Book Club

I am part of a goofy little impromptu book club. We choose whatever book somebody has suggested and normally take a month or so between meetings. Last month was my turn to choose the book. Desert Solitaire was my choice, as I had just reread it and I had two copies to lend out. (75 cents? what a bargain)

Now, I will not pontificate on the book or Abbey, because it’s not needed. Thousands of other people have written far better, more poignant and more articulated reviews of the Abbey words. I suggest you check out Wendell Berry’s essay A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey if you want enlightenment on that front. I am writing for another reason.

The turn out for this month was small, and in an effort to keep up with the style of the book we met at a local tavern. This is my favorite bar within an hours drive, in fact it is close enough I did some pre-gaming(drinking beer) before and rode my bike. It’s always a little fun to get tipsy and ride like a madman, but beware kids, it’s just as illegal if not as immoral. Dangerous too, check out the huge patch of skin missing from my arm.

I grabbed a hoptastic IPA and picked up the tab on a friends stout. She is a crazy diamond, and I like her that way. She listens to my rambles and rants and only complains when I get too misogynistic. She is frightfully intelligent and a wonder to listen to. We also met up with a few midwesterners, twenty something enviro-hippy kids with a penchant for rebellion within the margins.

We all enjoyed the book to different levels, but all members seemed happy to have read it. One comment was made that bugged me though. It was made by the crazy diamond, but I don’t fault her for it. I’ll explain that latter too.

“He complains about all these things, but he never really did anything...”

What was he supposed to do? Lay down in the middle of the road while the pavers came into Arches Monument?(Hippy Scum!) Become a lawyer?(The paperwork, oh damn the paperwork!) Become a Lawman?(Lobotomy? anybody?)

I posed that question and got a number of blank stares. We no longer live in a world where the public acts of a single man can stop the machine, in this case the handicap accesabilitizing of the american landscape.

Charles Bowden said it best in Blood Orchid-

“True, the fine days are long gone when one could draw down on a single man, pull the trigger, and right some wrong. Now no one can imagine any useful act that does not entail changing entire systems and the systems are so huge that no one can even describe them.”

It is childish and naive to assume that Abbey could “do” anything in that so literal sense of going out and acting physical. We live in a marketplace of ideas, not a land of heroic actions. Abbey did do something though, he spread the ideas.

Abbey spread the gospel. Wait, strike that. The gospel is a slew of dogmatic irrationalities, he spread rational dogma. Dogma to live by god damned it!

Direct action is dead, ideas live on. He could have stopped the road to Arches with action. He tried in his own way, puling survey stakes and flagging wherever he walked. But that is not enough to really stop a public works project. He could have done something physical(Fire!) but it would have only slowed the beast. And he would have ended as a martyr, and nobody wants the reality of a martyr.

Martyrs don’t win, martyrs die.

We, as hominids, are programmed to think the only action worth respecting is the physical. The intellectual, the written, the painted, the musical will always be second rank to the perfect pitch, tackle, sprint, pedal, or paddle. This was true in the days a man clubbed a woman and drug her to his cave an property, but the world has changed a lot since then and out little ape brains are having a hard time keeping up. The physical is near useless now, and in no arena more so than that of government.

So he did what he was good at. he wrote. He made thousands upon thousands, if not millions, of americans hate what we are doing to our land. He let the lawmakers be lawmakers, the engineers be engineers, and the students be students, but he made some of them give a flying fuck.

A physical act of contribution? no. A heroic show of will? more so than most.


Reflections on a school year

Mark is a nice kid who loves physical activity. He isn’t into sports mind you, he enjoys bikes, unicycles, juggling, stuff like that. I am a bike nerd, so we got along fine. He tried to teach me to ride a unicycle, I fell down. He tried to teach me to juggle, I dropped lots of stuff. But I taught him to be diligent about homework, and in that he succeeded. He likes to write on his clothes, and on the last day asked me to sign the hood of his favorite sweatshirt. With a smirk I wrote “It’s been Beautiful.”

