Friday, December 19, 2014


In the last years of the Seventies I was a constant reader of “Outside” magazine which I often bought at Rich’s Cigar Store in Portland.  I liked to buy magazines at cigar stores because the customers were usually men (I like men) and I like the smell of tobacco, which is often kept in Blackfeet ceremonial bundles to kill bugs.  I hate gender assignment and I hate cultural assumptions without first-hand experience, so it’s a two-in-one incentive.

I never found a cigar store in Hyde Park where I was during ’78-’82, and anyway I was busy learning a different community of thought and adventure.  By that time some of my fav writers (Quammen and Cahill) were writing books.  So were Krakauer, Junger and Proulx, but they didn’t appeal so much.  Three of these guys (Quammen, Cahill, and Krakauer) live in Montana and though I’ve never participated in their wild worlds (I don’t climb mountains or run rivers), I knew people who knew them, so they were real. In the Eighties when I sometimes breakfasted in Bozeman and went to writers’ events in Missoula, I  read “Outside” again.

But then the magazine began to commodify and I wandered off.  It went Santa Fe, picking up too much similarity to the slick Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel.   “Lifestyles,” meant to sell stuff. Pretty soon the hunger for sensation was prompting political witchhunts at the expense of other writers, esp. the adventurers.  This one never climbed that mountain, the other one wasn’t really with that tribe.  I despise righteous scandal-mongering and the courts weren’t impressed either.

But I still remember the earlier happiness of reading Quammen’s explanations of why geese shit so much and why the gorgeous red hook-jawed salmon struggle all the way up to the headwaters of mountain streams and then die on the gravel beds where they’ve just had out-of-body sex.  I remember the glee of Cahill’s riffs undercutting grandiosity.  I did not think about them being almost my age -- well, younger enough to be baby boomers and by now maybe a little too old to be daredevils.  “National Geographic” is not like “Outside.”  It’s not even like “National Geographic” once was.

These days I’m still reading magazines, though I gave up on ladies’ magazines long ago   (maybe when they began using teen-aged models) and don’t quite have a rarified or political enough attitude to read Atlantic or Harpers, which my high school teacher assured us were “quality.”  A friend sent me a subscription to Vanity Fair (I have friends in show biz since my basic degree was in theatre) and when it ran out, I resubbed if only to follow William Langewiesche.  If I hadn’t been an anti-snob, I could have been reading him in the Atlantic.  His books, in used paperback form, are available for a penny each.  He’s a little younger (b. ’55) but still a baby boomer, barely.

I resent that magazines and the writers they support must pitch to the money sources, but I do understand that writers are created by their interaction with their readers IF the editors would get out of the way.  It is the editors who go for the money and change the reporting of facts in order to chase profit.  But they are invisible to most readers.  They have probably done the most damage among Native American writers, imposing their jejune notions on the real indigenous writers to feed white-man fantasies and pity.  Even Langewiesche has been criticized for being a little too cozy with his subjects.   There is never any indictment of the editors who control a writer’s income stream.

My interest in adventure/natural science writing goes back to childhood when I listened for the mailman so I could beat everyone else to my favorite mags, indeed including “National Geographic.”  My father, growing up on the South Dakota and Manitoba prairies, had a stash of books like Richard Halliburton’s “Royal Road to Romance,” which I absorbed.  In fact, still own.  

My practice since undergrad years has been to read the books read by men I admired. (Never women for some reason -- could it be possible that they didn’t read?  Or is it that they mostly read genre fiction?)  I tried to follow Alan Deale, my Unitarian minister, through the books of Ellul and Hans Kung without much success since they were pretty heavyduty theology, but I really enjoyed his enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Ernie Gann, all about airplanes which may have prepared me for Langwiesche.  (Remember that movie, “The High and the Mighty”?  It was Gann’s book first.  I went around whistling the theme for months.)

(the Dmitri Tiomkin theme)

If a writer escapes editors and publishing, is their writing more honest, more worthy?  No one will ever know since there’s no other access.  Until NOW when one can put it on the internet one way or another.  The only trouble is that there’s no money in that.  I’m subsidized by Social Security.  The other problem is what they call "discovery," which means how does one find the really good writing -- not just the pop stuff.

Part of the answer (not the money part) is to go to the internet and to work cross-media, since the internet will support sound and image, but even the ebook providers are gradually realizing that they are “publishing” and that they can control what is posted as well as what is accessed for research.   He who owns the infrastructure owns what travels there. They use the same commodification principles as paper books in bindings, which means rewarding sensation and sequestering what is stigmatized (like porn or bomb recipes) so they can -- erm -- jack up the prices.  NOT so they can suppress it.  You can have anything you want if you pay for it -- that’s a principle of life.  Once you find it.

I’m not a Proulx who can breeze in, ferment a lot of observation and newspaper research into stories, and breeze on to the next region.  To go beneath the surface in windswept exposed places like this one where I live is to risk oneself in two ways.  One is the obvious: things are secret for good reasons and revealing them is not always good policy. 

The second comes to me roundabout through the Algerian and French philosophers I could not grasp in the seminary years -- and neither could very many other people.  It is more than one’s psychology, the sort of thing one would discover with a good psychoanalyst.  It is a kind of mind-prairie-cosmos full of hallucinations.  The familiar horizons, the hissing grass, the moving horse between your legs are phenomena of the mind in a way that adventures in strange places can never be, because you THINK you know the familiar and nearly go mad if you find out that you’ve had it all wrong.  Of course, sometimes you think your mind is open to adventure as well, but too often the new is only seen in terms of what was already known.  The constellations of the mind are as arbitrary as the constellations of the sky, but once learned they are hard NOT to see.


They say that Tim Cahill actually drowned in his recent accident and I am deeply grateful he came back to life.  He said there were no beckoning figures, no bright lights -- all that.  But before he drowned he was dragged through a cataract underwater and he said it was very beautiful, all circles and ovals.  I thought of handwriting, another endangered art.  Maybe he will tell us more.  A true adventure.  He vas dere, Chollie.  Da bear et 'im.

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