I got a copy of this book in Telluride, CO when I was about 12 or 13. We used to go there in the summer, long before Telluride became the kind of chichi ski town it is today.
When we used to visit, it was an ex-mining town that had reinvented itself as a hippie Shangri La, and the local bookstore reflected, beautifully, the countercultural inclinations and explorations of the community. (That bookstore is also where I first encountered Baba Ram Dass’s iconic ‘Be Here Now‘ guide).
I loved Cosmic Trigger. It blew my mind, and I’ve carried a copy with me wherever I go since.
To me, coming from a typical suburban upbringing, the ideas and prose of the book were freeing and thought provoking.
The copy I bought back then – I don’t know where it is. It had a different cover, the original cover. I lent it to someone, and maybe they lent it on to someone else. Everyone I lent it to enjoyed it, but one person maybe too much. Right around the time I lent it to this particular friend, he began exhibiting the early symptoms of schizophrenia, and I always felt bad about not understanding where he was at at that time, and what he was experiencing when he read it. He might be the one who kept that first copy of the book I bought.
I’m sure all imaginative books hold some dangers to sensitive minds – perhaps some comforts too.
But this one, with it’s ideas and convincing arguments about a subjective and changeable reality must have held unique resonances to my friend who was literally seeing their reality attacked by their disease – a reality that I didn’t understand or appreciate till years later.
That’s the kind of reality no one wants to face. The consequential kind. The kind that can’t really be changed. And Robert Anton Wilson deals with that in the book too. The kind of reality that kills you or someone you love in the end.
That was the final lesson of the book – both in the book, and in the journey I took with it.
I’ve collected different things at different times. I never have really collected anything sensible, or even collected in a sensible way. For example, if I were to collect something pedestrian like Disney memorabilia I’m sure I would make no attempt to collect the valuable. Rare, perhaps, but not valuable. I would look for the missteps, the places Disney went off track and veered into something subversive, or interesting, or appropriated by others. This Australian VD prevention poster that features Donald Duck is a good example of memorabilia in this category that might interest me.
All this is to say that for awhile in college, around the time when I read J.G. Ballard’s auto erotic novel Crash, I began to collect books, textbooks, and magazines that dealt with the issue of car crashes, particularly in American society. The above photo is an example. I was fascinated by the tragic stories and violent images that these publications were filled with.
Look closer at the image above. The rolled car in the background. The man hugging an obviously injured and likely killed woman. He looks physically unscathed and yet wrecked.
The transparent blood red title typography completes this terrible and yet poetically tragic image, an image that does feel uniquely American in the sense that car culture has always been such an integral part of our society.
In this image and many more I saw the violent results of a technology that has reliably killed 40,000 – 50,000 Americans every year for the past fifty years.
Even now, even today there are something in the order of six million car accidents a year in the United States, with about two million people a year receiving injuries.
By comparison, the Iraq war has killed around 4,400 in the 6+ years since it started, a loss that has felt unbearable to many Americans, myself included. Yet in that same time frame, around 240,000 Americans lost their lives in car crashes, and perhaps as many 12 million were injured. Why don’t we feel that psychic pain?
It still staggers my mind that this kind of carnage is inflicted daily, monthly, and annually on Americans with little hue and cry. It’s accepted. It’s built into our system. It’s not called “terrorism”. We don’t need to take off our shoes to drive, or get full body scans. It’s just the cost of doing business in our modern world.
It’s still not built into my system. I’ve never owned a car. I advocate for cities, for public transportation systems, and for ways of living that are less reliant on cars. And I’m happy that safety improvements to cars are coming online that are finally beginning to make a dent in these terrifying statistics.
I don’t collect this material anymore – I only did for a few years, and it got too grim. If you walk dark paths, you have to know when to turn around. I still have a lot of it around though, and I’ll post more from time to time. There is still value to some of the material. But on the whole? This is one collection I’d be just as happy without.
