Thursday, January 21, 2016

National Park Law - Knopf and Stegner

Those who would protect the Parks and Monuments must rest their case always on the organic law that created the National Park Service. Any attempt to change that law would certainly bring on an instant and nation-wide and wholly bi-partisan explosion of protest. The danger is not that the law will be repealed or changed but that it will be whittled away through special concessions and permits. It is necessary to bear in mind Stephen Mather’s wise warnings when an advocate of whittling insists that he intends to create no precedents. With the best intentions in the world, he could not help creating a precedent. His successors in office might not agree with him about precedents, and they would have to use his own precedent against him.

“The people, to whom the Parks belong, should be given the full facts on which to base a judgment, whenever the question of intrusion on Park lands arises. The people, as taxpayers who foot the bill, should also know, with fair exactness, and from a responsible reviewing body, how much a reclamation project is going to cost them, whether in a Park or not. [....]

“The attitude of Americans toward nature has been changing—slowly, perhaps, but inexorably. Fifty thousand persons camped out in one Park, the Great Smokies, in a single summer month of 1954. That same summer I spent a night at Manitou Experimental Forest, in which a near-by campground, run by the Forest Service and at that moment without a water supply, was expected to be used by fifty thousand people before winter. In 1951 Glacier National Park had a half-million visitors; in 1953 it had more than 630,000. In that same year, the last for which total figures are available, Grand Canyon had 830,000 odd, Yellowstone 1,300,000, and Yosemite just short of a million. Those figures are impressive no matter how you take them. They mean that what the Parks and Monuments provide and preserve without impairment is increasingly appreciated and increasingly needed by more and more millions of American families.”

Alfred A. Knopf, “The National Park Idea,” in This is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers, Wallace Stegner, ed. 91-91. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955) (Emphasis in boldface mine)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Slow, Important Work Of Poetry

At the time it seemed like chance that brought me to minor in comparative poetry in college.

Without having a master plan, over four years I wound up taking a number of poetry classes in four languages. Eventually I asked my college to consider them a new minor area of study. They agreed, and I graduated.

And then, slowly, over a quarter century, I began reading more poetry in more languages. It's always slow; I can't pick up a book of poems and read it like a novel. If the poetry is any good at all, I can read one or two poems, and then I've got to put the book down and let the words sit with me.

Often, I go back and read the same poem again, and again.

The very best poems I try to memorize, even though my memory for verse has never been good. I imagine most people would consider that a useless exercise, a waste of storage space in an already cluttered brain.

But in each season of my life I've found that it is some form of poetry that acts as salve to my soul's wounds or food that sustains its long journey forward.  Homer's long story-poems; old epics and sagas from Ireland and Wales and Iceland; Vedic verses and Greek scriptures; Gregorian chants that have echoed in stone chambers for centuries; Shakespeare's or Petrarch's sonnets; the Psalms and proverbs of Hebrew priests and kings; a few words put together well by Dylan Thomas, Gary Snyder, Tomas Tranströmer, or C.S. Lewis; or the timely phrases of some of my favorite contemporaries like Patrick Hicks, Abigail Carroll, Mary Karr, Wendell Berry, Melissa Kwasny, John Lane, or Brian Turner.  Each of them has, at some point, given me the daily bread I craved.

I can't seem to predict when the need will arise, but suddenly, there it is, and I find myself quoting Joachim du Bellay's sonnet about travel, and home:
Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison
Et puis est retourné, plein d'usage et raison
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge
His simple words save me from forming new ones and free me to think and feel as the occasion demands; his words give utterance to what I find welling up inside me. His words change my homesickness into a stage in a worthwhile journey.  Here is a very loose translation of those lines: "Happy is he who, like Ulysses, made a beautiful journey, or like that man who seized the Golden Fleece, and then traveled home again, full of wisdom, to live the rest of his life with his family." We are pulled in both directions at once: towards the Golden Fleece and adventures in Troy, and towards the home we left behind when we departed on our quest.

That sonnet often reminds me, in turn, of verses about Abraham.
Consider Abraham, who dwelled in tents,
because he was looking forward to a city with foundations.
This longing for home that I sometimes have when I travel is itself no alien in any land.  We all may feel it in any place.  Everyone feels lost sometimes. Knowing that others have found words to express their feeling of being lost is itself a reminder that we are not alone. Hölderlin's opening words in his poem about St. John's exile on Patmos say this well:
Nah ist, und schwer zu fassen, der Gott
It does seem that God - like home and family and love and neighbors - is close enough to grasp, so close that we could meaningfully touch them all right now. And yet so far that nothing but our words can draw near.

