guest review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

I originally reviewed Scott Russell Sanders’s Earth Works in two parts. I also sent a copy to my Pops, because I felt he needed it. I’m glad to have heard back from him now.

Thanks for the book! A few weeks ago I finally dabbled my way through the whole thing. At first I expected to read only those essays that were new to me; but I found the continuous approach irresistible.

As did I, on both counts, actually. A well-organized collection, then!

I blame summer rather than Sanders for taking this long, but Sanders deserves some credit for all the time I took in contemplation and consideration. This collection is indeed challenging in its range and subject matter, but mostly for Sanders’ unguarded candor and intimacy. He is quite simply baring his soul; whether we choose to appreciate what he has to say is up to us. In other words, I had to remember ‘how’ to read him, accepting the variety of both subject matter, and the responses he may arouse for the reader. The wide range of those things is central to the attraction, I think. He is boldly and humbly naked in his writing.

Which is why I wanted to respond to your ‘part one’ blog comments here, because I got as far as “The Men we Carry…” and wish to rise, not to defend him, but explain my reading of it.

Actually, there is no defending, and you did an excellent job of explicating that. And we still don’t know if he has reconsidered his words here. But as I read the essay, his Preface words were fresh in my mind; you quoted those briefly, but here a bit more complete, with my emphasis: “I have refrained from making significant revisions, allowing the essays to remain, for better or worse, essentially as they were when they appeared in print.”

As I suggested earlier, this candor, with all its risk and embarrassment so well exposed, is part of the masala, the potpourri – and the challenge – of reading Sanders essays. In some others earlier, he has already disappointed, frustrated and angered me; I am now unsurprised. I have resolved to consider time and place and context, accept it as material helping me understand this complicated and flawed person (as are we all), whose thoughts I am now invested in.

It’s the difference, if you will, between reading to examine what’s inside an author’s head, versus critique or enjoyment of content only. Increasingly, as my reading has become more intentional, it seems to lean towards the former, while I still enjoy the latter.

Mostly, I appreciate how such dissonance inspires me to better understand my own thoughts and values – for better or worse. Your own thoughtful response to his mansplaining is perhaps an example, with your values now in print with such clarity.

Pleasantly, with Sanders his best are still very rewarding.

FYI: By the numbers:
There are 30 essays here, covering 3 decades;
21 were published in other collections, the others only in periodicals;
I marked 12 favorites out of the lot, including 7 that I had already read elsewhere (including 3 of the 4 from Staying Put.)
But I read every single one, for a complete journey. Favorites tended to be most personal about family and father; nature and its human impacts; existential questioning. Interestingly, the ‘others’ tended to be similar ground but pursued in excess, taking me a bit over the edge, and often simply too personal and intimate – or dissonant.

I love a good numbers round-up, so thanks for that last section!

Glad that my comments made sense to you (I’m not the least bit surprised). From a distance now of nine or ten months, I remember this collection as a whole and as a reading experience, rather than in its particulars, and that overall impression is positive: I would say I like Sanders very much. But I do remember the essay that upset me, too.

The point you make in quoting the Preface is well taken, and I’m glad he made that statement. But I guess the distress and anger I felt in reading that essay was strong enough that I think it should have warranted a response from him – maybe let the essay stand as originally published but write an addendum, letting us know how wrong he got it and how much he’s grown and learned. If Sanders were reading this, that would be my request of him: republish; but now respond to your own writing, too. Well, I won’t hold my breath, but as you said, I’m glad I have gotten my own response out there, however small my platform.

I think there is an ongoing question of how to handle writings that seem wise in many ways but require of us that we make allowances for attitudes like racism, sexism, colonialism, classism, etc. and on and on. To what extent do we accept that something is “dated” and still find a way to enjoy it or to find value? I keep reminding myself that in every era somebody has been enlightened enough to see past the values of the time. It’s something I’m still doing battle with, myself. (Stay tuned, one of these days, for my troubles with Wendell Berry.)

Thanks for yet another thoughtful guest review, Pops.

guest review: The 53rd Parallel by Carl Nordgren, from Pops

Pops is back with a review of a book from a series that, I confess, I’d largely forgotten about. Thanks for the reminder!

Once again I must thank you belatedly for a book recommendation.

