Search This Blog

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Ghost Town New to Us -- and More Serendipity

For one reason and another, we have not been adventuring far from our usual daily track as often as we did three years ago. The Artist’s birthday, though, was a perfect occasion for a road trip. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we set off down the Kansas Settlement Road for the first time this winter. As things turned out, we never did reach the destination we had originally set for ourselves but instead found ourselves surprised along the way. We had not foreseen, for example, that we would discover another mining “ghost town.” But all in good order....

We had both been curious for quite a while about the name of the Kansas Settlement Road. The name definitely seems to indicate a story, and I thought perhaps a historic monument we had never detoured to see might provide the explanation. It did not. And that only makes sense, since the monument is not on the Kansas Settlement Road but a few miles down  Birch Road to the west. The monument’s story, as you see, tells how the Sulphur Springs Valley got its name, along with the sad episode of the short-lived Chiricahua Indian Reservation. We came, we read, we moved on.

Instead of turning back to the Kansas Settlement Road, however, we kept to Birch Road until it reached Hwy 191, a road we would have come to eventually, anyway. Along our resumed southern direction, however, temptation came along again, and we detoured once more, this time to the town, or “townsite,” of Pearce. 

For a population center that once boasted 1500 residents, there is not much remaining of Pearce, but the handful of buildings are definitely historic in appearance. There was indication of several current, ongoing business ventures — an antique shop, pottery studio and shop, and a local goat’s milk soap production (that last not pictured here — my omission — sorry!), but we saw no OPEN signs and no sign of any living human being. The Artist’s first question in any remote location is, “Where do they go for a cup of coffee?” It looked as if a cup of coffee would be hard to come by in Pearce. 

There was a rail to tie up horses, but there were no horses in sight, either.

Back onto Hwy. 191 and down on a stretch more familiar to us, we stopped at the “Cowboy Mall,” which is not a mall at all but a combination grocery-convenience store with a glorious selection of tack — saddles, bridles, bits, spurs — and a couple gas pumps out front. A birthday celebration was going on among the women working the counter, the “birthday girl,” just turned 22, being serenaded in Spanish, English, and American Sign Language. When I told them it was the Artist’s birthday, too, his coffee was on the house. What a great place! There is so much to see at the Cowboy Mall (including a couple sections of used books) that we were there a long time and got into conversation with a retired laborer from New Mexico, now living out of his camper. He was a reader and a bookstore lover, too. After a while, though, I left the two men talking and wandered around by myself, looking at more of what was on offer, and so it was that I found, to my delight, goat’s milk soap from Pearce! Very satisfying!

We never did find the elusive road we wanted out of Tombstone and finally decided to save that for another day, but we did not return to our own ghost town empty-handed. We had not only seen another ghost town, but I also managed to find one of its modern products, and that was reward enough, especially since unforeseen, for our day’s exploring.

Sunday afternoon serendipity again played a role in our winter life. All we had planned was a trip to the laundromat. One funny thing did happen there. As I was folding clothes, I was completely inattentive to the television playing behind me, had no idea of or interest in whatever might be on, and then suddenly the word “horses” hit my ear, and I spun around to face the screen. It was some kind of medieval reenactment, nothing I was particularly concerned to watch, but how funny that the single word “horses” should leap out of undifferentiated (to my mind) background sound with such urgent clarity!

When the laundry was done and packed away in the van, I had an idea. We could drive out to the rodeo grounds (officially known as Quail Park but always “the rodeo grounds” to me) and I could let Sarah off the leash to run and then work her through a few commands. We drove out Fort Grant Road, expecting to find an empty field. But that’s what comes, I said to the Artist, of not reading the Range News regularly: it was Junior Rodeo weekend, and we had nearly missed the whole thing! I’d left my camera home, along with my cowgirl hat, but we parked and got out to hang on the rails and watch the calf-roping. Nothing smells as good as fresh horse and cow manure! With all the rain we’ve had, this year’s rodeo wasn’t nearly as dusty, either, as the one we’d attended three years before. 

Well, that was serendipity indeed! Horses, horses, horses! I didn't have my camera with me, but I had my eyes and ears and nose to take in beautiful sights and sounds and aromas. Nothing better in the world! Why would I, how could I, not love a place with so many horses collected together? My heart is not yearning to be anywhere but Cochise County, Arizona, this winter.

Junior Rodeo, Willcox, AZ, 2015

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Oh, Those Lofty Elevations!

