Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: History

JUST HOW BIG IS THAT TOWN WITH THE MILLS?

When I began drafting Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider, I was coming off a two-year stint that had me traveling across the Northeast, including the Atlantic Seaboard from Maine through Virginia. I hunkered down in Baltimore to concentrate on a handful of major writing projects in a very intense year of self-imposed sabbatical. (No university support, if you were wondering.)

While Big Inca marked a sharp departure from my other works, moving into dark subconscious realms and mysterious meanderings, it did incorporate castoffs from some of the other projects. The prompt, though, was a vague dream of restoring landmark mills beside a river, a project that could have happened just about anywhere in the region I’d been traveling.

We think of them as textile mills, and many of them were. But the water power could be employed for just about any kind of manufacturing, as I’ve since learned, from machine-making itself to shoes to clothespins to locomotives, as well as the grain and sawmill operations I’d been introduced to on our trips to historic sites in my childhood, starting with the overshot wheel and grindstones in Carillon Park in Dayton and the reconstructed Spring Mill village in Indiana.

As a youth, I’d also owned a gorgeous volume the duPont company had published to celebrate its history, and my favorite parts were the illustrations of its early mills and supporting waterways and lands in Delaware.

So there was already a degree of romance in my thinking about the use of old-fashioned waterpower.

Then, in my first job after college, I was introduced to the ruins of cigar factories beside a dam in the Susquehanna River, a tangled patch I returned to frequently, as I describe in my set of poems, Susquehanna. Just how would the mills have looked, anyway? And how would they have shaped the adjacent neighborhood, a setting reflected in Riverside, another of my poetry collections?

My more recent employment had me calling on places like Fall River, Massachusetts, with its array of vacant stone mills, as well as towns incorporating the more common red brick versions, large and small.

Add to that mention of the entrepreneurial impact of the many mills that once stood along the Jones Falls in Baltimore itself, before the freeway wound through the sites, and I was quickly writing.

Since releasing the novel, though, I’ve been wondering about scale. Just how big a town are we dealing with? And, for that matter, how big a mill yard?

In the back of my head I’d imagined something along the lines of Binghamton, New York, a city of roughly 50,000 – large enough to move about in inconspicuously but not too big to be, well, anywhere in the corporate radar these days. Or, more accurately, the recent past when the action takes place.

That’s had me looking more closely at old mill towns, of course, and asking if this one or that could be the right setting. Security, by the way, adds another consideration – I wouldn’t want the novel’s mills sitting right downtown, as they do where I now live or in several of the neighboring towns. Somersworth, to the north, has train tracks separating its old mills from the rest of the town, and Binghamton had a freeway.

A smaller town, in contrast, might simply have too many nosy neighbors who would insist on knowing everything about a newcomer like Bill, and that wouldn’t do. Still, there are some beautiful sites for imagining as you move about.

INDUSTRIAL AGE BIRTHPLACE

This is where it began.

This is where it began, starting with the Slater Mill on the left and building into the Wilkinson Mill, center.

The modest Slater Mill complex in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is honored as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.

The operation originated when apprentice Samuel Slater slipped through British security with secrets for textiles manufacturing and was hired by Moses Brown to replicate them in America, with the mill opening in 1793.

The fact that Brown, a Quaker, and his partners advertised for what was essentially stolen information troubles me – I do wonder how they justified their actions when questioned by their Friends meetings. The English, meanwhile, had long before enacted barriers that penalized fellow citizens in Ireland and America. Perhaps that was sufficient inspiration, even before the American Revolutionary War. Perhaps one action apologized for the other.

I was resting my finguers on this waterpowered lathe when I realized it was the origin of mass-production.

I was resting my fingers on this water-powered lathe when I realized it was the origin of mass-production. Without uniform parts, each item would have to be handcrafted from scratch.

 

There were differences between the Quaker Work Ethic and the Puritan Work Ethic, but they would have agreed on this sign.

