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22 June 2016 @ 01:04 pm
But poor Stickeen, the wee, hairy, sleekit beastie, think of him! When I had decided to dare the bridge, and while I was on my knees chipping a hollow on the rounded brow above it, he came behind me, pushed his head past my shoulder, looked down and across, scanned the sliver and its approaches with his mysterious eyes, then looked me in the face with a startled air of surprise and concern, and began to mutter and whine; saying as plainly as if speaking with words, "Surely, you are not going into that awful place." This was the first time I had seen him gaze deliberately into a crevasse, or into my face with an eager, speaking, troubled look. That he should have recognized and appreciated the danger at the first glance showed wonderful sagacity. Never before had the daring midget seemed to know that ice was slippery or that there was any such thing as danger anywhere. His looks and tones of voice when he began to complain and speak his fears were so human that I unconsciously talked to him in sympathy as I would to a frightened boy, and in trying to calm his fears perhaps in some measure moderated my own. "Hush you fears, my boy," I said, "we will get across safe, though it is not going to be easy. No right way is easy in this rough world. We must risk our lives to save them. At the worst we can only slip, and then how grand a grave we will have, and by and by our nice bones will do good in the terminal moraine."

But my sermon was far from reassuring him: he began to cry, and after taking another piercing look at the tremendous gulf, ran away in desperate excitement, seeking some other crossing. By the time he got back, baffled of course, I had made a step or two. I dared not look back, but he made himself heard; and when he saw that I was certainly bent on crossing he cried aloud in despair. The danger was enough to haunt anybody, but it seems wonderful that he should have been able to weight and appreciate it so justly. No mountaineer could have seen it more quickly or judged it more wisely, discriminating between real and apparent peril.

When I gained the other side, he screamed louder than ever, and after running back and forth in vain search for a way of escape, he would return to the brink of the crevasse above the bridge, moaning and wailing as if in the bitterness of death. Could this be the silent, philosophic Stickeen? I shouted encouragement, telling him the bridge was not so bad as it looked, that I had left it flat and safe for his feet, and he could walk it easily. But he was afraid to try. Strange so small an animal should be capable of such big, wise fears. I called again and again in a reassuring tone to come on and fear nothing; that he could come if he would only try. He would hush for a moment, look down again at the bridge, and shout his unshakable conviction that he could never, never come that way; then lie back in despair, as if howling," O-o-oh! what a place! No-o-o, I can never go-o-o down there!" His natural composure and courage had vanished utterly in a tumultuous storm of fear. Had the danger been less, his distress would have seemed ridiculous. But in this dismal, merciless abyss lay the shadow of death, and his heart-rending cries might well have called Heaven to his help. Perhaps they did. So hidden before, he was now transparent, and one could see the workings of his heart and mind like the movements of a clock out of its case. His voice and gestures, hopes and fears, were so perfectly human that none could mistake them; while he seemed to understand every word of mine. I was troubled at the thought of having to leave him out all night, and of the danger of not finding him in the morning. It seemed impossible to get him to venture. To compel him to try through fear of being abandoned, I started off as if leaving him to his fate, and disappeared back of a hummock; but this did no good; he only lay down and moaned ill utter hopeless misery. so, after hiding a few minutes, I went back to the brink of the crevasse and in a severe tone of voice shouted across to him that now I must certainly leave him, I could wait no longer, and that, if he would not come, all I could promise was that I would return to seek him next day. I warned him that if went back to the woods the wolves would kill him, and finished by urging him once more by words and gestures to come on, come on.

He knew very well what I meant, and at last, with the courage of despair, hushed and breathless, he crouched down on the brink in the hollow I had made for my knees, pressed his body against the ice as if trying to get the advantage of the friction of every hair, gazed into the first step, put his little feet together and slid them slowly slowly over the edge and down into it, bunching all four in it and almost standing on his head. Then, without lifting his feet, as well as I could see through the snow, he slowly worked them over the edge of the step and down into the next and then the next in succession in the same way, and gained the end of the bridge. Then, lifting his feet with the regularity and slowness of the vibrations of a seconds pendulum, as if counting and measuring one-two-three, holding himself steady against the gusty wind, and giving separate attention to each little step, he gained the foot of the cliff, while I was on my knees leaning over to give him a lift should he succeed in getting within reach of my arm. Here he halted in dead silence, and if was here I feared he might fail, for dogs are poor climbers. I had no cord. If I had had one, I would have dropped a noose over his head and hauled him up. But while I was thinking whether an available cord might be made out of clothing, he was looking keenly into the series of notched steps and finger-holds I had made, as if counting them, and fixing the position of each one of them in his mind. Then suddenly up he came in a springy rush, hooking his paws into the steps and notches so quickly that I could not see how it was done, and whizzed past my head, safe at last!

