Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Calderas


ISSUE 60 | SEE AMERICA | JAN 2016

Photos by Mandy-Suzanne Wong and Roger Wong.

A photograph from 1984 shows my grandfather sitting in an airport in Florida, surrounded by large cardboard boxes. He wears a broad grin that in later years would become rare; he and I and the rest of our immediate family are returning home to Bermuda from vacation. In the boxes are the things we bought — shampoo, file folders, barbecue sauce, duct tape — because these things are cheaper in the States than at home, and there were at that time no restrictions on baggage. I was five, a Bermudian by birth and heritage, and America was a warehouse of things for sale, the realm of billboards, the dominion of a million arrows — squiggly arrows, U-shaped arrows, arrows bent at right angles — emblazoned on yellow signs along the roads. The arrows and capacious roads seemed interminable to me, implying that going forward came in countless varieties and all of them were available right now in this place, like soft-serve ice cream at an all-you-can-eat buffet; and so, when it came time for me to go to university, off I went, westward-ho.

As a resident in America (For Tax Purposes Only and Ineligible For Employment) of an ambiguous Afro-Asian brown, I was regularly astonished by such questions as “What are you?” directed at my person by other human beings. Suspicions about my physical features led to open skepticism of my maroon passport, on account of which I rarely managed to make my way from one side to the other of any airport without being instructed to stop and step aside. I lost count of the occasions on which my books, medications, insoles, armpits, breasts, knee joints, and groin were investigated by palpation, much to my humiliation and that of any group with which I happened to be in company. In Las Vegas, as an experiment, I wore identical clothing to that of my white-skinned American companion, yet I alone was subject to physical search, as if my physical differences were sly attempts to conceal culpability. In Boston, I was accused of forging my own passport, because officials presumed the British colony of Bermuda to be a figment of my imagination. These were not isolated incidents. In Boston, for example, interviewing for a merit-based scholarship, I was told that the committee’s assessment of my merits was in fact an appraisal of my “ethnic and national background,” and I lacked the proper merits to earn the scholarship. Despite everything, I continued to believe in squiggly arrows — until, in Los Angeles, I was unequivocally informed that as a foreign-born woman of mixed race, I had no place in the academic profession: that students would regard me begrudgingly and with suspicion as they found themselves unable to “identify” with me; that publishers might not consider me at all unless I changed my name. Like a strange animal in a busy street, I would be magnanimously tolerated only for a time; I would never be otherwise than a visitor.

My return to Bermuda possessed the qualities of a fall into a chair. It became an unprecedented struggle for me to prevent my disillusioned perceptions of the United States from coalescing into stubborn, uncomplicated dualisms signifying brute hypocrisy. Even in 2015, when my family returned to the States as vacationers, a jarring moment at the outset of our journey reawakened and affirmed the unsought, unwanted impression that in America, everything is proffered and precluded. Having flown into Nevada, we were in Walmart buying supplies for the two-day drive to Yellowstone National Park when I recalled that in Bermuda, the price of Scrubbing Bubbles was nothing short of ridiculous. I went alone to drain Walmart’s inventory, then, while searching for my family, I encountered a man with a gun. He wore a plain T-shirt, mumbled American idioms; and I will not forget his ill-fitting khaki shorts, which went below the knees but had a very short inseam, because he had tucked the gun into the waistband in such manner as to ensure that the grip was in reach and visible. I had never seen civilians with guns before, and I felt a bit indignant. Given that the purpose of handguns is to do away with offensive people, I supposed this man believed he might meet offensive people in Walmart and desired to make others aware of the possibility. I located my family, a group of foreign visitors, and when I told of what I’d seen, someone said, “It’s the wild west.”

