Monday, December 19, 2016

Standing Rock: Part III On Toads and Environmentalists

Note to readers: I've been struggling for the last week or so since I got back from Standing Rock to write up Part III of my blog-trilogy on what I saw and felt there. Inevitably and as is the nature of most strugglings, I found myself getting more and more serious and didactic, both of which are boring and against the writing principles that I try to (but don't always!) adhere to. Being an "environmentalist", and being that there's been this supposedly-acrimonious divide between the "environmentalist" and the "indigenous", I found myself getting high-centered on that whole serious thing specifically and the whole serious mess we're in generally and I kept scrapping what I'd written up and trying all over again. Just like driving into a harmless-looking snowdrift on the treeless plains and getting hopelessly stuck in it, I just couldn't get over the bump anyone existing on the North American continent to the left of Attila the Hun has (finally!) been tasked with plowing through. The feelings and issues surrounding the meeting of the above-mentioned world views are of  course as real as taxes, and are worthy of much timely lecturing from more qualified and serious people than myself. But who wants to get lectured at? Thus my dilemma. Ping-pong thinking, the kind of thinking that was making things  look grim indeed for my getting anything more about Standing Rock written in a timely fashion at all. Then I had an idea.

The path of least resistance, I believe, is always the best option if it's available, and this is my blog, my writing, my "copyrighted material" and so I can do what I want with it and let the Eternal Ether I send it out into be the judge as to whether it's good writing or not. Maybe God has a stable of lawyers like some of those on the skin of this Earth who seem to think they're God. But I'll bet a dollar She doesn't so here it is, my next post. I'm plagiarizing myself.

What I did was root around into my old posts until I found a couple that were appropriate to what I wanted to say about Standing Rock and that made me laugh, and then I re-posted them, revising them just a tad to make them timely. And now I'm satisfied. If you've read my posts before, you've seen them before. All I can say in such an unlikely case as yours is that I've seen them, too, but they still made me laugh when I re-read them, and are therefore still valid by my own definition. To those who haven't been here yet: Waddayathink?

On Toads Singing Unexpected Songs

Petroghlyph Lake, Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, Southeastern Oregon