And now came a scene! "Well done, well done, little boy! Brave boy!" I cried, trying to catch and caress him; but he was not to be caught. Never before or since have I seen anything so passionate a revulsion from the depths of despair to exultant, triumphant, uncontrollable joy. He flashed and darted hither and thither as if fairly demented, screaming and shouting, swirling round and round in giddy loops and circles like a leaf in a whirlwind, lying down, and rolling over and over, sidewise and heels over head, and pouring forth a tumultuous flood of hysterical cries and sobs and gasping mutterings. When I ran up to him to shake him, fearing he might die of joy, he flashed off two or three hundred yards, his feet in a mist of motion; then, turning suddenly, came back in a wild rush and launched himself at my face, almost knocking me down, all the while screeching and screaming and shouting as if saying, "Saved! saved! saved!" Then away again, dropping suddenly at times with his feet in the air, trembling and fairly sobbing. Such passionate emotion was enough to kill him. Moses' stately song of triumph after escaping the Egyptians and the Red Sea was nothing to it. Who could have guessed the capacity of the dull, enduring little fellow for all that most stirs this mortal frame? Nobody could have helped crying with him!

But there is nothing like work for toning down excessive fear or joy. So I ran ahead, calling him in as gruff a voice as I could command to come on and stop his nonsense, for we had far to go and it would soon be dark. Neither of us feared another trial like this. Heaven would surely count one enough for a lifetime. The ice ahead was gashed by thousands of crevasses, but they were common ones. The joy of deliverance burned in us like fire, and we ran without fatigue, every muscle with immense rebound glorying in its strength. Stickeen flew across everything in his way, and not till dark did he settle into his normal fox-like trot. At last the cloudy mountains came in sight, and we soon felt the solid rock beneath our feet, and were safe. Then came weakness. Danger had vanished, and so had our strength. We tottered down the lateral moraine in the dark, over boulders and tree trunks, through the bushes and devil-club thickets of the grove where we had sheltered ourselves in the morning, and across the level mudslope of the terminal moraine. We reached camp about ten o'clock, and found a big fire and a big supper. A party of Hoona Indians had visited Mr. Young, bringing a gift of porpoise meat and wild strawberries, and Hunter Joe had brought in a wild goat. But we lay down, too tired to eat much, and soon fell into a troubled sleep. The man who said, "The harder the toil, the sweeter the rest," never was profoundly tired. Stickeen kept springing up and muttering in his sleep, no doubt dreaming that he was still on the brink of the crevasse; and so did I, that night and many others long afterward, when I was over-tired.

Thereafter Stickeen was a changed dog. During the rest of the trip, instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side, tried to keep me constantly in sight, and would hardly accept a morsel of food, however tempting, from any hand but mine. At night, when all was quiet about the camp-fire, he would come to me and rest his head of my knee with a look of devotion as if I were his god. And often as he caught my eye he seemed to be trying to say, "Wasn't that an awful time we had together on the glacier?"

Nothing in after years had dimmed that Alaska storm-day. As I write it all comes rushing and roaring to mind as if I were again in the heart of it. Again I see the gray flying clouds with their rain-floods and snow, the ice cliffs towering above the shrinking forest, the majestic ice-cascade, the vast glacier outspread before its white mountain-fountains, and in the heart of it the tremendous crevasse, -- emblem of the valley of the shadow of death, -- low clouds trailing over it, the snow falling into it; and on its brink I see Stickeen, and I hear his cries for help and his shouts of joy. I have known many dogs, and many a story I could tell of their wisdom and devotion; but to none do I owe so much as to Stickeen. At first the least promising and least known of my dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known of them all. Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.

None of Stickeen's friends knows what finally became of him. After my work for the season was done I departed for California, and I never saw the dear little fellow again. In reply to anxious inquires his master wrote me that in the summer of 1883 he was stolen by a tourist at Fort Wrangell and taken away on a steamer. His fate is wrapped in mystery. Doubtless he has left this world -- crossed the last crevasse -- and gone to another. But he will not be forgotten. To me Stickeen is immortal.
07 June 2016 @ 03:51 pm
In like manner, geologists will sometimes use the calender year as a unit to represent the time scale, and in such terms the Precambian runs from New Year's Day until well after Halloween. Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas. The last ice sheet melts on December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the Roman Empire lasts five seconds. With your arms spread wide again to represent all time on earth, look at one hand with its line of life. The Cambrian begins in the wrist, and the Permian Extinction is at the outer end of the palm. All of the Cenozoic is in a fingerprint, and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history. Geologists live with the geologic scale. Individually, they may or may not be alarmed by the rate of exploitation of the things they discover, but, like the environmentalists, they use these repetitive analogies to place the human record in perspective -- to see the Age of Reflection, the last few thousand years, as a small bright sparkle at the end of time. They often liken humanity's presence on earth to a brief visitation from elsewhere in space, its luminous, explosive characteristics consisting not merely of the burst of population in the twentieth century but of the whole residence of people on earth -- a single detonation, resembling nothing so much as a nuclear implosion with its sucessive neutron generations, whole generations following one another once every hundred-millionth of a second, temperatures building up into the millions of degrees and stripping atoms until bare nuclei are wandering in electron seas, pressures building up to a hundred million atmospheres, the core expanding at five million miles an hour, expanding in a way that is quite different from all else in the universe, unless there are others who also make bombs.

. . .

In geologists' own lives, the least effect of time is that they think in two languages, function on two different scales.

"You care less about civilization. Half of me gets upset with civilization. The other half does not get upset. I shrug and think, So let the cockroaches take over."