You gave me Worlds Between from your advanced reader stash some years ago. Ah, the circuitous route we take to the books we actually read, out of the millions out there. When I had researched the series (why not start at the beginning?) I found there was just the one, earlier; so I waited. But oops, it’s not in the library. I finally got around to requesting an ILL copy, which arrived a couple weeks ago from a suburban Denver library.

As much as your review describes the benefits found in that first book, The 53rd Parallel is far better in all respects. It is longer (300 pages) but still dense with character and story, like the first. With it, his first novel, Nordgren applied a more leisurely pace that much more fully develops the wide cast of characters (some dropped in the second). Even Hemingway is introduced, as an icon, an aspiration, the ultimate guest for the fish camp if they could make a go of it. (John Wayne is their first, failed attempt at celebrity marketing, in book one.)

Also more fully developed are the ‘parallels’ between Irish and Ojibway history and culture (which share the 53rd parallel of latitude). Shared history: mainly in continued persecution by the English; culture: mainly in their appreciation of dreams and the ambiguous power of myths. The latter, with the challenge of honoring equally both ‘reality’ and myth, is capably and gracefully done. I was absolutely enraptured by book one, constantly amazed at the power of simple telling of a magical story. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed by the rush to conclusion in book two. (I say ‘conclusion’ – but he claims to be working on book three, still yet to be announced.)

The brief first chapter introduces the Ojibway icon This Man, in the 1700s; his ghost is an important presence throughout, but is neglected in the second book. Early narrative is set amidst 1930’s Ireland, with poverty and social dysfunction born of English oppression, generations-old. Brian’s dark past is a torture to read; he is a frustrated hothead and severe child abuser, and is never as fully redeemed for me as the author’s attempt suggests. We observe as each of his three children cope and mature (or not), each in their own way. Maureen is a hugely powerful character (meant both literally and figuratively); for me she, not Brian, carries the narrative thread connecting all pieces. [Spoiler follows; highlight white text to read] I was betrayed and stunned when she is killed in book two; how could Nordgren do that to her?!! The dark world of the IRA, with its own conflicted and tortured history, is introduced early on and lends appropriate complexity, useful context for events in book two.

We also come to know three generations of Ojibway people and history, and understand how significant it is when Brian is adopted as son of Joe Loon, immediately blessing the fish camp with seven generations of family (all of whom are ‘present’). One of Brian’s Ojibway nephews is abused at Indian School, and later sacrifices his life to ensure the camp’s success. Simon, another nephew, is tasked by Joe Loon to learn the white man’s ways to provide intelligence for the tribe; seeing ‘our’ world through his eyes is poignant. I was so impressed with Nordgren’s thoughtful treatment of the Ojibway people and story, reflecting the author’s own immersive experience in their culture. Those passages alone made these books a worthwhile indulgence; Maureen’s story added to the bounty.

So good cross-cultural work–although I always wonder, how well can we judge, if we’re not from the culture being featured?

I am glad for this reminder. Thanks for bringing it back full-circle. I’ll expect you back again for book three, if and when!

guest review: The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, from Pops

Pops has been making his way through my backlist. See, while we’re at it, his comments on Dream Team. Here, he’s sent a full discussion of The Solace of Open Spaces, which I reviewed here (see his comments there, too). Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

Thanks for yet another good recommendation, although belatedly honored.

Ehrlich’s work is as special as you describe, although you commended it with one more cowboy than I might have, likely accounted for by personal taste and happenstance, that nebulous coincidence of reading the right book at the right time (or not).

Two other, little things I noticed. One is her occasional unabashed use of urban references in metaphors or similes describing wild and natural (albeit inhabited) places. This is not so typical in literary works about the wild, but it works well here supporting her personal story as a ‘straddler,’ as she once refers to herself, shifting between places.

The other is a brief mention in her chapter “To Live in Two Worlds,” a title with meaning for her book’s personal backstory, but also for the chapter’s subject describing the parallel Wyoming culture of native Indian tribes. She attends two tribal events; one is the annual Crow Fair, where an Indian friend remarks on tribal mythology about a ‘berdache’ (p.123), a French word which she parenthetically defines as transvestite.

I have read that the American Indian or First Nation usage of a French word derives from French voyageurs, the French trappers in early North American history who were the first European contacts with many native tribes, who then adopted many French terms in their learning of English. The voyageurs encountered the cultural fact of native gender ambiguity, and recognizing a common social reference, contributed their word to an emerging hybrid language of native, English and French words.