There were differences between the Quaker Work Ethic and the Puritan Work Ethic, but they would have agreed on this sign.

More remarkably, though, Slater’s assistant, David Wilkinson, then provided the next leap – a lathe that produced large screws that were far more uniform than those painstakingly made by hand. Whether he or Henry Maudslay in England was the first to produce such precise work can be argued, but the results were the foundation for the innovative precision toolmakers who would transform industry. This was, in effect, the foundation for mass production. The thinking behind Wilkinson’s model inspired a league of New Englanders to advance the technology in applications across the region.

I doubt this was the origin of the phrase “Yankee ingenuity,” though it certainly fits.

My fondness for old mills, by the way, did prompt a novel, Big Inca.

SCRIBBLING OF THE UNIVERSE, IN A PERSONAL SENSE

In my novel Promise, especially, Jaya aspires to a form of literary creativity that’s not exactly poetry and not exactly prose as we know it, either. It’s part of her spiritual practice, arising in yoga, and reflects her intimate relationships with her husband and friends as well as their place in their sequence of landscapes.

In the years since publishing that novel and its sequels, Peel (as in apple) and St. Helens in the Mix, I’ve encountered something close to what she may have envisioned – the Gift Letters or Gift Songs of the American Shakers, a marvelous elixir of messages channeled from earlier leaders of the religious sect that the medium embellished with drawings and often an alien languageand alphabet. The handdrawn pages I’ve seen in art museums and online are arrestingly innocent in their purity and intent, meant to be given to a friend as encouragement and comfort, heart-to-heart, with the giver as the intermediary connecting past, present, and future. In each page, hope rings with sunlight and gentleness.

In these weekly Personal Journey entries on the Red Barn, I’ve begun presenting excerpts from a related book, Kokopelli’s Hornpipe. Like the three novels based on Jaya and her legacy, this volume has its root in the desert interior of the Pacific Northwest, this time examined with a more mythopoetical focus through the legendary character known as Kokopelli.

Like Jaya’s desire to express her deepest experiences in an entirely original art form, Kokopelli tries to elude classification. Is it fiction? I call it a novel, even if it’s only novella length. And I’d argue it’s more complex than a novella allows. Are its chapters essentially essays or memoir? The fictional characters must be taken into account as well as the underlying mythologies. I could point to some of Barry Holstun Lopez’ wondrous works and ask the same. Add to that the questions of identity, especially as a place assumes importance, even before we get to New Zion or New Jerusalem, so crucial in the American experience.

At the heart of all this is the basic matter of just who we love, and why. The matter of just where we are in the universe.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

WHO INVITED INCA INTO MY NARRATIVE, ANYWAY?

Why Inca, anyway? For starters, when it came to conceiving my novel Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider, I seem to recall an attraction to the wordplay, Inca for Inc., befitting a story about corporate intrigue.

Maybe there was even a sense of llama and alpaca wool as raw materials for the abandoned waterpower textile mills that instead become the front for covert business activity.

I was already aware of how much indigenous lore remained lost or buried in the American inheritance and wondered how much more might be festering somewhere. Even before issues of illegal immigration entered the picture, I was curious about the alternatives lurking in the imagined jungles of Latin America. Maya and Aztec, for example, also had rich imperial cultures that contrasted with the Spanish invaders.

The novel takes on its own meandering along the edges of consciousness and subconscious currents. Just what are we doing in our careers, anyway, at least in the face of ultimate existential purpose? And what is the allure of corporate politics, strategy, and gamesmanship, at least in the higher offices? Bill may be out in the sticks, but he is a puppet of sorts for the Boss. A player. Or maybe just his apprentice. Either way, he’s green and supple.

Here we encounter, however dimly, a darkness conquered by another darkness, perhaps crueler under its Christian veneer. Yet a New World Native undercurrent runs counter the peasantry of Old Europe, and pagan influences infuse both sides in the millpond of Bill’s labors. As for the company paying his Bill’s bills? It’s at least as mysterious as the Inca itself.

