One benefit of this Covid Spring is that we all get the chance to reexamine our priorities, which can become wildly skewed during lengthy periods of prosperity. We’ve been prosperous for a very long time, most of us essentially unscathed by our various wars and rumors of wars, and on the macro level we may have forgotten that our extraordinary wealth is historically unusual, requires vigilance and constant maintenance, and is also an addiction. We have a lot of addictions in this country and the comfort derived from immense prosperity is one of them. If you have ever observed a sofa full of people watching television you know they look exactly like a park bench full of heroin addicts.
Which every television executive, and Jeff Bezos, understands instinctively.
The First Marine Division, in Iraq, had a saying taped to the wall in a battalion operations center. It said, “The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.” I’ve often wondered if Roman soldiers marching through the dusty zephyrs of Spain or grinding through the mud of Germania fought on with the same sentiment in their hearts. The Legion is at War. Rome is at the games. Was the average Roman even aware of the fighting in Spain or Carthage or Londinium? Or was he too busy ducking buckets of sewage thrown down from above and chasing down his daily bread?
I don’t have those answers but I do have Melville in the tack room which is a great place to read and work because it smells like oil and leather and horses. I leave the door open because I can see across the alley to the stalls where the mare is at work on her feed. On the radio, which sits on the window ledge, two guys from Bend, Oregon, are arguing about which stocks people should buy in the middle of a seesawing economic shitshow. They are giddy that the Oracle of Omaha has announced his continuing belief in American Exceptionalism and economic miracles.
I keep them on but only low enough to enchant the mice.
One unexpected result of not drinking anymore is that I became almost instantly a better horseman. This is hugely important to me because I have an enduring love for horses that only grows stronger as I get older. A horse is above all a flight animal, sensitive enough to feel a fly land on its ass and there is no better judge of the unstable and potentially hazardous than an intelligent horse. This spring my relationship with Remington has achieved a new level of maturity, new depths of partnership, and I sincerely believe sobriety is a large part of that equation.
I was holding us back.
It is important to own our failings which is a problem we have as a culture and therefore in our leadership at every level. It is impossible to operate effectively within a zero defect model – which our nation has adopted – and even trying is terribly destructive. In that system people find it easier to lie than to admit failure because failure leads to banishment. This fear of Greek banishment leads to stupid behaviors and a corrupted operating system. Out of fear they – and I mean the various caterpillars of our government — have killed the economic motor of this country and are about to discover how difficult it actually is to restart an engine once it is frozen. They’ve been spraying starter fluid into the air intakes but that ain’t going to do it, friends. At the local level businesses that took decades to develop are desperate or already crashing and there isn’t enough stimulus in the world to free up those pistons once they are hard stuck.
The price of beef in Oklahoma went up three dollars a pound yesterday. Cops, long robbed of discretion by uniformly terrible leadership, are being put in impossible situations and enforcing policies instead of the law because who can lose their job on a principle when we are looking at 30% unemployment within months? There has long been a fantasy, nurtured by many, who believed cops in America wouldn’t support gun confiscation or other shit laws.
I wouldn’t bet my ranch on it.
It appears that we have been Pearl Harbored by negligence or stupidity or, in the worst case, on purpose by China. At the very least we have been gutshot. And as Mr. White in the Tarantino film Reservoir Dogs once brilliantly observed: being gut-shot “hurts like hell, but it takes long time to die from it.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos wins again and elsewhere China is the only open economy in the entire world. I was in the feed store yesterday trying to buy mesh feedbags for my horses and not one of them was made in America. They were all made in China. Curious, I did something I haven’t done before which was to look around closely at the rest of the feed store tack. All made in China. I only buy my using-gear from Capriolas in Elko, Nevada, which is handmade in their shop by Americans so I have been marked safe from the invasion of communist horse tack. And because I really do despise the assertive assholery of communist China I’m learning how to make a mesh bag – it’s basically a fishing net – out of the baling twine I save from my horse hay. I never knew why I was saving it, but there it is.
