Permanent Saturday: Axis Mundi


In Garfield, everything has a voice, or has the potential to have one. Birds, mice, spiders and household appliances (not to mention cats and dogs) all have readable internal dialogue. Everything has a soul. Everything is a potential spiritual agent. Naturally it's only the animals, plants and objects who display regular awareness of this fact, because Garfield is about Western modernity and we as humans have forgotten such things in our society. Recall, however, that it is us as the audience who have privileged access to the thoughts and concerns of these creatures even as the humans in the strip do not. There's hope for us yet.

(Of course, the strip goes back on forth about this depending on what makes the better joke on that day. If you are still looking for the laws of physics underlining the “Garfield universe” you are manifestly missing the point of this series and are approaching it utterly the wrong way.)

This level of awareness comes, however, at the price of extremely heightened empathy. Those who feel deeply their connection to the myriad other souls in nature may also find their feelings of suffering and loss to be magnified as well. Especially in the West and Westernized cultures, where collective institutionalized violence and depersonalization have become so normalized. Garfield himself expressed concern over this in a strip decades ago: Jon once asked him “Wouldn't it be great if these walls could talk? Imagine the stories they could tell”. To which Garfield responded (for our benefit, of course, not Jon's) “Every time a light bulb burned out it would be like a death in the family”. Hearing the voices of others compels you to listen, and to treat the speakers with the same respect and personhood you would wish for yourself.

This is the scenario the first panel sets the audience up for. Garfield stands over the tree stump, implied to be of the same tree he is frequently seen climbing, wondering what happened to it. Garfield and this tree have a relationship which, like his relationship with the dog next door, is humoursly likened to a human nine-to-five punchclock job. Garfield climbs the tree and goes next door to get barked at by the dog because that's what he “does”, in the modern definition of the word: When we ask what a person “does”, we're really asking how they sell their labour because of how ubiquitous capitalism has become to Westernism. So the joke in those situations is pointing out the absurdity of the way we schedule our lives in Western modernity by showing how silly it is when other animals and plants, who are no less “natural” than humans are at their core, engage in the same behaviour. It's grafting a Western capitalist kind of relationship onto a fundamentally innate, intimate natural one.

But that's all tangential, because that's not what this joke is about. It is, however necessary context for Garfield's reaction in the first panel. There's a quote in one of the last episodes of the UK version of The Office where Martin Freeman's character muses about how ironically poignant office coworker relationships are: We work our lives away every day, and, as a result, we get to know the people we work with far better than we do the friends and family we *choose* to spend time with, simply because of the clockwork regularity with which we see them, and the sheer scope of how long that time truly is. This is the first part of Garfield's concern: His daily schedule has been disrupted and he's taken aback first by that, but moreso by the unexpected absence of someone who was a constant part of it. If you and I have an unspoken agreement to meet for breakfast every day in the same place, you would naturally be confused and worried if one day I didn't show up in that place, even if it turned out I was just seated a few tables down.

But the tree isn't just absent as Garfield's dialog (which, reading left to right as we do in Western cultures, is the first thing we see in the strip) would first imply. We next see that Garfield is looking a a tree *stump*, which would imply the familiar tree is in fact dead, killed when someone cut it down. Loss and the accompanying grief is certainly the ultimate disruption of our daily schedules, which casts Garfield's opening question about where the tree has gone into an entirely different light. At first glance, this seems like a shockingly unexpected traumatic upheaval of Garfield status quo, something akin to the strip we saw a several weeks ago depicting the aftermath of a gigantic sinkhole opening up in the comforting familiarity of the Garfield yard/garden set. But that strip was ultimately a subversion, leading to a gag about Garfield's narrative logic. And this strip turns out to be a subversion too, though a somewhat more subtle one.

The second panel gives us the necessary anticlimax. The tree is thankfully not only still alive, but also apparently *on vacation*, a punchline that is fulfilled in panel three where the tree tells us it's moonlighting as a surfboard in Hawai'i. Note first how there's a bonus throwaway joke in the form of a muted visual gag: Once again flagged by an absence following the conclusion of an event we don't get to see (the hypothetical felling of the tree), we're left with the baffling implications of how a tree *cut itself down* and somehow flew itself to the Hawaiian Islands. But that's not the actual primary joke here, that's just context-The real joke is at the expense of our fears of death and loss. We know, of course, the tree is still alive, and this is a cleverer storytelling trick than is probably immediately apparent. Far from being dead, the tree is merely somewhere else in a different state, in this case in the form of a surfboard.

Being a surfer myself (or someone who fancies they know their way around a board and have a loose understanding of the culture at the *very* least. I do, after all, currently live in the *very* landlocked mountains), I want to firstly commend this turn of phrase. Because if the tree was fashioned into a surfboard, this means it *must* be a paipo or alaia; traditional wooden surfboards. Most commercial surfboards produced for Western audiences in California and Australia and the like are all made out of fiberglass, epoxy and foam in an industrial process so eco un-friendly it should most certainly attract outrage from the supposedly environmentally conscious surfing culture. Paipos and alaia (the only real difference is whether the board in question is a long- or shortboard) are made out of repurposed wood through traditional sustainable methods, and were the original boards used in surfing going back to time immemorial. That the tree went to the Hawaiian islands is even better (the surfing joke could have worked just as well at Huntington Beach, Oceanside or Bondi), because Hawai'i is the birthplace of not just the wooden surfboard, but surfing itself: Garfield didn't just make a surfing joke, it made a surfing joke that flags an understanding and respect for the actual history of the sport. The Paws, Inc. staff is nothing if not meticulous.

