Sunday, January 07, 2018

Paul Shepard: The Ecology of Maturity

Paul Shepard. photo courtesy of Florence Shepard.
Paul Shepard, a visionary pioneer of ecology, died in 1996.  We exchanged letters in the last year or so of his life.  Casey Walker, editor of the Wild Duck Review, put together a special issue on Shepard in 1997.   Shepard's widow, Florence Rose Krall Shepard, suggested I might contribute an article.  (In addition to editing Paul's last manscripts, she is the author of two books, Ecotone and more recently Sometimes Creek: A Wyoming Memoir.)

On a visit to Arcata, Casey and Jack Turner, author of the excellent book The Abstract Wild, had coffee with me at Los Bagels.  Casey then invited me to write the article I described.  Titled "The Ecology of Maturity" it appeared in the Wild Duck Review special issue along with contributions by Florence Shepard, Stephen Kellert, C.L. Rawlins, Barbara Ras, Barbara Dean, Dolores LaChapelle, Steve Chase and Joseph Meeker, and Gary Snyder. 

 Several of these articles, plus biographical information appear on the Paul Shepard site that Casey set up.  With Florence Shepard, I set up an earlier site that no longer exists, although I will probably build a new one.  I'm also beginning a series of Shepard quotes at my Dreaming Up Daily blog.

Shepard's ideas only become more relevant as time goes on.  There were online and magazine articles in late 2017 about a new book that dared to suggest that the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture in human history might not have been the unalloyed triumph it is assumed to have been--that for example, hunter-gatherers were healthier.  Shepard wrote this, and made a sophisticated case for it, at least 30 years before.  

Similarly, several books in the past decade or so have asserted the crucial role of nature in child development.  Shepard showed how profoundly true this is, also 30 years ago.  Yet he is seldom credited.  Shepard combined a breathtaking synthesis backing strong and profound analysis.  He essentially created the field of human ecology, and his work defines it.  Apparently few have been able to match both his breadth and depth, so he remains unique.  All the more reason to keep his works alive. 

In the years immediately following his death, Florence edited his final manuscripts for publication by Island Press. Around that time the University of Georgia Press also published new editions of several of his landmark books which had fallen out of print.

What follows is my original (and longer) version of "The Ecology of Maturity."

The Ecology of Maturity

Most of my teachers I never met, nor am I sure, given my thesis, that they would assent heartily to my apprenticeship.” 
Paul Shepard, Preface to Nature and Madness.

Paul Shepard in the 1970s

 I missed the chance to be a student of Paul Shepard by less than a year. He left Knox College in the spring of 1964 after teaching there for a decade; I entered as a fresh-faced freshman the following fall. I’ve wondered what difference this lost opportunity made in my life, and thinking back on that year, it’s likely that the impact of his absence was immediate.

 Orientation week included a series of presentations and discussions on the theme of “Two Cultures” as defined by C.P. Snow and engaged further by literary critic F.R. Levis. One culture was science, the other humanities. We had been sent books on the subject and were expected to have read them before arriving.

 The idea of such a colloquium was a wonderful introduction to the liberal arts ideal--Knox was and is a small liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois. But separating science and humanities into two camps, with faculty members defending their side, had unfortunate consequences. The humanities side was championed by (among others) a fiery literature professor (I suspect he was the “friend” that Paul Shepard debates in his introduction to his first book Man in the Landscape, who says that nature is out of date) railing against technocracy and reductionism, and defending beauty, ambiguity and humane values.

Science was represented by colorless men in short-sleeved shirts who were technically precise but seemed mildly patronizing (Snow’s most incendiary sentence said that scientists “have the future in their bones”) as well as narrow, feckless and clueless regarding the larger questions and implications.

That was my impression anyway, so there was no question which culture won. In any case I hadn’t intended to major in a science; arriving on a writing scholarship I became a literature and composition major, with several courses in philosophy and “political science.” But I had some residual romanticism attached to science and an abiding interest in many aspects including method, subject matter, and the public and profound issues raised. Most of all I was hungry to know what the sciences could contribute to a fuller understanding of the world.

But as a result of these presentations, I didn’t think I’d find any answers, or even any sympathy, in science courses or faculty. Of course, as Man in the Landscape (which had also been the title of a course Shepard taught at Knox) abundantly demonstrated when it was published three years later, Paul Shepard united both cultures in his adventurous vision.

 That book specifically embraced art, religion, philosophy, history and literature. Later his work would go deeply into areas of anthropology, comparative religion, psychology, education, and a dozen different sciences; throughout his work he refers to paintings and quotes poets, playwrights and novelists, all in a lifelong inquiry into Big Questions and a persistent search for meaning. He was a living liberal arts ideal.

So at Knox I learned how to read a poem, but not how to read the trees; I could identify a sestina, but not a Ponderosa pine. While my intellectual life blossomed, I felt an emptiness that I learned to identify as inherent in our existential dilemma. Shepard would see at least part of this as a measure of our unnecessary alienation from nature and the wild, especially in childhood. I felt it, and could almost identify it at times--as when my senses would sharpen and my muscles quicken in the flickering dark of the woods, to an extent that embarrassed me with friends because this was so “out of character.”

 Somehow I did not connect the feelings in poetry or in Thoreau and Emerson, with what my body felt as I loped up a wooded hillside, nimble, alert and silent. Yet I wonder how much of my resistance Shepard could have overcome then.

I was told by older students that he was a charismatic teacher, almost a saintly figure, and that would have helped. I probably would have been impressed and changed by how he physically related to the wild, which I hadn’t observed in anyone else.  Paul Faulstich remembers (in his contribution to The Company of Others: Essays in Celebration of Paul Shepard) how Shepard walked “across the landscape as if it is something not entirely separate from himself” and taught him “how to kill and eat a rattlesnake as though it were a sacred being...”

I would have been very sympathetic to Shepard’s opposition to some of the prevailing ideas of the times. In the 1960s, science was predominately mechanistic, reductionist and often in unholy alliance with the military-industrial complex. Especially in America, the popular idea of evolution was more social Darwinism than Darwin: survival of the fittest, which meant progress, the shedding of useless characteristics in the process of continuous improvement. The social evolution resulting in science and technology meant we fixed nature to work for us, and if we broke something along the way, well, we could fix that, too, and probably make money doing it.

 As for evolution in nature itself, the implication was similar to that expressed recently by a Humboldt State University athletic coach during a brief debate on changing the school’s mascot, who referred to the marbled murrelet as “a loser species.” The message of natural selection was: adapt or die out. The most vivid example I learned in my junior year course in Evolution was of a species of white moth that suddenly found itself easy prey when lighting on trees blackened by industrial soot in the north of England. The white moths disappeared, while a black moth mutation prospered.  (The science of this has since been questioned but the metaphor was not lost on me, especially when I failed the course.)

Shepard’s view of evolution is very different, emphasizing what it includes rather than excludes. And I certainly would have agreed that “environmental quality is inseparable not only from the protection of wildlife but also from war, poverty and social justice...” (as he wrote in his preface to the Environ/Mental anthology.)

But his championing of the hunter-gatherer as essential to human life as it did evolve might not have appealed to me then. Thanks to the spectre of nuclear war, Vietnam, the draft, and the kind of people who promoted them, I wasn’t sympathetic to man the hunter. Hunting was warfare on animals, the beginning of the technology that had evolved into the warfare state, the carnivorous competition of capitalism, leading to the grinning mechanical intolerance of social Darwinism itself.

 In fact, Evolution was the only course I flunked in college, and despite my first place in departmental comprehensives, I wasn’t graduated because I’d needed that course for a distribution requirement. I was passing until the final, when I couldn’t identify sketched bones of extinct animals, and wouldn’t try. The night before, I’d observed fellow students in the student union desperately cramming information they would gratefully forget two minutes after the exam. They were doing it essentially without a thought, because that was the course of evolution. For me it was a sham I couldn’t force myself through one last time, not with the winds of Vietnam and the draft howling just on the other side of graduation’s door, no matter what I did.