From multiple references I have read, Wiktionary seems to get it right: berdache is “a person who identifies with any of a variety of gender identities which are not exclusively those of their biological sex.” An added comment there goes beyond what I have seen elsewhere: “Considered offensive by many Native American communities because of its pejorative and non-American etymology, berdache began to fall out of use in the 1990s; two-spirit and various tribe-specific terms are now used instead.” The latter is wonderfully explicated here by a gay blogger in Montana.

Nevertheless, I find the history fascinating, including that last reference with very helpful context: the contemporaneous accounts, from both Indians and early explorers, suggest both surprising awareness and a more tolerant acceptance of a cultural and social issue that US culture still wrestles with today.

In reading northwest history I have seen berdache, as a word and cultural phenomenon, repeated in things I’ve read lately. Notable are two excellent works of creative non-fiction history, Jack Nisbet’s Sources of the River and Peter Stark’s Astoria. The narrative lines of the two books briefly but importantly overlap, and a berdache is, remarkably, at the center of that historical confluence.

Nisbet’s work references contemporaneous journals of Scot-Canadian David Thompson, who led (and amazingly, accurately mapped) the first European expedition from Columbia River headwaters in Canada to its mouth near Portland, Oregon, in 1811 immediately after Lewis & Clark journeyed overland to the mouth. In his journeys through true wilderness, meeting some tribal parties who have never seen a white person, Thomson first hears tales of a berdache, then meets the person named Qánqon – twice! First is early in the trip, near the headwaters; second is later, at the mouth.

Astoria describes a complicated American expedition of the same period (they and Thompson were vaguely mutually aware), which involved two groups, overland and by sea, converging on the mouth of the river. All three parties converge in the summer of 1811 at the Astorian camp near present-day Portland – and, defying odds, the mysterious Qánqon also arrives, with a companion, to make it four. This motley combination clashes to provide a bit of historical human drama and political intrigue. And it all makes for wonderful reading.

So that’s what I know about berdache. And thanks to Ehrlich for providing yet another reference to an interesting historical thread.

What a turn this review took! I did not remember the term berdache at all, so there you have it. (Also, that was five years and how many hundreds of books ago? Probably nearing a thousand?) Also, although we all know I do not have time for more titles added to my list, I love a review that comes with additional reading recommendations. Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

guest review: The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey, from Pops

Pops is catching up with another book I read several years ago (more than five, in fact, which explains why I was so rusty in reconsidering this story). Please note that my review was spoiler-free, where this one does contain spoilers, after a break – I’ll make that clear in the body of the text, though. Here’s Pops on The Brave Cowboy.

Your review covered the high points well. So what did I especially like?

I too was teased by the suggested connection between Burns’ childhood and Fire on the Mountain; I really wanted to see them link up. But I read it now simply as one of those early good ideas an author grabs later and develops into a full story.

I didn’t remember from Abbey such wonderful phrasing as I found here. As you note, the manhunt scenes in the mountains stand out; one cannot miss Abbey’s love of the place, reflected in his care with words.

It was refreshing to hear Burns’ “grumbling in typical Abbey fashion” as you mention, just the general tone of alienation that Abbey does so well. And I appreciated Paul Bondi’s extended monologue in jail, essentially reminding Burns of the passion & integrity behind their earlier anarchist bond:

Jack, old friend, let’s not go on kidding each other all afternoon. We have too many important things to talk about… I don’t see the world getting any better; like you, I see it getting worse… I see my own country overwhelmed by ugliness and mediocrity and overcrowding…

When Burns first reaches the mountains after his escape:

For the first time in nearly two days and nights he felt himself to be a whole and living creature, a man again and not a derelict stumbling through a mechanical world he could not understand.

I was both admiring of and frustrated with Jerry; she is a character with more potential than Abbey allowed (or was capable of providing a woman character?). She was too ‘good’ for Burns (in several senses?) and with fuller explication it likely would have gone the way of Abbey’s usual dalliances. Perhaps it was best left to our imaginations.

I thought Sheriff Johnson was a particularly rich character, not stereotyped as much as realistic and conflicted. He earned my sympathy as a proxy for the tragically independent but tradition-bound westerner from a romantic past, almost Stegner-like, now confused victim of the world Burns sees more clearly. He in fact has more in common with Burns than other characters. In all of his scenes, Johnson is prone to lapse into reverie, wrestling with his thoughts as others bustle about.

