A welcome to readers

As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime:

Friday, November 1, 2013


Here's an interesting article that I ran across the other day.  Some of my older readers may appreciate the list.

I  miss the taste of paste (wintergreen) and the smell and feel and visual glory (and names) of  Crayola brand crayons (which I actually collect to this day). I  also miss clapping erasers together to remove most of the chalk dust, and then opening the port to the built-in vacuum system to let the negative pressure do the rest. I also miss blackboards and using white and colored chalk. (I've taught in classrooms with the "revised updated" green boards and those white boards that use foul, chemical-smelling markers that stain hands,  sleeves and shirt fronts). Cursive writing, for me at least, was always easier than printing which we were never taught. While my results were never as good as Lucy Stansbury's (class artist), they were passable and I learned to write quickly.  I even learned some symbols to speed up taking notes such as "&" for "and"  along with the use of arrows and balloon circles.

I  also miss my special Scripto automatic pencil with its shorter round, see-through red or blue barrel and pink eraser. I will not miss the wall-mounted pencil sharpeners that I had to clean and that left my hands filthy with carbon black. But I will miss the sharp points that those wall mounters gave my lead pencils (#2 yellow Ticondaroga or Dixon), a point that hand-held sharpeners can't duplicate. I do miss 16 mm. Bell and Howell movie projectors, less so the slide projector--even those with carousels-- or the film strip projectors with their funny beeps. Cigar boxes, of course, were a luxury item for those of us who lived in non-smoking households.  I had a deal with the local pharmacist who saved me some every now and then. Cigar boxes could be made to hold a variety of secret, amazing items, including de-coder rings, single edge razor blades for model airplane building, a skate key, a missing jigsaw puzzle piece, a chess piece, a folding scout knife with multiple blades, a match book, cloth "wolf-bear-lion" patches from my blue cub scout shirt, and a spare (oft-misplaced) needle valve that we used with a bicycle pump to inflate basketballs and footballs. You get the idea.

I wonder if enforced good manners have also disappeared? Coloring between the lines? Cutting construction paper to make Christmas Tree chains or Valentines--with a deplorably dull set of round pointed tin scissors? How about peanut butter sandwiched between the halves of a hamburger bun, warm milk in half pint cartons with a straw, fig newtons, brown bananas, or the surprising first taste of V-8?

I reserve a special place in my memory of elementary schools for the smell of mimeograph sheets or ditto sheets. The scent of that ink can still take my imagination through history--across the world, over the times tables, up and down animal kingdom, and in and out of Presidents and capitals. I knew so much, so easily, then. Uncomplicated process and no Software building and testing errors.

