I was reading Thoreau’s essay “Walking” – which is still one of the great things – and I was amazed by the paragraph below. How in the world did he arrive at the last sentence in the paragraph? It appears to be apropos of nothing at all. Any editor would have reduced him to some intelligible line of argument – but of course he had no editor. And that it comes in an essay about wildness, about resisting all such straitjackets, even Common Sense, is just wonderful.
The wildest dreams of wild men, even, are not the less true, though they may not recommend themselves to the sense which is most common among Englishmen and Americans today. It is not every truth that recommends itself to the Common sense. Nature has a place for the wild Clematis as well as for the Cabbage. Some expressions of truth are reminiscent, others merely sensible, as the phrase is, others prophetic. Some forms of disease, even, may prophesy forms of health. The geologist has discovered that the figures of serpents, griffins, flying dragons, and other fanciful embellishments of heraldry, have their prototypes in the forms of fossil species which were extinct before man was created, and hence “indicate a faint and shadowy knowledge of a previous state of organic existence.” The Hindus dreamed that the earth rested on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise, and the tortoise on a serpent; and though it may be an unimportant coincidence, it will not be out of place here to state, that a fossil tortoise has lately been discovered in Asia large enough to support an elephant. I confess that I am partial to these wild fancies, which transcend the order of time and development. They are the sublimest recreation of the intellect. The partridge loves peas, but not those that go with her into the pot.
I love how the snow of winter produces, like a court reporter, a continual transcript of all the events that take place on the ground. I wouldn’t have known the property was visited continually by a bobcat two winters ago, or that there was a bear to track, were it not for the snow that keeps a record. I am always keen to what the snow tells me, and so, when I got back home from the city Monday night, I paused at the entrance to my property, because I saw something I had never seen before.
A broad, irregularly grooved, three-inch-deep band of flattened snow, about two and a half feet across, led into the woods. A set of bootprints, not mine, was next to this trace. I presumed it was a snowmobile, though I didn’t think a snowmobile would do very well going where it seemed to be going; but I wasn’t sure. I resolved to come back in the morning and take a look.
The next morning I went and investigated. I quickly determined it was no snowmobile; there was no tread, and it was too skinny anyway. It could have been a sled, but I think it was something else. In the track, and particularly in the center of the track, were little drops of red diluting into a brownish yellow at the edges: it was blood.
Someone had dragged a body out of the woods. It was possible that they had an oddly shaped sled for this purpose, but more likely the grooves I was seeing were just the result of the different pressure points of the animal’s body on the ground. A sled would probably have shielded the ground a bit better from the occasional blood-drops as well.
I walked the tracks into the woods, and found the drag-marks stopped a few hundred feet in, though the footprints continued; I think the hunter had carried the carcass for a distance, before putting it on the ground and beginning to drag it. At this point a pair of plastic gloves, lightly stained with blood, sat on top of the snow; they probably got lost in the shuffle. There was no evidence of the deer being gutted here: no especially large quantity of blood.
The tracks ended beneath some hemlocks, where there was no snow. I suspected this was where the kill had occurred, but the ground had already soaked up all the blood. If the deer had been gutted here the coyotes – or the hunter’s dog – had already taken care of the entrails. There were both canine and deer tracks leading to the spot. Another set of bootprints came down to this point from up above, to a point of rocks where two deer paths were visible, both above and below the spot. It was a good hunting vantage.
As clever as the other animals are, nothing compares with a human who knows what he is doing: there was an efficiency in the tracks that I admired. From my driveway to this vantage; from the vantage to the spot of the kill; then out to the road with the body, and hunter and hunted both now gone, leaving only slight traces. A good melt and there would be only a pair of gloves left.
I don’t like to linger very long on what human beings do to one another – it’s not really the kind of thing that makes one better. I don’t like Holocaust Museums, and Holocaust Studies, and all that. The only decent reaction I can come up with is something like the Nuremberg Trials – put these men in the docket for a few days, let them say their say about how necessary and justified it all was, have the court reporter write it all down, hang them and go home. I doubt that we will get any justice on this planet – and God will be adequate to the task anyway, I do not doubt – but presuming that this senate report on U.S. torture tactics is true, then every single person whose hands are stained by this – including President Bush and perhaps Obama as well – should be put on trial and the guilty ones should hang for it.