 So the following spring I spent my class’s graduation day watching Bobby Kennedy’s funeral on the student union TV. Although I eventually fought my way out of the draft, I had essentially been selected out of academia and the mainstream, and generally felt like “a white moth/pressed against/a blackened tree,” lines I had already published in the college magazine, in a poem called “Evolution.”
This 1969 collection with Shepard's essay
"Ecology and Man: A Viewpoint"
became a foundation text for ecology

 Yet sometime between the Two Cultures colloquium and the Evolution final, something happened at Knox that would turn out to be another key opening to Shepard’s books, among other things. It was something a visiting speaker said--I don’t remember who he was or his main topic, but as a kind of aside or example, he mentioned that some aboriginal peoples give thanks to the spirit of the animal they have just killed. I was so moved by this that I left the room.

 The idea of this ceremony was a crucial link. I had a feel for ritual from my Catholic schooling, yet I’d begun questioning dogma (and getting into enormous trouble for it) in high school, and had finally renounced membership one winter Sunday of my college freshman year, because of the contrast between the impatient congregation that kept their coats on during Mass, and the coats piled gently on each other on the floor outside the dining room where my fellow students congregated.

 Thanks in part to campus readings by poets like Gary Synder (who read for several hours, three days running), Robert Bly and Denise Levertov, I saw new possibilities for ritual and relationships to the natural world. But here in the imagined figure of that hunter I saw a true sacrament, a sense of the sacred I instinctively felt was not only right, but the key to everything.

1. In the Context of Otherness 

 That's a long-winded short version of my journey to Paul Shepard’s books, and what I value in them. I admired Man in the Landscape so passionately that I talked the editor of Harper’s Bookletter into letting me write a review of it in 1974, even though by then it was out of print. I got the Shepard and McKinley anthologies in the ‘70s, but lost track of Paul Shepard’s work until I came across Nature and Madness in a Seattle used bookstore in the late 80s. That bundle of thunder sent me to the library to catch up on The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game and Thinking Animals, which together prompted me to write another review of Paul Shepard’s once again out-of-print books.

 In some respects, conventional wisdom caught up with Shepard. Ecology and environment are common concepts, even inspiring contending bureaucracies. There is some sense that evolution is not the same as progress, that diversity might be part of the point after all. Some would even agree that the culture is crazy, though not in the same profound sense or for the same reasons Shepard posits.

 But in even more striking ways, Shepard remains stubbornly beyond the fashions of the acceptable dissents. While others yearned for a return to the land, he insisted that farming had itself sown the seeds of doom. When others cried, it all started going wrong with the automobile, he said, no, actually, it was the horse.

 As I understand it, Shepard’s vision does not differ from the conventional in a few picturesque, cantankerous details. He challenges basic assumptions about how we see ourselves and the world.

For centuries the reigning metaphors for how things worked were mechanical. The Cartesian universe was like a giant clock, the body a machine. The model was refined: for instance in the 1930s, the brain was a kind of telephone switchboard (promulgated in my grade school days by those Bell Telephone science film strips.) Lately the metaphors for mind and body have been computerized. We process, we interface, our leisure or illness constitutes down-time; we’re hardwired, we’re software, we download and uplink,we’re overloaded.

 Instead Shepard revives and elaborates a more ancient but by now revolutionary model: we’re animals. We bleed, taste, touch and sleep. We’re not silicon and plastic inventions; our fleshy hands come from our forebears in the trees, our eyes from the sea, and our minds from the forage and the hunt. We learn who we are and who we aren’t by observing and living in conscious intimacy with animals and their given world, which is also ours.

Another popular assumption supposedly gleaned from science is the history of the human, as pictured in school texts and most minds. It begins with the “prehistoric” cave-man: bent over, dull-eyed, holding a crude club, his stupid jaw darkly unshaven. Then we progress meticulously through the brief ages--the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans,etc.-- until we come to the upright figure of modern man, striding forward with confident grin, fresh from a shave and a shoe shine.

 Shepard’s very different picture is shocking for the implication of its accurate time-scale. There in the last fraction of the continuum--a mere ten thousand years-- is all of what we call history. The first few million years is “prehistoric man,” climaxing with the long and happy habitation of the hunter-gatherers, when the human body and mind were formed, when our evolution essentially stopped, because there's not been enough time since for it to have adapted significantly.  That's when human nature was formed.

 Unfortunately we’ve constructed societies since then largely inimical to our natures, not to mention nature as a whole. These two basic insights, about animals and human time, are involved in a different message of evolution.  The message is that in crucial ways we are the animals and they are us, and that what we are as humans is mostly what we were for the longest time.

 But evolution doesn’t principally mean that the inefficient gets left behind; it also means that nothing is lost. And sometimes--like our color vision--what was apparently lost can be regained.

 In The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Shepard describes the hunter-gatherer life: living in small groups, with neither sex subservient, and largely without war or greed; intelligently attendant to the natural world and totally involved in it; makers of intricate tools, with abundant leisure and forms of what we call art that combine functionality, religious inquiry and expression, science, and fun.

Interacting with animals, plants and habitat, hunting and gathering built and formed human intelligence, and the soul of the species. He goes on in that book and those that followed to elaborate on this picture and to explore its enormous implications.

 Poets and ancestral or existing primal cultures bring us similar perspectives, but what is especially important is that Shepard comes to them by way of what we understand as science. Yet he comes to the same profound place, the mystery at the heart of the human encounter with the world as symbolized by the hunter praying over prey.“Broadly understood, the hunt refers to the larger quest for the way, the pursuit of meaning and contact with a sentient part of the environment, and the intuition that nature is a language.”

 Shepard is unique in the organization of his argument and the blend of knowledge linking science with the spiritual in an ecology of the mind and millennia. In this afflicted existential, postmodern culture roiling around in what George W.S. Trow calls “the context of no context,” he presents our crucial alternative, “the context of otherness.”

He does as a matter of course what "the Two Cultures" won’t allow, but which permits Shepard the scientist to know the past in his bones, and therefore the present, and therefore the future: he sweeps his scholarly eye, and tunes his omnivorous ear, to evidence from the dissecting table, the archaeological dig, the naturalist’s perch, the anthropologist’s tape recorder, the shaman’s chants, the poet’s dreams.

the current Georgia Press edition
“The dream and song are ecological factors,” he writes in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. “ As in the development of myth, their basic images have been shaped by the same evolutionary forces that shape the physical traits of species.”

 But he does not just make the point: Shepard richly populates it, and to experience this requires reading his books. At the same time, he opposes misplaced mysticism and challenges the the sentimental errors of animal rights advocates, the arrested adolescence of ideologues, the ethical myopia of self-righteous vegetarians (...the zucchini-killers and drinkers of the dark blood of innocent soybeans”); any smugness that might tempt wilderness protectors, and even the kindness of pet lovers, all of which I’m sure frustrates some who would like to tabulate another easily absorbed New Age prophet.

 Even for environmentalists he must have sometimes been the gadfly in the ointment. But in the end--and all along the way--he tightly braids the physical with what it implies, with what it radiates, and what rationalist science denies: the spiritual that comes from the physical directly, the essential living mysteries, the sacred embedded in the encounters, the corresponding wilds.

 In doing so he always examines the individual as well as the species and culture, as he links the intensely specific physical world with its religious and ethical implications. In a late essay (“On Animal Friends”) he calls for an “ecology of maturity”, to be realized in “ a sense of gratitude more than mastery,” and “participation in a rich community of organisms, a true biophilia or polytheism.”

