Saturday, April 30, 2011
My takeway from the Royal Wedding was neither the bride nor the groom nor even the queen, but thanks to Suzanne in Calgary, I was introduced to the Drum Horse. The Drum Horse is a huge heavy horse, pinto and feathered, that is calm enough and strong enough to carry on his back two sterling silver kettle drums, plus the player, in the midst of a military mounted band through cheering crowds, guided only by foot signals. Drums, of course, are as old as bagpipes, which are as old as skins and breath, and the combination is a potent and intimidating wall of sound, especially when advancing on horseback. (Well, I must admit I’ve never heard of a horseback piper. One has to walk.)
Big Shire horses were necessary for knights in armor weighing so much that the knight could hardly walk, much less get onto a horse for a jousting match without help. But once up and armed with a lance, the knight was the tank of cavalry units, mowing down everything. Shire horses inevitably were taken to the British fairs for competition -- Brits LOVE competition and the resulting meritocracy justifies some of the hierarchical class system that otherwise rots from wealth and sloth. Modern dog breeders who fall in love with ostentatious display and uniqueness to the point of freakishness are examples of competition gone wrong. Competition among WORKING dogs is the true virtue of the practice because it results in useful animals.
At some point in the history of the Drum Horses a “rule” was invented that required all the horses of the regiment to be the same solid color. This is still the practice in horse drills and is seen in the matched teams of carriage horses in BBC costume dramas and the Budweiser Clydesdales. Now back at the fair all piebalds (black and white) and skewbalds (any other color and white) were excluded. But the men loved their piebald Drum Horses, so big and bold, and so they were kept as unique goliaths. Here’s a Rudyard Kipling tale about this moment in time:
http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Rout_of_the_White_Hussars (“The Keel Row,” one of the songs mentioned, is on YouTube in various versions. “Take Me to London” has not been traced to its source.) One could read this story in terms of the arrogance of important people versus the resourcefulness of ordinary folks in educating such big heads. Or you could read it as a defense of the unique, an argument against standardization, and an illustration of the usefulness of humor.
The fact that big pinto horses were less desirable to the judges at county fairs (who were no doubt upperclass gentry) meant that they were suddenly displaced and cheaper. Some say that’s when they became the favorite of gypsies who traveled the country in vans and loved all things gorgeous. A strong, bright horse gentle enough for a child to take out to graze, calm enough to cross a town full of threatening dogs with bolting, was a perfect animal for them. And so the “Drum Horses’ are bred into slightly smaller versions as “gypsy horses” or “van horses.” About a decade ago these kinds of horses became irresistible to people who love classic breeds of domestic animals and now there are associations. www.drumhorseassociation.com/
In fact, there is a boutique ranch in Seeley Lake, Montana, www.bigskygypsy.com/ with a Drum Horse stallion named “Taliesin” which is in Welsh, “Radiant Brow.” (Story at http://www.pantheon.org/articles/t/taliesin.html There’s a horse in the story, but it’s no Drum Horse.) The splendid stallion in Seeley Lake is homozygous. That means the genetic allele, or section of chromosome that codes for the characteristics of a Drum Horse -- size, color, long straight mane, long straight feathers up the cannon bones of the feet -- are the same on both sides of the chromosome. There can be no recessive change from the formula except through true mutation. You cannot buy the horse, but you can buy his offspring.
If you cannot afford that, Breyer puts out -- among their other horses -- a hard plastic collectible version of a Drum Horse and there are porcelain figurines to be found. Not just handsome works of art, but also carrying stories and song so that any inquiry from a curious person can be answered with at least an hour of entertainment by a fireplace with a wee drop of something appropriate.
Out west in the days of stagecoaches and long horse-drawn supply columns, we’ve known about the wheel horse, which is a dependable strong horse harnessed in the row next to the wheels and willing to follow a leading horse. Maybe you didn’t know that many horses are like Brit aristocracy and like to have their own way, which is a good trait in a horse race because it drives them to get out in front but not such a good trait if there is a group task requiring strength and reliability. Of course, the trick is to get the right horse into the right task, which is a matter of experience over time, not something that can be seen at first glance.
One could observe that the present Queen of England, harnessed with her consort Phillip, has been a wonderful wheel horse, drawing the coach of state right on through bursting bombs and roadside tragedy. Churchill was more of a Drum Horse, full of courage and poetic ferocity with drumbeats of rhetoric. Diana, was, of course, a beautiful race horse, the kind with enough heart to keep running even on a fractured bone. You can imagine your own assignments for the princes: Charles, William, Harry. (Oh, I love a sorrel horse and Harry loves the cavalry charge!)
But I think I’ll use the morning’s exploration of history and metaphor to write a story about a Drum Horse who somehow ends up on the old Blackfeet range and is used for carrying a pow-wow drum. The venue will undoubtedly be the railroad horses who dragged into place the gravel and ties for the roadbed of the Great Northern. Maybe the horseback warriors in other places depended on mustangs, but the Blackfeet always appreciated a big strong “flashy” horse. I suspect there is enough shared genome with Lippizaners for me to claim that when the pow-wow drum is pounded, the horse will dance in perfect time, a rhythm as old as skins and breath.
Friday, April 29, 2011
Princess Diana was a sex worker, of course she was. Where did you think royal heirs came from? Her job was to produce two male children who were healthy and the result of sex with Prince Charles, no one else. If the sons were good-looking, fairly intelligent, and free of major inherited disease (hemophilia is a well-known problem in the descendants of Queen Victoria), then that was all anyone could ask. Maybe Diana just had trouble knowing when to stop.
Maybe her sexiness could have been balanced with a little more, um -- what to call it? That sort of controlling quality that Camilla has and also maybe the Duchess of Windsor, allowing them to console and encourage an uncertain stud prince. Diana wasn’t that great at mothering grown men, but she was wonderfully skillful at raising her two small boys. That’s sex work, too, you know, but there was a whole-heartedness there, a “true” love, that Charles didn’t seem able to return, maybe because Charles’ mother had a double burden -- producing children at the same time that she was the very young Queen. Once Diana had given birth twice and the boys had gone off to school, she was more-or-less “over.” Out to an elegant pasture.
Then she could enter upon the “allure” part of sex work that Elizabeth II never went near. The only real mistake she could have made was getting pregnant by someone other than Charles: there are some who fantasize that she did and was killed for it. That’s part of allure, the mystery and illusion of happy endings based on nothing more than emotion. Or she could have sunk into depression and near-criminality.
