Monday, June 25, 2012


Happiness bubbles up in Ephemerata Gardens in fleeting things that happen.

The season's first tomato or strawberry drop of blood on the vine. Gathering food grown here, cooking and eating and sharing it, sometimes doing the dishes humming an uncomposed song. Prickly pear cacti bloom yellow bursts echoed by the sunflower patch. 

Chickens catch a purple plastic snake and chase each other around. Monk squawks fly over, the birds rarely landing on the alley power lines. Gangly juvenile Yellow-Crowned Night Heron come down to the baby pool of water. Also, cardinals, blue jays, and butterflies eat the figs. Dragonflies and toads in the greywater pond.

Sunsets hit the top of the pecan in a golden glow while the rest of the yard's already shadowed. Sitting in the shade.

Happiness is not an object or pursuit here but a relational event of light, color, sounds, foods, life forms pulsing in the landscape--qualia of life held together in a harmonious sensory expression. A collective curling up of a smile or jiggling of laughter. Also, happiness is shot through with an all consuming love between lives, a kind of clinging that veers into sadness and loss. It is a way of being for the world that plays on becoming part of a living machine, where you are not liberated but attached and made responsible, eaten alive. Happiness becomes a collaborative sculpture planed down by multiple artists with different aesthetic visions.

There are surprises like fat green caterpillars eating the sprawling tomato vines that I should kill, but don't. Vince's neighbor next to the Cathedral of Junk kills butterflies since he doesn't want caterpillars eating up his yard. Longlasting bumpy brown clusters of fungi on the composting diapers. Snow on the bottle wall raised beds. Happiness is not a state of being but little melting crystals, totally uncontrollable. I can't say if the other entities involved are happy about being in Ephemerata Gardens, or even other people who visit. The elderly woman with her granddaughter aprovingly called it a "bushy garden" with everything overgrown. She held my arm as we maneuvered the perilous gravel walkway. Her light touch also made me happy, and her exclamations: "Oh! A cactus flower!"

Tinkering and wasting time here makes me happy, finding a use for salvaged things nobody else wanted. Telling jokes and stories to visitors, performing for and teaching them. I'm happy when visitors leave a cash donation, like a tithe. Last weekend we earned about a hundred bucks from twenty visitors to our micro-tourist roadside attraction (realizing Disneyland expects this from each visitor). We "sold 'em a look" of the "House" exhibition.* Money is a clotted form of sharing gifts with each other. More to the point, making something out of nothing makes me happy. 

Happiness over nothing, just a nice breeze or watching my son dance to the alley neighbor's Mariachi music. He claps when the song is over. "Yaaaay!" Happiness happens when things like minds, bodies, objects, and events all line up in a brief refrain that suddenly glows while its fading.** This coinciding is hemmed in and even intensified by blanketing unhappiness, suffering and hardship, lurking malevolant forces, or the tenderness of knowing mortality. So happiness is not necessarily about innocence, purity, or naivety. 

There is even melancholy happiness, like poppies on the pet graves every spring. Cold winter moonlight.

In Bhutan, happiness is a metric opposed to the bland measure of Gross National Product. Bhutan surveys citizen happiness by sex, age, region, occupation, education, and other factors to quantify Gross National Happiness. The Center for Bhutan Studies developed the sociological survey tool to measure habitual subjective states as a national development aid. Money ("sustainable economic growth") is just one of four elements that are supposed to guide national development (alongside cultural values, the environment, and good governance). International conferences help to transmit the concept of this alternative development mode and measure of national growth. Over half of the people in Bhutan are farmers, and in 2010, their mean happiness--5.8 on a 10 point scale--was just slightly above the least happy people in Bhutan employed by the National Work Force, while Civil Servants were the happiest.*** Women experienced anger more than men, and in general were less happy.

Ephemerata Gardens and Bhutan are trying to engineer affective atmospheres where happy patterns can happen. We're serious about happiness. Characters in these landscapes are potential parts of circuits of happiness. Feelings are quantified or listed as artifacts, becoming self-reflexive to enhance or preserve harmonious relational patterns between selves/societies/ecosystems. Like in Disneyland, there is almost a coercive element here: you should feel happy, you will feel happy in this magic kingdom. 


*In the 1950's, Ray Bivens of the Black Hills Animal Farm roadside attraction taught Tinkertown's Ross Ward to "sell 'em a look!" "They'll pay everyday to see the same old bear and you won't need to buy a new bear every day either." Ross J. Ward, "I did all this while you were watching TV," published by the Tinkertown Museum, p. 2.
**Sara Ahmed, "Happy Objects," in The Affect Theory Reader, 29-51, ed. by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Durham: Duke University Press (2010), pp. 36-7.
***2010 survey, p.19, women's anger p.65.

1 comment:

  1. You are helping optimisms flourish."Tinkering and wasting time here makes me happy, finding a use for salvaged things nobody else wanted." I've been too oriented toward productive expenditures, making stuff like essays and an "insane" body ( These things seem to demand lots of commitment and discipline. Even early morning walks and skinnydipping swims with my dog are scheduled, part of the planned rhythm of a day. Meditate, walk, breakfast, write, eat . . . Though maybe I'm also cobbling together salvaged things people don't want, or don't know they want yet: porn, zombies, poop.