I wrote a letter the newspaper admonishing the town for not supporting it’s school district. They printed it, and the next day a teacher approached me. He is a big burly guy, sports coach and truck driver. He looked me up and down and said “Damn fine letter.” And he walked off.

I started working with Katie occasionally just in the last few months. She just needs somebody to talk to her and keep things from boiling over. She came to me with a story about another student hurting himself and I had to make her report it. She was angry at me after that. We made up, and she was nice to me after that. In the last week of school she asked me if a teacher had given me a pack of letters yet. It was a large envelope full of crayon and marker cards wishing me luck next year. The teacher had, and they were wonderful.
“Well, he didn’t give you mine” she smiled. She pulled out a large card with a drawing of Sasquatch on the front. I read it there, a long tale of how much she would miss me next year and hoping I enjoyed school. Afterwards I thanked her and she started crying. She went on about how she didn’t know what the kids would do next year without me. She gave me a hug and ran off to her next class, tears streaming.

Angel promised me she wouldn’t get arrested over the summer.

Frink is a goofy little redhead kid, smarter than nearly all the other kids yet still managing to fail many classes. He brought in a praying mantis egg in a jar, put in the classroom with a heat lamp and never told the teacher. It hatched before it was noticed by anybody else. Thousands of little praying mantises escaped and wandered the classroom.

A group of teaches decided to grill out one day. I grabbed the beaker tongs and started flipping the brats and hot dogs, pork chops and steaks. I cut a brat open to see if it was cooked through. I wiped the grease off on my pants, the ex-navy teacher asked “You’re from where?”
“It all makes sense”

I met Kenny at camp last year, I nicknamed him Heavy Metal for the week and it stuck. He was the smelly kid and the fat kid, so I decided he needed a hardcore nickname. Halfway through the school year I saw him in the library working on a science project. There was a girl helping him, and flirting with him. Later I pulled him aside.
“She is totally into you man, you gunna do something about it”
He had no idea she was flirting with him. They dated for a few months, and broke up as kids do.

The last day of school I had a visitor. James was a student last year and came back to say hello. He has gone onto bigger and better things, High School namely. I have run into him a few times over the last year, mostly at the grocery store and the coffee house. He wanted to make sure to see me before I left for college. I gave him an e-mail address to get ahold of me, I want to keep tabs on him and his large brain.

As the school left the assembly that marked the end of the school year I saw one of my kids crying. She was standing to the side bawling, just really letting it all out. She didn’t want to leave school, her friends, her teachers. I talked to her for a few minutes and got her to be happy about it. She would have lots of time to have fun with her friends, to play outside, have sleepovers, all that fun stuff. She smiled, gave me a hug and got on her bus.

It was fun, it was painful, it was hard. It’s been beautiful.


Olympic Peninsula, Part Two

We make our way past a few unmemorable towns and press deep in the national forest, national park, and timber land. Acre after acre of dead land surrounds the road. Every few miles a sign is posted saying when the land was cut, when it was planted, and when it will be cut again. The natural forest is far and away a different creature than the mechanized tree farms the timber industry builds. On one side of the road may be a couple dozen tree species, hundreds of shrubs and grasses and flowers and berries. on the other a mass planting of one tree, all the same height. The adage says that you can only replant the trees, not the forest. It is self evident in this landscape.

I am reminded of the corn fields I grew up in, massive carpets of the same plant. Clones on the march, looking more like slaves to man than a natural landscape. This wasteland of trees is the same, just a army marching to its own demise.

We eventually made it to the Olympic National Park, a beautiful and wild place covering the landscape of mountains and beaches with a blanket of protection. We found trees taller than thirty story buildings, gargantuan moss covered beast that were old when white men first landed in the americas. I wanted to lay in the moss and roll around like a dog.

We pulled of the road at a simple sign, the placed called “Big Cedar.” There was a winding dirt road, leading to a small cul-de-sac. There was indeed a large cedar, but not thirty feet from it was a stump large enough to park my jeep on, the chainsaw marks still fresh. We couldn’t help but laugh that the first thing one sees when entering the parking area is a massive tree on its side. The big cedar was impressive, a mass of tangled trunks with smaller plants shooting off it in all directions. Around twenty feet up a small douglas fir had found hold, growing up another twenty feet. This single old growth tree had an entire ecosystem upon its shoulders.

