A Really Free and Enlightened State

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. His importance to me as a writer and philosopher can’t be overstated, even though I often get a bit weary and eye-rolly over how frequently he is quoted in certain circles. I’ve visited Walden Pond, and his grave in the town of Concord, MA, several times. I hope to take my mom there some day, as she too is a fan and honorary member of the Thoreau Sauntering Society.

The following is an excerpt from his essay, “Civil Disobedience.” He wrote it after he spent a night in jail in 1849 as a protest against the Mexican War. He deemed American’s violent, imperialistic actions illegal and refused to pay a poll tax, which led to his incarceration. Reading Thoreau, much of what he says is particularly relevant today. Please forgive the male-specific references throughout as a sign of the times.

There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would think it inconsistent with its own repose, if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellowmen. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.

Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

The 4th of July. America’s birthday. This is the day we are supposed to get all Pollyannaish about the state of our Republic and wax, “Golly, aren’t we swell?” in spite of everything, right? Grill a wiener? Drink a case of watery beer? Get sunburned and piss in your brother-in-law’s pool and blame it on your niece? Possibly, but I can’t get there, not this year.

Consider our reality. America is the laughing stock of the world. It would be comical how inept our current administration is if it weren’t so damn dangerous. Decades of social and environmental progress is being attacked and rolled back daily … if not hourly. Our government continues to wage war on the poorest people of the globe, only now we’ve upped the ante to include those folks who live here too (overtly, anyway; this class war in America has been going on a long time, it’s just out in the open now). Given the rumblings coming out of the twitter account of our Toddler-in-Chief, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the more violent aspects of that assault become even more lethal at home. I mean the inclusion of poor white people in the carnage, of course, as the smoking guns of law enforcement have been aimed at our black and brown neighbors bloodily and efficiently since all those founding white dudes first broke away from the royal We 241 years ago.

The notion of this holiday being a celebration of independence is particularly laughable. The vast majority of us are more deeply enslaved every year to a system where hard work and responsibility only helps shovel more wealth to the fortunate few and does nothing to protect us from the cruel lottery of unexpected illness or hardship. For all the talk of bootstraps and opportunity, unless you are white, male, and straight, your choices are extremely limited.

And the current dudes doing all this? We put them there. Gave them their power. Turned them lose on us. From my desk I can see a couple a couple neighbors out in the street leaning against their trucks talking to each other. From the stickers I saw on their rigs during the election cycle I’m pretty certain how they voted. I’m supposed to celebrate in common with them? How? What?

Yeah, I’m pissing and moaning. I feel surly. The summer is really starting to swelter these days, and that makes for my least favorite time of year. I’ve always hated the 4th, and it’s only getting worse. The meatheads in and around whatever neighborhood I happen to live in have eternally cranked up their noisy fireworks several days before the 4th and kept at it for a few days after. It makes me seethe. It is a perfect indictment of American intelligence: let’s launch a bunch of cheap, paper missiles showering sparks into our surroundings, where the tall, dry grasses of summer are just aching to chemically transform everything to ash. Fire’s always awesome so long as it’s someone else’s acreage belching smoke, right?

I’m a bitter, hopeless, hateful man these days. But happy 4th anyway. Perhaps somebody’s god will choose to bless this cesspool of a country. None of my small ones are going to.


One-Sentence Journal, Weeks Ninety-Two and Ninety-Three

  1. 05/07/2017:  A slow day at work followed by a couple hours of solitude reminds me how perfectly suited I am to the withdrawn life.
  2. 05/08/2017:  The Clark Fork is really beginning to boom with spring runoff, and it is equal parts frightening and magnificent.
  3. 05/09/2017:  Mom is headed to England and I wish I could have stowed-away in her luggage, then expatriated myself while she connected in Paris.
  4. 05/10/2017:  Remembering fondly my years in Washington, where everywhere I went I was peacefully anonymous.
  5. 05/11/2017:  Lots of burly love in the air when Aaron Draplin rolls into town.
  6. 05/12/2017:  I sleep through the opening five minutes of yoga class and only the thoughtfulness of my instructor, who leaves the outer door unlocked, saves Day 16 of my 30-day challenge.
  7. 05/13/2017:  The Bitterroot River is running high while California Quail sneak through the bushes, and an owl calls me closer.
  8. 05/14/2017:  The decadent luxury of sleeping in until 7:30 AM.
  9. 05/15/2017:  Some much-needed contentment, however brief, and the pastel colors of evening sunsets in spring.
  10. 05/16/2017:  The first hummingbird sighting of the season outside my window leads to a rapid reconfiguration of the feeder farm and the immediate production of a batch of sugar water.
  11. 05/17/2017:  A yard covered in snow this morning.
  12. 05/18/2017:  Stopping in a bar to meet a friend for a beer, the televisions blare “President Trump!” this, and “President Trump!” that, and all I can wonder is if there were ever two words less suited to follow one after the other?
  13. 05/19/2017:  My old cat, Kitten, a 20-year veteran of my household, went on to the great beyond without me, where she will no doubt wait to keep me awake late at night with her random fuck-with-mes well into eternity.
  14. 05/20/2017:  Roughly forty ounces of coffee were no match for a long week culminating in Day 24 of my 30-day yoga challenge.

