The pursuit of happiness

There is a never-ending survey being conducted to try and keep score of the undeniably crucial knowledge in which American city or town people are the most happy of all. For a number of years already, it is the Colorado city of Boulder that scores best. Not too big a place; a well-preserved and lively downtown; peaceful, nicely spaced and shaded neighborhoods; bike paths galore; espresso coffee to be found on many street corners; good restaurants; artsy; and –with the Rocky Mountains as a most picturesque backdrop– abundant opportunities for hiking, backpacking, back-country skiing, horseback riding, fly fishing, and running a kayak through some rapids. A good university and a couple of important research institutes contribute to a population that is educated, healthy, affluent, and spending a lot of time outdoors. Happy people, I can believe this.

Always scoring high on the happiness index is Santa Fe in New Mexico, which indeed isn’t too big either; has a sweet-looking downtown and arts area; scores of espresso places, cute cafés and famous restaurants; and plenty of affluent people even if the intellectual scene is not comparable to Boulder. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, though, are pretty spectacular and once again the outdoors is an important asset. I lived close to Santa Fe for twelve years and often visited, this town being where we went for shopping, dining out, and some culture, yet I must say that I never got the impression it is a happy town. Consequently, quickly after having done what I had to do, I was always happy to leave, notwithstanding the adobe architecture, Canyon Road art galleries, abundant world cuisine, and so on, all these goodies which apparently form a prescription for happiness.

The relativity of the happiness survey becomes more evident when you read the undoubtedly expert opinion of the English author Jonathan Raban. Traveler par excellence with a wide and deep knowledge and understanding of America, nowadays Seattle in the Pacific Northwest is his adopted city. Seattle is also a high-placed runner up (least happy, to no surprise, are the people who live in the former and/or present-day coal towns of Kentucky and Tennessee). Raban’s outspoken critique of Seattle won’t endear him to his happy neighbors. “The Seattle dinner party,” he for instance says (in ‘Driving Home, An American Scrapbook’), “is a rare and burdensome occasion (…) The regular standbys of the metropolitan table are of little use here. Conversation, or serial monologue, tends to veer between the relentlessly personal and the relentlessly careerist (…) the yawning is likely to be begin promptly at 9:15 pm.” Living in Seattle is like “a perpetual breakfast-time at some airport Sheraton.” Ouch.

Raban remembers Seattle from the times before the Microsoft invasion, when it was the town of gruff and laconic working men. He refers to the newcomers as “big-city hobbyists (…) with their ready money (…) the carbon-footprint-conscious invaders.” They view the original local population as uneducated and unenlightened, as “proletarian obstacles to the great mission of conserving what little is left of American wilderness.”

This about describes what I myself always sensed while strolling around in Santa Fe, where apart from the tourists most invaders are absentee owners of impressive adobe estates and a whole horde of (their) trust fund kids; they are great at pretending to be carbon-footprint-conscious like no others and very happy ones to boot, but they cannot escape from creating a huge market for massage therapists, acupuncturists, yoga teachers, healers of all sorts, curanderas, relationship councilors, gurus and the like, who altogether fill even more pages in the phone book than –you won’t believe this– the Santa Fe attorneys, which is even more amazing if you know that this relatively small state’s capitol beats many larger states on the lawyer index.

Raban in his book also sweeps away “the brain-curdling effects of degraded late-Romanticism,” and says the landscape should be read as he was taught to read literature, alive to its historical layers and the ambiguities they contain. He assaults the cult of pristine wilderness and believes it is time to “retire the language of the sublime,” which he certainly does when he dismisses a glorious Seattle sunset as “a busy day at the slaughterhouse.”

That’s not how nature writer Elizabeth Ayres would say it. ‘Invitation to Wonder: A Journey through the Seasons’ is the title of her book and her view is that the beauty in which you dwell is the truth that dwells within you. “If you want to rekindle your passionate love for the myriad beauties, if you want to recover an intimacy with the natural world that heals and restores us to the truth of our wholeness,” follow Ayres for a journey through the magical landscape that surrounds us. Where sunlight is “harpsichord notes of light flashing on water’s keyboard.” And honeysuckle is “ivory and molten gold.” And fields lie awake at night “to embrace whatever errant moonbeams might be lurking about.” For wonder resides at the place where joy, fear, mystery and insight meet. Ayres seems to be happy enough, although the name of her town in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, doesn’t appear in the official list of places where people are “really” happy.

The state of Kansas is not rated on the happiness scale either. Nowhere in Kansas do the researchers detect people happy enough to mention them. That’s a shame. It is an even stronger indication that the criteria they use to define happiness are controversial to say the least. Take my domicile, Matfield Green. Indeed, we have no well-preserved and lively downtown, no bike paths, no espresso machines, no great restaurants, no picturesque mountains, no backpacking, no back-country skiing. We do have the last of the untouched prairie as a backdrop, though, with plenty of opportunity for horseback riding (even if it is done not for mere fun but to work cattle); with plenty of streams for fishing (even if the trout are absent); and with Motorcycle Sundays instead of bike paths. In Matfield Green we neither have a university, nor a couple of important research institutes (although the town enjoyed a revival thanks to the Land Institute and now receives a new push from Pioneer Bluffs Foundation). Our population (there are fifty names in the phone book, which tells you we have plenty of green surrounding our homes) isn’t always highly educated, nor affluent (Chase County being one of the poorer Kansas counties), but healthy most are and they spend a whole lot of time in the great outdoors, you betcha. Quite happy people, I have no doubt about it.

