Eight and Ten

Ephesus: InscriptionOne personal goal this year has been to read more of what scholars and academics would call, “primary sources;” what laymen call “books that make up books.” Some can be fascinating for their own sake, like Herodotus (my all time favorite) or Thucydides (my bête noire). Portions of Lucian are worth reading today for sheer irony and humor and then there is the whole sprawling magnificence of the ancient Greek playwrights. Later writers sound fascinating but prove a touch on the disappointing side, like Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Genealogy of the Pagan Gods.” I’m still reading this and have hopes for it. The book is full of hard to find but thought provoking stories; I mean, where and when did the Greco-Roman gods really emerge? It’s a question not likely to stimulate many, unless they’ve read their Hesiod. Other primary sources this year have included “The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite,” which is a brief (mercifully so) history of the war between Byzantium and Persia from the perspective of an Edessene at the beginning of the 6th century. And most recently I’ve been quite taken by “Cyriac of Ancona, Later Travels.”

The volume in question is part of the i Tatti Renaissance Library published by Harvard University and covers his letters and diaries from 1443-49. As a 15th century Italian Cyriac was no doubt engaged in commerce. And he spent most of his life sailing around the tatterdemalion scraps of the Byzantine empire, setting up trade posts for the Genoese in the Black, Marmara and Aegean seas. It was with a certain relish and anticipation that I picked up his book. Some of it was good—like when he met the future Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in Adrianople during an audience with his father Sultan Murad II. If only Cyriac had taken a moment to look more closely at little Çelebi, as Mehmet was then called, one wonders what he looked like at ten? Was he brooding and intense like he seems in the later histories, or gentle and serene as depicted in the miniature by Nakkaş Sinan Bey?Harbor Road: Ephesus

There are other missed opportunities, like when Cyriac goes hunting with Constantine Dragases—the last Constantine, he who died on the Theodosian Walls like a proper Roman and last Emperor. What was he like, there in the wilds of the Peloponnese? Did he foresee his doom even then? The end of his empire and the end of his line? If only Cyriac’s letters told us more about these men than his trade arrangements. Alas, the recording of history is nothing if not grief over missed opportunities like these.

Cyriac is mostly remembered today, if he is remembered at all, because he urged the preservation of the antique remains that littered and illumined his world. Rare is he who sees the treasure that has always stared him in the face. At one point Cyriac sounds like a cantankerous citizen at a city hall meeting fulminating against the lack of preservation and decay all around him. “One needs a more expansive genre in which to cry out against, despise, condemn and thoroughly curse such great negligence, slothfulness and lack of human culture on the part of our contemporaries,” he writes near the beginning of his letters. We owe a lot, as a culture, to Cyriac’s imprecations. That we value the past as we do, and have preserved much of it, we learned during the Renaissance, and it remains Cyriac’s forgotten legacy.Priene

In July of 1444 Cyriac made his way from Constantinople to Perinthus (the modern Marmara Ereğlisi). Two thirds of the way there he stopped in Selymbria, now Silivri, to document the many inscriptions lying around. What must this have looked like? Cracked marble plinths, perhaps an architrave and columns lying higgledy-piggledy, used as a quarry for the more industrious of subjects and ignored by all the rest. The blue luciferase waters of the Marmara behind them. Here Cyriac found treasure.

Some inscriptions date back to the reign of Trajan—or at least this is my semi-educated guess, my Latin being rusty and my Greek practically oxidized out of existence. What struck me was the span of human existence  there—as I had seen when I visited the region in 2008-2009—and how much their desire to leave something behind is still so very alive. It’s one of those qualities that binds us as humans, even if we don’t realize it.

PrieneAnd yet, sometimes when I am back here in the suburban post-modernity of the New World, thinking about or reading history I feel I live in a facsimile of reality and it’s only when I am back over there, when I can touch a two thousand year old marble inscription that I know the past is real, not green lights tumbling down a black screen.

Such was my state of mind a few weeks ago when I sat down in my favorite chair and began reading the inscriptions Cyriac noted in his diary between the 25th of July and 12th of August 1444. Some were interesting and in Latin: 

Good fortune. Emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus,son of the divine Trajan, victor over the Parthians, grandson of the divine Nerva, consul for the third time. 

