Yesterday I realized that my 9 ½ year old black lab hates to hike. She endures it when she thinks there will be a fetching reward at the end. Not fetching like attractive, but literally fetching...her ball, her river toy, her stuffed beaver, whatever. She prefers there to be water but she is a desert dog born and raised, so “water” is relative and definitely not a requirement. I have thought all these years that she liked to hike, so you can imagine my surprise when yesterday, as we began our daily sojourn, she just stopped, walked slowly to the creek and sat down - ears back and head bowed. She was definitely saying, “I’m not going anywhere.” I think I was fooling myself into thinking she loved hiking because her Husky sister loved it. Rockie (the Husky) passed away last summer. She was my hiking soulmate, and I have just continued to hike with Chinle never really thinking about the fact that her main motivation had been to keep up with her sister and maybe now, she just didn’t feel the need to do it anymore. In fact, it has dawned on me, that Chinle “loves” hiking like Rockie “loved” the water. Rockie would always swim or dip her paws in but I think it was only because she didn’t want to look like a scaredy cat - I mean, really, what dog does?
So today, I got up early and, after hiding my hiking shoes in the truck the night before, I slipped out of the house without making eye contact and went for an adventure all by myself. It’s been years since I hiked alone - without another being (human or canine). And I know it’s trite, but I felt just as Henry David Thoreau did when he wrote, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” Part of that was because I didn’t have an 80 pound dog pulling me the entire 3 miles, so I literally felt taller than I usually do after our jaunts. But I also felt lighter as though my soul had shed some pounds. To be honest, I also started to feel a little lonely. The last time I was on that particular trail I had Rockie with me. But just as I experienced that fleeting friendlessness, a raven arrived and noisily introduced himself. His loud chatter may have been pointless banter, but I convinced myself he was saying something so profound that I should sit down and listen - granted all of that might have been just an excuse to rest my pounding heart and burning lungs ...3000 feet elevation gain in 3 miles at 11,500 feet altitude is, ummmm, steep and the whole damn place is a little short on oxygen if you ask me.
I obliged my cardiovascular system and the bird by sitting on a log where I listened to him rant for a good long while. Ever since I was a teenager and a raven saved my life, I have always felt like I should listen to them whenever they present themselves. I was 17 or 18 and hiking in Arches National Park (by myself), and I got turned around in the Fins. The fins are enormous rock structures that stick out of the earth and sit parallel one after the other. Unsurprisingly, they look like fins. They go on for miles and can become rather mazelike if you aren’t paying attention. I had been in them before with no problems, but that day, well, I wasn’t paying attention, and I got a little lost. As I was staving off sheer panic, a raven appeared. He kept moving (hopping really) from rock to rock ahead of me. And to keep myself from freaking out and get my mind off of how awful it would be to die there and how mad my dad would be, I followed him. Sure enough he eventually led me to a place I recognized and here I am, 30 years later...still hiking alone and talking to ravens.
But this particular day, I was staying on a very obvious trail, that went up (and I mean up) through mixed-conifer forest that had been set aside as public lands in 1906. I sat thoroughly entertained by the squawking raven and the quaking aspen and felt great gratitude for those who had the foresight to reserve such lands. This particular spot was in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness of the Carson National Forest. In 1906, the national forest was designated and in 2014, the wilderness area was designated. The fact that the span of people who found this exact spot to be inspiring enough to save stretched across more than a century is noteworthy. Few places have such holding power. The 20th century saw vast shifts in cultural values and political realities and yet...Americans in 2 different millennia agreed that that place was something special. The Carson National Forest, named after the controversial explorer and map-maker Kit Carson, would come to encompass 1.5 million acres. The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness (which gives even greater protection to part of the area) is 46,000 acres. I am a huge proponent of public lands. Much of that forest would be cordoned off from my enjoyment if it had been left as private lands over this last 110 years. We can suspect the trees might be gone and the habitats more destroyed than they are. So for that I'm grateful. But I am also keenly aware that that place has been sacred long before anyone in modern America deemed it as such, and, in reality, the land upon which I sat truly belongs to the Taos Pueblo.
I had just finished a really terrific book by Theodore Catton on the national forests and American Indians and as the raven droned on, I admit I stopped listening as my mind turned toward one of the more interesting stories of this politicized forest from the 20th century. (1)
The long and sordid struggle for access to Taos Blue Lake, like the protection impulse for Carson National Forest, spans nearly the entire length of the 20th century. The Taos Puebloans’ historic use of the lake and the surrounding forest lands was debated and denied for nearly 60 years. It became a topic of controversy because of the American government’s decision to include Blue Lake as part of the National Forest in 1906, thereby removing it from the “exclusive use” of any one person or group. The lake (and the surrounding forest) is a sacred space to the Puebloans. They have used it for millennia for religious observances (it’s more profound than that, but blogs are supposed to be short!). In the 20th century, as more and more Americans struggled to make sense of their own needs for wildness, resources, and access, the Puebloans’ claim to the land became a source of conflict and, of course, politics.
The 1920s-60s saw the Forest Service mostly reject the Pueblo’s claims to be able to access and protect the lake from the “multiple uses” that were part of the Forest Service’s mandate. John Collier, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and a few others advocated for the Taos Pueblo to have access to the area around Blue Lake and to limit other uses (such as cattle ranching that might pollute the lake). Co-management between the service and the Puebloan government was hinted at at one point, and the federal government even tried to “compensate” the Puebloans for the stolen lake. Long story short, the gist of the bureaucratic struggle was that Congress and the various heads of the Department of Agriculture (where, interestingly, the Forest Service is housed) refused to reserve the Blue Lake region for the Puebloans’ exclusive use (despite centuries of colonial governments acknowledging, legally, the Puebloan lands - Spanish, Mexican, and the US government under Abraham Lincoln had all recognized the Taos Pueblo rights to and grants of land and water - of course, we can argue the fact that the Spanish had no right to “grant” the Puebloans anything since it was the Pueblo’s land to begin with...but that’s a conversation for another time).
I’ll skip the legalizing that ensued after 1951, when the Puebloans first took their claim to the Indian Claims Commission (established in 1947 and closed in 1978). Suffice it to say that by 1965, the government had decided that, for the Puebloans to win their claim, would require an Act of Congress (I can almost hear Clinton Anderson, Senator from New Mexico at the time, sniggering at that). But we will skip this 20-year part of the story, because the ending is just too good. In 1970, Richard Nixon (likely keenly aware of the growing militancy of the American Indian movement and wanting to create good press for his administration in an increasingly tense time in the nation) intervened to get Congress to give him a bill to return the lake and substantial acreage to the Taos Pueblo. And they did. Read more about how the Puebloans gained the president’s attention here if you are interested.