In a favorite passage, he takes a moment away from manhunt-madness, as he drinks from the same modest spring where Burns had recently stopped:

Johnson remained for several minutes on his knees before the spring… listening, scarcely thinking, surrendering himself to strange and archaic sensations; he remembered his childhood, forty years gone, and a dim sweet exquisite sorrow passed like a cloud over his mind.

After hearing from a bellowing and overbearing General by radio, “Johnson felt a peculiar shame, not for himself but for his kind.”

In a wonderful segment, Johnson reflects on the imposing terrain. The extended passage is framed at start and finish by a tumbleweed, “the dry almost weightless hulk… bounced over sand and rocks, coming towards them.” This triggers reflection; Johnson knows Burns is in his element in these hills, while Johnson and increasing numbers of searchers are

waiting in the dust or blundering heavily around in the absurd labyrinth of boulders and canyons and thorny chaparral… [Johnson is] conscious of a vague annoyance… general undifferentiated social resentment of this mountain, an impatience with its irrational bulk and complexity, its absurd exasperating lack of purpose or utility… a piece of sheer insolence.

Thinking about it, Johnson began to smile; he scratched his neck and chuckled aloud.

He hears his thoughts mocking himself, amused at his frailty, envying Burns’ comfort in such a place. The passage ends with an entire paragraph describing the nimble tumbleweed’s path, bouncing over and around him in the wind, heading off up the canyon into the hills – like Burns.

Now, for the often interesting story of the edition I read. Mine is published in 1989, the year Abbey died. (Amazon lists my ISBN [0-8263- 0448-6] but it is not the same imprint; they have no version with the Lambert essay I describe below – how is that?! The image (above) matches my cover.)

In following that trail, I did find other interesting tidbits. The original full title is The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale in a New Time. Three different chapters were published as essays in periodicals:

  • 1980: Ch. 4, the initial jail scene with lots of repartee interaction between various eccentric jail-mates.
  • 1984: Ch. 11, where Burns returns to the Bondi ranch after escaping from jail, his rushed final interlude with Jerry.
  • 1995: Ch. 14, a longish one, the first scene where Burns has reached the mountains, rich with description and his stalking the deer; it ends with the sheriff’s initial foray into the hills before the day-long manhunt; the two men are close and sensing each other, both knowing there is more to come.

Further, from the Google Books version of Ann Ronald’s The New West of Edward Abbey (2000) I learn she has done some research for us on that connection with Fire on the Mountain.

  • Brave Cowboy mentions the name of Burns’ grandfather in the FBI investigation: Henry Vogelin, the grandfather in Fire on the Mountain (I missed this!). The sheriff sends a deputy to interview Vogelin, but we hear no more about him. Given the gap in time between the books, I still think Abbey is just playing with us: two stories, with fun, tantalizing links.
  • Quoting Ronald: “the pompous colonel in Fire bears the same surname as the arrogant general in Cowboy… although spelling differs surely the selection of Desalius/DeSalius for two supercilious military men was no accident.”
  • The owner of the general store near Vogelin’s ranch in Fire is Hayduke!!

The Afterword: my copy also carries a 1977 copyright for the ‘Introduction’ by Neal Lambert, a Brigham Young U. professor of English & American Studies. Interestingly, in my edition his essay appears as the Afterword. (There is no Introduction; I actually agree strongly with this change, given the content of his contribution.)

Lambert covers a few interesting topics in his 7-page comments:

He describes the book’s “narrative pattern that has become a cliché of western writing through years of long use in pulp fiction and Saturday matinees.” He makes a case for that, and I had thought of it with the extended manhunt, a simple showdown formula, the cowboy symbolizing a creature in his native habitat, being hunted by the bumbling but overwhelming forces of modern technology and amorality who see only “This godawful stinkin’ place.” (Too bad the Indian tracker was not more developed, with contradiction and nuance; but again, likely too much for Abbey and/or his chosen form here.)

He spends too much time ‘suggesting’ and describing what we now consider typical Abbey’s themes of nature and alienation, etc, etc; quite a jarring flag of 1977 perspective. That said, he also quotes extensively from the text, including some I have already highlighted.