We left the tree and continued the journey, finally ending on the Kalaloch beach area. We walked a trail of disfigured trees, huge beast covered in burls and gnarled limbs from the salty spray. Even while wasting energy to grow beach ball size balls of wood these trees grew to epic proportions, too warped for sawmills or mans machines to make use.

We camped on the bluff overlooking the angry ocean. It frothed and fumed, spewing brown seawater ever forward. I pulled out a pair of cigars and a flask of bourbon for a windy walk. Despite the mid-winter date there were some other people camping there, or more correctly, staying there. Large recreational vehicles with steamy windows and engine rumbling sat around the area. The low rumble and golden light emanating from them was almost inviting compared to the brutal wind and salty spray.

I don’t like Rvs. They are a danger on the road, are almost exclusively driven by oxy-genarians or drunk nascar fans. They clog our national parks, fill up our campgrounds, and use enormous amounts of fuel. I feel ever so slightly sorry for the people in these tin cans because they have been removed from the environment. While I may not enjoy freezing my ass off I know that for me to no do so would make me a spectator of the ecosystem instead of a participator. Cooped up in that techno box man has moved that much farther from the real world, while leaving him thinking he is still a participant.

The same could be said for my nylon tent and butane stove but I like to think that a defining invention of civilization is the modern bed. Without a good bed we would soon return to the trees and grasslands like bald chimps. I sleep on the ground, but I digress.

The next day was beautiful, sunny and clear and just the right temperature. we stopped for burgers at a greasy spoon in Forks. There was a group of mid twenties guys there and a group of teenage guys. Seemed from their behavior that these did this every day. Same friends, same waitress, same food, same life. While I can appreciate the comfort this must give them, if given a little perspective it should scare the shit out of them.

We drove on, made home by late noon. We were muddy from the trip and plenty tired. We went to the bar and drank a few pitchers of beer while listening to Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd.


Olympic Peninsula, pt. 1

I like to think I am part of a growing class of men and women, people looking at the land they loved and seeing it trampled under the facade of progress. As Ed Abbey said so poignantly in 1968, Growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness. We see this every day as Wal*Mart build a new super store a quarter mile from the old less than super store, leaving the old one to moulder and poison the land around it.

On a recent occasion I was able to go for a long drive. I started out on the north side of Seattle and ended somewhere deep in the olympic peninsula. Seattle is like any other town, big and sprawly and ugly. Nothing romantic is to be found in a place where no deer or bear walk.

I-5 is the freeway that runs from between Seattle and Tacoma to Olympia. The two hours I spent on that ribbon of impenetrable blacktop was one of complete urban sprawl. Each exit ramp was a series of the same signs trying to sell me inedible food, electronic equipment and gasoline. If I want to go to Best Buy in Washington or Florida, it’s the same damned store. Probably the same floor plan too. How many Taco Times and KFCs do you people need? Greasy tasteless food for greasy tasteless people.

Finally after exiting Olympia I found some peace. Trees surrounded the gently twisting road as it shot west, the direction of promise. For a few hundred years the call of west was one of promise and hope, and it seemed that way for a glimpse of our trip. My companion Paul was sitting shotgun in the dilapidated jeep, drinking juice and making vulgar jokes. As we moved towards what is often called the wildest place in america we found a farce. The wall of jack pine and douglas fir broke and we saw mile after mile of stumps.

Dozer tracks covered the land, pushing the scrap into slash piles, ready to be burned. A few lone trees stood in the middle of the cut, their slender bodies towering above the mechanics of man. They stood nearly two hundred feet tall, massive totems to the longevity of nature. I know we need to cut trees for paper, that the desk I type on is made from somebody's beloved tree, that each time I build a fire it adds to the deforestation of my backyard. The brutal face of timber companies isn’t foreign, so I simply press the accelerator and move on. I don’t want to see it.


Letter to a confused child

I have spent the last two years working in a middle school. This gives me plenty of stories, good, bad, hopeful and depressing. I particularly enjoy this one.

