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Saturday, May 25, 2019

Thanks to Mother Nature

Blossoms in the fog
According to Jim Nugent, cherry farmer and former county extension agent, quoted in the current Leelanau Enterprise, spring is two weeks behind schedule this year. Maybe that’s good news for the growers, lessening their worry about a late freeze. It’s certainly nice for summer people and holiday visitors arriving for Memorial Day weekend, who otherwise would have missed the show. For them, the timing could not be better. 



Not all orchards or trees are in bloom yet — some barely on the verge of blossom — but every day, every hour, more join the blooming symphony, and the wild cherries are flowering, too, amid impressionistic first woodland leaves.






As always, I would remind you not to miss nature’s more modest spring offerings, such as tiny violas on the orchard floor. So tiny, so sweet, so easy overlooked!



There is plenty of water, too — no worries this year about low lake levels! Northport Creek is high! The water at the boat launch is high! The other morning (I’m not sure how it looks today), even the water level in the parking lot by the marina was high! Swimming should be excellent for the summer of 2019, though shoreline property owners will doubtless have challenges. 






Yes, we have rain, too, it’s true And during breaks in the rain, to be perfectly frank, some kind of pesky fly is out in the villages in little annoying clouds. 

“What’s with the flies?” a stranger on the sidewalk asked me in an aggrieved tone as I was coming out of the bank. I told him I had no idea. “Oh, you don’t live here!” He sounded annoyed about that, too, as if I’d only been masquerading as a local.

“I live here,” I told him, “but I don’t know what the flies are.”

“Is it like this every year?” 

He was demanding satisfaction I couldn’t provide. 

“Every year is different,” I told him cheerfully. 

And that’s the truth. The weather is different from one spring to another, one summer to another, no two falls or any two winters ever the same. The cherry trees don’t blossom according to a specific date on the calendar, either. When will the cherry trees bloom? When they are ready. 

So wear warm clothes and carry an umbrella, but carry a camera, too, and be prepared to stop and smile and take deep, happy breaths, because this year Nature has given us cherry blossoms for the Memorial Day weekend — and what could be more beautiful?






Sunday, May 19, 2019

Kitchens, Morning Coffee, and a Bit More

Stepping back into my Paris kitchen in our old northern Michigan farmhouse after several months far away was no big adjustment, any more than had been walking back into the one-room ghost town cabin in mid-December. Neither place is fancy or glamorous, which is probably why both feel like home. And that is how they are alike, but in other ways they are very different. 

My little kitchen in Michigan is a small galley, what one of my family members calls a “one-butt kitchen,”  which is why I began calling it a Paris kitchen in the first place. (Space is at a premium in Paris.) A second person can squeeze in, but it is difficult then for either person to move and work freely. — Well, moving and working are difficult, moving and working freely impossible. 

In the ghost town kitchen, there are steps to take across open space between stove and counter, sink and refrigerator. In my (Michigan) Paris kitchen, standing at one counter, I turn turn 180 degrees to face the sink, turn back and take a single step to the stove, and stretch an arm out to open the refrigerator. Only high shelves are a challenge. Everything else is within reach. 

In the ghost town cabin, as in Michigan, I was often up before dark or, when spring arrived, at least by first light. Both places, my morning begins with making coffee. 


This morning, for some reason, I thought of long-ago mornings in Paris, France, waking to the cooing and fluttering of pigeons, clink of spoons against china, and sounds of French conversation and singing through the open windows. That was in May, and I am now in May here, in northern Michigan. Is that what reminded me of the rue de Vaugirard and dear Hélène, the landlady who became a cherished friend? She, I remember now, made only instant coffee. (Does that seem strange?) Red wine she bought in bulk and kept a bottle filled for me on my shelf in her refrigerator. Her kitchen was somewhat larger than mine here in the farmhouse, but it was not large enough for a table, and our eating and drinking was all done in the apartment’s largest room, a combination parlor/dining room, the walls crowded with crowded bookshelves and an eclectic assortment of art work, courtyard window sill lined with herbs in pots. 

The largest kitchen I have ever had was in my graduate student apartment in Champaign, Illinois. It was an old sleeping porch on the third floor of an enormous Victorian house at the opposite end of a large city park from the downtown shopping district. Once a month, on the day I got my graduate assistant paycheck, I would get off the bus downtown and treat myself to fresh flowers from a little jewel of a florist shop (much like similar shops in Paris, France), next picking up a baguette from an Italian restaurant and bakery on my walk home, cutting through the park. My sleeping porch kitchen was enormous and filled with light. Also, and despite its generous size, because it was on the third floor and there were mature trees right outside the window, it felt like living in a treehouse.

I was alone then, without even a dog until — but that is another story. My point is that, living alone in Champaign, a single pot of French press coffee was enough to get my day started. Later in the morning, out in the world, near campus, I could stop in at a coffee house (say, the Daily Grind) or, toward the end of the long pay period when funds were running low, the basement cafeteria of the Newman Center. All that was a lifetime ago. Two dogs ago.

The ghost town coffee maker, one we bought new in early 2018, made the first pot of the morning quickly. During its operation I had time for a routine of yoga stretches but never enough time to become impatient.

Here in Michigan, in my little Paris kitchen, our equally modern but aging coffee maker takes its sweet time, even after a day-long ritual cleaning. Sometimes, not wanting to wait for the glass to fill, I pull it out ahead of time and pour a premature cup — always too strong, but the addition of hot milk makes it café au lait, thus more palatable. This morning another idea occurs to me, however, and I hunt through cupboards until I find a pair of seldom-used espresso cups and saucers.  

Yesterday I came to the last page of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, beginning at bedtime a Swedish novel recommended by a friend, Bear Town, by Fredrik Backman. I am generally careful what I choose to read before sleep, and so I saved for morning another book brought by another friend, a book of nonfiction by poet Carolyn Forché entitled What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, a story of modern-day El Salvador. That story begins with one I have heard before: the seizure of indigenous people’s lands for the cultivation of cash crops, profits reaped by the cultural thieves. In this case, the first such crops were indigo and sugar cane, as the campesinos were pushed up into the mountains. Then came the realization that the mountain slopes were perfect for coffee plantations. 

I get up and go to the freezer to look at the bag of coffee beans. The contents are claimed to be “eco-friendly,” but I see no mention of here of “fair trade,” and I remember that when my sister gave me the bag (we were visiting sister and brother-in-law on our way back to Michigan), she commented that it wasn’t what she usually buys. I remember too a piece in the latest New York Review of Books discussing slavery in the United States and quoting William Lloyd Garrison, who wrote that slavery was “not a southern, but a national institution, involving the North as well as the South,” and I recall one of my guest authors in the 2018 Thursday Evening Author series at my bookstore, Rachel May, the woman who wrote American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery, who came on her own to the same conclusion as she researched a piece of material culture. 

My original review of Rachel May’s book is here. One of the questions I note that May asked was how we, the United States, came to be where we are today, in terms of race relations. I think of that this morning because Carolyn Forché’s book seeks to answer, among other questions, how we Americans came to be where we are today in relation to Latin America, especially Central America. We cannot understand why so many refugees are streaming north to our borders without realizing what they are fleeing — and if we understand the role of our own government in creating the intolerable situations in their native countries, we cannot help feeling as responsible for their lives as we feel for the lives of our fellow United States citizens. 

When a Salvadoran man with two young daughters showed up at her door and said he had come because she was a poet, Forché had no idea that a few days later he would invite her to spend her poetry fellowship time and money by coming to spend time in his country. He said that war was coming to El Salvador and it was her chance to see something like Vietnam from the very beginning. Besides, he asked, what else did she have in mind? “Write poetry about yourself for the rest of your life?” 

What are we going to do for the rest of our days on earth? What are we going to challenge ourselves to learn, and how might what we learn change our lives? It takes courage to learn and even more courage to change. I am not unmindful of the strong coffee that accompanies my reading this morning. I’m thinking of this year’s garden, also, and wondering how it would go if I dropped seeds of corn, beans, and squash into little hills surrounded by straw mulch from last year’s gale garden — a natural thought, given my morning’s reading. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Of Travel, Books, Coming Home — and OPENING DAY!

Old photo, old flowers, old posters -- Come see what's new!
It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it….” 

- Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

I read the sentence beginning with that phrase about "the fate of most voyagers" this morning and thought of a recent evening when the Artist and I spent an hour and a half in St. Joseph, Missouri, wandering around in the growing dark, more and more lost, unable to locate our motel -- and all the time I couldn’t help thinking what a fascinating town it would be to explore, if only we had the time. Right on the Missouri River, streets of grand old houses, an extensive central city with more imposing buildings and intriguing restaurants and pubs, streets with old French names! But in the morning we had to get up and push on east, leaving sights unseen, stories undiscovered, stones unturned. 

Thank heaven it isn’t true of life in general that we only become interested at the end! From earliest weeks, our monkey-related species is curious about and fascinated by everything around us! Only as we get older does our curiosity focus more sharply on some aspects and ignore others. We learn that we cannot pay attention to everything at once and that a concentration in one direction means neglecting something else. Choices, therefore must be made. When the Artist and I travel, his eye is more likely than mine to spot handsome trucks and unusual cars (which he points out to me), while I take it as my personal responsibility to be alert to every single horse in the landscape or hawk in the sky or flowering tree. He is often focused on the “big picture” while I feast on details — but also, really, just as often the same aspect of a passing scene attracts us both. It might be a river or creek or a mountain, cows ambling home in a row, a particular old building or beautiful tree, or simply an arrangement of hills and fields that make almost abstract beauty from road to horizon. We don't set any records for covering distance in the minimum number of hours, but we make the most of every hour along the way.

(Imagine pictures here. I have too much to do today to illustrate this post.)

Back now on our home ground, what we notice and remark on most these first few days is familiarity vs. novelty. What is the same? What is different? What is entirely new? In general, we are comforted by the familiar (“Lake Leelanau looks great, doesn’t it?" "I love NJ’s!", amazed by gradual change (“Pine trees are filling in that old meadow!”), and alarmed and disoriented by completely new scenes, such as torn-up and reconfigured earth and a big house where a gentle slope of wildflowers used to be. Coming through Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Traverse City was alarming. We were only gone a few months, and there were so many new buildings! Building has not been quite so fierce here in Leelanau County (again I think, thank heaven), but some of what is new seems enormous. And then there are all the old orchards torn out, always a painful sight. 

(Some of my word pictures you might not want to see in photographs, anyway, right?)

Re-entry, as gently and gradually as we attempt to proceed through it, still presents numerous jolts. There is so much to do! I am trying to adjust myself to the pace (as we will have to remain in high gear for weeks and weeks to come), reminding myself that our rewards are reconnection with old friends and the beauty of northern Michigan. Strange to think that Darwin did all his life’s traveling in his early twenties in four years and spent the rest of his life as a semi-invalid homebody — but inspiring to realize all the thinking and writing and no doubt reliving of his adventures he did for the rest of his life!

And now the day has come — Opening Day! Or rather, Re-Opening Day! If it rains today, remember that rainy days are good bookstore days. And Sarah will be there, too!

As she used to be!!!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Into the Spring with Darwin

The "Coming Home" Tree
…Our resting house was so dirty that I preferred sleeping outside; on these journeys the first night is generally very uncomfortable, because one is not accustomed to the tickling and biting of the fleas. I am sure, in the morning, there was not a space on my legs of the size of a shilling, which had not its little red mark where the flea had feasted.
- Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle 
All the way back from Arizona to Michigan and still now here at home, I have been reading Darwin, often reading pages aloud to David at bedtime and once, when traffic was at a standstill on 131N due to an accident up ahead, in the car (although in general on the road I prefer looking out the window to reading). Two or three people — all of them readers, too — have asked me if the book isn’t rather boring. Not at all! 

Voyage was written for a general audience, not as a scientific treatise, and so while there are pages of detailed descriptions of shellfish or birds or geological features, there is also a great deal more, because Darwin, I have learned to my great delight, was interested in everything, and he was not above being amazed, a quality I find most endearing. (He often uses exclamation marks!) I think he would have been a wonderful traveling companion, nothing beneath his notice, his mind combing the ground at his feet and then leaping up and around to conjecture about the same ground in earlier ages. His thoughts would follow in general outline some of the conversations the Artist and I have as we travel, though naturally his thought would be much deeper and richer and more knowledgeable than ours.

