daughter Maisie and son Jem, to integrate into the life of big city London after their move from small country town of Dorsetshire. William Blake is their next-door neighbor.

When I read Blake's name in the jacket-cover plot-tease a picture that I now believe was actually associated with the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau flashed into my mind. It is probably the reason that I took the book out of the library. My apparently mistaken memory recalled Blake as being much more of an intellectual confrere of the Frenchman's State of Nature / Noble Savage view of mankind than my recent Googling research has revealed.

The primitively styled artwork that I am remembering does however have one Blakesian element. It shows an almost one-dimensional tiger with the same bemused facial expression as the one that the poet created to illustrate his "TIGER, tiger, burning bright" piece of writing.

In "my" painting the wild feline, presumably intended to be life-size, is surrounded and dwarfed by a number of grossly oversized flowers and other vegetation. I'm not certain that the picture as I am recalling it actually ever existed but for the moment that's my memory and I'm sticking to it.

Because it's the same image that, after finishing "The Road" and before coming upon the Tracy Chevalier book, popped into my mind when in the midst of our vegetable garden I looked down through the stalks of sunflowers and saw the tiny chipmunk looking up at me with what appeared to be a thoughtful furrow on his forehead.

He was probably pondering the security of his being in the suburban environment into which he had stumbled - something that I suspect such animals do on a daily, if not minute-by-minute, basis.

I tried my best to assure him that he was indeed safe from harm - at least from this source anyway. Good thing for him. My experience has shown that contrary to Rousseau's Noble Savage and more in line with Cormac McCarthy's road weary father and son, states of nature that lack a kindly caretaker are not fun places to be in at all.

So where you ask is an image of the chipmunk? I intended to take his photo after this essay was completed however I have not seen him for the past three days. That may not be a good thing.

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