Of course I understand that Raban’s defined strength is his sardonic worldview and his power of sarcasm through finding, and using, the precise words to form murderous sentences. Luckily he is not always harsh, he too can dwell in dreams. Yet for someone like me, who was lucky enough to spend many rich years in the pristine wilderness of shamelessly beautiful Abiquiu, New Mexico, and wrote about it in glowing terms while searching for the language of the sublime, and who switched his devotion from the high desert of the Southwest to the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest and now tries to convince people of the magic and beauty of the endless grasslands – for someone like me the eloquent words Raban finds to stress his points are … well, not always easy to deal with. I myself do try to read the layers of culture and history in the landscape, which doesn’t imply that I do not admire Ayres’ capability and devotion to create the language of the sublime. There is a place for poetry in prose and even in dour analysis.

Look at her ‘The Moon of My Belonging’: “Who can lay claim to the moon? (…) This chuck of lifeless rock carries our hearts and longings with her on her 28 day journey. She governs our plantings and our thievings, our emotions and our tides. Earth spins round and round. Earth’s oceans spin round and round. Heaping up towards the moon, emptying out away from the moon. Increasing with her light, diminishing with her strength. High tide, low tide. Lunar push, lunar pull. Through my lifetime I have known three moons. In New York City I could hardly find her among the street lights. Amidst the ebb and flow of traffic and ambition, what power could the moon possess? (…) Now I live in St. Mary’s County, which juts into the (Chesapeake) Bay across three rivers like a long narrow pier. The sky is a blue-black mussel shell; the moon, its mother-of-pearl glow. Rising over our rippled, wavering waters, she sees herself reflected in a thousand silver chips. Hears herself discussed in a thousand conversations: between soft night breezes and sea grass; murmuring insects and creaking pines; dry leaves and prowling critters; waves and the foam-gilt shore. This is her family. She is at home here. Her magnetic fingers twine throughout our countryside, pulling at our rivers, tugging at our creeks. At the syzygy, the new and the full, the moon’s face turns directly on us and we receive the abundant spring tides. At the quadrature, when her face slants away, our neap tides are scanty. More reliable than any legal contract, these risings and fallings. A treasure continually replenishing itself. An inheritance beyond price. Who can lay claim to the moon? In my lifetime I have known three. This last, over southern Maryland, is the moon of my belonging. I give it to you.” Wow …

I skipped over Ayres’ second moon, the one she found in Abiquiu, where we became friends when, soon after her arrival, I found her a house to rent. I have to tell you this story: Ayres, who taught at NYU and runs a creative writing school now mostly on the Internet, formerly was a nun in the Roman Catholic Church. The house I found for her was owned by a leading dominatrix quite famous in New York City’s S&M scene and the author of some important literature about the subject, who regretfully had to leave Abiquiu for a few years and return to the beat in NYC. Her house is dramatically sitting on a cliff of sandstone so white that at full moon Ayres wasn’t able to get a wink of sleep. The inside of the house was painted black until Ayres painted it pink. After a few years, for some reason I cannot recall, the dominatrix-lessor and the former nun-lessee got into a cat fight, with me ending up as the soothing-voiced man in the middle. Life was never dull in New Mexico. And her (second) moon?

In the high desert,” writes Ayres, “… the moon was sterling silver in an onyx sky. I gauged her size with words I’d formerly reserved for olives: gargantuan, colossal, mammoth. She gave me a house of baked clay. Plunked me down in a barren, cratered landscape uncannily like her own: the white sandstone of Plaza Blanca. Flecked with silver mica. Pocked with ancient rocks. Even at her first quarter, the very ground swelled with light. By the full, I who had once dismissed the moon learned my own insignificance.”

Ayres was happy but not too happy in Abiquiu. She didn’t find what she was looking for, she didn’t write much about the high desert. I was oh so happy in Abiquiu, with the high desert, with the location of my house, surrounded as it was by hundreds of thousand acres of National Forest lands with canyons, mesas, badlands, waterfalls, whatnot – a dream come true – even more than what I could have dreamt had come true. I put it in words such as:

I found
My black hole,
I stepped
Into my soul.

Ayres left Abiquiu for the East Coast. I left Abiquiu for the Flint Hills of Kansas. Ayres is writing like crazy, for suddenly, in her new domicile, she has found the words to strongly express herself. Which tells me she is indeed happy. I am writing about Kansas because I, too, am happy. My new land, the tallgrass prairie – I find it utterly fascinating, this “happy lassitude of a wedding day with the world” (to use words written by French humanist Albert Camus). The prairie community I became a part of I find incomparable to anything I experienced before.

Even Raban would find happiness in Matfield Green. The dinner conversations are never dull and if we yawn at 9:15, it is because many were up at 6:15 or earlier to be outdoors, not for play but to work. The conversations are even more pleasant because there is, magically, no ego at play. Neighbors and friends (many of whom practice carbon-footprint-consciousness, sustainability, and nature conservation at a daily, no fuss, basis) are capable of becoming enthusiastic supporters of each other’s ideas, plans, proposals, dreams, with total disregard of their own myopia and mood swings. It must be in the genes of the people of the Midwest, these descendants of early settlers who learned fast they couldn’t make it without a little help, and never stepped away from any reciprocation. Even in the 21st century, this valuable tradition is custom and it inspires the newcomers from elsewhere. Together, they put their shoulders under anything their neighbors and friends may need, and they do so unasked for and never without a smile, and never counting each other’s “investments.” This contributes to an old-fashioned, warm quality of life. Which, even with the absence of bike paths, espresso coffee, et cetera, creates and solidifies happiness … for “happy is he among the living who has seen such things.” Camus again.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, June 2011 

Elizabeth Ayres, ‘Invitation to Wonder’, can be ordered from Amazon. She was invited to be writer in residence at Pioneer Bluffs in 2012, to write about the tallgrass prairie (a new landscape to her), and to conduct a creative writing seminar. 

Photo: The grass is always greener on my side of the fence.