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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Perfect Storm of Reading

We drove toward and right into a low-lying cloud
After three solid days of rain, a day of blue sky and enormous, slowly drifting cumulus clouds arrived. Maybe it was the clearing weather that gave me the impetus to finish, on one morning, three books I’d begun reading over two weeks before, going back and forth among the three for day after day. Our Sunday was primarily a day of rest, with only a short expedition to Willcox and a visit to Twin Ponds to look for sandhill cranes. For the second time this winter, we could hear cranes in the distance but caught only the briefest glimpse of one small group high in the sky. They were lighting on the ground too far from us to be seen. Still, the dancing wind, beautiful sky, golden grasses, distant mountains, and the unusual sight of an expanse of water at our feet lifted our spirits. 

[I see I neglected to pull these cheery images off my camera, so I'll add them in tomorrow or the next day.]

Back at the cabin once more, after a late lunch, I picked up a novel I’d happened on by chance in a thrift shop in Safford. I was not familiar with Yonnondio From the Thirties, by Tillie Olsen, but something about the dust jacket caught my eye, and the text on the flyleaf sealed the deal.

I’ve never read a book like this. To begin with, Olsen began the writing of her novel when she was only nineteen years old and worked on it intermittently for four or five years while moving around the country from one city to another. Somewhere along the way, though, it disappeared from her sight, and for years she thought the work was “lost or destroyed.” Subsequently, for twenty years, while raising four children and working a series of non-writing jobs, her creativity was also “lost” — but it was not destroyed. Tell Me a Riddle, a novel published in 1969, gave her a place in American literature, and her subsequent life was that of a minor literary star, with awards and fellowships and all the rest. 

Then one day, looking for another manuscript in what must have been voluminous papers, the author turned up some pages of her youthful beginning. 
A later, more thorough, search turned up additional makings: odd tattered pages, lines in yellowed notebooks, scraps. Other parts, evidently once in existence, seem irrevocably lost. 
From fourteen different versions of fragments, “penciled over scrawls” written 38-41 years earlier, Olsen did what she could to combine and reconstruct the pieces — with, however, “no rewriting, no new writing.” The result is an unfinished masterpiece in American literature, one that deserves being retrieved yet again from obscurity. 

We cannot know what the author at age 19 had in mind for the end of the story of Maizie and her family, and on the last page of this book published by Delacorte Press in 1974 we leave them still in the hell of an urban slum in August. They had moved from a mining town to a tenant farm to “packingtown,” the parents always hoping to make a better life for themselves and their children. But it is not the story line alone, much less the way it came together, in bits, over an interval of decades that makes Yonnondio memorable. Rather, it is the writing itself, writing so immediate and poetic and natural on the page, as it seems to race along with the breathing and heartbeats of the characters, that even to call it “style” seems all wrong. For example, although the family’s happiest times came when they lived on the farm, that life too was one of hardship, especially in winter:
Days were dim and short. Snow lay on the earth continually—blinding white at noon, yellow and old at dusk, ghost white at night. Life ceased beyond the kitchen. In the circle of warmth around the stove, everything moved and revolved. Distance was enormously magnified by the cold. Far and far it seemed to the woodpile; to the henhouse, where the hens gathered in drooping ovals of dejection, their cheeps coming out in little frozen spears; to the stable, where the sweet rotting smell of hay and the great cloud of warmth from the cow stained the air. They scarcely moved from the stove. 
And this is one of the more prosaic passages in the book. Here is an earlier passage, addressed to a young man newly gone down to work in the mine, where his brother has already died:
Breathe and breathe, Andy, turn your eyes to the stars. Their beauty, never known before, pricks like tears. You belong to a starless night now, unimaginably black, without light, like death. Perhaps the sweat glistening on the roof rock seen for an instant will seem like stars. 

And no more can you stand erect. You lose that heritage of man, too. You are brought now to fit earth’s intestines, stoop like a hunchback underneath, crawl like a child, do your man’s work lying on your side, stretched and tense as a corpse. The rats shall be your birds, and the rocks plopping in the water your music….
Often I have heard — and understood — the complaint that literary classics are generally “depressing.” Yonnondio, in common with finished and widely recognized giants in American literature, gives us human beings with ordinary hopes and dreams who must pit themselves against social and historical circumstances of huge, impersonal, and crushing power. The family’s dream of the farm was crushed by the tenant system. The horrors of coal mine and slaughterhouse have been told in other novels, but never from the point of view of a child whose limited understanding confuses reality and nightmare so thoroughly in a perspective that captures reality as no other book has done.

