Monday, May 21, 2007

A stretch of river XXXIX: Updating the wildlife census, and some thoughts on this blog's epigraph

"Adam names the animals," from The Aberdeen Bestiary

This post's soundtrack, for what it's worth: Minimalist: Adams, Glass, Reich, Heath.

UPDATE (May 22): Appended to the end of this post, a round-up of links to other bloggers who have done more with Montague than just name-check him.

Almost a year ago (how time flies in the blogosphere), I posted a list of the larger fauna I've seen along my bend of the Little Arkansas. I've seen some things since then that compel me to revisit that list, and then announce the arrival of a new (to this area) species that, while exciting in its own right, also causes me to think about some Larger Issues.

First, the freshening up of the list: some time after I posted that list, I confirmed that the large water mammal I mentioned in the post was/is indeed a beaver. To the list of birds I can now add red-winged blackbirds, a male of which I saw a couple of weeks ago.

But now for the bigger news. I had first seen it yesterday morning but thought it a fluke; but this morning, too, in the park at sunrise, standing alone, proud, brazen and unafraid under a tree near the river in full view of the apartments on the other side, the dawn's rays revealing it in all its glittering glory, I saw an empty shopping cart.

It's always the way, isn't it, that the very times you see something beautiful or extraordinary tend to be those times you happen to be without a camera; such, alas for my reader(s), is my and your plight this morning (and every morning, seeing as I don't own a digital camera). But we are not entirely without resources: I don't own a copy, but thanks to the glories of the Internets I have been able to consult that award-winning taxonomical work, The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification by Julian Montague. Well, okay: actually, I've been consulting his website. Whatever.

Below the fold, a foray into the delights of shopping-cart taxonomy and some musings on same.

Read the following and tell me we could not use a few good Montagues up there in Washington:

Until now, the major obstacle that has prevented people from thinking critically about stray shopping carts has been that we have not had any formalized language to differentiate one shopping cart from another.

In order to encourage a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon, I have worked for the past six years to develop a system of identification for stray shopping carts.

None of this unsophisticated black/white, us/them kind of thinking. "Nuanced and comprehensive": that's the ticket.

Here's a quick sketching out of Montague's taxonomy's organizing principle. He prefers not to dwell on descriptions of physical attributes but, instead, on the cart's physical location and condition relative to its provenance. Thus his division of carts into Class A: False Strays and Class B: True Strays. You know you want to go there, as the kids say these days, so I'll not tell you here what I know you'll see there. Instead, I'll cut to the chase and say that, within Montague's current system, the cart I saw most closely corresponds to either B/16 (Edge Marginalization) or B/21 (Naturalization).

Except that it doesn't.

Given its solitude and the fact that, from a distance (I didn't want to approach out of fear of startling it) it appeared to be completely empty, I don't think what I saw was a stray. I think it was a feral shopping cart. It's gone wild.

Just read again my description of the cart above and see if it doesn't eerily echo this, the penultimate paragraph of Jack London's wonderful novel, The Call of the Wild:

It is a great, gloriously glittering shopping cart, like, and yet unlike, all other shopping carts. He rolls in alone from the neighborhood and comes down into an open space among the trees in the park. Here a stream of refuse flows from torn plastic shopping bags and sinks into the ground, with long grasses growing through it and flies swarming it and hiding it from the sun; and here he muses for a time on those shopping bags, wheels squeaking once, long and mournfully, ere he departs.

(So I, um, photoshopped it a bit. Big wup.)

I am so excited about the possibility that through my sighting I may actually have created the need for a Class C designation--or at the very least a serious rethinking of the Class B categories--that I have actually written Mr. Montague to seek his counsel in this matter. If and when this 21st-century Linnaeus deigns to answer me, I'll be certain to post his reply here. But. You know how scientists are. They want to be right, but they also want to be first. So, even though I'll be the first to admit that good old Blog Meridian isn't exactly a juried journal, I felt it crucial to my reader(s) (not to mention my not-inconsiderable ego) to find some outlet for making known my sighting before all those wannabe Roger Tory Peterson-types of the shopping-cart-watching world try to gain credit. Here: I'll even name the sucker: Meridian's Feral Cart. It's Google-able now, or soon will be: as good as carved in stone, and the temptation is strong to make it Wikipedia-able. My own little case study of truthiness. And if it turns out later that I'm wrong, that, in Mr. Montague's considered opinion it is in fact merely a True Stray, well, that's what retractions are for.