That’s my own War of the Flea and I realize I’m alone in it. But I don’t care because the effort helps me sleep. I watched an hour long documentary the other night, an interview with a 90 year-old survivor of Iwo Jima who had never before spoken of his experiences on the island. The trauma was still clearly evident in his body language but I would take a man like that – in his present condition which was all chewed up and arthritic and stiff, but also dripping with fight and love and esprit de corps — in my fighting hole right now over the careless and terrified and frivolous nihilists that we are mass producing. It was amazing to watch this old gyrene and know that he shared that hell-space both physically and spiritually with my own grandfather — who got in his last fistfight outside of Soper’s Casino in Montgomery Pass, Nevada, when he was almost eighty. There was ice and snow in the back parking lot and they were at 7,000 feet of elevation and he was all cowboy and a combat Marine and so he boxed that rude sonofabitch who challenged him and who finally quit when his nose broke like celery under a hammer.
That’s a true story that obviously makes me both proud and happy.
China holds the note on America which has become crystal clear to anyone paying close attention through this event — and will eventually be undeniable at even the highest levels of government. It’s what they plan to do about it that I’d like to hear, and I suppose I’ll be waiting a very long time.
This morning I turned over an old straw bale and found a smorgasbord of insect life: termites and sow bugs and spiders, but best of all a little clump of earthworms. I find earthworms frequently and always carry them to the garden. Sometimes this means I have to put them in my shirtpocket where it’s true I have occasionally forgotten them until getting undressed in the evening. When that happens I have to run outside in my boxers and slippers with a headlamp and spread-load the little bastards in the dark.
Last week I was cleaning out the galvanized horse troughs which can get mossy when the air warms up. I turned one over to hose it out and found a dozen or more worms surprised at the light and suddenly wriggling in that way worms do which always looks aggrieved and agonized. I put them all in my shirtpocket and later spread them around the garden.
Melville was a true sailor and only a sailor could have produced the miracle of Billy Budd or the equally important but lesser known tales of The Encantadas, where he noted that “the tortoise is both black and bright,” before describing how they bumped into the masts on deck at night and finally how the sailors turned them into soup. And of course it’s important to know that Melville begat Faulkner who begat McCarthy. That is the distinctly American lineage and for years I wanted to be a son of that line. I wrote one terrible novel on a decent premise but it was ultimately derivative and failed to capitalize on what remains a strong metaphor. I was inhabiting McCarthy instead of inhabiting Rullman which is fatal in the creative arts. But I am back at work on that project and striving to be honest which is exactly what will make it a success.
The truth is that I love their work, all of them, but my own falls somewhere closer to a hybrid of Sam Shepard and Wendell Berry — with brushstrokes of others far and wide. None of us works in a vacuum free of influence. Vonnegut was the first writer who really flipped my switch and I once spent hours in the special collections of my university library watching rare video of the master as he chain smoked Pall Malls in his New York apartment and worked at his brilliant but little known pen and ink drawings. Vonnegut said that he tried to tell a joke on every page and would not move on to the next one until the last one was right. He wrote sitting on a huge leather sofa with a typewriter on a coffee table in front of him. A pound or more of cigarette butts were stuffed into an overflowing ashtray next to his Smith-Corona. One of the films ended with him sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons in an overcoat, consumed by the wry and sardonic smile only the author of Jailbird – where we learned that the world is ruled by a bag lady — could carry off with such royal aplomb.
Wendell Berry is still harnessing his teams in Port Royal, Kentucky, but Shepard and Vonnegut darkened the theater when they left the stage.
Speaking of Lord Berry, my wife shooed me unceremoniously out of the house the other day. Later, concerned that she had overdone it and that maybe I was walking around with a grudge, she explained it was because “You were wearing your farmer suit and had your boots on in the house.” This was so funny to me that I laughed heartily and fell in love with her all over again.