Once again, serendipity guided me to a book I would never have been looking for. The title and the author’s name were on no “wanted” list of mine, mental or written, and I cannot recall seeing them on other people’s must-read lists, either, although my unfamiliarity may have led me to slide over the book’s title without pause. It isn’t bad to look for particular books. I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that it is always good to be open to the book not looked for, the book stumbled on by chance, the unknown book that one day calls out from a shelf, saying, “Pick me up!”

There was no strong connection between Yonnondio and Sky Island or Old Southwest New Southwest, but for me Olsen’s novel bore a definite connection to William H. McNeill’s The Global Condition. Although McNeill’s lectures look at American history in the wider context of world events and processes, leaving aside details to focus on broad, sweeping currents of change, the detailed picture is there between the lines. In the story of the ever-expanding role of improved transportation and the substitution of market pricing for imperial command, McNeill is very much aware that there always continue to be winners and losers and that the big winners are always those on top of the economic power pyramid. In fact, when he pulls back even further to expand this global view, adding in the role of microparasitism and disease in the transformation of human societies, he also throws in macroparasitism, using the term metaphorically but arguing that he is not doing injustice to the term.
Certainly, most peasants who see someone else eat what they have produced or find themselves conscripted to work for another’s benefit find that access to resources required for their own personal well-being has been reduced in proportion to the quantity of goods and services transferred by such transactions. When armed raiders break in upon a village of farmers, resemblance to the macroparasitism of one animal species on another is obvious enough. When it is tax or rent collectors who come to seize their share of the harvest, the resemblance is less obvious, since sudden death is not normally at stake in such situations. Still, if one thinks not of individuals but of biological populations, the dependence of a macroparasite on the survival of the plants or animals whose tissues it eats is similar to the dependence of the tax and rent consumer on the survival of tax and rent payers. Accordingly, customs and institutions that regulate the amount of tax and rent payments so as to allow the survival of the payers are analogous to the balance of nature that keep predators relatively few and their prey comparatively numerous—as, for instance, is true of lions and antelopes in the African game preserves.
In this sense, then, McNeil feels justified in using the term macroparasitism to apply to and describe “exploitative relations among groups and classes of human beings.” 

I want to pause here and look at Tillie Olsen’s characters and their situations through McNeill’s lens. In the first part of the novel, the mine owners and managers, who never went down into the mine themselves, were the obvious predators on site. Others, of course, are so far removed from the scene that they never appear, either in the story or in the imaginations of the mine workers, but whether we look at the mining town itself, the nation as a whole, or owners and investors and workers the world over, we see that the prey are much more numerous. And while “sudden death” is not the given that it is when a lion runs down an antelope, it does occasionally come into play, and only large numbers of new workers available to replace those who die in the mines make continuation of the system possible.

When Olsen’s fictional family moves to the farm, that brief, bucolic, sometimes-idyllic, sometimes-hellish life (its character depending on the season), we see the family’s hard work taken from them in the very way McNeill describes peasants being preyed upon in earlier centuries. 
Coming to the kitchen, she heard her father’s angry voice: “They’re taking all of it, every damn thing. The whole year slaved to nothing. I owe them—some joke if it wasnt so bloody—I owin them after workin like a team of mules for a year. They’re wanting the cow and Nellie . . . takin Fred Benson’s farm and Eldridge’s. Batten on us like hogs. The bastards. A whole year—now I’m owin them.”

In the third phase of the family’s life, the farm left behind, the hell of the mining world is replaced by the hell even worse, if that is possible, of the slaughterhouse and meat-packing life. Here it is not coal dust but an ever-present stench that pervades the air they breathe. But with no land of their own, they are dependent on jobs provided by others, and since those seeking jobs always outnumber the jobs themselves, there is no bargaining for better wages or conditions. Some will not survive, but enough will….

