Owning It All

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Don’s Cabin in Bridgeport, photo by the author

I’m not a builder. I have no professional training of any kind, though as a kid I helped my step-dad built a gigantic barn. I was mostly useful as an extra hand to drive nails, fetch this tool or that, or to hold the end of a tape-measure. As I got older my pursuits went in different directions, but he went on to build several more barns, always by himself, for the horses and cows and sheep, each one of them a kind of old-timey masterpiece of creativity, architectural beauty, and rock-solid strength.

Don’t we admire a thoughtful do-it-yourselfer, working with a limited skillset but striving to learn more, do more, and with a practical bias for self-reliance? We should. Not so long ago, it seems we had a lot more of those types around. But sadly, a lot of that self-reliance has been sanded off as the country has filled up with people.

I get it. We need some rules. And good ones, like smoke alarms, nobody disagrees with. But I mourn that loss of rugged individualism in the margins, because I think it also encourages laziness. That’s true intellectually, for certain, and travels down the leash to a kind of physical laziness too. Why build a shed, and learn something, and maybe even have fun doing it, when you can buy a TuffShed at Home Depot and have it delivered to your door? Who wants that bother?

That loss of independence, I think, is somehow tied to the increasing pressures of conformity—HOA’s love their copy-and-paste rules and regulations even where they make no practical sense—and we all labor under the ever-growing burden of government interference in virtually every aspect of life. But on the whole I remain unconvinced that we do a great job of encouraging our younger generations to build things, or fix things, or make things, anymore.

Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it seems close to the mark.

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Barn building on the Figure 8.  Far beyond the author’s skill set.

We can’t do everything by ourselves, obviously, but we get better as human beings when we try. At least I’m sure that I do. Little things we take for granted, like laying pavers, for instance, look a lot more difficult when we heave-out to do it ourselves. It teaches appreciation for the skill, if nothing else, and we may never stride over a beautiful walk quite the same way again.

This week I’ve been working on our raised beds. I was unhappy with everything going on in the garden, essentially, and so stole each second of sunshine available—and worked a lot in the rain—to get things where I want them to be.

I have a friend who, years ago, built his own cabin in Bridgeport, California, in the Sweetwater country, and lived there for decades, mostly alone. It was Don, a voracious reader and writer, who told me, over a cold beer on Swauger Creek after a day splitting wood, that all real Americans were registered Independents. That’s still hard to argue with.

Most winters, the road into his place was inaccessible, and so he skiid in, towing his supplies on a sled. He built a hydro generator over the creek to keep his lights on, and the walls, twelve inches thick, kept the place incredibly warm with only a tiny woodstove. The picture windows framed a perfect view out over the canyon and across to the rugged Finger Peaks.

Don was a builder by trade, and so he had the skill. He’d built dozens of houses in the Bridgeport area, but like a lot of contractors, it was always his place that was never quite finished. But he had something else too, which may be something we can’t teach: a drive for self-reliance and measured, responsible, independence.

The final piece for his cabin was a front door that he carved himself. And the day he finally hung it I’m sure he felt a mixture of pride at the accomplishment, and maybe a dollop of disappointment in those places it wasn’t just perfect. I can imagine a long, deep exhale, and a mind filled with the immense satisfaction of knowing that he’d built that place, high up in the aspens, down to the front door, with his own initiative, and his own hands. Where the faults were, only he would ever know. The untrained eye just wouldn’t see them. And I think that’s the metaphor that I like so much, because it is the way we live, mostly. If we have any self-awareness at all we know what’s wrong with us, and we carry those faults around like bad wiring hidden behind a wall.

And sometimes, like it or not, we just have to tear open the wall and fix the problem.

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Building beds.  “Damn sure level.”

So, I’ve got the raised beds mostly done. They aren’t bad. Some professional would likely have done it better. But I have the enduring satisfaction of having done it myself. I know where the faults are and, regrettably, some of them are frustratingly obvious. But if the faults in this project are mine, so the good things are mine too. I can live with that. Owning our faults, and our successes, may be the very best we can hope for in this life.

And anyway, as the old cowpoke told the cowboss after slapping together a new outhouse at some mountain line-camp: “It may not be square,” he said, “but it’s damn sure level.”

This piece originally appeared in The Nugget Newspaper, March 28, 2017.

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The Deep State of the Figure 8

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Sisters Rodeo, 2016.  Photo by the author.

Much of last week was dedicated to moving manure.