"Mammalian species last, typically, two million years. We've about used up ours. Every time Leakey finds something older, I say, 'Oh! We're overdue.' We will be handing the dominant-species-on-earth position to some other group. We'll have to be clever not to."

"A sense of geologic time is the most important thing to suggest to the non-geologist: the slow rate of geologic processes, centimetres per year, with huge effets, if continued for enough years."

"A million years is a short time -- the shortest worth messing with for most problems. You begin tuning your mind to a time scale that is the planet's time scale. For me, it is almost unconscious now and is a kind of companionship with the earth."

"It didn't take very long for those mountains to come up, to be deroofed, and to be thrust eastward. Then the motion stopped. That happened in maybe ten million years, and to a geologist that's really fast."

"If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever."
30 May 2016 @ 11:02 am
I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive. It was a fountain of metaphor -- of isostatic adjustments and degraded channels, of angular unconformities and shifting divides, of rootless mountains and bitter lakes. Streams eroded headward, digging from two sides into mountain or hill, avidly struggling toward each other until the divide between them broke down, and the two rivers that did the breaking now became confluent (one yielding to the other, giving up its direction of flow and going the opposite way) to become a single stream. Stream capture. In the Sierra Nevada, the Yuba had captured the Bear. The Macho member of a formation in New Mexico was derived in large part from the solution and collapse of another formation. There was fatigued rock and incompetent rock and inequigranular fabric in rock. If you bent or folded rock, the inside of the curve was in a state of compression, the outside of the curve was under great tension, and somewhere in the middle was the surface of no strain. Thrust fault, reverse fault, normal fault -- the two sides were active in every fault. The inclination of a slope on which boulders would stay put was the angle of repose. There seemed, indeed, to be more than a little of the humanities in the subject. Geologists communicated in English; and they could name things in a manner that sent shivers through the bones. They had roof pendants in their discordant batholiths, mosaic conglomerates in desert pavement. There was ultrabasic, deep-ocean, mottled green-and-black rock -- or sepentine. There was the slip face of the barchan dune. In 1841, a paleontologist had decided that the big creatures of the Mesozoic were "fearfully great lizards," and had therefore named them dinosaurs. There were festooned crossbeds and limestone sinks, pillow lavas and petrified trees, incised meanders and defeated streams. There were dike swarms and slickensides, explosion pits, volcanic bombs. Pulsating glaciers. Hogbacks. Radiolarian ooze. There was almost enough resonance in some terms to stir the adolescent groin. The swelling up of mountains was described as an orogeny. Ontogeny, phylogeny, orogeny -- accent syllable two. The Antler Orogeny, the Avalonian Orogeny, the Taconic, Acadian, Alleghenian orogenies. The Laramide Orogeny. The center of the United States had had a dull geologic history -- nothing much being accumulated, nothing much being eroded away. It was just sitting there conservatively. The East had once been radial -- had been unstable, reformist, revolutionary, in the Paleozoic pulses of three or four orogenies. Now, for the last hundred and fifty million years, the East had been stable and conservative. The far-out stuff was in the Far West of the country -- wild, weirdsma, a leather-jacket geology in mirrored shades, with its welded tuffs and Franciscan mélange (internally deformed, complex beyond analysis), its strike-slip faults and falling buildings, its boiling springs and fresh volanics, its extensional disassembling of the earth.

There was, to be sure, another side of the page -- full of geological language of the sort that would have attracted Gilbert and Sullivan. Rock that stayed put was called autochthonous, and if its mad moved it was allochthonous. "Normal" meant "at right angles." "Normal" also meant a fault with a depressed hanging wall. There was a Green River Basin in Wyoming. One was topographical and was on Wyoming. The other was structural and was under Wyoming. The Great Basin, which is centered in Utah and Nevada, was not to be confused with the Basin and Range, which is centered in Utah and Nevada. The Great Basin was topographical, and extraordinary in the world as a vastness of land that had no drainage to the sea. The Basin and Range was a realm of related mountains that coincided with the Great Basin, spilling over slightly to the north and considerably to the south. To anyone with a smoothly functioning bifocal mind, there was no lack of clarity about Iowa in the Pennsylvanian, Missouri in the Mississippian, Nevada in Nebraskan, Indiana in Illinoian, Vermont in Kansan, Texas in Wisconsinian time. Meteoric water, with study, turned out to be rain. It ran downhill in consequent, subsequent, obsequent, resequent, and not a few insequent streams.
26 May 2016 @ 06:59 pm
Falconers have a word for hawks in the mood to slay: they call the bird in yarak. The books say it comes from the Persian yaraki, meaning power, strength and boldness. Much later I was amused to find that in Turkish it means an archaic weapon and is also slang for penis: never doubt that falconry is a boys' game. I'm back in Cambridge now, and as I carry Mabel up the stony track to the hill each day I watch her come into yarak. It is disturbingly like watching her slow possession by a demon. Her crest feathers rise, she leans back, tummy feathers fluffed, shoulders dropped, toes very tight on the glove. Her demeanour switches from everything scares me to I see it all; I own all this and more.