OH, SUCH PLEASURE IN THE SPRAY!

Penguins at the New England Aquarium take utter delight in the periodic rounds of spray around their pool.

Penguins at the New England Aquarium take utter delight in the periodic rounds of spray around their pool.

The New England Aquarium at the edge of Boston Harbor is a fascinating destination. And penguins can be endlessly amusing.

Boston is a rich and varied destination – the Hub of New England, or the Universe, as they used to say. Living a little more than an hour to the north, we’re well within its orb.

 

MAPPING MORE THAN GEOGRAPHY

I had no knowledge of the streams of quiet rebels who experience divinity directly, thanks, in part, to the map of their heritage as they work with the soil and their own bodies. These days, they resist as best they can the manufactured desires beaming from satellites or television airwaves, even while they watch many of their children succumb to these temptations. They could tell us about Elijah or Jeremiah, the Babylonian captivity, or the Maccabees’ war of independence, in addition to my own ancestors’ sufferings recorded in The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians or Joseph Besse’s A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers, for the Testimony of a Good Conscience. When, at last, I reclaim this legacy, piecemeal, I ask, “So whose story are you telling, anyhow? Which grandparents are yours?” Opening their maps, I follow their footsteps, even in a strange land. Well made cartography includes supplications and blessings, as well as warnings.

My own homeland once included many woodlands well into my grandfather’s childhood. A balance of forest, with its firewood and construction timber, and farm fields and pastures. So much so, in fact, that people could travel dozens of miles on roads that never left forest between cities. By my own childhood, however, most of the trees had been leveled, and even the woodlot on an uncle’s farm doubled as pasture for hogs and cattle. In winter, the countryside was a stubble wasteland.

Similarly, a prairie denuded of buffalo is impoverished. How much poorer is a suburban lot occupied by restless greed? Here I am, dwelling in desert I consider healthier and more vibrant than the construction I see overrunning the lands around cities and towns. “Rebuild at the core,” I urge the wind. “Repent!” Turn about! Bring back the buffalo and the buffalo nickel, as well as amicable urban neighborhoods. There are all kinds of communities, and humans are only part of the equation. There is land, there is sky, there is water and flowing. To say nothing of what exists beneath them.

A person who comprehends maps will appreciate history as well. Perhaps even musical scores, as another kind of map with a dimension of time.

I listen to my wife and learn of the mental maps many women carry. The ones of kitchens or gardens. Others leading to childbirth and parenting, or even away.

I, meanwhile, come here for a taste of primeval wilderness — a hope to experience a timeless reality that holds humanity in a state of awe rather than arrogance. Just look to the mountains for salvation. Look as well to dreams, each one having one foot in your past and the other in your present.

Carried to an intelligence that daylight conceals, I sense that within many rapidly fading distinctions I’ve scorned are important markers; these ranged from where to harvest wild berries and their uses as food and medicine to my own ancestors’ hymns and religious teachings. To be creative means building on what’s come before, rather than entering a new universe. The path on the map goes from one place to another. Respect is essential — another way of honoring one’s fathers and mothers. There’s still time to cultivate individuality and character in the field. Sometimes, even where homogeneity is perceived, a people can differ as sharply among themselves as they do from others. Ponder Polish Catholics in Chicago, Congregationalists in Ohio’s once-Yankee Western Reserve, and fire-breathing Baptists and Pentecostals in Detroit and what they might do to enhance each other’s heritage, rather than striving for some common denominator. That’s another way of lifting up mountains, rather than leveling. Even on flat land, each body leaves a hidden stamp on its soil. Learn to read vibrations of an environment, and you identify communities dwelling therein, sometimes a century or two after their departure. Through the news and entertainment media, I grew up knowing more of Manhattan and Capitol Hill, though they were only incidentally closer geographically than Kansas City or Minneapolis, supposedly within my Midwestern realm. I knew more, too, of Hollywood back lots and Beverly Hills. Indeed, not until much later had I recognized the Midwest I’d considered so conservative and culturally backward was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a hotbed of radical politics and organized labor. Many of its cities elected Socialist mayors only to replace them with Ku Klux Klan within the decade. Talk about upheaval! In the front parlors of homes in many small towns across the Plains, the latest wave of European high culture was performed; three of the nation’s oldest handful of symphony orchestras were organized (St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati). In the machine shops of isolated barns and backyard stables of small-town entrepreneurs, curious Midwestern farm boys tinkered perfecting the automobile and a thousand other industrial marvels. Kite-flying bicycle-building brothers put men in the air.