McNeill is not carrying a union banner or arguing against the free market system. Far from it. He believes in progress and in civilization. At the same time, he recognizes it as a double-edged sword and sees that every advance in civilization, every technological or market advance, comes with a cost — and that the cost is paid by those at the bottom, time and time again. Nor does he think this problem (for those of us who see it as a problem, which not everyone does) or any other will ever be finally solved for all time, because — if you will allow me to put one of McNeill’s themes into my own language — every solution to a previous problem creates new problems. It is not a question, then, of how to eliminate all problems: it is, rather, a question of which set of problems humanity can tolerate and survive.
Humanity, in short, is not likely to run out of problems to confront nor of changes needing to be made in prevailing practices…. Action and reaction within a complex ecological web will not cease, and efforts to understand its functioning fully and to foresee future side effects will continue to elude human beings for some time to come, and perhaps forever.

I used to look at this solution-creating-new-problems truth as a choice, but I am coming more and more to see it as McNeill does. Since in any given case and for any particular problem, we may choose one “solution” over another, but since we cannot see all the future effects of that solution, all the new problems it will create, we are as much in charge of our future as a herd of antelopes, swerving this way and that across the grassy plains. Our individual, group, and national purposes, that is, may well be lost in the swirl of global processes, economic and otherwise, beyond our ken.

That scarf of cloud above became a fog that lasted all the way to town.

I finished reading Olsen’s and McNeill’s books in the course of the same morning, and that afternoon I took from the shelf my big, fat, hardcover copy of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. This particular edition includes the “classic” introduction (so the cover announces it) by Ludwig von Mises. Well, far be it from me to put myself on the same level as a “classic” economist, but the brief introduction by von Mises failed to overwhelm me. Perhaps it was in part because I was just coming off the larger, longer view of William McNeill, but it seemed that all von Mises had to say was that Adam Smith was right about everything, that capitalism was responsible for every bit of improvement ever made in human life, and that anyone who disagreed could only be guilty of indulging in a shallow, barbarian smear. (Yes, he used those terms.) He cites no particular arguments of Smith’s opponents, and so he is under no necessity to refute them. Instead, after tossing them into the dustbin, he trots out the praise of various “authorities” for Smith’s work. 

Prepared as I am to find much wisdom and food for thought in Smith’s work — certainly a Western classic for good reason — my philosopher’s soul rebels at an introduction that substitutes informal logical fallacies for serious analysis. Surely von Mises was capable of better? Moving on, I limited my first sitting’s reading of Smith to his own introduction and his first chapter, “Of the Division of Labor,” and what I propose is to read a chapter and set the book aside for a while, taking time to reflect on the chapter read.

Adam Smith’s “division of labor” has little, if anything to do with a household in which the husband goes out to work for pay while the wife remains behind to cook and clean and raise children. No, he is interested in industrial production, the manufacture of goods for sale. He begins with the simplest of manufactured goods, pins and nails, and shows that one person making such an item by himself can never make anywhere near the number produced by a group of workers when the process is broken down into simple steps and each worker performs only one step, over and over. With division of labor, ten persons may make 48,000 pins a day, where one man working by himself would be hard pressed to make twenty.

Irrefutable, no? And yet, in just the short seven pages of this first chapter, I found myself pausing over a couple of claims. 

One was Smith’s argument that with the division of labor workers are more apt to discover “easier and readier methods” to make their work easier. His example is that of a boy adding a string to a valve handle to “save his own labor.” The boy’s job had been to open and close the valve, but now — has he not put himself out of a job? This result Smith does not discuss, let alone pursue. And in McNeill’s perspective, certainly a technological advance has been made, civilization has been nudged forward, and the job of one now-unnecessary worker counts for nothing in the great scheme of things. 

Well, that is the way of technology. I paused much longer over an earlier point, one made just previous to that of the labor-saving invention. Smith claims that in passing from one kind of work to another, say from one aspect of production to a different aspect, both time and focus are lost. Let me quote directly here, because what I have to say about this claim needs the particularity of an example.
…A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he trifles rather than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering and indolent careless application, which is naturally or necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life; renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions. Independent, therefore, of his deficiency in the point of dexterity, this cause alone must always reduce considerably the quantity of work which he is capable of performing. 

In Smith’s picture, the country worker (note the urban sophisticate’s denigration of the “country workman”) “saunters” and “trifles.” He is “slothful and lazy,” “incapable of … vigorous application,” and, we are asked to take as a given, deficient of dexterity. The worker's mind, we see, cannot refocus quickly enough on the new task. He is almost necessarily “indolent” and “careless,” simply by the circumstance of moving from one task to another. 