In the US, Yellowstone country was indeed a birthplace of vigilante violence, which contributed to the calculated genocide of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. But in 2015, although my grandfather had gone nine years before, death visited my family four times; our journey to Yellowstone was an early step out of mourning, and we did not go in search of history. For no apparent reason — except perhaps the foreboding I carried everywhere — right up until the day when we piled our things into an SUV, it seemed that the journey would not happen, all our preparations were somehow unreal, and Yellowstone was a vague, almost unimaginable terra incognita. Not until I was driving did I fully enter into what we were doing. The necessity arose of being solely aware of near and middle distances, but to such an acute and comprehensive degree that nothing escaped notice — the engine’s smells and sounds, the depths of the pedals, the road as a sensation in my back and hands, the body language of the car ahead, cows and horses huddling in the shade of a billboard, the gleam of daylight through the glass, and the shapes of hills: red and jagged in Utah, green and round in Idaho — and I became extended. The SUV and I were a single nameless thing that effaced my small, slow, brown, foreign body which, unseen and dissipated, progressed through the country swift as anyone and guilty before no one but the Earth.

We murmured of Disney World. Vehicles of every stripe converged upon a few wooden huts, where a small staff dispensed tickets and the newsletter. But the traffic soon dispersed — Yellowstone Park has two million acres — and the huts had only just fallen out of our mirrors when the river Madison appeared as if from nowhere. Its bright blue color took us by surprise. We stopped in a cul-de-sac and watched the river ramble in broad blue turns through a thick green forest, edged in yellow, to the mountains: bluish-gray with summits dabbed in fresh white snow. We hoped to see a beaver but observed only a fisherman, and I was sorry to see him, for I wanted to imagine the civilized world falling away: no one else turned into our cul-de-sac; we ourselves might have passed it, had not the bright blue caught us by surprise. The early-September day was almost too bright and too clear. A photograph of the river Madison from that clear day shows no shadows or clouds; only that striking blue, bolder than that of the sky, blasts out of the picture like something absolute, a tonic chord from a grand orchestra. Now that memory has smudged it and I must rely on photographs, I realize that the yellow grass along the riverbank may have made the blue seem bluer than it really was, and a look into the water revealed many strange things of uncertain shape and golden-greenish hues beneath the surface.

When I am at home, I spend a lot of time watching the open ocean. The ocean is every horizon, never a single color; over the reefs it is dark, over the sand a clear turquoise, and far away towards Antarctica it becomes hazy, secretive gray. I have seen swells rolling to shore while others simultaneously withdraw, out to sea; enormous explosions of white spray in the distance, with hidden and perhaps unfathomable causes; sheets of rain entirely alike to solid sheets, which the clouds and the north wind draw over the island like a cloth over a face. These sheets, which are our population’s main source of fresh water, came into my mind when I beheld Yellowstone Lake: a smooth gray sheet without a single ripple, drawn over the ruins of a volcanic crater that collapsed upon itself 640,000 years ago. The stillness and the gray gave me a presentiment of very deep cold, the sort of cold that burrows down into the bone; and much later I learned that had I gone into the lake, I would have perished from cold in twenty minutes.

In Yellowstone’s hot springs, too, which can reach two hundred degrees Farenheit, people who ignore the prohibitions against swimming have been known to die of their burns. The stench of hydrogen sulfide drew tears out of my eyes, yet I often found that I could not look away from the colors in the water — loquat yellow, emerald green, the red of coral, and an uncanny turquoise, the hue of the planet Uranus. Wreathed in their own steam, these impossible pools had the quality of hallucination, and I could not help but wonder if they would disappear after a blink or two. They also possessed an illusory benignity, a character imposed on them by the wide, clean boardwalks with thick balusters which, set down firmly around the hot springs at safe distances, gave them a curated feeling.

An example of the latter was the amphitheater around Old Faithful. For this I was unprepared — I no longer know what I expected; but I did not expect smooth paving, benches arranged in a semicircle, riffles of indignation in the enormous crowd when the hydrothermal vent declined to erupt precisely at the predicted time. When the eruption did begin, and several thousand gallons of pressure-cooked precipitation shot into the sky, we marveled in comfort from our convenient seat, contemplatively photographing. And now I cannot help but think of the volcano at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, which erupts at eight and nine o’clock on weeknights.