He comments, as neither you nor I did, about the “interpolated chapters, those brief irregular flashes revealing the movements of the semitrailer load” and interprets its sense of “the inexorable force of destiny… inevitable destruction of the freedom and simple goodness of the natural life.”

He also reminds us of the important balance Abbey provides the story with many examples of good people with good relationships, with the effect of this sense: “There is much of human sympathy, generosity, and goodness in the world.” We see this with all the central characters, and others including Paul’s judge, truck driver Hinton and of course Sheriff Johnson.

And yes, Lambert agrees with me about Johnson, with interesting additions. He playfully (and somewhat ineffectively) tempers his academic analysis by observing this is not “another Moby Dick. Jack Burns is no Ishmael [not Quinn’s, Melville’s!] and to load that poor vernacular cowboy with such a heavy philosophical burden would make it impossible for him to even mount his horse, let alone ride off across the country.”

The ending: spoilers follow.


Here’s the really intriguing revelation in Lambert’s essay, raising a question for every edition after 1977. He has just addressed the question of whether Burns’ efforts (and thus his life) were in vain after failing to rescue Paul or safely escape himself, and concludes, “His effort was neither ineffectual or in vain. This particular meaning is suggested in the first and last pages of the book. For this new edition, Abbey requested that the lines announcing Burns’ death be dropped. Broken though he is, the cowboy must be allowed to continue.”

This of course begs the question of how the endings are different! From everything I can find, all copies after 1977 have the same ending as mine. So, I submitted an inter-library loan request for an earlier edition. Thanks again to the library network: from little Jamestown College in North Dakota, I just received a beat-up first edition Brave Cowboy (1956) – with a handwritten notation from a librarian: “please handle with care” (I did.) Remarkably, it turns out, Abbey’s ‘revised ending’ in 1977 consisted of the removal of only one sentence, the second-last of the book, and the one that declares Burns dead.

So, what of it? I found Burns’ death unsurprising; one always knows Abbey’s characters (fiction and non-fiction) face an uphill battle. Even the directness of having a modern mechanical force as the fatal weapon was to be expected.

What struck me particularly was how Abbey returns us directly to Burns’ close relationship with Paul, as Burns repeatedly speaks to him in his dying stupor. It must be with purpose that Abbey balances the story of a socially-alienated cowboy-outlaw with a traditional, humanizing buddy story. Perhaps the original ending detracted from this?

Or maybe he just wanted the opening for a future book (a sequel)? Or maybe he just couldn’t bear to lose his hero… Abbey strikes me as susceptible to emotional decision-making. (Recall the indulgence of Black Sun.)

I appreciate your reminders. Much of what you refer to here, Pops, felt dimly familiar but no more. So many books between now and then… I have more Abbey waiting on my shelf for when I find the free time (ha). Indulgences and susceptibility to emotions aside–hey, we’re all human–this is a writer I want to return to. Thanks for this studied response.

guest review and more: Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss, from Pops

About three years ago, I reviewed Strong Inside. My father just got around to reading the galley copy I gave him when I was done with it, and he left the following as a comment on that post. I thought it deserved better billing, here.

I am so glad you left me this book so I would eventually read it, now three years later.

I was in high school becoming obsessed with basketball around the time Wallace became the first black athlete in the SEC. He played basketball for Vanderbilt, a university that would later accept my application although I attended elsewhere. I was entirely unaware of Wallace at the time, but I knew most of the prominent players and teams that comprised Wallace’s sports world. I was also ignorant of the more significant social struggle that defined his life, which despite other proximities I learned largely in retrospect; that’s an education that continues today with the help of narratives like this one.

His story is iconic in so many ways, and it is a gift that Maraniss discerned this and spent eight years preparing to tell it: Wallace was a boy raised amidst Nashville’s version of the civil rights movement, with maturity enough to see beyond his social place, and beyond just sports, to recognize potential both in higher education and his prospect as a pioneer during a nation’s essential historical moment.

The result is singular insight into the civil rights movement, from the intimate perspective of a special person at very specific time and place. As such, this book reminds us how capricious history can be as it consists of stories we choose to preserve and honor. Thousands of people contributed to this era’s history; few are as compelling and admirable as Perry Wallace, from start to finish–or as thoughtfully captured as Maraniss has done here. One must wonder, how many other such strands of history go missing?