 Here in the offhand linking of those last two terms, “biophilia or polytheism”, is the boldness of the vision he contributes. In “A Posthistoric Primitivism,” another of his essential late essays collected in Traces of An Omnivore, he writes: “As born antihistorians, our secret desire is to explicate the inexplicable, to recover what is said to be denied.” Yet to be an antihistorian is perhaps not to be anti-evolutionary.

2.Writer on the Landscape 
Doug Wilson with Paul Shepard

  finally exchanged letters with Paul Shepard, brokered by Douglas Wilson, his colleague and my teacher at Knox, but Shepard was already in the last year of his life. So I never met him, and my contact with him has all been in words on pages.

But I admired those words and pages; I admire his writing as writing, where we get at substance only through style.

 It was clear to me from the first pages of Man in the Landscape that he was, among other things, a natural born writer, who also worked at the writing craft, to produce these elegant, clear sentences. It seems he knew this and was suspicious of it.

 In his introduction to The Others (1996), Shepard writes about writing about nature.  He sees why poets are attracted to animals: “The meaning of animals is implicit in what they do...Like amusing, wise, terrible, curved mirrors, animals prefigure human society...the bird is spirit and the snake is the earth of our most elemental self, our mundane world, and our imagination.” Then he stops: “But I am leery of my own enthusiasm for writing. Is our relationship to animals essentially a branch of nature writing?”

 After trashing Thoreau as a boring coiner of aphorisms, “Nature writing nourishes the view of nature as esthetic abstraction--something like the sphinx on the library steps, the denizens of a bestiary whose charming irrelevance teases us out of the burdens of urban life and its stewpot of political and social drama where intellectuals have their true home.” “But that is an aside,” he says, and numbers among the ways humans emerged in relation to the animals, along with observing, eating and being eaten by them, “communicating their significance by dancing, sculpting, performing, imaging, narrating and thinking them.”

 He praises Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring as not only a warning against pesticides “but against a deafened self, against emptiness.” But then he backs off again--”If art--writing--is to be a mere substitute, seeking to replace animals with an alternative reality, then let us seek instead an antiwriting against the seductive illusions of the ‘beauty’ of nature.”

 In addition to his misgivings about nature writing, Shepard, among others, suggest that the invention of writing itself was yet another mechanism that distances humans from their ancient deep involvement with nature and each other. Still, Shepard did not restrict his tellings to gatherings around winter fires, or even classrooms. Nor did he work primarily in the laboratory or the field to produce data, medicines or tools; in addition to informal observation and experience, his essential roles were reader and writer. Despite the technical terms that sometimes seem efficient, and sometimes like secret passwords, he wrote many a dancing sentence--by the evidence, he couldn’t help himself.

Shepard’s enthusiasm for writing is evident in his overflows of imagery, as well as alliterations, assonance, slant rhymes and rhythms, and rhetoric. See how he does not stop at one adjective or two, but bashes together a startling, multidimensional image, of the poetic function of animals as “amusing, wise, terrible, curved mirrors...” 

He plays with words and meaning, sometimes a slant-punster ( Of paintings of the inner eye he says “To me these retinas look like impressionist landscapes. In an evolutionary sense, the habitat has impressed its form upon the neural tissue...”) sometimes an environmentalist Shakespeare: “If we were all alike as eggs,” he begins, then counters “...but we hatch into a world where everything we do can help make or unmake the possibilities for our future growth.”

 Then a dig at “Intellectual or eggheads” who “like to think that we live in a world of ideas we invent...” Then the metaphor changes: “But in some part of our skulls there is a wilderness. We call it the unconscious because we cannot cultivate it the way you would a field of grain or a field of thought.” Several more metaphors tumble over one another, repeat and refer back, before the paragraph ends. To my ear it suggests an Elizabethan ecology of words and meaning.

 He creates ambiguities of larger resonance, as in the various applications of hunting as “the sacred game”: deadly serious play with inherent rules that mimic those that define all existence, and the contending yet partnered players who are each other’s game animal, game to play because the game is major to their meaning. And more.

 Sometimes his own playing is most unexpectedly musical: “Although they joined the exclusive club of the open-country carnivores and prey, they did not lose their floral affiliations.” Sometimes the music makes startling image, as “this cleavage between the pallid and prismatic..”, and sometimes the music makes meaning: the crispness of “The larger carnivores display a prudence about killing,” followed by the satirical lope of “in contrast to our fantasy of the rampaging beast...”

 He wrote about the human experience of nature as encoded and celebrated in language. Animals animate words, and in The Sacred Claw, Shepard shepherds some that derive from human encounters with bears, such as “berserk”, “brightness” and maybe even “dance.”

 Rhythmic music and dance are essential to Paleolithic cultures and their sacramental relationship with nature, Shepard writes, and Gary Snyder intimates that animals love our music. Writing has its own music and incorporates its own dance. The music may come from a less conscious level, but when it’s good music, it adds to meaning on all levels. “Words in themselves do not convey meaning...the sound of them does,” said Robert Frost.

 I tend to view the death of music in writing, or the failure to perceive and value it, in the same spirit as Gabriel Garcia Marquez regards the death of the novel. “Some say the novel is dead,” he says,” but it is not the novel. It is they who are dead.” But the music lives on, for those who can hear it.

Perhaps Paul Shepard finally justifies his writing as the journey all hunters and gatherers make. “The human mind came into existence tracking, which for us creates a land of named places and fosters narration, the tale of adventure.”

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Road Home

Among the creative people who influenced my life and who died in 2016 was Jim Harrison.  Preparing to write a brief remembrance in this final month of that year, I found reviews of his books I'd written over the years.  I thought I'd add them to this online archive of my published and unpublished work.

I'll do them in separate posts, beginning with the earliest review I could find.  I've left in the inevitable repetitions so each review can stand alone.

Looking them over, I wonder if I didn't miss a major point about Harrison's work.  He dealt with primal themes and dangerous relationships.  In his most famous story, "Legends of the Fall," three brothers are in love with the same woman.  In Dalva/The Road Home, there's a marriage between half-siblings; two brothers and perhaps their father bedding the same woman, several marriages and affairs with siblings of spouses (though a widower marrying the sister of his dead wife is said to be a Lakota tradition.)

This is a version of my first published review of Harrison's work (in Orion Magazine.)  This novel remains my favorite--I consider it one of the best American novels of my time.

THE ROAD HOME, A Novel by Jim Harrison.
 Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.
 464 pages.

"Nebraska reminds me of what America was supposed to look like before it became something else," Jim Harrison comments in "From the Dalva Notebooks," published in his book of non-fiction, Just Before Dark. 

Through swirls of events and thickets of passions, obsessions and relationships it takes two novels and some 800 pages to describe, the road home leads to the timeless Nebraska landscape, where as a kind of analogue to other natural cycles, members of the Northridge family walk and hunt with beloved dogs, eat and drink gloriously, make love, ride horses, read and treasure books as well as painting and music, watch birds, observe and take care of the land and each other, ponder, puzzle, reflect, regret and remember, as they had for over a hundred years.

 But from the opening sentence of THE ROAD HOME, the capacious and deeply satisfying companion novel to the stunning "Dalva" of a decade ago, the themes of mortality and time are also present. Lives are distorted notably by wars (World War I, Korea, Vietnam), while the land and Native peoples are insistently and inexorably destroyed by rapacious agents of greed and deadly beliefs. There are several deaths (the final home where the road leads) rendered with grace and ceremony and the elegiac rhythms of a writer with some years on his meter.

 But the road is also a way, a journey that demands consciousness, clarity and truthful statement, which Harrison produces in an abundance of cogent, witty, memorable, epigrammatic prose. This for me is the foremost achievement of this novel, and at minimum contributes mightily to the pleasure of reading every page. Harrison's years of meditation show clearly in this exactness, as does his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat.