What will Millenials miss? Boomers?
10 things disappearing from elementary schools
Cursive is going the way of the abacus
You don't see this much anymore.
You don't see this much anymore. (Three Lions/Getty Images)
Modern technology has changed the American classroom in many ways, as have parental attitudes. Here are some elementary school essentials that are either long gone or starting to disappear from the classroom.
1. BlackboardsThe first classroom blackboard was reportedly installed at West Point in 1801. As the railroads spread across the U.S., so did chalkboards, as slate was now easily hauled long-distance from mines in Vermont, Maine, and Pennsylvania. By the 1960s, though, blackboards began to go green — literally. Steel plates coated with porcelain enamel replaced the traditional slate boards; the green was easier on the eyes and chalk erased more completely off of the paint. In the 1990s, though, whiteboards began creeping into classrooms. Turns out that even "dustless" chalk annoyed kids with allergies and got into the nooks and crannies of the computers that were beginning to become classroom fixtures.
2. RecessThere are many reasons why some schools are eliminating or shortening recess: Students need every available moment for academics in order to prepare for standardized tests, too much liability lest a child gets injured, not enough budget to hire sufficient playground supervision, etc. Some schools that do still have recess have banned dodgeball or games like tag. Other schools have Recess Coaches who provide structured play and conflict resolution (Rock-Paper-Scissors rather than Pink Bellies) on the playground.
3. Cursive penmanship
Who could have predicted that one day, cursive handwriting would become a hot-button issue along the lines of school prayer and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? But thanks to computers and texting and all that fancy technology, script handwriting is slowly going the way of the abacus. Many educators believe that legible printing and good typing skills are all today's students need to learn to succeed in the world, and cursive is a non-essential skill. I recall feeling quite grown-up when I started learning cursive in the second grade — I could now read all that "secret" stuff my mom and other adults were writing down!
4. Wall-mounted hand crank pencil sharpeners
Maybe teachers were made of sturdier stuff Back in the Day, or maybe they just had a stock of Valium in the teacher's lounge…how else did they survive without the "Classroom-Friendly Pencil Sharpeners" that are all the rage? Some are electric, some are manual, but they are quiet and many have a pop-out feature to prevent over-sharpening. Sure, these old-style sharpeners were awkward for southpaws to use, but to take away the fun of grinding a pencil down to a stub just for the heck of it? Sheesh.
5. PasteMany school supply lists today require glue sticks, not the good ol' white paste in a jar with an applicator that smelled so minty good it always inspired at least one kid to eat the stuff.
6. Film projectorsThe really fancy models came with a playback device that "beeped" when it was time to advance the filmstrip to the next frame. And it always seemed to take forever to get the picture just right on the screen (propping it up on one book, then two…then focusing…). But we didn't mind the delay — it was just that much more time that we didn't have to spend actually studying or paying attention.
7. 16mm movie projectorsThe A/V captain had to turn the volume up to 11 most of the time, due to the poor sound quality of the ancient films and the clack-clack-clack noise of the sprocket holes moving through the machinery. Sometimes a series of holes were broken and the film would get "stuck" or skip. The projectionist knew then to stick a pencil in the lower loop and pull it just so to get the classic Coronet or Jiminy Cricket "I'm No Fool" educational short back on track.
8. Pencil sharpeners with exposed razorsYou probably don't see many pencil cases with built-in times table cheat sheets any more, and even pocket pencil sharpeners have undergone a transformation in recent years. The models sold for student use are much more safety-oriented, with the blade concealed in a plastic cup or enclosure of some sort. In fact, in 2008 police were summoned to a school in Hilton Head, South Carolina, when a student was "caught" possessing a small razor blade. The police report stated that the "weapon" was obviously from a pocket pencil sharpener that had broken (the kid had the broken plastic pieces, too), but the school was obliged to call the law due to their "zero tolerance for weapons" policy.
9. Cigar boxesEven back in the 1960s, you could buy "school boxes" that were the same size and had the same hinged lid as a cigar box, but they had cutesy pictures of the alphabet and school supplies painted on them. And they cost money. So when kids brought home that list of necessary school supplies every year, many parents went to the local drugstore and got an empty cigar box for free. There was something rather soothing about opening that box up during the day to retrieve a pencil or ruler and getting a quick whiff of rich tobacco aroma. By the end of the year, of course, ol' King Edward had an eye patch and warts drawn all over his face. Thanks to the decline of smoking in the U.S. and the idea of a tobacco product being near a first grader's desk, most students bring those store-bought boxes to class these days.
10. Mimeographed sheetsSometimes called "dittos" and technically referred to as a spirit duplicator, they reproduced multiple copies of an original document in dark purple ink for the teacher to pass out. But the most important thing about a ditto sheet was the aroma — a fresh one smelled heavenly. It was pretty much a reflex — as soon as you were handed a freshly mimeographed paper, you lifted it up to your face and inhaled that delicious, indescribable fragrance.


A day or two ago, as is my habit, I went to Starbucks at 6:45 am for a cup of Pikes Place and, hopefully, some conversation with friends or the young baristas who know me so well and laugh at my lame early morning attempts at humor. It was a grey morning, drizzling, cold, and overcast, and I could see my breath for the first time this winter. As I approached the cheery, lighted facade of the warm store, inhaling as I did the goodness of baked bagels from Einstein's Bagel Bakery next door, I spotted a man sitting on one of the new outside "all weather" couches that the company recently installed in its attempt to improve the seating options for its customers. 

The man was dressed in a grey, old fashioned overcoat, buttoned to the top with collar up. Stubble covered his coarse red cheeks, and he was drinking a Venti coffee. I looked his way and greeted him with a typical "Hey, how's it going?" and was surprised by his answer.  "Great," he replied, "I've got my coffee here to warm my belly." "I'm homeless, you know,  but don't let that scare you." 

