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Have you ever satisfied a gut feeling to follow a dry dirt road that’s beckoning you to the heart of a shimmering summer’s day?

Sunday was my birthday, but it was also the one year anniversary of the publication of An American Song. Reflecting on that milestone reminded me once again of how much time and money I sunk into the project.

In many ways, this blog represents the continuation of my work on the project. And recently it has been difficult to update it regularly, as I’ve been busy writing another book. This one is fiction, and like all my work it is a complex piece of prose that requires I spend not just a lot of time in front of a computer, but also long hours engaged in research. It will take me a few more months to complete, provided I maintain the pace I have set for myself. And it has nothing on An American Song.

For 2 1/2 years I was either on the road gathering material or at home writing text almost every day. In 2011 I worked on the book in some capacity for 364 days, exempting only Christmas. When I had other work to do, I came home and wrote. When I didn’t, I wrote all day and continued after my wife went to bed. It was a welcome grind, a labor of love. I felt I was doing something important. Revisions continued after that. Around other projects I routinely made time to continue work on An American Song. And as my mother was dying of cancer, I decided to refocus on it exclusively once and for all.

In truth, it was always a somewhat suicidal endeavor. The scope of the book grew almost immediately. The more people I met, the more material I had, and the more material I had the further away from publishable I wandered. I knew the book was going to grow to a length that would be difficult to sell to traditional publishers, but I could not in good conscience leave out the stories of people I felt I owed something to. I turned down offers from agents who wanted me to slash the book’s length by as much as 75%. I revised it, tightened it, resubmitted, reworked. I thought the force of the stories I told and the quality of my prose would drive it to print eventually. I was obsessed. I was delusional.

Sure, people like me, they aren’t put off by the length of Ulysses. They read Almanac of the Dead in six days. Europe Central, Working, PrairyErth? Why not. If it’s worthwhile, what’s the difference? And An American Song is, what, half the length of Infinite Jest? Shouldn’t be an issue.

Are there many people out there like me? Okay, so maybe now I see a flaw in my reasoning . . .

Still, a year after the release of my book, I am as proud of it as ever. Yes, every writer has to put their work to death at some point, and there are things I’d change– words, phrases, the occasional interpretation. But I am remarkably at peace with it. A year later, I still wouldn’t change it– at least not fundamentally. For me it’s whole (or as whole as any book about America can be)– a fully comprised work, something that provides through its stories and through the story that binds them a sense of the organic. I’m comfortable in its representation of my country, my countrymen, and myself as a writer. I still believe it will inspire and enlighten, and so feel confident in saying that if you haven’t yet read it, it’s worth your time to do so. Outside of your public library, after all, it remains one of the best bargains around.

For those of you who have read it– or even a portion of it– I repeat my genuine thanks. Distribution of the book has been slower than I might have hoped, even according to expectations revised after I decided to forego the traditional publishing process, and I rely on your support and your voice to spread the word about it. I already know the project will forever be in the red financially, so this isn’t about marketing. It’s about readership. And as I’ve learned, it’s important to be grateful for every single reader you earn. Being as I am now amongst a community of bloggers, this seems a particularly apt point. Maintaining our sites rarely makes much financial sense. Writing for others and reading the words of others, though, makes all the sense in the world.

So indulge me one last toast. Here’s to An American Song. For all you’ve hurt me, I do love you so. May many more do the same in the years to come . . .

Where the Winds Hit Heavy on the Borderline

Having just returned from a weekend in Maine, I could not help but remember my wonderful time there during my travels. That is, as I spent the weekend in Portland, I more or less missed all of the rest of the state that first impressed upon me the magnitude of the task I had set before myself.

Whether I should have heeded the warning and forgone the vast riches and immutable fame that came with the completion of my project is a question for another time. (That is, I wrestle with it every day.) Today I am simply remembering a journey through a state that gave me far more than it took. Here are seven photographs as representation of a fraction of those days.

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“Equality,” I Spoke The Word as if a Wedding Vow

Beyond health, family, and personal liberty, the most important thing in the world to me is the free exchange of ideas. It’s what I have built my life and my career on.

Shooting a congressman because he’s a Republican? That’s idiotic, counter-productive, and decidedly un-American, no matter what his politics are.

Let’s be clear. (I feel like I’m saying this a lot these days, and it is depressing me.) This guy isn’t a liberal, and he certainly isn’t a progressive. Liberals believe in egalitarianism and freedom of expression. Progressives trust in the power of truth and reason in driving society forward towards a better future. In shooting someone he disagreed with (and not with any specifics– rather, because the guy was part of a group of people he generally disagreed with), this asshole renounced both these things.

