On the Fringe

CapitolReflectionvia_WilliamBeemIt’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.

Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.

That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.

I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”

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imgp8205Winter Solstice: the start of a season that came in early, as it so often has (though less often lately). The darkest day of the year, and in dark times. Yet also, halfway out of the darkness. From here, as the winter settles over the landscape, we are just waiting for the Spring and new growth.

Yet I love the contrasts of winter. The bitter winds and deep snow bury the landscape, making everything at once more dynamic and more still. The woods seem deeper, and yet more welcoming. The mountains seem higher, and yet more fulfilling. The cold is chilling, but invigorating.

I met a wonderful man from Iran the other day, and he told me that his family celebrates the new year in the Spring—when everything is new and reborn; when celebration is warranted and longed for. In this country, we celebrate the new year in the dark.

Yet, I think the dark times make everything more meaningful. Only that which is most firmly itself can carry through.


Image Credit: My own

Work With Your Hands

hands_viajuliaavilesDig your hands into the dirt. Run them along a smooth board. Reach down into the engine, through the grease and wiring. Use your hands stiffly in the cold, or damply in the sun, or dry in the dust. Use your hands with steadiness on the wheel, with certainty on the brush, with a slight tremor that disappears as you focus on the finer work. Use them with care, and strength, and intent, and work something you can touch and own.

This is common ground.

I wrote that we need common ground, that we have to find it and till it and protect it. That we cannot occupy it, and do not need to. That the only way through is to find places we have drawn lines and erase them. I think this is one of those places.

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The Dangerous Middle

balance.jpgThere is a point in believing an idea where, regardless of where we began, we lose the habit of refining that idea. Instead of seeking to improve our positions, we begin to defend then. Instead of searching for the nuance, we begin to strip it away.

It isn’t every idea—but certain ideas seem to burrow into our politics, our religion, and our activism, and once they are firmly in place, we refuse to let them go. And we begin to vilify anyone who suggests otherwise. I cannot tell whether it is due to external elements, like deep social division, or internal elements, like an uncritical approach to one’s own beliefs. Perhaps it is both, or perhaps it is something else entirely. But I think it not coincidental that these are tribal ideas: they are ideas that mark our membership as much as they define our position.

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Return to Greatness

Luggage_viaJohnPerivolarisPeople have been going on forever about returning to the good old days, the days of their youth, and the days when America was great long before Donald Trump ever got hold of the idea. Longing for the days of yore is baked into our society, to the point where the very idea that something is old, to many people, gives it weight. So we trust in ancient remedies, recall days of chivalry and valor, and yearn for good old Nuclear Family America.

Unless we studied History. Those of us who studied History know that yearning for the good old days dooms you to an infinite wait at the lost luggage counter for imaginary bags.

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Cairns and Caring

BatesCairnAcadia National Park has something called a “Bates Cairn,” a particular kind of trail marker that uses one large rock bridged across two others, with a single rock on top angled roughly in the direction the trail is running. These are beautifully simple structures, easy to interpret, and easy to observe from far away. Since many of Acadia’s trails run along granite slabs, the Bates Cairns are often the only prominent indicator of where trails run.

The Bates Cairns also use far fewer rocks than the conical cairns built in many parts of the world, which really does matter. The Acadian landscape is scoured granite, with pockets of soil clinging to rugged slopes and fire-adapted ecosystems sneaking into every corner they can. Foot traffic has a major detrimental impact on these thin soils, already stressed by wind and weather. Wandering off in search of rocks to add to a cairn, as some hikers may do, can damage or destroy rare plants and hasten erosion. So the Bates Cairn, in addition to being traditional in Acadia, solves a real problem for one of America’s most visited parks.

But Acadia National Park also has a problem, which is that some people (like this one) think that both the tradition and necessity of Bates Cairns in Acadia should be outweighed by their own personal tradition of adding rocks to cairns along their hike. And some do so with apparently gleeful disregard. In the course of one day’s hike, I came upon three signs explaining the Bates Cairns and asking visitors to respect them, and in all three cases the cairn following the sign had been tampered with.

Each time I encountered a vandalized Bates Cairn, I removed the extra rocks, wondering what imperious or vindictive person would so casually disregard the landscape around them. What is it about a tradition that allows it to go from lovingly marking community to viciously assaulting an other? Surely the Bates Cairn was doing these hikers no harm, and surely they came to enjoy the beauty of the Acadian mountains. Why, then, when faced with a choice between satisfying their personal preference and respecting the place around then, did they choose the former?

I cannot quite find the name of this thing, this imperial traditionalism. I cannot quite grasp the place where surfeit of caring and lack of caring become so aligned.

I think, perhaps, ignoring the Bates Cairn and printing it over with one’s own tradition is an act of smallness. I think it is not so much an intentional violation of the world beyond one’s self so much as it is a negligent unawareness of that world. I imagine that the individuals who add rocks to cairns when they have been asked not to, and told why, are the same individuals who shuffle their lunch wrappings into the great crevices in the granite, who trample past the signs for revegetation areas, and who return, sated and ignorant, to their homes with tales of Acadia’s beauty.

For them, perhaps, beauty is a thing to be consumed rather than appreciated, and the marks of their passing and presence are marks of beauty well-consumed indeed. But what of the hiker behind them who follows, seeing damage done by those who came before rather than care well taken? What of those children (and there are many) who hike the Acadian granite domes, witnessing their consumption at the whim of elders? Who will teach these others to take care? Who will teach them to return to their homes with tales of places seen and loved, not consumed?

Some of us will. I hope, enough of us.