Oh, my, where to begin? Adam Smith was the son of a customs official, not a workman. Smith himself began studying philosophy at Glasgow University at the age of 15. Anything he knew of manual labor, therefore, he did not know first-hand, and his claims about the workman’s mind can only be speculative. 

As for a mind’s focus on one small task, repeated minute after minute, hour after hour, does not Smith assume too much? Perhaps because it is not part of his experience? Does not the very repetition dull a mind’s focus and allow it to wander? Perhaps lead it irresistibly away from the familiar (and therefore contemptible) task? 

Finally, I would argue that in moving from one task to another — let us imagine a farmer, taking feed to his animals, then turning his attention to a fence that needs mending, and moving on to clean and sharpen and oil the tools upon which his livelihood depends — a worker’s mind will be all the more active. Or we might look to the examples of a carpenter or a seamstress, workers more immediately producing goods. Here, also, I would argue, the man or woman who sees the “big picture” also sees the interrelated nature of various tasks, the necessity of each, and ways in which each task as well as their interrelationship might be better and more expeditiously — and even more beautifully —accomplished. 

In short, my speculations on the minds of a single-task workman and a workman moving from one task to another lead me to a conclusion opposite that of Smith’s. I think of work done with what Wendell Berry would call "affection" as work more likely to be done well.

But here is the clincher, the single word that gives Smith the victory over me: quantity. In evaluating the industrial work force, his concern is exclusively on the quantity of goods produced. It is not important that Smith’s factory worker see the “big picture,” and he does not address even the quality of the goods produced. It is only quantity that counts, with resultant cheapness to buyers. In Smith's picture, therefore, it is all to the good if the worker himself becomes almost literally a cog in the machine, because the more machinelike the work process, the more efficient, the greater the mass of goods cranked out, and the greater the mass of goods, the lower the price and therefore the larger the market for the goods. 

Again, in McNeill’s objective global calculation, this makes sense. It is civilization that moves forward, the human species that advances. Any individual is of little account, especially the antelopes put to work as machine parts for the greater good. 


What kind of world do we want? What kind of lives do we want, for ourselves and for our fellow human beings? Is the accumulation of wealth and the continual increase of material production more humanly valuable than individual lives? Is, for example, the financial health of the weapons and armaments industry and the profits it makes so indicative of the progress of civilization that the deaths of a few schoolchildren weigh nothing in the balance?

Such are my own thoughts and questions and pondering after reading Adam Smith’s first seven-page chapter.

Another day, another set of clouds

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Fresh, Cool Mountain — Snow?

Intersection lake (temporary)

Almost three weeks ago, when we first crossed the state line from New Mexico into Arizona, my searching eyes were disappointed not to see snow on the high peaks of the Pinalenos to the north, but I accepted the evidence of a warm, dry winter. What choice was there? Then the rains came to southeast Arizona, three solid days of soaking rain. There was standing water on the previously dusty land, and in the town of Willcox entire streets and intersections had become temporary lakes. Water, water, everywhere! Well, that was exciting!

Standing water!

We elected to make another trip up to Safford in Graham County, only this time taking the straight highway route north and coming back through the mountain pass, a reverse of our usual path. As we came closer to the Pinalenos, I couldn’t believe my eyes, but I couldn’t disbelieve them, either. 

What to my wondering eyes should appear?

Clouds and fog notwithstanding, that white on the mountaintop did not look like a cloud at all. Could it be — snow?


Clouds closer, snow farther back?

In southern Arizona, altitude is more a factor in climate than latitude. If you travel only 15 miles but gain 1,000 feet in elevation, the difference in climate is as if you had traveled 300 miles north from one part of Michigan to another. Years ago (about 120 years ago, actually), a naturalist named C. Hart Merriam came up with the idea of “life zones” to describe the difference in flora and fauna at successive altitudes in Arizona. He called the lowest zone Tropical and the highest Arctic-Alpine. His system is no longer used by scientists, but I like it, and the white peak I saw on Saturday reminded me that the Pinalenos, like the Chiricahuas, are the only mountains in our “neighborhood” with climate variations ranging from the Lower Sonoran to the Canadian, lacking only the very lowest and highest of Merriam’s life zones. That would put the high regions in the Pinalenos in the Canadian life zone, and since the highest peak in that range is over 10,000 feet, wouldn’t it make sense that rain in Will-cox could be snow 6,000 feet higher, remembering that 6,000 feet is the equivalent of 1800 miles of latitude?