One of my student came to me in tears. She had bean working into an absolute tizzy over the purpose of life. She stammered on about the world just being a rock flying through space with no direction and no meaning and no captains chair. I calmed her down and asked her to write me a letter with her question. She sat down and scribbled out a paragraph basically asking Why?

This was my answer. I had to tread the lines of my role as an educator. I didn’t want to condone or condemn her family beliefs or religion, nor my own.

Young Lady-

The subject you are trying to understand is one of the so called “great questions” of life. Men and Women have been pondering and deducing the proper logic behind life. It’s often called the pursuit of the purpose, that is the search for a purpose in life. I am quite amazed that you, at your still so young age, able able to think about this with such coherent logic. Many people never reach that maturity and can never question their existence. It took me a few years and a lot of confusion so this wont be an easy search.

I won’t touch on the “origins,” that is where life and the world and the universe comes from. People look at these complex and un-answerable questions and come up with their own ideas. Reading Pope John Paul’s notes on this will far differ from Albert Einstein's, that is up to you to decide on. What I can tell you about is some of the philosophy mankind has made in the last hundred years that aims us at a purpose or reason for life. I will be making a point to not give you MY answers, as this is a personal search.

A common source of answers, goofy as it sounds, are in the quality books of youth. E.B. White was a great children’s author and wrote the classic “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little.” E.B. White possessed a great mind and an uncanny ability to distill the bitter and the sweet moments of life into words. The main character in “Charlotte’s Web” says the following quote, after being asked why she weaves the elegant webs that save Wilbur, the pig, from the slaughter house-

You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.

If you can see past the scenario and feel the elements of the story, it’s quite perfect. Charlotte was using her very limited gifts to help another creature be the best they could, and in turn she became better. This theme, the redemption in service to others, is very common in western philosophy. Many of the early great americans like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin spoke on this to great length.

She also hits on the simple basic truth of life, that we are born, we live, we die, and there is little to nothing you can do to change that. This isn’t something to bemoan or be sad about, but something to celebrate. It’s the only guarantee we have.

Another theme we find is the experience idea as I call it. That is that the purpose to life is to experience everything in it. This isn’t some hedonistic ideal, but the idea that we should grab life by the proverbial horns and do what we want and what we love. This is reflected in the use of the phrase “To Live” to show an action or readiness. Oscar Wilde, a irish playwright and politician of sorts, was a true mover of philosophy in this direction. A favorite quote of his is as follows-

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

The differences here are tight, but I think you can understand. To exist, in this sense, is to just live a boring life of inaction. To live, in this context, is to go out and grab the world and use it. Sitting in class pretending to be bored would be to Exist. Trying to learn everything and more in class, being active and positive and engaged would be to Live.

Those are just two of a million different ways people justify their presence on earth. Others lean towards the pursuit of money, the spread of love, the desire to make art, or nothing.

The key here is that you get to decide. Nobody can tell you your purpose, just as nobody can tell you how to feel or who to love. The one disclaimer I will add is one based on experience. Once you think you have it all figured out, you will be wrong. And you will start thinking again, and you will think you have it, and you will be wrong. If you are lucky this cycle will repeat itself indefinitely. The pursuit of the purpose is the best feeling you can have, for it means you are still alive.

I will leave you with some words from Buckminster Fuller, an amazing american physicist and poet.

Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it.

-Mr. Wells

T.D.E. History pt. II

A few years later but not yet in my teens there was a day I learned more about the natural world. I had spent all day of that chilly november fifteenth in school learning about proper nouns and division and american presidents and atoms. Dad came home soon after I did, pulling a trailer behind the current truck. It was a sight, a Ford 250 pulling a tandem axle flat bed trailer, both painted a vibrant orange. The truck was a former city truck, the trailer the frame from a derelict motor home. On the trailer were five whitetail deer, all shot and gutted and ready for butchering.