I say that sex is an unfinished revolution because it is an aspect of social order. Most of we polite sorts have internalized “rules” -- and even some of the renegades believe in them enough to organize their lives around defying and undercutting the rules (or so they think). But now those rules are disrupted by what we know about the genome, by the daylighting of sexual practices (what homosexuals and heterosexuals “do” are the same except for accommodating differences in anatomy), by female control of pregnancy, by differences in economics and government, and by the devastating consequences of planetary lethal pandemic. We have not developed a set of rules that can guide us through all this as individuals, much less as a society, even if we had a unified society -- which we don’t.
Where do such rules come from? Religious institutions are too attached to the past and self-protective to be very helpful. The media are too hysterical and novelty hungry. Novels themselves are a formula industry, less interested in exploration than they ought to be. The only real source of change is the living experiments of real people. What they teach us sometimes has a tragic price. Do I need to list them? No list would be complete. The variations are too many. The influences to consider are too subtle, too sweeping, pitting one individual’s intentions against the juggernauts and behemoths of nations and their diasphoras. As if any individual could really know their own minds very clearly anyway.
This week among my steady procession of Netflix discs was “Powder Blue” which is notorious for two strip club dances, one a pole dance that begins with the woman in a suspended gauze cocoon and the other a floor performance involving throwing hot wax from burning candles onto her body. I think it is significant that the director, Timothy Lin Bui, is Vietnamese-American. Here’s what we think of as sexual to the point of needing to be R-rated. That is, supposedly hidden but available on television.
This woman has a slender, nearly Asian, kind of beauty. She is a skilled dancer. No contact is allowed -- this is a display, unpartnered. (If it were partnered, it might be X rated. We protect men.) It is a fantasy, but a fantasy of awakening in the first dance and suffering in the second dance. In the plot this woman is a mother but the boy is in a coma and we know nothing about the father. The plot hinges on HER father, whose convict past is veiled and diluted by Ray Liotta and Kris Kristopherson, raffish old men. Likewise, the “pimp” is Patrick Swayze, protective even in disguise. (We already know he’s a “Dirty Dancer.”) The romantic partner (Eddie Redmayne) is sexy in a child’s innocent way -- so blue-eyed. In short, this tangled web of child’s storying and imaging (there are several plots) spreads out to the side, never driving down into what people now call the “vertical.” One could meta-theorize in all directions but we actually are kept as much on the surface as we are in regard to the Royal Wedding.
This movie was panned, I think partly because there was too much for the audience to think about, much less for a relatively inexperienced director to manage, partly because it was from “outside” (Vietnamese-American), and partly because of the cheesy ending. (All the dead people go to heaven.) Compare and contrast Helen Mirren’s “The Queen” or even Judi Dench’s “Mrs. Brown,” where a sharp understanding of cultural obligation is illuminated by human need. It’s not a matter of nakedness -- Mirren is famous for naked -- or a matter of sentimentality -- Dench is the most sentimental actress since Helen Hayes -- but an awareness of the trade-offs in life, both in sex and love.
Perhaps there are times and places -- brief and small, I suspect -- when sex and love have their place in the culture, attuned to function smoothly as families renew themselves and realms survive births, deaths, wars and plagues. Some South Sea island, maybe? A Shangri La in a high mountain valley? A plains Indian tribe before the Euros showed up? A little village like Valier? NOT the English royals.
Sex is not a given “thing” but rather a classification of transactions between human beings. Not according to gender or age or class or wealth or even instinct and hormones, though reproduction is a key part of it. Investigating the possibilities is a constant source of stories. We are titillated (what a word!) and horrified by the sex lives of the Middle Eastern tyrants as well as the contemporary English royals, to say nothing of the Kennedys. History-making, life-smashing, personally fulfilling, emotionally exalting, and always profitable, sex will never be finished. It is always triggering new revolutions.
This new English Royal story has already begun in a way that would once have been covert (these partners have openly lived together) and more investigated than would once have been possible (Kate’s genome and potential fertility). Everyone is acutely aware of national worry over money, the class status of commoners, and the cultural variety of the Commonwealth. The Queen likes this new Princess -- we all do! This brood mare appears to be a winner and William appears capable of flight. His own helicopter team accompanied the golden coach through the streets. And yet Catharine’s elegant wedding dress was somehow reminiscent of the last turn of the century, when Elizabeth II’s mother was married.
Let the revolution continue!
Thursday, April 28, 2011
In human culture -- I suppose in life itself -- there is a centrifugal force towards multiplicity and then an opposite centripetal force towards unity which means dissolving or engulfing those multiplicities. So the terrible forces of war, whether you consider the second World War that created the baby boom or the Vietnam War that splintered society, both resulted in the uproarious ecstasy of the Sixties and Seventies. Out of it has come death as well as birth, the breaching of some walls and the erection of others, right down to the current chaos in the Middle East.
One cultural wave was the Gay community discovering itself and immediately splintering into a lot of smaller groups. (Fairies, Bears and Leathermen) A second independent wave was towards communal living, based on the negotiation of freedom of the individual while living in concert. Both have since remained -- but dispersed -- with some aspects of each absorbed into the larger culture.
Since I only observed, my informant for the former wave is Tim and my informant for the latter is Paul, whose path crossed with mine the first time when he was a little kid in Browning, Montana, and often visited the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife with a handful of quarters to make the mechanical rattlesnake work. (He now lives near Bonner’s Ferry but some of his relatives are in Valier.) These are ongoing dialogues that parallel and entwine with others. Normally the Gay community and the Hippie veterans don’t talk to each other and don’t overlap.
Today I’m talking about Paul’s most vital world, the family that had has sustained him ever since. You can make direct contact with Paul’s world through a CD. Go to http://www.backtothegardenfilm.com/ to read about it or even send for it. Basically, Kevin Tomlinson had a lot of early footage from interviewing “hippies.” Decades later, in the style of Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, he went back to see what had happened to these people. "Back to the Garden" is the name of the film.
When I was serving UU congregations, where members often have hippie pasts, they would often ask, “Do you think the counterculture really mattered? Was it worth it?” Here’s what Mark Rudd says: “If you like natural, organic food...thank a hippie. If you use alternative medicine, Acupuncture and Massage...thank a hippie. If you’re into eastern spirituality, Yoga, Meditation, Buddhism, the Dalai Lama...thank a hippie.” Add to the list pacifism, decriminalization, sexual freedom, environmentalism.
These “hippie” people responded to cultural doubt and betrayal in a number of ways, but the “back to the land” movement was a significant sub-culture and quietly exists even here on the east slope of the Rockies where life is not easy. It sprang from seeds that never go entirely dormant. My great-grandfather and grandfather were part of it, though not communal. Rodale is as important as Muir. In fact, I expect that if you knew where to look, you’d find ancient versions all over the planet and even new beginnings in the mega-cities. (Alice Waters?)