Before getting into this book, I never realized what an incredibly active adventure Darwin had during the four years he was with the Beagle. Officially “with” the Beagle, that is, because although — and because — he was the scientist of the expedition, he spent much of his time on land, exploring pampas and jungles and mountains and shores while the Beagle was off mapping coastline contours. Sometimes on horseback, riding into the South American interior, and sometimes on foot, or even hands and knees, “scrambling,” as he put it, up mountains, Darwin’s work took him to all manner of land and society. He slept outdoors, on the beach, in tents, in the haciendas of the wealthiest and the hovels of the poorest. 

The difficulties of his travels and work were not without a price, either. Following his return to England, he never traveled again and accomplished his great work (and married and fathered many children) despite a life of near-invalidism, probably brought on by Chagas’ disease, not diagnosed during his lifetime, but caused by a parasite related to the one that carries African sleeping sickness. It took an expert in tropical diseases from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1959 to review Darwin’s symptoms and argue against the prevailing opinion that the great scientist’s illness was psychosomatic. 

What with his debilitating illness and his important work, however, I can’t imagine that Darwin had much time to worry about whether people thought he wasn’t really sick. He began to arrange his notes from the voyage in 1854 and finally published The Origin of Species in 1859. And apparently that more theoretical book did not strike people as “boring,” either: its first printing of 1250 copies sold out on the first day it appeared.

Darwin was in his early twenties when he sailed from England to South America, the Artist and I much older as we set out by car on the first of May for our return to Michigan. Our way was infinitely easier and more pleasant. Through the Gila National Forest in New Mexico on the first day, we traveled north from Socorro on the second, spending two days with a good friend in Santa Fe. Then it was a familiar route (although, truthfully, we saw much of it as if for the first time) across the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, a long diagonal through Kansas, a trek across Missouri, and another two-day stop with my sister and her husband in Springfield, Illinois, before Indiana led us to the Michigan border, through Kalamazoo, where we visited family, and finally north to home. We did not sleep outdoors once, and we suffered not a single bedbug bite anywhere! And still we arrived home exhausted — go figure!

My notes are nowhere near as extensive as Darwin’s (nor was my voyage nearly as arduous), but on the perilous National Forest mountain road in New Mexico, that road of countless switchbacks and speed limits as low as 10 miles per hour in places, we were going slow enough that I had time to spot and write down some of the plant life. I recognized ponderosa pines and alligator juniper from our explorations in the Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains of Cochise County, Arizona, and it was exciting to see the gifts of spring travel, big purple thistles and beautiful blue lupines in bloom. 

Then in Santa Fe, redbuds were flowering everywhere. Often on cross-country travels I notice one particular thing from state to state. On one trip west it was hawks, everywhere hawks; on this trip east it was redbuds. I was interested to see the difference in their flowering time as we proceeded east and north. In Kansas and Missouri the blossoms were so faded and brown along the road that it took a sharp eye to spot them as redbuds at all. In Illinois they were not quite so far past their glory but were definitely eclipsed by flowering dogwood, both white and pink varieties, everywhere in bloom. Then we traveled back to early spring and found redbud in delicate perfection in southern Michigan.

Dogwood in Winchester, Illinois
The Artist and I share driving more than we used to, but he still often says, “I like to drive so you can look around.” I tell him I don’t drive with my eyes closed! But it’s true that the driver is not usually free to spot horses or pronghorn half a mile from the road, and it is my eye for botanical detail rather than his “Big Picture” landscape concern that keeps track of which particular plants are doing what as we speed along America’s highways. 

Thistle at the edge of the abyss

Forsythia by our front door

We reached home on Friday afternoon. Forsythia in bloom by the doorway! My plum and apple trees, the cherry orchards around us not yet blossoming! We did not miss the spring! Grass was lush green but still a manageable height around our old farmhouse, and by late Saturday evening — oh, the long days of light this time of year! — a sprinkling of dandelion flowers had opened their cheery faces to the sky, sure sign that spring has come at last. 
We spent the day on the summit, and I never enjoyed one more thoroughly. Chile, bounded by the Andes and the Pacific, was seen as in [sic] a map. The pleasure from the scenery, in itself beautiful, was heightened by the many reflections which arose from the mere view of the Campana range with its lesser parallel ones, and of the broad valley of Quillota directly intersecting them. Who can avoid wondering at the force which has upheaved these mountains, and even more so at the countless ages which it must have required, to have broken through, removed, and leveled whole masses of them?
I love to picture Darwin on that mountain peak, happy and excited, appreciating the beauty of his surroundings and lost in wonder at the forces of nature. 

Mountain ridge, New Mexico
I feel closer to him, the Artist and I many times over the past months having had similar feelings in the mountains of the West and as we crossed the Great Plains and the great rivers of the interior of the North American continent. And now, having regained our northern Michigan nest, where we will be at home and at work for months to come, I like to imagine Darwin high on one of the nearby hills, looking off across the immensity of Lake Michigan, and once again pondering the ages it took to create our Great Lake in its present form. 


Because that would, of course, be one line of his thought. But not the only one! 

He would also note the cool air, the direction of the wind, the budding stage of the cherry trees, that faint red blush at the tops of a stand of distant maples, the hummingbirds that returned on schedule (May 10), a groundhog scurrying along down in a hollow, as well as preparations for the coming season being undertaken by farmers in the fields and merchants in the villages and anything else that might occur within his purview. I think he would love our northern Michigan wildflowers as much as I do.

Trillium ready to burst open

Bee on trout lily
At our age, it takes a while to recover from such a long trip. Quite frankly, it takes a little longer with each passing year. Arriving home at the same time spring is arriving means, for us, both the beginning of our heaviest work season and the beginning of the youngest time of the year. Vernal breezes and blossoms help the transition — make us glad to be alive and reward us for each task completed.

Having promised all winter that I would return “mid-May,” I will open Dog Ears Books officially for the 2019 season on Wednesday, May 15th. What a lot to do before then! And every day for months to come! See list of Thursday Evening Authors (every other week this summer) at right, and watch that right-hand column for further announcements as the season progresses.

Northern Michigan. Northport. Spring is here, and so are we.

My little hellebore is blooming. It's a little thing but means a lot to me. Every year I think I should plant more, but so far the one I have remains an only child. Perhaps I love it more for that reason? Could a vast array be more beautiful than this one little darling?


Only flower child!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

They came in the gloaming to bid us farewell



It was the hour past sunset, with light leaching away imperceptibly but steadily from land and sky when we, inside the cabin, heard them lowing close by. “They’re in the yard!” we told each other. Their nearness was not unusual, but as it was our last evening we couldn’t help being pleased that they had come as we hurried to step outside for one more close encounter. 

Earlier in the day, on our way back from errands in town, we had stopped for a visit with a small family group of horses grazing by their shrinking seasonal pond — two mares, their spring foals, and the pater familias. Every time our road took us past their spot, we looked for them. Sometimes they were off in the far distance, the little ones lying down in the grass, invisible to our searching gazes, and occasionally we saw them not at all, but on the best days there they were by the pond, tantalizingly close. 

The family that grazes together...
My little darling on the left, but "the other one" is pretty, too.

Some of life’s last times we realize only long afterward. We look forward confidently to another meeting, “the next time we see each other,” only to find, at times, our best-laid plans and confident expectations overthrown. And really, we never do know for sure. We say, “Until we meet again!” ignorant of whether or not that next coming-together will ever take place. 

Gloaming is a sweet time of day, giving yet enough light to justify our calling it day, even as we know night is falling. The word comes from an Old English word meaning to glow. Some definitions give dusk as a synonym, but to my ear dusk emphasizes the coming darkness (as does for me the French word crépuscule), while gloaming speaks of the lingering light. Just so, at parting with friends and places we can choose to emphasize to ourselves the coming separation or hold to the warm glow of friendship and love.

How can I claim to love this part of the country, a Facebook friend asks, when I have known it so briefly? She did not know me as a horse-crazy girl, gazing over the cornfield across the road and dreaming on my parents’ front porch of riding my horse off into the sunset! How could John Denver claim to have been “born in the summer of his 27th year/coming home to a place he’d never been before”? (How, really, does any of us ever decide to marry? The love of forty years is different from and deeper than the excitement of new love, but only the latter makes possible, eventually, the former.) And I have immersed myself in the Southwest while here, exploring it by car, on foot, and through reading its history. 

Arizona has its problems and shortcomings and shameful aspects to its history, as no one would deny. So does Michigan. We do not love places or people for their perfection, since that is nowhere to be found, but for their beauties and despite their imperfections. And does not every human love bear within it a seed of sadness, a heartache that is part and parcel of love, emblematic of our human mortality?