Not that we are exempt from blame, here. In the aftermath of the shooting, I’ve heard a lot of talk from conservatives that liberals need to own up to the vitriol they’ve engendered, and admit their responsibility in creating an environment in which something like this can happen. My initial reaction to this was to shake my head, roll my eyes, and invoke any number of platitudes– pots calling kettles derogatory color schemes, sinners heaving stones, etc.– never mind note that when a rich white man gets shot it’s like the world is ending, but when a poor black teenager takes the bullet the community that responds in protest is bordering on terrorist status by demanding change. But in thinking about things a bit more, I think they’re right, even if the criticism generally arrives from a myopic perspective.

You see, I don’t know that enough progressives believe sufficiently in the essential basis of their critical ethos. In truth, I think that almost all of them– myself included– are guilty of renouncing their trust in empiricism and reason for the sake of emotional reactionism.

This is, to some extent, understandable. We see the destructive paths of ignorance– the erosion of social equality, the wanton destruction of the environment, the abandonment of peace and tolerance, the undermining of science and logic– and we instinctively lash out at those who propagate such things.

But we need to do better. We need to trust in the power of our arguments, in the immutability of our rational processes. We need to stick to evidence and logic. We need to be stubborn in not bending from our positions for spurious reasons, but flexible enough that we’re willing to change those positions if the arguments presented against them are sound, logically built, and based in evidence. And we need to remember that our own biases warp our thought processes in the same way that those of conservatives skew theirs.

I have a respectful, and often friendly, relationship with many people who identify themselves as conservatives, and during my travels it was the rare day when the socio-political perspective of those I met shut me off from their stories. This is not because I bend to the opinions of others for the sake of inter-personal harmony. (My wife would get a kick out of that notion!) Precisely the opposite. It is because those I respect respect me. They know that if I argue for something, it will be because I have thought through my position and believe it to be worth arguing, and that even so I remain a free agent, willing to adopt their perspective if I find their argument to be better. It isn’t warfare. There’s no need for name-calling– and certainly not for hatred. It’s debate. It’s the free exchange of information and ideas. It’s the essence of progressivism, whether they realize it or not. And it only shuts down if they are unwilling to maintain the reciprocity.

There are always caveats, of course. One thing I can not abide, for instance, is the pejorative nomination of difference. Gender, race, sexuality, culture, religion– these are not obstacles, but opportunities. After all, our lives and our culture is made all the richer because of difference, not despite it. Why? Because of the free exchange of ideas. New ways of thinking about things. Fusion of thought and custom. The mere act of recognizing an alternative approach, whether we adopt its conclusions of not. (Not incidentally, shouldn’t conservative thought qualify– provided, of course, that it doesn’t engage in the very type of behavior I’m here decrying?)

And this is not to say I think it should all be kumbaya and let’s go roast marshmallows. There’s great injustice in some conservative policy. Cruelty and greed in motives. Corruption and fraud at the highest level of government. If you’re unwilling to recognize it for what it is, we’re going to have a problem. And the “Well, He/She did it” argument is that of a child. I’m going to take the same issue with your defense of Dean Skelos as you would rightfully take should I defend Sheldon Silver. And in terms of cultural perspective, all you need to do is read my book to know how I feel about climate change deniers, congregations to plantation mythology, and those who would deny other Americans their rights or prevent them from receiving assistance in their hours of need.

But behind it all is a principled devotion to humanism, reason, and democracy. Will these things– the last of them in particular– be the downfall of American society and human civilization? It’s possible. By the time 2020 comes (or, heaven help us, 2024), pluralism might be on its death bed and Miami Beach and the Battery might be under several inches of water. But what other options do we have? Do you have a better idea? A revolution? Sure, but enacted how? Plato was as wrong as Lenin. A tyranny of the wise is still tyrannical. We’ll collectively bargain our fate, or we’ll succumb to one just as unpleasant.

And that means stopping the hate.

I beg of you. Define yourself by reason. Use ideas as your weapons. Hammer away with fact and principle. Be relentless, but don’t barricade off the disapproving– we hope to educate them, not exile them, after all. Maybe start by asking someone who disagrees with you why they disagree with you rather than calling them an evil, fascist moron (you sure don’t like being called a dirt commie, do you?). When they realize you’re willing to consider their position, perhaps then they’ll consider listening to yours. And in a test of the righteousness of principles, aren’t you comfortable enough to wager on the well-wrought reasoning behind your ideals?

And as a byproduct, maybe we’ll reduce by one or two the lunatics who think they can solve something with a God-damn rifle.

Some Living, Some Standing Alone

I want to step outside of things relating to my book to briefly address the events in London this evening.
I happened to be reading an article earlier today about London’s ever-transforming food scene, and longed– among other things– for a return to the Borough Market. It made tonight’s events all the more poignant.
Please understand, this is an attack on diversity, inclusiveness, and culture-sharing. As such, we should all respond by promoting diversity, inclusiveness, and culture-sharing.
For those of you who have never been there, Borough Market is rightfully beloved by Londoners and visitors alike. It is a beautiful, welcoming place– a place of peace, a place that celebrates the free world’s wondrous abundance, a place where peoples with backgrounds from all over the world (if not actual immigrant status from those places) sell the foods and wares of their culture directly beside people who are just as likely to be from another continent as from another borough of London, and a place where the collisions of those cultures play out in wonderfully creative ways. There are Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus there, people from India, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Levant, all a stone’s throw from Welsh and Devon meat purveyors, a guy whose family has hand-harvested oysters for over a century, and a stand selling truffles worth more than a mortgage payment. It represents the best of the world’s liberal values. And that’s what made it a target.
Please stand beside me in standing beside the people who made the Borough Market what it is. Please remember to stand up for all those places like it– the places that we love, that make us a human community, that bring difference and wonder to our world.
And please fight the inevitable kickback from the frightened and the insular– the ones who want to meet an attack on openness and diversity by pushing for more restriction and segregation, who think that winning this war can only be attained by enacting the very thing that our enemies so covet. As said in Romans, “If it is possible, as far a it depends upon you, be at peace with all men.” The only way to achieve such a thing is to welcome those whose strangeness you fear into your own home so that you may make that strangeness a part of yourself.
Stay safe. Stay vigilant. But don’t be afraid to revel in the victories we achieve by living in peace and sharing the bounty that is human multiplicity. For the only way that we might possibly lose this war is to forget that we have already won it.

Come and Touch the Things You Cannot Feel

This is likely to begin with the most self-privileged thing I have written for a while. I imagine it will also sound disturbingly white.

Last Friday at the gym I was at the end of my usual swim of 1,000 meters (see, I told you). I hadn’t swum in a while, and I had worked particularly hard, so I was ready for a term in the sauna ([cringe]) when the black man jumped into the lane beside me.

Normally this wouldn’t have been an issue. My gym isn’t a utopic melting pot by any means, but neither is it Augusta National. Men and women of all races are members there. In all truth, I tend to see minorities in the pool far more often than I do in the bike studio. And in all truth, I don’t remember ever thinking about the demographics of the membership before.

This time, however, I was aware that following my intended course would mean leaving the pool immediately upon this man’s entrance. In other words, it might appear to him that I wasn’t comfortable sharing the pool with a black man.

I swam a few extra laps. I almost feel as bad about that as about noticing the racial makeup of the pool at that moment.

I think it was a useful experience, albeit one that I struggle to contextualize in the appropriate fashion. Race in America is a tricky thing to maneuver, and it’s useful for the privileged to recognize the parameters of their privilege from time to time. And while I was not specifically called out for my whiteness in this instance, still it was a moment of awareness that I normally am not subject to. At the same time, that moment was gut-wrenching and by definition self-indicting. How terrible, I thought for a moment in that pool, that I be forced to deal with the nasty consequences of a social system where my whiteness creates such a potentially uncomfortable situation through no fault of my own. And then, how awful, that moment, when it seemed an injustice that I be subject on this rare occasion to something another American might be enduring all the time. Even thinking about how this is a useful experience for a white man feels pretty sleazy, as if the world another person suffers through might in some way be a personal classroom whenever I deem it fit to be so. How dare I?

More acute instances of this type occurred a few times during my travels, and this particular moment prompted a recollection of those instances. One particularly memorable moment occurred in Paterson, New Jersey, when one of a trio of black men in the northern part of the city yelled out “Hey white boy! You want–” as I passed by him in my car. I did not hear what the conclusion of his query. Though I had not considered it before, it thereafter occurred to me that there were probably only a few reasons a white man came to this poverty-stricken, almost exclusively black part of a city where blacks nearly outnumber whites in general (and minorities outnumber whites 2-to-1)– a town that, it should be said, most in the tri-state area are usually familiar with only because it is a mainstay in the crime sections of newspapers and local news broadcasts. This man likely thought I was there to buy drugs or solicit prostitution or do something of the ilk, and he was either prepared to offer me one of these things or tell me to get the hell out of a neighborhood white men in search of these things were helping to destroy. But none of those assumptions were accurate. I was there to see the Great Falls of the Passaic River, and to reconcile the current state of the city with what I knew of it from William Carlos Williams’ great poem, Paterson. It didn’t mattered, though. At that moment I was a white man in a black place, and my story had been written for me by those who assumed things about a person they did not know.

Minorities in the country, of course, deal with this all the time. I can’t say how often the average black man, for instance, encounters such external conscriptions, nor estimate how many times he does so without merit because of the sheer frequency of times it does have it. I can’t say how often any stereotyped minority I come across looks at me and assumes that in some capacity I am engaging in these types of conscriptions. And to my discredit, I am certain I do not catalog every time I am in fact guilty of doing such things. (We all tell stories based on cultural stimuli, whether we like to admit it or not.) It is for these reasons that when I do write about race, I try my best to think things through as thoroughly as I can, and to be as careful with my language as possible, lest my presumptions get the better of me. The time I have spent thinking about a single line in the first paragraph of a chapter I wrote about a Louisiana plantation likely runs into the hundreds of hours, for instance, so worried am I still that I got it wrong specifically because of my status as a white man and a Northerner. A book might be written about that line alone (though it would likely be self-apologetic drivel) and not dispel my urge to simply excise it in favor of a subject I’m more confident in discussing.

The same can be said about last Friday’s swim. I doubt the man who jumped into the lane beside me even thought about the incident at all. But then again, maybe he did because he has no choice but to do so in a culture that asks him to tread carefully through the waters of external assumption. I simply don’t know.

What I return to, though, is the notion of intrinsic worth that might be gleaned from such moments, for even if the act feels sleazy or dirty or itself an act of privilege akin to a journey of oppression tourism (ah, to see how those poor children eat from the trash bins, and to casually return to my abundance with credit taken for my visceral engagement of their plight), still it seems an almost necessary exercise for an American of privilege to remove themselves from whatever comforts that privilege has afforded them, if only to recognize the depths of a tumultuous ocean they by their very nature tend to float upon unawares. For so addictive are the narcotics of personal advantage and comfort that we might willingly deprive others of them, whether we know we are doing so or not.

Come on, Come on Down, Sweet Virginia (Got to Scrape the Shit Right Off Your Shoes)

First off, let’s be clear. A relatively small group of people who identify with The Birth of a Nation a bit too much shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Carrying Wal-Mart tiki-torches doesn’t boost their credibility, either. (Though at least their citronella-fueled protest was sure to be conspicuously bug-free. You can’t be too safe about West Nile Virus, after all, even if it means carrying Chinese-made goods.)

Neither should we worry too much about the idiocy of a bunch of wanna-be anti-globalists taking issue with the democratic decisions of a very local populace– particularly as many of them don’t even live there. Still, if anyone was inclined to listen to the very consistent and rational argument of these intellectual giants, chanting “Russia is our friend!” probably ruined that moment, anyway.

If anything, the protest indicates just how appropriate the removal of some of these monuments is. It is a reminder that the racial undercurrents that fueled Dylan Roof are still very much in play in America, and that placating those who feel the same way as he did is the wrong approach to what remains a simmering, potentially explosive problem.

All credit is due to Charlottesville’s mayor, Mike Signor. In the face of anti-semitic taunts, ignorant name-calling (who calls someone a Bolshevik in 2017?), and at least one death threat, he has stood up for the will of his electorate. So too should those who responded with calls for peace and inclusion be lauded. The best defense against ignorance is the courageous application of reason.

All of this is not to say that the issues in play here are cut and dry. Expressions of memorial are rarely uncontentious, and indiscriminate white-washing isn’t the answer, either. In the capital of our nation, after all, two massive monuments stand in celebration of slaveholders, and the top elected official in the country lives in a house built by slaves. One of the men so celebrated in Washington is endlessly feted in Charlottesville, in fact. Ask alumni if they think his name should come off the floor of the basketball court (where black men and women play every season) and see what they say. These are not easy things to reconcile.

Having lived in the South, traveled extensively in the South, and counting Southerners of varying racial, religious, and political identities as friends, I can say that reconciliation of the effects of the Civil War is ongoing and incredibly complicated. If anything, those who think the answers are easy are only exacerbating the problem.

The Confederate flag is the easy part. It’s a symbol that has come to represent the worst of the South’s heritage, and removing it from public buildings is a no-brainer concession to a populace that– the fringes excluded– is progressing away from the darkness (however fitfully it may be doing so). No one flies the “Grand Union” flag anymore– even on Independence Day– and that doesn’t mean they don’t respect the heritage of those early, desperate years of the Revolution.

The bigger problem is that Southerners live inside a vast monument to their greatest failure, and are asked on an almost-daily basis to determine how to be both American and a people descended from a failed attempt to be their own version of American. They drive past Confederate cemeteries. They confront Confederate memorials. They are subject to an endless sequence of battle markers and historical commemorations. Often they live on or near battlefields, with artifacts all about them (in Chattanooga, some people have cannons in their front yards). And this does not even encompass the racial and social implications the conflict continues to have– the history of which is in some instances similarly commemorated, and in any case persistently referenced (and for white Southerners, often as evidence of their continued backwardness).

In truth, it’s not something that I completely understand, much as I have tried. The chapter I wrote about Shiloh is perhaps best indicative of this. While I feel it is one of the best and most insightful chapters in the book, still my notions remain vague and un-centered, for as a Northerner there are things about the South that I can never hope to fully grasp. For one, there is generational meaning encoded in the very land of the Confederate South, and turning one’s back on it is tantamount to a form of familial treason. It is a peculiar mandate to be both proud and ashamed of one’s heritage depending upon the principle from which that mandate arises, and the more someone from a different part of the world demands that you renunciate your past, the more likely you will be to hold doggedly to it.

The problem is that some of these monuments are not only commemorative of a past time, but celebratory of the aspects of that time that constitute the greatest stains upon the South’s history (and that of America, in general). And often their juxtapositions are highly problematic.

The best example of this that I came across during my travels was in Montgomery, Alabama, where I sat in on a a service at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church and Parsonage. This church– the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached– is conspicuously located down the hill from the enormous, uniformly white, Greek Revival State Capitol Building. That building– which very much resembles an antebellum mansion– is across the street from the Confederacy’s first White House (Jefferson Davis was sworn in on the steps of the Capitol, and authorized the bombardment of Fort Sumter from the house). But even more significant is the 88-foot tall Confederate monument that still stands on the grounds of the Capitol. On it an inscription reads “Dedicated to the knightliest of the knightly race who since the days of old/ Have kept the lamp of chivalry alight in the hearts of cold.” It is a conspicuous declaration of the continued vibrancy of social caste in the South. As I wrote in the chapter concerning my visit, “If anyone were to deny the representational connections between the charged sermons King gave in the small church and the virulent defenses of slavery and racial oppression made in the buildings looming atop the hill, it would only be through a stubborn unwillingness to simply look around.”

It doesn’t take an expertise in plantation mythology to recognize the inappropriateness of such a commemoration in a country that has disavowed itself of such principles. And indeed, most white Southerners I know would agree that in the very least the inscription is offensive, and not reflective of the way they feel about their culture and their communities. And yet not only does it still stand, but a protest was organized in 2015 when the decision was made to remove Confederate flags from it. All in sight of Dr. King’s humble church.

Though I’ve spent a good deal of time in Charlottesville, I am not specifically familiar with the monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that are at the heart of this newest controversy. Neither do I know the particulars of the arguments for and against their removal. But what I do know is that the discussion is a relevant one, and not reducible to a fight between blacks and whites, blackness and whiteness. In the least, if a populace wants to divorce itself of dedications to slaveholders who chose to fight for the dissolution of the country in which they now live, that hardly seems to me like cause for a fight. And if it is collectively decided that other monuments aren’t harming anyone, aren’t stoking racial hatred, and aren’t demeaning a portion of the population, so be it. Meaning may be generated internally, but it is nominated externally. And community should always be stronger than symbol.

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You’re Face to Face With the Man Who Sold the World

Almost immediately upon my arrival in Nashville 2 1/2 weeks ago, I thought that upon my return to Albany I’d be penning a blog post about revisiting some of the places in Tennessee and Kentucky that I had experienced in depth during the travels for my book. Alas, the socio-political culture these days has once more redirected my focus.

I probably will write that “return” post at some point. But for now, I am obliged to write about places I hope will still be there when I go back to them.

Yes, that’s right. Once again I am calling attention to something wonderful that the Trump administration is looking to destroy.

Perhaps when they decided to gut the EPA they imagined a flood of fiscally-conservative support to deflect from the potential horrors of eradicating an organization that came about because dense clouds of smog were hanging over cities and rivers were literally catching on fire. But in the case of the nation’s national monuments, they know they’re proposing something that the majority of Americans will not stand for in the abstract. For them, though, corporate interests and the production of capital must prevail. So they released this memo through the Department of the Interior (https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/interior-department-releases-list-monuments-under-review-announces-first-ever-formal) under the pretense of soliciting the input of “local” populations. It is the worst kind of artifice. Indeed, they didn’t even bother to get a good writer who could disguise their true intent. And because of this, even an average reader can discern what they’re looking for.

They are looking for people to complain about how the designation of protected federal land has negatively affected them. And with an anthology of complaints, they plan to present a case for stripping the owners of these lands (that is, Americans) and giving them (er, I mean, selling them for fair market value and reimbursing their previous owners (Americans) for their loss) to corporate interests, most notably those in the fossil fuel industry (why else would they go after the offshore preserves?).