Nixon signed the law commenting that “This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done in which land involved in this bill, 48,000 acres, was taken from the Indians involved, the Taos Pueblo Indians. And now, after all those years, the Congress of the United States returns that land to whom it belongs.” You should read the bill signing remarks in their entirety (just click the link directly above) because like many things Nixon said, they are strange.
The 60-year Blue Lake saga and the Puebloans’ victory was precedent setting. There are many of these kinds of stories about the history of conflict on public lands in the US - especially the US Forest Service’s management of resources to which so many people lay claim (ranchers, recreationists, indigenous peoples, timber companies, and of course, the mining industry). Those stories and those conflicts are never far from my mind, but on this day, I was feeling grateful for having access to land where I was able to find solace if not exactly total solitude.
The boisterous raven had left me, and I was a long way from Blue Lake as I got up from my log and decided it was time to turn around. I mean I could have kept going up to 13,000 feet, of course, but I had a lonely dog at home who needed a river. As I turned down the hill, solitude eluded me once again. This time, in place of the raven, arrived a butterfly - according to a friend of mine who is 14 years old and a butterfly expert, this is a female Variegated Fritillary Euptoieta claudia (see photo). If that’s not right, blame Shaden Higgs. She lives in Bozeman, Montana. The Fritillary stayed with me all the way down the mountain lilting along and alighting just in front of me with every step. I thought about how much more of the world we would all see if we stopped to investigate the spaces around us as often as a butterfly in the woods. In many cultures, including the Taos Puebloan culture, it is believed that butterflies represent renewal and rebirth (there is that re-creation theme again, weird), while others believe butterflies are the spirits of loved ones who have passed and have come back to say hello. Maybe that is why the Fritillary stuck with me for so long, and why I kept having the urge to name her Rockie.
I arrived back at the parking area to see a USFS fire truck with a couple of wildland fire scouts standing outside of it. “No fire is there?” I asked casually but really filled with some panic. “Nope,” one replied, “Just keeping our eyes out.” A raven screamed as it dipped precariously close to the firefighters’ heads and then the most gorgeous swallowtail butterfly landed on their truck. The second scout looked at both thoughtfully and said quietly, “Those must be good omens, right? “Absolutely.” I replied, thinking about the immensity of the forest rangers' jobs to protect this land in these dry times and wondering if Blue Lake was a low as other bodies of water in the area. The other scout smiled brightly, “No doubt about it. The ravens have our back and that butterfly is just cool.” Indeed, no doubt about any of that.
1) Theodore Catton, American Indians and National Forests, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016). For the Blue Lake story see pp. 93-105.
The day was hot - the kind of hot that makes you feel suspicious about the sun’s intention. We headed to the Grand River (the Rio Grande) first. The river is low and I (although not Chinle) can walk across it. Still, it is a scenic river with herons and hawks and geese and ducks keeping us company as we played in the water. On the way to the bank we followed behind a car with a bumper sticker that said “Water is truth.” I grew up around rivers, well, in them really, and I spent the better part of my childhood traipsing around red rock canyons. So I feel most at ease next to muddy currents encased in narrow slots carved into earth for eons. I also wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t batting at my ears the whole time we “recreated” in those places. Funny that word, recreated. I’m not a linguist, but Oxford tells me that the word, in this sense, comes from Late Middle English via Old French from Latin recreare “create again, renew.” And I suppose that’s exactly what we are doing when we go for a hike along a stream in a wet forest or a swim in a cold mountain lake. I suspect we are, indeed, seeking truth. But the truth of it is that at times it just sucks...especially during noseeum season.
Noseeums are a biting fly. There are a lot of different species but all are from the family Ceratopogonidae. They occur in different names in most places of the world. Even perfect Scotland has them but they are called midges there. Like mosquitos, only the female noseeums bite. And bite they do. They are so tiny you can’t see em coming (see what the name did there? ucannoseethem). I once heard from an old park ranger naturalist friend of mine that they are particularly interested in your head in the desert Southwest because that is where you are sweating and they are seeking moisture. I know they love my eyes and just behind my ears. So anecdotally he must be right, although I’ve never verified that with an entomologist. Come to think of it, that same ranger once told me that rattlesnakes avoided him because he was so mean...so the source may not be all that reliable. So what is the purpose of the noseeum...what, in heaven’s name do they do? Noseeums, from what I can tell, are put on earth to test our resolve to recreate. As they fly close to your ear, they ask the question, over and over and over again, “how much do you really want to be here?” As a youngster we did all sorts of crazy things to keep them away. We wore nets over our heads (it was the 80s, so we were probably close to high fashion), we bought stock in Avon’s Skin So Soft because traditional repellents like Off acted more as bait for the little SOBs. As a little kid I imagined them licking the Off off my skin like a lollypop. Skin so Soft is sort of oily and we were moderately into sun protection, so we lathered on Coppertone SPF 10. At the end of a long day of fun, you can picture us, two oily substances mixed with a bit of sand, dozens of dead noseeums that look from a distance like specks of pepper or very small freckles, and a lot sweat.
Anyway...what is the purpose of noseeums? They all reproduce - by drinking blood of course. Some of them pollinate (plants like cacao). Some spread disease. But all of them push you to your existential edge demanding that you ask “why am I here?” They dare you to privilege spiritual renewal over bodily comfort and then they verily laugh at your feeble attempts to assert your existence beyond them. After a couple of hours of swatting and splashing, Chinle and I decided it was time for a nap and a beer. After our rest, we wandered to one of our favorite watering holes (after a couple of beers, that bumper sticker about truth begins to make so much more sense). Playing at the Mothership (yep, that’s its name) there was the local band (I’m not making this up), the NoSeeUms. They define themselves as as a “groove-grass” band, an eclectic mix of funky, progressive Americana and their slogan is “You’ll See Em!” Clever right? And like the fly, they sort of zip in and out of your consciousness as they play. I sat listening, contemplating, and smiling as I scratched the dozen or so tiny bites littered across my scalp. An aging hippie looked at me and gestured toward my scratching, “noseeums got you?” I hid my surprise and and said wryly, “yes, and the bugs are pretty potent too.” He laughed and got up to go dance, swaying to the music and, I suspect, renewing his spirit as the Noseeums played on.
I was beating myself up about not writing more consistently...fearful that people would give up on the blog and stop reading and then I realized very few are reading it anyway! ha! I also have to figure out a way to write for me and stop worrying about deadlines or audience. My writing life has always been about deadlines...writing political missives for the Governor’s Office in Colorado in the 90s, grad school in the 00s, the publishing process with Emily Wakild most recently (our book is OUT -- which is very exciting! Check it out here! - you can also buy it from Amazon.com). No matter what or where I was writing, it has been largely for someone else. With an audience and a deadline in mind. And I think the next step in my process in become an actual writer is to write everyday (or darn near) for me!