 THE ROAD HOME takes the narrative of "Dalva" forward a little in time, but basically it adds more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him in the Dalva Notebooks), the son she first meets as a young man ( who roams the western landscape as a deliberate contemporary nomad, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings"),her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother.

This pair of novels offers unusual possibilities--reading and re-reading each in relation to the other, reading parts of one that match up with the same time or event in the other, finding the symmetries that might be fate or beauty or both, and otherwise discovering the literary rendering of the hypertext of life.

 Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, but what makes him one of the few novelists of non-urban subjects to win wide readership and establishment praise (even if the New York Times Book Review containing his rave review nevertheless put Tom Wolfe on the cover) is the unique landscape of his writing.

 His sentences are rhythmic and perfectly formed, his prose is often formal(he is the only contemporary writer I know who habitually uses the words "captious" and "otiose")but his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids. Sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic. Although almost everything in this book is presented as having been written down in journals and letters, Harrison's prose has the sound of speech, yet no one actually speaks this way, except maybe Jim Harrison, at least in interviews.

 I think of Harrison's work also as a bridge, for example, linking urban readers ushered by literary quality to the urgency of attending to the natural world, or by linking nature and culture as only someone with his credentials in both can do. Harrison is profligate and generous in naming the work of specific writers, and their importance in his characters' lives may encourage his readers to seek them out. For me, reading "Dalva" and its accounts of contemporary mixed bloods and the 19th century Lakota was a specific bridge to fiction that is by as well as about Native Americans. (In fact, I found my paperback of "Dalva" on a shelf marked "Miscellaneous" in a small town used bookstore in the central Pennsylvania mountains, along with Peter Matthiessen's "Indian Country," a book of contemporary Native short stories, and novels by Native author Thomas King. I bought and read them all, but started with "Dalva.")

The interplay of present and recollections or rediscoveries of the past form the basic movement of most of Harrison's fiction, and this rises to artful and powerful meaning in THE ROAD HOME. There is a sense here not of an ending but of a kind of completion, as well as in the coincident publication of Harrison's new and collected poems, THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY(Copper Canyon Press). "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime," Harrison asserts in his preface to a series of Zen inspired poems, included in this substantial and revelatory volume. THE ROAD HOME is the work of a lifetime, in that sense and more.

 "With all our self-consciousness," writes Ursula LeGuin," we have very little sense of where we live, where we are right here or right now. If we did, we wouldn't muck it up the way we do." Jim Harrison's timely and timeless work has that kind of honesty, urgency and density. His achievement is to do so well what he observes in music of birds, as he writes in the last line of the last poem in THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY: "They sing what and where they are."

Here are some additional notes on this novel taken from a longer essay on four books by Harrison, Paul Shepard, Richard Powers and Linda Hogan.  It includes some repetitions from the Orion review but I've tried to keep them to a minimum.

JIM HARRISON's literary voice has always been unique and entertaining, and this aspect of his craft reaches something of an apotheosis in The Road Home. Partly it is the off-center language, a combination of the contemporary and antique (to my knowledge he is the only well-known novelist to regularly employ the words "otiose" and "captious", which to me are so arcane that I still have to look them up whenever I read him.) Partly it is the construction and cadences: while his sentences are logical and perfectly formed, his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids.

Within them sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic. Harrison typically builds his stories with an ongoing narration that links recollections of the main action, often as written in journals or letters. In this book, almost everything is presented as having been previously written down by the characters. Still, Harrison's prose always has the sound of speech, even if no one actually speaks that way, except maybe Harrison, at least in interviews.

This voice is heard most clearly in the many cogent, witty and epigrammatic observations and asides his characters make. All of these elements coalese somewhere near perfection in this novel, making every page a pleasure to read (especially after the first 100, which seem a bit awkward compared to the 350 that follow.)

Perhaps Harrison's years of meditation inform this exactness, along with his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat. Harrison's subjects and the elements of contemporary life are also odd, when compared to the dominant urban-centered and Zeitgeist-minded fiction.

In Dalva, his unhinged heroine came home to the family homestead, a sprawling ranch in Nebraska, established by the progenitor John Northridge in the mid 19th century. Dalva is a Northridge, a multigenerational family of Euro-Americans with several points of alliance and intermarriage with the Lakota Sioux of these plains.

The Road Home is a kind of sequel, moving the narrative forward a little in time, but basically adding more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him elsewhere), the son she put up for adoption and first meets as a young man ,her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother.

 There is a remarkable sense of continuity in these four generations, and it is predicated on the land. Life on the Northridge ranch is simple and yet highly cultivated. Here the Northridge generations hike, ride and hunt, eat and drink gloriously, read books and talk and write about them, keep journals and read past journals of others, so the past is a considered part of their present.

 Of course it wouldn't be a Harrison narrative without swales, dogs and garlic, so these too are part of his most integrated vision of home. 

There is one self-conscious wanderer in this book, whose journey to find a lost home is actual. Dalva's son Nelse, who as a young man read a magazine article about nomads (likely an excerpt of Bruce Chatwin's book, The Songlines) and set out to be a deliberate nomad, traveling the west with no fixed address, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings."

 But Nelse was adopted and he doesn't know his mother's identity. His wandering takes on another purpose when he seeks and finds Dalva and his ancestral home, repeating Dalva's own journey in the previous novel, the last section of which was called "Coming Home."

This is another function of home in this novel: as a place where journeys begin and end, and where lives can be recollected in tranquility in between. The characters are torn from home by their own passions and obsessions (principally love and art); and their lives, particularly those of the men, are permanently distorted by war (from the Indian wars through World War I, Korea and Vietnam.) The road home is everyone's life's journey.

And so this novel--this two-volume saga--presents the births, dreams, marriages, sex, misunderstandings, regrets, brawls, tantrums, brushes with the law, even some gun-play of characters that live over a century of American history. The real-time events in the novel are mostly the rhythmic activities of daily life, and the big events are mostly remembered. Because of this considered, precisely expressed observation and thought, each event has texture and density.

In turn, memories and the thoughts and emotions they evoke give more weight and dimension to the simple acts of living, which become rituals of affirmation and grief. Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, although here the landscape is also cultivated. This isn't wilderness or the Pleistocene--it is the Midwest formed from the frontier by stubborn Scandinavians, who provide Harrison with some piquant and McMurtryesque minor characters.

 Still, everything about this family refers ultimately and deeply to the land, including their name. Home is a place of grounding, and therefore it is vital that it be a home that sits in nature, that partakes of timelessness in the modern age. Like the homes of the foragers, it's a place to go away from and come back to, yet unlike the Pleistocene foragers, the contemporary forager is never quite sure where he is or what she's looking for, or why they wander.

 Dogs and horses are as individual and perhaps as important as people in this novel, and contact with the land is the lifeblood of these characters. It's when people can no longer ride or hunt that they know it's time to die.

The deaths, both violent and natural, are prominent, and several are described at length, giving this book an elegiac tone as well as an epic scope. The Road Home also leads to death, the home where the journey ends. The sense of elegy extends also to the land, which the characters often fret about, whether it is on the ranch or on the backroads. When one is faced with imminent loss, the only creative act is careful remembering. Memory is another home.

Off to the Side by Jim Harrison

As far as I can recall, this is an unpublished, personal response (though it might be on a blog somewhere) to Jim Harrison's 2002 memoir, Off to the Side.

Off to the Side is not your typical memoir of the current publishing Zeitgeist. There’s no straight through-line of bad boy goes through hell---a constant Survivor show from childhood on---to revelation, reform and what psychologist and author Dan McAdams calls the most characteristic American theme: redemption.

