Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Road Traveled

Something about late summer/early autumn light, ambiguous beauty, sun waning, slanting, though not yet at an extreme angle, pale gold, not yet honey; but the golden veil will descend later in the day.

I load the car as first light etches the mountain ridges and slip away, stopping to buy coffee from an all-night kiosk. Quickly the town recedes behind me and the asphalt unrolls through farmland, then mountains. Through the lightening dawn the landscape flashes by the window; Shasta towers on my right dripping its fast-melting glaciers. I have a strange sense of being in an old film, the car is a capsule and what flashes past an illusion. But it is real enough, and the farms tell the tale of their owners' fortunes.

There are hardscrabble homesteads, rural refuges with truck gardens and small, faded clapboard houses. Sometimes there is desolation and squalor, as if the land has been abandoned: there are collapsing single-wides and ancient RVs. Here and there For Sale signs speak of sorrow and want. The road begins to climb through irrigated pastures, green carpets laid out between the straw-covered hills. Black cattle roam behind the fences, and with the rising sun emerges the sense of urgency that marks the waning year. Cattle trucks hurry by; at one spread they are lining up in the early morning light, waiting for their living cargo. Hay barns are stuffed to the eaves, and juggernaughts with more hay come towards me at terrifying speed, small alfalfa fragments swirling in their wake across my windscreen.

I climb higher and now the sun threatens my ability to drive; at certain angles the glare makes it almost impossible to see the road ahead. The landscape continues its heartbreak: a state-of-the-art equestrian center: for sale; what appears to bean only recently vacated large working ranch, its pastures blank, its well-kept buildings eerily empty: for sale.

The road unrolls through the mountains now, over the 5,000 foot elevation summit, then down in gentle loops to a major lake where hundreds of grebes of several species are bobbing on the rough surface: Western, Pied Billed, Clarks. The wind is blowing hard, and salt particles fleck my windscreen. As I leave the car to walk and stretch the cold wind sucks the breath from my lungs.

"Looks like an early winter," says the old-timer with the oxygen cylinder sitting at the counter of the Coyote Cafe where I stop for food, "seems like the last one just ended."

He says it's been a cold summer. He picks up his cylinder and leaves. The place is empty but for me and the two women running it. I speculate that one is the result of the other's teen-age pregnancy. She's new to the job. They eye me warily, not accustomed to a single woman traveling alone; one is in her thirties, the other barely twenty if that. Their faces are unlined, but there is something about them that says they've seen it all. I order the breakfast sandwich, not knowing what it is, but then, even the older woman had to look at the instructions by the stove in the back before she could tell me.

They go off to cook and, invisible, call out a greeting to the next elder who shuffles in and sits next to me at the counter. He is a bit off, not really compos; then a less savory threesome takes up residence at a window table. The place is tiny; perhaps a converted gas station.

My breakfast arrives: sourdough bread with ham and velveeta, a bag of potato chips and coffee. I choke down half the sandwich while the ladies negotiate with the new arrivals. They are not glad to see them. I ask for a takeaway box, pay the small bill, leave a dollar tip under the plate.

It isn't only the sandwich that's left me feeling queasy. As I pull out of the parking lot onto the two-lane blacktop I see another elderly person, a lady this time, making her painful way between houses with the aid of a walker. I marvel at her endurance and that of the two other octogenarians with whom I ate breakfast; I weep over the fog of despair that seems to saturate the clear mountain air. This wide place in the road seems to have been forgotten by just about everyone: most of the remaining buildings are boarded up.

Its best feature is that it is a hangout for golden eagles. I saw four on the way in, perched close to the road; several more appear, soaring, as I roll on into open country. The landscape changes again, high desert scrub, sage and rabbit brush. I make a right-angled turn north and in a few miles enter the staggering landscape of Lake Albert, an alkaline lake on the left where avocets and black-necked stilts flourish, and, on my right, a rim rising to 2000 feet elevation looming sheer. The escarpment marks a 30 mile long fault alive with light and shadow.

Then into cinder cone country, another jog east past the BLM wild horse corrals and I have entered a time-warp, a culture more in tune with the 1950s than the 21st century. Here, too, businesses have failed, but the town is still alive, the cattle go to market, the alfalfa is cut and baled, and the population ranges from the super-rich to people living off the grid. It is harsh, unforgiving basin and range. The alkaline powder is so deep on the unpaved road to my friends' house that even the 4-wheel drive has difficulty. The sun is low on the horizon now; to the east a few thunderheads linger over one ridgeline, while to the west red slips beneath the mackerel clouds to bathe the desert in vermillion.

