The Shoulder Season


“Picture a weasel…that little demon of destruction, that small atom of insensate courage, that symbol of slaughter, sleeplessness, and tireless, incredible activity–picture that scrap of demoniac fury, multiply that mite some fifty times, and you have the likeness of a wolverine.”

                                                   Lord, let me die    but not die


                        For the Last Wolverine, James Dickey

A few weeks ago, on our way to the End of Summer Concert and bbq at the Camp Sherman Store, my wife and I crossed paths with a bear. He wasn’t a big bear, probably not much more than a yearling boar, and we surprised him at whatever he was doing. He lumbered a few yards into the brush, then stopped, sniffed the air, and sat by a rotten stump. We stopped too, and for a long time the three of us just sat there studying each other.

Maybe it was the smoke, or the heat, or the way the bear sat panting as he watched us, but I had what alcoholics call a “moment of clarity,” a brief window of comprehension that stayed with me long after.

For whatever reason, I thought of Hiro Onoda. Onoda, who refused to believe that Japan had lost the Second World War, finally came out of the Philippine jungle in 1974, almost thirty years late, and only after his former commander was flown in from Japan to formally relieve him from duty.

ODFW estimates that there are 25-30,000 black bears living in Oregon, which is greatly encouraging, if you believe them. But based on what we know about post-industrial human behavior, and how the chart lines of human domination and the success of other species travel in opposite directions, it may not be too far-fetched to think that in the lifetimes of our children, or our grandchildren, seeing a bear in the woods at all may be more the stuff of Onoda’s surrender than a realistic expectation.


The last Grizzly in Oregon probably died alone

I don’t think that’s too dramatic. The last documented Grizzly bear in Oregon was killed on September 14, 1931, near Chesimnus Creek, in the Wallowas. That really wasn’t very long ago. And the sad truth about it is really much worse, given that the last Grizzly bear in Oregon likely never surrendered, and probably died utterly alone, unknown to anyone.

And how could Lewis and Clark, who witnessed bison by the tens of thousands, believe that within 75 years of their journey some 60 million bison would have been hunted to near extinction?

I’m not pointing fingers. As a young man I would hide in the giant haystacks of one ranch or another, working a rabbit call and cradling a rifle. My friends and I would sit for hours in the cold, glassing the desert and calling coyotes in over the snow–so we could shoot them. We never, to the best of my memory, gave any serious thought to the rightness, or the wrongness, of it all. If anything, we thought we were doing a bit for predator control because coyotes can be truly vicious. Among other appalling spectacles, I’ve seen them encircle a calving cow and drag the calf from her body even as she tried gallantly to fight off a snarling pack of murderous midwives.

But today, in my personal shoulder season–that odd space between old understandings and the search for new ones—I’m looking for ways to accommodate rather than kill, and I worry that my behavior wasn’t much better than the garimpeiros in Peru and Brazil who, for the sake of minerals, routinely murder human beings.

Nothing says “Modern Man” quite like shooting our primitive and defenseless cousins for profit.

We’ve seen that before, too. Settlers in the country where I was raised thought nothing of taking random pot-shots at Paiutes or Maidus, or Bannock and Pit River natives who were usually starving, and sick, had no means to defend themselves, and were simply travelling on the wagon road.

What’s more disturbing is that in some way, with only rare exceptions, we have inherited the mindset. We are part of that lineage because we are, in a direct sense, part of the horrors in the Congo, where children are forced at gunpoint to dig up minerals such as Coltan for our cell phones and computers—by hand.


The bear on the road to Camp Sherman

I know a lot of people who think that is wrong, but I don’t know a single person who is willing to give up their cell phone or computer so that kids in the Congo don’t have to do that sort of thing, or who would trade the comparative comfort and convenience of modern American life to help stop the slaughter of stone-age tribes in Amazonia. We couldn’t even manage that kind of decency in our own backyard. And these days we mostly don’t see it, so it’s far easier to rationalize those concerns away and to invest emotionally and financially in the anodynes that ultimately do nothing but preserve the disease.

Again, I’m not moralizing here; I place myself firmly, inescapably, in the ranks of the consumer. This is simply the dichotomous web of modern life, and the more we struggle against it the deeper, it seems, we are caught.

“Things reveal themselves passing away,” wrote Yeats. That’s true, but only if we are paying attention. Hiro Onoda revealed himself in the last sad act of a war for domination, resources, and liebensraum that consumed the world, and a few weeks ago a bear revealed himself to us in the under-logged woods of Oregon.

He wasn’t the last bear, not yet, and he’s fighting a war for resources that he isn’t even aware of, but somehow I think these things–the bear, the natives, the minerals, and Onoda, are all related. In fact I know they are related, in the same way that I know the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, spilled out onto a table, somehow, eventually, with the due diligence that is our responsibility, fit together into a much larger picture.


A Word, If You Please



Today I wanted to take a brief moment and offer my sincerest thanks to you all, the readers and followers of The Bunkhouse Chronicle.

We have recently reached a humble milestone: over 30,000 individual views of the Chronicle. From Bosnia to Mozambique, Guatemala to Estonia, Morocco to Cambodia, readers have checked in to see what was happening in the Bunkhouse. Yesterday we had a reader from Pakistan, which was a first.

That’s a modest start–many sites get that kind of traffic in a day–but it is a very long way from where this all started.