 Or even the celebrity memoir variation of the rise, the fall and the resurrection. So you’re unlikely to see him on Oprah, at least until she wisely chooses one of his books of fiction for her book club.

 That’s not to say there aren’t all those elements in there, although far more modestly than any best-selling memoir would dare. His concern is the texture and the truth of experience, not fulfilling a simplistic pattern, or even enacting an archetypal tale.

 The book is full of the same keen observations, wit and peculiarly artful sentences as his fiction, and even his interviews. Some of the subjects are familiar from those other sources, but he does cover some areas of his life unreported elsewhere, with consideration and candor. But like his characters, he tends to mix memories and times with general observations, staying true to his character’s experiences, and in this case his own writing the memoir. In this connection he chose a very apt epigraph for the book, from Rilke: “Beware, o wanderer, the road is walking, too.” 

 His childhood in Michigan during World War II was immersed in farm life and the natural world, and then by hunting, fishing and the wildlife near his family’s cabin on a lake. There is a quality of his attention then, and therefore later as a writer, that probably owes a lot to the fact that this was a pre-television childhood.

 It was one of the last ones, too. I was among the first generation of children to grow up with TV in the home, beginning when I was 4 or 5. There were advantages to having such wonders as enacted stories in your living room, but also disadvantages. My outdoor longings and experiences lacked informed attention, coherence, confidence or patience. But they were important nevertheless. Then again, though I lived with patches of woods and open fields nearby, I didn’t live on a farm, and my father knew little and cared less about the natural world.

Harrison writes of fishing with his father when he (young Jim) was in the grip of a melancholy time: “He had an uncanny ability to identify weeds, flowers, bushes by smell, and he suddenly said that curiosity will get you through hard times when nothing else.”

 Still, my small town childhood made some moments Harrison recounts familiar and emotionally resonant, as his “tearful pleasure” on a trip to New York, hearing live classical music for the first time in Washington Square, and when again in New York at the age of nineteen, he saw his first actual painting by a great artist (Modigliani), “my eyes brimmed.”

 He was a 4-H boy, and had an adolescent period of extreme Christianity, which involved memorizing large chunks of the King James Bible for contests, a possible key to his prose style. But the major event of his childhood was an accident that left him blind in one eye.

 A sensory disability tends to make the sensitive even more inward, but I believe there are some other little understood effects. I’ve only recently begun to realize how important my own one-ear deafness has been in my relationship to the world. For instance, the natural assumption is that a disability in one of the senses shifts emphasis to the others, as in the cliché of the blind person with extraordinary hearing. But I’ve come to believe a more accurate way to put it is that one focuses all the other senses on the work of the less able one. In my own case, I realize that I don’t “see better” because I’m half-deaf; it’s more that I hear partly with my eyes. And I don’t mean lip-reading, but a more generalized function of pouring visual information into making sense of the world in sound.

Also the quality of attention in the sense in question can become more acute, partly because there’s a subconscious process of filling in the gaps to make sense of the sense data. In my own case I can illustrate the concept with this example: I play a game of identifying the voices of actors in situations where they aren’t seen, mostly in “voice-overs” for TV commercials and documentaries. I am very good at this, even with relatively obscure actors, provided I have seen them as well as heard them in some earlier movies or TV shows. And when I remember who they are, it’s because in my mind I see their faces, and only then recall their names (if I can remember their names at all---a flaw in my ability to prove this.)

 So to me, that Harrison excels at visual description is not paradoxical. I’m sure his hearing and other senses (perhaps he too can identify weeds by smell) contribute to what he sees. It may also be why he has such visually rich dreams and “visions,” as some amazing ones he describes in this book. Not only is his brain assembling visual information from all his senses, but it works hard in doing so. That might also contribute to a feedback of visual imagery in dreams and visions.

 An event that haunted his life occurred when he was 25: his father and beloved sister waited around for him to decide whether he would go with them. He stayed home. A drunken driver hit their car, and killed them both. In this book he touches upon some of the ways this continued to affect him, and it likely adds a certain seriousness, skepticism, melancholy and sense of tragedy to his work. In any case, it is one of those companions that is always there, and often noticed.

 But by then he was happily married, and wondrously it was a marriage that lasted, even through periods of his obliquely described bad behavior. It grounded him in many ways. So his life as a writer, while it included Hollywood and wild times in Key West, also included home and children, usually in modest circumstances.

 My response to this life, as to his success as a novelist, which was one of my most persistent unrealized dream for my life, is the same mixture I feel when I see such a story in a movie, or even on something as vulgar as an awards show: a certain envy, but also a gratitude that at least it happened to somebody, and I can share in it for a moment vicariously. And as I stubbornly if possibly erroneously maintain, a vicarious joy is better than no joy at all.

 Harrison’s life took him to several cities and to academe. In particular he spent some time in Cambridge, Mass., where I had lived, and even though we knew some of the same places, it was at different times. I think I just missed the clubby poetry scene at Grolier’s bookstore, though maybe it was my own diffidence and impatience. Harrison knew the poet Denise Levertov, and had the same high opinion of her as a person that I did, having met her when she spent several days at my college. Later I discovered that when she was living in the Boston area she was good friends with a young poet, who had been among the last group of previous tenants of my apartment in unfashionable East Cambridge. She had been there often, as she confirmed in a postcard, our last communication as it turned out.

 Our respective experiences with other people we knew in common tells more about our respective writing careers. My only memory of the justifiably revered publisher Sam Lawrence (who published Kurt Vonnegut, among others) was a very brief meeting. I don’t even remember sitting down—just the sight of this tall, impressive, kind man, standing and smiling, a roaring fire in his fireplace behind him.

 Sam Lawrence (then at Delacorte) published Harrison’s first collection of novellas, that other publishers wouldn’t touch because nobody would buy it. It was titled Legends of the Fall, and contained that novella, which soon made Harrison famous and rich. The agent who did that deal was Bob Datilla. I met Bob once as well, a somewhat longer meeting. I had a list of ideas for magazine stories, and he suggested magazines to try with each of them, except one, which he said would not sell. I think we talked about book possibilities, but in any event he essentially agreed to represent me.

 Some time later he called me, and said he’d changed his mind. The idea he said wouldn’t work was about the malling of America, which became an article that took up nearly an entire issue of a magazine, and then my first (and so far only) book. Years later, I sent him a letter and a book proposal. He never answered the letter, and sent the proposal back with a huge NO in black defacing it. Needless to say, Bob Datilla is not my favorite agent, even though that’s currently a null set in any case. But he has been Harrison’s agent and a close friend for his entire career.

 The part of this book that’s newest in terms of what Harrison has written in earlier nonfiction and talked about in interviews is his recounting of his experiences in Hollywood. As elsewhere, there’s funny stuff here, and the image of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Sean Connery with Harrison’s barbecue sauce dripping on their white suits is wondrous and hilarious cinema of the mind.

 Harrison worked in Hollywood (without being a resident) writing screenplays. He no longer does that, so even when he describes the venality of the movie business, he does so from a distance, taking into consideration his own self-dramatization and ego.

 Hollywood is just the template for what happens in publishing and related fields these days. So for those who aren’t acquainted with the extreme changes of fortune of an ego-ridden and whim-based industry, some of what happened to Harrison will seem exceptional. Of course, it’s extreme when it happens to you, and for those of us who’ve had similar experiences, there is a certain awe at the magnitude, but a feeling of recognition and solidarity.

 Because at one point, Harrison’s “Legends of the Fall” was slated to be directed by one of the cinema’s all time legendary directors, David Lean, and his novella “Revenge” was scheduled to be directed by another such legend, John Huston. Both movies were to be made by Warners, until the head of the studio retired, and the new regime axed both projects.