I walked back home from town through the woods two days ago, taking a route I had never taken before. As I came to my own property, clothed in the strangeness of the winter woods, it seemed so weird to me that I “owned” this place – that on some map somewhere it was known by my name, and that the word “my” could be affixed to it. That the word “my” can be affixed to anything at all, in fact. But in particular, that it should be used to “modify” – grammatically speaking – all these thousands of living things, who lived their lives in utter mystery, so far beyond my knowing. The slightest change in weather and I would barely recognize them, though I live with them every day. It is not mine – just the place where no one drives me away. So I will not call the woods in this picture mine, but I will say: the little rise of land you see in the photo – on top of that rise is where I spend my happiest days.
Kerouac, in this the original scroll version of On the Road, tells of the time he was a security guard in a construction company’s barracks. The description of police brutality and interference in people’s lives is interesting to say the least. And timely. I think this culture still exists.
These barracks were for the temporary quartering of overseas construction workers. The men who came through stayed there waiting for their ship. Most of them were bound for Okinawa. Most of them were running away from something – usually the law. There were tough groups of brothers from Alabama, shifty men from New York, all kinds from all over. And knowing full well how horrible it would be to work a full year in Okinawa they drank. The job of the special guards was to see that they didn’t tear the barracks down. We had our headquarters in the main building, just a wooden contraption with panelwalled offices. Here at a rolltop desk we sat around shifting our guns off our asses and yawning, and the old cops told stories. It was a horrible crew of men, men with copsouls, all except Henri and I. Henri was only trying to make a living, so was I, but these men wanted to make arrests and get compliments from the Chief in town. They even went so far as to say that if you didn’t make at least one arrest a month you’d be fired. I gulped at the prospect of making an arrest. What actually happened was that I was as drunk as anybody in the barracks the night all hell broke loose. This was the night when the schedule was so arranged that I was all alone for six hours… the only cop on the grounds; and not that anybody knew it, but everybody in the barracks seemed to have gotten drunk that night. It was because their ship was leaving in the morning. They drank like seamen do the night before the anchor goes up. I sat in the office, in a rolltop chair, with my feet on the desk, reading Blue Book adventures about Oregon and the north country, when I suddenly realized there was a great hum of activity in the usually quiet night. I went out. Lights were burning in practically every damned shack on the grounds. Men were shouting, bottles were breaking. It was do or die for me. I took my flashlight and went to the noisiest door and knocked. Someone opened it about six inches. “What do you want?” I said “I’m guarding these barracks tonight and you boys are supposed to keep quiet as much as you can” or some such silly remark. They slammed the door in my face. I stood looking at the wood of it against my nose. It was like a western movie; the time had come for me to assert myself. I knocked again. They opened up wide this time. “Listen” I said “I don’t want to come around bothering you fellows but I’ll lose my job if you make too much noise.” “Who are you?” “I’m a guard here.” “Never seen you before.” “Well, here’s my badge.” “What are you doing with that pistolcracker on your ass?” “It isn’t mine” I apologized “I borrowed it.” “Have a drink, for krissakes.” I didn’t mind if I would. I took two. I said “Okay boys? You’ll keep quiet boys? I’ll get hell you know.” “It’s allright kid,” they said, “go make your rounds, come back for another drink if you want one.” And I went to all the doors in this manner and pretty soon I was as drunk as anyone else. Come dawn, it was my duty to put up the American flag on a sixty foot pole, and this morning I put it up upsidedown and went home to bed. When I came back in the evening the regular corp of cops were sitting around grimly in the office. “Say bo, what was all the noise around here last night. We’ve had complaints from people who live in those houses across the canyon.” “I don’t know” I said “it sounds pretty quiet right now.” “The whole contingent’s gone. You was supposed to keep order around here last night—the Chief is yelling at you—and another thing—do you know you can go to jail for putting the American flag upsidedown on a government pole.” “Upsidedown?” I was horrified; of course I hadn’t realized it; I did it every morning mechanically. I shook out its dust in dew and hauled her up. “Yessir,” said a fat cop who’d spent thirty years as a guard in the horrible prison known as San Quentin, “you could go to jail for doing something like that.” The others nodded grimly. They were always sitting around on their asses; they were proud of their jobs. They took their guns out and talked about them, but they never pointed them. They were itching to shoot somebody. Henri and me. Let me tell you about the two worst cops. The fat one who had been a San Quentin guard was potbellied and about