Mountain hidden in snow clouds

Adobe ruins in snow

This has been the third long visit the Artist and I have made to southeast Arizona, and as we came earlier this time than in previous years, arriving in mid-December, we were surprised to find summer’s leaves still clinging to the mesquite. Mid-December was only autumn, not yet winter! Then winter arrived, with heavier and more frequent snows and much colder nights (several times below zero) than usual for this part of the country, and it was a beautiful if challenging season. Now it is spring, and after a bountifully rainy winter and spring, the high desert spring is unusually green this year. 




Tombstone flora
Our three stays taken together, I realized this morning, add up to almost a year, and we have now experienced three seasons out of four. Summer here would be the most difficult season, of course, for Northerners, but here in the ghost town, at an elevation of almost a mile above sea level, I’m sure it is much more bearable than Phoenix! Besides, my ghost town hiking partner tells me, the key to summer is to get up and out early, at “first light,” and that would suit me fine.  That time of morning before sunrise when the sky gradually grows light is my favorite time of day. 



But summer and fall call us back to Michigan. Wildflowers must be blooming already in the woods, the sweet, precious spring ephemerals! Favorite walks will be there again for my morning rambles outdoors with Sarah. Memorial Day weekend will be Cars in the Park in Northport, and late September will bring Leelanau UnCaged! And every morning and night our dear home, every day our dear friends…. Another place, another love.

Back now, though, to the cattle, right here. As the high desert grows greener, it is becoming more difficult with each passing day to keep track of cows in the mesquite, but one can follow their voices, and we do that until we catch a glimpse of one, then two, then another pair, and down by the highway a delightful, very little scampering calf! I will miss them, their voices and their smells and their rich, beautiful colors.


I remember her face from last year.
Northern cardinal -- see you in Michigan!
So bless the cows and horses, the birds and deer! Bless our human ghost town neighbors, too, who have made us feel so welcome! We plan a return next winter. At hand now, however, is our return to northern woods and shores, to our old farmhouse set amid cherry orchards, and our places of work in a harbor village, a scant 607 feet above sea level. And so for now we bid farewell to mountains and mesquite, dry washes and agave, mule deer and pyrrhuloxia and cactus wren and canyon towhee and wish all in southern Arizona a happy and healthy summer and fall. And we thank the cattle for coming to bid us farewell on our last evening of this particular long visit.

Yes, it is very possible to love more than one world, and the love for one does not diminish or denigrate love for the other. As Jane Austen had one of her characters in Northanger Abbey observe, “It is well to have as many holds on happiness as possible” -- and I have been very happy here.



Friday, April 26, 2019

Future of America -- For the Birds?


Before 6 a.m. in late April, southern Arizona’s outdoor air temperature is perfect: a refreshing predawn cool after the previous day’s blinding light and baking heat. There is no harsh wind, only the slightest of gentle breezes that barely stirs new leaves on honey mesquite, their sweet, light green like the world’s first leaves. A mockingbird near the cabin competes with rooster and peacocks across the road, far back from the highway, to call the sun up, and a cardinal joins eagerly in the morning chorus.

Sunrise has moved considerably south since December. In winter, it is a front-of-cabin thing, welcome for the light it brings to strike directly on windows and the warmth it gradually contributes to our indoor space. Post-equinox sunrise, by contrast, is best watched from behind the cabin and outdoors, and east-facing blinds remain closed. Bright light stripes windows, nonetheless, but our object now is not to add to indoor warmth but to keep it at a minimum. 



A green mantle spreads over the hills. A distant dove calls. Shadows grow long in the mountains as the sun rises in harsh magnificence. And now the cactus wren, Arizona’s state bird, launches into his rough-edged, repetitive “song,” somehow cheery without being in any way what one might call beautiful. Some birds give us beauty, others awe or smiles or even laughter, according to their effect on us.

I have been reading An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America’s Future, by Robert Kaplan, published in 1998, and was nearing the end this morning, having begun with Chapter 13 and after that skipping back and forth from section to section, finally going back to start at the beginning and then leapfrogging over sections read earlier to make my way through the final sections. This is not the way I usually read a book. The reason I approached this particular book in such an odd way is that my time in Arizona (for this year, anyway) is drawing to a close, and consequently my initial interest was in the part of the author’s travels that took him from Mexico to Tucson. Alas, no mention was made of Cochise County. Kaplan crossed the border at Nogales, from the state of Sonora into the Arizona county of Santa Cruz. 