The combination of lower temperatures for Arizona and several days of precipitation have changed the looks of the higher mountains. Both the Chiricahua and the Pinaleno ranges are now capped with snow on their highest peaks. When the forecast called for “snow at higher elevations,” my heart soared, and now as we drive from Wilcox back to Dos Cabezas, for a long stretch of road we can see snow on both mountain ranges, one off on our left and the other ahead of us. The high desert world looks “right” again to me, that is, it looks as I remember it from the first winter we spent here. 

It’s strange how what is familiar can so often seem what is right and how the unfamiliar can seem wrong. It’s part of humanity’s near-sightedness, I suppose, perhaps the result of our short life spans as individuals. Even history, the bigger picture, we are all too often eager to justify as the only right way events could have transpired, simply because that is the way they did transpire. From this moment, everything that preceded it was necessary for us to get here, but back there, was it necessary that we take this path?

And so, back to the history of our species. I’ve put it off long enough, spending my days walking the dog, riding around with the Artist, doing little household errands and tasks, concocting meals (all very simple — nothing ambitious), getting more acquainted with neighbors and the neighborhood, and reading about the natural habitat of southern Arizona. Would you believe that a large, multi-armed saguaro cactus can take on over 1,000 pounds of water in a heavy rain? Of that they can live to be 150 years old? More about that sort of thing another time. 

For today -- I hope you can bear with me -- I return to Adam Smith.

The second chapter of The Wealth of Nations, “Of the Principle Which Gives Occasion to the Division of Labor,” pursues Smith’s thoughts about the division of labor he introduced in the first chapter. Human beings did not intentionally set out to achieve the great advantages conferred by the division of labor, he says. They did not envision “the general opulence to which it gives occasion.” Early man was not, that is, seeking to advance his simple society to some lofty level of industrialized civilization. No, the division of labor is simply an “original principle” of our species, hard-wired into us, or, more probably, a consequence of language that human beings naturally exchange and cooperate. 

Certainly, one human being may fawn on another to attract attention in hopes of being given a handout, but it is not our first recourse, when we have other means at our disposal. Instead we address one another’s self-interest. 
Give me that which I want, and you shall have that which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.
Even a beggar, Smith writes, has “the greater part of his occasional wants supplied” by exchange rather than begging. With coins tossed to him, he buys food. Clothes tossed his way he may exchange for others he likes better. Etc.

This kind of exchange is the first division of labor. 

When one member of a tribe of hunters makes better arrows than another, he is able to exchange arrows for game shot by his companions, and thus his work becomes a specialty “business” by which his wants can be supplied. Other men [always men, I notice, though one can easily imagine an outstanding seamstress achieving similar standing] specialize in other kinds of work, encouraged by success in their respective fields.
[W]ithout the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted.
But as human beings — or, as he has already noted, as a species that developed symbolic language — this natural “disposition” develops in a way that “the most dissimilar geniuses” come to be “of use to one another….” Different men, so alike at birth, develop a diversity of talents and bring those talents to form 
…a common stock, where every man may purchase whatever part of the produce of other men’s talents he has occasion for.

Smith’s general claims about human beings in this chapter seem fairly uncontroversial. The omission of women from his account is standard for his time. Also, we might note that at this early stage of social exchange (in Smith’s theoretical reconstruction of history), men have not yet become machine parts. They are more artisans than industrial workers. The maker of arrows that Smith asks us to imagine fashions each arrow himself, from start to finish, and no doubt takes pride in his work. The “division,” therefore, is between one kind of work and another, not the breaking-down of one kind of production into component steps.

What I have said so far, other than the observation on the omission of women, is fairly strict exposition of Smith’s chapter. I would like now to take a few moments to look more closely at a few sub-claims, one about human beings but first those about non-human animals. 

Other animals, Smith asserts, never exchange peaceably, and neither do they intentionally cooperate to achieve a greater goal than one could achieve alone. 
Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.
Study of animal behavior has advanced by leaps and bounds since Adam Smith’s time; nevertheless, I will not take up an argument against his denial of peaceable exchange in nonhuman species. I don’t know enough to take that on. When it comes to the question of cooperation, I feel on more solid ground. 