Here the sky is vast, the land utterly silent, and one's word had better be good. I am invited to a doughnut social at a Mennonite friend's house; gentle hilarity and sweet hot feather-light rounds. Eat your heart out, Krispy Kreme. Eat your heart out, consumer culture, for these people are serious even for Mennonites: in this group it is your contemplative knowledge of God evidenced in your life that is your full membership; the older woman I speak to says it is not limited in age: her daughter met the divine aged ten. The poised young couples cherish each other; the body language is gentle and unhurried, a language that takes a lifetime of nonviolence to learn. These plain people put we monastics to shame. It is not all roses of course; I deplore the alfalfa pivots and the degrading of the landscape and aquifer; I disagree with not educating beyond the eighth grade, but I am glad to be with them, honored that I am one of the few 'English' as the Amish would say; invited and accepted.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Apologies for lack of a post so far this week. I am in transition, drove several hundred miles yesterday, and it is HOT.

Went through several once-prosperous small towns; it is frightening to see what is happening in rural or even semi-rural areas and the wide variation in prices. In some more prosperous places, grocery prices are three times what they are elsewhere. How do the less well-off people who serve the wealthy survive?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Feathers from the Breath of God

Yesterday someone in the neighborhood mentioned that he'd found some feathers he'd been unable to identify. He went into his tool shop and pulled them out. They were bald eagle feathers; they couldn't have been anything else. He told me where he'd found them and said that there seemed to be a nest under construction. I hotfooted it to the spot and put the glasses on it: a typical eagle stick structure.

We know there are a few bald eagles around, but to have them building a nest close by is more than a little exciting. I've been hearing crows mobbing something in the early mornings in the direction of the nest, but assumed it was an owl. Crows like mobbing eagles even more than they like mobbing owls. The eagles try to ignore them, but the crows are amazingly persistent. If an eagle is standing on the beach trying to look regal, there will almost certainly be two or three crows yanking its tail feathers, making it look ridiculous. Into every eagle's life, it seems, a few crows must come.

My daily hike has switched back to the morning: even with Daylight Saving Time the sun sinks too quickly to linger outside in the evenings. The unusually cool weather continues to the delight of some and the despair of others: if really hot days make you feel dreadful, then it's been a great summer. If you're trying to grow vegetables or fruit, then for many the summer has been a disaster. Snatches of conversation in passing speak of unripened tomatoes, grapes three weeks behind and nervousness about early rains. The apples seem to be fine, and it's a big crop.

I've just tied together some significant feathers from this summer, winding the quill ends with a bit of red yarn. They were gifts from a wild turkey, a fledgling great horned owl, one of its parents, and one of the eagles, whose feather was lying on the ground underneath the nest. Omens again; today I went to the ocean and saw a mother grey whale and her calf close into shore, harvesting a school of baitfish. Animals seem to have played a big part in my life this year, though I cannot say why; yet for that blessing I give great thanks.

Monday, August 09, 2010


Yesterday was a magical late-summer morning. Golden light filtered through the last wisps of fog as I walked along a trail through oak savannah along a mostly-dry creek. Now and then a brown leaf would sashay down the still air. The trail leveled out, the ravine on my right, the hill ever more sheer on my left. I had been looking down, watching my step, when the unmistakable sharp bark of a grey fox rasped the air above my head.

I looked up to see the lovely creature standing not twenty feet away on the ledge of an enormous smooth-rock outcropping. She was curious, unafraid; not a hair was out of place. She was the perfect picture of what a grey fox ought to be. She barked again as I gazed, and cocked her head as if with amusement at my astonishment. All the shades of her coat, grey marked with tan, seemed charged with light. A third time she barked and then turned slowly to show me her magnificent brush. She vanished, as only a fox can vanish.

For a fox this den was the equal of a castle on the Rhine or a château on the Loire. No wonder she wanted to call my attention to it —and to her own beauty. She had proprietary rights over an impregnable fortress. It would be near impossible to scale the smooth rock face; she could laugh at me and preen on her patio without any fear of danger. She could see 360 degrees; the creek and its gorge provided an amplifier for sounds any intruder might make; the banks were rich in rodents.

This was the second eldritch encounter I'd had in a week.

Last Wednesday I was walking along the dirt road atop the burm by the river in the slanted evening light. I came across a dead young hare or jackrabbit, as they are called here, along the verge; it had not quite reached the safety of the tall grass and scrub. It lay on its right side, immaculate: every one of its hairs was in place. The only sign of violence was a trickle of blood on the right hind leg. I marveled for a time at its ethereal beauty—the soft grey back, white breast, graceful long ears—then continued my tramp into the gloaming. An hour later as I retraced my steps a bobcat emerged from the brush. He or she looked over his shoulder, then stood broadside to get a better look at me. I slowed my step. We gazed at one another; the bobcat sauntered on ahead, turned; once more our eyes locked. A third time he moved on before me. We had reached the hare, which the bobcat picked up, then stood motionless, considering me for the third time, then slipped into the poison oak out of sight.