Paul was part of one of these groups and knows people in this film. The Rainbow Family, an umbrella organization, includes some of them still. Of course, when they gather in large groups, suddenly becoming apparent, they freak out the locals and the cops. So they tend to go to the back country, camping, and to organize clean-up squads afterwards. They are not so fashionable or commercial as something self-conscious like the “Burning Man” festival or even the many Renaissance Faires.
“Hippies” represent a kind of lifestyle that can’t be stamped out, no matter how much the commercialized “mainstream” (biggest number of consumers per product) tries. Often demonized, especially through marijuana and sexual freedom, they have skills and knowledge that include the most cutting edge computer coding. Probably the biggest threats to them are hitchhikers (people who want a free ride in life) and leftovers (kids whose families didn’t socialize them). Therefore, they have learned to keep a low profile and tend to live in places with low population density.
But there is a tension to resolve between getting the word out and being self-protective. Being a hunter-gatherer means having to network and explore, but it also means that establishment businesses won’t like competition. Sometimes survival on the land is just too hard. But then again, if the world economy crashes, most of these people will know what to do. Many of them are getting off the infrastructure grid, their ability to earn money in a remote place much empowered by the Internet and by the products they need getting cheaper as people realize what they can do. They are the opposite of industrial windfarms. They are the opposite of mega-anything. They are the opposite of a closed culture dependent on oil from foreign countries, and making from that a watchtower from which to wage war on the mud people.
Here in my hermitage, sessile at last, I listen to poets and communards. Outrageous and gorgeous, humble and hibernating -- what do they have in common? What do terrorists and mafia have in common? What are the great ideas working their way through the peoples of all lands and times? I see a return to Heraclitus, the idea that it’s all a dance, a flame, a coming together and then a going apart, like the continents themselves floating together, colliding in an uproar of mountains, then pulling apart so that the African coast has a bit of America stuck to it and on the east coast of America, there is a rind of Africa.
Some would say that I’m cheating to jump to this kind of poetry instead of providing actual figures and maybe a graph. When I used to preach like this to groups small enough for questions afterwards, there never would BE any! When questioned, the people would say, “Well, we’re still thinking.” Then we tried playing some music for a few moments so they could gather their thoughts. Mostly that didn’t help. It’s all about the questions, the whole thing was questions. Raising a hand to ask something specific seemed just redundant. The point was to live in the questions because the answers are so various.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Since yesterday I’ve had such a strong sense of sorrow that I almost called a few relatives to see whether anyone had died. Today I found out who it was: Harry Jackson, Western artist. If you don’t know who he is, watch this vid. (The first part is about a little Wyoming town a lot like Valier.) http://video.wyomingpbs.org/video/1884303003
I’d been thinking about Harry, partly because the big auctions are selling bronzes by both he and Bob Scriver and partly because it’s about the time of year we first met Harry. Of course, as Harry says emphatically in the video, art knows no past or future. Art knows only now and I can feel him strongly right here and now. He is so welcome!
* * * * * * * *
This is from my biographical memoir of Bob Scriver, called “Bronze Inside and Out.” Harry was no less brazen than Bob.
An anticipated “shoot out” with Harry Jackson was staged at this reception without us having any idea what was happening. We’d hardly heard of Harry except that his work was handled by Kennedy Galleries in New York and was similar enough to Bob’s that Rudi Wunderlich thought it would cause a conflict of interest if he represented Bob as well. As it turned out, the Coe family -- major supporters of the Center -- were personally fond of Harry and tended to push his work, which put Harold McCracken’s back up. Someone told us McCracken was so intent on having Bob’s work for the opening because he was hoping the rodeo pieces and the Opening of the Medicine Pipe Bundle would trump Harry’s big stampede and range burial bronzes. Of course, feuds are good for business when one needs publicity.
Harry was a long-time veteran of the New York art scene. A friend of Jackson Pollock’s and student of Thomas Hart Benton, he famously raised grub money by selling his authentically worn jeans to Bob Dylan. Harry had been traveling with the abstract expressionists, then the most dramatic and American of painters’ “schools.” He knew about the famous rivalry between Pollock and de Kooning, buttressed with Life magazine stories about both outrageous geniuses. In fact, he’d had his own major Life magazine story. And he knew a dramatic moment when he came to one.
A hush fell on the huge reception space. People cleared an aisle between Harry and Bob as Harry strolled across, his boot heels ringing on the terrazzo floor. Bob raised his head from conversation to see what was going on.
Harry looked like a smaller version of Bob -- built much the same, bearded, with an attitude. He came up, stood eye-to-eye with Bob, pulled out his hand in a “draw” motion, and said, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “My God, man! I’m damned happy to meet you! Your work is so goddamn good!” The two men shook hands. Harry threw an arm over Bob’s shoulders and suggested, “Let’s you and I go talk someplace private, pard.” People stepped back to let us out.
We spent the afternoon in one of those tall, old-fashioned booths in a café, talking and whooping and pounding the table in agreement on almost everything. The shootout was a big bust.
Harry Jackson, Bob’s new Cody friend, did indeed charter a plane and fly up. We were impressed, though it was no Lear Jet -- just a small plane such as ranchers use. In the taxidermy years, we often met such planes out at Starr School where there was a level field and a windsock. Big-time hunters were used to flying in Alaska, so conditions didn’t look bad to them. The pilots would contact the sheriff in Cut Bank, who would call us on the phone to alert us. Then we’d drive out as quickly as we could to chase the inevitable cows off the field.
When Harry’s plane got there, it was met by us and a small crowd of Blackfeet kids, whom the pilot eyed nervously. He threw out Harry’s bag and promised to return the next day after he spent the night in Cut Bank.
Clearly Harry was sizing us up to see if he should worry about Bob as a rival. His Italian foundry was far beyond our little operation at the time. Our Blackfeet crew didn’t have generations in the business, like his Italian men. He told about his fine foreman and his terrific third wife. But he didn’t have a wildlife museum. (And we heard his foreman eventually ran off with his wife.) We took him up to East Glacier for supper, driving the loop over Looking Glass Pass which is like a small version of “Going-to-the-Sun.” After we got to the top, an eagle joined us, flying over the van. We took this to be symbolic, a blessing, though we all sort of knew the bird was hoping we’d provide a little road kill.
