"When the artist is alive in any person, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-impressive creature. Where others close the book he opens it and shows that there are still more pages to see..." Robert Henry
My son Aaron played last night at war. He had arrayed a table full of objects into opposing forces. The golf tees were anti-scud missiles, the Lego pieces, heat seeking missiles; the batteries, nuclear bombs. Somehow in these first days of the assault on Iraq, although we don’t have a television set, he has absorbed the high technology vocabulary the American arsenal and begun to fantasize and to strategize upon it, in the same ethereal way that children learn, without being taught, the ancient games and rhymes. He was trading a stealth bomber for a ransom of missiles when I entered the room.
The talk in the first days of the war was of the hope for an early peace, but equally of the hypnotic fascination of watching our technological wizardry play itself out on the television. It was powerful drama. People couldn’t get to bed, the war was so interesting. When Iraqi missiles landed in Tel Aviv the night before last, and three people died of fright, the journalists were on the ground to see it, suddenly there was a headline in the next morning’s newspaper about the hell of war. But the word “hell” has not once been used, in the written accounts I’ve seen, to describe any one of the 12,000-some sorties, as we say, that we have hurled against Iraq.
The word “sortie” has a light-hearted ring. One of its meanings is “to sally forth.” Both sally and sortie are military variations on the feminine forms of French verbs Sally: to rush forward; sortie: to go out. In their English derivatives they take diminutive endings. They sound childish, even infantile, innocent. They are like the word “infantry,” which comes from the Italian word for boy, with the distinction that the word “infantry” at least adheres to a truth: men may make wars, but it is boys, the word “infantry” reminds us, who wage them.
This morning, the official talk is of an extended war, of reversals, of bloodshed. In the end, we are warned, we will be obliged to offer a sacrifice of lives in order to bring what we have begun to a conclusion. We say resolutely that this is the price we pay for peace.
In a long ago time, Aztec children were also sacrificed -- for rain. “The children,” Jonathan Kandal writes in his biography of Mexico City, “were purchased by Motecuhzoma’s priestly agents from their mothers, who could not refuse these offers. Many of the infants were so young they were still being nursed. Somewhat older children were selected by arbitrary criteria, such as birthmarks or cowlicks, which were alleged to be divine signs. ’And when (the priests) took the children to the places where they would be killed, if they cried and shed many tears, the onlookers became joyful because it was considered a sign that the rains would come soon,’ states one account. But the joy was confined to the priests and their attendants. The same source mentions that wherever the processions of tiny victims passed, the commoners who saw them began to weep.”
I felt an odd sense of joy when I first read this. Here, I said for months afterwards, was evidence of moral progress: we don’t make ritual sacrifices of our children anymore. I had, unaccountably, forgotten about wars.
We finally stopped offering the lives of children to God for the rains when it became clear to us that the blood of children does not cause rain. We still await the happy revelation that bombs do not cause peace.
I mean, of course, place in the conventional sense, place as a location, as an entity existing in space
and time, as an area capable of being pinpointed on a map. But I hope that a much more complicated sense of the meaning of “place” will emerge in my writing.
I note, for one thing, that the Latin root from which the word “place” derives is “planta,” which means
“sole of the foot.” It seems to me that place, in any useful personal sense, does not exist, can have no meaning or force, until one has visited it, either imaginatively or physically. It is not sufficient simply to know about a place to take possession of it. One has to put foot on it. Place is like sex. One can know
everything there is to know about the human reproductive process, can be technically adept in every imaginable sense, but as long as one remains a virgin, one does not really know about sex. In the same way, one can know all there is to know about a place, but it will fail to come alive until one has set foot in it.
I have in mind also place as a creative act. My thesis is that place, in the sense that it matters in human life, is not so much a physical construct as it is an artful reconstruction in the memory. There is place, in the physical sense, and there is Place, a mythology, and there are as many versions of Place as there
are human beings who have visited it. My version of The Big Horn Mountains is not the same as my hiking partner John Scholl's, even though we visited it together, followed in each other's footsteps, saw the same rocks and flowers, heard the same noises, slept in the same small tent, ate the same food, drank the same water, and are limited in our knowledge of the Big Horns to exactly this set of shared experiences and none other. They are not the same Place because we have invented out of these shared experiences two individual memories, based on different sensibilities, on different emotions, on different needs, on different points of reference. Each of us has a useful version of The Big Horns, a story, similar, no doubt, in some respects, even of interpretation, but highly individual, unique, as two paintings of the same tree will inevitably be distinctive.
