Monthly Archives: May 2010


Walt Whitman, one of America’s greatest poets, an openly gay man, and a giant figure in American literature in the 19th Century, wrote the following in the preface to his 1855 edition of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass:

“This is what you shall do.  Love the earth and the sun and the animals.  Despise riches.  Give alms to everyone that asks.  Stand up for the stupid and the crazy.  Devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or any number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and the young and with mothers of families….  Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book and dismiss whatever insults your soul.”

Whitman was a contemporary of Henry David Thoreau, and this little excerpt sums up pretty well Thoreau’s philosophy and way of life.  (In fact this passage was also a favorite of Edward Abbey.)  This was a most extraordinary life even as it was very quiet, uneventful for the most part, and hardly a paradigm of what we would call “success.”  Thoreau has had many, many interpreters and “misinterpreters” over the years, and so it continues to this day.  There is a contemporary new study of Thoreau that supposedly “demystifies” the image.  First there is the image of Thoreau the solitary–well, he lived in his cabin at Walden only for a couple of years and it was an easy walk from town.  In fact he brought his laundry to his mother for her to do every week.  Some hermit!  Then there is the image of Thoreau the self-sufficient man.  Well, he mooched off his friends quite a bit.  When he refused to pay his tax in protest of the Mexican-American War, he was thrown into jail, but his friend Emerson paid the tax and got him out of jail after only one day.  And so on it goes.  Critics love to point out inconsistensies in Thoreau’s life and thought.  Already Emerson anticipated that when he said pertaining to Thoreau:  “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

But no matter what the critics or the demystifyers say this very unassuming man was extraordinarily influential on giant, prophetic  figures like Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and a host of lesser activists for justice, truth and a radically different way of life.  He is also the generally acknowledged “grandfather” of the modern environmental movement.  Anyone with any sense of the value of wild nature has been in one way or another under the influence of Thoreau whether they realize it or not.   Finally he still continues to this day to inspire people who want to simplify their lives and live by values other than what our society promotes.

What is it that made him so influential?  Perhaps it was his very direct and insightful way of saying what was right in front of everyone’s faces.  He spoke the truth with simplicity and clarity.  Perhaps it was his uncanny vision and discernment.  He lived at the very beginning of the industrial revolution in the United States and when advances in technology such as the railroad and the telegraph were just beginning to mesmerize the general public.  Yet Thoreau spoke sharply against this attitude.  No, he was not a simplistic “anti-progress” pessimist like some of his critics claim.   Rather, it was not the instrumentality of the new mechanisms that he critiqued, but our attitude in making them the center of our lives and how this shapes all our perceptions and relationships.  In this he was most amazingly prophetic.  Furthermore, his deep vision also made him see the infinite value of each individual human being, and here also he spoke with a clear, uncompromising voice–whether it was against the emerging factory conditions of workers, whether it was the institution of slavery, or whether it was the drifting into wars where greed and ambition and collective ego mania were the driving forces.  Finally,  that same vision and his deep inner resources made him clearly reject America’s misguided tendency toward belief in a God-infused exceptionalism–he thoroughly rejected the popular belief of Manifest Destiny.

In Thoreau’s always eloquent and often lyrical prose, we find a nineteenth-century man so amazingly ahead of his time that most of us in the twenty-first century have not yet caught up.  Let us listen to a few quotes:

“If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making Earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.  As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down.”

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things.  They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York.”

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.  From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.  A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.  There is no play in them, for this comes after work.  But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

“I am convinced that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown.  These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while other have not enough.”

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.  I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance…but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board….  There was a man in my neighborhood who lived in a hollow tree.  His manners were truly regal.  I should have done better had I called on him.”

Just a tiny sample from the thought and reflections of this great man.  Thoreau dies at the early age of 44.  He dies at home.  His aunt asks him if he has made peace with God.  He tells her  he did not know that they had quarreled.  Very Thoreau!

Faulkner’s Bear & Abbey’s Desert

We have started a series of reflections on the values of the wilderness.  In the previous posting on this subject we mentioned several authors who have said something important on behalf of wilderness.  Among these were the novelist, William Faulkner, and the social critic and wilderness lover, Edward Abbey.  They are very different but we shall reflect a bit on both in this posting.

A. Faulkner

Faulkner is a very great and very complex writer who has at times touched deeply on the value of the wilderness in the lives of human beings.  There is no simple or easy way to capture what he says in some simple statements–his message is one of great depth and complexity and expressed in a subtle symbolism.  Thomas Merton has written extensively about him, correctly noting that Faulkner has a profoundly religious vision–like the Russian author Boris Pasternak–without being “churchy” or self-consciously and insistently “religious.”  (D. H. Lawrence once noted,  “It’s not religious to be religious.)  In fact, Merton places both authors within the sapiential tradition of the West–the wisdom tradition which goes back to archaic times.  This “wisdom” is the highest level of cognition.  It goes beyond systematic knowledge.  It embraces the entire scope of human life and all its meaning.  It grasps the ultimate truths to which science and intuition only point.  This “wisdom” is also a lived experience–not merely a knowledge in concepts about something.

Merton:  “Sapiential thinking has, as another of its characteristics, the capacity to bridge the cognitive gap between our minds and the realm of the transcendent and the unknown, so that without ‘understanding’ what lies beyond the limit of human vision, we nevertheless enter into an intuitive affinity with it, or seem to experience some such affinity.  At any rate, religious wisdoms often claim not only to teach us truths that are beyond rational knowledge but also to initiate us into higher states of awareness.  Such forms of wisdom are called mystical….  It is sufficient to say that certain types of wisdom do in fact lay claim to an awareness that goes beyond the aesthetic, moral, and liturgical levels and penetrates so far as to give the initiate a direct, though perhaps incommunicable, intuition of the ultimate values of life, of the Absolute Ground of life, or even of the invisible Godhead.”

Faulkner is not this “theological” but he definitely is writing within the wisdom tradition–a more natural sapiential outlook, as Merton calls it.  We will look at only one of his works, Go Down, Moses, and we shall concentrate only on one part of the novel, “The Bear.”  This is the story of Ike McCaslin’s novitiate and initiation in wilderness life.  The “wilderness” in this case is the last primeval forest deep in Mississippi–it is on the verge of being destroyed by logging and commercial interests.

Merton:  “The violation of the wilderness, symbolic of a certain predatory and ferocious attitude toward the natural world, is for Faulkner an especially Southern phenomenon here, because it is connected with slavery.  Ike McCaslin’s initiation, his ‘baptism in the forest,’ culminates in a ‘revelatory vision’ followed by the death of the Bear and of Ike’s spiritual Father and Guru, Sam Fathers(a Native American),  and leads to a religious decision, a monastic act of renunciation, by which Ike attempts to cleanse himself of the guilt that he believes to have become associated like a classic ‘miasma’ with the Southern earth.  He renounces his ownership of land which, as he sees it, belongs to God and cannot be ‘owned’ by anyone.”

Basically Go Down, Moses(or at least a part of it) begins as a story of a disciple, Ike, a boy,  being taught and formed in a traditional and archaic wisdom by a charismatic spiritual guide, a shaman of a kind,  who is especially qualified for the task and who hands on not only a set of skills or a body of knowledge, but a mastery of life, a certain way of being aware and being in touch with the cosmic spirit, with the wilderness itself regarded almost as a supernatural being.  Indeed, the Bear itself, Old Ben, is treated as a quasi-transcendent being.

When Ike was still very young, about 8 years old, Sam Fathers(the son of an old Chickesaw chief) began tutoring him in the art, craft, mysteries, and rituals of hunting–so that before he was even in his teens he had mastered all the basics of the hunt.  This was not hunting as with modern people who go out to get a trophy by killing an animal.  It was more like a participation in the whole cosmic life of the wilderness in which life and death take place.  Sam is a kind of “priest of nature and of the wilderness,” and he must find someone whom he can invest with his heritage.  In this way, the spirit of the wilderness, for which Sam stands, will continue to live because it is being invested in someone else–someone who will take Sam’s place.  The opening of the story shows us Sam as Ike’s tutor and spiritual guide, instructing the young neophyte how to kill a deer and then, symbolically, initiating him and consecrating him into the mysteries of noble hunting by dipping his hands in the hot smelling blood and wiping them back and forth across the boy’s face.  Ike will become a future priest of the wilderness.

At a certain point Ike is able to go with the other men on their yearly hunt for the legendary bear, Old Ben.  We learn that Ike has hunted yearly in the big wilderness for six years, hearing constantly about and learning about the big wilderness–the last land that is still “free.”  During this time, Ike has constantly heard about Old Ben, the great Bear who lives in and “rules” the wilderness.  Old Ben has become a legendary figure, or totem symbol, of monstrous proportions:  “The long legend of corn cribs broken down and rifled, of shoats and grown pigs and even calves carried bodily into the wooods and devoured…dogs mangled and slain and shotguns and even rifle shots delivered at point-blank range, yet with no more effect than so many peas blown through a tube by a child.”  Old Ben becomes synonymous with the wilderness which Ike almost intuitively knows is rapidly becoming a “doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes.”  One of the underlying themes of the novel is the disappearance of the wilderness–this theme will then be correlated with the ownership of the land and with Ike’s ultimate repudiation of such ownership.

Ike recalls how long he had to wait until he was permitted to enter the wilderness.  Faulkner says that Ike “entered his novitiate to the true wilderness with Sam beside him as he had begun his apprenticeship to manhood.”  Ike vividly remembers the camp experiences–two weeks of sour bread, wild strange meat, harsh sleeping arrangements, and in addition, Ike had to take the poorest hunting stand because, for his initiation, he had to learn such things as humility and patience and endurance.  One morning while Ike is ten, he and Sam Fathers are on their stand waiting for Old Ben when Sam calls Ike’s attention to the strange yapping of the dogs, and he says quietly that Old Ben is close by.  The Bear has “come to see who’s new” this year.  Later, back at camp, Sam shows Ike the old Bear’s claw marks on one of the young, inexperienced hounds.  And still later, Sam puts Ike upon the one-eyed wagon mule, the only animal that “did not mind the smell of blood” or the smell of wild animals, or even the smell of Old Ben, because it had known suffering and thus was not frightened of death.

Even though he is still a boy, Ike knows that because the Bear has seen him, he will have to see the Bear:  “So I will have to see him…I will have to look at him.”  In June of the next year Ike tries to track down Old Ben for three days, but he finds nothing.  Sam advises Ike that “You ain’t looked right yet…. It’s the gun….you will have to choose.”  Ike learns that he will never be able to come into contact with Old Ben until he divests himself of all his material ties with civilized society.  Before he can carry a gun and confront Old Ben, he must confront Old Ben without a gun.  So Ike, Faulkner says, “left the gun; by his own will and relinquishment,” he left the gun–just as later  he will, “by his own will and relinquishment,” give up his inheritance.

Leaving his gun behind, Ike approaches the wooded world of the Bear with trepidation.  Ike travels farther “into the new and alien country” than ever before.  He travels 9 hours, and then he realizes that Sam didn’t tell him everything that he had to relinquish if his quest were to be honorable.  It is then that Ike himself realizes that in addition to relinquishing the gun, he must also relinquish the watch and the compass–two instruments of civilization.  They must be discarded before Ike can relinquish himself completely to the wilderness.  “Then he relinquished completely to it.  It was the watch and the compass.  He was still tainted.  He removed the linked chain of the one and the looped thong of the other from his overalls and hung them on a bush and leaned the stick beside them and entered it.”  When Faulkner says that Ike “entered it,” he means that Ike entered the essence of the wilderness.  Ike is already, physically, very deep in the wilderness, but here Falulkner means that Ike spiritually relinquishes his complete, untainted self to the wilderness.  And Ike discovers that he is completely lost.

Ike has followed all of Sam’s instructions, but he cannot find his way back to the watch and compass.  It is at this time that Sam as Ike’s tutor is replaced by Old Ben, who now becomes Ike’s teacher.  Ike is sitting on a log, by a little swamp, when he notices Old Ben’s footprints.  He knows immediately that the Bear is imminent because the tracks are still filling up with water.  Ignoring all possibility of danger and without any type of weapon, Ike follows the tracks and by following them, he is led back to his compass and watch.  In other words, Old Ben leads Ike back to civilization, leading the lost youth back to his implements of civilization because he was brave enough to face the wilderness alone and become one with it.  Furthermore, because of Ike’s voluntary relinquishment, Old Ben allows himself to be viewed:  “Then Ike saw the bear.  It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed….”  Then the Bear moves away, slowly.  He looks back over one shoulder and is gone.  So ends only the first part of this amazing and complex novel.

The spiritual, mystical, and monastic themes buried in this story leap out at you if you are sensitive to that kind of language–interestingly enough it is like Ike becoming sensitive to the presence of the Bear!  Merton has a field day with this story:

“This extraordinary shift in consciousness makes Ike McCaslin aware that there is a whole new dimension of being which is obscured by civilized assumptions and that in order to find himself truly he has to make an existential leap into this mysterious other order, into the dimension of a primitive wilderness experience.  he will do so by ‘seeing’ the Bear, an act of initiation in which his own identity will be fully established….  The successive experiences of closer and closer awareness of the Bear are described almost like degrees of mystical elevation in which the Bear…becomes more and more a real and finally almost a personal presence.  The Bear is first experienced as an insurmountable void and absence, apprehended negatively in relation to the curious barking of the hysterically frightened hounds and then again in the silence created when a woopecker suddenly stops drumming and then starts again. ‘There had been nothing except the solitude…’  The Bear has passed invisibly.  Then Ike realizes that he is seen by the Bear without seeing anything himself….  In the end he resolves to go out into the woods without a gun and ‘prove’ to the Bear that he is not an ordinary hunter.  When this is not enough, he leaves his watch and compass hanging on a branch and lets himself get lost in the virgin forest.  It is then that he finally sees the Bear in an instant of peaceful and Edenic revelation….  It is a description of the kind of ‘existential leap’ which Kierkegaard demanded for any passage to a higher level of awareness or of existence.  But what makes it possible for some critics to see the Bear as a symbol of Christ is the fact that in becoming visible, then personal, in manifesting himself to men, the Bear yields to a kind of weakness in his ‘supernatural’ being, a kind of divine and kenotic flaw which will ultimately bring about his destruction.”

In this story Faulkner has described a wisdom based on love–love for the wilderness and for its secret laws; love for the paradise mystery apprehended almost unconsciously in the forest; love for the “spirits” of the wilderness and of the cosmic parent (both Mother and Father) conceived as symbolically incarnate in the great Old Bear.  The wisdom of the Indian in the wilderness is a kind of knowledge by identification, an intersubjective knowledge, a communion in cosmic awareness and in nature.  However, in the end, even though Ike has been deeply exposed and immersed in this wisdom, he still becomes a failed person. No matter–Faulkner has let Ike and the Old Bear teach us to look at the wilderness in a much deeper way than our modern consciousness will allow.  We will let Merton have the final say:

“Ike McCaslin remains an ambiguous personage.  At the end of Go Down, MosesIke reveals the almost total loss of any prophetic charisma that might once have been supposed his.  We must not then forget that in spite of his initiation and vision Ike McCaslin remains a failed saint and only half a monk.  Speaking after twenty-five years in a monastery, I would like to add that it is extraordinarily difficult for anyone to be more than that, and most of us are not even that far along.”

B. Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey is a very different writer.  Whereas Faulkner deals in myth and storytelling, Abbey is more a straightforward critic, a polemicist and desert anarchist, a character of various contradictions and eccentricities, a meticulous describer of the wilderness, especially the desert, and a very forceful proponent of certain values which he saw as disappearing in our society.  In many cases he has turned people off because of his ascerbic voice, his “in your face” attitude, his implied approval of even violent activity against corporate property, his unwillingness to be “nice” or pleasing to anybody!, his jabs at all kinds of folks including big ranchers, urban feminists, anti-gun people, the federal government, the state government(no wonder he was called a “desert anarchist”!), the power companies, the tourist industry, the mining industry, big cities, etc. etc.!  In many ways he has that sharp edge that you find in Thoreau in Civil Disobedience and in Thoreau’s writings supporting the violent abolitionist John Brown.  If you read all of Abbey’s writings, inevitably you will find something there, no matter who you are,  that will make you mad at him  As he put it in one of his last books:  “If there’s anyone still present whom I’ve failed to insult, I apologize.”  Imagine Mark Twain, John Muir, Thoreau, Jeremiah Johnson, Sinclair Lewis and Woody Guthrie all rolled into one and you might get an idea of the complexity of Edward Abbey.  Whitman’s famous motto, “Resist much, obey little,” fits Abbey perfectly.