At bedtime we opened up the folding sofa but when Harry went past the bedroom door with his toothbrush, he was still talking and he ended up sitting on the foot of the bed talking to Bob until birds began to sing outside. There was no drinking. Harry couldn’t drink because of his wartime head injury, which sometimes pitched him into epilepsy. He had a natural outrageousness that Bob envied. In an infamous article in Fine Art Collector, he announced, “I’m the most unhobbled, fence-jumping bastard the art world has produced in fifty years. Many have tried to rope me; all have failed.” Harry can name-drop famous New York artists, Wyoming cowboys, and movie stars. In this article he drops Bob’s name as “one of the few whose works brighten my life.”
Harry Jackson was not intimidated by rich people or the art scene. He’d run with the crowd at the heart of the abstract expressionist whirlwind. He knew his cards and he could play them well at an international level. Bob could only admire -- there was too much to learn.
Both Jackson and Scriver were constant winners with the Cowboy Artists of America, but neither of them really fit the organization all that well. Harry finally resigned, but Bob was too cautious to quit, though he never went to the shows and trail rides unless they issued an ultimatum. When CAA went its own way, splitting from the Cowboy Hall of Fame, and the National Academy of Western Art formed in its place on more elitist principles, both of the sculptors accepted an invitation to join the latter. In 1973 Jackson and Scriver collaborated on a seminar about bronze casting to accompany the exhibition. It must have been a hum-dinger.
People are always trying to make Tim Barrus, my co-writer, prove who he is and some people seem to think I AM Tim Barrus. In the early days of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, a joker claimed I was two gay guys who lived in a straw bale house on the Rocky Mountain front and guided big game hunters for a living. More recently Extra Help for Medicare sent me a questionnaire which I was supposed to correct rather than fill in. They had already filled in most of the answers via Google, which has the idea that two people are living in this house. They are wrong. If they are counting humans, there is only me. If they are counting cats, there are three of us.
In self-defense this is a time-line.
I was born in 1939 and grew up in Portland, Oregon.
My neighborhood grade school was Vernon and my high school was Jefferson, where I graduated in 1957.
From 1957 to 1961 I attended Northwestern University, graduating with a BS in speech education which was mostly in theatre. I was the costumer at Eaglesmere Summer Theatre in Pennsylvania in 1960.
From 1961 to 1966, and 1971 to 1973, I taught high school English in Browning, Montana, which is the capital of the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.
From 1962 to 1973, I partnered with Bob Scriver, a legendary Western sculptor (b. 1914), and we were married between 1966 and 1970.
From 1973 to 1978 I was the first female animal control officer in Portland, Oregon, working in the streets as well as designing the first education program there.
From 1978 to 1982 I was double-enrolled at Meadville/Lombard Theological School and the University of Chicago Divinity School with the goal of a Doctor of Ministry from M/L, including an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago, which I completed in 1980. My method emphasis was in anthropology. My Clinical Pastoral Education was in Rockford Memorial Hospital, Illinois, during the summer of 1979. My internship was in Hartford, Connecticut, Unitarian Universalist Church in 1980-81. I was accepted into Preliminary Fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1981. In the year 1981-82, while I worked on my thesis, I was a transcriptionist at the University of Chicago Law School.
From 1982 - 85 I was back in Montana where I served four small Unitarian-Universalist congregations: Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls and Helena, while living as a circuit-rider in an old F150 Ford cargo van.
I was ordained in 1983 on the stage of the Grand Street Theatre in Helena, which was originally built as a Unitarian church. In 1984 I accepted a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville/Lombard in lieu of the original D. Min. This excused me from finishing my thesis, which I’m now completing as a book on the poetics of liturgy.
In 1985-86 I served as interim minister for Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church in Kirkland, Washington.
In 1985-86 I served as interim minister for Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church in Kirkland, Washington.
In 1987 I was granted Final Fellowship with the UUA. From 1986-88 I served the Saskatoon Unitarian congregation in Saskatchewan. The Edmonton Unitarian Church published a book of my prairie sermons called “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke.” The last copies are available through Driftwillow Press in Great Falls.
In 1988-89 I served as an interim to the Blackfeet Methodist Parish which includes Browning, Babb and Heart Butte. I lived in the Methodist parsonage and supplemented my income as a study hall aide at the Browning Junior High School.
From 1989 to 91 I developed and taught the English program for the new Heart Butte High School.
From 1991 to 1999 I worked for the City of Portland, Bureau of Buildings, as a clerical specialist.
From 1999 to the present I have lived in Valier, Montana, a village on the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation. My biography of Bob Scriver, “Bronze Inside and Out,” was published by the University of Calgary Press in 2006. Since about that time I have written a daily blog at www.prairiemary.blogspot.com. I maintain several other blogs which are closed except for a small group. www.scriverart.blogspot.com is about Bob Scriver.
Since 2007 I have maintained a co-writing long-distance relationship with Timothy Patrick Barrus: author, editor, performance artist, teacher. Our manuscript “Orpheus in the Catacombs” -- journaled accounts of Cinematheque Films between 2007 and 2010 with added comments by myself -- is circulating among publishers. A second manuscript of poetry by Barrus, edited by myself, “Fingerprints on the Iris of the Eye,” is also being considered by publishers. A blog that comments on “Orpheus in the Catacombs” and the Cinematheque Films school is at www.orpheus-catacombs.blogspot.com. Barrus has his own array of vlogs (they include video).
I self-publish at www.lulu.com/prairiemary, mostly Blackfeet resources. Lulu has rather high-handedly posted some of these books on Amazon. (They sent me a message saying that if I objected, they wouldn’t, otherwise they would. This is called “nudging,” that is, the default is their way. I didn’t object.)
My subjects are my life but what doesn’t show here is major reading in natural history and Native American writing. The internet has made is easier for me to escape the confines of “Montana writers,” so as to be a grasslands writer with special emphasis on the North American plains in two nations. If you look at the map on my prairiemary blog, you’ll find readers are worldwide, with usually over a thousand hits a week. I often blog about sex, which always helps the numbers.
I’m am continuing to work on the “theological systematic” started in seminary. By now I’ve begun calling it a “theoryology” since one can’t have a theology without a theos and I do not have a concept of theos except that there isn’t one, unless one uses the classic definition of “that than which nothing can be greater.” I blend process theology with story theology with narrative theory with brain function theory to explore the idea of a web of life, non-anthropological and non-anthropocentric, accepting of particle physics, the genome, evolution beginning with the original Big Bang, and the redefinition of entities into dynamic forces, so that the ultimate consolation is not eternal life as individuals but rather a mystical inclusion in everything -- which no human mind can grasp except with the senses in the moment.
If you think this information tells you who I am, you’re wrong. Ask Tim Barrus.