In this sense, a place, like the Big Horn Mountains, is an invention, an act of imagination, an idea, that gives structure and meaning to life. Without the invention, the place itself would cease to exist, it would be lost, so far as I am concerned, even though I were quite certain intellectually that it persisted.
This is an extension of the old question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? The real question is: If a tree falls in a forest and the fall is unobserved, is there a tree? In a physical sense, yes. In a metaphysical sense, no. When we isolate ourselves from nature, it ceases, for us, to exist.
A striking story in Oliver Sacks about a man who has lost his memory, can hang onto nothing for more than a few seconds, and so is obliged constantly to invent an imaginary world for himself. The worlds
he makes are vivid, full of adventure, engaging, and often funny, but the frantic effort the man makes at constant invention is exhausting and ultimately very saddening to those around him. The only moments of calm he ever finds are the moments when he is alone in the garden on the hospital grounds.
Another story in Sacks, or perhaps this is the same man –I'll have to look it up – about a person who compensates for his severe handicaps of intellect by making gardens, who finds his solace and therapy in tending plants.
It seems to me there is a theme running through all of Sacks about the consoling power of nature to persons afflicted with many of the strange neurological disorders that he describes, and I know Sacks himself to be a lover of the outdoors from his book, A LEG TO STAND ON. Two other familiar themes
in Sacks: the thin line dividing genius from idiocy; and the indispensibility of memory to the conduct of satisfactory life.
I find in Sacks's work the germ of an undeveloped idea relevant to my own: that a place cannot exert an influence, healthy or otherwise, on a person until it has been experienced, not because the experience per se is so important, but because it is not until the place has been experienced that it can be incorporated into memory, which IS important. Much is made in the academic writings of the urban origins of the idea of wilderness, and often the tone of the discussion is faintly contemptuous: either wilderness is seen as the product of an urban romanticism, or it is seen as a luxury, a fashion, affordable at least initially, to a class of people with leisure and wealth. I suppose the story of James J. Hill's role in the development of Glacier National Park serves as an archetype.
But it might also be argued –and often has been – that a deficiency of our culture is that it has inadequately integrated human life with the rest of life, that this disintegration is debilitating in the
same way any other loss of memory is, and that the way to restore our sense of the interconnectedness
of all of life is to rebuild our memories of nature by experience, experience deliberately and therapeutically sought, if necessary. This is easiest to accomplish in the wilderness because it is a relatively pure and unadulterated representative of the memory we wish to restore. And it is logical that the deepest sense of need for this sort of therapy should be felt by those most radically disconnected from the natural world, from those who live in cities. So of course the ideal of the wilderness should be first advanced by urbanites, and of course it would be most widely available, like all treatments, to the affluent. But this does not, in itself, negate the genuineness of the need or the efficacy of the treatment.
A sense of one's place in nature is not primarily a product of education, in other words, but of experience, and that sense is an important ingredient in mental health. It is an argument, at any rate,
that I would like to test against available evidence.
From THE JOURNAL OF PAUL GRUCHOW 12/15/1994
The Continental Divide is an example of a great physical barrier that was once vested with substantial social and religious meaning and that has now been breached, by communications systems, by railroads, by air transport, in ways that drain it of most of its metaphysical import; the things we now find sublime are not natural features like the Continental Divide, but the inventions that have superseded and tamed it.
The Plants in a bog don’t seek to warm the climate; instead, by finding ways to cope with the coldness, they make the environment distinctively their own.
Here is one respect in which I have become socially conservative. I have come to believe that when all the emphasis, in a circumstance of disadvantage, is placed on altering the environment, the possibilities in adaptation are lost, and these are, perhaps, the most powerful possibilities in the long run. One could argue, for example, that the blues and the renaissance in black literature, both adaptive strategies for survival, are stronger agents for overcoming racism than is affirmative action. Both bring progress, but the one strategy deflects and disempowers hostility by tuning it to advantage while the other only intensifies the background noise of hostility in which change occurs. One makes the music of harmony; the other makes the music of dissonance.
