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A Wilderness Most Concrete

fire  earth  metal  water  wood

Metal is the fourth phase of matter, when it is in its decline. This is a yin or contracting phase.  The metal element in personalities results in both rigidity and determination; it evidences both courage and grief.  Metal is associated with autumn, aging, the color white and the planet Venus.  Its direction is west.  It governs the large intestine and lung.  Extracted from earth, metal begets water.  It is overcome by fire and conquers wood. Metal has structure, but it can also accept a new form under the correct conditions.



I cried the first time I took the subway.  I was nineteen, and it was my first summer in Philadelphia.  I had spent too much of my Idaho childhood in backseats, so I felt ready for a change.  However, nothing had prepared me for the total sensory experience of metropolitan underground transit: The stale, dank smell of the station platform.  The cars' blinking florescent lights and random lurches.  The cool detachment worn like armor by the passengers.  And above all, the noise.  The roars and screeches of the subway car as it swayed on its tracks sounded like the end of the world.  I did my best to hold back tears of shock and disbelief.  People went through this every day?  Luckily, my friend and I just needed to go a couple of stops that day.


Just a few months later, I was riding the subway with studied urbanity.  But I have never gotten accustomed to the noise.  The screech and wail at certain curves and junctures sounds like the wheels and rails are protesting their use.  The keening voice of metal tells the story of its creation~from the mining drills to the smelters and forges, from melting heat to hardness.  Yet despite this harsh refinement, metal remembers its roots.  Metal wants to go back home, into the earth.  And it will keep complaining loudly until the bitter, rusty end.

A while back, I asked several colleagues if I could record them speaking in their native languages. Khmer, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Burmese, Sichuanese and Thai ~ these languages were unfamiliar to my ear since we all worked together in the common language of English.  But I wanted to hear more.  In casual recording sessions, I gave each woman the vague directive to say anything she wanted about a place that she loved.  I suppose upon reflection that my request was puzzling, even strange.  Why did I want to hear stories in words that I would never understand?


And yet, my experience of listening to them was unexpectedly magical.  Once I had the recorder on and the levels set, once my collaborator was comfortable and caught up in her own telling, then I was free to just….listen.  And I was surprised how much warmth and openness I felt, simply sitting quietly, absorbed in the surprisingly new voice of an old friend. During the moments of her speaking, I felt certain that I understood something deep and significant about her. That we shared a connection. That a fundamental form of communication was taking place~even if I had no idea what the message was.


I still don't know what any of the six women said.  But I clearly remember their faces, their laughter, their gestures and expressions. The care we made evident. Our mutual gifts of time and attention. The kind and generous granting of a request, however meaningless.

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