It’s interesting that Smith denies the theoretical Hobbesian man, that “solitary” individual, with his “nasty, brutish, short” life. Even in the early tribal societies he imagines, he sees exchange and cooperation as essential to survival. While not going as far back as John Locke to see the family as the first society, with two equal adults sharing responsibility and cooperating for the sake of their offspring, his account avoids the “war of all against all” envisioned by Thomas Hobbes. In a way, his is a kind of middle ground between the Locke and Hobbes. As did Locke, he sees cooperation as part of group life from the beginning for human beings; like Hobbes, however, he sees self-interest as the sole motive. 

The whole business of attributing motives, whether to individuals or groups or species, can be highly suspect, so let’s leave it to one side. The question I want to address is whether cooperation is uniquely human, and I will assert here, against Smith, that it is not. 

Enough studies have been made of, for instance, wolf packs that my denial should be practically unnecessary. One pair of wolves, the alpha male and alpha female, is the breeding pair in a small, extended family. When the pack goes out on the hunt, the alpha female may well be one of the hunters, leaving her young behind in the care of a lesser hunter. That wolves cooperate strategically on the hunt is also well documented. It is not, as Smith speculates in his example of two greyhounds, “the accidental concurrence of their passions” focused on the same object at the same time. 

Other species exhibit cooperation in different ways, and scientists since Smith’s time have also made studies of interspecies cooperation. They may not speak to one another in symbolic language, and they certainly do not write books and entertain philosophical theories, but nonhuman animals have much more active brains than was commonly thought in the eighteenth century. 

All of which, of course, is completely irrelevant as far as addressing the “wealth of nations” is concerned. Nonhuman animals are not Smith’s concern. My objections are, therefore, moot, are they not?

Another strand in Chapter II that I want to pick up may be somewhat more to the point, but here I make no argument at all. I only stop on the passage because it amuses me so. As Smith points to different specialties taken up by different mature adult men, musing that as they came into the world they were, “perhaps, very much alike,” he cannot help pointing to “the philosopher” as one of the specialized adults. 
The difference between … a philosopher and a common [sic] street porter … seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.

Further down the page, 
By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, as a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd’s dog. Those different tribes of animals, however, though all of the same species, are of scarce any use to one another.

Okay, maybe I do have an argument to make. (My mother used to say, “You would argue with St. Peter himself!” That is what it means, I’m afraid, to be a philosopher.) I have no difficulty seeing what use a street porter might be to a philosopher, but I have a great deal of trouble coming up with an idea of the philosopher’s usefulness to the street porter. And I am, by inclination and education, a philosopher! How are we philosophers, I wonder, useful to others in society? How does philosophy further the cause of “progress”? Of what use are my ramblings here, to anyone, myself or others, except as I divert myself (and perhaps one or two others) for a little while?

I said above that I would leave motivation to one side, but I want to renege on that statement. Smith’s philosophy, we might remark, serves well as justification for behaviors stemming from the self-interest motive he has singled out as the driving force of humanity and the very motor of civilization. But as Kant realized, any individual’s motives are opaque not only others but even to the individual himself, and I would ask, if one accepts that, how can the motives of a group or a species be any more transparent? 

I also said that nonhuman animals are irrelevant to Smith’s argument, but my thoughts will not leave the animals out of the picture, either. I never can leave what I see as derogatory or at least dismissive observations on dogs without making objections.

When Smith looks at a species whose members are “of scarce any use to one another,” he not only singles out dogs but looks at individual dogs of different breeds — a very problematic proceeding, in my opinion. First of all, the breeds he chooses — mastiff, greyhound, spaniel — have been developed by human choice, not by natural selection. Each breed’s characteristics were selected by man, so why should the character of one dog breed be useful to a dog of another breed? In many cases, it is the cooperation of dogs of a particular breed with their owners or handlers that has been bred for. That is probably relevant to Smith’s argument only as it shows yet another human specialty, but does not the specially bred and trained dog do its work for man out of self-interest, too, just as he says human beings trade work out of self-interest? And wait — what of the working dog (and there are such) that is not happy unless working? It may be housed and fed, but its spirit languishes. How would that be explained? A dog with “mind” or “spirit”? Not helpful to the distinction Smith is eager to make. No, he has certainly given dogs short shrift. And human beings, I think, too, in the process. 