Brought to you by the miracle of ZOOM!

Well, that’s it for me. Until someone convinces me I’m wrong, that was snow we saw on Saturday! I was also thrilled to see rushing water, at last, in almost half a dozen formerly dry streambeds and washes as we entered the town of Safford, and after lunch, as we turned back to the south, I anticipated eagerly our route through Stockton Pass. 

A favorite stop along the way

Between Safford and the turnoff for the mountain road, the landscape is dominated by cactus — prickly pear and cholla, some of the latter as large as small trees. This is what characterizes Merriam’s Lower Sonoran life zone. The road up to and through the Stockton Pass takes us into an Upper Sonoran landscape. Here our Michigan eyes delight in trees along creeks and dotting high, open areas of grassland. There are beautiful alligator junipers, familiar to us from the Chiricahuas, and small oaks, too. (The oak is such an adaptable genus, I reflect, recalling oaks of various species in Florida scrub all the way to northern Michigan.) Although not on the highest mountain peaks or slopes, not even as high as Merriam’s “Transition” zone, we don jackets for comfort.

Surrounded by natural beauty, it is difficult to know where to look. Close at hand are fascinating rocks, one with blue-green lichen, another stained blood-red, while in the middle distance handsome trees demand their due, and always, as far as the eye can see, there are beautiful mountain views. The solution, of course, is not to choose but to take it all in.


Sarah, true to her nature, relies heavily on her sense of smell. Eagerly she sniffs the cool, fresh mountain air and investigates twigs and ground and blades of grass. 

“It’s easy to imagine living here,” comments the Artist. Yes, all three of us find our hearts responding to this beautiful place along our life’s trail.

Not forbidding in all aspects....

Friday, February 16, 2018

At Last, Comes the Rain!

Cow does not hurry, even in the rain
Since the desert always smells like dust, after a while one stops noticing. Then come the first scattered raindrops after weeks of drought, and their spattering on the dust intensifies its smell, brings it to the fore and thickens it, as if the dust both underfoot and in the air wants to turn to mud. Do the cows notice the rain? Their behavior is unchanged. We come home on the first rainy day to find a bovine mother and child in our driveway, and as we turn in the little one gives an awkward little calf jump sideways, while his mother moves more placidly out of the way. 

A day without sunshine means none of the usual warming of the cabin that we help along by opening blinds as the sun climbs higher in the sky. On a rainy day, with colder temperatures outside, it makes sense to keep the blinds closed to hold onto the cabin’s stored night warmth. Late in the afternoon, for the first time this winter we light the gas heater for an hour. It doesn’t take long to make a small living space toasty warm and cozy.

Back in Michigan, we sometimes sit out on our enclosed front porch during a summer storm and marvel at the deafening sound of rain on the metal roof. Our winter ghost town cabin is, in that sense, like one big enclosed porch: the combination of metal roof and uninsulated walls magnifies the sound of the rain. It goes on all night, nonstop, but at last, despite the noisy symphony, we fall asleep.

Where did the mountain go?

In the morning on the second day of rain, we awake to a world transformed. Mountaintops have disappeared into low-lying clouds, and we look out onto the desert landscape gleaming wet and fading away into mist. As the steady rain continues, there are no long distances AND no “big sky,” either. As much of the ghost town as is visible is a flying machine we sail, lost in the clouds.

Later, on the road to town, the clouds have lifted somewhat, revealing some of our familiar neighborhood peaks. Others remain shrouded — and the rain continues to fall. There are actual patches of standing water on the land in places. Intersections in town are flooded. We feel as if we are somewhere entirely different and foreign and strange. Nothing feels the same in the rain in the desert.

A letter from a friend, waiting for me in the post office box in Willcox, includes part of an article on “healing places,” with mention of the positive way human brains respond to “sweeping vistas.” In the midst of this much-needed desert rain, we have lost our sweeping vistas and are enveloped in moist cotton batting. During three days of rain, we retreat into books and movies and the comforts of soup. Not only chicken soup but any hearth, homemade soup has healing qualities of its own, I truly believe, as the rain heals the parched land.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Dear Reader, Whoever You May Be

Enter ghost town!