In this state she's a high-tension wire-strung hawk of murderous anticipation, wound so tight she bates at anything that moves -- things she's not a hope of catching: flocks of larks, distant racing pigeons, even a farmyard tomcat -- and I hold her jesses tight and don't let her go. But when a hen pheasant rockets up from my feet I do. She chases it fiercely but it has too much of a head start; after fifty yards she slows, turns in mid-air and comes back to me, planning over the top of a hedgerow ash to land gently upon my fist. On another day she bursts downhill in pursuit of a rabbit and is about to grab it when the rabbit stops dead in its tracks. She overshoots and crashes into the ground; the rabbit jinks, doubles back on itself and runs uphill to the safety of a hole. She leaps back into the air to resume her pursuit but the rabbit is gone. She alights, confused and crestfallen, on the grass.

I'm crestfallen too. It's not that I'm baying for blood. But I don't want Mabel to get discouraged. In the wild, young goshawks will sit for hours hidden in trees waiting for an easy opportunity to present itself: a fledgling crow, a baby rabbit. But it is September now: nature's easy pickings are grown. And while most goshawkers have a dog to help them find game, or a ferret to bolt rabbits for their hawk to chase, I do not. All I can do is walk with the hawk and hope we find something to catch. But I am a liability; her senses are far better than mine. We walk past a gully under a hedge where there are rabbits and rats and God knows what, all covered with brambles and briars and robins' pincushions set on briar stems like exotic fruit, their vegetable hairs brushed green and rose and carmine. She dives from my fist towards the undergrowth. I don't know she's seen something -- so I don't let her go. Then I curse my pathetic human senses. Something was there. A mouse? A pheasant? A rabbit? With a stick I poke about in the gully but nothing comes out. It is too late; whatever it was has gone. We walk on. Mabel stops looking murderous and assumes an expression of severe truculence. How the hell, I imagine her thinking, am I supposed to catch things with this idiot in tow?
24 May 2016 @ 05:10 pm
It was the Tragedy paper that led me to read Freud, because he was still fashionable back then, and because psychoanalysts had their shot at explaining tragedy too. And after reading him I began to see all sorts of psychological transferences in my falconry books. I saw those nineteenth-century falconers were projecting onto their hawks all the male qualities they thought threatened by modern life: wildness, power, virility, independence and strength. By identifying with their hawks as they trained them, they could introject, or repossess, those qualities. At the same time they could exercise their power by 'civilising' a wild and primitive creature. Masculinity and conquest: two imperial myths for the price of one. The Victorian falconer assumed the power and strength of the hawk. The hawk assumed the manners of the man.
19 May 2016 @ 10:58 am
It's a fascinating story. Goshawks once bred across the British Isles. 'There are divers Sorts and Sizes of Goshawks,' wrote Richard Blome in 1618, 'which are different in Goodness, force and hardiness according to the several Countries where they are Bred; but no place affords so good as those of Moscovy, Norway, and the North of Ireland, especially in the County of Tyrone.' But the qualities of goshawks were forgotten with the advent of Land Enclosure, which limited the ability of ordinary folk to fly hawks, and the advent of accurate firearms that made shooting, rather than falconry, high fashion. Goshawks became vermin, not hunting companions. Their persecution by gamekeepers was the final straw for a goshawk population already struggling from habitat loss. By the late nineteenth century British goshawks were extinct. I have a photograph of the stuffed remains of one of the last birds to be shot; a black-and-white snapshot of a bird from a Scottish estate, draggled, stuffed and glassy-eyed. They were gone.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, falconers started a quiet, unofficial scheme to bring them back. The British Falconers' Club worked out that for the cost of importing a goshawk from the Continent for falconry, you could afford to bring in a second bird and release it. Buy one, set one free. It wasn't a hard thing to do with a bird as self-reliant and predatory as a gos. You just found a forest and opened the box. Like-minded falconers started doing this all over Britain. The hawks came from Sweden, Germany and Finland: most were huge, pale taiga forest gosses. Some were released on purpose. Some were simply lost. They survived, found each other and bred, secretly and successfully. Today their descendants number around four hundred and fifty pairs. Elusive, spectacular, utterly at home, the fact of these British goshawks makes me happy. Their existence gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always something untouched by human hearts and hands. The wild can be human work.
16 May 2016 @ 12:26 pm
Most of us who live with animals have been guilty at one time or another of that particular flavor of solipsism that involves projecting our own human thoughts and feelings onto the animals we live with. (I once dated a guy who told me the key to understanding his mom was to take every sentence where she talked about what the dog was thinking/feeling and replace his name with her own: Daisy is so excited to meet you! Daisy is tired. Daisy gets over-excited when there are too many people in the house.)

