Excerpts from “The Surroundings” by David W. Jardine in
Under the Tough Old Stars: Ecopedagogical Essays, 2000:
A sweet friend took a group of people up into the Rocky Mountains, and sat them in a circle, enticing them, in an ecological exercise, to breath this place, to recollect themselves and their relations, here, to “re-connect.”
A sudden muffled CA-COOM of heavy pawprints lifted off a low spruce up the hill above their heads.
And the footloose giddy rockstumble run and fast as possible that resulted. And in the puffy airgasp, in the bloodypump redness, in the nickelspittle of mouths dried to tears, belly laughs of a deeply felt and fearsome connectedness that had broken the spell of heady thoughts of Mother earth.
I just imagine the cynical postmodernist caught and felled by that cougar. And as its teeth begin to pull bloody human thigh muscles from their place, we see the final grinning sneer at the cougar for being so obvious, so foundationalist, so bereft of the twittery insight that my leg might not signify food at all! Ha ha!
The first time I read these words I was waiting for my first ever internet date to meet me for coffee. And, yes, I do realize that that opening line makes the invocation of the word “cougar” up in the title of this post a bit of a possible “double entendre” with the the real cougar in David Jardine’s story. To be clear, I’ve only internet dated for a total of two separate months, on two different platforms, about six years apart. It turns out I am just not wired for either the required soul-sucking inanity of unbearable smalltalk or unavoidable irritation of men who truly think it’s okay to open with “you have sensuous lips.” (My held back reply: “Yes, I do in fact have sensuous lips and I’m happy to use them for sensuous things when properly inspired but I would prefer you read some part of the 1500 word profile that I wrote deliberately so you could actually know something about me – including that I’m a seriously wordy wench – before we get to my lips there Big Guy.”) Absolutely no judgement for those who are, but I wasn’t online dating just for sex.
All of this to say that much as I often wish I were a big game cat and might even benefit from occasionally seeking the beds of younger men, I can’t be a metaphoric, rapacious older woman “cougar” because I barely ever meet men no less prey on the younger variety… In any case, this was the first time I’d ever tried internet dating. It was still a bit novel and this dude I was meeting had been okay to talk to by phone so I’d made the coffee date.
I had some time to kill after work ended and before he showed up, so I took out one of the books my recently appointed master’s supervisor had suggested.
I sipped at my beverage.
Started to read.
First, I read the dedication written by Jardine’s old and close friend David Smith (who turned out to be my first ever professor in my master’s) and it made me cry. It was warm, sincere, genuinely affectionate. Beautifully written. Magical. Then, thinking I should choose something a bit shorter because my date might show up soon, I read “The Surroundings.”
It’s a tight, elegant piece. The parts I shared above made me start to laugh.
I went to a university-based film school.
In the 1990s.
I was surrounded by postmodernist thinking that I’d wager I still don’t understand all that well. Postmodernism is interesting to me in its ways – evocative – but has always felt somehow… off… Jardine’s essay: poetic, beautiful, was utterly unlike the postmodernist film theory articles I’d entirely rewritten in the margins just so I could begin to comprehend their obfuscation, jargon-heavy language, and argumentation. It gave me words with which to finally articulate the “off” feeling. They were 15 years too late to help me have meaningful conversation with my then-peers but they were hilarious and, with a touch of Monty Python level madness, spot-the-hell-on.
I could vividly see the humans trying to “re-connect” to nature… I could see the “bloddypump redness” of their fear and running. I could feel, deep and clear into my funnybonesmarrowsoul, the truth that a hungry cougar could give a sweet damn about human, abstract, intellectual theory and that the gear-spinning sometimes nihilistic academic whirring of postmodernism hadn’t felt right to me because I was yearning for something more grounded. Not meaningful, per se, but grounded.
I wanted to think about how my body is, indeed, edible…
By giant tree-lurking cats.
By the inexorable nature of time.
I wanted to think about being fragile and vulnerable in a vast, exquisite, interconnected world that doesn’t care nearly as much about humans as humans do.
I really was enchanted by this first encounter with David W. Jardine.
I really was crying and laughing and then laughing so hard I cried.
I was thinking, “Man, if I’d known you could be an academic and write like this I might have stayed in school for waaaaaaaaaaay longer. I might not have taken 15 years to come back.”
And then my date arrived.
Long story short, I made a pact with myself from that day forward that a date should always be at least as, if not more, interesting and funny than a well-written critical essay.
I never saw him again.
It certainly isn’t a priority, but I suppose I may yet find ways to connect with 90s era postmodernist film theory. I have, however, held close these words of David W. Jardine’s for going on eight straight years now and I continue to be so grateful I found them.
Grateful to return to them and share them.
Grateful that they offered me a retroactive understanding of 15 year-old tensions and opened up space for new conceptions of academic writing.
Grateful that they permitted me to unapologetically feel bored and disappointed by my date so I could do better next time. So I could raise my bar and keep it there until I figured out how to raise it yet again.
And if the cougar can drop the mic and softly, proudly pad off-stage and leap back into its tree, that’s where we’d be at right now.
staticky squeal and thud
Woosh, scratch, shift.
Watch with nightbright eyes.
Wait for the next group of humans to sit and breathe and try to re-connect with nature.
Wait for someone who also wishes to remember that we are edible.
Wonder if that’s what my sensuous lips are really for.