Bibliographing: A Petition For Belonging

There is a story about Picasso that goes like this… Someone is introduced to Picasso and wishes to buy a drawing. He takes up a pencil, draws out a flower and hands it to the man, who asks the cost.  “$10,000” says Picasso. “But it only took you less than ten minutes to draw it!” the man exclaims.  “Actually, it took me a lifetime” Picasso responded.

My guess is that this is likely not an account of an actual event that took place. There are similar stories about an alleged nuclear power plant expert (or similar technologically complex jobs) who charge strikingly high fees for brief work in emergencies and hear similar “but it didn’t take long” excuses and similar justifications are made.  But maybe this happened with Picasso. Who knows? It doesn’t track the contours of an actual event to me and sounds like a modern-ish folk taling. But I could absolutely be wrong!

Hold on to this. We’ll come back to the story.
Now I’m not a car person, but when you see or hear two car people, who are not trying to best each other, who really know and love the makes and models and rumbles and RPM’s and the geometry of what makes the line of a 52 versus a 54 or a Caddy or a Corvette… It is a foreign tongue to me but I can appreciate it because there is often something transmitted in the sheer love and devotion to the topic that emerges in the dialogue. The desire not to win but to keep it going for its own delighting sake in the spirit of sharing and surprise is the joy of it. If you ever listened to the NPR show ‘Car Talk’ it captures this playful spirit well.

But this goes for woodworking people or ceramics people or breakdancing people or cooking people. A close grained wood or a dead blow mallet, a Cone 4 with natural temper, a toprock with popping and locking, or a fond turned into a pan sauce and balanced with butter and jus. Any of these could be entries into something of sweet accord.

I am many things but if I am anything I’m a book person. An esoteric book person perhaps more particularly. But certainly books more broadly. I have a lower case ‘c’ catholic interests. I have been a book person my whole life. I was raised as a virtual mascot in a bookstore in Greenwich Village in New York City where I literally climbed the stacks and read as a child.

So it was a great delight to me that recently I was gifted a privately published short little book. It can be lovely to be on the receiving end of a gift, to be sure. But an eyebrow raising one that makes you say “that was pretty good” is all the better. It is called “How The Little Angel Found The Point of It All.” The book is 5″ x 4″. Sixty pages. Short. Fits in your palm. It is a fairytale book that dresses in feathered veils of geometry,  sequined silks of philosophy, and brocaded wordplay. Sumptuous stuff for me. I was a goner. But what really got me was the forty item bibliography with references like Boethius’s “Consolations of Philosophy” or Henri Corbin on Iranian Sufism or Dante or Plato or a book on the Quintessence of Wine. A book that scant with that many amazing references was a sight worth seeing. If I was a car person it might have been like a 1972 Husqvarna dirt bike rolled up on my door. There is a lot of power in that two-stroke little thing. Suddenly you have my attention and I’m up for the conversation.

Others might just leaf past them but for a book person a good bibliography might as well be a secret invitation brought to you by a messenger owl at midnight for the invisible juke joint around the corner where Ray Charles and Fats Waller are playing all night. Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Mel Torme are trading duets and solos while Dionysus is at the bar serving his homemade wine on tap. You are going. You just are. This little book may make my bookcases groan even more. Maybe.

Another short book came through my threshold recently written by my friend Sophie Strand. “The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine – Lunar Kings, Trans-species Magicians, and Rhizomatic Harpists. 158 pages not including notes and acknowledgements. Utterly readable. Luminous big thinking prose with ace scholarship and a generous mytho-ecological spirit that courts wonder and rootedness by its very well wrought gravity. And a bibliography of 127 items with references from classics like Apollodorus and Ovid to Queer Theory For Lichens and Gnostic Gospels. This book is a straight up pheromone with me as the target. Boom. Maybe it is headed for you too. Check it out for sure. If you need a taster then read her substack: Make Me Good Soil.

The word bibliography itself means “writing of books”…’biblio’ from the Greek meaning book or scroll and ‘graph’ from the Greek as well meaning to write or to scratch. But the usage of it as a list of books on a subject or as reference comes into English in 1814. Having one (or a good one) isn’t just a sign of scrupulous scholarship or writerly hygiene (though it is also that) it is also an expression of gratitude, a sign of kinship and an ecological marker of a kind.

The gratitude part is easy. Writing a bibliography is a sign to the reading public that you didn’t come up with these ideas alone and that there wouldn’t be a text unless these works were present and that you can find your way to them. The kinship is expressed by saying that the book you are reading is a product of all the ones before. They are parents and grandparents, cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles. A bibliography is a deeply relational activity that is quite alive. The bibliography as ecological marker is a way of reading a landscape. If you know an area in the world quite well you know that the plants and animals and rocks and water are all just so…there. Ferns of a particular type only grow here at such and such an elevation. Mushroom X dovetails with Tree Y and spores with the help of animal Z. A great bibliography is ,ecologically speaking, at least two things. One – a proclamation that this is where I live, this is who my existence hinges on, this is where I flower and grow. It is a bending towards a kind of affirmation. Two it is an honest reckoning of how diverse the ecology really is and what holds it knit together. You will often hear the phrase “there is nothing there” spoken about a place but that is just nothing to the speaker. To the non-human world that is there it might well be quite well stitched and sorted. So a good bibliography is saying “I know my place and the ten thousand who lived here before me.”  These two works cited succeed in all counts in these regards. Both books emerge as kin in a buzzing and burbling space where ideas are butting heads like elk in rut by the edge of the flowered field and spilling onto the river slicked pebble beach where crabs snatch little fish under the shade of golden leafed gingko tree. Those elk rut on the prayer that more might be birthed soon. Who knows what comes of big thoughts rutting from page to page to page?