The sense that these encounters are omens rise from the gut, as the enormous fish in Alaska was an omen (see post for June 16, 2008), or the whales (see posts in November, 2009), or Raven (see Seasons of Death and Life: A Wilderness Memoir). I must wait now to see what unfolds.

In the meantime, there is a terrific article in today's New York Times on love of neighbour and self. Behold!


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

An Unsettling God

In his 2009 book, Walter Brueggemann has written a forceful critique of modern culture using an unadulterated model of the Old Testament God. I find his books compulsive reading in any event, but this one may be his best.

'At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance . . . . This insistence flies in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces a competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievments, and finally morality. . . .

'At the center of realitiy is a deep, radical, painful, costly fissure that will, soon or later, break ever self-arranged pattern of well-being . . . . It cannot be helped, and it cannot be avoided. . . .

'This insistence on the reality of brokenness flies in the face of the Enlightenment practice of denial. Enlightenment rationality, in its popular, uncriticized form, teaches that with enough reason and resources brokenness can be avoided. And so Enlightnment rationality, in its frenzied commercial advertising, hucksters the good of denial and avoidance: denial of headaches and perspiration and loneliness, impotence and poverty and shame, embarrassment and, finally, death. In such ideology there are no genuinely broken people. When brokenness intrudes into such an assembly of denial, as surely it must, it comes as failure, stupidity, incompetence, and guilt. The church, so wrapped in the narrative of denial, tends to collude in this. When denial is transposed into guilt—into personal failure—the system of denial remains intact and uncritized, in the way Job' friends defended the system.

'The outcome for the isolated failure is that there can be no healing, for there has not been enough candor to permit it. In the end, such denial is not only a denial of certain specifics—it is the rejection of the entire drama of brokenness and healing, the denial that there is an incommensurate Power and Agent who comes in pathos into the brokenness, and who by coming there makes the brokenness a place of possibility.' (pp. 171-172)

I couldn't help thinking of the spiritual marketplace as I read Brueggemann. I think it was St Teresa who said that it is important to tell people not what they want to hear but what they need to hear, that to do otherwise is to betray the relationship. How far her notion is from today's reality, along with the idea that there might just possibly be tendencies in ourselves we need to work on if we are not to self-destruct and take others with us. Contemporary spirituality often seems to me like a form of plastic surgery: no matter how destructive the person's behavior they are to be encouraged, affirmed, made to feel 'special'. To actually identify the problem for many people seems almost inconceivable: look (behold!), covetousness (or lying, or lack of integrity, or misogyny—fill in the blank) is a huge problem for you at the moment. Not only is it affecting your behavior and relationships adversely, it is driving you to make bad choices for the group. Worst of all, it is destabilizing you: you have no centre.

Most people would be outraged that anyone could see, much less identify, the melanoma that is eating away their flesh under their botoxed plasticine cheek. According to some recent sociological studies, almost no one would have any pangs at all that they were damaging the community, since they regard the community as something to be manipulated or exploited if indeed they have any idea of community at all. As Brueggemann says, the notion of brokenness as a place of possibility is alien to the praxis of an Enlightenment mindset. There is nothing wrong with the great me; there is definitely something wrong with everybody else, and any means is justifiable so long as I achieve my covetous (fill in the blank) end. It is the entitled I who is being wounded by this slander; the community comes second, if at all. And why should I repent and change if there is nothing wrong with me? Suck it up, world. And so we go on our morally bankrupt way, lying to our selves so often that we wouldn't recognize the truth if we fell over it.

If readers consider this an extreme view, then they should read the spiritual letters of Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding. He knew that it is the truth—often unvarnished, sometimes even, according to our lights, brutal—that will set the soul free. He is ruthless in the only way it is acceptable to be ruthless; he pays his listeners/readers the compliment of assuming that they are serious about their engagement with God and the human community, and the radical dispossession that requires. Growth into God is about change, it is not about becoming ever more firmly entrenched in tendencies that are destructive to oneself and everyone else. It is about struggle and pain, not about being spoon-fed with pleasant experiences. Simultaneously it is about peace and joy, but if this peace and joy are of God, they will impel the seeker to greater vigilance and greater openness to change by effort and by receptivity; he or she will find the Word wherever it speaks, through the most humble and unexpected of people and events.