That’s perhaps the saddest part of this tale, how many important stories go overlooked.

One more bit, on that very last thought, a quote from the book describing Wallace’s thoughts upon finally being fully accepted at Vanderbilt 40 years later:

Here he stood, achieving closure in a joyful setting, when in so many cases throughout history, African Americans who had accomplished significant things had ultimately been cut down in tragic ways.

In an email to me, Pops offered a more personal series of reflections, and permission to share here.

During the summer of 1968 my parents arranged for me and a friend to drive a Jeep wagon from Houston to New England for a relocating family. At a very immature 17, I found it an amazing and daunting challenge of independence at the time, and still. We chose a route through the deep south with no clue as to events or risks; I have no idea why, or why no one counseled us about this. So we passed south of Perry Wallace, but – more significant and relevant – the chasm between our paths was immense.

We passed through DC in late June soon after the Poor People’s Campaign had been forcefully evicted from their Resurrection City shanty town (3000 people) on the National Mall after more than a month, a time that included heavy rainstorms that resulted in a muddy morass. MLK had been killed in April during preparations; RFK was killed during the occupation and his funeral procession passed through Resurrection City en route to Arlington Cemetery. When we drove through, we marveled at the filthy desolation on the Mall, and kept on going.

A particularly nostalgic and tragic anecdote (of so many!) was the page-long excerpt in Strong Inside from RFK’s speech at VU, less than 3 months before he was killed. One never hears such hopeful and ambitious expressions of American idealism today, from anyone; but I remember that naive 1960s legacy, which we were trying to build on in the early 70s.

Sports references – so many! I wonder if you recognized the name Harry Edwards, the radical sports leader described in the book; he was very influential amongst prominent athletes like Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and later Bill Walton, well into the 70s.

I remember the 1966 story when the all-black team from tiny Texas Western (now UTEP) beat Kentucky to be national champs in El Paso (!!) – such a stunning sign of things to come.

A major star from my Houston Memorial HS was Jerry Kroll, who from 1967 helped lead (with Mike Maloy) the Davidson teams mentioned in the book, so I knew of Davidson and followed their success at the time, as did Wallace. I knew most of the prominent player names Wallace crossed paths with: Rick Mount, Charlie Scott, Dan Issel, Bob Lanier, Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy (you know that one!). Wallace was mentored later by famous 76ers coach Jack Ramsey.

The University of Houston had strong teams then, especially with Elvin Hayes; in January 1968 the “Game of the Century” had UH facing Alcindor’s UCLA team (both undefeated) in the first ever college basketball game on national TV, and the first basketball in the Astrodome. It held up to the hype, I followed it closely, and UH won by 2 in a great game. I wished I had gone, but imagine trying to watch a game way out there in the center of the Dome!

A larger iconic moment was the Mexico City Olympics later that year, with Smith and Carlos raising black-fisted gloves in the awards ceremony; a very powerful moment with the whole world watching, and again I was paying attention because of the confluence of sports and cultural political events.

He couldn’t stop, sending more links and notes, but I couldn’t help but pass these on as well. It’s a fine example of how reading can open up into contemplations of all the parts of life. He says, “you know how these things accumulate when you nuzzle into a subject.”

I’m sending on this essay about the Poor People’s Campaign only because it overlaps with my recalled 1968 history (see photo below) – a history in focus now with a year’s worth of 50-year anniversaries.

photo credit – click to enlarge

Also: The Atlantic has a whole series on King, including this essay from Jesmyn Ward about her family’s legacy of poverty and why she is raising her own kids back home in Mississippi.

David J. & Janice L. Frent / Corbis / Getty, from here

Also, another in that series: Rev Barber (of North Carolina Moral Mondays fame) reminds us that King’s ‘three evils’ (racism, poverty and war) are still very immediate, and are now four (environmental decline.)

Also, my anecdote: as MLK’s multi-racial poverty campaign was ramping up, he was referencing in part The Other America, a classic still on my shelf authored by an American ‘democratic socialist’ in 1962.

Plenty of reading there for today, friends.