From THE JOURNAL OF PAUL GRUCHOW February 25, 1995
The nemesis of peace if not hatred but indifference. It is the condition of being oblivious to the harm
that one does. Hatred is knowing and can be countered with knowing, but indifference is a kind of innocence, against which there is no power. That is why it is all-powerful.
The antidote to innocence is not knowing, but wonder. To be awakened to the marvelousness of the world is to find the way out of the self-centeredness of innocence and into a world where others and
other things matter.
That is why natural history, which trades in a sense of wonder, is a more effective agent of environmental responsibility than is science, which is about knowing. We do an increasingly good job
of teaching our students about such things as the carbon and nitrogen cycles, but not much to awaken awe. That is where our program of environmental education fails.
There is a connection between loving the world and loving other people. Robert Bly was right when he said to a startled Southwestern Minnesota audience, “Show me a man who likes to hunt foxes from airplanes, and I'll show you a man who is not kind to his wife.”
From THE JOURNAL OF PAUL GRUCHOW March 3, 1987
The temperature at dawn was 31 degrees, and the forecast is for a high of perhaps 60, an incredible
early March day. I could hear the honking of geese overhead when I settled in at my desk this morning.
I was reading the WALDEN chapter on solitude last night in which Thoreau makes a wonderful point:
people do not feel lonesome when they are at work, even if their work is done in solitude. Why, he asks, should he have felt lonesome at Walden Pond, as people expected he did, when he was, in fact, heavily engaged in his work? Do people worry about the effects of solitude on the farmer who labors all day in his fields? It is only when our work is done, he says, that we feel the need for company.
The condition of writers in small towns now strikes me as analogous to the condition of the transcendentalist writers in the first flowering of American literature. To be American was to be
inferior, in some way a failure. Did not Europe hold all the cultural advantages? Was it not custodian of
the great art, the great music, the great poetry? Were not its cities the great cities, its thinkers the thinkers who mattered? Americans, searching for some counter to this argument, settled on the idea of
wilderness as the peculiar virtue of the New World, the treasure which America alone could claim among the civilized nations. So it was that transcendentalism came to celebrate the cultural and spiritual values of nature. And the same circumstance, the same chip on the shoulder, compelled the
New World philosophers to the point of view that it was not, after all, the value of what one had inherited that mattered, but the quality of the individual life, lived deeply and well, not “meanly”,
as Thoreau put it.
From THE JOURNAL OF PAUL GRUCHOW January 2, 1987
I walk home across the ice. The village rims the shore, and the lake has given birth to a second village
of ice fishing houses, through which I must pass to achieve the center of the lake. Still, I fee like an explorer conquering uncharted territory.
In ice-time, the lake opens itself to me. The natural boundaries of my own world extend to include it.
I walk out across it as I walk into any wilderness, heavy with the sense of treading unfamiliar ground, prepared to be astonished at what should come into view at the next step. I pass from dark, smooth ice, bejeweled with the crystalline chambers of trapped air, to milky patches of white ice captured and frozen in midwave, following the cracks in its surface, forked and meandering like so many miniature rivers. This is a world remade every winter, evanescent and unique, the history of a few stormy hours suspended for a brief time in the miniscule space between sky and water, open momentarily to discovery.
The depths of the lake, dark and liquid and teeming with life, remain closed to me, but I find written
in its frozen surface the tracks of the wind. Nothing is so rare on the prairies as a windless day. I live
constantly within the feel and sound of it. Here, in the ice, I can see it too. I find the broken shards of ice that it has driven into the curve of the bay. I see the way it has whipped the water into a froth of overlapping ripples. Even the winds, I see, so wild and unstoppable, so relentless, so constant, obey the laws of pattern. To read the tracks of the wind in the lake ice is to find reassurance of what is orderly and predictable. The scallops of snow are a record of the limits of the winds.
From THE POEMS OF PAUL GRUCHOW
REASONS FOR LIVING
What is done cannot be seen,
for the most part, or known either.
And what is done well is hardest
of all to see.
The work of a life
is like the work of the bluestem,
which sends up a few blades of grass
and a three-pronged florescence,
its tiny red and yellow blossoms looking
royally purple only from some distance,
its flowers and blades conspiring to conceal the hundreds of miles
of vital roots in fertile darkness.