The case of nondomesticated animals would be more pertinent to Smith’s discussion of “nature,” but here he leans back, without evidence, on his original statement:
Each animal is … obliged to support and defend itself, separately and independently, and derives no sort of advantage from that variety of talents with which nature has distinguished its fellows. 
Well, we must proceed carefully here, it seems. A herd of buffalo on the Great Plains, for example, may derive advantage from the simple circumstance of being together, but do members of the herd exhibit a “variety of talents”? If not, Smith might say we cannot call their being together cooperation, that they are simply a congregation of “separate,” “independent” individuals. If cooperation is defined in that way, has the deck been stacked? Or has the philosopher assumed a conclusion to use it as a premise?

Back to those wolves for a moment, please. Some are better hunters than others, and some are more successful breeders. All, moreover, are products of natural selection, not human breeding programs. That dogs of different breeds do not naturally cooperate with each other proves nothing, either of dogs or of humans. Wolves might better illuminate the discussion, had Smith been privileged to have a knowledge of wolves not available in his time. Since we do have that knowledge, we need not accept his every statement — and denying statements here and there may have an effect on how we evaluate his overall claims and conclusions. Time will tell.

As for philosophers and their specialized work, one could easily claim, I think, that philosophy has wrought as much ill as it has brought benefit to human society. That aside, we might ask more immediately, what advantage does a plumber gain from exchange with a philosopher? Clearly, it would be nought, if not for money. But we are still two chapters away from the development of money in Smith’s account, so perhaps those philosophers will earn their keep, after all. Stay tuned! 

But never fear, we will take many breaks along the way for the natural world, travel adventures, and scenes from ghost town, high desert, and mountain landscapes. I would not tax the patience and forbearance of my handful of readers too far by imposing philosophy in every post.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

It's All Mesquite to Me

Cows wander through it

Normal winter temperatures have returned: at night the air here in Dos Cabezas plunges below freezing and by day barely makes it into the 50s, making it much more like the winter we remember from three years ago. We keep the cabin warm with a propane heater and are comfortable indoors night and day, but when I go outside with Sarah, I leave the warmth  reluctantly. I put on jacket and hat and mittens, and on a still morning, walking into the west, I feel chill air on my face, even without a noticeable breeze. And yet — I also feel the sun on my back, and the sun feels warm, warm despite the chilly air, and I relax into my walk, losing any sense of hurry to get back indoors. 

Someone should put together a book of southeast Arizona desert vegetation in winter. This tree by the wash, 15-20 feet in height, with multiple trunks and with a tangled nest of twig-like branches bristling (so many desert plants “bristle,” in one way or another) with small dark orange berries — what is it? The book I have consulted on Arizona plants is very complete as far as it goes, explaining the Latin names, giving economic uses for plants and listing animals that feed on them, and showing photographs of entire trees in full leaf and line drawings of those characteristic leaves. But what do they look like now, in winter, bare of leaves and yet full of last season’s fruit? That’s what I need to know! 

My best guess for the tree in the pictures above is netleaf hackberry, Celtis reticulata, a member of the elm family not at all reminiscent of the stately American elm of the Midwest. My source says:
This hackberry occurs as a small tree, up to 30 feet tall and less than 1 foot in diameter, generally. It grows along dry washes, desert grasslands and river valleys.... Its characteristically scraggly appearance develops because several feet of new growth occur on only a few limbs during years of adequate water.... 

-- from Woody Plants of the Southwest: A Field Guide with Descriptive Text, Drawings, Range Maps and Photographs, by Samuel H. Lamb. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1989
Anyone else want to weigh in?

Then there are the grasses and brooms and other ground plants. There are half a dozen only a few steps from the cabin door, but identifying them in books from their winter appearance is beyond my capability.

As for the many brittle hardwood shrub-like plants, branches alive and, yes, bristling with thorns, they are all “mesquite” to me, though I know there is more than one species and probably more than one genus here in the ghost town. There is even, I find in the plant book, more than one “catclaw”! There are catclaw mesquite and catclaw mimosa. (And no, spelling program, I do not mean “catcall,” so please stop “correcting” my spelling!”) Those I think I could tell apart by their long, pea-like seed pods, similar but distinctive. Both are in the legume family (as are all the mesquites), but the mimosa pods curl. Three years ago I had quite a collection of dry seed pods. This year I can't find a single one near the cabin. Was the drought so severe and food so scarce that cattle and deer ate them all? Perhaps there is another explanation, but I have no idea what it might be.

