From: Helle Goldman, Tromsø, Norway
To: Alison Leslie Gold
I’m re-reading your latest book, in which you modestly describe your talent (“If I have a talent”) as that of “a miner, a midwife, a salvager of other people’s stories that seem to be on the brink of extinction.” When you sent me a copy of Found and Lost, hot off the press, I consumed it one sitting. This time I’m reading it in spurts, letting it percolate between dips into other books, which seem to be reproducing themselves in ever-spreading piles by my bed. Among these is the book you sent me for my birthday about the fauna (some of it extinct) of the American Great Plains.
The painting reproduced on the cover of American Serengeti – a herd of bison grazing on a sagebrush-dotted landscape, snow-capped mountains on the horizon – reminds me of a long road-trip through the US Southwest. The soundtrack of the meandering drive was provided by a stack of CDs handed to us as we took leave of Howe (to whom I’m responding in writing to you) and my cousin Sofie in Tucson at the beginning of the journey. Some of the music was by Howe’s band Giant Sand. Some was by another outfit of his, The Band of Blacky Ranchette. Some was solo material or other side projects. The CDs veered between rock and blues and country and jazz and things in between and beyond. One miraculous track would put Zoe (strapped into her car-seat) to sleep in seconds. We resorted to this sonic sorcery many times during the long drive. If Zoe heard that track now, 15 years later, would she close her eyes and fall asleep, dreaming of bison and the dark brown cowboy hat that Howe urged her father to buy in Tucson? I’m tempted to try this out on her but our music-playing system has become so high-tech that I can no longer operate it. I’ve been out-evolved by machines in my own home. I shudder to think of how else machines will have rendered me obsolete in my house in the coming years and whether I’ll accept it with a sigh (as I have the stereo system) or if I’ll rebel against it, at least inwardly (does that count?). Pondering the long-term is fraught with technological shifts.
If I can no longer play my vinyl albums, or even CDs, I can still pick up a book off the floor next to my bed, feel the satisfying heft of the book in my hand, switch on the little lamp (hand-carved in Norwegian folk designs of leaves and curlicues by an ancestor-in-law) and read. (May the machines cede me these simple pleasures into my old age.) I want to tell you how much I appreciate Found and Lost, especially during this recent re-reading, when I’m letting it soak in. Because it’s told as a series of (real and imagined) letters, it makes me think of this letter I’m writing now and the series of which it’s a part. In Found and Lost you’ve at last written at length about yourself, mining your own life, salvaging your own story. I know a couple of characters in the book: Thor, of course (to whom, may I remind you, I was solemnly wed when he and I were five years old, making you my first mother-in-law), and Lily (another friend made in Greece, all those years ago). The logues – prologue, interlogues, and epilogue – strike me most during this reading of the book because in these sections you reflect, sometimes harshly, on how you’ve evolved through your life. You were once, as you put it in your Podularity interview, “extraordinarily selfish and self-centred,” a person who lived solely to have a good time. It was during that phase, in 1970, that you (and young Thor) connected with my family in Greece, where we’d been living for four or five years and would stay for several more. I don’t remember you then as being particularly selfish and hedonistic, or at least not more so than the other ex-pats who had settled on the island of Hydra, enchanted by the freedom and beauty it offered. But I was only a little girl so what did I know? I adored you. It was only much later that I learned that you’d nearly completely destroyed yourself with drinking. By the time I understood that, you’d dried yourself out and were forging a respectable life.