Much of this I did not understand or appreciate when dreaming only of escape. Only now did I come to see what remains of a once rich and varied heritage. In those days I looked off to the limits of a world; fixes like Boston and Seattle as strands of Utopia. What I encountered instead was a step beyond the anticipated. Of the neighborhoods I would come to call home, none quite fit what people expect of East Coast, Midwest, or Pacific Northwest, either.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

WITHIN A SHIFTING FOCUS

Envisioning a grouping of my poems under the umbrella of Exposure, I initially drew on the photographic sense of admitting light to a sensitized film or plate, and then watching the image take form and density in stages on white paper in the developing bath in the darkroom – admittedly, now, obsolete practices, supplanted by the much less technically demanding use of digital cameras. (With all of its own advance technical dimensions.)

The title survived even though the contents kept shifting until settling on what now appears in the middle section of my collected Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag.

At first, this was to be a set of micropoems – brief, flickering revelations akin to snapshots – especially of the kind my Uncle John Orr calls “mockery photography.” Or, better yet, multiple exposures, with their overlapping actions. But those works scuttled elsewhere, where they’ve seemed to fit better.

In their place came Treated for Exposure, a grouping of pieces originating in wilderness encounters. In the backcountry, individuals who are caught unprepared in sharp downturns of the weather may require rescue and even hospitalization, where they are reported being “treated for exposure” – dehydration, hypothermia, frostbite, and the like. Again, those works drifted elsewhere, where they seemed to fit better.

What remained was a sequence of tenacious afterimages leading to a third route, though still not the final round.

Like most Americans today, my exposure to the outdoors, much less wilderness, has come in flashes – an hour or two, a day or even a week, typically chosen for fair conditions or else domestic tasks, such as weeding, mowing the grass, or shoveling snow. (As for “unfair” conditions, the lessons can be harsh and unforgettable, yet opening lessons of essential understanding – life is fragile, after all, and above all else, keep dry or get dry, quickly. I must wonder how many who have faced death in these situations return to the trail with a deepened sense of awe and respect, as well as caution.) Once again, in the end, the exposure is fleeting, caught in a flash of time and incomplete observation – something transformed or vanished in the flick of an eyelid. Even so, it is possible to approach these experiences as a pilgrim, acknowledging there is much to absorb here, as well as profound renewal and revival. A sense of humility helps, as well, for even skilled outdoorsmen find a wrong turn can become life-threatening. We come back to what is essential and timeless. In the rush of modern society, I require grounding and rooting, which these ageless places give back to me.

In a leap, this led to an exploration of something I thought I’d avoided – poems about poetry and poets. Generally, I’ve long had an aversion to art about art: movies about musicians or writers (or, worse yet, university English departments), and the closer they get to their own field, the more incestuous the practice commonly feels. Yet there are marvelous exceptions, leading me to question my original premise. Perhaps it arises in the newsroom dictum of getting as far out into the field as possible to get the best story: out on the street, where a council vote has impact, rather than in City Hall or the Mayor’s office, for instance, or out into the battlefront rather than safely ensconced in the Pentagon. (Admittedly, yes, after decades as a journalist, I have written that newsroom novel, my Hometown News.) Perhaps it is also a recognition and desire that writers speak to and with a larger audience or readership than other writers only. And it is definitely with an awareness that artists are not a special class of Genius, one needing apology or explanation or reverence as some type of Holy Order, at that. Ultimately, art is what we do, like prayer, regardless of the outcome or our reasons.

Like prayer, our practice embodies a host of assumptions and approaches: pages from a Book of Common Prayer, at one end, to the wordless Pentecostal outpouring of glossolalia, often called (erroneously) “praying in tongues,” at the other. It can give voice as communion, adoration, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, or intercession – and more, to say nothing of the range of our individual vocabulary, concepts, and situations. Such as sex.

In a leap, too, a dual awareness arises. The act of allowing the Other to expose its secrets to us – whether as a backcountry trail to a mountaintop, a lover, or the Divine – also demands that we also become vulnerable. We, too, are exposed, often unintentionally, in our strengths and weaknesses, our virtues and sins, our pride and shame. In this state of exposure, we are permitted to observe as long as we ourselves are being observed. The photographer enters the picture; the poet, no matter how carefully concealed, still enters the poem. The musician becomes the music. Truth demands honesty that can be painful and healing.

I think of my poems that arise from experiences while spending a week in a cabin in the Maine woods to twists in particular trails in Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, or Pennsylvania; the Florida Everglades; the Cascade Range of Washington state and northern California; or the Appalachian foothills of upstate New York or southern New Hampshire. Others, from family or lovers or friends and coworkers.

In the end, then, we, too, may be treated for exposure. Treated, but not tricked.

For the moment, let’s toy with the scarab – the beautiful jewel or the moving beetle. One, to my mind, will point to the other.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

FROM HIPPIE TO HOLY

Reading Douglas Gwyn’s 2000 book, Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience, in light of America’s recent political campaigns has him looking downright prophetic. Even though he focuses most of his pages on the emerging Quaker movement in the turbulence of 17th century Britain, his opening chapter looks closely at the 1960s, when “crises of conscience rocked American institutions and authorities.” While the counterculture revolution spanned the political and economic scene, “Religious institutions and authorities were no exception. The postwar religious consensus, one of the strongest in American history, began to flounder.”

As regular readers of the Red Barn will recognize, he’s leading straight into some of my central concerns, especially as he attempts to make sense of the era’s impact over the subsequent years. I like his introduction of sociologist Steven Tipton, who “has argued that, in different ways, Americans continue trying to get ‘saved from the ’60s.’ For some, it is the search for final deliverance from the religious conformism of the early ’60s, which they found personally stifling and morally bankrupt. Meanwhile, others seek deliverance from the legacies of the ‘counterculture,’ from the moral chaos and personal confusion they found so disturbing in the late ’60s.”

Of course, it wasn’t just religion. “Tipton characterizes the countercultural revolt of the ’60s as a crisis of meaning and morality in the face of accelerating technological innovation and bureaucratic organization in American society.” Gwyn then goes on to examine a whole range of currents unleashed at the end of World War II and then transformed in the baby boom generation – way too much to encapsulate here.

Quite simply, these are matters that remain largely unresolved, especially for those of us who came of age during the upheaval and for our children and now, for many, our grandchildren. It remains a mixed bag of continuing portent.

As someone whose hippie openings led to living in a yoga ashram, or monastic community, which then pointed me on a journey to affiliating with the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I can see religion as both “saving” me from the ’60s and simultaneously enhancing its vision. And I am deeply concerned about the marginalization of religious discourse from general society – especially when it comes to the left.

Gwyn picks up on this track in his final chapter, especially as he looks at a touchy topic labeled truth. It was one I had been forced to face in examining the basic early Quaker metaphors of the Light and the Seed and, as it turned out, the Truth. My own efforts soon had me exploring ways to engage truth as a verb, but trying to find an appropriate visual image remained elusive, no matter how intriguing the options. Gwyn solves this quite eloquently:

By recognizing truth as a living, moving being, we may better remember that truth is a someone we must serve, not a static entity we can master. Hence, the four-part framework we have defined is not a “cage” designed to capture truth. Rather, it offers a guide to the dynamics of a faithful conversation of truth. By being accountable to one another in that conversation, we form communities accountable to truth.