If you’re ever on a jaunt in Southeastern Oregon and driving down Highway 20, stop in for gas and a Hampton Burger at the Hampton store. The store is located along an ancient trade route that the People used to travel to reach Celilo Falls, where they would meet in truce to socialize and to trade with the coastal and river peoples, salmon for obsidian, seashells for slaves. That community, at Celilo Falls, has been there for ten thousand years, and is the oldest known site continuously inhabited by human beings on the North American continent. Hampton Store, for its part, is just a little north of Glass Butte, which has been one of the main sources of trade obsidian for the People throughout the region from time immemorial, and for that reason alone it’s worth your while to grab a Hampton Burger on your way through. The burger, if not immemorial, is big and relatively cheap, and the gas, if the owner happens to have five gallons that day to sell you, is your last chance until you reach Riley, forty miles further east down the desert road.
            You’ll know you’re in Riley as soon as you’re able to read the homemade sign that says “Whoa you missed Riley!” Like Hampton, it’s another one-store town, and probably has good burgers, too. But Riley, unlike Hampton, was in the national news recently by virtually the only way a desert town like Riley ever makes the national news, by archeologists who have unearthed an interesting thing. At an excavation site nearby called Rimrock Draw Rock Shelter a scraper was found, under a layer of ash from an eruption of Mt. St. Helens that occurred almost 16,000 years ago, long before the Clovis people supposedly graced the North American continent with the human species. These archeologists have yet to go through the meticulous and critical peer-review process that Science rightfully hangs its hat on, but they plan to, and in the meantime Logic, a softer branch of science not necessarily limited to peer-review, opines that since the scraper was underneath the 16,000-year-old ash, there’s a good chance that it’s older.
            Scientific knowledge is, by definition, incomplete and will always remain so. At one point Science tells us that humans have been on the continent a mere 13,000 years despite what the First People say about their having been here forever. Then it tells us, no, make that 16,000 years, or maybe 20,000 or 50,000, but not forever. And so on, which is the necessary, peer-reviewed language of Science. This makes it a poor substitute for Earth Wisdom, but it’s the only one we have for jumpstarting ourselves down the path toward the kind of knowledge we so desperately seek and need right now, the kind of wisdom that’s taken so for granted by those who have known and understood it by virtue of the simple fact that they and theirs had been around these parts long enough to hear it, to know it, and to understand it.  
But as our Science wends its way with us in tow, I think I see it heading toward a slow and reluctant intersection with that Earth Wisdom that will tell us, Indeed! Coyote did it, or something else equally un-peer-reviewable, and by the time it gets to that inevitable point it will be called something other than Science, and we are going to have to deal with its new name, which in our contemporary parlance may end up being called Humility, and that’s going to be hard, very hard indeed.
It’s not a contradiction, though. Rather, the realization that this intersection is about to occur is nothing if not a perfect opportunity for us to critically measure a few delusions we suffer under in these times, the trite and dreary songs we hear repeated so much these days, of how we should either deny outright the mess we’ve made or, equally obnoxious, of how we can mentally twist or geo-engineer our way out of the consequences we have created for ourselves and our world. In a modern sense, the recognition of this intersection is counter-intuitive, seditious if you are one of those who lean toward the ever-trendy fascist persuasions we seem to inflict ourselves with such sickening regularity, but there it is. I’ll try to explain.
            The Blitzen River drains the backside of Steens Mountain in Southeastern Oregon, which is the magnificent mountain for those of us who love mountains. It’s forty miles long and rises in sheer drama over a mile above the Alvord Desert, one of the driest places in America. The small river, as well as the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge which it flows into, owes its riparian existence to the snowmelt coming from the high country off of this one, single mountain, and that is phenomenon enough. But go ten vertical feet above the surface of the river’s riffles and you’re back in the desert, and it was here I heard a toad high up in the dry, basalt talus that defines the river’s desert canyon when I camped along it last week. It seemed unusual, to hear a water-prone animal in such a place. But more unusual still was her voice, modulated in cadence and tone unlike the monotonous chirpings we tend to expect from toads, as though she were literally singing to the mountain behind her. I was sure that, contrary to the majority of life forms we share the Earth with whom we know nothing about, most animals who insist on being so vocal have been tagged with a genus and species by now, and that this toad probably had one of each. I knew that there were those who could identify her just from her voice and even say a few more interesting things about her. I could even climb up the talus and make the intrusive identification. But I satisfied myself with standing still and listening until I heard another toad answering from the river, also singing, and this was a cause for wonder, not just at what I imagined they might be saying, but at those new-baked academics among us who would respond to Global Warming by claiming that we modern humans know enough about the Earth now to not only understand what that toad is singing, but to “manage” her in a garden of our own purpose. Not to worry, they say. It's all good.
Ironically, Steens Mountain is named after the Army major who chased the Paiutes— those who probably could tell us exactly what the toads were singing—off the mountain. But that’s just irony. The point is, the toads are still there, singing to the mountain which has also been there long enough to understand.
             This experience repeated itself in reverse when I got back to town after my camping trip. The milk I'd left in my refrigerator had “gone cultural”, which in this case meant that the various microorganisms, some of which scientists have tagged with a genus and species and some of which they hadn’t, had matured. It was the consistency of cottage cheese, and after my jaunt through the drama that is the naked geology of Southeastern Oregon (no trees to get in the way of your geology) I wanted a cup of coffee, and I thought this milk smelled unique, unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before in my many decades of experimentation. I found it interesting, but I wanted my coffee, and I knew that action was needed, so I went shopping. When I got to the checkout area I was presented with a choice: interaction with a human being, who had a waiting line, or with a checkout machine, who didn’t. Being caffeine-deprived and therefore impatient, I chose the latter, and as the mechanical woman’s voice thanked me ever so much in her modulated tone programmed to sound like...a singing toad!!!...I received that dystopian jolt we all experience from time to time no matter how much we deny its existence, the realization that we have not only successfully trained ourselves off of the toad’s song but that we are allowing those who think only in one-and-two-dimensional terms to use infernal, ubiquitous, even automated insults--with our active acquiescence--to train us off of ourselves. I was sorry, for the toads at least, because of the question this all presumes: If there are so few among us who are at the stage of Earth Wisdom where they can say with any measure of accuracy what it is that talus-bound toad has been singing to the Mountain for a million years, and if Science can't get us there--which it can't--then who among us can presume to claim they know enough not to be humble, and to therefore not leave the toad's world as alone as we possibly can while we collectively meander down this tedious course of learning to listen? This "environmentalist" doesn't think there's any human being who fits such a description, and I presume toads know enough about humility to disappear when such a question is even asked. 
          Follow the leaders, I would say, the ones who know the Toad's Song. We really have no choice, never did and after all, it's not such a bad choice at all.
          Better than the alternative, anyway.

