Under the Volcano


The Three Sisters in Winter, photo by the author

…this post originally appeared in The Nugget News, February 14, 2017

Yesterday, encouraged by the bluest skies, I bravely opened the door to our shop. Our shop, where I like to futz and putter and try to make things, or fix things, or think about things, had become a desultory crypt of neglect.

That’s my fault. It’s been something of a challenging winter thus far, as you may have noticed, and I’ve tried to conserve and focus my energies on more pressing concerns, which means that sometimes, more often that I would like to admit, I’ve tromped through the snow, opened the shop door, tossed something in, and then closed the door.

But there it was: a big, dark, yawning disaster of disorganization. Fuel cans, battery chargers, scraps of lumber, piles of hunting gear, tools in all of the wrong places, a landfill of my own making. And now it was staring back at me, punctuated by the grating irritation of the talk radio I leave on inside because I believe—with zero scientific evidence—that mice are united in their hatred of The Lars Larson Show, and will seek other accommodations.

So I went to work. And for some reason—probably because our own volcanic peaks were standing up so perfectly in the rarified sunlight—I started thinking about Malcolm Lowry’s excellent novel, Under the Volcano.

If you’ve not read it, the book follows the last day on earth of a British diplomat in the town of Quauhnahuac, Mexico. It is a difficult, sometimes sordid drama, and plays out to its tragic end under the quiet eyes of two ancient and enormous volcanoes.

The volcanoes are important to the story because they lend the perspective of time. They suggest durability, and wisdom—there is nothing happening below that they haven’t seen before–and they are a reminder that the hard hunt for the longer truths often evades us down here, in our little shops and villages, as we scheme and muscle through the daily sturm and drang of an increasingly synthetic 21st century.

It was fitting enough, then, to think of that book while deciding why I actually need an entire drawer full of rusty pipe reamers, or how a box full of .280 Ackley handloads—missing for several months–ended up with a jar of wrecked paintbrushes—all buried under a pair of old hip-waders. It was fitting, I think, because we live in the shadow our own geologic sentinels. Mountains that, when the sun is out and shining on all of that snowy transcendence, we can meditate on just long enough to experience the sublime frisson of our own impermanence.

That should–but mostly doesn’t–spur us into a different way of thinking about things. It might even, in a best-case scenario, cause us to think differently about how we intend to manage ourselves during the Cold Civil War we are apparently descending into.

We can learn a lot from just looking up. There is an old story of a Japanese water colorist who sat outside each morning, staring through the mists at a mountain across the valley. He did this every morning for decades before he ever tried to paint it. And when he finally did paint the mountain, it was a masterpiece finished in minutes. Or so the story goes, and the larger part of me wants very much to believe it is true.

True or not, it was not the story in our shop. Some part of me toyed with the idea of just staring through the mist of the mess a little longer, on the outside chance it would organize itself, and that the great invisible Lord of the Volcanic Cascades would somehow find pleasure with my conviction. But I don’t have those kinds of powers, or whatever that magic is called, and so it was back to unraveling the mystery of how, over the years, I have managed to collect so many combination locks, without recording—anywhere—the combinations, and why they were all in an old ammo can marked: Tape and Glue.

The volcanoes in Lowry’s book are monoliths. They are the Romantics’ notion of negative capability. They say everything by saying nothing. As do our own. They aren’t even noticeably bemused by the strange and grinding duplicities we put on display each day, and that we seem to be insisting on. They just watch. And listen.

It occurred to me, as I performed a kind of kabuki dance with the ponderously heavy and awkward bag containing our wall tent, grotesquely dragging it from one corner of the shop to another, that the vows of silence adopted by various religious orders are increasingly understandable.

What, really, is there to say?

Walt Whitman, who was ahead of most curves in life, wrote about an alternative, and offered a kind of salve for the sharpened dilemmas of modern duplicity that keep stabbing me in the side. He wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” So that’s another way to go, if we can keep our multitudes honest. I don’t know if we can. For certain, the mountains won’t care one way or the other.

In the meantime, down here under the mountains, I was able to get the shop arranged in some kind of working order. It took some effort, and discipline, but I persevered to inject some logic back into the equation. And that kind of work is always its own reward. But this morning, naturally, in a rush to be somewhere else, and forgetting everything I had so laboriously learned, I opened the door, tossed in a bag of ice melt, and abruptly closed the door again.


12 thoughts on “Under the Volcano

  1. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” — W.W.

    One to live by…

    John Huston did a very good film rendition of UNDER THE VOLCANO. I would recommend it. Seldom do films live up to the book, but this is a worthwhile attempt. Also, I am just finishing up Fred Beckey’s CHALLENGE OF THE CASCADES in which he brings great details of astute observation by one who truly loves these mountains and nature. His reputation of irascibility is overshadowed here by his well written and knowledgeable descriptions of his intimate and exhausting exploration and climbing adventures. He spent much time both under the volcano’s and on the peaks.

    Great essay here Craig about your efforts on the way to Spring cleaning and your guiding adaptive measures through it all…


    • Ive seen it and agree that it was a worthy effort. Difficult translation to film accomplished admirably. I will add Beckey’s book to my list. Im intrigued. Thanks SaddleTramp, appreciate the kind words.


  2. “Under the Volcano” truly is a tremendous novel. Doesn’t seem to be well known. I don’t hear it mentioned often. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it. I had a fleeting thought to read it again soon. Then I thought of all the books Jim C. keeps causing me add to my list! It might be awhile. But thanks for the memory of a great book; and for thoughtful musings on its messages.


    • I think it flies under the radar because it is more difficult. But the payoff is tremendous. And you are correct, Jim C is personally responsible for stacking a lot of reads on us all. Thanks, Rick


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