That is, Gwyn turns to the life of Jesus. In doing so, he could have saved me a lot of effort! (We’ll likely get to his four-part framework in a future post.) He then turns to O.A. Piper, who

contrasts the truth witnessed in John’s gospel and letters with the static Platonic ideal. For Plato, truth always lies beyond words; its concrete expression will always be flawed. For John, truth is an active, creative, temporal reality; it moves from provisional to final expression. Therefore, Christ is not the essence of all truths. Rather, he reveals the goal for which the world is destined. The provisional expressions of truth given final expression in the incarnate Word include not only the revelation of Moses (e.g., John 6:3) but also the Greek philosophical traditions more implicitly evoked along the way. For John, truth has an eschatological character, since it unfolds in history, moving toward final expression. Through the life of Jesus, the Gospel of John portrays the struggle of truth against falsehood. 

This approach to truth, as Gwyn observes, is hardly confined to religion. It is an ongoing conversation. Without it

we live in one another’s unexamined “shadow” of projected fears and secret desires. Too often, we “seek” mainly to avoid those we fear and loath.

And then, Gwyn’s words leap far ahead to events far in the future of when he wrote them:

Not only does our seeking become self-referential and esoteric, but our continued indulgence in stereotypical versions of the “others” fuels alienated, paranoid politics of mutual aversion that will only breed more trouble in the future.

Oh, my, have they! Even in 2000, he saw the two sides

are strongly polarized today. Orthodox traditionalists continue in a reflexive mode we might call fundamentalist universalism, an insistence that the traditionalist truths they have reclaimed (or never abandoned) have absolute, non-negotiable validity for people everywhere. Those who do not respond to those truths are written off as “lost.” … Meanwhile, liberal progressivists continue in an inversely reflexive mode we will term universalist fundamentalism, a Platonic insistence that truth remains beyond the language and spiritual devotion of any group. … Groups … claiming to know and impart truth in any definitive sense are by definition wrong. … Moreover, as we continue to discredit and neutralize one another, the ruling interests of the age will further consolidate their power over all of us. [398]

Both assume that the truth is some static entity. …

Sound familiar?

Turning to “your truth” as distinct from “my truth” won’t get us anywhere, by the way. We require some common ground where we can exchange what we value and envision, along with ways to pursue them.

As the presidential race headed toward the finish line, we heard many accusations and fears about Muslims thrown into the fray – in effect, a challenge from the fundamentalist universalism side regarding its defense of truth as it understood it. The universalist fundamentalist side still hasn’t heard the underlying challenge, at least not in any way I’ve yet heard.

There were all too many lies tossed about in the campaign season. We need to get back to speaking in truth. And that, for me, means the practice of religion, one way or another.

A BACK BAY FLOURISH

 

In the second-floor railing ...

In the second-floor railing, they strike me as a cross between lions and seahorses.

A distinctive railing adorning a Beacon Hill house somehow fits in with the district’s predominantly federalist style.

Boston is a rich and varied destination – the Hub of New England, or the Universe, as they used to say. Living a little more than an hour to the north, we’re well within its orb.

MULTIPLE MAPPING

Knowing how far to go — and when to turn back, to the best effect — are difficult matters. The wise traveler relies on those who have gone there already and returned. You hope they speak truthfully. Often your life will depend on their directions. Even knowing what to pack and what to omit may be based on their counsel. Mountains and rivers are only the beginning.

When there’s too much to remember, a map begins forming. That or a guidebook. But the map presents more possibilities than the book, with its linear narrative confined to one route at a time — even maps with vast portions blank or missing. Take two points on a map and connect them, this way or that. Add a third. And then a fourth.

