JULY 22, 2015
IN HER NEW COLLECTION of carefully observed and highly crafted essays — some of the most surprising and original I’ve read — Joni Tevis treats readers to a delicate flow: from description to reflection, from lyric to fictive, and from scholarly to colloquial. As the title suggests, the book is partly about apocalypse and environmental disaster. It’s also about tours and touring, about weaving place with history, geography, myth, and personal experience.
Tevis shows off her strategy, if not all her cards, in the opening piece, “What Looks Like Mad Disorder: The Sarah Winchester House: San Jose, California.” She and her husband take a tour of the manse, the long-time home to Winchester, heiress to the famous gun manufacturing fortune, who consulted a spiritualist after the deaths of her husband and baby daughter. She was advised to move west, buy a house, and renovate constantly to assuage the ghosts of all the people the rifle had killed. “If the hammers fell silent,” writes Tevis, “the spirits would come for her. She made sure that never happened.” And in the “séance room,” Tevis muses:
[Sarah] could have filled scores of rooms with visitors. But in the end, the memory of her lost ones was enough for her. We are the crowds she never invited (What are all these people doing in my house?) Now every day is filled with the tread of feet, the whisper of hands sliding along her banisters, the hum of conversations she can’t quite make out.
It seems Tevis shares Sarah’s determination to reckon with the past. As she guides us around the Nevada Test Site; Rock City in Chattanooga; Cerro Gordo County, Iowa; Pickens County, South Carolina; the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and Patmos, Greece; among other places, she asks us to consider Apocalypse, defined as the death of a place. In “Ten Years You Own It: Salton Sea, California,” she takes us to the water, delivers its history, and describes it as “the color of beef broth,” full of salt and herbicides from Imperial Valley industrial farming. “The Salton Sea pulled me in as a haunted place,” she tells us. Anyone, herself included, who eats fruit and vegetables from those farms has had a role in the disaster.
Indeed, Tevis seems especially interested in ecotourism, the fastest growing sector of the industry according to critic and activist Lucy Lippard (On the Beaten Path: Tourism, Art, and Place). The concept goes back at least as far as 18th-century Britain; in America, it was more or less invented in the 1920s, when the National Park system presented wilderness as a cultural activity. Today, ecotourism promotes responsible travel and an awareness of ecological issues, as do some of Tevis’s most powerful essays. We learn, for example, that the Salton Sea emerged in 1905 when the Colorado River — newly put to use for local irrigation — crashed the canal gates separating it from the Imperial Valley, a region of planned economic development that today is known for its crops of alfalfa, lettuce, carrots, and beets. When Tevis arrives there, she wonders: “We stopped to see the disaster, but which one?” She and her family walk the beach, a crunchy blanket of dead tilapia that “die off in huge numbers, sometimes as many as 8 million a day.” Birds also regularly perish at the site, and, Tevis tells us, a salt works, a train, and train tracks all lie on its bottom — invisible but present, mirroring the ecological ghostliness of the place.
“What we abandon, someone else must face,” she writes in “The Measure of My Days (Buddy Holly Reprise): Somewhere in Cerro Gordo County, Iowa.” Tevis is especially good at delivering this sort of insight in the middle of a scene. This time she is standing in the field where Holly’s plane crashed 56 years ago. As she looks over the offerings left by fans through the years, she is making a decision not to leave one of her own. And throughout the book, she includes quite a bit about the detritus of tourism, populating every essay with signage and found language from her travel — which has the uncanny effect of asking the reader to stop, or at least slow down, to consider all language for what it is: signs that reach beyond their literal meanings. Signs like “The Future Belongs to Those Who Prepare For It,” an ad from Prudential Life Insurance in Life Magazine on September 24, 1945, resonate. This one lives in an essay about the Nevada Test Site. Perhaps the most salient “sign” is FERTILE, the word inscribed on the water tower in Fertile, Iowa. The sign is bitterly ironic because the essay in which it appears, “Somebody to Love,” recounts her struggles with infertility as she undergoes painful and humiliating treatments to try to conceive a second child.
Creating a tourist venue is an art form akin to building an essay. Both organize landscapes and our making sense of them. The lyric essay, Tevis’s dominant form, mirrors her locations as cacophonous, jarring, and provisional. Not quite poem, not quite prose, these essays make their most powerful points obliquely; they inhabit the liminal space between genres, voices, and structures; their mode is experimental but they are respectful of the reader, trusting us to make connections for ourselves. Though Tevis uses facts and studies, she foregoes journalistic nut graphs, topic sentences, and quotations attributed to experts, as well as linear narrative. And yet, as with the best of the form, small stories reside in every nook and cranny. Her essays use the hard-won insights of academic writing without leaden prose or stifling jargon. The lyric essay is especially suited to tourism because it travels — proceeds by association and display — Come to this room, Tevis seems to say. Now, we’re going to look at the garden; at the shards of iron on the beach in Greece. “Pay attention!” she says at one point, echoing the tourist experience. Her transitions can be abrupt, but surprising, as a tour through a house, a factory, or a museum ends in a way that leaves the reader to shape the details into a meaningful whole.
Structurally, Tevis’s essays do different things. In some, she creates a weave: she pairs Liberace’s music and details from the Liberace Museum with the Nevada Test Site; she braids her fertility treatments with analysis and lyrics of Queen’s “Somebody to Love”; she couples her pregnancy with a raft trip through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. One essay, “The Scissorman,” follows a man who sharpens scissors for a living: “Like the journeying tinsmith or ragman, he’s someone who travels from town to town, whose arrival bestows an almost-holiday flavor to the workday,” she writes, and in this way she turns a tourist’s eye not only on her own neighborhood, but on a larger phenomenon. He helps her see, she explains, how “scissors are like men […] The steel is hard, like our heads, but the edges are fragile, like our egos.”
Among the qualities that make Tevis’s essays powerful is her ability to imagine characters of the past. “Frieda Carter was an entrepreneur’s wife, and all she wanted was a garden,” she writes, fusing reportage and speculation, moving quickly from exposition to a character’s inner life. Most literature about tourism is written from the viewpoint of the visitor (the supposedly “fresh eye”), rather than that of the visited. Tevis brings the visited alive from the first page of the collection, when she introduces us to Sarah Winchester, and then, in a wonderful, imaginative turn, begins to inhabit Winchester’s ghost — or is it the other way around?
[Sarah] slept, if she slept, in a different bed every night, or else she waited patiently at the little desk in the séance room. She went over accounts and sketched plans for the next day, chewing on dried apricots grown in her own orchards. Tough little suns, flat and orange, they caught in her teeth.
At that point, it’s as if Winchester and Tevis have merged. “It didn’t occur to me that I was obsessing over the details of someone else’s house even as I craved a place of my own,” she writes. And late at night, when Tevis can’t sleep and she gets up to work on her essays, she reflects that she has become much like Sarah: “Her ramshackle house provided me plenty of work, paragraphs to draft and revise again and again, dry little suns to gnaw on.”
In the concluding essay, “Some Memory of Daylight,” Tevis brings the collection full circle, with a different kind of builder, James Perry Wilson, “an architect by training, and when he lost that job during the Depression, he brought his draftsman’s discipline to work” on dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Like Winchester, “he couldn’t leave [the diorama’s] system alone.” This seems to be true of Tevis herself. The essays in The World Is On Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of the Apocalypse are as intricate and complex as an endlessly remodeled house.
D.J. Lee, an award-winning scholar of literature and history, has written and edited numerous books. She is currently editing a collection of essays called The Land Speaks and completing a memoir about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana.