Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
Tonight the plants die. Many of them. Temperatures in the 20’s. The irrigation system will run all night to keep water flowing through the pipe and the main valve near the house here at Seven Oaks, that way water can be available to the trees as late as possible into the season, especially the evergreens which transpire throughout the winter and can become desiccated.
The approaching fall gives an odd shiver; with a trip to tropical Southeast Asia on October 26th, fall will become a memory as summer, eternal summer as those expats who live there dub it, becomes the only season. Thus, fall does not mean, at least for the month away, what it means most years, the imminent approach of cold weather.
Only one bag goes along on this trip, a Tough-Tourister, bought on recommendation from this website: http://www.oratory.com/onebag/list.html This traveler believes in packing light, yet has never accomplished it. Not ever. So, on a month long trip, the bulk of which will be by train, one bag it is.
Joseph has a senior project in astrophysics ready to go. Last year he did his physic’s senior project on x-ray florescence; this year he will work with the geology department to determine the stability of Io’s rock, of which <>40% is fluid. Plate tectonics is the ultimate objective: does Io have it? Nothing else appears to in the solar system.
We talked over lunch at Annie’s Parlor the other day, “God, Io. I can’t believe you’ll be working with Io.”
“I can’t either. It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?”
Yep, pretty cool about describes it. http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA00584
The other experiment he’s running theses days, and Joseph is an experimentalist, good with the machinery of science, is how many heartbreaks he can take before graduating. Growing up is such a bitch.
You know you’re boy’s growing up when he goes to see your analyst, as Joseph will do on Monday at 8:30 AM. Another, hmmm....
The ancient trail takes on another traveler.
Looking back over sermons in the barrel, as clergy refer to their files of sermons past. There are many sermons there on two topics: Celtic religion & paganism, and the nature of liberal religion.
These two topics continue to occupy a lot of reading and meditating. At Groveland UU on October 17th the topic is The Way of the Religious Liberal, and on October 24th, Celtic Religion.
In another round of analysis, this is year 21 and no easy fix yet in sight, a question from John, “Well, what is your core then? How do you see it?”
An answer sprang to mind, “I’m a humanist, not a religious humanist, but a man of letters. A thinker. I consider issues of religion, faith, philosophy, politics, art, and culture. I see myself in the tradition of Erasmus, the philosophe’s, English essayists like Lamb and Isaiah Berlin.
That’s the core.
The rest of it: the writing, the politics, the ministry, even the garden and travel all come from this humanist core.
You know, John, I went to Wabash College that first year; they told me what a liberal arts education meant and I bought it. And I’ve never given up on it since.”
It was a substantive relief to have this said. There is direct continuity with an early self-awareness as poet, scholar, and monk—these are three facets of a Renaissance humanist and their later era fellow travelers.
This places the sermons in the barrel in their personal context.
After a serial breakfast at Country Kitchen the Woollies pulled up stakes and went to the Western Heritage Center. We happened on the Executive Director, dressed in Western shirt, blue jeans with a silver studded belt and boots. She greeted us warmly and took us on a tour of the museum.
The museum’s exhibits showed innovation, the excellent taxidermy evidenced on the four longhorn steers in the corral, the 14th on the Crockett list mountain lion mounted mid-leap, and several other animals distributed throughout the museum,
Gotta interject here. Joseph’s behavior has taken another ugly turn; he calls his now ex-girlfriend with obsessive regularity; she experiences it as stalking (which it may well be.), and pushes him away with what he describes as “cold” comments. Then, he feels as if this is the worst experience ever and he wants to die to not experience the pain. So, because of our contract with him about not hurting himself, he calls me. And this loop goes round more than once.
This vicarious pain is difficult for any parent and its jolt never stops, no matter what the age.
regional focus, the view over Lookout Mountain framed three states: South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, and variety with early 19th century maps, furniture made from antlers and cowhide with animals carved in bone, 1,100 kinds of barbwire, all contenders for the patent, a section on cowboys, and one on indians which included a next day report on the Battle at Little Bighorn, and, a Charles Harsgen painting counted among the missing by the Middle Border and Oscar Howe Museum.
Cowboy Ron recounted his experience in the whiteout (remember Saganaga). He realized his horse was lost and he relied on the horse for direction, as we did on those little huskies, “There’s no feeling like realizing your horse is lost.” Could you imagine one of us left behind by the others and the dogs confused, directionless?
Then, the snow cleared and the horse saw the power transmission towers, and “then, I knew he knew where we were.” The horse followed the transmission lines to a gate in the fence.
His wife told us he’d “broken his back three times and his neck twice. It’s a wonder he’s alive.”
Walter Terreau, the last of his family, pointed with pride to his story recounted on a museum exhibit, it ended like this: “Who’d ‘ve believed it would turn out this way?” Walter Terreau, the last of the line.
We saddled up and rode our vehicle into Sturgis, past the international sheep dog trials, past two bars claiming to be the largest biker bars in the world (only in Sturgis does this claim even begin to make modest sense.), and stopped at...Subway.
Then, on to Bear Butte. At Bear Butte we separated the sheep from the goats: the sheep—Warren, Tom, Scott, and Jimmy hiked all the way to the top, the rest of us went as far as legs, lungs, and willingness would take us. Jimmy discarded his shirt, shook out his hair and went up looking like a mountain man on holiday. The rest of us looked more like Austrians out for a stroll in the Tyrolean hills.
Bear Butte sits on an open plain, an upthrust chunk of rock, discovered as sacred by the Lakota and made more sacred by their spring vision quests. Flags in the color of the four directions hang from trees, many now dead, the result of a forest fire. In addition to these red, yellow, blue, and white strips of cloth in checked patterns, stripes, and purple hung there, too. Cicada buzzed, whirred, hovered, moved.
The sun bore down, hot for a September day. It was easy to pause, sit on rocks (checked for sunning rattle snakes) and take in the view.
Bear Butte, like the rest of Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, are pieces of the underworld thrust up from their resting place deep below ground, slow missiles, massive retaliation crustal style. When we climb a mountain, we go high on the backs of the earth’s nether regions exposed to light and made tall. No wonder they often exude holiness, for they are both the inner and downward journey and the outward and upward journey of mother earth.
Why doesn’t South Dakota just give Bear Butte to the Lakota people? It seems a small thing to do with a big rationale and a large dividend in good feeling. Not to mention simple justice.
Intermission: the Woollies at Black Forest. A good turnout—Warren, Cyberbill, Tom, Mark, Stefan, Frank, and Scott. Rumors of Jimmy in town surfaced, his step-mom had a stroke, but he didn’t show.
Tom distributed discs of pictures from the Mammoth adventure. Odie contemplating the Badlands. The Woollies pointing to the beyond. The gang at the Suncruiser door.
Stefan reported on his brother Scott’s recovery. Because of the Woolly trip already scheduled, Stefan, who chose to remain behind, had time to spend with his brother, time to reconnect. A blessing hidden in a curse.
Sarah, one of 4, was our waitress. Not Sarah of the pink shoe-laces and black patent leather shoes, however. Still, a good waitress.
Frank brought a skull for Charlie E. He remembered this from a conversation in Chambers, South Dakota or somewhere out there in the West.
“Ah, a memento morii. When I look at it, I’ll think of you, Frank.”
Frank sails off on Wednesday to Ireland; Paul is either in or enroute to South Africa. His disappearing itinerary trick leaves his exact location in doubt.
The real estate team of O & O sold a house! And have a looker (twice) at a million dollar house. Tom suggested he take $995,000.
We settled up with Tom for $320 each, for Frank and Charlie that covered transportation and lodging. Not bad.
Charlie had schnitzel a la Holstein (Weiner with an egger on it.), but was unable to discover why this dish had a French preposition. Sarah didn’t know.
Mark suggested the trip had more juice than the annual retreat, more action. He saw the retreat, as practiced in recent years, as more sedentary. How could he say such a thing? Because it’s true?
When he suggested the South Dakota trip, Mark offered it as an alternative to the annual retreat. Others said no. Still, the idea hangs there.
Somewhere there is evidence that males bond best when engaged in a task. Where was that?
Anyhow, I’m inclined toward Mark’s position; that is, I would favor a trip or drastically different retreat concept for this next couple of years...just to see if it shakes things up, gives us a different avenue into deepening our relationships.
Here’s another option: instead of up north we go to Chicago and rent hotel rooms for a weekend; or, we go to Glacier park by train, stay one night and come back—hold our retreat on the train. Or. Or. Or.
Finished the first draft of the Way of a Liberal’s Faith. Writers are notoriously bad at picking their own best work, but this does represent the distillation of a lot of different kinds of thinking I have engaged over the years. It is a step in the direction of a work I have in mind on redefining liberalism for our era, in politics and religion and economics.
It occurs to me that it is perhaps past time for me to make declarative statements about things I have learned. I have, for years, bided my time, waiting for I don’t know what to happen, some lightning insight, or an event that would signal my intellectual maturity. A way, I think, of keeping myself hidden, protected, safe. Caution has taken the place of sensible acceptance of what I have learned—limits and all.