But more importantly, for our purposes, the difference between Faulkner and Abbey is one of religious sensibility.  Faulkner is deeply immersed in a traditional religious cosmos even as he delineates the broken modern American with the American South as the backdrop.  Abbey, on the other hand, seems almost antithetical to any religious sentiments or views.  No surprise that he has some harsh words about Christians and churches who have participated in the destruction of the world he loves.    But listen to this excerpt from his many beautiful evocations of the desert:

“The hot radiance of the sun, pouring on our prone bodies, suffusing our flesh, melting our bones, lulls us toward sleep.  Over the desert and the canyons, down there in the rocks, a huge vibration of light and stillness and solitude shapes itself into the form of hovering wings spread out across the sky from the world’s rim to the world’s end.  Not God–the term seems insufficient–but something unnameable, and more beautiful, and far greater, and more terrible.”

Indeed, the “God” Abbey rejects is an “insufficient” God–the one that, alas, too many Christians “visualize” in their worship life–the Big Daddy who sits “up there” and doles out rewards and punishments for following or not following his arbitrary rules–this is not the God of real Christian theology and mysticism–what was said in previous postings about the necessity of encountering the Mystery of God is pertinent here.  In any case, the desert seems to hold some kind of presence, some kind of reality for Abbey that is not so clearly evident in mundane urban life.  In  fact it seems that the role of the Bear in that one novel and the role of the wilderness forest in several of Faulkner’s stories is paralleled by the role of the desert in all of Abbey’s writings.  He seems to be at his best when he is writing about the desert.

The Colorado Plateau was his special place, a breathtakingly beautiful place of a hundred million acres of magic and strength the size of New York and New England–home to cactus, snakes, scorpions, vultures, ancient ruins; cut by rivers and endless canyons.  He put it succinctly: “I love it so much that I find it hard to talk about.”  But he could rage against the forces of modern technology and industrialism rampaging across the Southwest.  Abbey depicted this country not as virgin country ripe with industrial potential, but as a holy place to be defended, where all living creatures, including scorpions, vultures, and lions are vested with equal rights.  Responding to friends who had returned from a trip to a canyon ruin, saying that they had been changed forever and now understood why the ancient Indians got religion, Abbey replied: “You don’t understand.  That land, those mountains, those canyons and rivers.  You don’t get religion from them; they are religion.”

Elsewhere he writes: “In my case it was love at first sight.  The desert, all deserts, any desert.  No matter where my head and feet may go, my heart and my entrails stay behind, here on the clean, true, comfortable rock, under the black sun of God’s forsaken country.”  

And: “Out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of man as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship.  The shock of the real.  For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels.”

And: “I am–really am–an extremist, one who lives and loves by choice far out on the very verge of things, on the edge of the abyss, where this world falls off into the depths of another.  That’s the way I like it.”

And: “For us, the wilderness and the human emptiness of this land is not a source of fear but the greatest of its attractions….  Here you may yet find the elemental freedom to breathe deep of unpoisoned air, to experiment with solitude and stillness, to gaze through a hundred miles of untrammeled atmosphere across red rock canyons, beyond blue mesas, toward the snow-covered peaks of the most distant mountains–to make the discovery of the self in its proud sufficiency which is not isolation but an irreplaceable part of the mystery of the whole.”

In a sense Abbey is again and again returning to a theme enunciated by Thoreau over a hundred years ago in one sentence:  “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Abbey’s books are still readily available–meaning that people are still reading them.  But who is paying any real attention to what has happened, to what is going on?  It was a lost cause 50 years ago when he started writing, and it is even more a lost cause now–but his voice is there for those of us who can draw some consolation, some hope, some strength from it.  One commentator on Abbey’s writings tells this story:  “Out in the cinder hills to the east of Flagstaff, Arizona, not long after Edward Abbey’s death in 1989, a gathering of curious archaeologists were poking around an old Indian ruin when suddenly, cascading from an alluring cobalt sky, an unexpected shadow fell across the group.  ‘Look up there,’ someone shouted. ‘There’s Ed.’  Looking up, they saw a single turkey vulture studying them, red head bald, red neck featherless, rocking gently on coal-black wings.  ‘Abbey promised to return as a vulture,’ another said, ‘the only known philosophizing bird.  He said he wanted to try a different career for a change.'”  Indeed, Abbey had made his prediction:

“For a lifetime or two, I think I’ll pass on eagle, hawk or falcon this time.  I think I’ll settle for the sedate career, serene and soaring, of the humble turkey buzzard.  And if a falcon comes around making trouble, I’ll spit in his eye.  Or hers.  And contemplate this world we love from a silent and considerable height.”