His coffee breath came out in great puffs.  So, I asked, "So, how'd ya like another?" and he replied, "That'd be great. With cream and sugar, if ya don't mind." Minutes later I emerged from the store with his coffee and mine, handed him his steaming white cup, which he took  as he held out his other hand for me to shake, saying "Thanks.  My street name's Kenny, from County Kilkenny in Ireland, but my real name's Mark." 

When I heard that his name was the same as mine, I was instantly overcome with some indefinable emotion, spontaneous, deep, and immediate. I choked up and felt my tears begin to flow. Quickly, with an embarrassment engendered in early childhood ("Johnson men don't cry"),  I wished him "Be well," and headed for my car, hot tears streaming down my face.There I sat for a while without turning on the ignition, let the tears run their course, watching the emergence of the pink dawn over the King Sooper sign, while pondering what in the world had hooked my emotions so deeply.

I guess the honest answer is that I have always known that there is only a hair's breadth  of difference between my life with its moderately comfortable status and a life of being homeless or worse, and that my condition is mostly a matter of luck, genetics, time and place of birth, and some good fortune (yes lots of hard work and skill too) along the way. But it is tenuous at best/

I have often thought since I retired and was no longer able to generate new  income that it wouldn't take too much of a hiccup in the Stock Market to render me penniless--as 2002 and 2008 demonstrated. While the specter of being penniless and of living in a cardboard box under I-25 is not likely to become a reality, sometimes --like my chance meeting  with the "other Mark"--  I realize that I do not devote enough time and attention to being grateful for so much that I do have and enjoy in my life whose existence has been totally out of my control.

This morning while enjoying a hot shower for example, I reminded myself that there are countless millions who do not have running water, hot or cold. That took me to thinking about my warm apartment with its soft mattress, of the clean clothes I was about to put on, and the plentiful, hot oatmeal breakfast I was going to enjoy(?) with fresh apples and prunes brought from Kings Sooper nearby.

Those thoughts, in turn, made me realize how fortunate I am to have been born in America, to have been the wrong age to fight in wars, to have been born with all my limbs in tact, to have reasonable eyesight and hearing, a body free from inherited disease, and only a minor non-fatal flaw in my heart. All these are quite out of my control or choosing.  I was born to non-addicted parents who had worked hard and made enough money to send me to college, who valued and passed on to me  their love of books and education and music, and civility. Also out of my control was the fact of being born in the USA, upper middle class, and white, with a family name that was mostly untarnished by the deeds of my ancestors (so I was really free to be me). I didn't have to live down anything--although I did have lots to live up to.

I was also blessed with a magnificent marriage, two healthy, productive, compassionate, responsible and stable daughters, wonderful pets, great employment, invigorating and loyal friends, and on and on. The voyage of my life has, in large measure, been on a ship which I did not build, which I have mostly  tried to keep repaired while underway, and which I've barely been able to steer through oceans and weather patterns out of my control toward an unknown destination.

So, this morning, All Saints Day, I celebrate all the Saints in my life--past and present--who have helped keep my little ship safe, mostly dry, sails mended, and I also celebrate and give thanks for my blessings, especially the unearned ones.

And speaking of voyaging through life, here's some food for the trip.

For the Traveler

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

~ John O'Donohue ~

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


A miracle: Team Oracle pulled it off after being so woefully behind that American 'yachts people' were wringing their hands in despair.  As for me, I have been depressed and in despair since I first glimpsed the trials on YouTube. The new racing devices bear little resemblance to contenders of yore, and I confess that I could get no emotional juices running this year.

Oracle was a technological miracle, fast as the wind (even faster, it's said), sported little hull in the water, and could accelerate like a Porsche. Cost of the hardware was well in excess of $10 million. Crew and sponsorship were hardly American.

Call me an old fogey, but I much preferred the line and grace of Lipton's J-boats and the design and refinements of the subsequent 12 meters that raced to keep the Cup in the NY Yacht Club. Those were beautiful yachts that relied more on design and sailing skill than on mechanics, carbon fibers, and technical sophistication to achieve maximum hull speed.

I celebrate America's victory, therefore, with a muted "hooray."

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


This is about how I am feeling this week.  Cartoon from Funny Times.



At this point, I come down on the side of  Ellsberg, Snowden, and Manning--people who acted on their beliefs and conscience, even if those actions caused them to violate specific orders of the government forbidding that  behavior. Whistleblowers at all levels are rarely popular. We know that they act for a variety of reasons--some less than altruistic, e.g., motivations of revenge or jealousy. I know that I personally have to be careful to discriminate among those differences in motivation as well as the intended and unintended results of actions.