My “farmer suit.”
When I was a boy my country bus stop was at the end of our dirt road and across the county road from hundreds of acres of strawberry fields. The owners grew mother plants which were harvested in fall and sold off to be planted in climates where berries actually had a fighting chance to ripen.
In that desert country I could see the school bus coming for miles. When it turned to come down a faraway slope the sun flashed off the windows along its side and in the quiet of those mornings I could hear the bus driver, Mrs. Darden, running through the gears. I would stand in the cant of spring light smelling the wet earth and sage and listening to the sprinklers in the fields and the yip of coyote pups on Bass Hill — and that is where I fell into a deep, intractable love with the song of meadowlarks.
“…I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern, so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it.”
He was right, of course, and perhaps it was the subconscious inhalation of this paragraph that caused me to enlist in the Marine Corps with a graduate degree, or to roam the deserts horseback for six hundred dollars a month, gas, and groceries. I’ve never given a single shit about promoting. I am also truly heartened to see armed Americans in the state house of Michigan demanding their government yield. They taste the winds before the various Commodores – especially in places like Michigan — and an armed man is always a free man and can get the attention he otherwise deserves.
Melville also wrote, while pondering how the “the grand programme of Providence,” would look as it concerned the life of Ishmael:
“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.
“Whaling voyage of one Ishmael.
“BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”
A passage which remains instructive, a proverb, as it were, every time we forget that nothing under our broiling sun is precisely or entirely new.
Out in the strawberry fields of my youth I would see Rigo, who was an old Mexican who ran the irrigation, as he worked at changing water. He changed the water every couple of hours, likely never suspecting how all of that hard irrigation was draining a high desert valley aquifer that took tens of thousands of years to charge. Now, in that valley in late summers when the irrigation has been running hard to grow alfalfa, the well water tastes like sulphur and the taps smell like rotten eggs. The strawberry farms are gone to listing, sandblasted doublewides and chickenwire full of tumbleweeds and Nazi meth-labs hidden in the goat sheds.
Rigo drove an old baby-blue Studebaker and parked it in the fields and often slept in it. You could see him out there, his straw hat pulled down over his eyes, a pile of beer cans below the driver’s door. The car had the number 22 stencilled on the side because the owners of the farm raced cars on the weekends and that was the number of the blue and silver “Strawberry Express” car that ran the race tracks over the hard mountains in Redding, California.
Later, Rigo’s daughters, or they might have been his granddaughters, came from Mexico and rode our school bus and sat perfectly dressed and proper and trapped in an awkward cage of trepidation because the world was suddenly happening to them in a language they did not possess.
And something like that is happening to all of us now, isn’t it?
Johnny Dark was a close friend of Sam Shepard. They were roommates and correspondents for more than forty years and eventually sold the archives of their collected letters to Texas State University, mostly because they were both hurting for cash flow. Shepard took Dark to his office at the Santa Fe Institute where Dark sat on a balcony eating hash brownies and where Shepard was once censored for driving a riding mower drunk through a manicured row of hedges. Dark lives in Deming, New Mexico, where he works at a grocery store counter and isn’t interested in making friends that aren’t his dogs. He calls this his “dog problem” but what endears Dark to me was his idea for an album which I consider genius of a higher order: Jimmy Durante Sings Bob Dylan.
The world deserves that album but like many great ideas it appears we are too late.
Normally, when I put the worms in the garden I dig them a little hole and pile them in and then cover it up. This morning, and I don’t know why, I just set them on the surface and watched. There was a woodpecker out in the forest drilling hard into a ponderosa and dark, warm rainclouds were massing up over the far Cascades. For the longest time the worms just sat there motionless on the surface. And then all at once they began to move and I watched as they wriggled and squirmed, swimming this way and that, until they were finally gone, like a pod of tiny whales gone down into the deeps.