One belonged to my uncle, the lone buck in the lot. The others were all does and all laid down by my fathers gun, the apt named “meat stick.” This was a legal take of game, all tags paid for and stuck to the ears of the animals. Some were small, obviously 6 month old fawns just passed having spots. It was a gruesome sight, the animals all splayed out, chests held open with bits of wood, tongues rolled out and swollen. My dad quickly set me to work carrying the beasts to the pole barn for butchering.

We spent all night cutting the deer into steaks and roasts, pealing off the smallest bits for ground meat and summer sausage. I saw how the muscles of the lower leg have large tendons running though them, wide guitar strings. The massive purple lions were veined with small bits of fat and vessels. We cut the meat until our hands froze and eyes fell out. The old man was a veritable machine with the large knife, stopping often to sharpen the thin steal blade. Each cut of his was precise and meaningful, mine clumsy and hacky. The old war between experience and exuberance.

I grew up knowing where my paper came from. I knew what happened to my trash and my sewage. Food didn’t come from a styrofoam package or from a far away farmer it came from the rabbits we raised, the garden we held, and the animals we hunted. Heat came from trees, not mythical electric baseboards. I also saw the corn fields I hunted get turned to subdivisions and big box stores, the woods I rambled get turned to parking lots and the streams I waded turn cloudy and dark with sediments.

Many would have classified me as a hillbilly or redneck child. Those people wouldn’t have been wrong. My mom was a seamstress and my dad a constructions worker. You may have been able to call us white trash, but only on our worst of days. I am glad I grew up this way. Nobody can take it away from me.

I was active in the Boy Scouts of America all through my youth and teen years. I stayed more active than most, camping nearly every month with the group and going on long trips during the summer. Many were just setting tents up in public parks and pretending to be woodsmen, but others were mildly strenuous. We went backpacking for a week at a time in secluded areas, traveled to the fable Philmont in New Mexico and went sailing in Florida.

My friends all came from scouts and as we got older we started taking trips of our own. We went backpacking mostly, shunning the equipment intensive activities like kayaking and climbing. We learned together to camp minimally, using fire to cook and tarps to sleep under. At times we made shelters from sticks and leaf litter. My outdoor skills increased over the years and I grew to love the woods around me. My wardrobe shifted from worn carharts to fancy fleeces and gore-tex.

I took a job in a boutique outdoor gear store. The small family owned affair was homey and warm, the staff as likely to be reading a book in back as eating tacos with patrons in front. Writers were turned on me here, I learned of Ed Abbey and Jack Turner and Scott Carrier. My old hillbilly ways were challenged in many accounts, the new liberal side of me torn fighting the gun toting side.

My circle of friends slowly enveloped a small cooperative housing system near campus. The house had all makes and marks of people, from trust fund hippy to alcoholic conservatives. We would start drinking for the parties early, so we could sleep early and be at work in the morning bleary eyed but functional. One particular evening stands out. A brother of a housemate had brought a few friends over and they sat in the corner eyeing the hippy folk.

They were all clad in levis and flannel shirts, mostly unshaven with greasy fingernails. They were talking about trucks and mudding and all forms of hillbilly life. I had been removed from that world for some time but gladly jumped in the conversation. They were a bit amazed that the hairy guy dressed in a mexican poncho could go on about rifle cartridges and engine displacement.

A few other of the hippy kids tried to engage to visiting rednecks but none could. I was well trained to respect nature by my parents, but I also knew how to use nature like the rednecks. I will always respect the tree sitters and loggers alike. They are both groups of people doing what they deem necessary, either to save the world or feed their family. This is me, and this is what I think.


History of T.D.E.

Every day I drive my twenty year old jeep to work, leaving a puddle of oil at every intersection on the way. I eat my red meat bloody and rare with beer to drink, shoot guns and like the look and feel of quality woodwork. I enjoy a bonfire and will always prefer the feel of old wool blankets on bare skin. I like eating mangoes in the middle of winter and throw my orange peals on the road.

I will never pass myself as perfect in this fight and just wanted to get my fault right out there in front for all to see. I am also a flawed character, overly cynical and aggressive, angry and dismissive. I rarely spout bits of hope or optimism. I feel that if you see the world and don’t get urges to grab a rifle and head to the woods you are delusional and doomed.

