The African Plains Episode
Typically, the great natural historians have had their classic fieldwork texts illustrated far after the fact by inspired artists who used these texts, I’ll go ahead and say merely, as a launching pad for their own dreaming, their imaginative reconstruction of the flavor, pace and looming presence
of those bizarre and often dangerous plains animal encounters. Or what these evoked on an allegorical plane. And most commonly this second
plane swallowed the first, much the way a literal hippopotamus might
swallow a muddy patch of marsh grass, non-intentionally ingesting a
quotient of animal life. Rarely, an observing trek brought also an artist.
But in such instances the artist was, likely as not, uninformed about the
scientific import of his objects, and treated them the way Delacroix might have his own so-called natural historical matter, fitting the forms, and also the not very precisely imagined "narratives," into patterns of association, into overscaled fantasies that had, ultimately, as much to say about
number one as about number two, or especially three, who is usually, and especially in this instance, left to himself. Or herself.
But science, we know increasingly, is a number three discourse.
In its exemplary natural historical form—the form we imagine and also know to be resting quietly in a climate-controlled national archive, in London, Berlin, or possibly Washington, where, in a moment of
epistemological crisis, an historian or field researcher might rush in and break the protective glass and not merely point to but actually touch,
though still having to read … this form we might say constitutes the center of the discourse, and establishes generic norms that can be cited not
merely in such crisis moments but, now reproduced textually, in an
infinite number of pedagogical encounters: this form, to treat of it
"structurally" in a way that pays no mind to its material embodiment in 80 pound Strathmore smelling of rabbit glue, ring bound in board backings of 9 and not 14 inches, with a slightly rounded "sissy" orthography, and with four species of crushed gnats that index its past field life in situations from which it simply might not have, but did, emerge—this form is a third
person discourse produced by a first person field scientist about a second person animal.
It was in the spirit of overcoming these nearly constitutive limitations that had confused person and animal numbers and kept precise illustrations a great distance from research texts and descriptions that I had myself sent to Manhattan’s leading African plains projection nook. Here, in shuttling around the vignettes, each with its implied focal point, but also with its
variable "information" based on movement, I carefully failed to catch
characteristic postures and surface textures.
For what was characteristic?
Glass was. Foreground timeless grass plumes. Naming uncertainty? Stuffing was. A folding of the sky above panoramic inventories. Light
pinks and peaks were. Domestic collectivity among nomads. This with glanced leg points was. And us entering the pack, extended second—pre-flight among hoof prints.
From a denuded ridge above a rare permanent water source, we break sipping with a sitatunga, highest antelope on the aquatic scale. Below, a 3-d hippo wolfs burnt turf patches. Mud banks and tufts loom in dimensional space. All composite extension—across d’s and degrees. Sundry bird species, alligators and lily pads, while a distant brush fire
lends verticality and transience. Stare lines include a nose beak from
which to look down, or dress up. Which is all we can say in lines. The frontal footpaths or stepping off, down inclines to a representative ledge.
Elsewhere there were points and these apart. Sniffing and bending. Ears to the glass for a ruffle from the wallpaper. Threats come running in. So we proceed together, up the pine side or panoramic plain-top monkey ground.
We cluster and ignore. We get out our pipes and scream to the kids. Chase off the egg-suckers and wallow for a day or so more. This
feeling leaving us single, even while we note. And bring back lines from
Lytle Shaw’s books of poetry include Cable Factory 20 and The Lobe.
Co-editor of Shark (a journal of poetics and art writing) and curator of the Line Reading Series at The Drawing Center, Shaw teaches American literature at NYU.