One windy afternoon here in the high desert, while removing membrane from sections of grapefruit for a citrus-based salad, I fell to musing about friendships in my life that have been nurtured by the exchange of handwritten letters. The thought was not unusual, since I am far, far from my Michigan home. Laurie, Ellen, and Leonore, all back in Michigan, came first to mind, friends very much still in my life. 

Laurie and I met on her return from a year in Spain and saw each other occasionally in Kalamazoo, since our husbands were old friends, but only when she left to live in South America and we began writing one another leisurely epistles recounting events in our respective lives did we begin truly to know each other. It was different with Ellen. She and I had worked together before she and her husband moved to Arizona for a year, and writing letters seemed natural to us both. Leonore and I were friends in Kalamazoo, where our children were in school together, but letters between Michigan and Colorado when she and her family were living out West brought us close in a new way. With all three of these friendships, someone I knew in one context went to live far away from the place where we first knew each other, so perhaps part of my interest in writing and being written to was a desire to enlarge my own world.

Sarah investigates cattle path

There is something intimate about a handwritten letter, too, and no doubt some of its value comes from the rarity of such communication in our modern lives. We have no need to write letters, buy stamps, and delay the gratification of knowing our efforts have been received and appreciated, when it is so simple to make a phone call or send a text or an e-mail. Because letters are not necessary, and time to write a letter must be intentionally carved out of a busy life, the friend who takes the time to write adds something valuable to the friendship. 

But — a confession! At least one of my friends understands that my letters to her are just as much self-indulgence as they are gifts to her! In one letter to her years back I quoted from M.F.K. Fisher, writing to one of her correspondents, the passage an admission on Fisher’s part that letter-writing, for her, took the form of an addiction. Yes, there is that, too! So the friends who receive my letters are doing me a great kindness, indulging me for having given way to an overwhelming compulsion.

Ed and I began writing letters to one another in French but have fallen off lately. I remember how long I would labor over letters to my friend Helene in Paris and how pleased I was when she complimented my efforts. Something new this year: thrilled that I am now working too learn Spanish, my friend Laurie encourages me to write to her in Spanish. These missives in other languages lack the spontaneity and ease I feel with English, but writing them affords me a particular sense of accomplishment — and I love the letters I get in return, too.

For many years I had a couple of good friends who never answered my letters in kind but would pick up the phone from time to time, and that worked for us in those relationships. I was uncomfortable making phone calls, and they were not good at writing letters. I still miss the surprise of a call from M., whose present whereabouts are unknown to me, though I have tried repeatedly to locate her. And I cherish the memory of an actual letter from L., the first and last I ever had from her, written in the winter before she died. We were looking forward to a spring visit in Arizona, and when she wrote she recalled our first Arizona visit twenty-three years before. Well, we did have the anticipated second Southwest visit, a lovely time of reconnection. I thought there would be many more to come, but though I can see her no longer, her letter assures me still that our meeting was as important to her as it was to me.

I miss my letters from Helene, another friend whose death hurt my heart, and I miss letters from Annie, too, mon amie philosophe fauve, her ashes now sprinkled at the site of the ancient stone circle of Avebury. What joy it was to find their letters waiting for me in the post office box!

Naturally, I have e-mail correspondence, too. In fact, e-mail letters are already an almost obsolete form, aren’t they? Old-fashioned! But the friends with whom I exchange e-mail messages are mostly of my generation (or are understanding family members a generation younger), and we compose our messages in the manner and with the care we would take to write letters on paper. “Dear Kathy,” I begin, and she begins “Dear Pamela.” Kathy and I pay attention to paragraphs and spelling, and we try to entertain each other with lively description. 

Recently a friend on Facebook sent me a link to a feature article about writers and their diaries and journals. Of all the writers appearing in the story, the one that meant the most to me, the only one that brought a catch to my throat, was Anne Frank. She had never kept a diary before and probably never would have except in hiding; in her normal, prewar life, she was a sociable, outgoing young girl, and had her family been able to escape altogether lands occupied by Nazis, I can easily imagine her writing letters to real living friends back in Holland, not to the imaginary friend “Kitty” she had to invent. When I first read her diary, I was the same age she had been when writing it, and I longed to have been able to exchange letters with the living Anne….