Every writer wants readers—in the words of my favorite Montana poet, Richard Hugo, “If we didn’t, we might as well just write diaries”—and this writer, if that’s what I am, is very grateful for your support, your comments, your encouragement, and your loyal readership.

This morning our colt, in a feat that I may never quite understand, somehow managed to lift a paddock gate out of its attachments and set it down where he preferred to have it. The other horses, like so many eye-witnesses, have been mostly unreliable in the investigation.

So I’m off to fix a paddock gate, and to ponder the enduring mysteries.

But first, I wanted to say thank you.




The Cajun Navy Handbook


Kayakers in Houston

I have a friend from the Marine Corps, John “Scoot” Davenport, who lives in Youngsville, Louisiana, and is an Admiral in the Cajun Navy. That’s a joke–there is no such thing as an Admiral in the Cajun Navy—but recently I had the opportunity to talk with Scoot about his experiences as a volunteer during the onslaught of Hurricane Harvey, in Houston.

Scoot, like all good sons of the bayou country, has a boat, an enormous affection for people, and a lot of neighbors who share his capacity for selflessness. That’s what the Cajun Navy is. There is no formal organization, except around a deeply held principle of neighborhood and community. “Most of us around here have boats for hunting and fishing,” Scoot told me, “So when we saw those people needed help, we just went. Didn’t even think about it. I have a friend who is a paramedic, and he jumped in with me.”

Simple as that.

The trip to Houston, normally three hours, took nine, and where other vehicles were siphoned off the interstate by law enforcement, anyone towing a boat was allowed to keep heading into the storm.


Scoot Davenport to the Rescue

Funny enough, the Cajun Navy does have an App, which allowed them to bring some loose measure of organization to what was otherwise, according to Scoot, essentially chaos.

After hours of mostly uncoordinated freelance rescues, Scoot and his squadron of volunteers discovered a series of assisted living homes under the floodwaters. The homes were difficult to see at all, Scoot said, because of the high water and visibility problems caused by navigating through treetops and powerlines during a still-active hurricane. But Scoot, and those oft-derided bayou boys, managed to evacuate nearly 180 elderly and desperate Americans, their wheelchairs, and their medical supplies, and haul them to dry ground and safety.

They did it because that is what good people, and good neighbors, do. And there was something else, another welcome patch of high ground in all that flooding: “You know,” Scoot said of his experience, “I didn’t see the first Antifa, BLM, or Nazi protest the whole time I was there. Nobody cared about politics or race or religion or sex or anything of that. It just didn’t matter.”

It just didn’t matter.

The extraordinary human response to Hurricane Harvey might rightfully be seen as a powerful counter-punch to the noisy and angry narrative that submits every high-visibility moment of cultural and political friction as evidence of an America unraveling at the seams.

We would do very well to consider long and hard who is behind those fringe narratives, how they benefit from pushing them, and what it is they actually want.

Thankfully, I mark an alternative tone amongst the people I meet. While acknowledging that there seems to be an anxious struggle for the American soul underway, they are mostly perplexed and exhausted by the divisive vitriol. They are tired of the daily “panic broadcasts” and the big-money engines driving an endless loop of crisis journalism and fear peddling. This includes the “bigotry is big business” types who keep insisting that we are all, inescapably, racists and chauvinists and homophobes.


A Lone Boat Patrols the Suburbs of Houston

The folks I talk to are perplexed because that narrative—aimed directly at them– doesn’t square with their own experiences, or beliefs, and they are exhausted because it is a relentless bombardment of media-driven opprobrium. Sadly, the average American gets steamrolled in the conversation, though it is the average American—in the interest of objectivity–whose voice should probably get the most airtime.

It has taken an Old Testament-style disaster to change the focus, however briefly. The truth is that the average American is a far more enlightened, affectionate, and responsive neighbor—even with our differences–than a total outsider might come to believe.

Maybe that’s Pollyanna, but optimism was long considered an essential American trait—before it was replaced by the dour, infectious, and ultimately destructive cynicism now so much in vogue.

Instructively, and I think these things are related, it would be hard to find a more cynical bunch than our representatives in Congress—whose approval ratings have cratered in the 20% range—and who seem, as a body, perfectly incapable of supplying any leadership at all that doesn’t line their own pockets or guarantee their own healthcare for life.


Assisted Living Evacuation, Photo Courtesy Scoot Davenport.

Congress, collectively, has done a sufficient job of supporting Wendell Berry’s notion that “The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth.”

Back in the inner-city of Houston, where there is no wealth or political power, Scoot and his fellow sailors in the Cajun Navy drifted up on a young man, probably 13. He was pushing his bicycle through the floodwaters, a knapsack on the handlebars. The rain and the wind were relentless. Scoot asked if he lived nearby, if he needed help. “No,” the young man said, “I live two miles from here. I just told my parents I wanted to help carry medical supplies.”

Catastrophe on the scale of Harvey has a way of cleansing the lens because it strips life down to its meaningful essentials—food, water, shelter—and erases the day-to-day luxuries of philosophical waltzing, meme-warfare, and virtue sniping. The hardest part, and there are plenty of hard parts coming for those unfortunate people who have lost everything to this storm, will be remembering what it was like when, for a little while at least, the only thing that people saw, and what they acted on in countless scenes of affection and selflessness, was another human being in need of help.