So I’ve decided that maybe my public writing (the blog) is a summer blog. It’s in the summer, after classes and coaching have ended, that my spirit and my mind have the creative capacity to see the world. So here is the first of what I hope will be several entries this summer.
The vet’s eyes have the glaze of age. He sits staring at my dog with sympathy and slight annoyance. “The nettles are especially bad this year. So my guess is she got into some of those.” I then suspect the annoyance is at the nettles not at my dog. I look hopefully at him as a drip of sweat trickles down my back. I have as few clothes on as is permissible even in this hippie, “you do you” town, and I’m still panting from the suffocating heat in the tiny room where my dog’s drool puddles around my feet. “So….” I say expectedly. “Are nettles fatal? I mean, she couldn’t have eaten many. I watched her the whole time.” He looks at me with pity and with wisdom. “It’s been my experience their life is rough for a day or 2 and then they come out of it. Oh and you can’t have watched her the whole time.” He then turns to Ed and tells him to lift my 80 pound lab/Weimruner mix up onto a 5 foot high examining table. The table, I think to myself, is almost as tall as my vet back home . Ed is the 300 pound vet tech who greeted me at the door with his outstretched hand attached to arm littered with skull tattoos. Neither he nor the vet introduced themselves. They didn’t ask my name - only Chinle’s. Which I guess is the only important name to know in the big scheme of things. Chinle and I are in Taos, New Mexico for our summer getaway. We come every year. This year it is 95 degrees out (highs are usually around 75 - when it’s 80 the locals are freaking out). The plants are all withered, some haven’t leafed out, except, apparently, the nettles. The creek (where the nettles were to be found) was lower than ever and wildfires nipped at the boundaries of this mountain valley threatening the lifeblood of the region (if there is anything ranchers, mule deer, and mountain bike shops owners agree on, it’s that wildfire is bad for business).
There is nothing worse than being away from your amazing Southeast Asian Hindu vet (who is Gaia personified) when your pup is in distress. Dr. Darwalla (at Bernarda Vet Hospital) is about 5 feet tall. Her office has no examining tables. Instead the animals get to lie on comfy pads with hygienic covers, and the humans have big comfy chairs. All of her staff is female and there is aromatherapy to calm nerves (human and non). Our favorite tech is Cristina, a thin Chicana who exudes a no nonsense compassion. Chinle loves them all. As I walk into the cramped waiting room with the tall, metal examining table and a folding metal chair, I thought to myself “we aren’t in Tucson anymore.” The room was likely 90 degrees (maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it was cramped, 95 outside and there is no AC anywhere in this mountain town). I’m pretty sure Chinle and I both suspected we were going to die...she didn’t say so and neither did I, but I think we both thought it. We waited for 30 minutes, but I couldn’t annoyed. They squeezed us in - so desperate and, relatively helpless we sat wishing Dr. D wasn’t a hard 10 hour drive away. The vet, who I hear Ed call “Dr. Ted,” says to me, “it’s the dry year. Only the gnarliest things survive weather like this.” I ask him if this is unusual. I’ve never experienced it but we usually come in July...so maybe I don’t know June. He looks at me with an unperturbed patience. “Nope. Not normal. Had a rancher call me on Monday with a cow who had heat exhaustion. That’s a first.” Ed, meanwhile, is grunting at Chinle who refuses to lay down on the table….he says “you can either do it on your own or I’m gonna do it for you.” One time Dr. D sent us home because she didn’t think the dog was in the right emotional state to be examined, and she didn’t want to hurt her. I winced and started to say something and then remembered that Ed was 300 lb and definitely in control, so instead I sat expectedly waiting for the “we need to take xrays, do blood work, and that will be $300” spiel. Instead, Dr. Ted left the room and came back with 2 syringes. “One of these will stop the drooling, one is benadryl. Feed her as much as she will eat. And if you have trouble in the night, call me.” In went the medicine and out went Dr. Ted. Not a goodbye, not a “nice meeting you,” just a small smile a slow shuffle. Ed looked at me and I said, “well, I think I’ll go drink a beer or 10 and watch my dog drool.” He smiled for the first time and said, “Chinle is a cool dog. Named for Chinle, Arizona?” No one EVER knows that. “Yeah, I said. “Sorta. Named for the Chinle formation on the Colorado Plateau.” Ed explained he had worked at a truck stop in Gallup for a time - might explain the skull tattoos I thought. “I’ll drink a beer or 10 for ya. She’s gonna be ok.” I checked out - credit card in hand ready for the $300 charge. $80, a smile, a shuffle, and a subtle reassurance from gruff men who were, despite all appearances to the contrary, as tender as the tiny Hindu back home. Definitely not in Tucson anymore. But turns out that that’s perfectly ok.
Folks have been calling, writing, texting. It’s the holidays after all. And way more often than I would have thought, they queried about my blog. Where did it go? Why haven’t I written? They enjoyed it so much and then there hasn’t been a new one lately, they explain. It’s ironic that I’ve experienced this from a dozen or so of my 14 readers because apparently, according to author Farah Mohammed, blogs are dead. They take too much time to read, the thinking seems to go. Folks only like to look at FB posts for 1.7 seconds each…although I know personally those 1.7 seconds can sometimes accumulate to 20-30 minutes with almost NOTHING to show for it. Whereas anytime I read a good blog, I walk away with a new idea or a new insight or just feel inspired. So while I love FB, I don’t mind reading blogs if they are interesting and different and fun. So I hereby declare good blogging is not dead!
I admittedly broke the cardinal rule of blogging…I didn’t do it consistently through the autumn. I could give a bunch of excuses…a lost gall bladder, a purchase of land far away, a wedding or two, a sick dog, too much teaching, then too much coaching, then too much socializing…etc etc. But really, I just didn’t take the time because I wasn’t sure I had something to say. And now, after reading Mohammed’s article, I’m even less certain that anyone is reading…but apparently there are a few of you who think this is a good blog, and I like doing it. So apologies for my lapse. Onward.
Let’s get back to that “having something to say.” At the end of this last semester as I perused my course evaluations (which are often VERY funny…one said “this class almost killed me, but then it didn’t, so yay!”), I noticed 2 young women wrote something along the lines of “you made me feel like what I said mattered and I had never felt that way before – maybe ever.” After completing some work, a painter at my house recently said, “I rarely feel respected when I do work, especially for white women, but you were really different.” Our neighborhood’s homeless man (who carries all sorts of treasures in a dilapidated shopping cart) said to me when I returned from vacation (to that land far away…more on that in a minute), “I’ve missed seeing you… No one else says hello.” Chinle likes him too, by the way. So all of this got me reflecting on the year gone by and about the crux of what seems all too infrequent in our world at the moment…genuine respect. I’m not acting like I respect the painter. I really do. Those young women think what they say matters because it does (#metoo). And the homeless man is no less deserving of a hello than my fellow, middle class dog walkers. And yet, it would seem to me that in 2017 we spent a lot of time thinking about what divides us and that focus on difference too often kept us from being able to respect one another. I won’t go into the political landscape in which we find ourselves in this tired, aging democracy…but it seems to me that almost all of the strife is about a mishandling of difference.