 Though he made a lot of money there, few of Harrison’s projects became movies. Still, he got to visit many Indian reservations to research a script on photographer Edward Curtis for director Taylor Hackford, and a sense-boggling trip to Rio for a Lou Adler project. Even a script that he came up with that did get made was a less than happy experience, and a less than good movie: “Wolf” with Jack Nicholson.

 He basically liked the movie version of Legends of the Fall, though he despised the TV movie made from his novel Dalva. He wonders why a movie should be so awful, since “It often seems quite inscrutable because it takes essentially the same energy to make a bad film as a good one,” paraphrasing, perhaps unconsciously, director Francois Truffaut.

 Harrison’s involvement with Hollywood figures began before he’d written his first screenplay. His only long-time novelist friend, Tom McGuane, was first to get tapped by Hollywood, and it was by visiting McGuane on a shoot that Harrison met Jack Nicholson, who then read some of his work, and eventually financed a year of Harrison’s writing when he was in dire financial straits, for a small consideration on any film that might ensue. The project was, of course, “Legends of the Fall,” not only Harrison’s most famous work, but his most talismanic.

 I felt reassured in my own judgments from a distance (or from brief encounters as an interviewer or observer) by Harrison’s generous assessment of some big name Hollywood actors and directors. He got beyond the idol worship and the cynicism to the intelligence and humanity of complex and talented people.

 These personal asides are meant to indicate the kind of interaction between my experience and what I was reading that is part of the experience of every reader. Others would notice and pick out different parts of this book.

 As for direct comment on his work, Harrison is conflicted and sparse. He does say that his novel Warlock is “the only book I’ve ever written that I loathe,” though he doesn’t say why. He refers to moments (when he finished The Road Home) and circumstances, but there is little about how he came to choose a subject (with one exception) or his approach, or methods, etc.

 That one exception is Legends of the Fall, but only that it arose from reading journals of the real William Ludlow (the father, played in the movie by Anthony Hopkins), who was his wife’s grandmother’s father. But there is other information in this memoir that links aspects of his life and thought to his fiction, in content and style. Readers may find it adds interest and texture to reading the fiction, perhaps occasionally illuminating something they find otherwise puzzling.

The English Major by Jim Harrison

I read his 1998 novel Coming Home as a culmination of Harrison's writing until then, but he was far from finished.  He published the novels True North (2004) and Returning to Earth (2007); novella collections The Beast God Forgot to Invent (2000) and The Summer He Didn't Die (2005.)  Then came this novel in 2008, which I reviewed for a weekly newspaper on the North Coast of California where I live--hence the emphasis on his protagonist's Eureka revelations--his Eureka! moments in Eureka.

The English Major
 By Jim Harrison
 Grove Press

 Jim Harrison is known as a master of the novella—his most famous work is probably "Legends of the Fall"—but he’s also written what I regard as an American epic with the 800+ pages of the interlaced novels, Dalva and The Road Home. This new one is an ordinary-sized novel, a first person narration on the comic side. It’s got the eccentric sentences and preoccupations that Harrison fans will recognize: sex, food, memory, siblings, dogs, landscape and the road, but with one more added: age.

 At the age of 60, Cliff is hanging on the edge of his old life, his last day on his farm in Michigan that his wife has sold for redevelopment, after divorcing him. Cliff hits the road, immediately hooking up with a hot ex-student from his early teaching days, the fortysomething Maybelle. Good luck, he observes, is a mixed blessing. “Forty-five years of sex fantasies come true and I’m thinking I wish I could go fishing.”

 While Cliff takes in landscapes he’s never seen, Maybelle stares at her cell phone searching for a signal. After Maybelle disembarks in Minnesota, Cliff makes his way to the North Coast from Oregon, on his way to visit his gay, show-business son in San Francisco.

It’s in Eureka that at age 60 he sees the Pacific Ocean for the first time. “The Pacific Ocean was more than I bargained for. At first I thought I might have a heart attack…I spent the next day and a half between Eureka and San Francisco hugging the coast as closely as I could and stopping a couple of dozen times for yet another look. The ocean became the best smell of my life.”

 As he approached Eureka, Cliff came up with the eccentric project that would eventually center him again: he would rename the 50 states and the birds of America. On the road he struggles to find the self that he’d left behind to become a serious farmer—the nimble-minded English major whose thoughts and feelings weren’t restricted to his fruit trees and birthing cows.  Yet it’s clear from his alienation from the cell phone world, as well as his deep ties to the land and farm animals that he’s also being pulled back.

 So will he change his life completely, perhaps devote himself to literary pursuits? Or will he reject change and revert?  Well, there’s no either/or for Cliff, or in this gentle, funny novel that should entertain all readers, but inevitably will have particular meaning for those of Cliff’s age—and Jim Harrison’s.

 For awhile, Harrison’s novels were structured as contrapuntal ruminations by at least a couple of characters. This one has but one voice, although the contrapuntal part is furnished by Cliff’s sudden memories versus what he’s actually going through or observing (mostly observing) at the time. The language is a bit simpler, especially in the beginning. This novel does not start well, but once it gets rolling, it takes you along.

 The basic style is the same, though. Harrison’s paragraphs are cascades of sentences that apparently have little to do with each other, although appearances can be deceiving.  His protagonists are often more comfortable in an American past that may or may not have existed, and he gives different reasons for this, and for their sometimes formal diction.

 In this novel, Cliff is navigating between two women, who both represent troublesome aspects of modern life: besides his cell-addicted, psychobabbling girlfriend, he’s rebounding from his real estate dealing, upper middle class wannabe wife. The conflict between Cliff’s age and his sexual desires and wandering eye provide discomfiting comedy that other oldsters may identify with.

 But the poignancy that stays with me comes from scenes like leaning for mutual support against a birthing cow he’s stayed with all night, or the photos he takes on the road, which are exclusively of various kinds of cattle. The sensual world is where Cliff lives, and reconciling it with the abstract demands and irrational insults of modern life seems to me to be the undercurrent common to a lot of his writing.

The Great Leader by Jim Harrison

The Great Leader (2011)
 By Jim Harrison
Grove Press

Jim Harrison has written a police procedural? The author of historical family sagas like "Legends of the Fall", whose last novel was entitled The English Major?

Like that one, this new novel is about a solitary man in his 60s dealing with his changing life, but here he’s a retiring detective obsessed with one last case, and this gives the personal journey a shape along with the momentum of the detective story.  Moreover, Harrison has created a credible character in Upper Michigan police detective Sunderson, with original qualities for a police procedural.

 Sunderson wants to finally nail the Great Leader of a religious cult who preys upon underage teenage girls, sexually and financially. Sunderson understands the sexual temptation all too well, thanks to his foxy young neighbor Mona, especially when Mona seems to invite his advances. But he resists, and their relationship is one of several that becomes complicated, funny, surprising and very, very human. Think Larry McMurtry meets Raymond Chandler, for starters.

 The police detective whose wife has left him is a genre (and especially TV) cliche, but for once there’s a reason: Sunderson could not help anticipating the worst (“If you’re a cop long enough even songbirds are under suspicion”) which was too relentlessly depressing for his wife, Diane, who has remarried, but reenters the story halfway through.

 More typical of Harrison, Sunderson’s best friend is Native American, and the detective (a former history major) feels the weight of the attempted genocide of whole peoples, as well as their land. (So there’s a certain poetry in the ending, which I will not give away.)

 Like anyone his age, Sunderson is also haunted by regret, yet he is sweating his way through a transition to new possibilities afforded by retirement. The subtleties of that process track the search for the cult leader. It’s one of several correspondences that make this a shapely novel.  It fulfills the expectations of the detective genre and of the novel form, which includes novelty. Both stories have vivid endings.

 Meanwhile there are the meditations on contemporary life expected in a Harrison novel, this time informally emphasizing the interrelationship of sex, money and religion. Harrison is really good at presenting a character in the rough, more comfortable in nature, but whose mind is active and alive.