Monday, April 25, 2011
In trying to ram through the sainthood of his old buddy John Paul II, Benedict XVI is running up against both historical scandals and contemporary law, some of it church law that grew out of those scandals. One of those scandals involved Popes who tried to create hereditary empires so they could extend their power beyond the grave through their sons. Another was the scandal of female popes. (It happened long before women’s lib.) Christians have always struggled with confusion over issues of birth and sexuality, since their founding figure had a virgin for a mother and a god for a father, but no descendants we know of, though there have been hints. In short, supernaturalism collides with human reality.
One of the first -- and most brilliant -- bits of mental footwork came in dealing with the idea of a Jesus who was the Christ, who would return on a horse at the head of a cavalry that could rout Roman centurions. (Call Mel Gibson.) People then, as now, were given dates and deadlines and some took them seriously enough to make practical preparations. When the dates passed, then as now, some lost their faith and others sought an explanation, which was that the return was “not of this world.” That the battle was a “virtual” one, a struggle of inspirations, a different dimension. This also meant, as Paul appreciated, that Christians were more than a sub-group of Jews who thought Jesus was the Messiah. If this real (incarnated = made meat) man were translated into a virtual (spiritual) figure, the opportunities for expansion were unlimited.
But in some ways the Christian doctrine was doomed by a merger with the very Roman Empire that had oppressed them. (Another story that repeats through history.) In taking on Caesar’s Rules of Order, the Roman branch of the Catholic church assumed both privileges and obligations. (USA take notice.) It’s hard work to maintain an empire and the Romans found that the near-deification of leaders was very helpful. No one wants to follow a loser.
So the rule of celibacy (an anti-Caesar rule) was coupled with infallibility and the requirement of absolute obedience to the Pope. It was a Devil’s bargain. The only way to be so “un-human” is illusion. (And so we leave Kansas now.) There was still sex. Sometimes there were probably well-hidden babies and maybe a few secret ladies if not a few “accidentally” deceased. But one strategy was partners who were obedient and powerless, who could be pulled into the family business (Mafia), and who would NOT get pregnant. Boys.
You can’t make an omelet or even eggs benedict without breaking eggs (babies) and here we are with another semi-secret scandal that has escaped (hatched): the sexual abuse of boys. I don’t know where dead Popes are before they are sainted -- a kind of Limbo, like unbaptised babies? But I know how John-Paul, assuming he’s not in Hell, can become a saint for sure. One of the proofs for sainthood is an act of healing. All he has to do is to heal every boy infected with HIV by sexually abusive priests.
If it turns out that if John-Paul is not in a position to perform miracles, Benedict could do a lot of good. I recommend these courses of action:
- Immediately rescind the ban on condoms.
- Make condoms freely available in every Catholic church and rectory.
- Devote the Vatican treasury to financing research for a cure for AIDS and to subsidized meds for low income people with AIDS, worldwide. Much better to spend the money upfront and aggressively than to pay out huge amounts for litigation later when sued.
- Return to married priests as preserved in practice by Greek and Russian Orthodox churches (and in some circumstances by today’s Roman Catholic Church).
- Allow gay marriages on the same terms. (Gays are not necessarily pedophiles, who should be absolutely excluded as is now only theoretically enforced.)
- The polyamorous should be excluded from the priesthood on grounds that they are likely to be also polyreligionists, unsuited for the demands of a committed clergy sustained by an institutional church based on faith in one concept.
- Allow female priests on the same terms as males.
- Include in the curriculum of seminaries and their feeder all-male schools, particularly those that are residential, an overview of human sexuality.
- Elevate to a newly created category of sainthood all those killed by AIDS contracted from a priest.
- Add to the prayers of every mass, prayers for the souls of priests who prey on children.
One might argue that these policies and practices would eliminate the Roman Catholic Church as an institution. Resisting the impulse to ask “What’s wrong with that?” we must point out (as Protestants do) that Christianity did not begin in all-male splendor and arrogance like the Roman Empire but in fact was born in congregations based in homes and community, recommending both humility and generosity. This was the revolution powered by the personhood of Jesus, who was revolutionary and heretic in terms of the standing order of his times. Not to accept and live out Jesus’ Gospel is not to be Christian.
There is something in humans that wants empires. As soon as religion-based institutions are founded, unless there are efforts at prevention, there begins a drive towards empire, special classes, and the accumulation of wealth. This is true of Hindu and Islam and Native American tribal groups. Many worthy religious systems try to build-in ways to restrict or shape such tendencies: jubilee, tithing, potlatches, reversals, parables, and so on. The priests’ vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were meant to be this kind of restraint. If the Pope is indeed the top of the hierarchy and if a Pope like Ratzinger spent years as an enforcer of the rules of the historical institution, then his business is to be rooting out abuses, not suppressing and denying them. This should take precedence over seeking sainthood for old friends or protecting the image of the Church.
I am aware that many priests, especially in the immediate past decades, live harsh, pinched lives, overburdened with sometimes impossible tasks and diminished resources. I am aware that priests in Ireland have grown up in a political and economic system that has deformed and famished them. The church should feed and console its priests as well as guiding and shielding them. The terrible craving for power and the willingness to use little children for sex are linked. Linked. Entwined.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
There were giants on the land in those days! The Pacific Northwest District was the envy of two countries! Even as an interim, a pulpit in Kirkland was a plum. On the crest of a hill overlooking the lake, graced with a long porch outside and a free-standing fireplace inside, this group was famous for Patrick O’Neill’s women, all of whom could bake cookies, assemble a newsletter, maintain the building and babysit their children -- at the same time, with skill. But the problem was how to grow the congregation and when I pulled open the minister’s desk drawer, packets of antacids went rolling back and forth. Peter Raible was fond of joking that a church draws people from the surrounding area, but half of the compass circle around Kirkland was occupied by fish.
My idea of redecorating was lace curtains and a bowl with a goldfish on my desk. My church secretary was Jackie Mason and that year we both wore “Paris” perfume. It was an exuberant “lady” sort of office, not that we didn’t welcome men! Ladies DO!! That Easter there was an Easter egg hunt in the church and I didn’t find one egg hidden in my office until I packed to leave!
The older women complained that there was nothing for them in the afternoon so we started a “class” where we shared our family trees and looked for patterns like twins or May/December marriages or immigration -- finding all sorts of interesting things when we drew out the generations on a big roll of wrapping paper. We brought tea to brew, because it was teatime, and one day Jenny brought Celestial Seasoning passionfruit tea which somehow led us into recounting our respective wedding nights. They were old enough to have had real initiation-type wedding nights. We laughed so hard we ached for days.
