This morning at 0500 it was 22°, an utter blackout, and snowing. When I turned on the porch light to let the dogs out the sudden warp-speed effect of the snowflakes, like galaxies streaking by, was momentarily dizzying. Maybe I was still asleep, a kind of aging and somnambulant palace guard praying for sunrise. I stood on the edge of the porch letting powdery flakes land on my eyelashes while the dogs trudged out into the milky darkness, their noses making little trails in the fresh snow. I was keenly aware of the forest just then, the quiet presence of the trees, and had the sudden and distinct feeling of being watched. After many hundreds of hours on surveillance, from Los Angeles to Visalia, that sense remains a particularly well-tuned instrument: getting made in the wrong neighborhood can be fatal.
At any rate, we finally got a decent winter storm, which is a cause for celebration. Far south of us there is 17’ of snow on Donner Pass, which is some kind of record. Scientists warn it won’t be enough to stave off drought and to fill the reservoirs, but these days scientists cry doom when they can’t find their socks. Also, there is such a thing as diminishing returns and they let an awful lot of water just run to the ocean in order to save schools of bait-fish in the Sacramento Delta. Saving the bait-fish is important mostly because it eases the general public’s concern over taking three showers a day, filling their swimming pools, and building another four square miles of “affordable” housing where drug dealers can park an Escalade in the driveway and sublet the rooms in their city-subsidized apartment. That’s illegal but nobody cares and it’s also standard practice. Equity is equity, so just put your mask back on, get your little ass boosted, and wash your hands, comrade.
And the little fish swim on.
Of course I am aware that nothing I say or do is going to have any effect on a single policy anywhere, so I’m reduced to lighting candles on my desk for the pleasant atmosphere while grunting long passages from Harrison’s A Really Big Lunch like spiritual incantations. And also I’ve read recently about far too many “settled science” types like Herr Fauci, who either claim there is no room for debate in their version of science or, like Fauci himself, simply declare: “I am science.” That isn’t out of context–his public record of preening for attention is quite clear and he meant it. Dictatorial types usually resort to that sort of ubiquitous declaration when feeling testy or desperate. I once arrested a man who declared, while pissing all over the outdoor seating at a nicer downtown restaurant: “I am the Great Watash!” He was angry about his bill, drunk, and it’s possible I gave him a “screen test” on the way to jail to shut him up.
Fauci isn’t science, of course, and the whole point of the scientific method is to encourage debate around a hypothesis, but we live in stranger times–when former Playboy Bunnies bitch-slap 80 year old men on airplanes, many Americans think Fidel Castro was a very nice man, and the President has dementia before he gets in office.
I keep scouring the earth for adult news but it is harder to find than ever, and I do like to keep my finger on the pulse. These days I tend to bunker for longer and longer periods. Yesterday I drove into town just to people-watch and to buy two heads of romaine lettuce to satisfy a sudden craving for a Caesar’s salad. Ray’s market is now routinely under-stocked, and the shelves are starting to take on a kind of Soviet pathos. I stumbled around the sad wreckage and noted that a pound of lunchmeat now costs $14.00. Fortunately, I have plenty of meat, and anyway I wouldn’t pay that much for a ticket to see Moses. Also, they no longer have a human at the checkout stand. One must elbow into a kiosk full of “quick check-out” computers where the computer routinely pouts and demands to know if you brought your own fucking bags. If you didn’t bring your own bags you get to stand there chastened, while the line of puffy jackets and manbuns from Portland—in town to drive like idiots and to ski fresh powder–stacks up to the meat counter in the back. You stand there in a crowd of ear-buds and a reeking cloud of patchouli until a three-hundred pound woman with four diapers on her head can manage to waddle over to punch the computer in the face. It’s a kind of trailer-park pit bull scenario where the out-of-control dog only listens to the woman who feeds it.