One complicating factor in all this: in the title of his book Montague specifies that this is a taxonomy for eastern North America. If the book--er, the website--has a weakness, it's that Montague doesn't talk about ranges; thus, I can't be sure if Kansas qualifies as "eastern North America." On his site I did see a picture of a stray cart taken in Hawaii, which doesn't strike me as being especially "eastern" . . . or "North American," for that matter. More "Pacific" or "Oceania," if you ask me. But I recognize that, only six years on, Montague's taxonomy is a work in progress. Linnaeus worked on his for around 40 years.

Behind Montague's work is an underlying serious metaphysical notion, of course: the very human need to make sense of experience via some sort of ordering schema--like telling stories about them--in order to know (that is, begin to inhabit) the world. Taxonomies require a sort of language--indeed, their very ordering principles are themselves a sort of grammar. Not quite narratives themselves, they are more like settings within which narratives (evolution, for example) can occur. More pertinent for this post, though, is that these maps and languages don't merely describe the world, they are what make it manifest, give it a shape and dimensions that we can begin to convey to another. In the beginning is the Word. As Montague suggests above, you have to have words, a system, before you can begin to talk about things.

Scientists, confined as they are, poor souls, to the material and measurable, cannot talk about this sort of truth. Poets can, though; one of them, Wallace Stevens, took up as his one great theme that intersection of the observable world and the human desire/need to impose an intellectual order on that world, and the problem that we can never truly know, with absolute certainty, where the one ends and the other begins. His grand poem, "The Idea of Order at Key West," has nary a shopping cart in sight. Yet as the woman through her song sings this sunset and the beach at Key West into existence, we can also recognize, not entirely sarcastically, Julian Montague in this, the latter half of the poem:
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

I can't blame you if you've never scrolled down to the bottom of this blog, so I'll spare you the trouble and tell you that you'll find there the the first five words of the first line of the final stanza. A poet wrote those words, but we all live them anytime, literally, we look at and think about the world. Does order exist in the world independent of our perceiving it, or is our rage for order such that we invent it, seeing the world via a lens of our making? Oddly enough, thinking about shopping carts is a good starting place for engaging with this question.

Literally just as I was about to push the "Publish Post" button, I decided to check my e-mail, and wouldn't you know . . .

Thank you for your interest,

It sounds like your cart could be B/15 Gap Marginalization. A park is not a "gap space" under the present definition, but the cart might have been placed there in a B/15 kind of way. B/1 Open True includes carts in parks in its definition. It is a safe choice since all True Stray carts are by definition also B/1.



Having heard from this great man, I am far richer now than I once was. I hope you can say the same. Oh: and I retract all that "feral" stuff above . . . though, I think on that cart, out there running proud and alone, and I do feel its wildness in my bones . . .

APPENDIX: More shopping-cart truthiness:

Gwynne of The Shallow End kindly links to this post, for which I'm most grateful. But she makes a claim there that frankly set off my Truthiness Detector: "You won't find this anyplace else in the blogosphere."

What follows is Gwynne's fault.

Most of the 355 hits that "Montague stray shopping carts blogspot" produced on Google (of which, by the way, this post is #1) were quickie mentions of Montague's book in conjunction with the Oddest Book Title award (unless, buried among the not-so-surprising number of hits on German-language blogs (that whole "VE musht hav' ORDEHR!!!" thing, you know) there are some entries like mine). Below, though, are some places that to a greater (considerably so) or lesser extent engage with Montague's work, a version of it, or with the man himself. A couple of these blogs are actually worth a return visit, especially for the hordes of shopping-cart-taxonomists among you (and if you've read this far, you'll want to at least entertain the possibility that you are among them . . . and/or seek some off-line counseling).

