November 16th, 2002

abstract butterfly

Searching out pathways where the jimson weed stands tall

When one hikes in a prairie transition zone, sometimes the open spaces can be nothing but tall jimson weed and raging grass. The trail turns elusive in this part of the hike--barely a slender filament in the broad expanse of grass. In inland California, in the high desert Antelope Valley, the grass rolls in Spring like a roiling sea, excepting that the sea does not contain lily pads which bloom in golden poppies. But on an open north Texas field of weeds, it's just grasses and stubby wildflowers until one gets to the small horizon of stubby trees.

We spend a lot of time talking about the 'natural' beauty of these outdoor spaces, but in fact this patch of nature is comprised of much that is invasive and imported. The original bluestem blackland prairie was long ago broken up, to make farms and graze cattle. The wild native grasses now live on sparse reservations, set aside by governmental authorities as showpieces of how the land once appeared. But even though the "new" grasses, trees and flowers all around me include many that do not "belong" here, the entire landscape still seems natural and free to me.

My part of Texas is the transition zone at the edge of the Grand Prairie, which stretches from Texas upward through Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, parts of Colorado, and even into the Dakotas and Montana. This is the area in which seas of grasses still grow,some native, some invasive. Once my part of Texas was the shore of a great sea, where dinosaurs plodded and great lizards swam. When the first Europeans came, my part of Texas was a rolling array of native grasses, in which bison roamed freely and native American tribes lived on a broad expanse without horses.

All the romance of these past times has been reduced to memory, though, which we visit on weekends at county museums. We speak of times less than a century and a half ago as formative history. We barely record the native peoples we displaced to move here. In an earlier time, Oklahoma was the "Indian Territory", the place to which native peoples were exiled, ranging from the peaceful and financially prosperous Cherokee in Georgia (forced to migrate overland on a "trail of tears") to the war-like and largely non-assimilated Comanche. This territory was given by native Americans exiled there by treaty, unti in 1907, Oklahoma was thrown open to Anglo homesteaders, who made the famed "Sooner run" to grab the best non-reservation land.

The demarcations of the remaining Oklahoma native American reservations was largely handled by government officials. In some cases, one could justly accuse them of selecting land which seemed to have less favorable prospects for the reservations, while other lands with more favorable agricultural prospects were given over to the Anglo migration. Our American pattern of ethnic cleansing was so contradictory that by the turn of the 20th Century, we moved people into the separate place we'd created for native Americans.

The parable arises in the story of the Osage. The Osage originally lived along the Osage River in Missouri. They moved into Oklahoma to follow the bison. When the federal government forced the Cherokee to resettle near Osage country, ethnic violence broke out among the two peoples. Ultimately, the federal government, always patriarchally trying to administer the lives of people whose land had been taken, forced the Osage to cede back to the government most of the Osage lands. Osage were settled in Osage County, a far cry from the broad range of this people. The "sooner" migration of Anglos to Oklahoma soon placed much of the good agricultural land in the hands of Anglos. Oklahoma, for those who have never visited, is an incredibly beautiful state--Ozark mountains in the southeast, dense woodlands alternating with prairie in the north, and wild prairie punctuated by mountains and plattes in the west.

The parable arises in Osage County, as it turned out that a massive oil deposit was underneath this otherwise undesirable land. The Osage became for a time frighteningly, immmensely wealthy. We're talking Beverly Hillbillies wealthy. I take some great meaning about the irony of life from these inadvertent oil barons, who once roamed after bison, but now control a massive oil deposit that they would never have gotten had people realized what oil would come to mean.

I wish all life contained such delicious irony, but I am afraid that my stories are not all so favorable. My part of Arkansas was settled by two peoples--the Quapaw and the Caddo. Both were largely peaceful agricultural tribes, which in the main welcomed the Europeans. But by 1820, 45,000 acres of Quapaw land just south of the Arkansas River were bought by the United States government for 18 thousand dollars. The Quapaw were forced to move to Oklahoma, where their crops failed repeatedly. They dwindled from a tribe that controlled a broad swath of land to a tribe that controlled a sliver of northeastern Oklahoma. Some mineral deposits existed on their lands, which ameliorated their situation, but in general they are much diminished.

The Caddo were a group of related but distinct nations throughout Arkansas and Texas. Their largest concentration lived near Caddo Lake, Texas' huge natural lake in the piney woods. When they were forced by Anglo incursion and discrimination to move to Oklahoma, they settled with the Wichita, which were a related set of tribes which had sundered centuries earlier from the Caddo. During the Civil War, the Caddo and the Wichita had to flee to Missouri, because they supported the Union side whereas many of the Oklahoma native peoples supported the Confederate side. Now they live in western Oklahoma, to which they are not native, on plains country.

When I stand on these seas of invader grasses, it does not escape me that I, too, am an invader. In their turn, the native Americans were invaders, as their migration is but thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of years old.

I believe that in this country we do not face the moral problems rife in our western expansion in the ways that we could. Our histories now belittle "manifest destiny", but they do not call for social justice today. Although some efforts are underway in the courts and in the Congress to restore to native Americans their treaty rights, we have not had the recognition of native rights which our neighbors in Canada have had. I do not believe it is realistic to "undo" the settlement of the United States. But I wonder how hard it would be for corporations to locate businesses near native American reservations, and how hard it would be to pay some form of reparation for wrongs done. I tend to believe that both native American and African-American reparations are not efficiently done by government, as the issue is so divisive. But surely a better job can be done to make up for the invasions which displaced these peoples.

Meanwhile, though, I hike on grasses from the east and Europe,through lands broken up for farming and cows. I fish in man-made lakes, and watch tract home neighborhoods move up the Central Expressway. I am searching for a natural pathway through the grass, but I do not believe that any of us--really, any of us--really belong here. I don't think we should all move or anything, but I do wonder if we can't make things a bit more right.
abstract butterfly

living in the moment

" When the jazzman's testifyin' a faithless man believes
he can sing you into paradise or bring you to your knees.
It's a gospel kind of feelin', a touch of Georgia slide,
a song of pure revival and a style that's sanctified"
----Carole King

I sit now at my office, with roughly three hours on my hands and two hours of work I must acomplish before I leave. My mind, though, races from the world of settlement agreements and revisions to briefs to a places which are no more "real", but somehow seem more divine.

I remember standing on a crowded bus in Guadalajara, Mexico, heading out to visit a suburban crafts town, when the radio at the front of the bus began to play a sentimental singer
intoning "As Time Goes By" in Spanish. Meanwhile, as people entered the bus at the rear of the bus, the new arrivals would hand forward paper money to be applied towards their bus fare. I was struck by how the paper money went forward from hand to hand to hand, and then the change came back, passed, as if subconsciously, from hand to hand to original payor.
Somehow that sense of music and things working as they should has stayed with me for a decade, as fresh as if I were still riding that bus. I have another Mexico bus memory, riding a downtown Monterrey bus when, as if from the ether, a performer jumped in front of the bus, quickly did a flame-swallowing performance, and then faded back into the streets. I witnessed this performance after an all night drive and bus ride to get to Monterrey. The entire thing struck me as limitless waking REM.

I remember going to church at a little Methodist church in Marshall, Arkansas, a small town on the western edge of the state. During the service, a developmentally disabled woman was given a place in the proceedings in which the play the accordion and lead the congregation in song. She was off-key, but she was so in the moment. The sheer "rightness of things" inherent in the entire situation was a kind of non-mystical blessing upon us all. I remember a Christmas Eve service at my church in California, in which the minister, a non-Christian, explained to us the meaning he found in the story of the Shepherds encountering the angels at the time of Christ's birth. Imagine the scenario--one moment one is merely tending sheep, and the next moment pyrotechnic singing strangers in the sky are imploring one to depart every routine and go seek out the nativity. This is a form of faith far beyond that of seers who understand what is to come, and merely wish to see their ideas confirmed.

So many times the immediate experience is so important. Most of us understand how this can be so in a romantic or intimate setting; a fair criticism of our current culture is that we have come to value only the moment of infatuation and pleasure, and forgotten that living "in the moment" can be so much broader than merely the moment of physical ecstasy. Even as I write this, I am tempted to speak of a transcendent evening long ago, one of those evenings of utter innocence and yet absolute transport. But there are so many senses of the moment which
transcend the literal and the physical.

I have been in the moment approaching a small chapel in which the religious structure was unimportant, but a trail lined with crown of thorns euphorbia spoke volumes to me. I've felt myself at one with the lyrics of a song I barely can decipher as Michael Stipe clenched the microphone in a converted bowling alley concert hall. I've gasped as I drove around a hillside on a country road, at the incredible scenery before me.

I think it is far too easy to live life at second hand. I love the passages in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, in which the protagonist, Charles Ryder, realizes that he lives his life
from a remove, as if he were reading it in a book or viewing it at a cinema. It's so hard to live life as it is happening--to just pause and be. So many people have written so many complex exegises for why this is so, but my own view is that all one can do is recognize this is so, and
search out the connecting moment whenever one can.

It's not a matter of being a sensation junkie, as this addiction, like so many others, is not the "authentic experience". I do not pretend to be an expert in any matter of the heart or soul, but my own idea is that the way to this Grace is some inward pause; a waiting with a sense of wonder.

In my mid-twenties I eschewed formal church services which did not connect with my soul for
long country drives, listening to Prairie Home Companion on the radio. I made a simple rule--each time I came to two forks in the road, I would take the road never previously travelled. I found in the small towns and remote farm to market roads of my typographically ordinary local terrain a world of moments waiting to be savored and captured. Here were fading barns, relics of a passing agricultural time. There were quiet country churches, built in the 19th Century by men returning from war. I pulled over to examine arcane little historical monument signs, all saying "we came, we settled, we are here now". I would ride for miles in my Peugeot bike, drinking in the spin art of fields of susan flowers swirling by my peripheral vision, as I rolled down the long hill into Crandall, Texas, on my way to the bump in the road towns like Scurry or Warsaw.

I remember once driving when an ultralight plane was overhead, and watching in awe as it landed on a country highway. I remember bicycling by a landed blimp, and seeing its huge inflation deflated. I have felt the pull of sunfish pulling a plastic bobber underwater in the lilies on a small east Texas lake, and gasped with wonder at Spring dogwood trees, with their white flowers making a growth under the tall piney woods.

I do not belittle work, which has a reality and immediacy that I value. But lately I am longing for a leisurely day in which I just wander on foot or by car and stare at everything about me.
I want to see the last of the Fall butterflies, the white herons beginning their migration south in large looping flock flights, and hear the most earnest songs sung by the most nervous voice. I want to have dinner with my wife, my brother and his wife, and talk about all the worries and wonders that we all confront. I want to escape the feeling that my life is received from VCRs and TV screens and computer screens. I see nothing wrong with media, per se, and I am not anti-technology. But there's a solitude, and a watching, that I long to be experiencing again. It's the opposite of loneliness, this watching, and it may well be the moment by which I define Paradise. I never doubt that there are things I will never understand, but when I have those moments of insight, the consolation is overpowering.