In this current case, as Snowden's and Manning's leaked material continues to become public, we learn that our government has apparently exceeded its Constitutional and legislated powers and violated a number of individual liberties, along with the sovereignty of many nations abroad.

The good that came from Daniel Ellsberg's revelations during the Vietnam catastrophe is still vivid in my memory, as is the disclosure of which public officials, in fact, were betraying the country by covering up, using warrantless wiretaps, actively surveilling private communications, and outright lying about the scope of what they were doing.   Sounds very familiar.

Our Government was caught napping by the September 11 attacks, but its response, understandably --but not acceptably--appears to me to be an over reaction.  The Patriot Act is loaded with good intentions--and I certainly affirm the Government's necessary role in protecting the Nation. However, as we all know, "the devil is in the details" of choosing what methods are going to be employed, and by whom,  in carrying out that obligation to "protect and defend." Ironically, we appear to be being violated and attacked by the very Government that is ostensibly trying to fulfill its obligation to protect and defend us.

Having learned from what went on in the response to the disclosures and brouhaha surrounding the Pentagon Papers years ago, I'm going to be very slow to judge or condemn Snowden,  Manning or the Government out of hand on the evidence I have seen thus far. I do lean in the direction of supporting the whistleblowers again in this case since my critical cynicism has increased with my age.

As I do my pondering, however,  I was pleased to run across Backderf's new political cartoon and Sheer's article which I will use as I work my way through the complexity of the interplay of ethics,  morality and legality in this situation.

The City by John Backderf
The City

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Good Germans in Governmenhttp://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_good_germans_in_government_20130625/

Posted on Jun 25, 2013

By Robert Scheer

Friday, August 23, 2013


The following video is Bill Moyers at his best, and I couldn't agree more with his point of view. I share it with you--my readers and students--so that there will be no doubt in your minds about where I stand on this issue.

The power of the top economic 1% and of corporations is formidable indeed.  Look how much money was poured into the last election, and by whom. Look at the number of millionaires in the Congress. The world appears more and more to be run on "greased palms" and making "The Deal." Gauge the impact on a world where all transactions are zero sum games, and where quid pro quo dominates political as well as economic interactions.

Note that compromise has become as much an accepted way of life as outright lying, even when it is moral principles or the health and safety of other people--indeed of the planet itself--that get compromised. Self-advancement and getting "ME" ahead--at any cost--appears to be the goal of increasing numbers of my countrymen, especially those who share with me a history of being more or less privileged members of the American economic and social order.

So, you've been warned and, I hope, are in the process of becoming forearmed. Keeping yourself vigilant and well educated about public issues is a first step. Next, it is imperative to dig out the alliances as well as the vocalized beliefs of our political candidates. Who's really in bed with whom?

Finally, in a democracy, we all have a responsibility to defend ourselves against those who are trying to take advantage of us, put us down, take our vote, rule over us or enslave us in any way, and we also have an obligation to help defend and protect our less fortunate neighbors--irrespective of how they came to be less fortunate. Like it or not, we're all in this together.

Copy and paste if need be.


Sunday, August 18, 2013


A hundred years from now, it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much money I had in the bank...but the world may be a better place because I made a difference in the life of a child

- Forest Witcraft -

 I have believed in and tried to live by this philosophy all my life.  But as I have grown  older, I've noticed that the statement is too limiting. So I've expanded it as follows:

"...but the world may be a better place because I tried to make a difference not only in the life of a child, but in the lives and existence of all that I touched--people, animals, organizations and institutions, plants and trees, and even the inanimate objects that (for a time at least) occupied my attention and affection and enhanced my life."

I think, for example, of my Troy-Bilt rototiller that joined me to break new ground for many gardens and then cultivate deep patches for potatoes, combine pig manure with sandy soil to grow prize-winning tomatoes, and even prepare reluctant soil for a failed experimental vineyard or cornfield. I cared for that machine as if it were a relative. I cared for its designers and builders and mechanics.