I never would have arrived in this desert without maps. The airliner’s navigation charts, of course. And then the highway atlas. Many others, as well, become useful. Those that show back roads. Others, topography. Still others, property divisions — including the Indian reservation and Army artillery range, both declared off-limits. Maps of emotions, economies, explorations. Maps of oceans, weather, the heavens.

Disembark and you go to work filling in details and then connecting points like a spider. What’s around that corner? What’s over that ridge? Where will we stay, and what’s the best way to get there? A single map is only an blueprint. The particulars never quite fit. Especially in two dimensions. A breeze lifts the web. Coyote walks through it.

Each one distorts — some far more than others, and rarely by intention. Who made the map in your hands? And to what purpose? Some were mathematicians of few words. Others were empire builders or real estate developers. Some weave the directions into the stories they tell beside the campfire. Some ignore shadows. Fail to repent, ask forgiveness, extend blessing. Others know survival, as well as play, requires definition and decision. Obligates searching within, as well as around, in fullest candor. Some even deceptively point you away from your destination (why should they reveal their secrets?).

Those who were born and raised here know it in a different way from those who have migrated. Magpie will tell you one thing; a Canada goose, another. Same goes for where they’re positioned. Jackrabbit and dragonfly take separate pathways, as does beaver. You simply log where they cross and hope to find meaning.

I had thought maps were the essence of geography. Now the definitions spill over into history, geology, meteorology, political science, psychology, and much more. Because many misunderstandings afflict each life, there are bound to be collisions. Sometimes you move into a thorn that pierces consciousness, but even that rarely brings clarity. You see there’s endless discord among individuals, clans, tribes, nations, denominations — all to be traversed and mapped in the search for ways out and back safely. In this knowledge, jobs, aspirations, faiths, possessions, social standing are merely reflections of fundamental conflicts between human consumption and the good earth itself. No one can dwell anywhere without disturbing the whole; individuals and collectivities distort and contort to their own ends, some more benignly than others. The lines on the page do not hold their place. Without a divinity as a guide knowing these connecting pathways, then, there’s no return to full measure and health. The breath people exhale, fires they build, grains and flesh they devour are diverted to their chosen applications. “Tell us something better,” I implore. “Teach us the highest way.” Where anyone takes it from here is another matter.

Sadly, whether this transformation’s harmonious and renewing, guiding individuals as merciful stewards and co-creators with the divine, or self-centered and destructive as thieves, is rarely considered. Just observe how communities rationalize, arguing that the welfare of their women and children comes first, even as they bankrupt the farm to support worldwide armies or strip timberlands in a rutting for coal and iron.

You could perceive many aspects of this in these orchards within desert. While the choice of irrigating and producing fruit sustains many more humans than the arid range would, also ponder the long-term impact of the poisons applied through each season. Kill harmful insects and molds, but what else? And how soon before it seeps into the groundwater and household wells? It’s all an interplay of good and evil, which I observed through a giant spider web. As a practice within my spiritual discipline, the Dedicated Laborious Quest, I place maps atop other maps and find they are drawn to different scales. Many of the words require translation, which introduces its own misunderstandings. Some of the maps are even of places far from here, landscapes in memory.

Too many details and the sheet becomes a scribble. Maybe that’s why here, at an extremity of the continental United States, I now comprehend the American Midwest of my childhood and early adult years as something other than a uniformly Protestant corn belt. Even overlooking ecological differences between woodlands and prairies, or between the Great Lakes and the Missouri or Ohio river valleys, I reconsider its varied ethnic traditions and the hidden cost of the melting-pot focus. Speaking with other exiles like myself, I become aware of unique distinctions some of our ancestors resolutely upheld, at the cost of their own lives, if necessary. There were strains of Scandinavian Lutherans in the Dakotas, Russian Mennonites in Kansas, and Scottish Presbyterians in Iowa, whose distinct cultures were eroding like the topsoil itself. You would hear, too, why so many had fled. Some, desperately hoping to forget forever their terrors or shame, buried the evidence as best they could. Others, however, defiantly kept it aloft as a reminder of their liberation and a warning.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.