We recently bought some “property” in northern New Mexico. It sits on an old Spanish land grant in what would become the United States. That land was steeped in difference that often erupted in violence. Apaches raiding Pueblos; Spanish killing Apaches; Anglos enacting slow violence with their legal wranglings. Stolen from the Taos Puebloan people and “given” to Spanish settlers by the Spanish crown, the land grant was a “peaceful” acquisition that then saw radical changes to the use of the resources. The ancient source of water was summarily channeled into a manmade ditch and named acequia (a word your computer’s dictionary doesn’t even know) and the essence of all being in that desert region became controlled in a way it never had before. Cows (domesticated and sold) took over the lands that had once been sowed only seasonally by the indigenous peoples for legumes and corn. I now “own” part of that acequia. The cows are mostly gone and the association of acequia users has won conservation awards, and I’m proud of that recent legacy. But the legacy of colonialism justified by ideas of difference sits uneasily with me, and I often reflect that I am just part of the problem, many generations removed…or maybe no generations at all.
I mentioned this to an old friend not long ago and he reminded me that that legacy is also full of cooperation – of intermarriages, of accommodating of faith traditions, of little acts of kindness and community that went largely unrecorded in the day to day workings of things. Even the re-signing of the original grant in 1715 was a compromise agreed to by the Puebloans so long as they could harvest their beans. In many ways, the families that used the land for all those centuries before me, whether Native or Spanish or Anglo, just wanted to harvest their beans. Of course, what that harvesting meant differed wildly. It often included selling those beans at market for a profit…a nefarious if necessary activity in the modern age. But nonetheless, for all the differences of all those who have come and gone on my 6 little acres and of all the uses of the water that flows off the high mountains, most all (human and non-human) ultimately just wanted to “harvest their beans” in one way or another.
I thought about this as we talked into the wee hours of the morning over the holidays sipping hot buttered rum. Group after group warmed our home and engaged in important conversations about where we go from here in our nation-state, in our global community, in our personal lives. How do we bridge the differences that have been always present but seem extraordinarily obvious and insurmountable in this moment in history? As corny as it sounds, maybe one step is to think about the “beans” we all have in common…to recognize the essence of common humanity – to greet the man whether he has cans in his cart or nothing at all. And perhaps we should all try to be more aware of how many beans we crave.
I promise I won’t morph this blog into a polemic on “politics” but this is what is on my mind after a few months away and as the Wolf Moon rises over a new year’s eve spent with young people who will inherit our world of difference. My New Year’s promise (to myself if no one else) is to write every month and hope I have something to say that you will enjoy reading. Long live the blog.
It rained 7 inches in 20 days in July in this desert town. The rain snapped a heat wave that comes every June but felt especially horrifying this year. I have a friend who calls the “dry” heat just before the monsoon season “surreal.” I call it hell. If it weren’t for my dog needing exercise, I might never leave my house in June. By the end of that month, the heat never dissipates. It’s 90 degrees at 2 am. And as the humidity builds, as it must to conjure the magical rains, the town begins to feel like a wool sweater that you can’t take off. My poor dog has a black coat -- a black dog, in Tucson, in the summer. And you think you have it rough.
But enough of that -- we survived and the deluge came. Cacti that were literally ready to give up the ghost plumped out and and greened up. Every plant began photosynthesizing like mad and the brown, seemingly dead desert, resurrected into a garden of...well...hell. Black widows are reproducing at the speed of light in my backyard. Termites are eating every piece of wood they can find, including the door frame. The leaf cutter ants have not met a plant in my yard that are not intent on stripping. And then there are the voracious mosquitos. Stand still for even a minute in the newly returned heat (105 degrees today) and your calf will be fuzzy with their dominance. And if you think Off or any other repellent will help, you’ve not met a Tucson mosquito. These assholes verily lick the Off off. I swear I can see them smile as they do it. Maybe it’s like salsa on a taco to them. At any rate, they are everywhere and they are insatiable.
So the best place to be in the “late summer” (which lasts until November) is inside -- in cool air conditioning, watching people, and avoiding the mosquitos. Even jury duty doesn’t seem like that big of a burden in August because there is no where else to be really and at least it is good people watching (I suppose someone could make a lawyer joke here and say that the courthouse is full of "bloodsuckers" but let's not go there). As I sat in the jury “assembly room” (which feels more like a holding pen for a herd of cattle), I eavesdropped on every conversation I could. First, there was Timmy, a young man who couldn’t have been 2 weeks past his 18th birthday. He clearly had special needs and was so excited to be doing his duty, but he had had to take the bus to get to the courthouse and was very worried about how he would get reimbursed. He and his mom could not do without that money. Very loudly, he explained that his mom hadn’t wanted him to come today, but he knew it was the most important part of our democracy, other than voting, of course. He hadn’t voted in the last election because he wasn’t old enough but he was SUPER excited for the local elections on August 29th. He turned to face the room and repeated several times, “The election is August 29th!” to anyone who would listen. And then, “And I wouldn’t have voted for Trump. NO way!” Everyone, even probably some Trump voters, chuckled. The jury assembly employees are some of the most patient people I’ve ever witnessed. Each of them (3 in total) explained to Timmy that he would get reimbursed by a check in the mail in a couple of weeks. He asked them each several times, I think, just to be sure they all said the same thing. So after about a zillion times of being reassured that his bus fare would come back to him, he sat down and took out a cooler the size of a small car and began to much hungrily on a sandwich. Wonder Bread with baloney and a slice of American cheese. He finished the first sandwich and took out another. Timmy probably didn’t weigh more than 100 pounds. After 5 sandwiches, he took out a king-sized Snickers bar and gobbled it down. It was now just past 10 am.
In 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Francis Gilmer that “every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him.” So there we were...me and several hundred of my peers being forced to contribute to justice (surely a necessity of society?). In addition to Timmy, there were 3 young Latino men speaking Spanish and laughing heartily. A pair of seemingly middle class white women conspiratorily shared stories about the back to school woes of their school-aged children. An old hippie cussed at the vending machine that refused to pour him a cup of coffee. Sitting next to me was a high school teacher frantically prepping lesson plans. She explained to me that she was stressed already...but, like all really good teachers in August, she expressed such hope for the coming year. She whispered (as though it were an embarrassing secret) that she was sort of hoping to get picked for a jury so she could share the experience with her students.
The hours ticked by. Timmy was called and summarily dismissed. As he turned in his badge, he asked one more time about the bus fare. The teacher and the moms were similarly summoned and rejected. The 3 Latino men disappeared and never came back so I assume they were picked for a trial. As we were dismissed for lunch, I met Stanley. Stanley didn’t walk, he shuffled and very slowly at that. Stanley was probably 75 years old and wanted tacos for lunch. I expected it would take him the entire lunch hour to walk the ½ block to the taco place so I offered to get tacos for him. He smiled great big at me and said, “that’s so kind of you, but the walk will do me good.” Slowly all the folks got called and there was just a smattering of us left. Amy, a former nun (I’m not kidding), sat happily finishing the jigsaw puzzle and talking to herself. The old hippie had given up on the coffee and sat unhappily sipping a Diet Coke.
And then there was Rudy. She was increasingly agitated. She needed the hours at work, she explained, and her boss said she could come in if she got out by 4pm. At 3:40, after we had been sitting there for 7 hours, she got up and went to the public phone to call her boss (she didn’t have a cell phone). Then she sat back down and started to cry. Quietly but obviously. She had severe health problems and had missed some work lately and she really, really, needed those hours. I asked her why she hadn’t asked to be excused from jury service. Her eyes widened. She looked at me like I had suggested she fly to the moon. “Why would I do that? It’s my duty to serve. It’s the least I can do for living in our great country.” Indeed, a necessity. Timmy, Stanley, Rudy all made me feel like a schmuck. I didn’t want to go to jury duty. I have a lot of work to do to get ready for the school year and didn’t want to be “bothered.” I drove my gorgeous truck to the parking garage. I walked 4 blocks in about 2 minutes. I had my Mac laptop, my iPhone, and ate a delicious, nutritious lunch. And here were all these people...who were sacrificing so obviously and so proudly.
Many people question the concept of a jury of “impartial” peers. No one can be impartial goes the argument. What they heck is a “peer” anyway? Same age? Same class? Same gender or race? And can a group of differentially educated and abled people really find justice? But the system mostly works (and mostly is pretty good when humans are involved). Juries were picked yesterday. Defendants were tried in a court of law. And citizens gave of their time to ensure the right of a jury trial to their fellow citizens. In today’s political climate, that adherence to one of the most fundamental Constitutional rights seems particularly profound to me. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given a chance, they can be depended upon to meet any obligation, including finding the truth. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.” I could have used a beer or two yesterday afternoon. But the air conditioning was cool, the people watching was great, my peers humbled me, and there were no mosquitos (except maybe the lawyers).
Georgia O’Keefe has long been one of my idols. When I travel to Taos, New Mexico each summer, I can feel her presence, and I often think about what she would think about the area in 2017. For this entry, I’ve penned a letter to her updating her on the “state of things.” Her ranch was known as Ghost Ranch, so something tells me she'll eagerly read this.
Dear Ms. O’Keefe (or may I call you Georgia?):
Greetings from your old stomping ground of Taos, New Mexico. I am writing to you as part of my blog. Oh, a blog is sort of like a public diary entry that is posted on the Internet...which is...well, wow. That’s just A LOT to go into...suffice it say that a good number of people (potentially millions but probably only a couple hundred) read the blog. Why on earth would anyone want to publish their diary? It’s SUCH a good question. I guess it’s a little like your decision to paint your desires for the world to see. It’s a way of connecting, and if it’s done well, it might just create some beauty in the world.
I’ve been in Taos for almost a week. I really understand why you left your philandering husband and journeyed West to this incredible place. I also understand why you hung out with Mabel Dodge Luhan. She must have been so smart and sexy! ;) Her old house is now a hotel that hosts artist retreats of all kinds. In fact about a month ago, there was an illustrated journaling retreat that for some reason I think you would have loved. (1) Oh, and there is a room named after you there. Crazy, right?
The old town you used to hang out in is growing! It’s sort of hard to figure out what the population must have been when you were here. It’s now about 5800 in the town and 36,000 in the county. When you were here it was about 16,000 in the county...so maybe 1000 in the old burg? I’m not sure how you’d feel about that, since you apparently, found “people difficult.” And I can’t say I always disagree. At any rate, it’s a bustling place full of Texans and Arizonans looking from respite from the unrelenting heat of the summer months.
The heat is BAD -- even in Taos. Many people believe that’s because of a phenomenon (likely caused by man) called climate change, and science confirms it. You died right as climate change REALLY got going thanks to the frenetic increase of industrialization and automobile production. I know you LOVED that old Model A that you had to learn how to drive. I can’t imagine how liberating a car must have been for a woman in the 1940s. Wait, yes I can...it’s liberating for a woman in the 2000s! The feminist movement is alive and well, by the way. Over the July 4th Holiday, activists put up signs all along Highway 150 with the names of women from your time who were badass activists for equality....I didn't see your name because they were mostly suffragists and birth control advocates. But of course you were a feminist extraordinaire, and your courage and tenacity live on in anyone who knows your story.
Back to that car thing, though, we (2 women and a dog -- imagine it!) took our truck (you’d love it -- all 4 wheels power it over BIG rocks and through all kinds of rough country) to the mountains many a time this trip and found that at about 10,000 feet, the forests are dying. Aspens and conifers alike. Can you imagine? Dead trees as far as the eye can see...the US Forest Service says it’s a result of, yup, climate change. The warming temps mean, on average, warmer winters. So the hard freezes come less frequently and that means insects (especially beetles) don’t die and can thus over proliferate and kill pines and other conifers. Aspens are similarly vulnerable to fungi and other parasites. Did you ever see a dead forest in your time? I bet not. I'm envious of that easier time. Drought has been especially bad of late. Of course, you lived through some of the worst droughts on record in the 1930s and 50s. And drought is cyclical in the West. Those who don't believe in climate change say this is just a "phase". But our drought isn't the same as your drought... couple it with hotter temps and well, that’s just hard on trees. (2)
Having said that, the Wilderness Areas in the region are still as beautiful as ever (imagine that -- you preserve something and it stays pretty well intact!). I wonder what you would have thought about the Wilderness Act of 1964. I would imagine you'd love it because it would force people to acknowledge beauty even if they didn't really want to take the time to see it. And it's good these places exist because the West (the whole globe really) continues to grow in population.
You wouldn’t believe all the houses out on the mesa toward D.H’s place. (3) As you may recall, Freda bequeathed the ranch to the The University of New Mexico. The University with cooperation from Department of English now oversees the ranch and people can go visit it and attend workshops there. He’s really still quite famous. But not NEARLY as famous as you are. Some people even have your cow skull images as tattoos! Oh and the ski area is now no longer owned by the Blakes as it was from 1956-2014; it is now owned by Louis Bacon who is an East Coast billionaire, who is devoted to conservation. You’d likely approve of his ethic toward the land...but maybe not his support for rather conservative political candidates. The mountain hasn’t changed much really. The Bavarian is still there serving great German beer and the runs are still pretty darn difficult. (4) Do you remember that skis sold for $1 each in the 50s? Today a nice pair of Rosignols could be as much as $1000 depending on the bindings! Oh -- and nowadays, people “surf” down the mountain on a single board...it’s called “snowboarding”. You wouldn’t believe it! Ski Taos didn’t allow it until 2014...so weird changes commeth even in the American Alps.
