Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah
Written November 11, 2012
Light snow on the ground, 24 degrees at dawn.
Now comes the season for fires in the fireplace.
A small fire at dawn’s early light is a cozy pleasure.
And I’m usually competent at building fires . . .
First some old newspaper - balled up against a back log . . .
Then a handful of dry cedar kindling . . .
Add a few small sticks of pitchy pinon pine . . .
Make sure the flue is open . . .
Light the newspaper with one wooden match . . .
When the fire is burning hot and bright, add small oak logs . . .
Fetch coffee, sit down, sit back, relax, enjoy.
Alas, the oak logs are still a little green - they will not readily burn.
The fire struggles and flames out.
It smolders, and the chimney downdraft pushes smoke into the room.
But, because the chimney wasn’t cleaned at summer’s end, the accumulated soot catches on fire and rises up the flue . . .
And flakes of black snow blow out the smokestack and onto the porch.
Bloody hell . . .
The house must be aired out now.
The wood pile will have to be triaged today to find dry logs.
And the chimney will have to be cleaned tomorrow.
On top of that, the milk I heated for the coffee was sour.
Not the blissful Sunday morning I had in mind.
Writing this web journal is like that sometimes.
There’s mental kindling for a fire – a good line of thought.
It burns quick and hot in the beginning – the words flow.
But when the logs of extended thought are piled on, the wood proves to be green – the fire flames out, smolders, and doesn’t readily burn.
All that remains is smoke.
What follows in this journal posting now is a sampling of recent fire failure.
Ideas that began well enough but flamed out.
Perhaps you have a dry log to add . . .
Here’s a piece that never got beyond the kindling stage:
I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve or save the world and a desire to enjoy or savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
E.B.White said that.
A contributor to the New Yorker for six decades, he authored twenty books.
Among them were Charlotte’s Web, The Second Tree From the Corner, and The Elements of Style – all remain nearby on my read-again shelf.
And in times of public unrest and crisis, I turn to White for companionship.
He never wrote in haste – never ran, always walked – and approached the world with both serious concern and subtle humor.
As for me, I arise wanting to be engaged and informed – and also wanting to be amused and amazed. I want to be connected to the incoming news of the day – and I want to flee from the clamor of the global village.
And I’m stuck.
It’s hard to go on – but I have nowhere else to go.
White said that, too.
So last Tuesday – Election Day – bogged in the sand trap of worry about an event I could not do anything about – frustrated by a malfunctioning internet connection, and too apathetic to clean the chimney or chop dry wood, I went flying.
We chartered a plane at Canyonlands Field, an hour away.
The small 3-passenger Cessna lifted off into clear, still, air.
And we soared up and out over the Colorado Plateau.
A Cinerama moment – the flight scene from the film, Out of Africa, –
The theme music rose in my mind as the plane rose in the air.
A hundred miles of visibility in all directions.
Below were the Colorado and Green Rivers and Canyonlands National Park.
And 1,750 million years of the geomorphology of planet Earth.
This convoluted landscape was shaped by tectonic drift, upheaval, down-thrust, shallow seas, great deserts covered with sand dunes, volcanoes, floods, windstorms, erosion, sedimentary layering, even glaciers.
Leaving behind a layer cake of canyons and mesas and deserts.
Rocks of peach pink and rust red, creamy white and pale green, and black.
This is deep history – undeniable, everlasting climate change on display.
A glimpse of an infinite past and an infinite future.
The Hindus say it is the activity of the trinity of the aspects of God:
Brahma – the creator
Vishnu – the maintainer or preserver
Shiva – the destroyer or transformer.
The thinnest layer of all are the surface scratches of human history.
A road, a clearing, a tiny town, a gravel pit, a barn.
We flew over the La Sal mountains, and drifted down into Pack Creek Valley to look at my house.
There it was.
So small - so temporary – so directly in the way of the next glaciation.
The pilot throttled the engine back and we floated, circling at slow speed.
With earphones in place there was semi-silence.
This is the condor’s view, I thought - the bird’s eye view.
I also thought, The chimney still needs cleaning.
The pitiful pile of wood stacked on the porch is still green.
But the tasks seemed as far away as the house.
And where does it all go from here – what’s next . . . and next?
What difference do the events of this human day make?
Got a dry log? Throw it on . . .
Regarding the past two years of political upheaval.
Written on Wednesday, November 7.
Ostrakismos is a Greek word used by the Athenians in the 6th century.
It refers to a process whereby the citizens could vote to expel someone from the city for a period of ten years.
Employed to rid the community of a person who was either considered a threat to the well-being of the commonwealth or who had just become tiresome and annoying.
Ostracism could be used without any stated reason, without specific charges or punishment, without trial, and with no loss of property or status.
If convicted there was no jail time, no flogging, no financial penalty.
The message was simple: The People want you to go away for awhile.
And will take a vote on that.
After a candidate was nominated, the vote was held two months later, during which time both the voters and the candidate had time to think things over.
The votes were cast by scratching the candidate’s name on a piece of broken pottery (The scratch paper of the time. I have seen a collection of these in the Ancient Agora Museum in Athens.)