 Along the way there’s Harrison’s unique writing: paragraphs that read like a random collection of non sequiters with bizarre (or no) punctuation, that keep you off balance for the explosive zingers that pop off the page.

 A bit of inside baseball, and maybe an inside joke: Sunderson mentions reading a book by poet Gary Snyder, and in the real world there’s a video on sale of old friends Snyder and Harrison talking (The Etiquette of Freedom) But that doesn’t stop Harrison from giving chunks of Snyder’s life (his college, his first book) to this novel’s villain.

Brown Dog by Jim Harrison

This review of Brown Dog originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
In re-reading it, and noting that the first sentence of the Brown Dog saga was “Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian,” I now recall that the title of Harrison's 1991 collection of non-fiction was Just Before Dark.

BROWN DOG (2013)
by Jim Harrison
Grove Press; 522 pages

Jim Harrison not only achieved fame with “Legends of the Fall” in 1979, he also revived a fictional form. At about 80 pages, it was longer than a story and shorter than a novel, and therefore an almost extinct species in mainstream fiction called a novella. It appeared in book form with two other novellas, the first of six such Harrison collections.

 All of these novellas were stand-alone narratives, with one exception. One tale in each of the five collections after Legends of the Fall was about an increasingly popular character called Brown Dog. Now this volume collects all the Brown Dog novellas plus a new one that carries forward and in some ways caps the series.

 Brown Dog fans have been waiting for this, and now they can share with other readers the rare if not unique experience of a chronological narrative written and published over some twenty years.

When Brown Dog first appeared in the collection The Woman Lit By Fireflies in 1990, Harrison suggested to an interviewer that it was his attempt to write something comic for a change.  But after the character’s second tale (in 1994’s Julip) he told other interviewers that there would be at least one more, mentioning both the picaresque tradition and the serial narrative.

The ultimate result is a sequential series of six tales that at a certain point engaged Harrison’s skills as a novelist, so that there are mysteries gradually unraveled (though some remain) and a main character who is not quite the same at the end.

 “Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian.” With that provocative opening sentence, the first Brown Dog misadventures begin. They involve salvaging a dead Indian in full regalia preserved in the cold deep waters of Lake Superior, and the struggle over ancient burial grounds with some wily and ambitious young anthropologists that drives the narrative through the next novella as well.

 Brown Dog—otherwise known as B.D.—is 47 when we meet him. He grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near an Indian reservation. He still lives nearby. An Indian girl gave him his name because as a lovestruck youth he was always hanging around like a dog. He doesn’t remember his parents and doubts that he is Indian (a question that gradually gets answered) but when a bosomy 24 year-old anthropologist shows up at the local bar, he’s not averse to pretending.

 His appetites, particularly for sex, often get him in trouble and lead to numerous episodes of ribaldry, but he is also deeply and happily grounded in the natural world of woods and water. His greatest ambition is to fish as much as possible.

 “Westward Ho” finds B.D. on the run from the law with a dubious Indian activist in Hollywood. To this point the novellas are primarily picaresque adventures, suggesting a rural American Tom Jones, or perhaps more appropriately, certain Native American tales about the trickster figures of Coyote or Raven.

 But with The Summer He Didn’t Die, the series—and this book—develops narrative direction and urgency, as B.D. tries to save his young stepdaughter, “a woodland creature” with a form of fetal alcohol syndrome, from a sterile state institution.

 After further adventures in Canada and Montana, B.D. is back home in the last and previously unpublished tale. A little older and a biological father with a contemporary twist, he feels the need for family and to make peace with his unknown past. At last he learns his parentage, with symmetries on several levels and a connection to at least one other Harrison fiction.

 Though a single narrative voice doesn’t emerge until at least a third of the way through the series, there’s no mistaking Harrison’s signature style. His paragraphs are like waterfalls of musically balanced sentences that don’t always relate in obvious ways. Observation, flashes of memory and epigram tumble together to achieve both bursts of illuminating surprise and a kind of mesmerizing momentum.

 As a book, Brown Dog is rich in character and incident, rude humor and melancholy. It is both heartfelt and ruefully real. It’s unusual and welcome in the number and variety of characters living on the geographic and economic margins, including educated small town professionals. Whether helplessly cruel or basically goodhearted, they all struggle with the often surpassing power of their impulses.

 B.D. himself emerges as a singular character, at once unworldly and self-aware, wounded and grounded, “virtually the opposite of anything the culture thought was acceptable” with a sense of wonder less engaged by billions of stars in the night sky than “the billions of green buds in thousands of acres of trees surrounding him” as he sits motionless on a tree stump in “a state much envied by the ancients.”

Thursday, August 06, 2015

70 Years After Hiroshima: Nuclear Threat Remains

“If I were asked to name the most important date in the history and prehistory of the human race,” wrote author Arthur Koestler in the 1978 prologue to his final book, Janus: A Summing Up, “I would answer without hesitation, 6 August 1945.”

Before then, each person lived with the prospect of individual death, he explained.  But “since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.”

Seventy years later, the danger of instant eradication in a global nuclear war seems past, and we are becoming more conscious of ecological threats to long-term human survival. But the nuclear threat is not over, nor is it confined to the possibility of isolated terrorist attacks. The threat of human extinction that begins with a nuclear exchange may still exist.

While most attention has focused on the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon in the near future, some 15,700 nuclear bombs are in the hands of 9 other countries right now, including some 5,000 weapons in active deployment.

All 9 countries with nuclear bombs are either expanding their arsenals, building new delivery systems or modernizing old weapons and systems.

Though the U.S. and Russia have reduced the number of weapons from Cold War levels, together they maintain about 1800 missiles carrying thermonuclear bombs on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire within minutes and therefore most susceptible to momentary miscalculation and accident.

Those of us who lived through the Cold War could read and see films about how powerful each one of these bombs can be: vaporizing every living thing for miles, igniting firestorms and spreading radiation for hundreds of miles or more, killing and maiming for years, with documented cases of genetic deformities in the next generation.

These terminal dangers were embedded in popular culture for decades. But as memories of Hiroshima and the Cold War recede, so apparently does awareness of the nature and danger of nuclear weapons.

 The US has ten times the number of nuclear weapons that US citizens believe there are, according to polls.  A survey of members of Congress revealed that almost none of them knew how many nuclear weapons are in the US arsenal.  But the US is not the exception--several studies show that knowledge about nuclear weapons today is low.

In popular culture today, nuclear war has been reduced to the bright explosions and apocalyptic fantasies of video games, including the latest version of Fallout Shelter. “Simulate a beautiful nuclear war right in your browser,” says the headline of a recent Popular Mechanics post.

More worrisome are movies and TV dramas that treat nuclear bombs like conventional explosions, only a bit bigger and more colorful. For example, in the 2014 Hollywood remake of Godzilla, a nuclear bomb many times more powerful than the Hiroshima device was detonated on the water apparently within view of the San Francisco shoreline without damage to the city or its people. Not even a wave. 

This is an irony worthy of Doctor Strangelove, since the original Japanese Godzilla movie was a response to the radiation dangers of hydrogen bomb tests in 1954, directed by a man who had seen Hiroshima shortly after its atomic destruction.

To misconstrue the true nature and difference of nuclear weapons could lead to horrific mistakes. The Physicians for Social Responsibility calculated that a relatively small nuclear “bunker buster” attack on Iran would result in 3 million deaths within 48 hours, and expose some 35 million to radiation. Radioactive fallout would reach into Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.  Radiation killed almost twice as many people in Hiroshima over the following five years than died on August 6, 1945.