Dignity is not on the longer list of corporate concerns, regardless of the television commercials where they daub puffins covered by oil with paper towels, or offer condolences to Uighurs having their organs harvested by the Chinese Communist Party. That’s a real thing, but the Olympics are coming, and there are other priorities. Back in ’36 we sent a team to Munich and the Nazis already had their camps up and running. The first camps apparently sprung up in ’33—Nohra, Dachau, Oranienburg etc.–and were stocked in those early days with Social Democrats who thought Nazis were assholes. They were right, of course, but the games went on and the US medaled in a lot of events.
Many people, worn down with battle fatigue from the incessant artillery poundings of modern life, have decided to self-impose blackouts. They won’t watch the news (or pretend they don’t) and have gone internal. Blackouts are good when you don’t want to get bombed, but I’m in the trenches like everybody else and if I want to light a cigarette I’m going to light it. That’s late stage trench-madness and severely pisses off the Company Commander, but he spends most days in his dugout with the rats and a broken whistle writing bad poems to his ugly wife. If I’m going over the top I’m going to fire up a hand-rolled smoke before being turned into hamburger at the bottom of a crater by the rolling barrages from Rocketship Billionaires, Fox News, or the Omicron Variant.
I still admire the Wall Street Journal, which manages actual reporting and an editorial board that will sock a douchebag of any political stripe. They seem to care about America without accusing it sans evidence of being the worst nation on earth, which it isn’t. In the past I took The Economist but they remain suspiciously undecided on a new idea now taking root in Britain, which is to ban private ownership of vehicles. That’s a problem for people like me who enjoy mobility and that quaint notion of consumer choice. California probably loves the idea even as their bullet train has become a kind of artificial reef for graffiti artists working in the weeds and homeless camps around Modesto. Nobody is really sure where all of that money went, nobody seems to be asking, and the Golden State’s millions of delinquent taggers are just happy to have another canvas. Either way, a mileage tax is coming soon to a Franchise Tax Board near you.
I was wondering yesterday, while I worked on a large diorama I’m building which depicts Varus’ disaster in the Teutoburg Forest, what I would tell a young person should I happen to live to a reasonably old age. What would I say should they ask the most obvious question: How have things changed? It’s difficult to project that far forward, but recent trends suggest those changes will have a lot to do with the catastrophic loss of basic manners and the ability to converse in person. Another big one is likely to be the addiction to devices, and the subsequent loss of some critical abilities—first among them stillness and a profound comfort with the quiet. I read once, and can’t find the source (but I think it was in Ferol Egan’s classic Sand in a Whirlwind), that a Paiute man could walk upright across the desert and remain virtually invisible. That’s an incredible feat, and believable, but it was his ease with stillness and the utter quiet that made the medicine work. The trend I’m observing is that many people can no longer tolerate stillness or quiet, and must fill it with something. Some go straight into incessant talking. For others the cellphone has become a great pacifier, like the little button you push in a hospital bed to get a dose of painkiller.
Yuval Noah Harari writes extensively on the melding of humans and machines in the endless human quest for ever-lasting life, and I’d recommend reading his books. All of them. Urgently.
Which brings me round to something I saw yesterday. I was brewing a kettle of tea—standing in our dining room window and staring out at the trees and the snow while the water heated up–when suddenly I saw a great cascade of snow falling from high in a ponderosa. I kept watching as the snow cloud grew and then saw a dark shape within it, descending in a free fall, until the shape exploded out of the growing avalanche about three feet above the ground. It was a hawk, a big and beautiful red-tailed hawk, and it winged out of the snowcloud with a squirrel in its talons. It banked hard and then went flying–nap of the earth–through the trees and away into the snowy forest.
I was on the wrong side of the glass. The world was all out there in the cold and quiet of a snowbound forest. But it remains one of the better things I have ever seen, and gratitude for that moment is not the right word. The right word falls somewhere between awe, and hypnotism, and pure love, but we don’t have that word in our language. Though I pray, hard and often, that we are still evolving toward it.