Others anodyne (and in Greek) in their attempt to honor a citizen ad aeternam:

Good fortune. The Council and the People honored Poplios Ailios Harpokration, also called Proklos who built the shrine of Tyche; the Alexandrians who do business in Perinthos set up a statue in his honor. 

But then I read this:

As I was leaving my eighteenth year and just beginning the study of rhetoric, a grievous illness overcame me in well-wooded Lesbos, and I had not yet reached the pleasant land of Ephesus. My brother, by a great deal of work, gave this sadness to be borne to my parents on a swift ship. I dwell in the holy houses of heroes, not in Acheron—for such is the end of life for the wise.

Seven lines carved on a marble plinth gut punched me. They shouted and smiled down at me while I lay on the floor collecting the questions after a knock-out blow.

When was it written? Where was it found? Where is it now?
Inscription On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Who composed the lines? What did he die of? Did it take him quickly? Or was it a wasting disease? And just how did a dying eighteen year-old find the composure to write with such simple and powerful elegance?

Slaver the Greek word that begins the inscription around on your tongue for a moment and listen to its alien beauty: ohkto-kai-deka-toy.

Eight and ten. Eighteen.
Ornament, Ephesus
If the rest of Cyriac is dull, uninteresting and lifeless like the two former inscriptions, so be it, I thought in that moment, this inscription makes the entire book worth reading. It’s why I love the study of history and why I have disciplined myself to read primary sources this year instead of wasting time on Facebook or Twitter. The sources are like mines of gold or silver, but the veins of metal are rare and hard to find. And to mix metaphors a little, sometimes the poetry of the past, as in these seven lines of Greek, cuts me down to size.

I’m forty two years-old now. What’s forty two minus eighteen? It’s twenty four. I’ve had twenty four more years of living than this eloquent young man who, but for a loving brother, would have vanished, would have been wiped clean by the forgetful waters of River Lethe, and instead found himself in Elysium.

What have I done with my extra twenty four years? I’m human and wasted much of the time whining and groaning about lost opportunities (I really don’t have any to be honest, because I took most of them, wisely or unwisely) and pissing and moaning about stupid mistakes (we all have those, me included, but most aren’t that stupid, although there have been a lot).
Ornament On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Let us add more to the scales. He was eighteen years-old and died. And here am I with a (thus far) well-lead life: fifty five countries visited, one great love and two ex-wives, a career in finance (long), a career in software sales (short), a career as a writer (even shorter), and a stint as a stay-at-home step-father (the shortest). I’ve had more huge chunks of plain old-fashioned obscene good luck than 99.9 percent of humanity and I have the gall to complain?

And then I read what this young man—no, this boy—composed while dying and I know any story I tell will never have the impact of his seven lines of poetry.

“En Texas, septiembre es el mes quema”

Drought Stricken Field Near Crystal CityI wrote this about the same time last year. And while I am technically two days early, nothing has changed. (Except everything.) Well, and maybe the light: it’s still a scorching, lifeless, dull, enervating gray summer light beating down on us. Perhaps I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and the shifting baseline of reality will have become perceptible. Probably not. You don’t notice a change in the light when you’re thinking about it.

Changed circumstances?

Certainly.

But the light, who pays attention to that? Fools and wanderers, that’s who.

Regardless, my Dantean torments will continue for a while longer. Summer isn’t officially over. Not until September 22 at 4:44PM Eastern Daylight Time.

Nineteen more days of heat like your face melting, dripping on the ground only to be incinerated by the heat of the earth and then blown away as ash by the blast furnace winds coming down from Oklahoma and Kansas.

September is the worst month in Texas because the anticipation hurts more than the reality that relief is so close, but like a man dying of thirst in the desert you can’t tell if its water or mirage until you are right up on top of it.

“En Texas, septiembre es el mes quema,” say the Mexicans.

In Texas, September is the burning month.

A Day In The Life of the Nueces Strip

LaredoIt was hot by the time I pulled out of Hotel La Posada in downtown Laredo, but it’s always hot on the first of September. I took several lefts and rights and meandered through the rigid grid of one-way streets and then hit IH-35 North, put the car in fifth gear and sped off, leaving Starbucks, Palenque Taco, Target and Wal-mart behind for other dangers, like wind-shearing massive rigs on the interstate and hidden DPS officers.

About twenty miles north of Laredo I veered of west onto Highway 83—a road I’d never traveled on. I’d decided earlier at breakfast while looking at my road atlas (I don’t use google maps) to take 83 north towards Catarina and then Carrizo Springs, Crystal City and then take the farm roads on further north to Highway 90 into San Antonio. This is an area of Texas I know little about and most of which I had never been before.