However, at the time — I recall a cool and quiet night when I lay awake under the slanting roof of our small cabin, thinking of Old Faithful’s plume, which in an instant outgrew the aged evergreens by a hundred feet, seeming at its base to be a thick, white wall that forbade everything beyond and at the same time to be an expression of intolerable frustration — I found myself remembering an afternoon before a storm, when the ocean turned dark and hurled itself at our small island. I went alone to Astwood Cove, clambered down the steps that were cut into the cliff, to a beach surrounded by black rocks and empty of human life. As the angry waves broke against the shore, they threw up monstrous sheets of water vast enough to envelop me, crush me, and carry me away. I went into the water. It began at once to pull at my jeans and sneakers, hinting at the violence with which the next big breaker might devour me, and at last I became afraid.

The memory came to me again, when I stood in a beautiful twilit eve before the Steamboat Geyser at the Norris Geyser Basin. Surrounded by the bleached skeletons of lodgepole pines, which could not survive the heat and silica in the soil, the Steamboat erupted in forty-foot sprays almost continuously. The boardwalk permitted a certain intimacy with the geyser’s sulfur-tainted breath and stony, pockmarked lips, reddened by iron oxide and arsenic. It occurred to me, standing there, that water, the life-bestowing element, is also a decisive threshold of death, and it is perhaps for this reason that it can sometimes seem unreal, as if we are incapable of experiencing it first-hand. At the grand waterfalls of the Yellowstone River, I was struck by the almost vertiginous sensation of an irremediable gap between myself and what lay right before my eyes. From the vantage available to us on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, fragile bipeds clustering around the safety railings, it was impossible to appreciate or even to perceive the quantity and force of the water tumbling down over the edge. Struggling to make sense of it, a few of us arrived, independently of each other, at a comparison between the Lower Falls and the pale tresses of some sort of fairy-tale giantess. When commercial photographers first visited Yellowstone in the 1870s, they called it “the enchanted land” or “wonderland” because at that time most people had no hope of visiting. Unable to imagine months on horseback over perilous terrain, those who purchased H.B. Calfee’s stereopticon views must have seen, by the eerie light of the magic lantern, a mystique to rival that of Atlantis.

Waterfalls really are by nature secretive, for each is a wall with a hidden side which, like the silence in between geyseral effusions, conceals some ancient and private possession of the Earth. The impossibility of genuinely seeing the Lower Falls may be evident in the fact that no one in my family was able to make decent photographs of them. The light in the water, the mist above the stones, and most of all the dynamism of the phenomenon refused to communicate themselves to our lenses. For some reason, all of us, in that place as at no other, were incapable of composing the scene in a convincing manner with even the slightest resemblance to what we saw — despite that for many tourists, the making of photographs seems to be an easier, safer alternative to seeing: as if the viewfinder or screen corrals each situation within impassable borders, rescuing us from being overwhelmed by the wealth of foreign things that overrun every moment. When E. Greenwald, a historian, asked someone what it was like to behold the Lower Falls from atop the Canyon, her acquaintance said, “It was like looking at a picture.” And in fact, for a hundred years, many visitors to the Lower Falls have composed almost the same picture, according to Greenwald’s survey. It is as if seeing the Falls for oneself can only amount to a futile effort that just might end in madness; therefore we fall back unconsciously on distant, known perspectives which comprehend absolutely nothing but thereby save us from being devoured. “I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die,” wrote Nabokov. “Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.”