People who have read my book will recognize many of the names on the list the DOI presents, and know my thoughts concerning their inimitable value to our country, our environment, and our culture. If I were to believe my own dreams, those words are now resonating in minds across the nation. But as I am well aware of the precise number of copies have actually been sold, allow me to buttress that profound cacophony with a few brief words about the monuments I have been to.

Canyons of the Ancients

This monument is really an extension of Mesa Verde National Park, only without the tidy coalescence of spectacular native dwellings. It is one of the few places left in America where the history of peoples living before recorded North American history can be studied. It is a spiritually fulfilling place for anyone looking to connect their lives to those of the earliest Americans.

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It is also rich in oil and gas, and as such, these industries have been clamoring for more access.

Cascade-Siskiyou

A gorgeous collection of forests and hills in southwestern Oregon and northwestern California, it has been at the forefront of study on how to sustainably manage timber and agricultural interests within the framework of preserving wilderness.

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Obama designated an expansion of this park a week before Trump’s inauguration. If the lumber fights in that part of the country weren’t enough, surely that put it on the administration’s hit list.

Craters of the Moon

One of the most fascinating places in America, it is both a geological and historical wonderland. Some of the features found within the park cannot be found anywhere else in the country. It’s also east of the middle of nowhere, and life in the lava fields is incredibly harsh. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would have a problem with preserving this place.

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Giant Sequoia

I mean really, we’re thinking about rescinding the preservation of one of America’s most enduring symbols? I can only imagine that this one is just a middle finger to the state of California.

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Grand Staircase-Escalante

It was a dream fulfilled when I ascending the “steps” of the Grand Staircase, a wondrous array of colorful cliffs and rock formations that is cut through by canyons that might be considered untouchable national treasures if not for their proximity to the Grand Canyon. There are slot canyons, arches, paleontological sites, and petroglyphs. It is an amazing place.

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It’s also a spur in the side of Utahans and many Republicans (though many Democrats also objected to the preservation of nearly 2-million acres of land). Bill Clinton used its designation as a re-election stunt. And mining companies have been clamoring to be let back in ever since. It’s definitely one of the trickier cases.

Sonoran Desert

Examples of pristine desert are rapidly diminishing in America, and this monument protects only a small portion of one of the few left.

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This one is easy. Livestock grazing rights vs. endangered species and land conservation.

Upper Missouri River Breaks

The Breaks are a spectacular collection of badlands in Montana, and one of my favorite places between the Rockies and the Mississippi. There are vast wildflower fields, stunning riverscapes, and magnificent rock formations. And there are dozens of sacred native sites.

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There are also tens of thousands of cattle. See above.

Vermilion Cliffs

Essentially, this is the Arizona section of the Grand Staircase. Sections of it are hypnotizing, and native pueblos are scattered throughout (native peoples have lived in the region for at least 12,000 years).

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Almost nobody lives there. There are few roads in and out. But the government owned the land long before it was given to the people, so obviously it’s immoral to leave it be? I guess?

 

The other places on the list surely have equivalent values. I can only hope others are arguing for them, as well. Because this is an attack on part of our birthright. When a monument is declared, that land becomes ours in a very real and tangible way. We are the stewards of it, and in turn we become the beneficiaries of all it returns to us. As private citizens we would never tolerate (or at least not willingly cede to) the seizure of our property, so why are we so complacent– or even enthusiastic– when politicians with greased palms propose to strip these lands from us and open them up to private exploitation? Is it because we’ve never been to some of them? Because we can’t be bothered to quantify the good their preservation has done for us both in an appreciable (i.e., scientific, environmental, etc.) and an esoteric way?

I can not abide my land being threatened in this manner. And neither should you.

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River

I’ve been seeing commercials from the Utah board of tourism a lot the past few weeks, and I’m convinced they are aimed directly at me. The “Mighty 5”– as they call the five national parks in the southern part of the state– were witness to one of the most memorable weeks of all my travels, and Zion in particular continues to call out to me (just ask my wife, who has certainly tired of my references to the park). During that week in early May the only bathing I did was in the intermittent creek, the only hot meal I ate came in the form of an overcooked bison burger in Kanab, and on one occasion I was forced to sleep on a rocky hillside. And I long to do it all again.

(Okay, perhaps I would bring a portable stove.)

There is more to southern Utah than the national parks, to be certain. The entire region is filled with spectacular rock formations, pre-Columbian dwellings and petroglyphs, and enough canyons to occupy any outdoorsman. If anything, there should be a Mighty 6 or a Mighty 7 or really, a Mighty However-Many-Places-We-Can-Protect there. But in deference to the Mighty 5 that is actually so-designated, I thought I’d post a couple of my favorite photos from each of the parks, in the order in which I visited them.

(And yes, I know John Prine’s Green River is in Kentucky. But mine is in Utah.)

Zion:

Southwest 3 546Southwest 3 508

Bryce Canyon:

Southwest 3 717Southwest 3 797

Capitol Reef:

Southwest 4 135Southwest 4 111

Canyonlands:

Southwest 4 200Southwest 4 423

Arches:

Southwest 4 303Southwest 4 257

No Need for me to Complain, My Objection’s Overruled

It is perhaps unseemly to make an argument for the National Endowment of the Humanities at a time when food is literally being taken out of the mouths of house-bound seniors. But though it may be that the loss of the NEH (and its sister program, the NEA) is less devastating than dozens of other programs slated to be cut, still I must note what a terrible loss to our country it will be.

Forget for a second that 15 Pulitzer-Prize winning books were promoted by NEH grants. Forget that Ken Burns’ The Civil War— a landmark in publicly-broadcast scholarship– owes its existence to them, or that The Valley of the Shadow used a grant to put together a groundbeaking digital media project that provides a remarkably visceral insight into the lives of soldiers and civilians during that war. Forget that the NEH provides immeasurable services to teachers and a profound menu of resources to students. Forget even that for years it has continually supported Frontline, where one of America’s finest collection of journalists do independent, non-partisan work on critical subjects that cable news outlets largely ignore. These– and all the other projects the NEH helps support– are worth the pittance the average American pays into the program each year. (Seriously. On average, a taxpayer pays about 50 cents a year for the NEH.) But put aside all that.

Instead, what I want to impress upon people in this post is that unless you’re J.K. Rowling or the Coen Brothers, working in the humanities is not particularly lucrative. By and large, people do it because they have a love for them, and because they understand the importance of the humanities in fostering a culturally-vibrant, well-educated electorate that better understands the importance of continually revitalizing the very thing that makes us who we are– our love of beauty, our human spirit, our need to create– within a society increasingly obsessed with profits and utility. Most writers, then, choose to live hard-wrought existences in which they spend most of their times working in other industries. Scholars in the humanities choose to spend their 20s studying within a system approximating indentured servitude, and then are far more likely to beat their heads against an adjunct wall that provides poverty-level wages for massive amounts of work (with the expectation that they do even more work to publish enough to even qualify to be plucked from the morass for one of a dwindling number or tenure-line positions). And journalists– oh, those reviled journalists, to whom all the ills of society are heaped!– by and large choose to work for peanuts, often find themselves in dangerous places, and work entirely at the whim of their employers and the tastes of an increasingly critical public. Is it any wonder that some of our nation’s best minds do not, and instead choose to suckle at the teat of the Goldman Sachs of the world?

Because of this, I can not understate what a lifeline the NEH is to the culture of our nation. We should be doing more to foster the things that inform us of the truth and beauty of our world, not less. This isn’t about bad poems and crunchy hipsters who don’t want to work for a living. It isn’t about me complaining that my book cost me thousands of dollars more than it earned me (I knew well the difficulties I would face in simply breaking even on the venture). No, it’s about preserving, fostering, and exposing the best of us– the things that make us a people. And it’s about supporting those who have dedicated their lives to helping do just that.

As a guidepost, consider the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project, a program that put thousands of people to work, fostered the careers of writers like Zora Neal Hurston, John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Stetson Kennedy, and Studs Terkel (a personal hero of mine, and a great influence upon An American Song and one of the non-fiction projects I am currently working on), and preserved invaluable pieces of American heritage– most notably the Slave Narrative Collection, a compilation of slave narratives told to researchers by the former slaves themselves. Further, its employees took and collected a massive trove of photographs, performed invaluable historiographical work, advanced American archeological endeavors, helped legitimize the field of oral history, and improved the nation’s collection of maps. And as a byproduct, the program empowered a needed counterpart to modernist disconnection from the non-fictive, fostering a documentary style that would soon become a hallmark of American art. All at a time when most workers in the humanities were staring down lives of abject poverty, or at best, careers in fields far-removed from creative enterprise.

It should be said, of course, that the FWP was not perfect. Field workers were often documenting the lives of sharecroppers, migrants, the racially- and economically-0ppressed, and the hardest-hit victims of the depression, and as such many embraced unfettered communism (including Stalinism) as a means of addressing their plights. (Though it must also be noted that the majority of FWP works were not political, and those that were tended not to advocate for their ideologies directly.) Despite these leanings, the vast majority of FWP workers were white– including those who compiled the slave narratives– meaning that a decidedly non-inclusive subject matter and interpretation generally prevailed despite leftist sentiments. And because of intense opposition from conservatives, it inadvertently led to the increased power of HUAC, a heightened public distrust of intellectuals, and fuel for a three-decade defacto moratorium on serious public investment in the arts that would only be reversed by the charter of the the NEH and NEA. (Sound familiar?)