Thanks, Pops.

guest review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, from Pops

More from Pops:

In The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane speaks to us as he walks countryside in a dozen British and international locales. That is simply said, but the depth and richness of this literary journey easily fills 360 pages. This is not a guidebook, although we get a close look at a variety of places. In parts, it is an adventure in words, history, literature, nature, personal inquiry, human behavior, and sense of place. Macfarlane describes his thoughts and observations as he walks, and that is a treasure. Also in parts: this is a collection of chapters, which could also each stand alone as an essay; even so, chapters proceed in a rough chronology over an indeterminate time period; more broadly, he shares segments of his life’s journey of the mind, enriching literary impressions as he wanders.

Macfarlane’s book shares its title with a Gary Snyder essay collection of the 1970s published by Ferlinghetti’s historic bookstore, City Lights; but the title senses are different, while still related. Snyder’s book could as easily been titled Staying Put (more recently adopted by Scott Russell Sanders) as his “Old Ways” took the typical American word-sense and put deeper meaning to it, as in: “the good old days”; a way of life, which encompasses cultural thoughts & values closely embedded in a place, spiritually and organically vital to the people living there.

Macfarlane’s sense of “Old Ways” considers the old and often veiled path-ways of England & Scotland, which in meaning embraces much: the physical path, historic connection, the chosen route and the legal rights thereof. Way is the root of so many common words (e.g. freeway, doorway, causeway, wayward, wayfinding, right of way) that Americans have lost track of that root in usage. Not so Macfarlane, who explores the etymology at length, both in literal & figurative senses. This includes Snyder’s “way of life”, as Macfarlane describes the essence of walking, for himself, his culture and people in general: in losing the stimulating practice of walking the old ways, we have lost important connections to places along that way. In his pedestrian passion Macfarlane welcomes numerous author allies, including Thoreau in his familiar “Walking.”

Above all else, the magic in these pages is Macfarlane’s way with words; I can hardly explain the eloquence. Description flows beautifully and wraps the reader in feeling, in myriad ways, a place described. His British English – and a commitment to precision, lost words, etymology and meaning – can mystify and charm. At one point he explores the word saunter in four languages, arriving at its best precise use. He refrains from analysis or proclaiming held-values or tragic history; his words translate observations so subtly and powerfully, we feel the implications ourselves.

Humility permeates his writing voice, and the characters he admires. He rarely includes himself in observation; as he is often walking and sleeping in harsh conditions, we do not learn how he does it, how he is equipped or how he feels about it. Rather he is ever looking outward to the pathway’s course, or to inward thoughts; his own circumstances are mere distraction.

Characters in his way-stories are sometimes friends walking alongside; sometimes other walkers, watchers or wanderers; but often they are writers, embodied in their words. He is absorbed by the words of others, and quotes freely from sources obscure to American or casual readers, yet revealing of his own thoughts. In one of many examples, by reference to several other authors, he is also describing what readers may perceive to be our humble narrator’s own path:

All of these people had been animated at first by the delusion of a comprehensive totality, the belief that they might come to know their chosen place utterly because of its boundedness. And all had, after long acquaintance, at last understood that familiarity with a place will lead not to absolute knowledge but only ever to further enquiry.

One of his favorite writers is Edward Thomas; though he died in 1917, Thomas’ physical & life’s journey is Macfarlane’s personal obsession, and a common thread throughout the book. Yet there are many others, and Macfarlane is widely read while not effete; variously, he also invokes Hansel & Gretel, Tolkien, Hiawatha and the Iliad. For this reader, for all that Macfarlane appreciates others, his own prose is unsurpassed and suffers companions only for amusement.

Macfarlane’s observations do not comprise a purist homage to nature or wilderness; these are walks through long-inhabited places, featured with relics and scars left by ancient ancestors of those who still walk today. Quoting the walking Thomas, while again seeming to reflect on himself: “He liked the evidence of human mark-making and tampering over the millennia… testifying to a landscape that was commemorative, tending to the consecrated.” Macfarlane places importance on staying connected to that past, with clear observation, nuance and consideration.

One is drawn to the impression, lulled by our guide’s example, that seeking too much grand meaning can obscure rather than reveal what these already faint tracks offer inquiring minds. Nonetheless, we may seek: for example, how different would perception of our past ways be, if the ancient marks and messages on American landscapes belonged to our own ancestors, rather than to native voices prematurely silenced?

Nearing the end of his walking tales, considering all he had seen, the literary characters he encountered and his obsession with one, Macfarlane reflects:

This, I thought, had been the real discovery: not a ghostly retrieval of Thomas, but an understanding of how for him, as for so many other people, the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.

