Touch Him, Touch Him

I’ve been having vivid nap dreams for weeks, and today’s, when I woke up, made me exclaim, for in the dream, as I watched my friend Ken sort through old newspapers, his clipping scissors at the ready, in his plaid shirt and slacks and shuffley slippers, I said, “Ken, you are dead,” and Ken, as Ken does or did, kept right on talking.

And I talked to myself: touch him, touch him, he is dead.
When I awoke, tears streaming down my face, I knew the truth; Ken was dead, his visit was from the ether.

Touch him, touch him, he is dead.

He lived in a house, and he had a tiny, faceless wife with black bangs, wearing an apron with a story printed across it in tiny print, the words moving left to right. She cooked meals in a wok, and though I was a guest, the food was only for Ken.

When I awoke, I felt drugged, exhausted, but then my days are spent, me drugged and exhausted, as I think about not thinking, not being, not remembered, not loved, not accomplished, not more than a speck, an electron, spinning and soundlessly, endlessly, and unblessedly nothing.

I got up and decided to go out, and as I pulled out of my driveway, the sky a sere green from a dust storm in a desert far away, I saw a lone figure on a porch swing, across the highway, my friend Orville, and I drove into his yard and joined him and the sleeping barn cat curled up against him.

“You alright?” Orville said, asking a question which had no answer, for no one is alright and any answer is a lie.

“I’m good,” I lied. “You?”

“Oh, you know, in and out the doctor’s. ‘Take this, or you will die,’ ‘do this, or you will be in terrible pain.’”

But I didn’t know. He thought he had told me something, but he hadn’t. But my eyes told me weeks ago something was wrong.

“I am eighty-two, eighty-three in September—what the hell I want to live on for?”

He has cancer.

And I talked to myself: Touch him, touch him, he is alive.

But I didn’t. I once saw a mutual friend of ours hug him, and I saw the look of horror on his face, and it seemed funny then, and today, the cat pawed at him but he didn’t paw back, and I wasn’t going to set a precedent or make a fool of myself crying but I wanted to cry and my tears would have flooded the fields, the Sea of Eugene, the see of Eugene. Orville watched me watching him. He shrugged.

I cried inside, a fearful silence in an empty room in that delta of song and story and orgasm and bird and beast and tree of Eden and the shadows of the old folk . . . and there was Ken, by the blackberry bushes, watching, nodding, ready to escort me and Orville and Miss Halter the fourth grade teacher who told me I would be a writer and Angelina and Nicole my daughters and the cats Christopher Robin and Wheatstone Bridge and Tamsin and Scout—

“I ain’t afraid,” Orville said, interrupting me—interrupting my brain. “What I got to be afraid of?

“What has he got to be afraid of?” Ken said.

Touch them, touch them, they are

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A Modest Proposal

Former Saturday Night Live actor Jay Pharoah was recently pulled over while jogging, by LA cops, as a suspect in a crime. Pharoah was let go after they Googled him, but. Given the state of this country, I have used my playwriting skills to come up with a script for white police officers, that could be read to a black person being pulled over in a car (or jogging or strolling or sunning or dining or reading or birding or breathing).

The script’s purpose is to spur a black driver to think about his or her response. The officer reads the script to the driver (or jogger or stroller or sun worshipper or diner or reader or birder or breather) and then proceeds with law enforcement. The goal is to save the lives of black people who behave themselves.

Officer: I have pulled you over because ____________________________. Here is what can happen now. 1) I may cite a vehicle malfunction, say a taillight not working, and issue you a ticket. Have a nice day. 2) Because you are black, and prone to pernicious behavior—my grandpa Will told me this—I may search you. 3) Because you are black, and like President Trump I am uneasy around blacks, particularly males, I may use a taser on you, teargas you, pepper spray you, rubber bullet you, with no warning. Or 4) Because you are black, and you believe black lives matter, when all lives matter, I may pull my gun and shoot you if you are making me too nervous or you are one of those mouthy, entitled middleclass or above people of color (coloreds). Please choose your option now, saving both of us time.

My proposal is fair and just. It allows time for a black suspect, even if not guilty of anything, to consider the consequences of questioning, challenging, mouthing off, greeting in a friendly manner, refusing to comply, complying, or pulling out a cellphone and filming. Thus, the officer is comfortable, does not bear the burden of racial unease, and he or she has options.

Following is yet another script, read by assisting officers to black bystanders who charge in to film the scene with cameras.

Assisting Officer: I am warning you to not interfere in my partner’s interrogation of a black suspect. Turn and walk away. Here is what can happen now. 1) This is none of your business, but I will make your action my business if you do not comply. 2) Because you are black, and prone to pernicious behavior—my grandma Sally told me this—I may search you. 3) Because you are black, and like President Trump I am uneasy around blacks, particularly males, and you are filming this, I may use a taser on you with no warning. Or: 4) Because you are black and you believe black lives matter, when all lives matter—even if you are not the suspect, but you are a busybody who won’t leave enough alone, and why didn’t you just stay in your own colored neighborhood—I may pull my gun and shoot you if you are making me too nervous or you are one of those mouthy, entitled people of color (colored). Please choose your option now, saving both of us time.

The above will save lives. Harmony will break out among the races, cue the “Hallelujah Chorus,” even though there is no such thing as race, but we as a society must keep promoting this trope, or else we’d all be equal and—.

 

 

 

 

 

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I Heart Huckabee

As per Mike Huckabee’s comments, I feel it is time to come clean. I apologize to all those on the right. CNN is paying me $100 a day–tax free–to hate Donald Trump. I fell into this welfare scheme, and I began writing hate essays about our beloved president.

I opposed sexual assault and lying and graft, and now I’m deeply ashamed. I made fun of Sarah Huckleberry Sanders, and Michele Bachman and Ms. Palin, and I didn’t even walk a mile in their moccasins. Sure, they have teeny feet, and I only would have made it ten yards, what with my corns, but.

I excoriated Supreme Court Justice Brett for boofing, when the truth is, we all boof. We are a nation of boofers. Right now, I have White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany holding a press conference up my ass.

And now I name a name. Wolf. Wolf paid me. Wolf is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You look at Wolf, and you think, grim old Uncle Henry at the kid’s table at Thanksgiving. But Wolf is a wolf is a wolf.

“I sing the body D. Trump,” to paraphrase Walt Disney. I praise his holy name and his corporations and corpulence and co-conspirators and coal-love and Covid bravery. You Mexicans: you hate mongers, you. You blacks: you black hearts, you.

Here is the real conspiracy: Jesus WAS white. the truth is hidden in some Harvard handbook by a handy, wholesome, hardy, heady, heifer Harvard handmaiden with an ax to grind.

Writing comes naturally to me. Hate writing, why that is right in my wheelhouse. I am Mr. Cheap Shot.

To atone, tonight at 10:00, the Republican witching hour, I, the artist known as Cheap Shot, will take a knee for 8.3 seconds, the time it took for Mr. Huckabee’s comment to fly out of his scared mouth hole.

Dog bless you, Mike Huckleberry Hound. And Dog bless the United States of America. One nation, under Dog, with Lindsey Graham and Liberty Valance for all.

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Evensong

In afternoon the sky was turquoise

At sunset, fire;

 

Hummingbirds flitted and fought

Light to shadow,

A fat, ambling racoon contemplated

The sunflower feeder

Hanging like a temptress above it;

And there was the saw song of insects,

Philosopher owls, coyote songs of life

Their rowdy, rude students rapping,

A woman’s drunken alto solo

And a girlchild’s echoing voice;

 

The half-moon like a lantern

Across the stars.

 

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Band on the Run

I was on the Genehouse walk on Wednesday, River Road walk east to LaVista Park, when I came upon a curious sight. Lining the bottom of the bluff was a fabric-like white fence (it had a slight charge of electricity and a sign: “Goats on the Go.”

Inquiring minds, you know, so I took a photo of the contact information and called farmer Dustin Ellinger, who has a seventy-acre spread outside of Litchfield. He told me his herd of fifteen or so goats was eating all the weedy stuff on an almost vertical plain of two hundred feet straight up.

“They love poison ivy and honeysuckle,” Dustin said.

The goats are in residence on this bluff for several days, sleeping in the client’s yard at night. They just climb up and down and chow down—no human guidance or commands.

“Have you ever had a goat snake bit (copperheads live there), or eaten by a predator?” I asked. “So far, no,” said Dustin.

Goats eat most anything, including human things like shoes. Poison ivy is lettuce to them, and honeysuckle is dessert. They have no fear of heights, moving in leaps and bounds to the next salad bar. On the day I saw the sign, the bluff was heavily blanketed in tall weeds. This morning, there was nothing but trees and limestone formations.

The woods we all knew as kids are not what woods looked like pre-1800. Sodbusters took one look at the wilderness and decided to tame it, often citing the will of God and Manifest Destiny. They plowed down the ninety percent prairie that was the Illinois Territory and introduced their European crops such as wheat and barley. Had they just harvested the prairie every fall, they would have made the finest and healthiest bread one could eat. Instead, hey plowed under the plants, filled in wetlands and straightened creek and river courses. Today, only prairie remnants exist, with most of them in northern Cook and Lake counties and tended in a never-ending fight by volunteers from the Nature Conservancy and other groups.

With two exceptions. Illinois now has the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, along the Kankakee River just east of Interstate 55, a huge reconstruction of what pioneers would have seen. To walk there in July, when the prairie grasses are over your head, is to be swarmed with countless species of butterfly. And there is Nachusa Grasslands, on the Rock River near Oregon, Illinois, a Nature Conservancy site that has its own herd of bison living in contentment, and native cacti and abundant prairie flowers and wild animals.

If you want to see what Illinois looked like in 1840, take the family to Midewin and Nachusa. We know what was here in the nineteenth century because a Brit tourist, Eliza Steele came to take in the view, traveling from Chicago down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers (and dining in Alton with Benjamin Godfrey among many luminaries), and writing meticulous descriptions of what she saw, plants and animals.
In “Journey to the West,” Ms. Steele describes wolves in the prairie, and near Peoria, the Illinois River so plentiful with alligator gar, she pets their backs from the deck of the boat.

In 1998, I was commissioned by the National Park Service to write a play, “Water Brought Us and Water’s Gonna Take Us Away,” which would debut at Prop Theatre in Chicago and Columbia College, about the Underground Railroad in Illinois. For research, I walked escaped slave routes north from the Ohio River.

The Midewin site, near Wilmington, was being restored. In history, the area was an escape route for slaves from St. Louis and Kentucky who had to navigate by the North Star because the prairie was an all-enveloping wilderness one couldn’t see over or through. They were aided and abetted by Peter Stewart, friend of the Lovejoy family, and an engineer on the Illinois and Michigan Canal project. I spent a lot of time at Midewin before it opened as a park.

Post the pioneers, oak savannas once open and clean and pristine, were slowly choked with weeds and non-native trees and brush, and so were open spaces and the woodlands, leading to what we see today—pretty trees the bases of which have predator plants spreading out and climbing the bark. Honeysuckle—we used to eat the flowers when I was a kid—is an invasive species. It grows almost as fast as kudzu, and it overcomes everything in its path.

And so we come full circle to Goats on the Go and its ilk, its employees willing to chow down on all things green and foreign, and a green business that can only grow exponentially.

This morning, I climbed the bluff to the client’s house, and there before me were happy vegetarian goats, and below me, the bluff wall was clean and pristine. The herd was resting and waiting for Dustin (they come running when they hear his voice), and the smell was overwhelming, and the cuteness factor was off the charts. Big goats, little goats, twin goats, and an overseer with large hooves and horns who faced off with me in case I wanted to steal a goat.

I suspect bands of goats might play a significant part in the fight against climate change, as they voraciously gobble those damn pioneer-induced weeds. In their wake must come wildflower seed planters and stewards of the land. And people smart enough to know that land and water courses ultimately cannot be tamed, that a human skyscraper cannot supplant wild architecture of trees and even a symphony orchestra will never play as sweetly as Carolina wrens and finches and song sparrows, and they will work together in ultimate harmony, the land and its creatures restored.

As the good book says, “consider the lilies of the field”… and the birds and the trees and the rivers. Or not.

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The Saints

Louisville, Kentucky went up in flames over the last few days. The initial protest mirrored every other protest around the country, over the knee-to-the-neck murder of Minneapolis African American citizen George Floyd.

But on Sunday night, the protest turned inward. The popular owner of YaYa’s barbeque joint, David McAtee, who had fed countless meals to members of the Louisville police department, was shot dead by a group of Louisville police and the National Guard who had been shot at by rowdy protestors earlier, but they saved their wrath for the friends of David McAtee.

A crowd of neighbors, not of protestors, had gathered at the intersection where YaYa’s is located. Mr. McAtee was guarding his store, and other family members, including his niece, were there. It was a neighborhood gathering place, well known to the citizens of the city.

Suddenly, two police officers and two National Guard members moved forward and began firing indiscriminately. But instead of rubber bullets, real bullets were fired, first hitting the niece then killing McAtee as he reached for her. The police officers had left their body cameras turned off—a common occurrence in this country full of rogue lawmen and lawwomen.

One of the Guard who fired, a woman, had earlier faced a protestor who offered her flowers. The Guard member posted on her social media page: “I hope the pepper balls that she got lit up with a little later on hurt. She was saying and doing a lot more than ‘offering flowers’ to me. Just so for it to be known. For anyone that knows me and knows that facial expression tells everything. Come back and get ya some more ole girl, I’ll be on the line again tonight.”

The people in the crowd ran for their lives. The niece survived her wound. David McAtee’s body, unable to flee, lay in the street for twelve hours. Twelve hours. One thinks of Michael Brown, whose own body lay in a St. Louis street for hours.

The police chief was fired. The shooters were all placed on administrative leave. Sound familiar?

Saints and sinners, writes me, the atheist. Mr. McAtee, who fed people, as the Good Book told him it was right to do, is a saint. Mr. Floyd and Michael Brown are saints, as is Kentuckian African American Breeana Taylor, shot to death, her crime sleeping in her own bed while police broke into her home, which was the wrong address.

Only one sinner am I interested in, the bloviating blasphemer Donald Trump, who set up reporters with a phony news conference then had them follow him as he walked to a church and posed with a bible. I personally have no stake in the bible game except to say I intended to be a Methodist minister when I was a kid, and I read that book multiple times. I’m not a fan of creation myths or nutty young men going around with messianic tendencies. But I understand and I respect my many friends who are believers. I understand that the bloviating blasphemer is the spawn of Satan aka Fred Trump, racist who taught his son well.

Then, this morning, the bloviating blasphemer walks to the monument to Saint John Paul II and poses, first frontally, then with his giant ass to the cameras, to the disgust of major theological thinkers such as Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who denounced the appearance.

Trump holds hands with a woman who has refused to hold his hand for three years, but now may be high on force-fed drugs. He is a child rapist, a mob-connected corrupt businessman, a liar, a looter far worse than any current protestor, a fascist who now wants “his” army to surround our cities, and, doctors speculate, an Alzheimer president. His henchmen—gay Mike P., Mike Pompous-asshole, Lindsay Girl, Old Turtle Face, Naked Girl Melania the Illegal Immigrant, and Fat Bill, if there is a hell, will boil in it.

Philip Roth wrote a marvelous parody of the Nixon crookery: “Our Gang,” in which Tricky Dick, having gone to Hades and tired of the Devil’s ineptitude, wins an election from the forked-tail one on a platform of more-evil. He wins with the aborted fetus vote.

Nixon, compared to this gang of monsters, is a pussycat.

Black people were murdered for these sins. Black people were murdered for these self-indulgent “people who need to be white.” Black people were murdered for the economy. Black people were murdered because they came from slaves, so of course deserve to die so we won’t have to deal with that.

We all go as saints, or we die as a species.

Where do we stand? Where do we kneel? Where do we die?

 

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#1087

Most police officers will never pull their guns on someone, much less shoot. But, when you read about rogue officers, they almost always have shootings in their past. Most recent case in point, Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, badge number 1087, who was caught on camera with his knee on George Floyd, a black man who was crying out that he couldn’t breathe. Ultimately, Mr. Floyd died. Officer Chauvin was fired. Officer Chauvin has been involved in multiple shootings and yet—yet—was not fired, retrained, assigned to sensitivity and cultural classes.

In 1969, in my hometown, Alton, a young black man named Hilton Perry was shot in the back by two rogue policemen named Walkington and Ruyle, both of whom had long reputations as loose cannons and racists. Riots ensued at Alton High School, and the Board of Education offices were firebombed. Perry was paralyzed. He won a multi-million-dollar lawsuit, causing the City of Alton to impose a special property tax, to cover the damages. Years later, Hilton Perry died in surgery, never having received his award.

Walkington and Ruyle had fired their weapons at other suspects. In the Perry case, the boy was stopped on suspicion of shoplifting a pair of cheap cufflinks. In chasing Perry uphill on  State Street, past the public library, the cops also shot an elderly lady walking her dog and the window of a beauty parlor, a bullet narrowly missing a customer.

Rogue cops. Derek Chauvin’s photo, showing him wearing a MAGA hat with the words “make whites great again,” is now going viral on the internet. So, here is yet another one of the deplorables in the “basket of deplorables,” a sick man, his disease being racism, passed to him in his childhood. Walkington and Ruyle were deplorables, and so are hundreds of other rogue cops who somehow get on major city police forces in spite of their naked racism.

Look at the photo of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck. Look at his face. His expression is orgasmic. He is having an adventure. I imagine him thinking, “I got one!” He has been fired, and today he may be thinking other thoughts.

Race. How are race and the current pandemic connected?

The obvious answer is the far worse effect of the virus on persons of color. But. The connection is science. In science, there is no such thing as race. Color is a result of tribes adapting to different environments, one result being skin tones appropriate to specific climates. There is one human specie—attention, co-called Europeans. You and I, and our friends and loved ones and ancestors and our friends and brother and sisters of color are descended from perhaps fifteen tribes of Africa.

Pandemic. Science has quickly and correctly identified the origin of this virus, tied to other, historical viruses such as HIV, and they have in common the deforestation of the planet and the emergence of viruses that were safely tucked away.

We are in the age of anti-science. In 2020, people still refer to evolution as a belief. Idiots stand in pulpits and command a virus to leave our bodies, and faithful people sitting in pews await miracles. Even as evolution is the greatest and only miracle, producing all life on earth from first, rudimentary living cells. A human being is a plant is water is a bird is an ape is sentient.

This ignorance has led straight to Officer Derek Chauvin and policemen Walkington and Ruyle, to Donald Trump, to selfish partiers on Lake of the Ozarks who were raised in ignorance, raised to believe they were white, a race of people that does not exist—except in poisoned hearts. Except in poisoned, devolved hearts. Our silence is taken by people such as they as approval.

Our silence.

Speak—or die. Die from a virus, from a riot, from the hands of the poverty stricken, or die in defense of our brothers and sisters. All brother and sisters. There were other options. Science, especially after the discovery of DNA, leading to the realization that we are one people, has proffered solutions over many decades. And we have ignored the solutions for decades.

Clearly, we are choosing death-by-sitting-on-our-asses. Those whom the great writer James Baldwin called “people who need to be white” elected Death. They are dancing in the Ozarks. They are arming themselves. They are gleeful. Yahoo!

The main thing I see, which people of good will are doing, is pressing the tear or the rage emoji. These are not moral statements. People of good will, especially the elderly, are afraid. I am afraid. Perfectly understandable.

But to die of fear, or by fear, dishonors those who came before us: Alton’s martyr in the cause of abolition, Elijah P. Lovejoy who died for our sins; the Americans who led the Underground Railroad; who fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War; the World War II veterans; Martin Luther King and Malcom X; the doctors and nurses fighting for us now. Add to that list, African American Mr. George Floyd, security guard and citizen of Minneapolis, who took a gleeful knee from Derek Chauvin, who was told by his parents that he was a good boy, a superior boy.

And he believed it.

 

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Birth

I was walking in LaVista Park, swiping biting black flies as I went. At the park’s lower entrance, I relocated an eastern brown snake. It was stretched out, the size of a nightcrawler, and someone was going to step on it or a biker would ride over it. Off it slithered, into the creek bed.

At the top of the park, a little crewcut boy, a third grader maybe, was bent over and pointing in the grass and exclaiming to his mom. He had spotted a box turtle. He picked it up upside down, and I hurried over, explaining that the turtle shouldn’t be handled—humans have germs—and it was headed somewhere in its life. The boy put the turtle down, and we determined where its head had been pointing (west) and off he and mom went, down the bluff path.

I walked another half mile then I turned and went back to the turtle. It was still inside its shell. The little boy was going to come back, I knew. I picked the turtle up and walked west a hundred yards or so and put it in some tall grass, where it could carry on without other people stressing it.

I walked back the way I came, descending the bluff trail into the woods. An old man with a long white beard caught up, and we stayed distant and chatted all the way down the half-mile hill. His name was Lennox, and he hunted Indian artifacts back in the day, and he told me about how his whole collection had been stolen because he didn’t lock his door at night, and well, you know we had quite the chat. When he heard my name, he asked if I was the writer—yes. He had read my old Genehouse Chronicles from The Telegraph.

“You speak in my voice, man.”

As we reached the bottom section of trail, there stood the little boy and his mom, standing by a wooden fence over a bridge across a creek.

“Mom,” the little boy shouted, “Snakes! Lots of them!”

Lennox and I looked at each other and smiled. Little boys exaggerate. When we got to the fence, we looked down the creek bank were the boy was pointing. An eastern fox snake (they look like copperheads, good evolutionary survival technique), almost five feet long, was giving birth. Four-inch-long babies covered in glistening afterbirth were emerging from the opening below her tail, perhaps twenty or more, and as they emerged, they wound themselves like ribbons around the mother’s body, a mound of them, and soon we could only see the mother’s head. We were witnessing a miracle. The little boy might have thought this was an everyday event. This was my second time.

I told the boy about fox snakes, a specie of rat snake, and the good they did in nature. And like the turtle, the snakes were wild and we shouldn’t disturb them. I told him he was witnessing something most people would never see. His mom asked how I knew so much.

Lennox told them who I was, and he said I was an archaeologist-writer-naturalist, and I would never have said such a thing. The boy’s name was Judah, and he was cute, as little boys are. And then he spotted, in short order, two red-tail skinks and a bullfrog and a tiger swallowtail butterfly. He had discovered over thirty wild animals in the space of five minutes. And with each spotting, he jumped up and down and yelped excitedly.

And then we walked farther down the path, and I showed the boy the high tree set back from the path, the one with the hole below its crown, inside of which lives a barred owl. I taught the boy the barred owl song, and we sang it. I told him I once saw the owl catch a snake and dangle its body from tree branch, catch a squirrel off the path and hang its body from that same branch.

Lennox walked on. I gave the mom my card. Judah, when the virus crisis has settled, will be coming to my house. He will be receiving gifts of fossils and Indian artifacts. His mother said her son was always seeing what other people didn’t. I understand. Judah has the rare gift of what archeologists call “the eye.”

Years ago, I showed several hundred of my Indian artifacts to a Northwestern University professor of archeology. He looked them over and said most of his graduate students would never find an arrowhead or a stone axe—seeing, what to most people is the unseen, was a talent. “You have the eye,” the professor told me.

And this I understand now, after the long morning, after my long life and writing it all down—for whom? The little boy I saw. See. The little boy hopping and jumping. The little boy watching the births beyond twins, triplets, nonuplets. The little boy learning the song of the barred owl. The saw the sea the see the birth the earth the tentacles of stars ever suns lasting:

I was the little boy.

The little boy was me.

 

 

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What I have Seen

I have been hiking for over fifty years. I was lucky enough to have friends and family living near wild places, so I could hike to exhaustion and sleep in a bed. New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, California, Washington, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, Missouri, Southern Illinois—to name but a few.

I have learned that there is nothing in nature more dangerous than I am—nothing. I’ve been stung by a scorpion, bitten by a black widow and a brown recluse, struck at by rattlesnakes. But the scariest moment I ever experienced was in the Washington Cascades when a clearly deranged man stepped out from the woods and screamed, “You’re late!”

I didn’t know him, I knew this might be my moment to defend my life, and I suddenly knew I would kill him if I had to. Fortunately, the man slipped back into the woods. I was twenty miles from my car—my choice was to defend myself, or perish. I didn’t have to ponder that; my body took over, and I was a killer.

One dangerous animal, in fifty years. A man.

I have seen several dozen bears, watched as one black bear approached me on the Appalachian Trail and walked right by me. I have picked blueberries in the Sandwich Mountains of New Hampshire only to be joined by a standing black bear which emerged from the forest, stood, and harvested her own blueberries. I have stood next to a female moose, only a single tree separating us, my six-foot frame dwarfed by its seven-foot-high head. I have stood on a New Mexico hillside filled with western diamondback rattlesnake dens, listened to the symphony of rattling, peed myself. I have been a pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

I have eaten lunch with porcupines, pine siskins, crows, ravens, mice—and a feral cat on top of Black Mountain. I have laid on my back on a mountain top and watched peregrine falcons hover in the wind just above my face. With friends David and Linda, I’ve watched California condors with ten-foot wingspans glide right past me. Just one critter stalked me in fifty years: a gorgeous mountain lion that was crawling toward me on its belly, like a housecat. I sang opera, and the cat turned and ran away.

I’ve been nearly killed by being stung and paralyzed by cow parsnip, bitten by fire ants. I broke through the ice on the frozen Illinois River, standing chest deep the water, in twelve below zero weather. I fell over fifty feet off a cliff, catching a fir tree on the way down, landing on my back and breaking a lot of bones. I was mass stung by yellowjackets in the Murder Hole, in Virginia. I’m still alive.

I’ve seen: wilderness, mountains, waterfalls, wild rivers, marshes with male moose yelling for women, swamps, caves. I’ve scaled cliffs without ropes even though I’m terrified of heights. I’ve been blown off a cliff face by wind. My toes are frost bitten. I am arthritic and broken, but I keep on hiking.

I have found many thousands of fossils, thousands of Indian artifacts. My house is filled with arrowheads and tools some of which are over ten thousand years old.

Why am I writing this? Because I have been in the wilderness, a place that modern children do not go. And because they do not go, our government has actual plans to take over Teddy Roosevelt’s designated sacred landscapes. There is but one species on earth that is trying to obliterate all other living things. Us.

What is in the wilderness that everyone must experience? Beauty. Power. Color. Smell. Peace. And dare I, the atheist in the woodpile, say it—spirituality.

Your grandkids watching nature videos on their smart phones cannot possibly experience the overwhelming power of the living, breathing, breathtaking earth. There is no zoo which can replicate the way wild things actually move and birth and hunt and survive. There is no experience in your settled life that can match wildness, no human architecture which can come close to the carved-out spires of the planet, duplicate the roots and petals and branches and perfumes and tastes of Planet Earth.

How close are you locals and your children and grandchildren to wildness? Two hours to the Little Grand Canyon in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois, a wild place so stunningly beautiful that vacationing foreigners from around the world cross oceans to see it.

When I was a kid, camped with my grandpa Red Jones on the Platte River in Nebraska, Red woke me up at sunrise, put a finger to his lips so I wouldn’t wake anyone else, and signaled for me to step outside. And there, on the butte above us, was a female mountain lion warming in the first light. And my grandpa squatted and held me, and we were awestruck.

There is awe all around us.

But there won’t be—if your kids spend their days indoors and pretend to hike in a video game.

Our government is actively decommissioning national monuments, for oil and gas exploration. Our government is stealing your paths, mountains, forests for cash. If hiking is just a hobby for a few people like me, our government will take back and de-rock and de-mountain and de-animal and de-wilderness and “pave paradise and put up a parking lot.” As I write, the mountains of West Virginia are being leveled for coal. How can you tear down a mountain?

Easy.

 

 

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Cluck! Cluck!

There is a reason why gun violence will go on in perpetuity: White people.

It is in the interest of white people to cluck their tongues righteously when reporters ask them about gun violence. It is also in the interest of white people to step back and watch and allow black youth to shoot other black youth and kill them. “Cluck-cluck,” say the mayor and the police chief.

Cluck-cluck, but: Dead-dead. And a dead black youth is a good black youth.

And don’t forget the scared—I mean sacred—the Second Amendment. Uneducated white people (and rich ones) need those guns for the coming black revolution. So they can kill black people too. And because Whitey needs his gun, the guns flow.

1968 was the turning point when black Olympians Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists while the National Anthem was being played. White people suddenly hated the Olympics. Intellectual black voices, influenced by black James Baldwin (who had recently ripped William F. Buckley to shreds in a debate), black Lorraine Hansberry, black Stokely Carmichael and their ilk, started speaking up.

And the white South retaliated with unspeakable violence. And then the North jumped in. With guns. Gotta have those guns, even if the revolution is language, not out and out rebellion in the streets. I will never forget overhearing some Alton white men in a café talking seriously about arming themselves and capturing the Alton bridge so the blacks couldn’t attack after the Michael Brown murder.

Conceal carry equals white cowardice. It is (apparently? theoretically? ironically?) easier to shoot a black person than to talk or break bread with a black person. The sacred St. Louis Cardinals games now feature gun lockers because the poor white attendees, armed, show up in droves, in case the black revolution breaks out in the ninth inning.

Diapers? Check. Sun screen? Check. Phones? Check. Guns? Check.

“They ruined it.” White person speaking about St. Louis.

Exactly who are “they?” The poor? The folks who can’t afford to have a drink at the very architecturally ugly Ballpark Village? The black families who take their kids to the zoo? The mentally ill or down on their luck homeless who are homeless because we don’t give a shit—it’s their fault, it’s evolution, it’s “I don’t like black people?”

Black ministers and social organizers aren’t clueless. They are powerless. Because it is in the interest of the white power structure to allow senseless violence. It is in the interest of cowardly conceal carry white citizens. It is in the interest of Republicans because they can toss the red meat to their unwashed. It is in the interest of the Democrats because black people will vote for them anyway.

When white ministers stand up in pulpits and talk about racism, the healing will begin. With a price. In the 50s, Alton’s First Unitarian Church’s Reverend John Glanville Gill, author of by far the best biography of Elijah P. Lovejoy, spoke out against racism from his pulpit. His congregation kicked him out.

So what? So what, if the white community ostracizes you for speaking out?

St. Louis kindergartner David Birchfield III. Last Saturday he was in his mom’s car when someone shot him to death. His father said, “we have to stop this violence.”

I have the solution: ban all guns from public spaces. Make the penalties reflect the pain of the sufferers.

“We didn’t start the fire.” We’re not putting out the fire either.

Trayvon Martin was killed on this day. Michael Brown. Chandra Levy. The list just grows like a healthy tree root. While black children die like poisoned tree roots.

Cluck! Cluck!

 

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