I suppose you were still rebounding morally from the depths of your dissolution (like a continent rebounding from the weight of a melted ice sheet, a process of millimetre-by-millimetre upward movement over thousands of years) when you met Jan and Miep Gies. They saw something in you that set you apart from all the journalists and other writers who had come to interview them about how they helped hide Anne Frank and her family and the other people in that secret annex behind the house on the Prinsengracht. They chose you to tell their side of the story, a story that they had not really considered worth telling until you came along. What an extraordinary compliment. That experience – the countless interviews with the Gieses that resulted in Anne Frank Remembered (and its dozens of translations) and your close friendship with Miep and Jan (which endured until first Jan and then Miep died) – changed you. You went from dangerously alcoholic pleasure-seeker to internationally acclaimed chronicler of the largest scale genocide of the 20th century. In telling the story of the Gieses trying to save the Frank family (and, in subsequent books, telling the stories of other real-life, if hitherto obscure, heroes and survivors of the Holocaust) you saved yourself, from yourself. You were redeemed. Earlier in this string of letters, Alan Moore wrote that “a creator is modified by a significant work that they bring into being, the art is also altering and creating us.” You and Anne Frank Remembered illustrate this powerfully.
As her diary revealed, Anne Frank too went through a moral transformation in those two years hiding in the annex. At first the bubbly teenager dreamed of becoming a famous performer. She craved attention and admiration. Later, she came to see these goals as narcissistic. She resolved to think more of others, and considered writing as a way of spreading the word about what was happening, of making people think. Her transformation paralleled yours in some ways but was cut brutally short. Yet, young Anne’s written words live on and have changed us, compelling us always to bring the past to bear on the future.
For Anne, long-term thinking comprised planning hopefully for her future, imagining herself as a grown woman. I wonder what long-term thinking constituted for Miep and Jan, who were taking frightful risks to protect Anne and the others. Maybe it was better for them not to plan too far ahead, better to avoid thinking too much about what might lie in wait for them next week, next month, next year. How were they going to keep scrounging enough to feed all those mouths in the annex when there was barely enough for themselves? How long could they continue to sneak supplies to the hiding families without being betrayed? It’s easy to forget that they had no idea when, or how, the war would end. Sometimes it’s better not to gaze too far into the future and, instead, to keep your eyes on the ground and to think only about plonking one foot in front of the other. Long-term thinking is a hopeful practice in that it presumes there’s a future that can be improved by wise decision-making today. However, projections into the future are a luxury for many, which raises questions about the ethics of long-term thinking, such as: who gets to engage in such thinking and who does it benefit?
In her book Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence, Karen Crouse relates a little story about Mike Holland, who became the first ski jumper to jump 610 feet. Less than half an hour later, Holland’s record was beaten by another jumper. Nonetheless, for those few minutes, Holland had achieved something that was, in his world, stunning and great. (That’s how I feel when I look at our camera-trap photos of the Zanzibar servaline genet, which Howe celebrates in his letter to me. These pictures were the first ever to be taken of what was then a recently documented kind of genet that lives only on the island of Unguja, off the coast of mainland Tanzania. I get the same thrill when I view our videos of the servaline genet – and other elusive and never-before filmed small carnivores on the island – that we obtained during subsequent fieldwork. It’s thrilling for me and people in my milieu, but probably meaningless for the general population.) Commenting on the Holland anecdote in The New Yorker last year, and relating it to the topic of parenting, Adam Gopnik wrote that “Nothing works in the long run, but the mistake lies in thinking that the long run is the one that counts.” (As a parent, I’m trying to figure out whether this is a heartening conclusion, as it absolves me of the parental mistakes I’ve made and am surely still making, or a discouraging one in that it negates the significance of whatever legacy I’ll leave behind in the world in the form of my child and her children.) We all perceive the long run differently. As Ella Finer responded to this part of my letter to you, “we all have our own sense of the long run: the play is long, the day is long, life is long …” and those breath-taking, hair-raising moments, such as a record athletic performance or capturing the first images of an enigmatic animal, reverberate through our individual experience of our own long runs.