December 4, 2016
Ocheti Sakowin Camp
Morton County, North Dakota

Poker Jim Wilderness rising above dry former-canoe route through the former lakes of Warner Basin, Fourth Year of Drought
Southeastern Oregon

 Petroglyphs Lake, Fourth year of drought, Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge

Petroglyph Lake

Alkali Butte area in vicinity of Mary Harris' gravesite, Meek's Cutoff, Oregon Trail

Blitzen River, Southeastern Oregon

SunriseWarner Basin, Southeastern Oregon

On Being Called an "Environmentalist"

Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, Idaho             

If I were to define myself with a six-syllable insult to English, I would not choose the handle invented forty years ago by some well-meaning activists who knew nothing about poetry or the fact that people are story-based critters who hate to be bored with silly words. This modern noun “Environmentalist” has been so misused and abused that there is nothing left of it anymore except for the warm and fuzzy Earth Day banner it has become, whipping north and south like a wet noodle, right and left, whichever way the foundation-money winds happen to be blowing that day.
            If I were to choose a mouthful of syllables to define my concern for the Land, I’d choose the handle that Montana writer Rick Bass’ gave himself. I’d call myself a “human fuckin’ being”.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Standing Rock

Part II
Axmen Firearms
Retail store on Hwy 93 Just South of Missoula MT
Dec. 12th, 2016

I think there's common agreement amonst human beings not unhinged that we don't want to live in a dystopian world, nor do we want to hand off such a thing to our children. 

Why then, has the above-pictured poster-child of such a world been tolerated at the south end of Missoula on the highway for every single car traveling north or south out of Missoula to see since shortly after the Obama election? Why have at least a half a dozen other such abominations directly along that route in the 40 miles between Missoula and Hamilton been tolerated for at least that long? 

Really, have we had enough yet? Have we finally had enough?

Oceti Sakowin Camp from raised grade of Hwy 1806
Morton County, ND
Dec. 2nd, 2016

There's been an antidote to such extremism all along that's been available to everyone who hasn't allowed their fears and bigotries to pop the hinges off the lid of their common sense, and it's been  known for millennia. Anyone who's lived in the Northern Rockies of Montana for any length of time (with their hinges intact, of course) knows this for sure. Just take a walk (or ski) through the trees and listen to them. You know what I mean. We're lucky, is what they say. The Truth has set us free. 

But before I get to that most important thing I learned by witnessing (for the short time of one week) the doings at Standing Rock, as a public service I would like to speak to something a little more pedestrian: public safety. Maybe this could be a connector, a light bulb so to speak, for those who may not have had the opportunity to memorize the map of the night sky yet. Be patient on that. It's all knowable, and all you need is the curiosity and the bit of time it takes a human brain to shed enough of those superfluous byproducts of our commercial culture that are undoubtedly clinging to your perceptions of the world. You can get by all that, it's not that hard, and you can know all you need and want to by and by, so don't worry.

In the meantime, let's consider public safety. Use this observation about it as a measuring rod, if nothing else, to size up what corporate news is really trying to sell you about what has happened at Standing Rock so far, what's happening there now and what you can bet your mortgage payment is going to happen there in the future.