Somethings haven’t changed, though. The way the sunsets reflect off Wheeler Peak in the twilight continue to inspire people to write, paint, chat, eat delicious food, and meditate. The Taos Puebloans continue their traditional Pow Wow and daily produce the art that inspired you so much. (5) Cows dot the landscape and the rivers flow seemingly without end. They are SO blue those rivers...endlessly blue. When it rains, the sagebrush still fills the air with something essential. When I am here, I write, I breathe, and I take A LOT of pictures.
You were enamoured of the camera, so you would understand my need to capture every detail and every moment I can. You captured it with brush and paint and canvas, I capture it with a lens that is actually also part of my phone, that I carry around in my pocket with me. I can also send written textual messages across the globe in a nanosecond with my phone -- from the top of Truchas Pass -- gosh...that just sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Anyway, I take pictures and share them with friends and family because, I know, like you knew, that, as enduring as this place is, it is also fleeting, and I want to know it as it was. I share the pictures so that people cannot ignore (to use your words) it or its fragility. I guess that’s why I want to buy my own Rancho de los Burros...as you did all those years ago. To be able to always return to the “faraway” -- to a “blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.” (6)
Thanks for all your inspiration, Georgia.
1) See the Mabel Dodge Luhan House for information about the hotel. The illustrated journal workshop by Amy Bogard is one of many hosted by the retreat center.
2) See this recent report on the status of the Carson National Forest by the US Forest Service. Continually dwindling budgets of public lands agencies hamper their ability to study, manage, and protect these vulnerable landscapes. We can't live without trees.
3) D.H. Lawrence was a British author in the early 20th century who was given property by Mabel Dodge Luhan just outside of Taos. He and his wife lived there briefly, but he died of tuberculosis not long after accepting the gift of land. Information can be found here.
4) The Bavarian is a gem!
5) As their website explains, "Taos Pueblo is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark." The Red Willow people have over 1000 years of history on their Pueblo north of Taos. They are a remarkable people.
6) Georgia O'Keefe's quotes are taken from a variety of sources, but her archives are housed at the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
It’s Flag Day so the pup and I did what all patriotic Americans should do on this momentous holiday, we trudged up to our nearby national forest and basked in the lifesaving coolness that awaits us desert dwellers at 10,000 feet. We went for a long hike and then lounged at a friend’s cabin where I sit penning this entry for my blog. We’ve seen all kinds of wildlife in this high country ecosystem...obnoxious Stellar Jays, curious white-tailed deer, defensive collared lizards, pensive cottontails, and several squirrels who clearly suffer from ADHD. But it wasn’t until we got back to the cabin that we saw any insects save a few pesky gnats. In the cabin, the first being to greet us was a very large, unintimidated wolf spider. These spiders are very large and Sam (Chinle named him...I never claimed she was creative -- cute but not creative) was no exception, with a body the length of a quarter. He sat looking at us with all 8 of his eyes, legs crossed as if inviting us to tea. So we picked him up (gingerly) and put him outside which seemed to annoy him as it clearly dawned on him that it was noon and, since his kind are nocturnal, he really should have been sleeping instead of making tea. I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry but, dude, you can’t be in the house.” Interesting that I’ve gendered him male. He may have been female, but I read not long ago that male wolf spiders are known to cannibalize their female mates and even their young so now I assume every one of them I encounter must be male (I realize how dumb this is, so no need to put it in a comment). Ecologists think that, although male cannibalism behavior is somewhat rare, it is intended to cull the numbers of the population to keep the density in check.(1) Yet another example of why we should be happy (sometimes) that humans don’t possess all the natural habits of non-human species.
Of course cannibalism among spiders is well known in a species that dominates my backyard this time of year. Black widows are nasty females (no intended connection to recent electoral politics here) who consume their mates shortly after doing “the deed”. Our backyard is a favorite refuge for these jerks of the wild as are so many yards in Tucson. I diligently “control their density” and delight in their demise every summer. Just the other day I was noticing that parked cars, check that, neglected cars, no that’s not quite it either...dilapidated, abandoned, ruined cars seem to lure these messy nesters more than most places. Cars as ecosystems...strange but true.
And anyone who lives in or has visited Tucson knows that once you head south of River Road, the phenomenon of broken down cars parked in the front yard comes ubiquitous. I am so puzzled by these cars. I just cannot fathom leaving a car to rot. It strikes me as deeply desperate or infuriatingly wasteful – so I try not to judge, but I do notice how prevelent the practice is. Most of the ruined cars have rusted exteriors. Some have broken windows. All have chipped or fading paint. In my neighborhood alone, we have no less than 10 such cars. One is a formerly blue 1980s Honda accord. Another is snazzy black 1980s Toyota MR2. A once-white late 80s Volvo sits forlorn in front of a gentrified house with impeccable landscaping. This one is the weirdest one of all to me. It sits right in the middle of their driveway...looking like someone parked it in 1990 and then just forgot to ever drive it again.
But my favorite abandoned car is a 1957 Thunderbird. It, unlike most of these cars, has 2 friends in the yard (the friends are, to my untrained eye, unidentifiable so rusted are they). I only know the Thunderbird because Chinle and I recently asked its “owner” what kind of car it is. He smiled great big as he stood up from putting a “No Border Wall” sign in his yard and limped over (he is definitely as old as the Thunderbird and nearly as dilapidated -- although thankfully no one has parked him in the yard and forgotten about him). “I’ve owned that car since 1958. The good old days. Ya know before the Civil Rights movement and us white folks could be secure in our domination and exploitation of racial others. Now it’s all [long pause] complicated.” This neighbor has progressive signs at every election and sometimes in a non election year (he had just put up a NO Border Wall sign as I walked by for heaven’s sake) so I was understandably confused by the comment and wasn’t sure if he intended it as a joke so I just looked back at the car, and he seemed to think I was confused about the condition of the auto so he elaborated on that (thankfully). “At some point, I just stopped the upkeep. I don’t even remember the year. Maybe it was in the 80s.” Huh...seems as though something was going on with people and their cars in the 80s. “The biggest issue was that it was hard to find tires.” I look now, and notice what must be original tires on the beast. They are completely flat and miles of strands of spider webs connect all four of the tires under the car and between the Bermuda grass that grows valiantly in the shadow of the Bird.