I think of my red, second hand, fat tired bike that I tried to make "modern" with the retrofit of a three speed shifter (not really three speeds) because I wanted to stay competitive with school chums who had received ten speed Raleighs for Christmas imported right after the Second World War. My red bike was the instrument of my passage to personal freedom, to getting away from the tight supervision of parents and relatives. My red bike was my steed as I galloped, on Saturdays, to the Bard theater for the double feature capped off by the weekly adventure serials, Milk Duds, and salty popcorn.  I can still feel my two cap pistols flapping against my thighs as I pedaled home convinced that I was aboard Trigger or Scout. I loved that bike, and cared for it, and lavished attention on it, and cried to it after crashes, until I was 16 and seduced by 150 horses from Detroit.

I think of my last dog Bessie, a black and white Springer Spaniel, bought as a pup, trained and exercised by me, who was my partner through some of the most difficult years of my life and always seemed able to sense my mood. Afternoons when I arrived home--whether for our regular walk around campus or seemingly endless games of catch the frisbee or fetch the lacrosse ball--she was there with her version of a smile. She would ask for attention always, but persist only if she knew that I was physically and emotionally available to her.  If I was deep in thought or emotionally bummed out, she would  literally sit on my feet, head turned around onto my knees, totally relaxed and I would stroke her glossy head, tracing the white fur that marked he shiny black face and soulful eyes. 

I think of the Maple tree that was one of my best friends as I grew up in Kentucky. I knew her every branch, I knew the fastest way to mount to the lower branches and then which limbs to trust as I ascended to the very top where the wind joined us in a swaying dance as I held her close for hours. I can still smell the perfume of her smooth bark when I accidentally broke her skin with a misplaced toy sword or sneaker. I shared my own tears with her as well--after particularly severe stomach aches, despised clarinet and piano lessons,  disciplinary whippings by mom or dad, or the heart wrenching disappointment when I didn't get a Valentine from Lucy or Sally in Class 4A.

I think of a brand, new school I helped to found, a school that was more alternative and liberal than I was, at least initially, of the heady adventure of helping to shape the curriculum and rules and traditions of an exciting new place, of seeing the first students arrive and witness their shock and pleasant surprise at being treated like intelligent and responsible human beings, of the pain I felt years later when I had to resign because I realized that it was no longer possible to adapt the original dream to a rapidly changing world and that I couldn't bend or abandon my philosophy to fit into that new world.

I think of jade plants I've grown from a single leaf,  and vintage rose bushes and fruit trees I've transplanted, and Duroc hogs and a dark jersey cow I've raised and nurtured and milked and eaten, of the miles spent in a '65 GTO Pontiac and an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, of my love affair with my first Apple computer, my twenty-five year relationship with an irreplaceable Geneva wrist watch bought from a catalog only because it was beautiful, the hours and sweat and work I associate with my grandfather's handmade oak partner's desk that was my companion while I created lesson plans and wrote a book, placed orders in my Agway store in the Adirondacks, headed a school, and tried to find "what it all means" during my Golden Years in Colorado.

In one way or another, I know I made a difference in the existence of all these items, animate and inanimate, and I know they did in mine. And, of course, I know I have made a difference in the lives of others, as a father and teacher and friend, as they have in mine.


First, in case you are not acquainted with Orion magazine, allow me to introduce you. If you enjoy reading high quality essays and viewing excellent photographs with no advertising interruptions, and exploring relevant information about our natural world, then I urge you to subscribe to Orion or find it in your local library. If you subscribe, then pass it on to friends or leave it in your favorite coffee shop to enlighten your fellow latte drinkers. This is a thoughtful and high quality publication worthy of your attention and support. I don't find many of this calibre available for public consumption these days.

This 2001 article by Barry Lopez, a naturalist  who lives in Oregon and who has penned many worthy books and essays, draws an interesting distinction between religion and spirituality as he discusses his role as participant in Nature rather than mere observer. I think you'll like this.