Jenny was an exceptional person. Her favorite reading material was railroad schedules. Her father, a railroad man, had taught her to read them. A long flight of stairs led up to that church porch and Jenny fell down them, breaking her leg. Luckily there was insurance and, brilliantly, Jenny spent part of it for an architect to redesign the stairs so there was a little landing with a bench halfway up, a lovely place to pant or chat.
This was a congregation that had broken off from Eastshore, maybe more intensely progressive than the larger church. Northlakers were artists, teachers, journalists, nonconformists and activists. The walls were always bright with exhibits. I was preaching the day the Challenger blew up and that Sunday morning has imprinted the walls and the faces on my memories. My ears still sing with Mark’s many choir triumphs.
Because people were so resourceful, I tried experiments. One memorable Sunday about this time of year I declared a celebration of frogs and told people to bring their stuffed frogs, wear their frog t-shirts, tell frog stories and jokes, brush up on their frog songs, and so on. They were a little worried (no precedent, no order of service), but they were up to it. One boy brought a jar of real frogs! Another brought a wax frog candle he had made. I still have it and here it is:
Not all the services were for church members. One of the earliest was a memorial for the wife of the dairy farmer who had owned the farm now engulfed by the town. He wasn’t a Unitarian. The funeral home had simply called the nearest Unitarian minister, even though he wasn’t a member either. Another day a little family group -- a young couple with a few parent-generation singles (mother, aunt, cousin) -- mounted up those long stairs with a tiny blue and gold casket that contained the cremains of their still-born baby. They wanted a ceremony of some kind in a church and had been turned down by others. So we lit candles and said words and held hands and sang and it was enough. They went away damp but smiling.
Being a Unitarian is a risky thing, because it’s hard to define, sometimes the denomination of last resort, never the same from one location to another. For ministers it is extra risky because everyone in the congregation thinks they could do just as well as the current minister and most of the time they’re right. When I was installed, I can’t even remember who preached. Probably Alan Deale, but all the big heavyweights were there except Patrick, of course, because he was at his next church. They loved being there and seeing each other and wearing their robes -- all that stuff. Afterwards they went off to have a drink together someplace, but I didn’t. I just wanted to sit by the fireplace with my stocking feet up on a chair and begin getting to know my new friends. Long afterwards Karl Thunneman said that was the moment he thought I was right for Kirkland because I loved the congregation more than my colleagues. He was partly right.
Much has changed. I’m out of the ministry. My seminary has become a mail-order school in rented space. America still hasn’t finished processing the Challenger explosion, but there are only two space flights left. Frogs are dying out. It’s scary.
But that year in Kirkland was literally a banner year for me. When I went to Saskatoon, the Kirkland congregation sent me an installation gift: a banner windsock in the shape of a frog. I brought it to Valier with me and flew it off my wild plum tree every summer until the frog rotted of old age and so did the tree, which the weather took down this winter. Progress is a two-sided sort of thing. Somehow the spirit of the Kirkland Unitarian Universalist persists! Here we are, years later, still in love! I salute you on your fifty years of growth and flowering since founding!
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Global climate change, an intensifier, has many a local consequence as we on the prairie know very well. Our weather is in Cinerama grand wraparound dimensions and when one drives eighty miles to the grocery store or movies, one and all pay close attention. Check the computer (the web cams are especially helpful if you’re crossing the Rockies, which we often do), check the paper, and check the neighbors. When you fill up your gas tank, ask travelers which way they came.
Last week I attended a class in Skywarn Spotting, officially sponsored by the National Weather Service and a new organization called “The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network.” For short, “CoCoRaHS”. I really think they ought to have a mascot rooster. The teacher was a young woman who had us raising our hands in response to various questions. The answers were always obvious, but she encouraged us by recognizing our “awesome” success. The only failure was that most of us found the specialized weather radios pretty lame. Broadcasts are low power and most of the cell phones around here are of the “can you hear me now?” variety. Some people were at the class for formal credit from agencies.
The first two pieces of summer-focused advice were probably the most crucial. One was that if the weather was building into a storm and you were out on the land, you should have a buddy with you to watch your back. The other was that a highway overpass is one of the deadliest places to seek refuge. High winds are easily able to lift them out of place and crash them back down heedlessly. Maybe you already know not to get under a tree. You might be marginally drier, but you may also become electrified.
Some of the advice was self-contradictory. If there is a tornado aimed at you, get down flat or in a ditch. If the storm is dumping large amounts of water, don’t get in the ditch if it might suddenly carry the water your way. And if you feel your hair stirring with electricity, do NOT lie flat but rather curl into a ball with your hands over your head and don’t put your toes down on the ground -- just the rest of your foot. The idea is to let the electricity pass on out of you and it may follow your toes out !! Bottom line? Go indoors.
The idea of the class is to fortify the National Weather Service’ radar and the automated weather stations around the state (there’s one in the Valier library) with personal observations. Report in a formula: “This is X. I am a trained weather watcher. I am (x miles N/S/E/W of X or a GPS figure). I am reporting a (name phenomena and be specific: size of hail, estimated wind speed) which is traveling N/S/E/W.” The report is to go to the phone number on a laminated card we each received, no matter where we are, even out of state, since the Weather Service is a network and will share all information.
Weather is the result of the sun's power being stirred by the rotation and tipping of the planet which act through four dimensions: moisture, instability, lift, and windsheer. These are what produce the enormous disturbances that pound our crops and explode our houses, as well as making the land sizzle with electricity -- much of lightning goes UP from the ground.
Now we turned our attention to the hierarchy of storms. The single cell storm is a piled up cumulus full of moisture, reacting to warm land and cold altitude, which means warm air going up and cold air falling down: that’s windsheer and the molecules rubbing together produce electricity. When multiple cells form a line, which is not unlikely, they are called a “squall line.” (Not too long ago an indignant Native American woman who didn’t listen very carefully wanted to know why storms were called “squaw lines.” Short answer: NOT.)
Then comes the crucial element: rotation. If the rotation creates the familiar Dorothy-in-Kansas upright whirl, that’s bad. Check your options for taking cover. If the spiral is hanging down from the cumulus storm cloud but not touching the ground, it’s a funnel cloud. if it’s connected only to the ground and not any overhead cloud, it’s a “gustnado” which can do damage but is separated from its power source. If both ends are connected, one to the ground and one to the cloud, then it’s a true tornado. All three should be reported immediately as you take cover. You cannot outrun a tornado.
But it’s possible for clouds to rotate by rolling from top to bottom which creates a “shelf cloud” that pulls storms along horizontally and may create “downbursts” large or small. At the side of them can be curls of air like the toes of a harem shoe. This will make a “dustnado” and indeed is officially called a “foot.”