The historian in me can’t help but wonder about his tire dilemma. The situation of rubber in 1958 was indeed precarious. The US was well committed to the Cold War by that point and a key natural resource both in winning the war (World War II) and in fighting the Cold War was rubber. Rubber has some of the most fascinating political and environmental history of any resource ever studied. For example, Henry Ford knew how important it would for the burgeoning car industry in the 1920s and so obsessed was he with ensuring access to natural rubber, he set up an imperialist utopian dream settlement deep in the Amazon. According to an article written by New York Times writer Simon Romero, who recently visited the now defunct Fordlandia (although it still has 2000 residents and plenty of dilapidated cars), Ford had “waded into an industry shaped by imperialism and claims of botanical subterfuge. Brazil was home to Hevea brasiliensis, the coveted rubber tree, and the Amazon Basin had boomed from 1879 to 1912 as industries in North America and Europe fed the demand for rubber.” (2) Rubber’s importance to the nation’s industrial prowess even inspired federal government initiatives to develop domestic supplies of the Hevea plant in the Gilded Age and early Progressive Era. Mark Finlay writes in his terrific book, Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security, that, before World War I, Americans believed American farmers would find a way to have a domestic crop (they had done all kinds of other crazily impossible things, so why not rubber?!?). The problem was that the stubborn plant just preferred the jungles of Southeast Asia to anything temperate America had to offer, so horticulturalists mostly gave up and, thanks to a lot of complicated geopolitical factors in 20s and 30s, “artificial and imported solutions to economic and political problems [came to] offer suitable alternatives to the traditional dependence on domestic natural resources.” But a crisis in supply and demand in early World War II ensured that, “the struggle for a domestic rubber crop” would mark “a transitional phase in the history of American technology and science.” (3) Who knew...tires...as global change agents and coveted space for spiders.
From that point forward, most of the emphasis was on creating technical (synthetic) solutions rather than biological (natural) ones. By the 1950s, US manufacturers and cold warriors were hopeful that the solution was synthetic rubber made from petroleum. By the 2000s, most everyone realized that synthetic rubber wasn’t as durable or as sustainable as “real” rubber. Tire companies then set out to figure out how to grow rubber domestically. I just learned that Bridgestone, for example, has set up an entire branch in their company to research and develop natural sources of rubber. One source is intimately connected to Arizona. This particular plant is called guayule (Parthenium argentatum -- and don’t think I know the Latin names of these plants...that’s one of those cool sciency things this historian has just never picked up so I always rely on others). It’s native to arid Mexico and thus is drought tolerant (hooray for the US West). The plant grows naturally and well in the harsh desert world of northern Mexico, west Texas, and southern Arizona, but when you are trying to produce something for use as a commodity, things are never that easy. Long story short, guayule (pronounced why-yoo-lee) has had to be manipulated by industrial and government plant scientists and chemists in order to make it easier to harvest for use as rubber. Bridgestone boasts that it has set up a Biorubber Process Research Center in Mesa, Arizona and, in 2015, successfully created tires made 100% from materials that came from the hundreds of acres of the desert shrub it cultivates outside of Eloy, Arizona.
I mention this to my neighbor. He says “don’t that stuff grow in Mexico?” Yes, and here too, I reply. He looks back at his newly erected sign… “just another reason to keep that damn wall from being built,” he growls. “Course tires are no longer the real issue with this beauty. But maybe I should get her back up and running. Maybe it would make me relive the simpler times.” Chinle and I are feeling the heat rise so we are not keen on getting into a long-winded or nostalgic political debate. I look back at the ruined Thunderbird, his shiny sign, and his webbed tires searching for a way to change the subject. “You’ve got some spiders under there,” I say offhandedly. He grunts as if to signal our neighborly chat is over. But, as I walk away, I can’t resist one last observation, “I’d be careful if I were you. They look like black widows.”
1) James Wagner and Richard Wise, Ecology: Ecological Society of America, Volume 77, Issue 2, March 1996: 639–652. Accessed June 14, 2017. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/2265637/full.
2) Simon Romero, “Deep In Brazil’s Amazon, Exploring the Ruins of Ford’s Fantasyland,” New York Times, February 20, 2017, Accessed: June 14, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/world/americas/deep-in-brazils-amazon-exploring-the-ruins-of-fords-fantasyland.html?_r=0; See also National Public Radio’s All Things Considered story on Fordlandia. And for a monograph on the topic, check out Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, (New York: Picador, 2010).
3) Mark R. Finlay, Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009).
Every day I take my dogs, ooh -- strike that -- dog (my other one died earlier this month) on a walk in my Tucson, Arizona neighborhood. There are plenty of stories and connections to make every day, but today was especially rich, ironic, and beautiful. To begin the walk, my 8 year old, 80 pound "puppy" and I encountered our neighborhood coyote off in the distance. We have named him Clarence. He's THAT kind of Clarence. A bit stodgy and perhaps he even wears glasses when he plays the piano. At the moment, Clarence is suffering from a bit of mange. It can happen to the best of us. The neighborhood association has wondered on our social media group about what to do about Clarence. Some folks advocate trapping him and taking to a wildlife care facility in town. Others think the Arizona Department of Fish and Game should come take care of the scoundrel (he's after our kitties and toy poodles, after all). Then there are those who argue he should be fed dog food and offered water so that his mange clears up, and he can become an upstanding member of our community -- or at least a better looking one. The discussion on Facebook has gone from do-gooder ("that poor sweet animal") to paranoid ("what if that mange is contagious!?") to rational ("the law says we cannot do anything therefore we shouldn't") to angry ("WHY ISN'T ANYTHING BEING DONE" in one post while another asks "WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME ABOUT THE LAW?"). In many ways the diversity of opinion on just how to handle Clarence is indicative of my neighborhood. We are seriously a motley crew -- all ethnicities, creeds, socioeconomic statuses, gender identities, ages, nationalities, and political persuasions live within one square mile. Mostly peacefully if you can believe that. After we turn in the opposite direction of Clarence (I mean, what if the mange IS contagious??), a young woman, who has just bought a new house in the neighborhood waves and says timidly, "can I ask you a quick question? You seem like you know things." This is something I get often. Everyone, everywhere I go seems to think I know "things" -- especially where the nearest bathroom is. Guess I just have that face. Anyway, the woman, whose dog is named Dakota (of course I didn't ask her her name), then asks me if the neighborhood is safe to walk in. I suggested that property values were higher across the main street, so maybe that would feel "safer" to her, but that despite our very palpable diversity, it is "safe" to walk a dog here in the early morning sun. And then, I thought, I should tell her about Clarence, but just as I began to mention the most controversial character in the hood, I stopped. Mange?? I mean, that might lead this sweet, young, clearly innocent woman to rethink her choice in real estate. Better to hope she can just avoid the most unsightly parts of our community. From