But even without radiation as a factor, research conducted a few years ago found that a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan (for instance) could lead to global famine within a few years, due to ozone layer damage caused by massive urban firestorms. If that study is correct, it’s another reason that a larger nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia could still lead to human extinction.  
In particular, the danger of instant nuclear annihilation remains because of those missiles on hair-trigger alert, especially with tension between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and other matters, and both sides talking about nuclear options.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama are among the many leaders who have advocated an end to hair-trigger status. President Obama has the authority to take at least the 450 land-based ICBMs off hair-trigger. If Russian President Putin is serious about recent conciliatory statements, he could match that action. The 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb would be a powerful moment to do so.

My essay on the 65th anniversary of Hiroshima, and my essay that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on the 60th anniversary.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Return of the Bomb (2006)

This week in 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on human beings in Hiroshima, Japan.  It is yet another year in which awareness of the danger of nuclear weapons seems to be dangerously waning.  In a few days, I will post a new essay on that.

But that ignorance has recurred for at least a decade, as the end of the Cold War and the dogs of war unleashed by 9-11 continue to encourage that blithe ignorance, that stupid bravado, that sooner or later might well end the human race.  For that danger is just as alive now as at any other time since 1945.

The idea of using nuclear weapons has been raised in 2015 by both Russia and (in veiled language) by US and European allies, all around the time that the Ukraine was a hotspot.  Before then, the last time it was seriously discussed was in 2006, when the Bush administration was caught suggesting that nuclear bunker-buster bombs could be deployed against sites in Iran that were suspected to be gearing up for possibly creating an atomic weapon at some unknown time in the future.

As I write this, the treaty negotiated with Iran by the world's major power to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon is being opposed by ranking Republicans and others, some of whom contend that only the destruction of Iran will be sufficient.

The following is a slightly re-ordered essay I wrote in 2006, that was posted at Daily Kos and several other political community blogs.

Return of The Bomb

When he read the first detailed reports on the development of the atomic bomb in the same issue of the New York Times that told of that bomb’s first use in destroying Hiroshima, Norman Cousins wrote an essay that would be published within days in the magazine he edited, the Saturday Review of Literature. Though it may sound like a sedate and specialized publication now, it was widely read, with over a half million subscribers. It became a well-known and much discussed essay, especially when Cousins expanded it into a small book, titled Modern Man Is Obsolete.

 Cousins advanced several philosophical and political arguments in this essay, but he began with the most vital assertion: the dropping of the bomb meant that humanity had entered an entirely new era. Total destruction of civilization and possibly of humankind, perhaps of most life on earth, was now possible.

 This fact had to brought into the consciousness of the species, so humanity could try to take control of its fate. The power of the atomic bomb “must be dramatized and kept in the forefront of public opinion, “ he wrote. “The full dimension of the peril must be seen and recognized.”

Operation Crossroads Able July 1, 1946
But that task was always going to be difficult, as he learned just a year later. Cousins was one of the reporters who witnessed the first postwar atomic bomb test at Bikini island, in the summer of 1946. The bomb was dropped into the ocean, with numerous naval vessels in the vicinity to test the extent of its destructive power. But the observation ship was far away, and the bomb had missed the target so the devastation it caused was not immediately obvious. The first reports to the world gave the impression, Cousins wrote, “that the bomb had been ‘oversold’—that it was ‘merely’ another weapon.”

Operation Crossroads Baker July 25, 1946
That bomb had indeed been highly destructive, and the second bomb exploded in this series surprised even the bomb-makers with its ferocious power, sending a half-mile wide column of water a mile into the sky in a single second, and spewing quantities of radiation farther than the military anticipated. But government officials would deny and then minimize the dangers of radiation for years. Even after the hydogen bomb and the era of overkill capacity on hairtrigger alert, what Cousins called the “standardization of catastrophe” became almost patriotic, as the knowledge and the fears were turned inward, to be expressed mostly in low budget science fiction movies featuring giant ants and death-rays from space.

 Now [in 2006] it’s been some 15 years since the Soviet Union dissolved, and the threat of thermonuclear war apparently ended, or at least disappeared from national consciousness. Could it be that today some young policymakers again consider “nuclear” to be only a bigger, better bomb?

 Seymour Hersh suggests that civilians in the Bush administration are pushing the nuclear option for Iran, to the dismay of some of the military. He quotes a former senior intelligence official: “Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout—we’re talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don’t have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out”—remove the nuclear option—“they’re shouted down.”

According to various reports (beginning with Hersh but confirmed by several articles in the Washington Post and elsewhere), the use of tactical nuclear bombs is being considered in order to penetrate underground bunkers in Iran that may house nuclear research sites or command and control centers.

 In her strong denunciation of any imminent bombing of Iran, California Senator Dianne Feinstein also condemned the nuclear option: “As a matter of physics, there is no missile casing sufficiently strong to thrust deep enough into concrete or granite to prevent the spewing of radiation,” she wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Nuclear ‘bunker busters’ would kill tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people across the Middle East.This would be a disastrous tragedy. First use of nuclear weapons by the United States should be unthinkable.”

 Senator Feinstein has been monitoring the Bush regime’s interest in new nuclear weapons for several years, so she also notes this: “There are some in this administration who have been pushing to make nuclear weapons more "usable." They see nuclear weapons as an extension of conventional weapons. This is pure folly.”

 Others are pointing out the nature of this “folly.” The National Academy of Science estimates that a nuclear bomb powerful enough to penetrate a bunker a thousand feet deep (1.2 megatons) would send 300,000 tons of radioactive debris some fifteen miles into the sky.

The Federation of American Scientists "the bombs would penetrate at most only a few metres into rock, causing no reduction in blast, fire, or fallout damage on the surface. The largest would have blown out a crater almost a thousand feet across and thrown a cloud of radioactive fallout tens of thousands of feet into the air where it would be blown hundreds of miles downwind."

 Physicians for Social Responsibility calculate that a nuclear attack on Iran of this kind would result in 3 million deaths within 48 hours. Radioactive fallout would reach into Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, exposing some 35 million, including some 20,000 Americans deployed in the war against terror. There would be more fatalities from radiation illnesses as medical and emergency systems fail.

 On its website, the Union of Concerned Scientists has an animation which shows the effect of nuclear bunker busters on the bunkers (a single bomb is unlikely to reach the target), the contents of bunkers hit (the bomb could spread biological agents kept in bunkers into the atmosphere) and the spread of blast and radiation to surrounding areas.

The first three atomic bombs of 1945 were all about the same size, between 15 and 20 kilotons. The first bomb, tested in the New Mexico desert, killed every living thing inside a mile. The Hiroshima bomb leveled a city and reduced human beings a half mile from the blast to lumps of charcoal. Five years later, radiation had more than doubled the death toll.

In Nagasaki, a boy playing in the river with friends dove to the bottom to retrieve an object. When he rose to the surface, his friends were blackened corpses, the city around him was in smoking ruins. Again, the number of deaths doubled from radiation.

 Though aspects of the U.S. nuclear arsenal are obscure, the nuclear bunker-buster bomb B61-11 (which cannot penetrate to 1,000 feet) has a variable yield of up to 340 kilotons. Though these would not explode high in the air as those bombs did, one such bomb would be the equivalent of 30 Nagasaki bombs, the last nuclear device to be used as a weapon. One of the airmen in the Nagasaki plane described the bright, fiery cloud shooting up with enormous speed as “a living thing, a new species of being” with “many grotesque masks grimacing at the earth.”

 For sixty years, humankind has held that monster at bay. Can we now allow it to be unleashed so casually? It seems likely that at the very least, the nation that unleashes it will quickly become the pariah and the shame of the world. It is time we think very seriously about the consequences of opening this ultimate Pandora’s box, and join with others to stop it. The world may have changed on 9-11. But it certainly changed even more radically in August 1945, and we must not forget it.