Try Orion

The Naturalist


Published in the Autumn 2001 issue of Orion magazine

Photograph by Scott Erickson, used with permission

MY HOME STANDS ON A WOODED BENCH, set back about two hundred feet from the north bank of the McKenzie River in western Oregon. Almost every day I go down to the river with no intention but to sit and watch. I have been watching the river for thirty years, just the three or four hundred yards of it I can see from the forested bank, a run of clear, quick water about 350 feet wide. If I have learned anything here, it’s that each time I come down, something I don’t know yet will reveal itself.
If it’s a man’s intent to spend thirty years staring at a river’s environs in order to arrive at an explanation of the river, he should find some other way to spend his time. To assert this, that a river can’t be known, does not to my way of thinking denigrate science, any more than saying a brown bear can’t be completely known. The reason this is true is because the river is not a thing, in the way a Saturn V rocket engine is a thing. It is an expression of biological life, in dynamic relation to everything around it—the salmon within, the violet-green swallow swooping its surface, alder twigs floating its current, a mountain lion sipping its bank water, the configurations of basalt that break its flow and give it timbre and tone.
In my experience with field biologists, those fresh to a task—say, caracara research—are the ones most likely to give themselves a deadline—ten years, say—against which they will challenge themselves to know all there is to know about that falcon. It never works. More seasoned field biologists, not as driven by a need to prove themselves, are content to concentrate on smaller arenas of knowledge. Instead of speaking definitively of coyote, armadillo, or wigeon, they tend to say, “This one animal, that one time, did this in that place.” It’s the approach to nature many hunting and gathering peoples take, to this day. The view suggests a horizon rather than a boundary for knowing, toward which we are always walking.
A great shift in the Western naturalist’s frame of mind over the past fifty years, it seems to me, has been the growth of this awareness: to get anywhere deep with a species, you must immerse yourself in its milieu. You must study its ecology. If you wish to understand the caracara, you need to know a great deal about exactly where the caracara lives when; and what the caracara’s relationships are with each of the many components of that place, including its weathers, its elevations, its seasonal light.
A modern naturalist, then, is no longer someone who goes no further than a stamp collector, mastering nomenclature and field marks. She or he knows a local flora and fauna as pieces of an inscrutable mystery, increasingly deep, a unity of organisms Western culture has been trying to elevate itself above since at least Mesopotamian times. The modern naturalist, in fact, has now become a kind of emissary in this, working to reestablish good relations with all the biological components humanity has excluded from its moral universe.
SITTING BY THE RIVER, following mergansers hurtling past a few inches off its surface or eyeing an otter hauled out on a boulder with (in my binoculars) the scales of a trout glistening on its face, I ask myself not: What do I know?—that Canada geese have begun to occupy the nests of osprey here in recent springs, that harlequin ducks are now expanding their range to include this stretch of the river—but: Can I put this together? Can I imagine the river as a definable entity, evolving in time?
How is a naturalist today supposed to imagine the place between nature and culture? How is he or she to act, believing as many do that Western civilization is compromising its own biology by investing so heavily in material progress? And knowing that many in positions of corporate and political power regard nature as inconvenient, an inefficiency in their plans for a smoothly running future?
The question of how to behave, it seems to me, is nervewracking to contemplate because it is related to two areas of particular discomfort for naturalists. One is how to keep the issue of spirituality free of religious commentary; the other is how to manage emotional grief and moral indignation in pursuits so closely tied to science, with its historical claim to objectivity.
One response to the first concern is that the naturalist’s spirituality is one with no icons (unlike religion’s), and it is also one that enforces no particular morality. In fact, for many it is not much more than the residue of awe which modern life has not (yet) erased, a sensitivity to the realms of life which are not yet corraled by dogma. The second concern, how a person with a high regard for objectivity deals with emotions like grief and outrage, like so many questions about the trajectory of modern culture, is only a request to express love without being punished. It is, more deeply, an expression of the desire that love be on an equal footing with power when it comes to social change.