There actually exists a blog called Shopping Carts in Ravines (subtitled "free lifestyles, fringe culture, and delicious home cookin'). This post sketches out Montague's work . . . and then mentions his/her own taxonomy. That one exists is curious enough; but two?

Um . . . make that three, or perhaps 2.5, seeing as Toronto's Abused Shopping Carts' preoccupation is pretty clearly indicated in its title.

At Oly's musings on life, art, individuality, there's a post from March that delves more deeply into the particulars of Montague's taxonomy but does, in passing, contain a lament for shopping carts that have met their demise as well as a reminiscence of his/her halcyon days as a student when "commandeering" shopping carts to aid in moves. Waltons-esque in its mood, lacking only the plaintive harmonica and glockenspiel.

Roam Buffalo has a very brief interview with Montague, focusing on working as a designer in Buffalo, NY.

Therefore, I_blog has a brief review of Montague's book. It's positive, but I do take issue with RPA's claim that "it really seems to be just" (my emphasis) a way to market some photographs. Would I have taken Montague's work so to heart as I have if all it's intended to do is sell some pics? Wait, don't answer that . . .

And showing up in my e-mail this morning via Camille of 327 Market is the search for "shopping carts" that she ran on her artist-friend's blog, My Droppings.

UPDATE II (May 23, 2007):
The dialogue continues.

As a serendipitous tangential response to Pam's comment below, in this morning's e-mail I received this from Julian (yes--we're on a first-name basis now; I sense my reader(s) seething with envy):


The System is set up so that there can be no "feral" carts every cart
be classified in one way or another. As far as geographical range, even
though the book specifies Eastern North America, I am pretty confident
that the System will work for the whole country and most of Western
Europe. It would have been nice to have some shots of the Prarie [sic] in



I'll let this stand as the last word for now. But I look forward to returning to this subject as the occasion presents itself.

And if you've read this far, I truly am grateful for that.


Gwynne said...

This is a post (as if there haven't been many others) that clearly lives up to the blog's claims of "arranging, deepening, enchanting the blogosphere." Especially enchanting. And deepening. Well, okay, and arranging. I picked up Julian's book last October in a quirky shop in Manhattan and couldn't put it down. Why I didn't purchase the darn thing is beyond me now. This is just priceless. I'm so glad that you got clarification on the proper classification of your specimen. :-)

John B. said...

Thank you for the kind comment. I had fun writing it; that's the part that I hope is most in evidence when people read it.

Winston said...

Professor John, this post is one of your finest shining achievements. I thought you were pulling our legs a tad until I jumped to the Amazon link and, voila, there was the actual book. What strange, warped, and wonderful minds you and Montague have!

John B. said...

Truthiness is not a lie.

(And thank you kindly for the favorable comparison to Mr. Montague)

R. Sherman said...

This post took me back to my grad school days when I was a weekend manager for an IGA in Columbia, MO.

Every Saturday, I would borrow a pick-up and ride "round-up" for stray carts which people would use to take their stuff home, sometimes several miles from the store. Our carts were "branded" with the store name so they were easy to find.

I was a very good cart shepherd as our cart inventory only decreased by about ten during my tenure.


Pam said...

Oh! Not all scientists are unable to appreciate the poetic, or the rarist of species...

A true stray cart...I wonder what it's ecological niche is? Would it be considered an invasive species? So many questions, truly.

John B. said...

Randall, we have led somewhat parallel lives; I didn't get to cruise the neighborhoods looking for stray carts, but I often looked for excuses to get the carts left out on the parking lots of the grocery stores I worked for.

Pam, you're right: I did overstate a bit. My point was just that Science presumes an order exists and we just have to find it. It'd be weird science indeed that asked, in essence, You know, do we really know whether this order is out there independent of our observing it?

Having said that, though, you ask the sort of questions that advance the cause of research. Perhaps Meridian's Feral Cart may yet prove to be worthy of further investigation.

Just for that, I hope you will continue to visit this humble blog.

The County Clerk said...

I have come back to this post several times.