Water protectors looking north across Backwater Bridge on North Dakota Highway 1806 at militarized police, razor wire and water cannon blocking access to shortest, safest route to emergency services at Mandan/Bismarck, ND
(Oceti Sakowin Camp is just a little behind the protectors and to their right)

The picture above is what a tax-paying motorist heading north out of Oceti Sakowin Camp on Highway 1806 would have been confronted with on their frigid way out toward Bismarck. The scene itself is dystopian enough (like an oversized assault weapon advertising a hardware store, for instance). But of particular concern regarding public safety during the week I was at the camps was that between Dec. 1 and Dec. 7 the camp was filling up with thousands of vets staging for their anticipated action of collectively shielding the water protectors. Along with these vets were many people coming from across the swath of America's religious, spiritual and cultural denominations who came to lend support during that crucial week before the Governor of North Dakota's "eviction" notice set for Dec. 5th. Nobody knew what was going to happen on that date other than that, if the state was serious about trying to evict the camp, there was going to be another scene similar to the all-but-deadly debacle the state perpetrated on protectors on Nov. 20th on this very bridge. It turned out that, due to the wisdom of the tribal elders combined with the huge show of support--and the massive media coverage centered around the vets'  arrival--the state backed down. For the time being.

But simultaneous to this backing-down was the coming of winter's second blizzard bringing arctic conditions to the camp, which many of the newcomers were not (and I believe could not be) prepared for. Many of the vets came in buses and were "deployed" (put up) in public facilities located on the reservation. But I met many good-hearted, elderly vets and other supporters who came in their own vehicles and were sleeping in them. Given the weather conditions, this was awe-inspiring in its own right and, to a person, the ones I talked to were game to challenging the militarized response to peaceful demonstrators, and to do so as best the could in the teeth of a North Dakota blizzard.

I think it's fair to observe that on this week the locals were particularly overwhelmed with "out-of-towners" and that more than a couple tribal folks I chatted with thought it was more than a little funny that these newbys were putting chains on newer-model all-wheelers while they were skating around quite nicely without them in their earlier-model econo-rigs. In other words and, of course, the locals were expecting such weather. But to these good-hearted out-of-towners who had been sleeping in their cars for a couple-three nights and were not as used to such North Dakota reality, and even to those who were, this was serious weather, with serious consequences for an individual if one of many things went wrong.

Most stayed until the Dec. 5th deadline passed and the vets did their peaceful actions at the bridge and at the Oceti Sakowin Camp and other locations. After that, the weather made it clear that, for those who were unprepared, it would have been dangerous to themselves as well as to the movement for them to have remained and had something unfortunate happen to them. It was time for those to leave, and there were a lot of them.

And here is the key point I wish to make: The state of North Dakota, whose tax-funded employees were paid to protect and provide safe services for ALL citizens, including their OWN, felt it was a more important use of tax dollars for them to harm the movement by attempting to harm their own citizens as well as these newcomers (many of whom ended up dumping untold thousands of dollars into the local economies of Mandan and Bismarck to the north in the middle of this--shall we politely say?--non-traditional tourist season). The state of North Dakota officially blocked these peaceful folks' safest, fastest way north to Mandan and Bismarck with razor-wire and water-cannons. For the sake of a pipeline company.

Repeat that last sentence a couple times in your head. Is your jaw dropping yet?

OK. Let's give the cops the benefit of whatever shred of doubt there is to that last sentence for a minute. Let's assume, as I can only guess they did given their behavior, that most of these folks (and just include myself here for the sake of argument) were starry-eyed and naive, similar to, say, your average occupant in an out-of-state vehicle traveling across North Dakota on I-94. How rude, a local might snort, to be so starry-eyed and naive in such weather, right? A smug little snicker under their breath, an off-color joke or two at the truck stop, that would have been the only proper response for publicly-funded entities sworn to protect citizens during exactly such circumstances. But imagine a dangerous storm hitting unwary travelers on I-94 and the state of North Dakota throwing razor wire, water cannons and a militarized police force in the path of their fastest way out????!!!