Looking For Some Grass

I headed up the Rattlesnake Saturday because the story is the beargrass is blooming this year, and I figured I knew exactly where to find some. To my recollection it is the first time I ever went out into the woods specifically on the hunt for some kind of plant or flower. I found it, along with many other blooming, beautiful wildflowers. The smell in the largest concentrations of them was intoxicating. It was a perfect day outdoors; several hours of sunlight, shade, and the sounds and smells of the natural world. It is a kind of soul work, have no doubt.

As for beargrass, this is from the wonderful reference book Rocky Mountain Natural History: Grand Teton to Jasper by Daniel Mathews:

Once you’ve seen beargrass in bloom you will have no trouble ever recognizing its wonderful flower heads again. But the flowering schedule is erratic. You often see only the bunched leaves. Communities of beargrass may go for years without one bloom — and then hundreds bloom at once. That often happens for several years in a row after a fire that reduces the tree canopy but leaves the soil cool enough for the beargrass roots to survive and resprout. Like the century plant, beargrass clumps grow slowly, accumulating photosynthates for years before venturing a flowering stalk. Having flowered, the clump dies, but its nutrients are siphoned off through the rhizome to a new offset clump.

Spring’s tender leaf bases figure in bear diets, hence “beargrass’; but the neatly clipped leaf bases you see here and there are more likely the work of a “brushpicker” gathering foliage for the florist trade.

By summer the leaves are wiry and strong. Native Americans wove them into baskets and hats.

Mathews writes more, but you get the idea. Speaking of hats, it was the trial run of my new Filson hat, which I think is quite snappy. Here are some shots from the outing, including the initial, post-tag removal moments of me under my hat.

Solstice Litany

Big tip of the hat/prayerful bow/you name it to my friend April for making me aware that the following was posted at the Poetry Foundation, which reminded me of this wonderful poem. It’s from Dead Man’s Float (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), one of the most important books to have come into my life.

Solstice Litany

The Saturday morning meadowlark
came in from high up
with her song gliding into tall grass
still singing. How I’d like
to glide around singing in the summer
then to go south to where I already was
and find fields full of meadowlarks
in winter. But when walking my dog
I want four legs to keep up with her
as she thunders down the hill at top speed
then belly flops into the deep pond.
Lark or dog I crave the impossible.
I’m just human. All too human.

I was nineteen and mentally
infirm when I saw the prophet Isaiah.
The hem of his robe was as wide
as the horizon and his trunk and face
were thousands of feet up in the air.
Maybe he appeared because I had read him
so much and opened too many ancient doors.
I was cooking my life in a cracked clay
pot that was leaking. I had found
secrets I didn’t deserve to know.
When the battle for the mind is finally
over it’s late June, green and raining.

A violent windstorm the night before
the solstice. The house creaked and yawned.
I thought the morning might bring a bald earth,
bald as a man’s bald head but not shiny.
But dawn was fine with a few downed trees,
the yellow rosebush splendidly intact.
The grass was all there dotted with Black
Angus cattle. The grass is indestructible
except to fire but now it’s too green to burn.
What did the cattle do in this storm?
They stood with their butts toward the wind,
erect Buddhists waiting for nothing in particular.
I was in bed cringing at gusts,
imagining the contents of earth all blowing
north and piled up where the wind stopped,
the pile sky-high. No one can climb it.
A gopher comes out of a hole as if nothing happened.

The sun should be a couple of million miles
closer today. It wouldn’t hurt anything
and anyway this cold rainy June is hard
on me and the nesting birds. My own nest
is stupidly uncomfortable, the chair
of many years. The old windows don’t keep
the weather out, the wet wind whipping
my hair. A very old robin drops dead
on the lawn, a first for me. Millions
of birds die but we never see it—they like
privacy in this holy, fatal moment or so
I think. We can’t tell each other when we die.
Others must carry the message to and fro.
“He’s gone,” they’ll say. While writing an average poem
destined to disappear among the millions of poems
written now by mortally average poets.

Solstice at the cabin deep in the forest.
The full moon shines in the river, there are pale
green northern lights. A huge thunderstorm
comes slowly from the west. Lightning strikes
a nearby tamarack bursting into flame.
I go into the cabin feeling unworthy.
At dawn the tree is still smoldering
in this place the gods touched earth.