I am no good at praying, but I often wish I were. I think the fact that we make light of prayer - both by mocking those who pray and by being those who speak piously of prayer but who do not allow ourselves to confess the weakness prayer implies - says something of another shared longing, not unlike the longing for home.  We long to comfort those far away when tragic events fall on them.  They may be total strangers, but we know how horrible we would feel in their place, and we know that right now there is nothing we can do to staunch the flow of pain for them.  But we can hold them in the center of our consciousness and, for a little while, not let any lesser thoughts crowd them out of our hearts and minds.  We can, for a little while, consider our lives to be connected to theirs.  We can, for a little while, ask ourselves what we might do to change the world so that this pain will not be inflicted on others.

Since I am not adept at praying, In those times I find the prayers of others buoy me up above the waves of emotional tempest.  The prayer books of my tradition - the various versions of The Book of Common Prayer - often transform my anguish into something articulate. Of course, we turn to that same book when a baby is born, when a couple is wed, and when our beloved are interred.  These events? We know they are coming, and yet it is not easy to prepare oneself, to be always ready for those days.  I live in a tent; poetry often gives me a foundation to build on, and the better I've memorized it, the stronger that foundation becomes.

Those words, buried like seeds, slowly come to bear fruit in my life.  Sometimes I wonder: was it really chance that brought me to the poems?

In the hardest of times, and also in the most joyful times, the words of poets are like a cup of water in a dry place. They refresh me, and they clear my throat so that I can take in that which sustains my own life, and speak other words, both old and new, that may sustain the lives of others.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Gifts From My Father

My father spent his career as an engineer working for IBM and NASA.  Growing up with an engineer is an education in itself.  As a boy, I felt like whenever I was with my father, I was learning new things.  We'd go out for pizza and he'd write chemical equations on napkins.  We'd go to the Ashokan Reservoir and he'd tell me the history of the valley that was flooded so that New York could get water, and then he'd tell me how they engineered the pipeline that carried the water to the city.  

Often he was at his desk or his workbench, and I didn't want to interrupt him when he was working on problem-solving, but I'd try to spend time in his office or workroom until I made too much noise and was asked to move on to other exploits.  I'd stare at his shelves, heavy with books and tools, and full of things he had picked up in his travels.  He had a small, round stone that he had found somewhere, that had been shaped as a toy by our Algonquin ancestors. He had musical instruments and geometric shapes made of plastic and wire, and books on how to learn Russian or how to understand religion.  On his workbench there was an oscilloscope that he'd sometimes use, and I loved that machine's interpretation of the data it received. My father's mind is a small liberal arts college unto itself, and his curiosity about the world seems to know no limits.  

Recently I was going through some boxes of things that have moved across the country with me many times.  I am an anti-hoarder, someone who prefers to give things away rather than store them forever.  But some things are hard to part with, especially when the memories associated with them are so strong.

Here's a snapshot of a few of the things I hang onto precisely because they remind me of Dad.  The gyroscope and wooden puzzle were gifts he brought me when I was a small boy.  I think he got them on business trips.  I've kept them both because they bring me wonder and delight, and because I like to use them to teach children.  The weather radio is probably silly, and I don't use it any more, but it reminds me both of Dad's constant interest in solving problems before they are crises, and of his lifelong interest in electrical engineering.  He built a computer in his fraternity house back before most people knew what computers were.  He would take apart radios so he could put them back together and understand how they worked.  

I never picked up his gift for electrical engineering, but I've got his curiosity about how things work, which I tend to apply more towards ecology than technology.  For me, technology and ecology come together in some important ways, nonetheless.  This pocket microscope he gave me has been with me for thirty years or more, and I like to think of it as a seed.  I've often been tempted to give it away, but instead I have held onto it, and every time I think of giving it away I buy more of them and give them to teachers.  Each year I teach for a month in Guatemala, and while I am there I look for teachers in local schools and give them boxes of microscopes and other hand lenses.  

I am reminded that much of the history of science (Dad's field ) and of philosophy (my field) have grown with advances in optics.  When scientists get better lenses and lasers and satellites, knowledge tends to grow rapidly.