That's what I witnessed at Standing Rock on Highway 1806. The nearest analogy I can come up with is being caught driving while black in Selma, Alabama in 1963. Think about it the next time you're traveling across North Dakota in a blizzard, or reading anything about North Dakota from now on for the foreseeable future. That state has some long and sincere apologizing to do before any hinged American should take what they officially have to say seriously again.

Water protectors approaching Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806 at night

Burnt vehicle and trailer placed on Blackwater Bridge by law enforcement,
removed by water protectors on Nov. 20th 

Thanks to some epic failures on too many peoples' part, the road we're collectively staring down is distinctly Dystopian now, no doubt. Too bad, but there's no use turning back, and shying away from looking forward is even less of an option. Maybe this is our golden moment. Hard to say and who's to say such a thing even after the fact. But activism's always the best antidote to social despair, and heres what I think:

On the other side of those scary lights is a road where hardware stores wouldn't dare use assault rifles to advertise their knick-knacks in America's heartland. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Standing Rock

Part I

My main intent in heading to Standing Rock two weeks ago was to witness (to see for myself and then tell my community what I saw) and to try to understand and then attempt to support and follow the Lakota/Dakota leaders of this movement in whatever way I felt I could while I was there. I ended up spending a little over a week at Oceti Sakowin -one of several water-protector camps at Standing Rock—and then headed home for family duties and to better prepare myself for my next trip out into the teeth of the North Dakota winter (if in fact the leaders at the camps still want me to come) 
            My intent was to write up a big, long blog/screed/sermon about what I personally witnessed and participated in because my head was just bursting with impressions and ideas, and I still intend to do that. But now that I sit down to write it I see that the form of the intended narrative is shifting. In just in my short week of being there, I saw, experienced, felt, thought out and schemed up far more than I could fit into one single post that would adhere to my personal standard (not always achieved!) of not boring my audience. This is the nature of writing and of true movements, I think. The birth of true movements (which is what is happening at Standing Rock is) overwhelm its witnesses with new thoughts, paradigms and possibilities, and in that excitement the witnesses who write about it tend to go didactic (professorial or whatever) and then your audience gets bored and doesn’t believe you, can’t believe you because what you have seen and experienced and want to share is so far out of their norm. Of course, I don’t think I’m personally in danger of putting too many would-be activists to sleep because I don’t think I have that big of an audience. But I recognize—and want to call out--the dangers of silo-building and single-issue-defending that the “left” has been so infamous for in the past, and although I know I’m just this tiny little thread of narrative, I also know that you are reading this now, that stories are vital to what lies ahead and that words are what our stories are bricked together with. For me to say that what is happening at Standing Rock is huge would be, I think, an understatement. So therefore it’s crucial, I believe, that  stories coming out of  this paradigm-shifting event are not only believable, but true, and I want to treat you with the respect I would hope all journalists and essayists with larger audiences should but don’t. 
            Beware, then, is the first thing I have to tell you, of what you read and hear about Standing Rock and this larger movement that has been catalyzed there in the corporate papers or hear on T.V. The corporate paradigm is dying, or is at least being effectively assaulted and, being corporate, those outlets want to put you back to sleep, which is one of the only real dangers of this moment, I think. False negatives, lies, willful news blackouts, etc. Don’t believe ‘em, in other words. That's your job. Read this blog. Read others. Get on Facebook. Talk to people who have been to Standing Rock. Sponsor awareness-raising events. Don’t silo up around single issues. The danger of “divide and conquer” everyone in this complex country to the “left” of Attila the Hun will be overridden by your vigilance. Get the best information you can get, and keep the narrative on track and true with what you want our world to become. Take a side. It's that simple.
            Well…this is getting to be one of those long-winded explanations that I maybe should have avoided according to my own rules. Oh, well…people are people are people, my mom always said, and I’m just another one of those. I hope you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt that I’m doing the best I can with a very large thing that I just happened to be blessed with being a witness to, and give me your ear as I try to put it down into as many installments to this blog as it takes for me to feel like I got it adequately out, which may be what I’ll end up writing on for the rest of my natural existence, it's that big, I think. 
            That's OK. At least I know my time could be a lot less productive. I could be neurosing on DC politics for the next 4-8 years.
            Evolve, folks. Read on, please.