If we read the tree as “dead” (which we shouldn't, because it's not, at least not as we understand the term, but for immediate sake of argument let's do), then this means, in the language we as Westerners are most accustomed to, it's been given a “second life” in the form of a surfboard (nicely, a tool designed to help humans better move in sync with natural rhythms). But a more accurate description of what's happened is that the tree's life-consciousness has transmuted from one form into another: First from the tree, then to the board. Which is a much closer fit for a non-western, non-modern understanding of what we call “life” and “death” actually are: Predicated on a deep connection to natural cycles and feminine deep time, this understanding of reality posits that conscious experience does not cease, but constantly shifts around changing form as it goes. If we were to pair this with the fact the tree has been reshaped into a board, we might catch a glimpse of a truly primordial form of magic: The building of anything is always nothing more or less than the reshaping of matter. Creation always comes from somewhere else, and is the act of channeling and radiating energy in new ways: Inventive transformation and transmutation.

And crucially, the joke works even without the surfing connection. While we may think of a tree stump as being “a dead tree”, the tree's roots are still planted in the ground and can still grow new shoots. In fact, a common practice in responsible forest management called coppicing involves deliberately cutting a tree so that its stump can regrow, a practice which helps increase and preserve biodiversity. It's common in our society to draw an arbitrary line between humans and nature, a nasty artefact of at least so-called Enlightenment philosophy. The hand-wringing that humans are an unnatural blight on the world who are a wholly corrupting influence that the ecosystem could do just as well without is merely the dark mirror of the “Benevolent Stewardship” strain of Christian thought, wherein the West thought they were ordained by God to Lord Dominion over the beasts. It conveniently ignores the long history, particularly in the Americas, of native peoples using simple techniques (such as coppicing) to alter their environment in beneficial, yet sustainable ways (not to mention the fact nonhuman animals and plants, by their very existence do too). The entire Canadian landscape, as well as that of New England, was reshaped by First Nations peoples in the time before Europeans arrived-The colonialists were just too ignorant to notice. There's hardly such a thing as an “unspoiled wilderness”, but we can make healthy ones by working with our environments instead of against them.

Garfield's modus operandi has been, since day 1, to satirize banal Western capitalist malaise by showing how ridiculous it looks when nonhuman actors, creatures who have not forgotten their inner fundamental naturalism, act out the same sorts of rituals. With Garfield's opening question now turned thoroughly on its head, today's strip is an elegant and perfect demonstration of this: Casually reminding us of our own roots on a multitude of levels, the cat asks not the plaintive “Where did you go?”, but rather the inquisitive “Where are you now?”. A subtle difference, yet a truly profound one.


Original Strip: April 18, 2017

Official Garfield Website

Garfield: Garfield

Garfield: U.S. Acres/Orson's Farm


homunculette 3 years, 8 months ago

Hey Josh – seen this?
it's a surrealist examination of a specific Garfield comic strip that lasts about an hour, starring the actor John Blyth Barrymore, set to the score of Kundun by Philip Glass. Strongly recommended. (There's also a whole series of these.)

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Sean Dillon 3 years, 8 months ago


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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 8 months ago

@Homuculette: I've not, but I'll take a look at it, thanks!

@Sean: Believe me, I'm *quite* familiar with Lasagna Cat ;-).

Pretty sure they got the date wrong though. But the strip that went out on the actual date of the pilot wouldn't have worked as well.

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Sean Dillon 3 years, 8 months ago

I mean, they're both Lasagna Cat videos.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 8 months ago

Yes, I saw yours first and was not at the time aware that was a series and not a one-off parody,

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mr_mond 3 years, 8 months ago

I don't really have anything to contribute, just wanted to say that this is a beautiful piece that resonates strongly with stuff I'm dealing with right now - ever since I've become a vegetarian and even more strongly since my girlfriend bought an allotment, which allows me to observe more nature then I did previously, I have become increasingly overwhelmed by the consiousness of the huge amount of suffering that exists in the world (in large part due to human activities). I am also trying to re-orient my thinking about witnessing death: part of me understands and deeply feels that it's simply a change of state, while another part deals with a sense of loss and hurt. I think the image of Garfield asking "Where are you know?" will stay with me now thanks to how you wrote about it.

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mr_mond 3 years, 8 months ago

Oh, and I will now definitely go back and read all of your Permanent Saturday series from start to finish.

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Jane 3 years, 8 months ago

The World Tree is the axis mundi that connects Above and Below, Past and Future, to the Here and Now.

And it's been cut.

So there's also a fundamental "lack of connection" being expressed here. The axis mundi is perfectly fine connecting the opposites. But instead it's been repurposed -- it's now in service to someone surfing in a tropical paradise (yes, I totally read that as death and afterlife, but reincarnation works too), and it doesn't even realize it isn't coming back as a tree. The tree doesn't know it's dead. Talk about a lack of connection.

But then, The Island is a resurrection hub, and an axis mundi in its own right, so it really does all tie together. The tree isn't lost.

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