When I was a young my father took me to the woods. The whole clan, Mom, Dad, sister, and brother in the cab of a Ford pick-up. This was long before the days that any self respecting midwesterner would drive an extended cab “truck”. My mother had reupholstered the wide bench seat with free fabric from work, a small paisley pattern on black background.

The truck would be a sight in any regular city. The formerly silver body was missing most of its clear coat and had resigned to be a simple gray. Large white and rust tool boxes hugged all sides of the 8 foot bed and a sheet of ancient plywood covered the floor-free and cheap and more durable than spray in liner is what dad said. Topping it off is the large welded ladder rack, often strapped with an assortment of long tools, ladders and extra lumber. It was just like every other truck I knew.

We rolled the windows down and sweat like pigs in the heat. The air in michigan gains a tropical quality in summer. There is no escape from its hundred percent humidity and hundred degree heat other than fast vehicles with open windows and cold cokes. We covered ground swiftly and got to an old farm house in an hour or so. A few other trucks sat on the dirt driveway and grassy yard like hound dogs on a porch in the appalachia, just soaking the sun and looking beautifully functional. I knew them all as uncles and friends trucks. Nobody drove a car because gas was cheap and cars were useless. Even Uncle Kevin manages to pack his whole clan of three boys and a wife into a truck somehow. Seatbelt laws were not on the books.

I was only a few feet tall then but looked quite dandy in my T-ball shirt and “I’d rather be fishing” hat. I ran around the yard with the men, wading a sea of redwing books and denim pants. They all wore leather belt with belt buckles proclaiming allegiance to various tool companies, from Grizzly to Husqvarne. The heat was oppressive but not a pair of shorts or shaved face was to be found. These are the men I have been trying to emulate and avoid all my life.

The girls all fell into normal rolls, chatting and arranging the display of casseroles, fruit salads and sugary treats. It was every bit the classic middle american dream afternoon. But the men had plans, and we suited up for the woods. We collected chains and cables, grabbed the lone axe and arsenal of saws. Big spitting grimy scary weapons, chain saws stripped of safety features and purely utilitarian. Their orange bodies were covered in oil and flakes of long dead and milled trees. The thin bar covers were worn at the tips, letting small metal hooks come out and grab your clothes and skin.

We went is the woods and spread out. Men made small groups and went to respective trees. My father and I took his smaller saw and tromped through dead leaves and grasses looking for a certain tree. The tree he wanted, that he needed for a project. He spoke of it with a quiet reverence, describing the curled trunk and large fruit.

The land I grew up in is a series of patchwork fields. Corn and soy bean and cherries and apples and pigs and cows, with fence rows and wooded lots breaking the agriculture. It’s in the earliest of these fence rows that we found the tree. An osage orange tree big around as a trash can and gnarled in all directions. My father stooped down and grabbed the large green fruit, rolling it slowly around in his square fingered hands.

We talked a bit about how the settlers planted these trees to keep the cows in without artificial fences, how the tangled branches made a living fencerow with no need for maintenance. He told me about the bright yellow wood, it’s density and beauty. We sat and looked for birds and squirrels, him identifying them with skill I have never been able to replicate. Then he fired up the saw and tore into the fibrous bark. Flakes of wood shot over him, the yellow hunks carpeting his blaze orange saw chaps. It was acceptable to remove the anti-kick back devices from a saw, but to not wear a pair of kevlar chaps was idiotic. The sweet smell of bar lube and fresh wood filled the air. In a few short hours we had a few logs worth milling and a pile of the hottest and longest burning wood available.

Dad made a few fruit bowls and shaker boxes from that tree. He also made the rungs of a rocking chair from it, creating the most functional, light weight, and elegant piece of furniture I have ever seen. The woods were a resource and a commodity. We were given that tree for free, as it would soon be bulldozed for another subdivision of million dollar homes. We took what we could before the developer took everything.

The first post


I guess this is my little soapbox. Nobody will read it, and I'm ok with that. If anybody stumbles upon it, thats great. If you do, I hope you enjoy.