I should be more precise: it was dedicated to breaking up fields of ice-manure, 8 or 10 inches deep, by hand, with a pick, then coming along behind with the tractor to pick up the delightful mess and move it away from the barn. It was a lot of hands-on work, as you might imagine and, eventually covered from head to toe in goo, I could just hear my granddad reminding me from beyond the grave: “Nothing to worry about, kid, it’s just grass and water.”

True enough.

What’s also true is that kind of labor instantly forces me to sing chain-gang songs—“Lightning Long John” is a favorite–or old spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which I don’t have memorized in its entirety. So I was forced to short-shrift it with repeated offerings of the same verse in my best imitation of a James Earl Jones baritone.

The horses, dare I say, thought I was fantastic, and gathered at the rails to stare at me dolefully.

It also gave me ample time to digest some of the more frightening themes from Mike Lofgren’s book, The Deep State. It’s a term we are hearing more of, lately, particularly as both sides of the aisle attempt to co-opt the indictment and wield it like a cudgel against the other.  They do this much in the same manner that they bandy “Washington” as a term of derision, or “Inside the beltway” as a condemnation-meme, meant to convince us that somehow they–podium chasers all—are the real bringers of light and truth.  The reality is, as Lofgren illustrates quite clearly: it’s none of them.

The Deep State, in Lofgren’s definition—and which is a term he borrowed from the WWI era of Young Turks—roughly means this: “a hybrid association of key elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern the United States with only limited reference to the consent of the governed as normally expressed through elections.”

After three decades of high-level staff work on Capitol Hill, he was uniquely placed throughout his career to terrify the rest of us with his conclusions. Nominally a republican, Lofgren rails intelligently, convincingly, and mercilessly against both parties and their leaders as essentially puppets, dangling by strings, controlled by an intricate web of tycoons, contractors, and fund raising puppet masters.

Lofgren opines that “most of the art and science of politics these days consist of camouflaging a politician’s real stance on an issue.”

He goes to some length to recount the horrors and illustrate the recycling of previously removed or resigned policy advisors, cabinet members, et. al., in a laundry list of plutocrats who jump from government to the private sector, and back again, endlessly, making higher salaries each time they do, even as many of them have been disgraced in previous public-service incarnations.

Later in the book, Lofgren cites a study conducted by Martin Gilens of Princeton, and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, who examined two thousand public opinion surveys on policy matters between 1981 and 2002. They drew some interesting conclusions about status as they relate to policy outcomes. The authors concluded that the preferences of economic elites have far more impact on policy than those of average citizens. And they doubled down on that conclusion: “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States…economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence.”

And that’s the real danger of The Deep State.  There has been, Lofgren concludes, a “revolution within the form,” so that outwardly those most handsomely rewarded by the charade of a functioning republic are able to maintain the outward appearances of a government whose representatives are accountable through the ballot. They manage to rail against “Washington” and the “elites”, even as they are almost universally financed by, and thence controlled by, a host of wholly unaccountable and extremely powerful “elites” from beltway contractors to the Silicon Valley.

Which leaves most of the rest of us out of the equation, regardless of how many envelopes we might stuff with placards telling the new President, or whomever, that we are mad, and they are fired.

I don’t know if Lofgren’s conclusions are the final say in all this, but the bell he rings has the peal of distinct clarity, and there can be little disagreement between honest people that the candidates offered up in the last election were both dyed-in-the-wool Deep State ventriloquist dolls—of the devious, narcissistic, incredibly dishonest sort, whose mood and policy positions depend upon which arm is leveraged up their fundament.

Which is to say: charlatans, and shills, and precisely why I refused to cast a ballot for either of them.

Maybe it doesn’t even matter. It’s possible the fate of such a large and unruly republic is foreordained. History certainly suggests a natural path in the decline of empires such as this one.

I hope I’m wrong about that, too.

And anyway, back home, some 2700 miles away from the center of all things oligarchical, I’m singing chain-gang songs, and swinging a pick, knee deep in piles of horse manure. That’s the Deep State of the Figure 8, and I have to admit, it looks pretty good. The snow-crocus are up, and the only lobbyists I contend with are chickens, dogs, horses, and a couple of cagey barncats. Granted, they lobby hard for their various interests, but I get to hear them without a single Dick Cheney or George Soros hiding in the haystack.

this post originally appeared in The Nugget Newspaper, March 21, 2017, in a slightly different form.

