The Comforts of Home

I’ve spent time recently with two books which, though different, are similar in a particular theme: hardship. The books are Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier by Ted Catton, which I read and reviewed for the Missoulian, and In The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by the always excellent Hampton Sides, which I’ve been listening to via an Audible download. Both books are excellent works of historical narrative nonfiction. Both detail groups of men facing extreme hardships in the name of exploration and, ultimately, survival.

It amazes me how much the world has changed in such a short time. How recently it’s been in overall global history that much of the world we know in minute detail now was a vast unknown, and that journeys that take hours by automobile — or, even more amazingly, via aircraft — were trips that were undertaken with little expectation of return. As Americans we have become so soft. I can’t help but scoff at people whimpering about a little change in weather, maybe some wind and rain, or a blast of arctic air … weather they are only forced to endure in the tiny space of time it takes to get from their car and through their front door, or from shop to shop. Jesus, just the idea of shopping in the first place! When I’m irritated and hungry and there’s no food in the house, it’s not like I have to go find something to kill and eat, I’m minutes away in just about any direction, at any hour of the day, from a caloric overload that could have meant life or death for people not too many generations past, in the very spot where my fat ass is currently planted.

What does it mean to our souls, the price we’ve paid for such comfort?

And yet, the other night I was awake in the wee hours of morning. I have this app that generates various sounds for “white noise,” and it was set to simulate the ocean shore, with rain falling, and wind. I was warm, comfortable, and feeling really fucking grateful I wasn’t coiled up in a soaking fur sleeping bag on some slab of ice bobbing around in the arctic sea, frostbitten and starving. It sounds romantic in a way to hear those tales of adventure, particularly from the mouths of those who survived and went back for more, but I’m sure even the best-told stories still don’t quite capture how badly it all totally sucked.

The Jeannette’s abandonment, depicted by maritime painter James Gale Tyler, courtesy of Vallejo Maritime Gallery of Newport Beach, California

Old Hearts, New Companions

It was a long time before I could go back to the river after we lost Darla back in early June, and I still get a lump in my throat when I think about her. But we have two new friends in the home disrupting our efforts to do much of anything, and they are rapidly proving that broken hearts find new ways to love, and love hard, if we allow them to.

Cheeto, aka Huerequeque, is a Chihuahua who came from a small dog rescue center in Polson, MT, via a high kill shelter in Los Angeles that they had rescued him from. He was in lockdown an entire year. He’s adjusting very well.

Bucky is a Jack Russell from Colorado we just got last week. She’s proving to be a toothy handful. Odds are she’ll outlive me, at this rate.

Finding My Way Home

The new issue of Montana Quarterly is out, and includes my feature story, “Finding My Way Home.” It is about blood quantum, and includes the subtitle, “In Indian Country, ‘Blood Quantum’ complicates families and roils communities.” I worked hard on it and I’m happy with how it turned out. I know there are copies at Fact & Fiction downtown in Missoula, but for folks outside of Montana who want it, you may order it online HERE.

Not to spoil anything, but the piece concludes with, “at the time of this writing…. ” I am happy to report that since then, my application for enrollment with the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians — filed after much research into where my father’s side of my family truly came from — has been accepted. This is only the beginning of a larger project I am working on.


The Mind Does Not Like To Be Alone With Itself

Writer Brooke Williams visited Fact & Fiction last week as part of the tour in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet. It was an interesting discussion and I enjoyed it immensely. One particular topic piqued my attention the most: hermits. I wish I could remember the specifics, but Brooke mentioned something about reclusive Chinese poets (part of his talk was about his recent trip to China, which is another discussion entirely) and how someone had mentioned that one of the interesting things about America is we really don’t have a tradition of hermits who are important contributors to our culture. That’s kind of a hamfisted way to put it — fault for that being entirely my own — but that was the gist of it.

That discussion led me to finally reading The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Bozeman author Michael Finkel. Here’s a short synopsis of what it’s about:

“This is the fascinating true story of Christopher Knight, who lived in the Maine woods for 27 years and survived by stealing supplies from vacation cabins while living in extreme conditions to avoid detection. After more than 1,000 burglaries, he was finally caught and partially reintegrated into society. His story is told together with the history of hermits and those who have sought solitude in order to have insight. Chris defies psychological profiling, and it’s amazing Finkel was even able to interview him to write this book. This level of solitude would drive most people insane, but for Chris, it seems like an almost pure contemplative state. An excellent read.”

— Todd Miller, Arcadia Books, Spring Green, WI

I found this book fascinating. I was also mildly surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, with the number of personality traits I share with its subject, Christopher Knight. In particular, this passage struck me:

A large majority of men, and twenty-five percent of women, a University of Virginia study found, would rather subject themselves to mild electric shocks than do nothing but sit quietly with their thoughts for fifteen minutes. Unless you are a trained meditator, the study’s authors concluded, the “mind does not like to be alone with itself.”

That boggles my mind. I’m no “trained” meditator, though my morning practice is one of my favorite parts of the day. Beyond that, though, I bet I sit with my own thoughts for spans of fifteen minutes or more multiple times a day. I find as I’ve gotten older, silence is my preferred state. I rarely listen to music anymore. The list goes on. I’ve never considered myself particularly unusual for that, but perhaps I am. Particularly among men, it would seem.

I love quiet. I love the ambient sounds of the world uninterrupted by human-introduced noise. I love solitude. I’m convinced I could live perhaps not entirely secluded, but far more than I am now. I think I would thrive in that environment.

Brooke Williams said he too was fascinated with the idea of hermits, and that might be the subject of his next book. If that is the case, I await it with enthusiasm.