sixty, retired and couldn’t keep away from the atmospheres that had nourished his dry soul all his life. Every night he drove to work in his 37 Buick, punched the clock exactly on time, and sat down at the rolltop desk. They said he had a wife. Then he laboured painfully over the simple form we all had to fill out every night—rounds, time, what happened and so on. Then he leaned back and told stories. “You should have been here about two months ago when me and Tex” (that was the other horrible cop, a youngster who wanted to be a Texas ranger and had to be satisfied with his present lot) “me and Tex arrested a drunk in Barrack G. Boy you should have seen the blood fly. I’ll take you over there tonight and show you the stains on the wall. We had him bouncing from one wall to another, first Tex hit him with his club, then I did, then Tex took out his revolver and snapped him one, and I was just about to try it myself when he subsided and went quietly. That fellow swore to kill us when he got out of jail—got thirty days—here it is SIXTY days and he ain’t showed up.” And this was the big point of the story. They’d put such a fear in him that he was too yellow to come back and try to kill them. I began to worry he might try it and mistake me for Tex in a dark barrack alley. The old cop went on, sweetly reminiscing about the horrors of San Quentin. “We used to march ‘em like an Army platoon to breakfast. Wasn’t one man out of step. Everything went like clockwork. You should have seen it. I was a guard there for thirty years. Never had any trouble. Those boys knew we meant business. Now a lot of fellows get soft guarding prisoners and they’re the ones that usually get in trouble. Now you take you—from what I’ve been observing about you, you seem to me a little bit too LEENENT with the men.” He raised his pipe and looked at me sharp. “They take advantage of that, you know.” I knew that. I told him I wasn’t cut out to be a cop. “Yes, but that’s the job that you APPLIED FOR. ow you got to make up your mind one way or the other, or you’ll never get anywhere. It’s your duty. You’re sworn in. You can’t compromise with things like this. Law & order’s got to be kept.” I didn’t know what to say: he was right: but all I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere, and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country. The other cop, Tex, was short, squat, muscular, with a blond crewcut, and a nervous twitch in his neck like a boxer always punching one fist into another. He rigged himself out like a Texas ranger of old. He wore a revolver down low, with ammunition belt, and carried a small quirt of some kind and pieces of leather hanging everywhere like if he was a walking torture chamber: shiny shoes, low-hanging jacket, cocky hat, everything but boots. He was always showing me holds: reaching down under my crotch and lifting me up nimbly. In point of strength I could have thrown him clear to the ceiling with the same hold and I knew it well; but I never let him know for fear he’d want a wrestling match. A wrestling match with a guy like that could end up in shooting. I’m sure he was a better shot; I’d never had a gun in my life. It scared me to even load one. He desperately wanted to make arrests. One night we were alone on duty and he came back pissing mad. “I told some boys in there to keep quiet and they’re still making noise. I told them twice. I always give a man two chances. Not three. You come with me, and I’m going back there and arrest them.” “Well let me give them a third chance,” I said, “I’ll talk to them.” “No sir, I never gave a man more than two chances.” I sighed. Here we go. We went to the offending room and Tex opened the door and told everybody to file out. It was embarrassing. Every single one of us was blushing. This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do. So what if a bunch of men talk in loud voices and drink in the night. But Tex wanted to prove something. He made sure to bring me along in case they jumped him. They might have. They were all brothers, all from Alabama. We all strolled back to the station. Tex in front and me in back. One of the boys said to me “Tell that crotch-eared meanass to take it easy on us, we might get fired for this and never get to Okinawa.” “I’ll talk to him.” In the station I told Tex to forget it. He said, for everybody to hear, and blushing, “I don’t give anybody no more than two chances.” “What the hail,” said the Alabaman, “what difference does it make. We might lose our jobs.” Tex said nothing and filled out the arrest forms. He arrested only one of them; he called the prowl car in town. They came and took him away. The other brothers walked off sullenly. “What’s Ma going to say?” they said. One of them came back to me. “You tell that Texas sonofabitch if my brother ain’t out of jail tomorrow night he’s going to get his ass fixed.” I told Tex, in a neutral way, and he said nothing. The brother was let off easy and nothing happened. The contingent shipped out; a new wild bunch came in. (166-70)
Ancient societies typically did not distinguish between various types of human-caused human death in times of peace. The distinctions we have (first degree, second degree, and third degree murder, as well as manslaughter, negligent homicide, wrongful death, justifiable homicide, etc.) did not apply then. The killer incurred some kind of guilt, simply because he had taken a life, and some kind of atonement was required.