It is of some help here, I think, to consider where the modern naturalist has come from, to trace her or his ancestry. Since the era of Gilbert White in eighteenth-century England, by some reckonings, we have had a recognizable cohort of people who study the natural world and write about it from personal experience. White and his allies wrote respectfully about nature, and their treatments were meant to be edifying for the upper classes. Often, the writer’s intent was merely to remind the reader not to overlook natural wonders, which were the evidence of Divine creation. Darwin, in his turn, brought unprecedented depth to this kind of work. He accentuated the need for scientific rigor in the naturalist’s inquiries, but he also suggested that certain far-reaching implications existed. Entanglements. People, too, he said, were biological, subject to the same forces of mutation as the finch. A hundred years further on, a man like Aldo Leopold could be characterized as a keen observer, a field biologist who understood a deeper connection (or reconnection) with nature, but also as someone aware of the role wildlife science had begun to play in politics. With Rachel Carson, the artificial but sometimes dramatic divide that can separate the scientist, with her allegiance to objective, peer-reviewed data, from the naturalist, for whom biology always raises issues of propriety, becomes apparent.
Following Leopold’s and Carson’s generations came a generation of naturalists that combined White’s enthusiasm and sense of the nonmaterial world; Leopold’s political consciousness and feelings of shared fate; and Carson’s sense of rectitude and citizenship. For the first time, however, the humanists among this cadre of naturalists were broadly educated in the sciences. They had grown up with Watson and Crick, not to mention sodium fluoroacetate, Ebola virus ecology, melting ice shelves, and the California condor.
The modern naturalist, acutely even depressingly aware of the planet’s shrinking and eviscerated habitats, often feels compelled to do more than merely register the damage. The impulse to protest, however, is often stifled by feelings of defensiveness, a fear of being misread. Years of firsthand field observation can be successfully challenged in court today by a computer modeler with not an hour’s experience in the field. A carefully prepared analysis of stream flow, migration corridors, and long-term soil stability in a threatened watershed can be written off by the press (with some assistance from the opposition) as a hatred of mankind.
At the opening of the twenty-first century the naturalist, then, knows an urgency White did not foresee and a political scariness Leopold might actually have imagined in his worst moments. Further, in the light of the still-unfolding lessons of Charles Darwin’s work, he or she knows that a cultural exemption from biological imperatives remains in the realm of science fiction.
IN CONTEMPORARY native villages, one might posit today that all people actively engaged in the land—hunting, fishing, gathering, traveling, camping—are naturalists, and say that some are better than others according to their gifts of observation. Native peoples differ here, however, from the Gilbert Whites, the Darwins, the Leopolds, and the Rachel Carsons in that accumulating and maintaining this sort of information is neither avocation nor profession. It is more comparable to religious activity, behavior steeped in tradition and considered essential for the maintenance of good living. It is a moral and an inculcated stance, a way of being. While White and others, by contrast, were searching for a way back in to nature, native peoples (down to the present in some instances), for what-ever reason, have been at pains not to leave. The distinction is important because “looking for a way back in” is a striking characteristic of the modern naturalist’s frame of mind.
Gilbert White stood out among his social peers because what he pursued—a concrete knowledge of the natural world around Selbourne in Hampshire—was unrelated to politics or progress. As such, it could be dismissed politically. Fascinating stuff, but inconsequential. Since then, almost every naturalist has borne the supercilious judgments of various sophisticates who thought the naturalist a romantic, a sentimentalist, a bucolic—or worse; and more latterly, the condescension of some scientists who thought the naturalist not rigorous, not analytic, not detached enough.
A naturalist of the modern era—an experientially based, well-versed devotee of natural ecosystems—is ideally among the best informed of the American electorate when it comes to the potentially catastrophic environmental effects of political decisions. The contemporary naturalist, it has turned out—again, scientifically grounded, politically attuned, field experienced, library enriched—is no custodian of irrelevant knowledge, no mere adept differentiating among Empidonax flycatchers on the wing, but a kind of citizen whose involvement in the political process, in the debates of public life, in the evolution of literature and the arts, has become crucial.
The bugbear in all of this—and there is one—is the role of field experience, the degree to which the naturalist’s assessments are empirically grounded in firsthand knowledge. How much of what the contemporary naturalist claims to know about animals and the ecosystems they share with humans derives from what he has read, what he has heard, what he has seen televised? What part of what the naturalist has sworn his or her life to comes from firsthand experience, from what the body knows?
One of the reasons native people still living in some sort of close, daily association with their ancestral lands are so fascinating to those who arrive from the rural, urban, and suburban districts of civilization is because they are so possessed of authority. They radiate the authority of firsthand encounters. They are storehouses of it. They have not read about it, they have not compiled notebooks and assembled documentary photographs. It is so important that they remember it. When you ask them for specifics, the depth of what they can offer is scary. It’s scary because it’s not tidy, it doesn’t lend itself to summation. By the very way that they say that they know, they suggest they are still learning something that cannot, in the end, be known.