If 6,000 or more votes were cast in favor of ostracism, the winner had ten days to pack up and get out of town - way, way out of town - into exile.
Apparently the two month delay in voting proved effective as a device to change the minds of the voters or the behavior of the defendant.
The ostracisors and the ostracisees had time to reflect and reconsider.
Despite multiple nominations, only 12 citizens were ostracized in 60 years.
While ten years exile was the usual sentence, a person could be recalled or even return earlier, as some did – out of community need or forgiveness.
Aristides, the Just, a statesman and general, was a famous example.
Imagine, then, that we, in the United States of America in the 21st century, adopted the process of ostracism . . .
At the end of every presidential election.
Someone of prominence whose welcome is worn out.
A simple message: Shut up and go away.
What do you think?
Do you have a nominee?
Throw a dry log on the fire.
A news item that caught my mind and provoked thought:
Some voters in the storm ravaged State of New Jersey rode bicycles through the wreckage to find a temporary tent in which to vote by flashlight.
A man I heard interviewed on the radio, whose home was damaged and had no heat or light or water, was asked why he went to the trouble to get to the voting tent – knowing that New Jersey would go for Obama, whether he voted or not.
“I’m an American citizen now,” he said. “It’s my responsibility to vote.”
He was born in Russia.
Throw a log on that.
The weather last week was mild enough for me to work outdoors.
Hauled all my woodworking tools outside – saws and sanders and drills.
Plus hammers, chisels, nails, screws, glue, finishing oil and the rest . . .
All laid out on saw-horses in the soft sunshine of late fall.
In a few days I cobbled-up a hat rack for my wife, a wall of shelves for the basement, a spice rack for the kitchen, a hanging clothes rack for the back of the bed, and parts for small sculptures.
None of the projects were fully finished – the tweaking of details, the sanding and the oiling and waxing are still to come.
And I had doubts about the design of some.
But nothing has to be completed in a day – if you rush to finality, you make mistakes and miss the pleasure of the process.
I’ve learned the hard way to be patient.
When I work I wear Carhart overalls – the kind with many pockets and straps. By day’s end I am loaded down with tools – with pockets full.
Hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, measuring tape, pencil, pad, and a missed assortment of nails, screws, wood chips, sawdust, and trash.
My overalls weigh about 15 pounds more than they did when I put them on.
I’ve learned to be patient with this accumulation.
I really don’t have to strip the overalls back down to emptiness.
Just take them off, hang them up in the shop.
And walk back up to the house in my undershorts.
Not putting a final finish on my projects - not putting the tools away - and not emptying out the overalls - means I intend continuing doing something I love another day – but just not on this one.
A promise to myself.
Even though, in truth, I’m uncertain about going on.
Do these wood working projects really have enough merit to finish?
That’s an extended metaphor about the writing process.
Beginnings that have not been brought to completion or deserve to be.
Some will work out as I imagined – but many will get so far and then . . .
What next? Where to go from here?
And I turn to someone else and ask, “What do you think? Got any suggestions or good ideas?”
As I’m doing now.
Here’s a less solemn piece that has no sane wrap-up:
In a way . . . we have a snake living in the kitchen.
In a dark space between the refrigerator and the freezer.
It’s a small rattlesnake.
It’s been there for a week.
Notice I began with the phrase, “In a way.”
For three nights in a row I had a vivid realistic dream about the snake.
Enough to force me up out of bed and into the kitchen in my bathrobe.
I swear to God I heard the snake rattle the first night.
That’s why all the lights were switched on and I was creeping around the kitchen with a flashlight in one hand and the fireplace poker in the other.
No snake – or maybe it’s good at hiding. Rattle again, you bastard.
Leaving the lights on and the door closed I finally went back to bed.
Thinking - but not saying - to my half-awake wife:
Don’t go in the kitchen, dear - there’s a rattlesnake in there.
The second night - the same vivid dream – and I’m up and armed and in the kitchen once again.
And the third night, the same.
Only this time I fell asleep in a chair - still fully armed - and got dream sequel that explained everything.
In this dream I learned that my wife has known about the snake all along.
She and the snake are not afraid of each other.
They have reached an accommodation.
The snake is free to stay if it catches mice and leaves people alone.
(And I admit that the house has certainly been free of mice recently)
She even has a name for the snake.
I repeat: In a way . . . we have a snake living in the kitchen.
Having a name for an imaginary fear eases the anxiety, I suppose.
Acknowledging the hallucinatory reality of dreams is useful.
But what is real?
And I’ve been cautious around the fridge and freezer for a week now.
I explained to my wife all about my snake dreams and my mid-night rambles in the kitchen.
And my wife went along with the hallucination.
I ask, “How’s fluffy today, dear?”
Can you throw a log on that?
So there you have it.
Examples of fires that began well enough . . .
But no matter how many logs of thought I threw on – no matter how many sentences and paragraphs were piled on - the fire smoldered and smoked but did not flare up and burn.
And so I pass the mess on to you . . . and your dry wood.
Be obscure clearly.
E. B. White gave that advice to writers.
I have taken his advice to heart.
Reading back over what I’ve written, it’s clearly obscure.