Most striking to me among Yellowstone’s colors was the unearthly turquoise in the Celestine Pool and Emerald Spring. In photographs, this bright, somehow tantalizing turquoise seems to shine like polished stone. To come upon it in upper-midwestern America, with sulfur in the air, snowbound peaks on the horizon, and the footprints of bison between petrified pines, choking in orange rivers of cyanobacteria, produced within me an unprecedented shock — for I had seen that shining turquoise in the shallows of Bermuda, framed by coral reefs, and I had believed that this color occurred nowhere else on Earth. Flying into Bermuda, I always enjoy the moment when the Terrace Reef comes into view and the dark, forbidding blue of the deep ocean yields, suddenly and in an instant, to that startling turquoise, the sight of which has always filled me with relief. But having seen it again, in the place of my exile, far from the sea, I now find it altogether strange. In the same way, I imagine, when W.G. Sebald found almost a replica of a scene that he had written, including a word which he had thought his own invention, in a novel he had never read before, by an author he had never met, who in fact had died several decades prior, Sebald’s own work became a stranger to him, a voice from another world. At the sight of that turquoise, it was as if a hidden string trembled within me, and I am now almost certain that to see something is not to register its presence nor to form a discrete image but to let the phenomenon get underneath one’s skin, causing oneself to bleed out a little bit.

At Mammoth Hot Springs, whose sparkling terraces dazzled in the midday sun, someone in my family observed that water dripping from a certain overhang had made tiny stalactites, reminiscent in miniature of the grand formations in Bermuda’s Crystal Cave. I later learned that the hot water in the spring and the cool rainwater in the cave’s eternal night owe their sculptural abilities to calcium carbonate in limestone deposits. And in fact, the heat in Yellowstone’s hot springs is of volcanic origin, born in some impenetrable place deep underground: a place where arcane, earthly passion seethed and writhed and at last — in a series of outbursts which began two million years ago — erupted with such vehemence that the mountain imploded its own face, forming calderas that became the park’s famous lakes and valleys. When we climbed to the summit of Mammoth’s pile of terraces, six thousand feet above a nonexistent sea, Yellowstone’s volcanic heritage seemed more conspicuous than in any other place. We looked over the steam rising from the slick, red stones, which seemed themselves to flow like liquids. We wondered how the unlikely purple flowers that we spotted here and there, eking their way through the stone into the noxious air, managed to survive the chemicals and thermophiles. I thought of another volcano which erupted underwater thirty-three million years ago, forming mountains that imploded in at least two places. Of the rims of the calderas atop the tallest peak, known as the Bermuda Pedestal, a few slivers were at last relinquished by the ocean — including Southampton, where my family lives — and our unlikely archipelago came up to breathe, became a haven for flowers, and, purely by accident, found itself overrun by humans. From a certain place in Yellowstone, which I can no longer locate on any map, we saw a portion of a caldera rim. It was a strange thing, neither mountain nor plateau but a jagged and incomplete cliff; however, though it was completely alien, we saw in it, for the first time, the thing on which we walk and sleep and work each day.

Resonance, a sort of spooky action at a distance, occurs when vibrations in a system incite another system to vibrate as if in sympathy, although the two systems are external to each other. If hyperobjects are things that are too spread out in space and time for any human being to take in all at once — things such as continents and geothermal events — then the meeting of worlds in the midst of which I found myself was a hyper-resonance that was itself an even grander hyper-thing. “Hyperobjects seem to beckon us further into themselves, making us realize that we’re already lost inside them. The recognition of being caught in hyperobjects is precisely a feeling of strange familiarity and familiar strangeness.” This feeling took hold of me at Isa Lake, whence the water, trickling underground, drains “in reverse” out of Yellowstone to the oceans: water from eastern outlets meanders to the Pacific, while the western drainage finds its way to the Atlantic. From the surface, Isa Lake appeared perfectly still. The pale green lily pads seemed not to move at all. And though the stagnant brown water might someday find itself spraying salty spume at Vladivostok or Namibia, the little lake reminded me of Seymour Pond, which a pedestrian can circumnavigate in an hour.