If the cloud is releasing moisture, it may be rain which sometimes looks like long dark fringe. If it is creating a “hail shaft” that will be a white, milky sort of line. If the moisture is falling but then evaporating before it touches the ground, it is called “virga.” ALWAYS report hail. When you report rain and snow, try to get a measurement of how much moisture there is. This brought up a good Montana weather question: how do you measure horizontal precipitation? The answer was to take readings in various places and average them, but it wasn’t a good answer since a five foot drift is often next to dry ground. Sometimes there IS no good answer, because humans are following something far beyond ourselves, trying to name and describe it for our own uses.
Don’t report lightning because there is ALWAYS lightning. It doesn’t relate to severity of weather and can leap out of the inside of a storm that is thirty miles away. Do not stand at the window as it can strike you through the glass. How I love to watch a storm through a big window!
Never drive through water standing on the road. I did that once and came close to drowning. I was driving a van, which converted itself into a boat and because the motor was high enough and the current was weak enough, the wheels paddled me to safety. Only barely. Water was bubbling up through the floor and the van wanted to turn turtle.
Report dense fog even if it is patchy.
The most dangerous condition we know is a “fire whirl.” A park service employee had seen one and testified to the TRULY awesome sight of it over his shoulder as he fled. This is the sort of phenomenon through which Shiva and the Old Testament Jehovah speak. The biggest lesson the sky has to teach us is respect for mighty forces which we can only barely predict and report.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Good Friday seems a fine time to write about the death of a seminary. Some will say it’s going to be resurrected. Maybe. It’s uncertain about its Christian elements. Earlier they were saying it would be transformed into a multi-religion education center that even included Islam -- pretty daring -- riding on the resources and creds of Andover-Newton. That’s fallen apart now. A nearby Hebrew school will join Andover. Meadville will not.
From the beginning the seminary was bits and scraps. Meadville was originally in the town of that name in Pennsylvania, which sort of grew out of the library of a local fellow who was sickly but bookish. Lombard was Carl Sandburg’s Alma Mater and when it was disassembled for lack of money, the Ryder School of Theology, which had previously been taken into Lombard, was disgorged and carried over to the new seminary. This transaction brought along a license for teaching the proper shoeing of horses. In Montana we understand the importance of this. I should have tried getting a sermon out of it. Maybe I will yet.
At the time these rural seminaries were active, it was understood that young men were best educated for the ministry in “seed beds” that were in quiet places fit for study. Unitarians want “learned ministers” (or they did then) like Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. The contrast was the “inspired minister,” who had a vision and simply grabbed his Bible, like the Methodists, Baptists and Pentacostals. “Learned ministers” typically came from Harvard and Yale where theology was taught alongside medicine and law, true professions. At the other end of the spectrum were local Bible schools. In the case of the Unitarians, Starr King in Berkeley might be considered “inspired” -- very freeform, sort of “pagan,” even improvised.
Meadville/Lombard was part of a new movement to cluster seminaries around major universities that had “schools” dedicated to the study of religion, in this case the University of Chicago Divinity School. But M/L had a special relationship. One of the major endowments of the Divinity School is specifically for the preparation of ministers, but the kind of study of religion taught there produced professors. An arrangement provided a blended curriculum: for the first year at M/L the student took two Div School courses per quarter, plus one M/L class. At the end of the year, if one had passed the Div School course exams, six of them, plus an exam in written French, German -- Italian? I don’t remember -- that qualified the student for an MA in Religious Studies. Some people could not pass these exams. A few people did so well that they moved their focus over to the Div School. A VERY few people (no UU’s that I knew) walked into the Div School, challenged the exams, passed, and went directly to the Ph.D. program.
We had free access to any other part of the U of Chicago. I was a little stumped to find there was no anthropology program for Plains Indians, but then fruitfully invaded the classes of Richard Stern, who taught writing, narrative and modernity. I fell madly in love with Stephen Toulmin’s classes but couldn’t understand any of it and had to confess and withdraw. Don Browning’s Pastoral Care class was the single most useful course for ministry that I took.
There were two raging controversies: one was people who wanted to duck out on the the arduous “learned” stuff, like a language. A modern language is conventional for a scholar’s MA and the Lutherans were learning Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, but the free spirits among us fought and cheated and balked until finally the requirement was somehow dropped. That was the beginning of the end, to my mind. Not unrelated to the decline of rigorous education in general.
The other was people who hated the Unitarian Universalist denominational and ministry focus, even though most of us were being paid for by the UUA and funds designated for ministerial education. But these people felt they might or might not be “called” and should be justified as students by just learning the course material. It’s easy to see how corrosive this could be, but the class sizes had dwindled down to four, so any applicant who looked the least bit likely was admitted. One was an arsonist. Never proven.
The dark side of this was that the school kept the students going along until they had wrung as much tuition out of them as they could -- then they would be called in for a meeting and told they were not good minister material and would not be awarded a degree, even though the denomination’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee had the final word about who would be recommended for pulpits. Sometimes the judgment was right and sometimes it was wrong, but it tended to be based on three factors: success at Clinical Pastoral Education where the pressure was really on and the rubber hit the road; success at internship, a year on the staff of a big church somewhere; and whether or not the student got along with the faculty. The last few years were focused on the production of a “systematic” which is one’s personal theological justification, and a thesis. I read dozens of them. (They were bound and shelved in the library.) They varied wildly. No judgment standard could truly be objective, especially once the Christian paradigm was left behind.
Most of the trouble at M/L came down to two things: money and faculty. There was never enough money in spite of the facade of stone and paneling. And the faculty was fatally forked in the beginning by the hiring of two major UU figures, one to be the president and the other to be a professor. They were soon locked into competition. Ministers tend to be grandiose narcissists in the first place. UU’s even in the pews often share that syndrome. There can be no appeal to humility before a loving God, can there? So the president fired the professor, who had tenure and sued, taking the best of the peripheral buildings, a brick monster on the corner across from the actual school that contained the communal dining room, the community glue. The rest of the faculty -- junior-level, stunned, and expecting to be French-style people of the workers with reversed collars on blue workshirts -- never quite recovered.
So this year M/L has resigned itself to selling off its buildings (to the U of Chicago which is booming) and finding some new form. For a while it appeared that a deal could be made with Andover-Newton but that has fallen through now. There’s enough money to pay rent somewhere in Chicago and keep some of the faculty -- the big shots -- but basically Meadville/Lombard is now a correspondence seminary (they call them “low-residence) and one can indeed get a mail-order diploma from them.