A diary may be hidden away or published in multiple volumes. Writers of private journals intend different ends for them, and it seems to me that the future a writer imagines for his or her diary — whether forever private or completely public — must affect the writing. Some writers wanted their private writings destroyed, but posterity decided otherwise. What would those writers think now, could they return and see their most personal and heartfelt struggles printed and bound and offered for sale in the marketplace?

I have never kept copies of my letters written to friends, and Books in Northport, this blog, now in its eleventh year and public though it is, is the closest I have ever come to keeping a journal of my life with any discipline. My letters, it should surprise no one, often contain more personal thoughts, but the images in this public log give it a dimension the letters lack. 

And what occurred to me over the citrus bowl — the goad to my sitting down and writing this post at all — is that every post published here is like a letter in a bottle, tossed out onto the waves, to be found and read by anyone or no one. When I release it to the world, it is out of my control. Sometimes, as was the case when I was 17 and went with a friend one night a week to a local radio station to take call-in song requests, I wonder if there’s anyone out there in the dark at all. Other times I am surprised to learn how far a specific letter has traveled, on what shore that bottle washed up. 

“Dear reader” is an old-fashioned literary conceit, but I am an old-fashioned person — a bookseller, a reader of print books, and a handwriter of letters to friends. I don’t even have a “smart” phone! All of which is to say, as I struggle for a way to bring this post to a graceful close, that when you read Books in Northport, you are reading as much of a diary as I will ever write, and you are also reading a letter from a friend, whether or not we ever meet face to face. And I do thank you, once again, for indulging me as you do in this strange compulsion.

Sincerely yours, 


Simple materials

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Of Wind and Drought and History

“The air is harsh in its dryness, gentle in its movement — most of the time. Naturally, high winds that trigger dust storms are the exception. Most mornings, however, the air is quite still, a gentle breeze developing as the sun rises higher in the sky and dying away with sunset.”

No sooner do I compose such lines, fondly believing I have captured an important regional truth, than the wind kicks up in the morning, maddeningly putting me in my place. “You presume to think you know me?” the high desert seems to say. “We have only begun to get acquainted, and already you have forgotten the extremes of which I am capable!” If the winter sun of the Southwest is drying (as indeed it is), the sun’s drying quality is nothing compared to that of the wind. Winter, moreover, already the dry season, is also the windy season, making for a dangerous situation, particularly in a drought year. The wind is so strong that the Saturday “swap meet” (what in Michigan we would call a flea market) falls apart almost as soon as it gets underway, vendors packing up and going home before noon.

In the overgrazed grasslands, and across the ancient dry lakebed known as the Willcox Playa, wind also means dust, and the dust gets into everything, which is point #2 against the wind. Point #3 is the noise, the constant rattling of blinds and any loose metal anywhere. When the wind blows all night, it seems as if it would lift the roof clean off the cabin and open our living space to the stars. The wind chases away sleep.

The stars, however, regardless of what poets and songwriters say, do not blow around in the wind and neither do the mountains give way. Is that where unchanging truth lies? Hardly.

This land has been covered by ocean and uncovered and then covered and uncovered again. I lose track of how many “transgressions” and “regressions” of the sea have taken place in geologic time. Just now the landforms seem stable, but that is stability as seen by the human eye, in the context of a human lifetime. Presumably, erosion of the mountains continues, albeit at a rate slower than the movement of glaciers. Change, I remember from the first day of my freshman high school earth science class, is the one geographic and geologic constant, though from one day to the next we cannot mark its transformations.

Harsh in its dryness, in stirring up dust, in the nonstop and enervating noise it makes, the wind bears us no ill will. It is impersonal, not malicious or vindictive. We watch the clouds and hope for rain.


My reading so far this year, beginning with the upheaval of packing up our Michigan life, followed by a week on the road accompanied by a wretched cold, and continuing with our days of settling in here for the winter, has had a flighty quality, to say the least. I pick up a book and read a few chapters — sometimes, with even less discipline, turn pages in a constant search for who-knows-what, looking for something to stay my mind. Beginning a novel on the Columbia River, I find it is not what I expected and for several evenings pick it up only reluctantly, making slow progress. I find a book on Arizona geology at the library but am vexed by the multitude of examples drawn from the Grand Canyon (so far from my ghost town cabin home), a complete absence of reference to “sky islands” in general and Chiricahua in particular, and the inexcusable lack of an index. One of Chiang Lee’s delightful “Silent Traveler” books comes to my hand at the Friendly Bookstore in Willcox, and I purchase it happily but then find it difficult to lose myself in the traveler’s gentle prose and reflections from the mid-twentieth century. 