I’m reminded of something else Howe wrote to me. He got the notion that it was possible “to conjure a song without ever having written it before it was played”. He said that the “trick is to believe that it has already been around forever.” He and the band started with one or two such songs during a session and they got better at improvising this way with practice. I read about research carried out by Columbia University scientists that may shed light on this. The study showed that experienced improvisers were better than less practiced musicians in improvisation at distinguishing between chords that can be interchanged in a piece of music and chords that can’t. When the skilled improvisers – who were wired up for electroencephalography – recognised a chord that wasn’t substitutable, their brains showed a different pattern of electrical activity than the brains of musicians who were not experienced improvisers. Whether or not Howe and his fellow band-members recognise any of this going on in their brains, the research hints at how the artist is cognitively altered by the act of creating art.
Howe was eventually able to fill an entire album with improvised songs. Giant Sand had a lot of improvisation, in the studio and on stage. It sometimes left the audience bemused (and promoters grumpy), but it could also be “pure magic”, as Howe put it. The band relished the exhilaration. When you sit down to start a book – one of your nonfiction works, or one of your fictional novels, or one of your genre-bending books that lie somewhere in between – does your mind’s eye see the whole story laid out before you or does the shape of it emerge as you write? And, either way, is it exhilarating?
In his letter to me, Howe mentioned how people like to see patterns and pictures in things like human actions, clouds, stars, stains on the wall. How about the face of Jesus on a slice of toast? The theme of the narrative fallacy has cropped up earlier in this chain of letters. People are predisposed to stringing together facts with invented cause-and-effect links; they’re prone to seeing patterns in randomness. It’s the way the human mind works and may well have evolved as an adaptive trait. Among other things, discerning patterns allows us to make predictions and plan for the future. Animals do this too, or at least they behave as if they do, for example, in constructing warm shelters and storing food when the environment signals that winter is coming. Human beings take this to another level.
Anthropologists like me are always looking for cultural and social patterns to make sense of human behaviour. One thing this anthropologist noticed is the geographical pattern of the Longplayer letters so far. They have mostly been ping-ponging between, and within, the US and the UK. The two exceptions are Germany and Norway, both affluent European nations. There are no “developing” countries represented, no non-Western nations. Then there’s this: up to and including Howe, 11 out of 12 of the letter-writers have been white men. Our networks – our horizons – are more limited than we like to think. Howe threw a wrench in the works by addressing his letter to a woman, who is now writing to another woman. This takes us back to ethical questions about power and participation. If these are ever to be fairly distributed (one hangs onto a faint hope), it’s going to take persistent, conscious efforts to break habitual patterns.
Howe, the improviser, said he finds chaos more “user-friendly” than patterns. Keith Richards – who can be said to have led an exceptionally chaotic life when he was younger – composed Satisfaction more or less in his sleep, or so the story goes. Mick Jagger threw on the lyrics and the band recorded the song soon afterward. It was their first number one hit in the US. At the other end of the spectrum, Leonard Cohen supposedly took five years to write Hallelujah. I got that from David Remnick’s New Yorker article about Cohen, which was published just weeks before Cohen died. (Marianne Ihlen, of So Long, Marianne fame and your friend as well as mine, died shortly before Cohen. She made Zoe and me dinner just weeks before, laughing and twirling Zoe around the floor of her snug flat.) That figure – five years – is a little silly: Cohen wasn’t grinding away at that song, day in and day out, for all that time. However apocryphal the Satisfaction and Hallelujah origin stories are, there’s a real difference here between the seat-of-the-pants, let’s-not-overthink-it song-writing of Richards–Jagger and the painstaking, laborious song-writing of Cohen. According to Remnick, Cohen occasionally found himself “in his underwear, banging his head against a hotel-room floor” while toiling over the verses to Hallelujah. If Richards ever banged his head against the floor of his hotel room you can be sure it wasn’t because he was agonising over unfinished lyrics. Hallelujah is arguably the better song, though it’s like comparing apples and oranges (and, besides, my favourite songs of Cohen’s were on his first two albums, which were most suffused with Hydra, at a time when we were on the island). But of Satisfaction and Hallelujah which is the song that makes you tap your feet and bob your head? Satisfaction demonstrates a magical power of music: a bunch of people bang away and make rhythmic noise, and every human body within hearing range involuntarily moves in sync with the racket.