But the book begins at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, coincidentally the place my father, one year long ago, did his annual summer officers’ training (Command and General Staff School, a requirement for keeping his rank in the Army Reserve) while my mother and sisters and I visited friends in Wisconsin. Kaplan calls Leavenworth “the last redoubt of the nation state,” which makes sense as one reads on. In fact, I found some justification for not reading his chapters in order, since the order of the chapters itself does not represent the temporal order of the author’s continuous travels. Rather, the organization of the book is thematic, intended to illustrate his gradually unfolding thesis about what the future may hold for our country, based on what he finds along the way.

I had to keep reminding myself that the book was written two decades ago. Where Kaplan sees strollers in an American city, for instance, and only one of them is speaking into a “cellular” phone, I should not expect the same scene today. Population numbers and demographic percentages would have to be revised now, also. Much of what he describes I have seen for myself, however, and so it is a familiar America — but I have never thought to anticipate the future he predicts, and so An Empire Wilderness gives me food for thought.  

In general, Kaplan foresees a diminished role for federal government and more local control, but in the form of “city-states” rather than cities and in cooperative geographical regions, with natural geographical boundaries, rather than exercised by state government. His example of Montana, a state where east and west have little in common, could be applied also to the Dakotas or to Michigan with its two peninsulas. (How much understanding for its place in the great scheme of things can Houghton expect from Lansing?) All of this I was taking in with a “Hmmm. We’ll see” attitude, alternately nodding and pausing, until the author threw in an idea that hit me like a bucket of cold water thrown in the face, such a shock it was -- . 

He writes that Canada, our neighbor to the north, is too large and unwieldy to hold together and is likely to break apart into separate regional pieces, Quebec joining Maine, British Columbia forming a region with the American Pacific Northwest, and so on. Two features of this idea were especially striking: one was that other people, some of them Canadians, apparently shared Kaplan’s view and did not find it alarming or even surprising; another was the inevitability they all saw in this imagined future. Kaplan does not write “if this were to happen” but that 
"…the character and timing of Canada’s dissolution will [my emphasis added] affect America’s own future in unpredictable ways."
As the United States also reverts to regionalism, why would the U.S. not also be expected to dissolve as a unified country? Because of our louder presence on the world stage and a more widespread and dispersed national population (without the enormous empty expanses of northern Canada)? The prediction, you see, is that while regionalism will be more and more important in the future of the United States, our federal government will continue its basic function of protection, while Canada’s future regionalism will mean that country completely disintegrates. 

Well, this idea makes me think about death! -- and why it is a negative though unavoidable prospect. Not only will it be the end of sense experience — no more sunrise! no more birdsong! — but also, when it comes to each of us, individually, it brings down the curtain on the play at large. What happens next? We don’t get to find out! No wonder literature and drama and film are so satisfying, where we get to see “THE END,” at least as as the writer and director conceived a conclusion, although we often wonder even so “What happened next”” in the lives of the characters. 


I did reach the end of An Empire Wilderness, however, and sooner than I expected, not having realized that remaining pages held not another chapter but a long selected bibliography preceding an index. And so the author envisions democracy slipping away, “silently replaced by the power of corporations and other great concentrations of wealth.” Ugh! Most of us see that scenario already underway. (For years I have shaken my head in bafflement over Americans who express fear of government interference in their lives and shrug indifferently at growing interference in their lives by commercial interests.) And yet, somehow, Kaplan holds out hope — hope for a global increase of human rights, backed by American military might, and the eventual emergence of an “authentic planetary civil society.” 

I wonder…. Does Kaplan’s scenario for the world’s future — diminishing importance, if not outright disintegration, of nation-states; increasing geographical regionalism; eventual global unity of values — contain its own impossible contradictions? What does the future hold for any little geographical region of the planet? For the arid American Southwest, the water-blessed Great Lakes states, old Rust Belt cities, gated enclaves of wealth in every state, family farms and ranches — our land, water, air, and all living things who share the earth with us?

Another morning dawns. The birds begin another day of concentration on staying alive and still find time to sing. We can do worse than to follow their example and take time to be grateful for another day of light and color and song before our time upon the stage is ended.