Certain of the very same resonating things were so strange at the same time that nothing in earthly experience could offer a sensible comparison. At Mammoth Hot Springs, I found myself wondering if other liquid-bearing worlds, planets or moons as yet unknown to anyone on Earth, might resemble the bizarre landscape in which I stood; and I attempted with my camera to invoke worlds that I will never see, zooming in on strange formations to the exclusion of plants and other obvious Earthlings. In Jupiter Spring, I saw the ruin of a Martian staircase: terraces and landings in Martian red and bright green led nowhere in particular, rendered smooth and bloblike by the ceaseless caress of hot spring-water. Elsewhere I found yellow-green canyons, multicolored beaches, and my camera seemed to fly over the methane seas of Titan. Towards evening one day, we climbed to the lip of a hydrothermal basin known as the Artist’s Paintpots: wending our way between acidic pools of chalk-white mud; small lakes, under clouds of steam, bacteria-blue; swampish algae-green puddles; and sanguinary streams bloodied by iron oxide. Now and then a small geyser erupted, we inhaled sulfur and acid, the setting sun powdered the sky with yellow haze, and it hardly seemed possible that such a place could exist on our home planet. Among fidgeting pools, restless stones, and bleeding hills, we stood awkwardly and spoke in hushed, bashful tones, feeling like visitors, bemused and out of place.

And yet, when night came down, though there were no TV sounds or passing cars, we could not see the stars for the glare of the streetlights. The park on the whole was so well paved, equipped, and regulated — so well-traveled, too, with a history that includes the wholesale slaughter of every species — that I did not expect to encounter animals. I especially did not expect to see a bison; for in the nineteenth century, Yellowstone’s bison were exterminated by settlers who hoped to starve the native tribes to death. At one point, the “iconic” buffalo of Yellowstone numbered only twenty-three.

To encounter even one seemed to me a privilege reserved for the most fortunate of people. Yet we came upon bison rather often in the yellow grass that lined the riverbanks and carpeted the valleys. To my surprise, I discovered that I liked the look of these animals, even found them delightful. In wandering, sisterly groups, they appeared as dark smudges near the base of Old Faithful and along the Lamar River, and at first I mistook them for boulders on the tawny plains. The bulls wandered in solitude, and I must say it was they who held the greatest fascination for me. They were massive, they dwarfed many of the cars, but I liked their furry faces and dangling beards, their incongruous shoulder humps and delicate cloven hooves. I enjoyed most of all the way they owned their solitude; the unhurried, contemplative air with which they seemed to do everything. We photographed several loners plodding along, often chewing, through the grass or on the roads alongside the motor vehicles, apparently intent on inward reflections. We spent quite some time observing a bull fast asleep beside a copse of trees, nodding his head as if he dreamed in Socratic dialogue and agreed in earnest with himself.

Thereafter, we sought the bison’s company and watched them for as long as we could. One day, in search of them, we detoured from the main highway onto a one-way road and discovered, near a pond, a small herd of mothers and growing calves. Every vehicle in the vicinity plunged into the ditch at the edge of the pond, limbs and cameras were flung out of windows, people tumbled out and landed squelching in the mud, as though these bison were celebrities and we the paparazzi. Many of them put up with our antics and went about their business, though we must have appeared reckless if not menacing; but one individual could not endure the oppressive atmosphere, stares, and smoking metal hulks. She struck out alone, squeezed between the cars, crossed the road in front of traffic, and galloped into the trees.

It was not until much later that, time and distance having restored our sobriety, we realized we had violated the park’s prohibition against approaching bison at less than twenty-five yards. We had also exited our vehicle in the bison’s presence and photographed the creatures, both of which are against safety regulations, despite the fact that in the summer of 2015, no fewer than four people were attacked and gored by bison while attempting to photograph them in Yellowstone Park. We disparaged those people; we criticized their arrogant insensitivity, their unwillingness to recognize that the bison are neither costumed actors nor museum pieces but sentient, intelligent strangers who do not appreciate the subjection of their every move and possession, even their children, to the invasive eyes of cameras — which, because they are strangers, follow them everywhere. Perhaps, for those bison who leapt the safety railings with lowered horns, surveillance at last became intolerable.