The stretch of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River was named the Wild Horse Desert by the early Dominican and Franciscan padres who noted the abundance of wild horses while traveling up the King’s Highway to the missions at Bexar and beyond into East Texas and Nacogdoches. Even in 1821 when a heartbroken Mexican lieutenant passed through he noted “vast herds” in his diary. And while there may be no wild horses left in the area it resembles a desert in ever way.

Harris' HawkAs I tear up the road north there is little to see except blue skies, the occasional cloud, and fields full of prickly-pear cactus, desert yaupon, leather stem, purple three awn, goatbush, ceniza, mesquite, tasajillo, huajillo and the occasional desert olive. Not a one is friendly and it’s been fairly said about this part of Texas many times, “if it don’t sting stick or bite it ain’t down there.”

The plains down here roll and so there are long stretches where you are climbing slowly up and hit the crest of a hill and then vast stretches of the desert spread out before you. The desert is splotchy here, like a dog with early onset mange, portions of it are white, like caliche dirt, and others filled with the shrubs and brushes and sticker-burr like-plants aforementioned. Usually, there isn’t much else. But today at one such crest I stopped and counted the natural gas flares: 18 with the bare eye. Had I a pair of binoculars it would have been more. Had it been night I imagine I’d have seen three dozen wells flaring off natural gas, just to get rid of it because its uneconomical to transport.

But what’s most bizarre to me was the feeling of being in the middle of no where—no gas stations, no homes, no ranches, not a hint of sound from oncoming cars—and see multiple huge industrial enterprises out there in the desert. In effect they’ve poked a straw down into the earth and are slurping out the last of the hydrocarbons. It’s the last energy boom we’ll ever see on the planet and I had a front row seat.

Catarina Hotel, ClosedA little while later I stopped in Catarina, a hamlet that has seen better days. I noted that the hotel here was built in 1926, at the tail end of the first great Texas oil boom. I wandered around the tight grid of streets and stumbled upon and old dance hall and hotel as well. Dilapidated and dangerous to walk through my curiosity got the best of me until a large Barn Owl in the rafters knocked some things about and scared the wits out of me as she swooped straight towards me and the exit. That was reason enough to leave Catarina for me. Besides, Barn Owls and I aren’t a good mix, but that’s a story for another day.

A few miles down the road I saw one of the new hotels for the oil field workers and took a photo. Each oil boom has left its own stamp on the region. The first one built places like the Catarina Hotel. The one in the fifties and sixties built small town Texas. And the present boom seems to be leaving nothing behind, except less water or poisoned water. It hasn’t done anything to improve life or business in Carrizo Springs, based on a quick glimpse of the dilapidated old town square.

I drive on past Carrizo into Crystal City. The landscape has changed now and so has the dirt. It’s no longer caliche but something approximating real dirt that can grow sustainable crops. There is a Del Monte plant in town. Big oil has given way to big ag, except when I cross over the Nueces River it’s empty. Ag has taken its portion, but you can be certain fracking has taken an equal if not larger amount. And I mean the river was bone dry. A few further miles down the farm to market road and I hit the Sabinal River. It too is bone dry for the same reason: drought, fracking and agriculture.

Fields are dust. Pecan orchards have died in the withering heat and drought, ongoing since at least 2009. One old boy had cotton, which as a crop is a notorious water hog, but it was a scrawny, mean looking yield he grew this year. And then I hit Highway 90, a road I know well, and made the dash home to San Antonio.
Natural Gas Flare, Outside Cotulla
I’m not real sure what I was looking for today, but after reading “The Son” by Philipp Meyer a few weeks back it was pretty clear that the family at the center of his book found its origins somewhere in the barren, cactus-filled landscape of the Wild Horse Desert. I had it in mind they were a Carrizo Springs family but after passing through Asherton, which is ten miles before Carrizo, and seeing Bel-Asher I’m inclined to think this might be where the family came from. It certainly fits geographically speaking.

Of course, that’s why we read—to learn new things, ideas, and to hear old stories told in a new way. Maybe sometimes those old stories take on a life of their own when you wake up in Laredo, looking out across the river to Mexico and decide to take a new road home. New books and new roads. Someone ought to write something about that.