All thinkers (athletes, artists, physicians, journalists, counselors, even engineers) have limits, blind spots, inadequacies in their approach, knowledge, perspective. It is not a reason to back away from the responsibility to say what you think.
He tells himself.
Anyhow, I’m including a copy of the Way of a Liberal’s Faith and I would appreciate any feedback you might have.
Then, the road and the Badlands. By this time it was safe to say the travelers had developed a groove, pilgrims who traveled well together, sharing food from their wallets and drinks from wineskins—or Dr. Pepper can. This was when the trip felt it had turned round, headed home, though, from a pilgrimage perspective, we had been on our way home since leaving the Hot Springs Mammoth site.
Yet now we had turned east, back toward the rising sun, leaving the sun on its route toward California, Hawaii, and Japan.
We hit the Badlands near sunset.
This land, bare earth scraped clean by clear water, has valleys and bands. It has vistas over moonscapes and prairie with pronghorn antelope and mule deer. A basin with several small plateaus of green seemed made from the Fantasy Golf Hole prints available in lesser pro shops throughout the land.
It was a muted symphony in russets, tans, pinks, yellows, and green with, as the evening grew deeper, blue growing dark, and, the Hunter’s Moon rising.
After the Badlands we drove into the night, darkness giving our trip the feel of a late band outing, coming home after the big game. We drove, instead, to the Missouri river town of Chamberlain, found another parking lot and Frank and Charlie set up house again, while the others went inside.
Conversations along the way flowed, ebbed, returned. We moved into each others lives in new ways: Tom’s years at NOAA, Jimmy’s love and respect for horses, Warren’s seven-week long trip to Eastern Europe, Frank’s family, Bill’s interest in a Warheads to Fuel program in Paducah, Kentucky, Scott’s .$25 for good news (gospel), Paul’s trip to South Africa. Plus the give and take, the decisions made, changed, altered, accepted and rejected.
Years of presidential decision making created an atmosphere in which we all made decisions and any one of us could countermand them. Not many missiles would have gotten launched by this group. Hmmm... Perhaps we should suggest the board of presidents to people seeking to reform the constitution?
After a night in yet another asphalt jungle the wild ones mounted up for the long ride to the pipestone quarries. But first a stop at the Missouri River overlook.
A museum about Lewis and Clark had an interesting set of objects shown in an innovative setting, e.g. the prow of a Lewis and Clark river boat pierced the curtain wall, allowing the visitor to stand there, looking out over the Missouri enjoying the same perch Lewis and Clark would have enjoyed if their boat had somewhat gotten stuck in a fifty foot high wall of concrete and glass. In addition, a brochure was available for those wanting to follow golf courses along the Lewis and Clark trail.
All kidding aside the view was wonderful and the exhibitions informative.
Also, the weather over the Missouri mirrored the broad division of the northern into the arid west and the humid east. Back the way we way had come, toward the west the sky was clear and the day bright, but east, in the direction we headed the sky was overcast, a canopy of gravid clouds overhead. Most interesting of all, the front divided in line with the wide Missouri which still looks “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”
Mitchell came next, and on 90 a sign, “Ears to You” seducing the unwary traveler to another visit at the A-Mazing Corn Palace. We ate breakfast, met Elizabeth Rose, a bright start to the morning (sorry, other guest, who came around the divider to ask, “Would you stop monopolizing her at least until she takes our order?”) Then we dropped Jim off at the Oscar Howe museum, gave him a Woolly hug, and got on the road for Pipestone.
At Pipestone we wandered among the quarries, followed the trail, and some of us talked with a Dakota man working the stone. At least one story told about the pipestone was that it was the blood of the Great Spirit, poured out on mother earth, and collected in this spot for the peaceful use of all peoples native to Turtle Island.
Compare this site and the quarries here, worked by hand for generations, piles of chipped rocks mounded up above the deepening hole to the 80-foot silos, also on the plains and also dug deep into mother earth, filled with the whiteman’s ultimate war club.
Between Delta-9 and the quarry of, say, Amos Owen, there is more than a cultural gap, in this case there is an abyss; yet, ironically, native people show up in greater numbers per capita in the armed forces than any other segment of the US population.
And, then, New Ulm, the Kaiserhof, not the best meal of the journey, but not the worst (or, was it?) and the unfortunate news that Herman the German lay on his side getting treated for corruption and decay. The exact nature of which determined by Crane Engineering, who also provided suggestions for its remedy. Now, if they could take on Chicago politics and the current Administration...at least the corruption and decay aspects.