But in proximity to wondrous beings, one forgets even oneself in one’s excitement. A study found that only half Yellowstone’s visitors recognizes that their presence is disturbing to animals, and this insensibility causes traffic congestion as people stop to photograph animals along the roads. At nearly every hour of the day, some such traffic jam occurs somewhere in the park, and as each event may involve a hundred cars or more, we found it was impossible not to spend time in queues. In such manner we encountered two female elk, one with a radio collar, an elk stag grazing in the bushes, an elk stag making his way over a hill, an elk stag asleep (all the stags had beautiful antlers), a bison bull scratching an itch against a sapling, a trio of bison bulls grazing on the shoulder of the road, a bison family of five, a bison bull asleep, a group of female mountain goats with kids, a pronghorn antelope, a grizzly bear asleep, a grizzly bear foraging in the grass, and a black bear who had just come from a swim. I remember making our way down out of the mountains on a misty eve and finding ourselves in a line of red bulbs, twinkling and winding around the Norris Geyser Basin and Gibbon Falls. The forest blackened and the sun flickered between the trees, the final ember on a dying hearth, and when it vanished there was nothing by which to navigate except head- and tail-lights. We were motionless so long that I found myself thinking of Los Angeles. At the head of the queue was a family of five bison with two calves. Rangers ordered us to drive around them; but as we approached them from the side, one of them, a mother, turned to glare at our SUV. I could not see her eyes, but the headlights gave me the dark shape of her head, her movements — too abrupt for curiosity — and the horns she brandished at our passenger door.

Where grizzly bears were concerned, the traffic jams were longer than any of the others, even though, in both cases, the bears were too distant to spot without binoculars. We pulled over to the side, joining an impromptu parking lot which lined the road in both directions for a quarter-mile. Never, throughout our journey, did we converse with other tourists except at these “bear jams.” “What’s up there?” someone cried, scampering to the top of a crowded rise. Seen from afar, this gravelly knoll must have seemed to glitter: phones, tablets, lenses, tripods twinkled in the sun. There was much laughter and joking about Pooh and his honey-pot. An Englishman invited everyone to use his telescope to spy on the sleeping grizzly bear. And it is true, as one team of scientists observed, that “the roadside bear jam can create an almost carnival-like atmosphere.” When we met the black bear, we were ascending Mount Washburn on a curving road which bisected a tall, green forest. He seemed to come out of nowhere; he stepped into the road right in front of our vehicle. We were driving slowly and came to an easy stop — but the next driver ahead, who was about to round a corner, threw his truck into reverse and zigzagged backwards down the mountain at a ridiculous speed, having spotted the bear in his rearview. Ambling with sodden fur, the bear might have been crushed between us.

It seems to me impossible not to sense the incongruity of wild animals with SUVs and smooth, government-patrolled thoroughfares. But the right perspective is difficult to achieve: it is not the wild animal but the human animal who is alien and out of place in Yellowstone. The park’s roads were made to pass directly through the elk’s and bison’s home ranges and the best habitats for bears and other carnivores. But it is difficult to experience one’s own alien qualities when surrounded by one’s own kind and familiar trappings, even though an inherent incongruity with all other beings is every individual’s native condition. Furthermore, Western humans are accustomed to viewing wild animals from the far side of some kind of screen, a zoo enclosure or an electronic medium; therefore when we come upon these strangers on the street, although of course we know that the screen is no longer present, on some level (in the place where ideologies have the last word) we do not know. The intimate degree to which we invaded their homes and intruded upon their necessary endeavors became apparent to me when I reviewed my photographs of a traffic jam at dusk. The bison eat; a great bull, surely a grandfather, steps into the road so as not to entangle his hump in low branches; cars crowd him back onto the shoulder. We have no choice (there is two-way traffic), but neither does he. He is a pioneer — even as bison retain the habits of their prehistoric ancestors, they also go exploring in search of new ranges — but in this country, any bison who leaves the national park is likely to be shot, due to a myth that wild bison transmit brucellosis to domestic cattle.