this encounter with purity, I next came across some laborers who were re-roofing a home. Look, it's Tucson. In June. If there is a worse job in the world than roofing in Tucson in June, it is probably only roofing in Tucson in August. One of the laborers was taking a break. He had propped his head up with his empty water bottle and had settled his floppy hat on his knees. He spoke in rapid Spanish to someone on the other end of an inexpensive cell phone. Languid yet animated his darkly tanned face broke into a broad smile when he saw me. He sat bolt upright and waved...to my dog. "Beautiful coyote" he said. I swear Chinle (my Lab/Weimeruner mix) stood a little taller having been mistaken for the brave dog of the desert. I suppose the timid woman who inquired about the safety of the neighborhood may have had this guy in mind when she asked. Maybe she would fear he had been brought to this place by a coyote more mangey and more nefarious even than Clarence. I asked if he had water (his pillow bottle was empty), and he nodded "oh yes...plenty of agua but thank you." Then he looked sideways at me as if I didn't quite belong in this neck of the woods (keep in mind I was in short shorts and a florescent yellow tank top with a green sports bra and Nike running shoes to match with no hat and clearly no water). "You from Tucson?" he asked, and I said no, I'm from Colorado but I've lived here a long time." I returned the question and he said, "no, not directly from Tucson, but indirectly far back into generations." Chinle and I continued our walk (80 degrees by 9 am), and just as we were returning home, we saw Clarence again. He stood in the middle of the street, staring at us. Now that we were closer, his mange seemed better than it had last week. He seemed less desperate and more astute. Just as we were saying hello, a feral cat caught he and Chinle's eyes. Feral cats are ubiquitous in our neighborhood. And all fear them. Lizards, birds, pet cats, backyard sitters (you see they use EVERY piece of sand as their litter box): ALL fear the ferals. You can tell the feral ones from the "outdoor cats" by the wild look in their eyes and their unkempt fur that needs love and attention. Chinle and Clarence looked back at each other just long enough to share a connection that goes back far into generations. Coyotes united by a common past and a common memory. And it made me think about the worker who lay on the sidewalk to grab a bit of shade and the woman who was worried about her safety. What were their shared memories? Surely there were some. As I opened the door to the blast of 72 degree air, I wondered who, in this morning's story, were the actual interlopers and who, in reality, had more to fear? I had at least part of the answer, certainly; that non-native, unloved cat who ran for its life with Clarence in hot pursuit and Chinle following in spirit.
So here is my first blog. I admit that I’m a little nervous. I’m nervous that no one will read it. Or that those who do will find it self-important or obnoxiously irrelevant. Who am I, after all, to write a blog? I’m not famous or all that unusual. My students find me a bit of an oddity, but that’s mostly because I’m not their normal. My friends find me interesting but there are only about 10 of those. I know for certain that I am long-winded and that ours is a society that favors textual brevity. And I don’t really want to edit...if I did, I’d try to publish this stuff, like, in a book. I’m also nervous that no one will read it because there will be no oompf to it...that it will be trite or mundane. And I’m worried about the opposite -- that it won’t be whimsical enough or that, at times, it will be too political and too feisty. All of those reasons are why it’s taken me several years, after much prodding from my 10 friends, to actually start a blog. But at the end of the day, the biggest worry? That I actually have nothing to say. And since we live in a society in which this is a pernicious reality for so many strong women, I have decided to blog.
I wrote my first novel at age 7...a Nancy Drew like mystery. I went on to write 3 more which my mother dutifully typed up (like as in TYPED...on a typewriter). The first one was 200 pages double spaced. That woman is a saint. I then went to a college that demanded writing...my early career was writing (policy analysis and media relations)...and then off to grad school where my shelf-laying, dust-collecting dissertation sits at a cool 300 pages. Then I started to teach writing and coaching basketball and my own writing disappeared from my life until 2015 when my friend Emily Wakild said “hey, you wanna write a book with me”? So we did and it reminded me how much I love to write. As I left full time teaching I found I had SO MUCH time on my hands that I thought “I really should write.” But the problem is that I am impatient. I plan to write another book and hopefully a fun piece of children’s fiction, but that long form of writing that is so very hard. But in the meantime, as I await that process, I have to have something to motivate me daily (or weekly) to put pen to paper (letters to screen). Thus this blog.
As an academic and as a novice writer, I worry about whether or not this stuff will live eternally to haunt me. Will it’s superficiality or inaccuracy or uncertainty become a noose around my neck before I can actually even attempt to publish publish my writing. But then I find yummy encouragement from other bloggers...
Andrew Sullivan, for example, has a terrific essay on why he blogs, and I found myself shouting YES! as I read it. Here is my favorite quote from it:
"A writer fully aware of and at ease with the provisionality of his own work is nothing new. For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that suggest the imperfection of human thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the humbling, chastening passage of time. If you compare the meandering, questioning, unresolved dialogues of Plato with the definitive, logical treatises of Aristotle, you see the difference between a skeptic’s spirit translated into writing and a spirit that seeks to bring some finality to the argument. Perhaps the greatest single piece of Christian apologetics, Pascal’s Pensées, is a series of meandering, short, and incomplete stabs at arguments, observations, insights. Their lack of finish is what makes them so compelling—arguably more compelling than a polished treatise by Aquinas.”
So it’s ok for smart, deliberative folks to ponder, to spew, and to struggle! As an academic that vulnerability is intimidating to me but also incredibly enticing. I want to engage with readers NOW not 3 years from now. As Sullivan says, “The blogosphere may, in fact, be the least veiled of any forum in which a writer dares to express himself. Even the most careful and self-aware blogger will reveal more about himself than he wants to in a few unguarded sentences and publish them before he has the sense to hit Delete. The wise panic that can paralyze a writer—the fear that he will be exposed, undone, humiliated—is not available to a blogger. You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts. You can try to hide yourself from real scrutiny, and the exposure it demands, but it’s hard. And that’s what makes blogging as a form stand out: it is rich in personality.”
So (hopefully) this blog will have a fair bit of my personality, a fair bit of humorous storytelling, and a fair bit of engaging content ranging from environmental education, to history, to armchair philosophy. If you keep reading, I mostly just hope the blog makes your day better and that you will send me a comment with your reactions and responses. Send me ideas, corrections, compliments, or critiques (keep em kind!). And know that as I write, I will be keeping Sullivan’s insight in mind, “To blog is therefore to let go of your writing in a way, to hold it at arm’s length, open it to scrutiny, allow it to float in the ether for a while, and to let others...pivot you toward relative truth. A blogger will notice this almost immediately upon starting.” So, here I go...
My goal is to post at least once a week. Maybe more often if I'm having a particularly rich and fun time. Installments for Earnie's story will be less frequent but hopefully once per month. More later this week.