A Loon For Legumes

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Greenhouse on the Figure 8 Ranch…

This year I intend to garden—or farm, as I prefer to think of it—as if our lives depend on it. I’ve set a high bar for this summer’s haul: 500 lbs. I want to harvest 500 lbs of vegetables, eat them, preserve them, and give some of those pounds of food away to kith and kin. After several years of less than satisfactory results, I’ve come to believe that if we approach this growing season with anything less than irrational passion, with anything short of religious fervor, we will once again fall well below potential.

No more. Sitting here under the snowbanks—where we’ve all been collectively pressed together since November—and with plenty of time to think about it, I’ve decided to turn pro, to cast my amateur status, to become a kind of sunblasted gardening zealot, and get after the Super Bowl of harvests.

That’s vanity, of course. Central Oregon, and my own spectacular acts of stupidity, have proven to be more than formidable adversaries. But waves of bugle-blowing Golden Mantles, Special Forces tabbed rabbits, sudden freezes in late June, Onion Maggots, bad soil, and the occasional and unconscionable streak of laziness, have strafed my delusions of grandeur long enough.

The obvious question is: why am I doing this to myself? It’s not as if, looking forward to spring, we don’t have enough to do already. There is the colt I need to start. The mare who needs to be ridden every day. There is plenty of fencing that needs steady attention. We probably need to paint the house and re-stain the barn. There is always the writing, and reading, shooting enough to stay proficient, and I’d love to get out kayaking and fishing and running in the woods.

But I dream at night of vegetables. Crates of them. They haunt me. Luscious red tomatoes, green beans, snap-peas, onions bursting into beautiful bulbs beneath the soil. Squash and potatoes. And spinach, of course, which is the one thing I’ve managed to grow with more than modest success.

I’m not entirely certain I can articulate the reason for this passionate vegetable lunacy. Certainly there isn’t just one. The obsession seems to eddy in a confluence of various ideas rushing in from various points of the compass—always subject to tweaking or simply rejecting after a test drive–about how we should be living on this planet. It has something to do with making more and using less, and shaping our decisions with a bias for action and a drive for increasing self-reliance.

It is a cousin to the drive that informs my desire to hunt, and fish, and to harvest with dignity the planet’s myriad gifts. And there’s this: it’s just fun.

To be clear, I’m trying desperately to stay in the middle of the road on most things. But, if I’m being honest, I have to watch myself carefully. Thus far, we aren’t sandbagging a bunker or building a Faraday cage to protect ourselves from a rogue EMP bomb. Maybe we should be, but we aren’t. We have not yet laid in a three-year supply of freeze-dried rations for the big collapse of civilization. I do not go in for chemtrails, conspiracies whose only supporting evidence is the abject lack of evidence, or believe the NSA is listening to my phone calls. Above all, I adamantly reject the idea that politicians—any of them—are ever going to provide the finest solutions to our collective cultural frictions.

Also, I’d like to believe this growing preoccupation or, rather, extreme conviction, isn’t the manifestation of a dreamy “back to the earth” fantasy I’ve acquired somewhere. The pipeline protestors in North Dakota who left several tons of garbage behind—now monitored by local law enforcement for dead bodies potentially concealed in two hundred truckloads of refuse—should help to explode the presumption of moral superiority in the protest-for-hire, rabid environmentalist set–and one look at the mountains of trash they left behind means they don’t get a pass for good intentions.

It’s just this: a healthy crop of vegetables has come somehow to symbolize, for me at least, a kind of outrigger in the chop and froth of the daily news, a bulwark against physical dependency, and a spiritual hedge against the synthetic, the digital, and the ephemeral.

Rick Bass once wrote of his own kind of activism in the Yaak Valley of Montana: “The older I get the more I realize that all of my goals have been possessed of the crime of moderation. Even the largest of my dreams and ambitions, I realize with increasing dismay, were puny, measly, compared to the object of my dreaming.”

I’m guilty of that too, and too often when, if I had only flexed out of the tendency toward moderation, I might have changed an outcome for the better. Maybe, to some extent, we are all guilty of it in various ways.

And so this year, in a redoubled commitment to growing food—something that I still believe matters a great deal, I’m going to toss moderation. I’m going to become a maniac for melons, a loon for legumes. I’m going to farm our little plot like an angry, slightly deranged monk. I’m going to be completely unreasonable, shamelessly ambitious, and indulge the duplicitous luxury of thinking—if only for a minute–that our lives actually do depend on it.

