Rockefeller Forest, CA
To be American is to be followed by an omnipresent, disembodied yet insistent voice that offers constant advice on a life well lived. Sometimes it admonishes passive aggressively – ”thank you for not smoking” – like a lonely grandmother looking for attention. When you’re down, it’s often there to try and pick up your spirits, but the instant you fantasize about magical powers, it reminds you who’s boss. Mostly, though, it attempts to simply and straightforwardly satisfy your curiosity.
CJ, the homeless man I met back in Oregon, once told me a joke about the success of the mentally disabled in American society. ”You see them everywhere; there’s Slow Workers, Slow Traffic Ahead, even Slow Children Playing!” I remember him cackling from deep in his throat, as was his way. And I think he was on to something.
In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck wrote about the roadside language of the early 60s:
But now for the first time I became aware that each state has also its individual prose style, made sharply evident in its highway signs. Crossing state lines one is aware of this change of language. The New England states use a terse form of instruction, a tight-lipped, laconic style sheet, wasting no words and few letters. New York State shouts at you the whole time. Do this, Do that. Squeeze left. Squeeze right. Every few feet an imperious command. In Ohio the signs are more benign. They offer friendly advice, and are more like suggestions. Nearly all have abandoned the adverb for the adjective. Drive Slow. Drive safe.
50 years later, it seems like the prevailing tone of signs and communication devices has sided towards the New York State voice – judicious character use, unmistakable intention, black, white. Have you ever wondered why the action verb on Facebook is ”to like”, the most innocuous, non-committal emotion of them all? Would the online world be different if we loved, detested, reviled, frustrated, confused, agonized, rejected, uplifted? It seems clear to me that efficient language makes it harder to feel.
Which is all to say that it was pretty hard to ignore that the tree was giant. Even my Dad, who came west to pick me up in Leggett and explore the beauty of the exceptional forest, couldn’t help but join me in feeling small. Even the trees themselves seemed shocked.