Hence the moral objection to anthropomorphism: “To imagine that animals think like humans or to cast animals in human roles is a form of self-centered narcissism: one looks outward to the world and sees only one’s own reflection mirrored therein,” write Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman in Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism can also reflect a lack of imagination: “To assimilate the behavior of a herd of elephants to, say, that of a large, middle-class, American family or to dress up a pet terrier in a tutu strikes these critics as a kind of species provincialism, an almost pathological failure to register the wondrous variety of the natural world—a provincialism comparable to that of those blinkered tourists who assume that the natives of the foreign countries they visit will have the same customs and speak the same language as at home.”
13 May 2016 @ 01:22 pm
I am supposed to meet Sarge at two in the afternoon. At ten-thirty in the morning, I ask Dick for a ride off the island. It took us four and half hours to get up here, but I am sure I can get back in three, and I want some extra time in case I go astray. He poles me to shore. I jump out, thank him, and go up the bank. I go on up a rise, circle a swamp on a contour, and drop down among cottowoods near the stream. I made notes coming in. "Go through sphagnum boggy open area after point of rock, hills to left, then into woods half a mile, then a quarter mileof tussocks, then by stream half a mile, then a quarter mile of tussocks, then by stream half a mile over gravel dry slough, then get up on bank and into willow." I attempted to follow this in reverse, and see nothing whatsoever that is mentioned in the notes. I am moving right along, though, finding here and there a bit of travelled path, here and there a sight of the stream. Animals use the same routes people do, especially where the way is narrow. The way is so narrow at times that the willow trunks simultaneously rub both ends of the rolled pad on the top of my pack.

Like an explosion in my face, a grouse starts up, two feet away, whirring. I break out in muskeg, back to heavy woods. I have a metal cup. I tap on it with a spoon. I pass bear scat, old and familiar. Tap. Now another mound. I have not seen that one before. Tap. Tap. In other words, never surprise a bear. One or two must be here somewhere. To make myself known, I deliver lectures to them in a voice designed to clear the hall. "Uncontrolled fear and deep respect are two different things," I explain to them. "You've got to have a healthy respect for what comes through the country."

An hour goes by, and more -- fast moving. I lose my way now, in dense alder. A path was clear before, but it is suddenly gone. With a couple of taps on the cup, I stand back and wonder what to do. I go back, or what I think is back, but have lost where I have been. The brush is so dense I can't see the hills. I try moving laterally, toward and away from the stream. Now for some minutes I slowly walk in a rectangle, breaking branches to mark it, then build a larger one on that, and, while building a third one, come to beaten trail. In it is a mound of spoor. I recognize it as if it were a friend. It was the nearest defecation to the Yukon. Tap.

The trees finally end. I am pleased to see the big river. I make a bench of driftwood, eat cashews and apricots, and wait for Sarge. The walk took a little less than two hours. I don't feel elevated by that journey, nor am I shy to describe it -- just happy that it is complete. I scarcely think I was crazy to do it, and I don't think I was crazy to fear it. Risk was low, but there was something to fear. Still, I am left awry. I embrace this wild country. But how canI be of it, how can I move within it? I can't accept anymore the rationale of the few who go unarmed -- yet I am equally loath to use guns. If bears were no longer in the country, I would not have come. I am here, in a sense, because they survive. So I am sorry -- truly rueful and perplexed -- that without a means of killing them I cannot feel at east. A punctual speck appears on the river. Staff Sergeant James Waller, United States Marine Corps, Retired. Tap.

Is there ever a risk of it becoming too mechanical?


It sounds very mechanical, but the effect is the exact opposite. What it does is free you to write. It liberates you to write. You’ve got all the notes there; you come in in the morning and you read through what you’re going to try to write, and there’s not that much to read. You’re not worried about the other ninety-five percent, it’s off in a folder somewhere. It’s you and the keyboard. You get away from the mechanics through this mechanical means. The spontaneity comes in the writing, the phraseology, the telling of the story—after you’ve put all this stuff aside. You can read through those relevant notes in a relatively short period of time, and you know that’s what you want to be covering. But then you spend the rest of your day hoping spontaneous things will occur.

It may sound like I’ve got some sort of formula by which I write. Hell, no! You’re out there completely on your own—all you’ve got to do is write. OK, it’s nine in the morning. All I’ve got to do is write. But I go hours before I’m able to write a word. I make tea. I mean, I used to make tea all day long. And exercise, I do that every other day. I sharpened pencils in the old days when pencils were sharpened. I just ran pencils down. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three, four—this is every day. This is damn near every day. It’s four-thirty and I’m beginning to panic. It’s like a coiling spring. I’m really unhappy. I mean, you’re going to lose the day if you keep this up long enough. Five: I start to write. Seven: I go home. That happens over and over and over again. So why don’t I work at a bank and then come in at five and start writing? Because I need those seven hours of gonging around. I’m just not that disciplined. I don’t write in the morning—I just try to write.
29 March 2016 @ 03:37 pm
Eagle, with its montane setting, seems to attract more people who intend to stay. In they come - young people in ones and twos - form all over the Lower Forty-eight. With general trapping catalogues under their arms, they walk around wondering what to do next. The climate and the raw Alaskan wild will quickly sort them out. Some will not flinch. Others will go back. Others will stay on but will never get past the clustered cabins and gravel streets of Eagle. These young people, for the most part, are half Cook's age. He is in his middle forties. He is their exemplar - the one who has done it and stuck. So the newcomers turn to him, when he is in town, as sage and mentor. He tells them that it's a big but hungry country out there, good enough for trapping, maybe, but not for too much trapping, and they are to stay the hell off his traplines. He does not otherwise discourage people. He wants to help them. If, in effect, they are wearing a skin and carrying a stone-headed club, he suggests that technology, while it can be kept at a distance, is inescapable. "The question," he will say, "is how far do you want to go? I buy wheat. I use axes, knives. I have windows. There's a few things we've been trained to need and can't give up. You can't forget the culture you were raised in. You have to satisfy needs created in you. Almost everyone needs music, for instance. Cabins may be out of food, but they've all got books in them. Indian trappers used deadfalls once - propped-up logs. I wouldn't want to live on a bow and arrow and a deadfall. Somewhere, you have to make some sort of compromise. There is a line that has to be drawn. Most people feel around for it. Those that try to be too Spartan generally back off. Those who want to be too luxurious end up in Eagle - or in Fairbanks, or New York. So far as I know, people who have tried to get away from technology completely have always failed. Meanwhile, what this place has to offer is wildness that is nowhere else."