My mind is too full of urgent questions! How were these mountains formed? When will the drought end? What is a reasonable solution to the maintenance of national borders? How did we, as individuals and as groups of people, come to be where we are now? I need to find a book that sets my hair on fire!

William H. McNeill’s The Global Condition: Conquerors, Catastrophes, & Community may turn out to be the book. It's off to a fiery start! 

The underlying question in all McNeil’s researches and speculations is not simply “what happened” at any given time but “what really matters in human history,” and his way of trying to get at an answer is to look carefully at purposes and processes. Human beings, as individuals and as groups up to the level of nations, have purposes and act to achieve them. We are intentional beings. And yet again and again, not only do our diverse purposes clash with those of others, but larger processes — biological, cultural, economic  evolutionary, meteorological, etc. — interact and distort and often completely derail the plans of mice and men. In terms of our judgments, we assign praise and blame within the context of purposes, conveniently (for the purposes of our judgments!) ignoring larger global processes within individuals and nations are caught up and tossed around like playthings of the gods. — I am mixing my own concerns and observations here with exposition of McNeill’s lectures, so do not judge his work by this paragraph, please....

Thus far I have read only the few pages of preface to a collection of five lectures McNeill gave over the course of seven years. In the lectures he explores the question of how historians should address the relationship of purposes and processes and how they can decide “what really matters” in clarifying this relationship and the course of human events. He says in his preface,

History as a course of study cannot be exhaustive: too much is knowable. What should be left out to make the past intelligible?

He argues for history to be expanded beyond national borders, for the study of world history, and the development of a global consciousness, because only that larger perspective can take account of the processes that work upon our lives. He also insists that “history” must include physico-chemical, biological, and semiotic systems, noting that the more skillful human beings become in carrying out their purposes on earth, “the greater the potential for tragedy.” He does a quick sketch of the history of his purposes-and-processes question as it was treated from Ancient Greece down to the present, and it is in coming to the end of the twentieth century that he finds “scientific” national histories — a notable nineteenth-century achievement — inadequate. Remarks on a “global economy” have become commonplace in the transition to the twenty-first century, but McNeill goes further.

In particular, I have become far more aware since 1963, when my major effort at a history of the world was first published, that what happens among humankind is embedded within events affecting  the biosphere as a whole. 

Finally, he admits the enormity and impossibility of the task he sets for himself.

No one is ever likely to put all knowledge together in a way that will command the assent of all reasonable persons, yet trying to understand is irresistible. 

The historical question of purposes and processes reminds me of the philosophical question of the one and the many that crops all over the place. How can many birds, for example, all be the same thing, ‘bird’, and how can a collection of individuals become one polity, act as one person, e pluribus unum? The great philosophical systematizers sought to explain the whole dizzying plurality and diversity of existence in terms of a single system, each one criticizing and rejecting the system preceding his own and being critiized and rejected in turn. But I digress....

I will never know all there is to know. I will never put together enough to see more than a vague, very likely mistaken, whole. And long before I can even begin to satisfy my craving for understanding, my time on earth will be over, while impersonal processes continue and human purposes intelligent and ignorant, collaborative and conflicting, go on being enacted. In short, the party will go on, and I will never see what happens next, let alone how it all turns out. 

But I am here now, and just as I take my primary task in the world to be paying attention, I also feel a corollary duty in the search for understanding, and it wouldn’t matter to me if the entire rest of the world were to see (were they to look at) my self-assigned work as a ridiculous waste of time. These are the purposes I set myself.

So I am quite pleased and very excited at having fallen serendipitously on this little book by an author whose name is entirely new to me. The richness of the nine pages of McNeill's preface have admirably prepared my appetite for the lectures to come, and I predict I will stick to the last page. 


Will I finally finish an entire book? Will rain come to the high desert at last? Such are the ephemeral concerns of Books in Northport today. According to the Sunday morning weather forecast, there is a possibility of rain by the end of the coming week, and while another week's end seems very far off, I know it will arrive quickly. For now, we can only hope the rain will come with it.