In the meantime, the denomination has changed. I’m not quite sure how radically because of having left in 1988, but my impression is that there is not much use for “learned ministers.” Now they tend to be warm counselors and “cute” preachers with “people skills.” Often ministry is their second career, so they are older. It is a female sort of job now, totally detached from the University of Chicago Divinity School, that source of gravitas and status.
I'll forever be grateful for my access to the University of Chicago. And I am aware that while I was there ('78-'82) the Jesuit equivalent seminary closed. That was before scandal broke their bank. I am not "insitutional," and maybe that's a good thing.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
BUT EXACTLY HOW MANY CUPS OF TEA? WHAT SIZE? WHAT KIND OF CUPS? WHAT KIND OF TEA? YAK BUTTER, OF COURSE.
When crashing at my front door woke me, it was pitch dark and I was sandbagged into place. A big furry cat against each side reacted to the sound of my eyelids opening (I don’t know how they hear this -- the crash didn’t wake them up) by beginning to purr like buzzsaws. Then I realized that the crashing was only the newspaper arriving. I thought about what I had assigned myself this morning. Could I make sense of what seemed to be a . . . well, the first problem was what to call it. Robin on Here-and-Now, the YPR radio program, called it a “kafuffle.” I smelled greed. The kind of greed that loves scandal. Because scandal sells journalism. (Is this a silly and melodramatic paragraph? Yes. On purpose.)
Living on the high prairie east of the Rockies is not easy. People who drive through here in summer (only locals are fool enough to drive in winter) think it is the most boring highway they have ever traversed -- until they come to the mountains. They find mountains spiritual, inspiring, gorgeous, uplifting, uplifted, etc. etc. etc. For a decade or so bi-coastal writers flocked to Montana (well, the mountainous parts anyway) because it meant that everyone would associate themselves with those various mountains and the romantic history and all the wonderful soul-felt emotions and passions and the tiny details about how to survive -- and there might even be INDIANS. A small cadre of mountain climbers collected in Bozeman, where everyone has Olympic Quality Muscles, international connections, and a bag of carabiners -- and that’s the beginning of a book with the unlikely title of “Three Cups of Tea,” which might just as well have been entitled “Tie Your Camel Tight.” Or yak.
Then more recently these Montana folks (except for a few movie stars who had gone native) decided the fields were greener in Oregon. (They were.) And that’s where Mortenson’s co-author David Oliver Relin and former friend Jon Krakauer live. (It's a softer life than Montana.) If you’re an adventure writer in the spirit of “Outside Magazine” or even “Vanity Fair,” you need “platform.” It's part of your creds. Where you live counts. Montana= Africa. Oregon= Switzerland? California? Forget it.
Next you must be large, handsome, and exceptional -- it helps to be a little deranged. And male. And you need a faithful loving wife if you’re beyond a certain age, or people will wonder. Also, people these days require a certain amount of do-goodery, even from the military. Though if one sets out to simply do good, that’s pretty boring.
THE FIRST PARAGRAPH of the introduction to “Three Cups of Tea.” (You have to start in the middle of danger.)
“The little red light had been flashing for five minutes before Bhangoo paid it any attention. ‘The fuel gages [sic] on these old aircraft are notoriously unreliable,’ Brigadier General Bhangoo, one of Pakistan’s most experienced high-altitude helicopter pilots, said, tapping it. I wasn’t sure if that was meant to make me feel better.” What, who, where, no when or why yet. Classic journalism. First person. David Oliver Relin speaking -- NOT Greg Mortenson. The pretense of an exact quote from Bhangoo. Do people really say “notoriously unreliable?”
THE FIRST PARAGRAPH OF THE FIRST CHAPTER of “Three Cups of Tea.”
“In Pakistan’s Karakoran, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s oldest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high-altitude wilderness. Other than snow leopard and ibex, so few living creatures have passed through this barren icescape that the presence of the world’s second highest mountain, K2, was little more than a rumor to the outside world until the turn of the twentieth century.”
So a little history, geology, biology all in two fine complex sentences. I don’t know whether I would have let myself say “witnessless” instead of “unwitnessed,” maybe because it suggests witlessness. But I do write like this. “The world’s oldest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty.” Very poetic. The third paragraph introduces “when” (September 2, 1993) and “who” (Greg Mortenson -- in the third person). Eighteen years pass before he becomes publicly controversial.
I’ve been reading this kind of stuff all my life. Not yet in high school I was reading Richard Halliburton’s, “The Royal Road to Romance.” My father shepherded us all to every National Geographic lecture. I feel sure we heard Edmund Hilary speak. My father was a Mazama who had climbed Hood, St. Helens, Rainier, Adams, Baker, and Three-fingered Jack. In high school I discovered H. Rider Haggard in the library stacks. A minister had me reading Ernie Gann’s flying adventures. In seminary I read Alexandra David-Neal who was in Tibet on a pony, wearing Victorian skirts and complaining about having to use her pony whip to break up fights among her porters. In Browning I knew people who . . . Well, why do you think I thought coming to Browning was a fine idea in the first place? Don’t you think it had something to do with the Rockies being so close? Isabella Bird, who shows up in the “Cups of Tea” book, was also here in Glacier Park.
As adventure stories go, “Three Cups of Tea” is okay. I prefer Peter Matthiessen, of course, and lately Langewiesche has caught my eye. Both are pretty careful about accuracy, but there’s something credulous and uncomprehending about people who resist flights of fancy and poesy. These are romances! These are campfire stories! The objectors are the people who are angry that James Willard Schultz made up stuff. Well, then, don’t read it. I do think the publishers who tout adventure writing as factual have their tongues in their cheeks.
The rest of this scandal is quite different. The "real" story may be about what happens to a well-meaning person who succeeds beyond expectations, beyond the capacity to assimilate and manage the good fortune. Tales abound about those who win big jackpots and how they end up broke, drunk and homeless. Mortenson isn’t in that much trouble. He was tipped off (possibly even by Krakauer) last January and hired a lawyer to do some sorting and accounting. But the words “a million dollars” are more scary than, well, a gas tank indicator on empty. Political antennae go up everywhere.
The American Institute of Philanthropy, which monitors NGO’s and foundations, gave the Central Asia Institute a guarded evaluation, but didn’t condemn them outright. Even the amounts of money don’t approach the amounts funneled into some animal welfare organizations, which are often major rackets. Montana’s attorney general is launching a probe. What did you think he would do? He probes all sorts of things -- not necessarily places that would identify, um, bad things happening where the sun don’t shine. As for the ineptitude of the location, design and equipping of the schools -- hey, was the BIA involved?