The woods near our house had a few tall trees that had rough scrap wood ladders nailed up their sides. They looked pretty shoddy. How many nails does a kid put into each wood scrap? What kind of mental calculation occurs that allows them to guess weight loads and limits? I don’t remember, but when you were going straight up a tree, I’m pretty sure however many they used, it wasn’t enough.
At the top of one particularly thick and tall tree, maybe 60′ in the air there was a triangular platform in the crotch of the high branches. Only it was falling apart, some planks were missing from the floor. There were rumors a kid had fallen from the platform and broke his neck. I suspect that was parent disseminated propaganda to keep kids off the tree. At least these days it would be propaganda because if a kid really fell from a platform perch that high, parents today would cut down the treehouse fort, the offending tree, and probably, for good measure, most of the woods.
This treehouse/platform didn’t even need scare tactics. It was, just visually, way too high, and way too intimidating. But still, it was there! Someone had nailed those boards into the tree, climbed up, and built that platform. Like a 14th century explorer coming face to face with the much grander ruins of Roman civilization, the treehouse high above was evidence of an earlier, much braver, and less over-protected generation of kids.
Diagonal trees were more my style. Like the picture above, they tend to be found near a stream bed where the ground is weaker and one strong storm can knock one half over. And like the photo, they can stay alive all tilted like this just fine. They keep their leaves. They’ve just become the best thing a tree can become to a kid – diagonal, conquerable. Our woods didn’t have a stream deep enough to jump into, but we did have excellent rope swings dangling off trees like this. Grabbing the knotted rope you could run along the mud and dirt creek bank, and then leap into the void and swing a wide boomeranging arc out and over the water and then back again into the dirt. It was amazing fun – the closest I ever got to really flying. Of course pure joy like that wasn’t something you could hold onto selfishly – spots like that were the nearest things kids had to treasure and they often became spots of fierce competition and acrimony.
My favorite diagonal tree experience was after a tornado that must’ve been about 100 yards wide roared through the woods during one late afternoon storm. The sky was crazy enough just before it happened that our family went into the basement for shelter, and when we came out, the street was transformed. Power lines were down, and trees were toppled all over the neighborhood. Once they cleared the downed power lines we went into the wood where you could clearly see the path of the twister. Perfectly healthy trees towards the left, and towards the right, and then just a mass of toppled and tangled trees in the storms path. But it was beautiful!
This was summer – the trees were in full leaf, and the woods were thick enough that very few of the toppled trees found a clear path all the way to the ground. Most of them fell on neighboring trees which fell on other neighboring trees and so on. The forest had been turned into a kids’ wonderland. You could scramble up one staggered tree, and navigate from that one to another, and another still like Spiderman flying from one building to the next. It was amazing, and we played late into the day on all those slanted and enchanted trees. I got the most incredible feeling running up one tree and then just perching, like a bird, as dusk approached and then consumed the woods. Till I was a silhouette. Till long after I had been called home. Silent. Waiting. The world had finally been re-made to my dreams.
But all too soon the magic forest was invaded by chainsaws. I don’t recall if they were city employees or just private woodsman given license to “make things right” once again, but before long our twisted and tilted playground was gone, consumed in sawdust and engine whines.
Still, though, that patch of woods was always something to watch. You couldn’t just cut down the magic. Now there was magic in watching how fast the forest floor was covered by the shoots of new trees. Seeing how quickly and densely these young trees packed themselves into this abstract divide. Noticing how nature weeded the weak ones out, and the faster and stronger trees begin to grow taller, and grab the newly liberated sunlight.
That was all al long time ago. I guess now it’s pretty hard to see where all the damage was. Unless you know where to look. Unless you can see yourself high up in the air scrambling from tree top to tree top.
It's all going away, getting faded, becoming brittle, looking raggedy, broken, disappearing, washing away, staining, no longer working, dusty, dirty, lost, misplaced, put away, hidden, and mostly forgotten. And there's not a whole lot else I can do to stop it.