A favourite aphorism of Cook's is that a farmer can learn to live in a city in six months but a city person in a lifetime cannot learn to live on a farm. He says of newcomers, "A lot of them say they're going to 'live off the land.' They go hungry. They have ideas about everything - on arrival. And they've got no problems. But they're diving off too high a bridge. Soon they run into problems, so they come visiting. They have too much gear and their sleeping bags are too heavy to carry around. They are wondering where to get meat, where and how to catch fish, how to protect their gear from bears. You can't tell them directly. If you tell them to do something, they do the opposite. But there are ways to let them know."
21 March 2016 @ 05:08 pm
He cut a short piece of tape and laid it over a particularly open break in the hull of Snake Eyes, then put a longer strip over that. "These trips are not fail-safe," he went on. "You can get hurt and not get attention for several days. There's nothing you can do, short of staying home all the time."

"You come to the place on its terms," Kauffmann put in. "You assume the risk."

"When people come to Alaska, there's a sifting and winnowing process that follows," Pourchot said. "Some just make day trips out of Anchorage into the bush. Others go out for more than one day - fishing or whatever - but they stay in one place, at an established camp or lodge. After that come the hikers and canoers, and from them you get many stories of, say, the boat that breaks up and the guy who sits on the gravel bar for two weeks and walks out in five miserable days. He makes it, though. It's a rare day when somebody starves or bleeds to death. You're just not going to make a trip perfectly safe and still get the kind of trip you want. There are no what-if types out here. People who come this far have come to grips with that problem."
"I followed my own conscience." "I did what I thought was right." How many madmen have said it and meant it? How many murderers? Klaus Fuchs said it, and the men who committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre said it, and Alfred Rosenberg said it. And, as we are rotely and rather presumptuously reminded by those who would say it now, Jesus said it. Maybe we have all said it, and maybe we have been wrong. Except on that most primitive level -- our loyalties to those we love -- what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience? ("Tell me," a rabbi asked Daniel Bell when he said, as a child, that he did not believe in God. "Do you think God cares?") At least some of the time, the world appears to me as a painting by Hieronymous Bosch; were I to follow my conscience then, it would lead me out onto the desert with Marion Faye, out to where he stood in The Deer Park looking east to Los Alamos and praying, as if for rain, that it would happen: ". . . let it come and clear the rot and the stench and the stink, let it come for all of everywhere, just so it comes and the world stands clear in the white dead dawn."

Of course you will say that I do not have the right, even if I had the power, to inflict that unreasonable conscience upon you; nor do I want you to inflict your conscience, however reasonable, however enlightened, upon me. ("We must be aware of the dangers which lie in our most generous wishes," Lionel Trilling once wrote. "Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.") That the ethic of conscience is intrinsically insidious seems scarcely a revelatory point, but it is one raised with increasing infrequency; even those who do not raise it tend to segue with troubling readiness into the quite contradictory position that the ethic of conscience is dangerous when it is "wrong," and admirable when it is "right."

You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing -- beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code -- what is "right" and what is "wrong," what is "good" and what "evil." I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of "morality" seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to "believe" in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with "morality." Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.
12 November 2015 @ 12:45 pm
There were long silences bewteen periods of attention.

'Shit I got one for you. This was a while ago, though, when I was in school in St. Louis, when we were the Reserve Rangers.'

'I'll bite.'

'You won't get some of it. You had to be alive in the late sixties.'

'We weren't alive?'

'I don't mean playing-with-your-toes alive or squeezing-the-pores-of-your-nose alve. I mean of age, aware. I mean culturally.'

'Counterculturally you mean.'

'I could say to eat shit off a thick wooden stick, Gaines. But I don't. Instead I say if there's something cool with this unmistakable quality and I say the thing's quality is just so Beatles, you don't get it.'

'You had to be there.'

'It's not the same thing as just owning Beatles records, you're saying. You had to be there, in it.'

'Grooving. Being groovy.'

'That's just it. Nobody really said groovy. People that said groovy or called you mean were just playing out some fantasy they'd seen on CBS reports. I'm saying if I say Baxter-Bathing or Owsley or mention Janis's one dress she wore you think in terms of data. There's none of the feeling attached to it -- this was a feeling. It's impossible to describe.'

'Except as saying it's so very Beatles.'