I think there is something deeply true about this: when a person dies because of a car we were driving, or a mistake we made, or anything of the like, it seems to me that some kind of ritual purification is required – some kind of penalty, some kind of restitution, that has to be done, even if it is just to reassure the killer, that he can take his place in a world of fragile living things again.
The closest thing to this that we have is a trial, where day after day the killer has to sit in court while others debate and evaluate his action, and the killer knows that terrible penalties will be enacted if his actions are not found to be justifiable. But even to sit there, and go through the trial, is a kind of suffering – it is something.
Does it not seem obvious that every time a person dies, and we know who was involved in their death, that the sanctity of that life requires at least a trial?
A very well-put, thoughtful piece by Erik Lindberg on how even the most liberal democrats and greens are probably climate change deniers nearly as myopic as any Republican. The democratic problem is a belief that no serious change of lifestyle is required: that all we need to do is shift the sources of our energy draws, and we will save the planet – just put the plug in a different outlet. The different outlet is renewables. The problem with this is that renewables almost certainly can’t produce enough energy to allow us to live the way we do now. In a renewable, sustainable world, everything would be different: we would necessarily be returned to the lifestyle human beings have had for millennia. This is the kind of traditional, Christian life the traditional Christians of America have very little interest in.
But the “green energy” people don’t want it either. But in all probability the only green energy is the energy we don’t use. Simplicity is the only green option. But since almost no one wants that option – it involves giving up so much power – they’ll talk about something else. As Lindberg puts it:
While the transportation sector is responsible for a lot of our emissions, the carbon footprint of any one individual has much more to do with his or her overall levels of consumption of all kinds—the travel (especially on airplanes), the hotels and restaurants, the size and number of homes, the computers and other electronics, the recreational equipment and gear, the food, the clothes, and all the other goods, services, and amenities that accompany an affluent life. It turns out that the best predictor of someone’s carbon footprint is income. This is true whether you are comparing yourself to other Americans or to other people around the world. Middle-class American professionals, academics, and business-people are among the world’s greatest carbon emitters and, as a group, are more responsible than any other single group for global warming, especially if we focus on discretionary consumption. Accepting the fact of climate change, but then jetting off to the tropics, adding another oversized television to the collection, or buying a new Subaru involves a tremendous amount of denial. There are no carbon offsets for ranting and raving about conservative climate-change deniers.
I think we all understand this to some extent – which is why the “ranting and raving” has such a tone of hysteria to it: nothing adds energy to our accusations like the subtle feeling that we, too, are guilty.