There was a photo of a small oak in my account of our most recent drive through the Stockton Pass in the Pinaleno Mountains, but learning the various Arizona oaks is a project requiring more ambition than I possess in that direction. Often, whether it’s a question of a tree, a wildflower, or a bird, I’m satisfied if I can mentally attach to it the correct genus. Often, but not always. The sparrows (like warblers, so numerous, various, and confusing!) challenge me to greater efforts. Just the other day I came in from a walk to consult the bird book and felt triumphant when I was able to identify a bird I had seen in the wash as a black-throated sparrow. Understand — black-throated sparrows are far from rare: the book says it is “Arizona’s most widespread and numerous breeding sparrow” (Birds of Southeast Arizona, by Richard Cachor Taylor [Olympia, WA: R. W. Morse Co., 2010). So my sighting, if I want to give seeing the bird a fancy name, is no great event. It’s nothing like seeing, three years ago, the hooded oriole here in Dos Cabezas or the vermilion flycatcher in Willcox. It’s not even as exciting, objectively speaking, as the little loggerhead shrike I saw out at Twin Ponds our first winter here. 

Vermilion flycatcher, Willcox, AZ, 2015

But that’s just it, don’t you see? Excitement has nothing to do with objectivity. My little sparrow triumph made me happy. I’ll go further. I would not give up my excitement over ordinary events for all the objectivity in the world! Do I “romanticize” my life? (I have been accused of that more than once.) Well, if I don’t, who will? And if I were to stop, what would I gain?

Horses! Look, horses!”  Well, why in the world would I ever want to give up the joy I feel at the very sight of them? Let others shrug and roll their eyes and twist their mouths into disdainful, supercilious looks. Their hearts are not swelling with happiness! How would the world be better if any of us were to feel less happiness on a daily basis?

As for the mesquite and all the other dark, unremarkable, bare-branched plants I see every day on the high desert floor, while I regret the way they have overtaken so many square miles, replacing more diverse vegetation suitable to grazing and browsing, and while I would love to see the high desert grassland reclaimed and flourishing, rather than simply used up, it’s also true that as I look out over this scrubby, scruffy, poor, eroded, overgrazed land, I feel an irresistible and growing affection for it just the way it is. The plants and animals here, from mesquite and cow to cholla and packrat, are only doing what every plant and animal species does, including human beings: they’re trying to make a living in the place circumstance has placed them, and we’re all here now, trying to find ways to live together. 

Now, finally, early, early this morning, for the first time this year we heard the familiar chorus of coyote song, a sound we heard often during our first stay three years ago. Arizona is not Michigan, and the ghost town cabin we call home here is not our country farmhouse in Leelanau County, but the coyotes sound the same both places. They sound like home.

I believe this cholla to be Tasajo

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. 

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 socialist (or even a union) banner and certainly is not 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

Postscript 2/25

First, in relation to the novel by Tillie Olsen discussed in this post, I since read this of Helen Levitt’s photography in the 2/22/2018 issue of the New York Review of Books: “Right up until her death in 2009, Levitt was continually revisiting the exposures she had made on the streets sixty or seventy years earlier…. She had every right, of course, to remain engaged with her early negatives, but it is sensible to distinguish between the young artist doing her first street work, the middle-aged one shaping it into book form, and the nonagenarian approaching it with a lifetime’s experience.” 

As to William McNeill’s metaphorical application of the term “macroparasitism” to describe relationships between different human groups, I think it fair to extrapolate from his usage to distinguish not only a simple predator-prey relationship but also to see a “food chain” of parasitism, as it were. Children, unfortunately for the modern liberal perspective that sees human young as deserving of protection, must be seen as the largest, most readily available group of “prey.” Every layer of predators moving up the chain feeds on the layer beneath it, and thus every level of social parasitism, at bottom, is parasitic on the world’s children. They are not yet contributing members of society; moreover, they can easily be replaced. I hope it is crystal-clear that I am not advocating the metaphorical parasitism on children, any more than McNeil was advocating metaphorical parasitism between any two groups of human beings. He was merely describing what he saw. Looking through his lens, then, I see children at the bottom of the pyramid. They are the oceanic plankton of the parasitic human “food chain.” 

There were no comments in response to my questions ending this post as it originally appeared, so I will repeat here the last question in that paragraph. I asked if the deaths of a few schoolchildren were outweighed by profits to a global weapons and armaments industry. What I have come back to say now is that the picture of an industry as predator and children as prey was vastly oversimplified. In truth, there are many layers of parasitism, many layers of predators between the bottom and top of the metaphorical food chain. My question, however, still stands, as does the first in the paragraph, namely, What kind of world do we want?