'And some of it not even data. What if I say Lord Buckley? What if I say the Texas tower or Sin Killer Griffin on tape from jail or Jackson going on Today and sitting across from that J. Fred chimp in a shirt that's still got Martin's blood and brain matter on it and nobody says anything even though Today's in New York which means fucking Jason flew all the way in from Memphis in that shirt so he could wear blood on TV -- do you feel anything if I say that? Or Bonanza or I Am Curious parenthesis Yellow? J. Fred Muggs? Jesus, The Fugitive -- if I say the one-armed man, what interior state does it provoke?

'You mean nostalgia.'

'I mean methamphetamine hydrochloride. Say December's Children or Dharma Bums or Big Daddy Cole at the House of Blues in Dearborn or crew cuts and horn-rims or even let me think of rolled-up Levi's showing three inches of white cotton over penny loafers and I taste the hydrochloride from the days at Wash U when we were the Reserve Rangers. How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it's just words.'

'We have our own little culture signposts and cathexes and things that make us feel nostalgia.'

'It's not nostalgia. It's a whole set of references you don't even know you don't have. Suppose I say Sweater Puppies -- you feel nothing. Christ, Sweater Puppies.'
12 November 2015 @ 12:28 pm

AT TIMES, as indicated above, the PR found certain residents of the Study Area irritating, even maddening. At one particularly low point, when very tired, not himself at all, the PR, who in real life prided himself on his kindheartedness, even wrote, in the project notebook: "Exterminate the brutes." For several days afterward, he felt bad about this while, at the same time, continuing to feel exasperated with the Study Area residents. Then the PR realized the error of his thinking, an error he thereafter thought of as The Cratchit Confusion.

Bob Cratchit, the hero of Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol, is poor yet virtuous. He is honest, forthright, hardworking, clean, and articulate. He loves his family and is forgiving of those who oppress him. He is, in other words, easy to sympathize with. In the real world, however, the unfortunate may not be so likable. They may be stupid, dishonest, lazy, or mean. They may obfuscate, they may attack those weaker than themselves, they may claim their poverty is the fault of an unfair world, they may invent lives for themselves in which they are heroic sages, ahead of the curve. These negative qualities, in fact, may be the root cause of their misfortune.

But to love the unfortunate, it is not necessary to feel fond of them or tenderness toward them. Momentary irritations are inevitable, the PR came to feel; they are also irrelevant. All we must do is what we would do if we could see the unfortunate purely. Our minds can be kind when our hearts cannot. In time, he predicted, his irritation would recede and all that would remain would be feelings of sadness and protectiveness toward the Study Area residents, who, after all, had not killed or abused him but had let him walk among them with impunity, and had even been kind to him, if not always to one another.
12 November 2015 @ 12:27 pm

RETREATING DOWN G Street, the PR considered the white girl with red hair. Was she being held against her will? Likely she was a junkie, in some sort of long-term relationship with the tall man, who served as her pimp. Who had she been before she was the white girl with red hair? The PR reminded himself that the white girl with red hair had been a whore in that tent long before he arrived and would be a whore in that tent long after he left. All of these people had been living thus before he arrived and would continue living thus long after he went home. Anything he could do for them would only comprise a small push in a positive direction before the tremendous momentum of their negative tendencies reasserted itself. The PR was put in mind of a single shot from a gun being fired into a massive orbiting planet.

Still, what would happen if he decided to abandon the Study and commit all of his resources to the sole purpose of extracting the white girl with red hair from that tent and getting her into whatever treatment program was required? Wasn't it possible—wasn't it, in fact, likely, given his resources—that he could effect a positive change in the life of the white girl with red hair? And if so, wasn't it, at some level, a moral requirement that he do so? That is: By continuing down G Street, the white girl with the red hair becoming less real with his every step, was he not essentially consenting to her continued presence back there in the tent, waiting to be sold, by the tall man, to anyone who happened by? Wasn't he, in a sense, not only allowing that to happen but assuring that it would happen?


Yes, he was.
06 July 2015 @ 11:33 am

distorted vision from charlotte on Vimeo.

24 June 2015 @ 02:35 pm
By the way, I do think that awareness is different from thinking. I am similar to most other people, I believe, in that I do not really do my most important thinking in large, intentional blocks where I sit down uninterrupted in a chair and know in advance what it is I'm going to think about - as in, for instance, 'I am going to think about life and my place in it and what's truly important to me, so that I can start forming concrete, focused goals and plans for my adult career' - and then sit there and think about it until I reach a conclusion. It doesn't work like that. For myself, I tend to do my most important thinking in incidental, accidental, almost daydreamy ways. Making a sandwich, taking a shower, sitting in a wrought-iron chair in the Lakehurst mall food court waiting for someone who's late, riding the CTA train and staring at both the passing scene and my own faint reflection superimposed on it in the window - and suddenly you find that you're thinking about things that end up being important. It's almost the opposite of awareness, if you think about it. I think this experience of accidental thinking is common, if perhaps not universal, although it's not something that you can ever really talk to anyone else about because it ends up being so abstract and hard to explain. Whereas in an intentional bout of concentrated major thinking, where you sit down with the conscious intention of confronting major questions like 'Am I currently happy?' or 'What, ultimately, do I really care about and believe in?' or - particularly if some kind of authority figure has just squeezed your shoes - 'Am I essentially a worthwhile, contributing type of person or a drifting, indifferent, nihilistic person,?' then the questions often end up not answered but more like beaten to death, so attacked from every angle and each angle's different objections and complications that they end up even more abstract and ultimately meaningless than when you started. Nothing is achieved this way, at least that I've ever heard of. Certainly, from all evidence, St. Paul or Martin Luther, or the authors of The Federalist Papers, or even President Reagan never changed the direction of their lives this way - it happened more by accident.