 

The New Silk Roads

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Last summer, while lounging around the Munich Airport waiting for a flight to Reykjavik, I bought a book: “The Silk Roads, A New History of the World”, by Peter Frankopan. Frankopan is a senior fellow at Oxford University, and has written a convincing reassessment of world history. It is also a poignant, and incredibly well-considered forecast of our possible future as a broader, western culture.

It’s a good enough read that, while spending the weekend on my tractor, moving horse manure from one spot to another on one of the last American made tractors, I kept coming back to Frankopan’s ultimate conclusion: that what we are witnessing today, in the realms of business and geo-politics, and the obvious confusion and impotence of western foreign policy, is a dramatic shift in the center of gravity, a return of power to the places it resided for thousands of years—the ancient kingdoms and cultures along the old Silk Roads.

From China to Ukraine, from Russia to Iran, from Uzbekistan to Kygyrzstan, a new center of power, anchored by the availability and abundance of natural resources, the home-grown ability and willingness to exploit them–and with a military parity with the global powers not seen since the collapse of the Ottomans–is poised to re-assert itself.

I would argue that power is already re-asserting itself, and has been since the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Shah.

I don’t know what this dramatic shift, which I believe is real–and which we can read in the tea-leaves of the world’s headlines every day–portends. I doubt it is good, at least for those of us who have grown accustomed to the ease and convenience of modern western living. Which is, if we are being honest, all of us.

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We have grown accustomed to having most everything we want, when we want it, and we could afford that luxurious way of thinking because—for better or for worse–we controlled the resources and the energy, and backed that control with unparalleled military might.

Not so, anymore. In regions of the world that may well dominate the future, and how we live in that future, we have wildly, and repeatedly, misplayed our hand. We have misplayed it so badly, and so often—from Kiev to Beijing–we risk becoming entirely irrelevant as a respectable player, incapable of supporting our own interests, and held in perpetual contempt and disdain by entire regions of people who consider us liars and thieves.

Sadly, at this point, it doesn’t even matter if they’re right, or if they’re wrong.

At home, we are engaged in endless bouts of moralizing about energy consumption, even as we arrive at the latest protest du jour in our SUVs and $300 puffy jackets, weighted down with laptops and cellphones. It’s no accident of irony that protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline left behind 24,000 tons of trash, mountains of human waste, dogs, puppies, cars, and dozens upon dozens of propane tanks. Law enforcement officers were even monitoring the garbage collection on the chance there might be dead humans hidden in the refuse. That’s not an unplanned misfortune, excusable because the motives were sound: it’s exactly who we have become, a kind of cultural split-personality, duplicitous to the point of absurdity.

Consider this: the proven crude reserves under the Caspian Sea are twice those of the entire United States. The Karachaganak reserve between Kazakhstan and Russia contains an estimated 42 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, liquefied gas, and crude oil. The Donbas basin in eastern Ukraine has 10 billion tons of extractable coal deposits, as well as 1.4 billion barrels of oil, 2.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and the earth itself in southern Ukraine is so rich they dig it up and sell it to the tune of a billion a year. The Uzbek and Kyrgyz mines of the Tian Shan belt are second only to the Witwatersrand basin in gold deposits. In Kazakhstan are beryllium, dysprosium, and other rare earth metals vital for the manufacture of mobile phones, laptops, and rechargeable batteries—not to mention uranium and plutonium for nuclear warheads.

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There isn’t a well-meaning environmental protest in the world that is going to stop those countries from exploiting their resources, growing tremendously wealthy from the pursuit, and wielding the fruits as both hard and soft power in the Great Game. And, disturbingly, they aren’t likely to have even the remotest hint of democratic institutions in place to restrain their considerable ambitions.

Like it or not, the real history of the world has always been, and always will be, about resources.

Last year, in my favorite outback bar in Nevada, I saw a sign hanging over the ranks of bourbon and rye on a dusty shelf. The sign read: “If it doesn’t grow, it has to be mined.” The sign was printed as a kind of sad protest, and pasted up by a disgruntled someone who was about to lose his job at the gypsum mine.

It didn’t matter that the statement happens to be true, because truth in the 21st century has become increasingly obscure and elusive. And it didn’t help either, because the more pressing fact remained: he was losing his livelihood to someone on the other side of the world, to some other miner, in the heart of the New Silk Roads.

this post originally appeared in The Nugget News, March 7, 2017