Lindberg makes some interesting and plausible claims about what the middle-class American/European lifestyle really requires in terms of resources:
This global economy may seem like it needs little more than an army of creative innovators and entrepreneurs tapping blithely on laptop computers at the local Starbucks. But the real global economy still requires a growing fleet of container ships—and, of course, all the iron and steel used to build them, all the excavators used to mine it, all the asphalt needed to pave more of the world. It needs a bigger and bigger fleet of UPS trucks and Fed Ex airplanes filling the skies with more and more carbon dioxide, it needs more paper, more plastic, more nickel, copper, and lead. It requires food, bottled water, and of course lots and lots of coffee. And more oil, coal, and natural gas. As Juliet Schor reports, each American consumer requires “132,000 pounds of oil, sand, grain, iron ore, coal and wood” to maintain our current lifestyle each year. That adds up to “an eye-popping 362 pounds a day.”
But when you look at the massive levels of consumption in our society of everything – gravel, cement, road salt, deodorant, apples, corn, cosmetics, beer, paper, everything – you realize just how much must be required to make all these things we so take for granted. We don’t need most of them, of course – that’s the great secret – but the problem is that foregoing them requires such a sacrifice of personal power.
Because we have come to take the power and energy-concentration of fossil fuels for granted, and see our current lifestyle as normal, it is easy to ignore the way the average citizens of industrialized societies have an unprecedented amount of energy at their disposal. Consider this for a moment: a single $3 gallon of gasoline provides the equivalent of about 80 days of hard manual labor. Fill up your 15 gallon gas tank in your car, and you’ve just bought the same amount of energy that would take over three years of unremitting manual labor to reproduce. Americans use more energy in a month than most of our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime. We live at a level, today, that in previous days could have only been supported by about 150 slaves for every American—though even that understates it, because we are at the same time beneficiaries of a societal infrastructure that is also only possible to create if we have seemingly limitless quantities of lightweight, relatively stable, easily transportable, and extremely inexpensive ready-to-burn fuel like oil or coal.
Throughout history there has been a continual chorus of praise of the simple life, from a human tradition where the word “poverty” has often been listed as one of the desirable things, for Cistercians the kind of thing you make a vow to follow, for Francis a lover, for Diogenes the only way to live “in harmony with nature.” Thoreau is our American soloist from the same chorus. They rested their case entirely on spiritual arguments. But how much more clear is the case now, when simplicity is recommended not only by our own happiness, but by the well-being of every other beautiful living thing on the planet.
My father used to talk about this, that in his day they used to Trick-or-treat on Thanksgiving, not Halloween. I never disbelieved him, but here is confirmation of what he used to say. It’s odd to think of traditions changing so quickly – within a single generation, the notion of Thanksgiving being used for trick-or-treating seems inconceivable.
A brilliant sermon on love, marriage, and monogamy, by Jonathan Sacks, given at the Vatican. This is well worth the time to read. Whenever you see good sermonizing it is amazing how bad the normal stuff is. This is a defense of monogamy which actually works: not by demonizing alternatives but by showing the virtue of committed love. It always seems so much easier to work with someone, when both lives are dedicated to an infinite purpose. It seems to me that Art and Religion and Nature are just about the only things which can offer this kind of stability-via-purpose to relationships, but then again, who knows. One of my favorite parts:
In biblical times each Jew had to give a half shekel to the Temple to remind us that we are only half. There are some cultures that teach that we are nothing. There are others that teach that we are everything. The Jewish view is that we are half and we need to open ourselves to another if we are to become whole.
A friend recently introduced me to the work of Sebastiao Salgado, who I think can lay claim to being the greatest photographer who has ever lived. I can say that the show I just saw at the International Center for Photography, Genesis, is the best photography show I’ve ever seen. In fact, in my mind there’s no clear second. If you love the epic and the grand, Salgado is your photographer. His work makes Ansel Adams look like point-and-shoot piffery.
Several years ago he put together a collection of photographs about the most extraordinary things that people are doing on earth – entitled Workers – and throughout he managed to combine the epic with the surreal in a way that is reminiscent of Bosch. In this latest collection, which is literally hundreds of massive photos, the exhibit itself on a truly epic scale which just about exhausts the little mind, his focus is on nature and man in nature, and it in every way earns its epic title, “Genesis.” Confronting almost every image you are left with the feeling, “This is the mind of God. I can’t understand this. I can’t understand this.”