As for my father, I have to admit that I don't know how he did any of the major thinking that led him in the directions he followed all his life. I don't even know whether there was any major, conscious thinking in his case. Like many men of his generation, he may well have been one of those people who can just proceed on autopilot. His attitude towards life was that there are certain things that have to be done and you simply have to do them - such as, for instance, going to work every day. Again, it may be that this is another element of the generation gap. I don't think my father loved his job with the city, but on the other hand, I'm not sure he ever asked himself major questions like 'Do I like my job? Is this really what I want to spend my life doing? Is it as fulfilling as some of the dreams I had for myself when I was a young man serving in Korea and reading British poetry in my bunk in the barracks at night?' He had a family to support, this was his job, he got up every day and did it, end of story, everything else is just self-indulgent nonsense. That may actually have been the lifetime sum-total of his thinking on the matter. He essentially said 'Whatever' to his lot in life, but obviously in a very different way from the way in which the directionless wastoids of my generation said 'Whatever.'

My mother, on the other hand, changed her life's direction very dramatically - but again, I don't know whether this was as a result of concentrated thinking. In fact, I doubt it. That is just not how things like that work. The truth is that most of my mother's choices were emotionally driven. This was another common dynamic for her generation. I think that she liked to believe that the feminist consciousness-raising and Joyce and the whole thing of her and Joyce and the divorce were the result of thinking, like a conscious change of life-philosophy. But it was really emotional. She had a sort of nervous breakdown in 1971, even though nobody ever used that term. And maybe she would eschew 'nervous breakdown' and say instead that it was a sudden, conscious change in beliefs and direction. And who can really argue with something like that? I wish I had understood this at the time, because there were ways in which I know I was kind of nasty and condescending to my mother about the whole Joyce and divorce thing. Almost as though I unconsciously sided with my father, and took it upon myself to say all the nasty, condescending things that he was too self-disciplined and dignified to allow himself to say. Even speculating about it is probably pointless - as my father said, people are going to do what they're going to do, and all you can really do is play the hand that life deals you to the best of your ability. I never knew with any certainty whether he even really missed her, or was sad. When I think of him now, I realize he was lonely, that it was very hard for him divorced and alone in that house in Libertyville. After the divorce, in some ways he probably felt free, which of course has its good sides - he could come and go as he pleased, and when he squeezed my shoes about something he didn't have to worry about choosing his words carefully or arguing with someone who was going to stick up for me no matter what. But freedom of this kind is also very close, on the psychological continuum, to loneliness. The only people you're really ultimately 'free' with in this way are strangers, and in this sense my father was right about money and capitalism being equal to freedom, as buying or selling something doesn't obligate you to anything except what's written in the contract - although there's also the social contract, which is where the obligation to pay one's fair share of taxes comes in, and I think my father would have agreed with Mr. Glendenning's statement that 'Real freedom is freedom to obey the law.' That all probably doesn't make much sense. Anyhow, it's all just abstract speculation at this point, because I never really talked to either of my parents about how they felt about their adult lives. It's just not the sort of thing that parents sit down and openly discuss with their children, at least not in that era.
24 June 2015 @ 10:30 am
To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it's because dullness is intrinsically painful, maybe that's where phrases like 'deadly dull' or 'excruciatingly dull' come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing's pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly . . . but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets' checkouts, airports' gates, SUV's backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows it's about something else, way down.
18 June 2015 @ 11:16 am

'Suppose you think along the lines of power, authority. Inevitability. You've got your two kinds of people now, when you get down to it. On one hand you've got your rebel mentality whose whole bag or groove or what have you is going against power, rebelling. Your spit-in-the-wind type that feels powerful going against the power and the Establishment and what have you. Then, type two, you've got your other type, which is the soldier personality, the type that believes in order and power and respects authority and aligns themselves with power and authority and the side of order and the way the whole thing has got to work if the system's going to run smoothly. So imagine you're a type two type. There's more than they think. The age of the rebel is over. It's the eighties now. If You're a Type Two, We Want You - that should be their slogan. In the Service. Check out the blowing wind, man. Join up with the side that always gets paid. We shit you not. The side of the law and the force of the law, the side of the tide and gravity and that one law where everything always gradually gets a little hotter until the sun up and blows. Because you got your two unavoidables in life, just like they say. Unavoidability - now that's power, man. Either be a mortician or join the Service, if you want to line yourself up with the real power. Have the wind at your back. Tell them listen: Spit with the wind, it goes a whole lot further. You can trust me on that, my man.'