One could do well to cultivate that kind courtesy in our days and places but certainly in our bibliographies. Personal ones and textual ones as well.

So let’s go back to the Picasso story. Though I had heard it before, it was sent to me by the author of the “How The Little Angel Found The Point of It All.” I had written to her praising her book and her bibliography. She replied with her pleasure at my enjoyment and appreciation and then shared the Picasso story followed by “I think of this bibliography as that drawing. a simple line condensed into a flower. Would love to meet your bib sometime.”

My bibliography is a beautiful thicket trembling with drops of dew. I think about it sometimes.
Regardless, Picasso picked up a pencil in the story. That pencil was certainly a wooden shaft wrapped around a “lead” but more likely graphite core. And the graph in graphite and the graph in bibliography are the same graph. So follow me into the placing of this graph and how it might connect to a deeper function of bibliographing.
The Nipmuc people who lived close to the Massachuset, Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Mohegan people had a place dear to them — Tantiusques: the place where blackness gathers between two hills. There never was a Nipmuc tribe as such. Nipmuc is a geographical classification given to the native peoples who lived in central Massachusetts and the adjoining parts of southern New England. They lived in independent bands and villages, some of which at different times were allied with, or subject to, the powerful native confederacies which surrounded them. Massomuck, Monashackotoog, and Quinnebaug were Nipmuc. Each known by their place.
That little spot near what we call Sturbridge, Massachusetts has, close to the surface, an ancient break in the skin of the earth where the most stable form of carbon has collected— graphite.
Graphite is a funny name because it’s first use in this part of the world, as far as we can tell, was for the ceremonial painting of skin, of tools, of ceramic. Not for writing as the ‘graph’ in graphite might suggest. Names can be a powerful thing.
The spot was “purchased” from the indigenous people there in 1644 by John Winthrop the Younger, son of the first leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and began a commercial graphite (and other metals) mining operation. Eventually the mine came into the hands of Frederick Tudor, a wealthy Boston merchant. Tudor died in 1864. The mine then came into the hands of John Dixon- one of the employees of Tudor. Dixon started a new company that would eventually become Dixon Ticonderoga, the maker of the iconic pencil.
When Henry David Thoreau set out for a life of semi-isolated self-sufficiency by Walden Pond, he made an account of all the necessities he bought for his time there: food, clothing, farming needs, and even the materials he used to build his own house. But something has been strangely omitted: a writing utensil, which he must have had in order to write the memoir later published as Walden. In fact, despite all the mentions in Walden of his reading and writing, Thoreau never mentions using a pencil — quite odd, considering that before Henry David Thoreau was a famous writer, philosopher, and key player in the Transcendentalist movement, he was actually a brilliant pencil maker who revolutionized the way pencils were manufactured in the United States. He probably relied on some of the wealth he generated for his family business to make his Walden venture possible.
Before Thoreau, American pencils were fragile and smudgy and not nearly as good as British pencils. Independent of the European discovery of mixing clay with graphite Thoreau, inspired by a different process, using a different mix of graphite and clay made a superior pencil lead. His inspiration? The lining for coating crucibles.
When John Dixon took over the mine the name of his company was the ‘John Dixon Crucible Company.’
This is the container that can stand the tribulation of the fire without the bottom falling out. The Nipmuc crucible held up to allow the lead to turn the greasy and sticky stones into ceremonial markings. The John Dixon Crucible company used the same material to make pots that could hold molten iron, steel, and other metals. The word ‘crucible’ comes from Old Middle High German ‘kruse’ meaning an earthen pot.

The earth herself might be the crucible that can hold the many fed fires of our days. And they cook us surely. Can a trust in a place be so cultivated that you could know that the bottom won’t fall out while we sit in the pelvis of this grand earthen bowl? Could such a thing happen now? Where you are? It is not easy to imagine. But such a thing has happened. Regardless, the source of this strength, if it to be found, is deeply not human. Maybe the graph in bibliography is reminding you…here, under your feet. Remember me.

Might it be, though, that with every scribbled love note, every hastily jotted down shopping list, every bubble filled in on multiple choice forms, and every scrawled strike you mark at your AMF/Brunswick bowling alley is a sign of such a trust being remembered in your hand and by it.
That by holding that graphite you are holding an ancient sign of devotional beauty-making in the world. By sketching or writing the beauty making is bound up in the very shadowed marks left on the substratum.

Your name at the top of your paper at school. Your doodles. All of them are a reminder that the bottom hasn’t dropped out yet. Maybe bibliographing is a deep kind of petition for belonging somewhere. May such a thing be so.

These sorts of wonderings about place and culture making are the raison d’être for this venture even existing so all gratitudes for you coming along for the wondering.

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