I hope I get to read this someday…

guest musings: Pops on Brooke Williams at Village Books

Pops again, on Brooke Williams’ recent visit to Village Books. Background: I think Pops and I both know Brooke exclusively from The Story of My Heart.

Brooke Williams is the kind of old guy you would enjoy having visit at your house: wryly humorous, self-deprecating, a creative thinker; an academic to a fault, but in an earnest, generous, unassertive way.

He is touring now in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Wilderness & Ancestors Meet. He & Terry Tempest Williams are recently back from touring China, a trip he describes as changing his perspective significantly by resetting his sense of time: their millennial scale of the past contrasts so much with an American sense of history, problems, solutions. Yet, he also describes meeting a group of Chinese nature activists who freely quoted from Abbey, Snyder, Thoreau, TTW & more – drawing lessons from these “recent” thinkers and finding analogues in their own centuries-old philosophers.

Yes, climate change & Trump were an explicit context for many of his comments. He described wondering “how do we find new answers, new ways to be in the world?”

In discussing his book he talked mostly about the writing process, how thoughts & information came to him, how the book came together, with only brief illustrative readings. It was a casual, entertaining, cogent & developed presentation, without being “canned” in any sense. His book includes imaginings – “things I made up” – so he expressed relief that the editor accepted his insistence it be listed as non-fiction. This was an impressive element of his talk, returned to often. I admit some initial skepticism with the idea of made-up non-fiction; but with his book-story, I am more than persuaded. More likely, this is a fine example of creative non-fiction at its most creative. He had wonderful examples of finding facts in his research, which aligned so closely in a pattern that filling in the gaps with reasoned imagining made perfect sense.

By making his book a journey of discovery, the process is part of his story; so the imaginings become part of the “true” narrative, even when that includes feeling the hand of an ancestor on his shoulder. Another way: it is an organic part of the reading process that we embellish or interpret with our own experience & knowledge. Williams is simply – and transparently – offering his own view as a first-cut in this effort. What memoir does not include some of the subject’s imaginings?! That said, there are certainly spiritual & meditative elements to his story; i.e. he explores the literal possibility of “genetic connection to a place.” A full reading of the book would no doubt hold further challenges.

Before ending, he crossed over a line for me, where the arts purport to offer solutions to real-world problems based on such imaginings & speculation. For Williams, and many others, this means changing consciousness of how we view the world, in order to change the course of history. There is plenty of skilled non-fiction available describing the breadth of human knowledge on such questions, without having to resort to extremes of imagination; Harari’s Sapiens is a foremost recent example, albeit imperfect. I am thankful the arts provide comforting form to our feelings & fears, especially in hard times. I cannot go further than that; for more, I take heart in the sciences.

The role of the arts is also posed by comparative essays I found recently from Scott Russell Sanders & Bob Pyle, writing separately about the very same forest in Oregon. Sanders described an obligation for the arts, based on unique human intellect, to contemplate & interpret the natural world; in contrast, Pyle’s chipper humility on the very subject, and deference to his counterparts in the sciences, is refreshing. As usual, Pyle’s eye on our world is such good tonic for over-seriousness by & about our species.

I think you’re continuing to make progress, Pops, toward understanding what this “creative nonfiction” nonsense is that your daughter is studying. (Note: I use ‘nonfiction,’ but I don’t know that your ‘non-fiction’ is wrong.) I came into this field with a fairly righteous feeling for what should be called true, or nonfiction. But it has become more clear to me that what the author imagines is part of her truth. Her memories, even if others deny them, are truly her memories–although I think she owes it to her reader to acknowledge others’ denials. Full disclosure, I say, for what is remembered and what is known and what is imagined; but all of that can be CNF. As for the roll of art in solving real-world problems, I think there’s room for any number of strategies and solutions, but none is for everyone. And I’d certainly hope/expect that Brooke would agree with you on the value of science. I guess without reading his book neither of us can know how far that concept goes or how offended we’d be, and I didn’t hear the talk. I do think that art can not only offer comfort, but real changes of heart, in how we relate to the world and each other. A Google search will give you various articles, for example, on the value of fiction in teaching empathy and improving real relationships–in other words, how taking in art makes people better at living as people. So I think there’s more there than simple comfort (or symptom relief). But art does not replace science.

Thanks for another thoughtful discussion.

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