Eventually the program was shelved at the federal level, and by 1943 state support also dried up. It was never really meant as an arts project, after all (Roosevelt saw it as one more way to put people to work, and only about .05% of the WPA budget went to it and its sister programs: the Federal Art Project, and the Federal Theater Project), and was always going to be a casualty in defense of more important programs.

But the investment was well-reaped nonetheless. In stark relief remains an illustration of the dividends of publicly-sponsored work in the humanities.

I suspect that just like the FWP was, the NEH and NEA are likely to be sacrificed in the fight for more critical social programs. Against a barrage of cruel cuts to programs vital to the health and security of America’s most vulnerable, Democrats will be hesitant to complain about things like books and art and public broadcasting, lest public opinion brand them wanton crybabies who value their beloved fru-fru at the same level as the lives of constituents. It will be hard to blame them.

But so too will it be a tragedy when our culture is subsequently denied work that would have benefited its people, and denied the labors of those who might otherwise be compelled to direct their energies elsewhere. And whether they know how or why or even if it has happened, all Americans will be the lesser for the loss.

The Black Paper Between a Mirror Breaks My Heart

Even as Albany is buried under 2 feet (and counting) of snow, I’m not intrinsically worried about the March blizzard. Storms happen all the time here straight into the spring, and I’m not sophisticated enough to know if this is weather or climate. Just like a cool day in July doesn’t disprove global warming, those warm temperatures last month don’t prove it.

What I do know is that climate scientists are in agreement that the volatility of weather in this part of the country is being exacerbated by changes to the climate. The waters of the Atlantic (where storms like these draw their strength) are warming, while the Jet Stream is weakening, greatly increasing the chances that conditions will be right for a storm of this magnitude. Some scientists are even tentatively suggesting that the “perfect” confluence of circumstances this week may be something that would have been impossible in pre-Industrial America (not that the snowfall or winds would have been impossible, it should be noted– only that the manner of their production would have been).

Such distinctions are important because the word freak is being thrown around far too casually right now. Freakish things are by definition of the rarest variety. They happen outside of the realm of predictable normality, and though immediately impactful are nothing to take seriously as anything more. Freak accidents don’t call for changes to driving laws. Freak occurrences don’t demand fundamental changes to everyday life. Freak storms fade into footnotes on Wikipedia pages.

And whether or not this blizzard is a function of climate change, it is clearly not a freak storm. Rather, when combined with the other extreme weather events that now make up an increasingly unpredictable climate, it represents a new and dangerous reality that we are forced to reconcile– at least until we seriously address the things that are fundamentally changing our planet.

And let’s be clear. It isn’t a pile of snow that’s the problem here. And it doesn’t stop at the peril the storm puts the homeless, the infirm, or the powerless in.

Five years ago, when I visited Michigan, a similar wave of bizarre weather crushed the state’s cherry industry. Because of early budding spurred by unusually warm weather late in the winter, 90% of the crop was lost and a then-undetermined number of cherry trees were killed as a result of spring cold snaps and ice storms that either destroyed them outright or left them exposed to deadly infections. Processing plants shut down, farmhands were put out of work, and families were torn apart when many of the employees who were laid off were forced to join migrant agriculture crowds– and this doesn’t even factor into the shortage of a foodstuff the state’s economy depended upon. The effects are still being felt today.

That summer I met one of the lucky farmhands who still had his job. He made no bones about it. He blamed it on global warming. He had no choice, after all. The realities of it were directly impacting him. He could either pretend that it was a freak set of events that had brought him to hardship, or join the voices calling for the truth to be heeded.

Right now I am worried about Upstate New York’s fruit orchards– particularly its apples, which are critical to its economy and important to the nation’s food supply. I am worried about Long Island’s vineyards. I am worried about Maine’s blueberries. The buds of all these plants are exposed, and because of that, so are the lives of those that depend upon them.

But more than that, I am worried that yet another lesson will go unheeded. Come Thursday, people will return to the grocery stores and see the abundance that blesses our modern lives. Soon after that the snow will melt. Eventually the storm will become anecdotal– a “remember when?” of the time when the roads were clogged with stranded cars and there was a conspicuous absence of toilet paper on the racks. We’ll take comfort in thinking back on the freak event that once inconvenienced us so. And we’ll return to the complacency of thinking that because it has passed, warmth and nourishment will once again be our rarely-broken lot.

I for one would rather we not assume this. I prefer we do what we can to assure it.