The same is true for children: give them a hand lens, or an insect viewer, or a microscope with some prepared slides, and the world will suddenly become new to them.  Dad planted that seed in me long ago.  Now I carry a hand lens with me almost everywhere I go. I suppose the whole of my career is a reflection of the things that delight Dad and provoke his curiosity; most of them delight me and make me curious, too.  And just as Dad passed on his curiosity to me, now it is my turn to pass it on to others.   

Monday, November 30, 2015

Racism, Samaritans, and Saints

As I've read news about recent protests on campuses across the country I've often wondered how I could respond helpfully if I were an administrator at one of those campuses. And I have not found it easy to answer my own question.

The closest I've come is this: when my kids were little, I taught them that despite what others may say, there are no bad words; but there are bad uses of good words. When we use our words to hurt others or to deprive them of what they need to grow and flourish, we are using our words badly.

Plainly there are acts, institutions, rituals and monuments that foster an undeserved poor view of some of our neighbors. Those should be changed or abolished.

But I don't think that's enough, and those might be more like symptoms than the illness itself.

I think we need to work to make sure we use our words in ways that help and heal, nurture and teach. I think we need leaders (at all levels) who will take positions of leadership as opportunities to edify and promote those who have not had such opportunities yet.

To put it in simpler terms, I think we need to work harder at loving our neighbors. Jesus told a story about this once, focusing on established ethnic hatred with deep political roots. I refer to the parable of the "Good Samaritan." This parable is the best answer I've got so far to the question I have posed for myself. If you've got the power to help others, and you see others needing help, then help them without regard for what it costs you. This is not easy, but it's what I want to strive for. 


What do you think? What am I forgetting? Am I too naive and optimistic? I welcome thoughtful replies that show kindness towards a wide range of readers. (If you want to simply cuss me out or insult my ignorance, please save that for a direct message, or let me take you out for a beer or coffee so you've got more of my attention. Thanks.)

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Lesser Feast of C.S. Lewis

On this day in 1963, Clive Staples Lewis died.  Some of us now observe November 22nd as the Lesser Feast of C.S. Lewis.  Here is one of my favorite passages from Lewis: 

“To be frank, I have no pleasure in looking forward to a meeting between humanity and any alien rational species. I observe how the white man has hitherto treated the black, and how, even among civilized men, the stronger have treated the weaker. If we encounter in the depth of space a race, however innocent and amiable, which is technologically weaker than ourselves, I do not doubt that the same revolting story will be repeated. We shall enslave, deceive, exploit or exterminate; at the very least we shall corrupt it with our vices and infect it with our diseases. We are not yet fit to visit other worlds. We have filled our own with massacre, torture, syphilis, famine, dust bowls and all that is hideous to ear or eye. Must we go on to infect new realms? ...It was in part these reflections that first moved me to make my own small contributions to science fiction. In those days writers in the genre almost automatically represented the inhabitants of other worlds as monsters and the terrestrial invaders as good….The same problem, by the way, is beginning to threaten us as regards the dolphins. I don’t think it has yet been proved that they are rational. But if they are, we have no more right to enslave them than to enslave our fellow-men. And some of us will continue to say this, but we shall be mocked.”
--C.S. Lewis, “The Seeing Eye,” in Christian Reflections, Walter Hooper, Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), 173-4.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

South Fork, Eagle River

After breakfast we put sack lunches in the cooler and threw our backpacks in the fifteen-passenger van. Half an hour later we were piling out at the state park on the South Fork of the Eagle River.

The houses here are ugly. Taken on their own, any one of them is a beautiful building. Plainly this is spendy real estate in God’s country. But the houses look like they were lifted from the pages of some little-boxes-full-of-ticky-tacky architectural lust propaganda and carpet-bombed on the hillside, then allowed to remain wherever they fell. There is no order, no sense that the houses were built for the place. Every one of them is a garish, angular excrescence on the opposite hillside. No doubt their inmates would disagree with my assessment; they only see the houses up close, and from the inside. They must have no idea how out of place their unnatural rectangles look against the sweeping slope of the Chugach Range. No doubt, when you’re on the other side of those big plates of glass, gazing over here at the state park over your morning K-cup, the view is precious. But when you’re in the state park, looking back, there is nothing on the opposite hillside to love. Over here, there is only regret that these people believed that you could buy both the land and the landscape.

It’s about three miles’ hike in to first bridge in state park. A fairly easy up-and-down walk. It’s raining. Spitting, really, what they call chipichipi in Guatemala, a constant drizzle. The sky is a palette of cottony grays that have lowered themselves onto the mountaintops. There is a clear line below which the mountains are visible. Above it, clouds roll and shift.