At last, the home parking lot. Frank and I could have stayed the night I suppose, but we were all ready to get home. Hugs, a pair of boots or two left behind and the Mammoth Adventure had ended, at least the direct experience. Yet, it will live on in memory and story, and for some time anyhow, on this website.
When you go to places your hometown defenses haven’t got covered, you need medicine. In the case of Southeast Asia vaccines for Hepatitis A & B, Typhoid, and Tetanus; take along meds for critters like malaria, turista (difficult to spell in Thai), and infection. Plus, of course, the meds you otherwise take if any. Say, for example, Zoloft, three kinds of blood pressure meds, and the occasional aching joint remedy like Alleve. The flu shot, too. Whoa. Plus sundries for such things as diarrhea, sunburn, and larger bugs like mosquitoes.
Clothes, too. But not too many. Two pair of pants, two shirts, socks, underwear, hiking boots, sandals, bandanas, hat. Then, money in various forms: government issue, plastic, protected paper, home check. Security stuff to protect the absolute necessaries like the money, passport, and tickets.
Cameras, guidebooks, and, in this case, plenty of blank notebooks and drawing implements. Laundry stuff.
Next trick. Stick it all in one bag. “Checked baggage is lost baggage.” mantra of the one-bag monk mentioned above.
Board plane. Suffer for 24 hours. (double the suffering if flying, say, Northworst.) Try to manage the body’s transition from not only its familiar flora and fauna (internal), but its familiar relationship with the whirling planet and attendant hours of light and dark.
Mix well, put in the oven. Take out when confused and disoriented. Now try to navigate a foreign country in that condition. Hmmm... Let’s see. This is voluntary, right?
Both Bill Holm and Emerson play through the ether right now. Holm’s latest book is The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth. He’s a role model, an intellectual who never left home, who dug into the prairie and found there a world, a universe. Emerson, too. He said, in effect, wherever you go there you are. He said this when commenting on American tourists proclivity of going to Europe to find aesthetic experience, especially to Italy. He reminded tourists of the American Renaissance that they took their ideals and expectations about beauty with them: the eye can see beauty anywhere on earth.
So, you might ask, why travel at all, except to your heart of darkness, or the inner places where lie beauty and the sacred?
Of course, you can argue from the above a genuine and important human truth: we are sufficient unto ourselves. Or, said, another way, We live alone and die alone.
Yet. Who knows what the Thai, say, might have learned about beauty? About faith? About acceptance? About joy? Well, the Thai of course. If one wanted to catch a little bit of what the Thai have to teach, where to best to learn it except in their native habitat.
This is the argument of cultural relativism in its home context, taken out of the vast and often silly debates and counter debates on multi-culturalism, and seen in its National Geographic, naked breasts around the campfire reality.
No matter how strident the conservative voice the fact is other culturals have learned things we have not. Buddhism. How to work the hard jade. The Tao of the Tao. Climbing in the Himalayas. Navigating the oceans by way of ocean current and star light. You know, and even Ann Coulter knows, this is a simple truth.
It is a simple fact, but a complex truth. Simple because it just is. Complex because it challenges the givenness of so much we take as the way things are. The heart can be filled anywhere on earth, yes, absolutely, and thank mother earth for that, but to discover the way other spots on earth fill the heart we have to take our bodies there, at least for some things.
And here’s the kicker. We never know what those things are until we get there. So the thrust of Emerson and Holm is true, but insufficient to guide us. Yes, we take our ideals of beauty and our willingness to commit to a place as home wherever we go; but wherever we go and other humans, much like us, yet with ideals of beauty and commitment to place, among many other things, so different from our own.
I saw a house on fire tonight. A clay house. It sat near the Barbara Barker Center for the Arts in a now vacant lot, occupied, if memory serves, by Trinity Lutheran Church. This was on the West Bank, where I spent 6 intense years, working, in a sense, as if the house in which I labored was on fire, and only by diligent, ornery, persistent action could we turn the fire into resolution and the resolution into concrete actions.
This clay house, when I approached, stood wrapped in chicken wire and asbestos cloth, the asbestos cloth radiant orange, flame licking out from underneath, hungry for air. A woman stoked the fire with kindling and sparks would shoot up; the gathered crowd of college age kids stood entranced, as bonfires do, as any attempt to contain the wild thing fire is, does. The house I knew was under the cloth, but it was invisible, the cloth enclosed it like the elaborate cloth headpieces of Voudoun priestesses.
