Right now in heaven, Tolstoy is playing with his dumbbells, even those little rounded weights he kept in his study at Yasnaya Polyana have come up with him into the cloud-city of the afterlife. In the spring of 2016, I toured his old house and the estate on which he lived, walked out through the green trees and the precision mosquitoes to his burial mound, a grass covered box-shaped hill on the ground where the great man went in. But why was he great, when so much of his life was spent—that little account of time we all bank on—in little rooms sitting in a chair made for children, propped up on a pillow, his waning eyesight pulling his face in ever closer to the page?
Are you up for a challenge? This month we’re reading books that test us as they enlighten us, seeking to explain the world on a grand scale—warts and all. We’re held rapt by catalogs of world travel, remembered across decades; the brutal pageantry of crisis erupting through daily rituals; the history of poverty and injustice; the intricacies of mental illness, personal and societal. Don’t turn to these titles for escape—we’re here to focus the lens of the human experience and find something as irascible as it is beautiful.
Polar Bear (Sow), Near Kaktovik, Barter Island, Alaska
North of the Long Range Mountains in spring time, where the road swings east off the long northerly climb up the west coast, and a little farther on, back to the north again to the land’s end on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, a place where Norsemen and women came ashore 500 years before Columbus, and the great icebergs, calved off the great Greenland ice sheet, march along the eastern shore with the currents of the North Atlantic: here, in this place, a polar bear passed by.
After the wind, a man named Chuck died lying on the ice next to the fuel pump at the Phillips 66 off I-80 on the east side of Rawlins, Wyoming. I helped his friend lift him down from the passenger seat of the pickup, a big man, heavy and round, dressed in heavy Carhart work clothes against the cold. I gentled his head against my chest, holding him under the arms, a rag doll pulled down in the middle, my cheek so close to his, his little moustache, his hairy ears, his jowly neck. He was already dead, no pulse, no breath, his eyes gone out, but the 911 operator asked us to begin chest compressions.
Bending to a high-power telescope trained on the moon at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of west Texas, specifically the terminator line that is the far reach of the sun’s light at this phase—waning Gibbous moon—the contrast of light and dark makes visible the rims and floors of uncountable impact craters. My companion and I can see the crater walls, the striated lines of some long past moment of chaos, the crusted lip of the crater’s edge where the force of that energy lifted and curled into a rift of moon rocks. The sun’s light on the lunar surface is so mesmerizing along that line, so utterly beautiful, that coming away from the eyepiece, all you can see is moon.
South of Hugo, Colorado on Highway 287, the land is wiped clean, the prairie grasses and flowers of spring cut to the root by cattle, their shining white teeth. Dung, dark stains on the land running the fencelines, remnants of progress, the way we produce meat in this country. It cannot have rained in many days. These hard-pan flats, the leading edge of the Great Plains east off the Rockies, turn a dust devil against the horizon to the south.