I shiver a little in my heavy raincoat and think about putting on my rain pants, but I know I’ll be too hot if I do. Some of my students are wearing shorts.

At the footbridge we sit and eat our lunches. The university has packed us red delicious apples (a mendacious name), bags of honey Dijon potato chips, and turkey sandwiches with lettuce and onions. It’s not good turkey, but no one cares. This is a lovely place. We have other food in this place.

The river is only fifteen feet wide here, and it is the color of chalk, like diluted Milk of Magnesia. Taking off my shoes, I wade in.  Immediately my feet start to ache with cold. Turning over a stone, I look at its underside.  The gray water drips off and a tiny larva wriggles to get out of the light. It's too small to identify it, maybe a miniscule stonefly.  A huge blue dragonfly cruises over the river, darting past me.

There are lots of wildflowers up here. One of my students is on the ground with her laminated guidebook, puzzling over one specimen. I've been carrying these guides everywhere, but they're only helpful for about seventy-five percent of the common stuff. There's just too much life here to get it all in a book.

The flowers grow in so many colors, so many strategies for getting the scarce pollinators' attention in the brief summer. Yellows, purples, and blues predominate. The guidebook warns me about several of the purples: DO NOT EAT THIS! Some of them are poisonous.  So are a few of the yellows. This is a beautiful place, but it's also a harsh place, and life clings to the edge. Poison is one good way not to get eaten, I suppose. Looking up the mountain, the trees give way to shrubs a hundred yards above us.  A hundred yards more and there's only grass.  Above that, I can only see rock.

Some of these plants have another strategy: rather than avoiding getting eaten, they invite it. Berries are the way some plants make use of animals to carry their seeds to new places.  Bear scat, full of seeds, is all along the trails here.  Each mound is a nursery where some new plant may grow in the fertile dung.

There is a kind of berry like a blueberry that grows on something that looks like a mix between evergreens and moss, only a few inches high.  Some people call it "mossberry," appropriately.  Some locals call it a blackberry.  Matt tells us they're crowberries, as he gathers a handful. He eats some and then the students tentatively pick and eat some too.

We spend three hours there at the bridge, observing. There's so much to see.  Some of us write, some draw, some stare at the peaks that surround us.  A few doze off.  I get out my watercolors and try to paint the landscape, but I'm quickly frustrated. There are so many greens and grays and blues, and I'm no good at mixing colors.  I keep painting anyway.  I can at least try to get the shapes right, I think, but I'm wrong about that, too.  The mountains are stacked up in layers, and the lines look clean and clear at first, but when I try to focus on them they blur into one another.  The hanging glacier at the end of the valley looms over us, silent and white and yet so eloquent.  The glaciers are what made all of this, and even though they have retreated, the river runs with their tillage, the plants grow in their finely ground dust, the smooth slopes were ground smooth by millennia of ice.

Upstream, Brenden hooks his first-ever dolly varden. This is his first fish in Alaska. He is positively glowing with delight. He cradles it in his hand and then quickly returns it to the water pausing only to admire this vibrant glacial relic of a char.  It too depends on the glacier.

The temperature is constantly shifting as the sun comes in and out of the clouds. Each part of the valley takes its turn being illuminated: the river shines like silver; the mountainside glows bright green and the rocks and bushes above the tree line cast sharp shadows; high in the valley small glaciers are bright ribbons streaking the blue granite. The clouds push the sunlight in ribbons across the valley. When we are suddenly in the light, we are warm.

After a few hours we walk back to the car. No one wants to go. For a while we drive in luminous silence.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Steinbeck on Overfishing

"In about an hour we came to the Japanese fishing fleet.  There were six ships doing the actual dredging while a large mother ship of at least 10,000 tons stood farther offshore at anchor. THe dredge boats themselves were large, 150- to 175 feet, probably about 600 tons. There were twelve boats in the combined fleet including the mother ship, and they were doing a very systematic job, not only of taking shrimp from the bottom, but every other living thing as well.  They cruised slowly along in echelon with overlapping dredges, literally scraping the bottom clean.  Any animal wich escaped must have been very fast indeed, for not even the sharks got away.  Why the Mexican government should have permitted the complete destruction of a valuable food supply is one of those mysteries which have their ramifications possibly back in pockets it is not well to look into."
John Steinbeck, The Log From The Sea Of Cortez. (Penguin, 1995, p. 205)  Emphasis added. Feel free to substitute the name of any other coastal government for the word "Mexican."