A prairie, it has been said, is
like a forest whose canopy grows
A life is like that
too. What it produces is buried
in the hearts of others and lies
hidden there, still alive, still working,
not in its own name, but in names
unknown, which may not call upon
or welcome or know their influence,
but which nevertheless do the work
implanted in them, and not in vain.
FROM THE JOURNAL OF PAUL GRUCHOW November 30, 1987
The first real blast of winter has finally descended. Snow and ice for the past couple of days, icy
winds, cars in ditches, snow shovels, the whole works. The lake is still open, although briefly. A couple of weeks ago it was covered with a thin sheet of ice one morning. Within the past week I have seen
two blue winged-teal, one male, one female, swimming in Mudhole Bay, far past their season. I wonder
if the storm caught them.
The children are thrilled by the turn of events. Both are impatient for ice to form so they can try out their skates. I have been thinking longingly of a little skiing.
Winter is last in coming this year. I remember years when we went skating on Thanksgiving Day.
Brenda Ueland's book, IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, is, as Carl Sandburg said, the best thing ever
written about writing. What she argues, basically, is that writing is an innate and universal ability, fed
by practice, and served by the conviction that it is important and worthwhile no matter what in a
material sense, may come of it.
I especially like her advice:
“When discouraged, remember what Van Gogh said: If you hear a voice within you saying: You are
no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working...”
From THE JOURNAL OF PAUL GRUCHOW 1994-1995
December 16 – One good way to approach a new ecosystem: This ecosystem, you say to yourself,
has been designed to solve a problem. What is the problem? In the case of the bog complex I've been
looking at, the problem is three fold: the cold air, slow water uptake as a result of it, and nutrient poverty. So, plants retain their leaves, not making the nutritional investment in new ones ever year. They develop waxy leaves with the respiratory organs underneath rather than on top to conserve water, and they resort to trapping insects or microorganisms to supplement their diet.
A skillful human life, too, is adapted to meet and surmount difficulties by seizing upon and making the
most of the strengths that remain.
January 26 – Spirituality - That part of our domestic lives that seeks the security of limits and
discipline – is the attempt we make as domestics to keep alive the values implicit in nature.
January 30 – A walk along the Cannon River. The cardinals twittered, there was the shrill cry of a
bluejay, the cheerful chatter of chickadees. I saw a white breasted nuthatch, and in a brief flash, a downy woodpecker. As usual, the squirrels scolded my progress. The woods are most striking this time
of year seen through the gauzy veil of snowflakes...
I was thinking this morning as I took my morning walk of the insistent physicality of Thoreau's program for right living. More than any other intellectual I can think of, he demands that the well-lived life be active in the body as much as in the mind. Thinking, for him, is clearly the higher activity, and the one to which he devoted his first hours, but he spent at least as much time walking every day as writing and reading, and his walks inform his work at least as much as anything else.
Another striking thing about him is how much of his life, although it was one of earnest
contemplation, was concerned with exterior matters. His effort was to understand the world first,
and through it, perhaps himself and not the reverse. This distinguishes him from other contemplatives
as sharply as his physicality distinguishes him from other intellectuals. For a man who spent his life
largely alone, and who made the major work of his life the keeping of a journal, he did astonishingly
little navel-gazing. I think there are not three direct assertions about his inner emotional life in all the
two million words within his journals. And the evidence is that he was – despite what some of his
modern critics say – an extraordinarily happy man, able to face anything, even death, with serenity
“One world at a time,” he is suppposed to have said to a friend who inquired of him about the
afterlife. It is, I think, the perfect summary of all that he stood for.
Colors Of The North Woods: Spruce green; the light yellow-green of reindeer moss; white of snow; cream of birch; russet and sienna of young birch; pink, green and gray of rock; black and orange of lichens; black and white of chickadees and downy woodpeckers; rose of grossbeaks;
bottle green of common goldeneyes; red of weedpeckers and dogwoods; pale blue of sky; yellow
of cabin windows in the night.
What at first seems a monochromatic landscape, on closer examination appears to be liberally
splashed in color.