I can't put my finger on what I find irrestable about it. Maybe it is idea of a lone cart out of context... or maybe the idea of treating it "taxonomically"... or maybe the idea of "nature" including everything (which it does).

I don't know. But thank you.

This kind of thing gets under my skin.

John B. said...

Thank you--your comment means a great deal coming from you.
For what it's worth, as I was writing this I had as a sort of guide your long-form posts (which, you have no idea, I'm quite envious and in awe of). But yes, the whole notion of something being out of its usual context is appealing to me; part of the appeal of Montague's work, though, is that he makes us notice that stray shopping carts form their own context--and that they're a common enough phenomenon that maybe we need to shift our notions of what the "context" for a shopping cart in fact is.

Of course, though, the question inevitably arises: where ultimately does the notion of "context" rest: in the material world independent of our perceiving it, or in our knowledge of it, or in how we conceptualize all that? (As a quick example: Montague could have worked out his taxonomy in terms of the material features of these carts, but he chooses to work it out as he does--in relation to the workspace they are intended to occupy. That reveals a whole different way of thinking about shopping carts, one, frankly, more intellectually-engaging to me and, it must be the case, to Montague as well).

Weird notion: I wonder if, in some instances, the ways we contrive of thinking about things emerge in part not because they're necessarily more accurate but because they're just more interesting and provocative to think about in those ways. Truthiness again, perhaps. Heh.

Cue Stevens. And thank you again.

Gwynne said...

Okay, okay, I stand corrected. But how many incorporate the poetry of Wallace Stevens in their posts? Aha! I rest my case. ;-)

And I would not give up so easily on the feral cart hypothesis. There is real merit there, in my humble (and oh so non-scientific) opinion.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I think the best thing about this post is its ambivalent and varying levels of irony and seriousness: always a sign of engaged writing, even on an apparently frivolous subject.

By the way, can we expect a review of the new Cormac McCarthy film?

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by, Conrad, and for the kind comment. You said "engaged"--it's funny; as I worked on it, it took something of a life of its own. It felt more like I was watching it than writing it.

As for the review, you betcha--but the film's not due out till November.

I did pop over to IMDB to have a look, though, and some people have seen some advance screenings. Mixed reviews. We shall see. I want it to be good, of course, but mostly to ensure that this actually gets made.

Chris Orbz said...

Thanks for the mention, John. It was just as weird for me to have Gisela e-mail me about her abused shopping carts blog, and then to have Lisa find me this book.

As far as my blog is concerned, the shopping carts in ravines thing describes the theme more than the topic. I do continually photograph and post discarded/stolen shopping carts, as somewhat of a backbone to a rather loose jumble of things, and so I try to at least make good on what the URL promises visitors.

Beyond that, though, I think that discarded shopping carts littering natural and urban environments are symbolic of the most unpleasant things about consumer culture... hence how they can draw together the different things I blog about. I also think that it's something that almost everyone in North America can relate to, from those in inner-city ghettos to those in suburban sprawlhomes. Rural, maybesorta, but I'm not sure that's really my target audience in most cases.

I think each shopping cart photo is worth a thousand words, and I think that people who find my site are that much more likely to notice these ludicrously large pieces of trash in their own environments, and hopefully think a little bit about it when they do.

John B. said...

Thank you for visiting--and thank you in particular for the eloquent explanation of what you want for your blog. I'm rounding up and posting some links to blogs I've run across lately, and yours happened to be on that list. I think your place does indeed deserve some more eyeballs.

Apart from the silliness that I indulged in above, I definitely agree with you that there is indeed a poignancy in seeing a stray shopping cart. It becomes the starting point for any number of meditations: consumerism, homelessness, an extreme example of "disposable culture." All that, too, I'd say, is Stevens' idea in action, too.

Thanks again.

The County Clerk said...

I wonder if, in some instances, the ways we contrive of thinking about things emerge in part not because they're necessarily more accurate but because they're just more interesting and provocative to think about in those ways.

I think so, yes. This is the apeal of poetry: many ways of thinking about it. Great poems lend themselves to fun and "interesting" interpretations.