Whether it’s musical beats or circadian rhythms or longer biological cycles, it’s fascinating how time is measured by, and on, the human body, and on non-human animals too. Researchers are investigating how animals regulate their internal clocks during the summertime 24-hour day and the wintertime 24-hour night in the Arctic. You remember the time when you came to visit me during one Polar Night. You were hoping to witness the Northern Lights. But the Aurora remained hidden above a layer of snow-heavy clouds and you went home without having seen the display of excited particles. Please try again another winter.
Howe came to Tromsø during the summer. We took him for a stroll in the mountains and sled on a patch of snow. It’s spectacularly beautiful here on this Arctic island, ringed by mountains and jagged shorelines, but the extreme shifts in the light regime are brutal. The year comprises an eight-month-long winter, during two months of which the sun remains below the horizon, and a wet and chilly summer that is (ha-ha) mercifully short. The vegetation and wildlife, including the migrating birds – some coming from Africa – that nest around the pond near our house, are in overdrive as they grow and reproduce in the two months of round-the-clock daylight.
Some of these biological rhythms leave marks on the body that allow us to use them for dating or age-determination. Biologists at my institute have tried out determining the ages of polar bears by taking tooth samples (no simple task) from bears in Svalbard and counting the layers of cementum back in the lab, much like tree-ring dating. Fish earstones can also be used for this purpose. There are many more ways in which time is inscribed on the body.
The scientists at my institute are mostly working at longer time-scales than the lifetime of an individual organism. A glaciologist friend was involved in an EU project that pulled up a very long ice core in Antarctica. The oldest part of it dates to 800,000 years ago. That’s when the snow fell that was eventually compacted into ice, trapping tiny bubbles of air. Analysed in the lab, these miniscule atmospheric time capsules reveal changing proportions of greenhouse gases over time. My friend and her fellow glaciologists have set their sights on bringing up an ice core from Antarctica that will date back to 1.5 million years ago. It took three austral summers just to find the right spot. Drilling down into the ice sheet and extracting the core will take another three summers. Then there will be the time-consuming analyses after the ice has been brought up. The researchers won’t begin to reap the fruits of their labour for another five years or so; it will take many more years to winkle out all the secrets the air bubbles enclose and make sense of them. It will be worth the wait: the data will yield a precise picture of Earth’s atmosphere and climate 1.5 million years ago. This information, along with other kinds of data collected by the oceanographers, geologists, and other scientists at my institute and research institutions around the world, will feed into climate models. With more and better quality data, then more accurately will the models predict the climate of the coming decades and what the consequences of climate change, such as ocean acidification and sea level rise, will look like.
How is that for long-term thinking? Brian Eno, who kicked off the Longplayer letters, observed that our “diminishing future horizon is mirrored by an equally shrinking backwards view.” Subsequent contributors to the project touched on the topic of this myopia. I’d like to point out that scientists tend to have very long views in both directions. Whether their findings have an impact on our society or the future of life on this planet is another question.
Alison, your most well-known books have looked backwards, reminding us not to forget the past, no matter how ugly and painful, and showing how story-telling is another approach to thinking about time. In Found and Lost you write about how salvaging Holocaust stories became ever more urgent as the last of the survivors and other witnesses were dying off. You also describe how this burden, combined with a spate of deaths within your inner circle of friends and family, eventually took its toll on you. The lifebuoy that had saved you was now threatening to pull you under. I was glad that you then published several playful, experimental books that had nothing or very little to do with the Holocaust. And now there is Found and Lost, your personal reckoning, a grappling with your past that – dare I say it – hints at a brighter future.
Dr Helle Goldman lives on the island of Tromsø, about 350 km north of the Arctic Circle, where she is the chief editor of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s international science journal, Polar Research.
Alison Leslie Gold was born in Brooklyn two months after the end of World War II. A grand-daughter of Russian and Austrian immigrants, ALG has been both saint and sinner, bon vivant and author, mother, boon companion and hermit.