Seagull Lake: How innocent the world seems! I'm sure that if one lived here for a time, it would
seem far less remote from the blemishes and tribulations of ordinary Twentieth Century life than
it does in this situation, where we are, really, carefree tourists. Still, in the silence of a forest and in
the purity of cold there does seem an innocence of spirit capable of transcending the ordinary
pettinesses of life. It is, I suppose, the sort of innocence that could induce childishness as easily as
purity – the childishness of simply not knowing – but that is not the inherent or inevitable result.
Innocence need not be ignorance; it can also be a kind of courage – the determination to believe in
the possibility of good despite the manifest presence of evil everywhere. The problem with lacking
this sort of innocence is that is is fiendishly difficult – perhaps impossible – to do good when your
myopia prevents you from seeing most of its manifestations. It is like steering a boat in unfamiliar
I realized when I was out walking yesterday that there are many kinds of road tracks:
There are the wheel prints of cars and, on gravel roads, the smooth double tracks the more
daring leave. Then there are stone tracks, the tiny craters left behind when stones are dislodged
from the hard-packed driving lanes. On the paved roads after snow has fallen and melted, there
are three ribbons of sand, one down the center stripe of the highway and two at the edges of the
road along the shoulders. These ribbons give even the back country roads a sophisticated, well
November 29, 1999
FROM THE JOURNAL OF PAUL GRUCHOW
There was once a fish so huge that people mistook its eye for the moon.
Innocence need not be ignorance; it can also be a kind of courage – the defiant belief in the possibility of good despite the manifest presence of evil everywhere.
The skyscraper is a distinctively American invention. In many ways it encapsulates the themes of the culture: the tendency toward making a secular religion of commerce, the centrality of publicity and fame to its sense of accomplishment, the yearning to outdo nature, the infatuation with technology, the striving to overshadow Europe, the sharp turn at the opening of the twentieth century away from the agrarian myth and toward the new myth of urban sophistication.
The clank of the mailbox, a sound I wait for each day with childish anticipation.
The writer Angela Carter is said to have remarked that she had to struggle, at a critical point in her development as a writer, against the impulse to make her style too gorgeous. She had to learn, she said, how to write badly before she could understand how to write well.
The prairie landscape, which often consists of little more than its horizon, is so unsettling because it seems to us neither here nor there, a place perpetually in some kind of limbo.
Skies the blue of a robin's egg, filled with billowy white clouds, lush green fields of corn and soybeans and small grains, riffling in the wind, the tidy geometry of their rows, not quite obscured, passing glimpses of lakes, their agitated surfaces looking like stone, here and there in a green marsh a glimpse of a snowy egret, on every gentle hilltop a farmstead nestled among leafy trees and blooming beds of flowers. There is no more serene landscape, none more precisely domestic, no clearer or more radiant light.
Chekov: “He who wants nothing, hopes for nothing and fears nothing cannot be an artist.”
How innocent the Boundary Waters in winter seems! I'm sure that if one lived here for a time, it would seem less remote from the blemishes and tribulations of ordinary twentieth century life than it does in this situation where we are, really, carefree tourists. Still, in the silence of forests and in the purity of cold there does seem an innocence of spirit capable of transcending the ordinary pettiness of life. It is, I suppose, the sort of innocence that could induce childishness as easily as purity—the childishness of simply not knowing—but that is not the inherent or inevitable result. Innocence need not be ignorance, it can also be a kind of courage—the determination to believe in the possibility of good despite the manifest presence of evil everywhere. The problem with lacking this sort of innocence is that it is fiendishly difficult—perhaps impossible-- to do good when your myopia prevents you from seeing most of its manifestations. It is like steering a boat through an unfamiliar shoals in the night.
It was clear and very much colder this morning—fourteen degrees below zero when I first
went out—and the ice on the lake was booming and cracking in protest. The sound is like distant
thunder, but ominously present. I went out snowshoeing later in the day and saw in many places
the cracks that resulted: They were very long, shaped by bolts of lightning, and no more than an
eighth of a mile wide, amazingly innocent looking for all the squalling of their birth.
Pine grossbeaks at the bird feeders, and I have realized that the ducks I called teal
the other daywere in fact common goldeneye, which are listed as frequent over-winterers
in this country. The beautiful smoky red of the grossbeaks, a color for which, I think, we
have no name. It is exactly right for these khaki forests. At the feeder, at least, a very shy bird.
I thought yesterday of Wendell Berry's prayer for ignorance for what we do not know we