In Voodoo ceremonies the spirits of the God or Goddess come down and ride a human host, incarnation for an evening, divination sometimes possible. Tonight the spirit’s heat filled a nine-foot house, small windows ablaze, the whole clay structure, once revealed, ebbed and flowed, now darker, now brighter shades of orange; the fire consumed the clay, yet the clay did not yield. It held it’s ground; it’s purpose remained even under the intensity of this Goddesses fiery breath.
As the men and women with long wooden poles and visors pulled over faces, asbestos gloves clumsy on their hands, prodded the cloth loose, they showed the Goddess Pele in her glory, her incandescence shaping earth into solid object here in the heartland of North America with as sure a touch as on the pali near Pu’u O’o at Kilauea. http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/kilauea/update/main.html
I have visited her home at Haleamaumau, seen the gifts offered to her there on ti-leaves. I have heard the songs and legends about her, songs and legends of those who know her as earth-maker, mountain builder; those who know her as they know their own grandmothers.
This crowd, formed in circle around the firing clay, now know Pele; they have seen into her heart and know now the power of her blood.
It is possible, I learned tonight, again, to become a tourist in your own land; to see the world seen so differently that it transforms, renews, dances in flames into your heart. Even in a familiar place can the heart be filled.
Joseph called, just after I got back from watching Pele dance.
He had talked to Bridgit while the house burned beneath the asbestos cloth, wrapped in chicken wire.
She had always had feelings for her old boyfriend she said; but, she doesn’t hate Joseph. This made him feel better.
He seemed resigned, “I guess I’ll just have to look at it as a fun summer.” Better.
God, I’m glad I’m not in my twenties anymore.
Got my flu shot on Monday along with my Hepatitis A final shot. This was the day before Chiron (I always think Charon—not a good association for a health care company.) got hammered by the British health authority. I feel like I won a tiny lottery prize in a lottery I didn’t know I’d entered.
Today, I’m going to edit The Way of a Liberal’s Faith and attach it here, then go outside and cut down the hemerocallis and other perennials. This is my bid against disease in the garden, a strategy I’ve not applied as thoroughly before, but this year...well, I want to see if I can keep this year’s quality.
The purple garden rippled out from its origins as an idea for Kate’s birthday. It became a garden and therefore soil renovation project, a rearrange and transplant project, a shade garden project, a new perennials like tulips and campanula and iris cristata project, a lily project.
It also became a test and confirmation of years of learning about horticulture. I used the double fork method to divide perennial root clumps. The U of M soil tests told Kate and me what amendments and fertilizers to use; Kate did the math and I lugged the fertilizer. Catalogues. Sales at nurseries. Rototilling.
Collecting bubiles, rhizomes, bulblettes, bulbs, seeds, corms. Digging in tender perennials and digging them out in the fall. Learning the right sun/shade mix for old and new plants. Putting down Preen and fertilizer at the right times.
Covering the plants before frosts. Uncovering them in the spring.
And, every once in a while, taking a seat on the brick patio along with a cup of coffee. To admire the view.
These last few days are the gold in living here where the seasons change, one moves out and the other comes in, but between them we have autumn, and cool October days where the sun shines, the leaves are russet, the grass tan, a few brave flowers remain to add color to the landscape, and, on occasion, gray clouds push across the sky, reminders of the one’s laden with snow and not far off.
Last night at the Art Institute I heard a presentation by a young American-Hmong poet on his return to Laos after 30 years. He can’t be more than 35. He showed slides (or, rather, moved through digitial images) of his trip, including the mysterious plain of jars filled with thousands of human high clay jars, their purpose lost to time.
He wrote a poem about several places he and his wife visited. The one that struck me the deepest was a poem called “The Caves of Pak Ou.” In Laos, as in much of Southeast Asia, to casually discard an image of the Buddha is considered sacrilege, so, here in the Caves of Pak Ou, at the mouth of the Ou river, broken Buddhas have a home. They come to this cave from all over Laos and Bryan’s photograph’s of the wounded statutes were, in themselves, poetry.
Here are the first few lines. I will read this poem at our October gathering for it is a certainly, and on many levels, a poem of pilgrimage:
Like the Island of Misfit Toys
Three thousand broken Buddhas
Hidden from the common view
At the beauteous mouth of the River Ou.
It’s like visiting Les Invalides in Paris.
You want to comfort them. Offer mercies.
Speak of just causes and the daily news.
Assure them they’re not yesterday’s refuse...