It is instructive to consider how terrifying certain inter-lopers—rural developers, government planners, and other apostles of change—can seem to such people when, on the basis of a couple of books the interloper has read or a few (usually summer) weeks in the field with a pair of binoculars and some radio collars, he suggests a new direction for the local ecosystem and says he can’t envision any difficulties.
IN ALL THE YEARS I have spent standing or sitting on the banks of this river, I have learned this: the more knowledge I have, the greater becomes the mystery of what holds that knowledge together, this reticulated miracle called an ecosystem. The longer I watch the river, the more amazed I become (afraid, actually, sometimes) at the confidence of those people who after a few summer seasons here are ready to tell the county commissioners, emphatically, what the river is, to scribe its meaning for the outlander.
Firsthand knowledge is enormously time consuming to acquire; with its dallying and lack of end points, it is also out of phase with the short-term demands of modern life. It teaches humility and fallibility, and so represents an antithesis to progress. It makes a stance of awe in the witness of natural process seem appropriate, and attempts at summary knowledge na├»ve. Historically, tyrants have sought selectively to eliminate firsthand knowledge when its sources lay outside their control. By silencing those with problematic firsthand experiences, they reduced the number of potential contradictions in their political or social designs, and so they felt safer. It is because natural process—how a mountain range disintegrates or how nitrogen cycles through a forest—is beyond the influence of the visionaries of globalization that firsthand knowledge of a country’s ecosystems, a rapidly diminishing pool of expertise and awareness, lies at the radical edge of any country’s political thought.
OVER THE YEARS I have become a kind of naturalist, although I previously rejected the term because I felt I did not know enough, that my knowledge was far too incomplete. I never saw myself in the guise of Gilbert White, but I respected his work enough to have sought out his grave in Selbourne and expressed there my gratitude for his life. I never took a course in biology, not even in high school, and so it seemed to me that I couldn’t really be any sort of authentic naturalist. What biology I was able to learn I took from books, from veterinary clinics, from an apprenticeship to my homeland in the Cascades, from field work with Western biologists, and from traveling with hunters and gatherers. As a naturalist, I have taken the lead of native tutors, who urged me to participate in the natural world, not hold it before me as an object of scrutiny.
When I am by the river, therefore, I am simply there. I watch it closely, repeatedly, and feel myself not apart from it. I do not feel compelled to explain it. I wonder sometimes, though, whether I am responding to the wrong question when it comes to speaking “for nature.” Perhaps the issue is not whether one has the authority to claim to be a naturalist, but whether those who see themselves as naturalists believe they have the authority to help shape the world. What the naturalist-as-emissary intuits, I think, is that if he or she doesn’t speak out, the political debate will be left instead to those seeking to benefit their various constituencies. Strictly speaking, a naturalist has no constituency.
To read the newspapers today, to merely answer the phone, is to know the world is in flames. People do not have time for the sort of empirical immersion I believe crucial to any sort of wisdom. This terrifies me, but I, too, see the developers’ bulldozers arrayed at the mouth of every canyon, poised at the edge of every plain. And the elimination of these lands, I know, will further reduce the extent of the blueprints for undamaged life. After the last undomesticated stretch of land is brought to heel, there will be only records—strips of film and recording tape, computer printouts, magazine articles, books, laser-beam surveys—of these immensities. And then any tyrant can tell us what it meant, and in which direction we should now go. In this scenario, the authority of the grizzly bear will be replaced by the authority of a charismatic who says he represents the bear. And the naturalist—the ancient emissary to a world civilization wished to be rid of, a world it hoped to transform into a chemical warehouse, the same uneasy emissary who intuited that to separate nature from culture wouldn’t finally work—will be an orphan. He will become a dealer in myths.
What being a naturalist has come to mean to me, sitting my mornings and evenings by the river, hearing the clack of herons through the creak of swallows over the screams of osprey under the purl of fox sparrows, so far removed from White and Darwin and Leopold and even Carson, is this: Pay attention to the mystery. Apprentice to the best apprentices. Rediscover in nature your own biology. Write and speak with appreciation for all you have been gifted. Recognize that a politics with no biology, or a politics without field biology, or a political platform in which human biological requirements form but one plank, is a vision of the gates of Hell.
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Barry Lopez is the author of Arctic Dreams, for which he received the National Book Award, two collections of essays,Crossing Open Ground and About This Life, and eight works of fiction, including Winter Count and Field Notes. He is known for his 2001 book Light Action in the Caribbean (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) and his most recent publication entitled Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape .