Thursday, September 8, 2011

Room for Desert

The ancient Native American woman I was conducting business with was seated next to a teenage boy wearing a hoodie and a ‘New York Yankees’ ball cap. He had an empty hot-dog wrapper in front of him and was lingering over a donut. He seemed to be there mainly for the sake of companionship but he also served as an interpreter.

“She wants you to know that she made all this jewelry herself” he said, and then added, following a flurry of additional language from the old woman, “including that bracelet. She also wants you to know that the silver came from these hills.”

“That’s amazing” I replied. “Please tell her that I think this bracelet is beautiful”. But before he could translate the woman shot me a full-faced toothless grin and said in perfect English “Thank you”. “She understands more English than she speaks” the boy explained. “She knows what beautiful is. She hears that word a lot”.

“I bet she does.”

I was standing at a parking lot on a widened portion of road just south of Flagstaff Arizona. The old woman and the boy, who could possibly have been a grandson or a great-grandson, had chosen this spot, along with several other Native American Artisans who were located a few feet away, to sell their crafts. I was vacationing with my Dad, his wife Dorie, and my two sons. We had passed several locations like this in the past day and stopped here to stretch our legs.

I wasn’t just being polite. The bracelet really was beautiful. The old woman showed me how it unfolded to fit around a wrist of any size. As she placed it on her wrist, bronzed skin contrasting with silver plating, the art came alive. It was clear that she valued it. I immediately wanted it for the wrist of a loved one. “She says twenty four dollars but she will take less” the boy reported. “Please tell her that that is a bargain. I don’t want to barter” I replied. The boy relayed this information, which brought another smile.

I had been advised to always negotiate with these artisans. I was told that they expect you to barter and, in fact, if you don’t try to craft a better deal they will think that you are a sucker. I considered this for a moment and decided that she could think what she wanted about me. I felt a surge of guilt as things currently stood for paying so little for something that could have sold for hundreds of dollars in another setting. Besides, I figured that as an Anglo tourist, clambering out of the back seat of a car wearing broken sandals, a white coffee-stained Green Jewel shirt, and a yellow Jegs Automotive hat there wasn’t a single chance in all of the world that she didn’t already assume that I was an asshole.

It was disconcerting to realize that even here, out on the farthest fringes of our culture, people still needed to deal with assholes in order to make a living. The thought interrupted my vacation mind-set for an instant before I recalibrated and toddled away, the happy and temporary owner of something wonderful.

The chilled and pine scented air in the elevated region of Flagstaff was a relief, I suppose, from the scorching August temperatures of the Sonoran Desert that surrounded this oasis on all sides. I loved Flagstaff. It was green and it was hilly. It reminded me of a slightly hypoxic Mohican. But I was happy as we descended the mountain on our drive to Phoenix. In the next hour, as our altitude dropped and the oxygen content of the air climbed, the temperature changed from 72 to 104 degrees. We drove through the heart of Indian Reservation country for most of the remainder of the day.

I came to the desert for the first time just a few years ago and it immediately felt like I had come home; a feeling that seemed baseless at the time. I had never been near a desert and no one in my lineage had either. Dad, as the family’s wanderer, moved from Ireland, raised five kids in Cleveland, and later moved further westward to the desert. Maybe he has found his permanent place and maybe he hasn’t. I would never bet against his ability to move and expand and learn.

When I first came to the desert I came simply to visit Dad and Dorie. I presumed I would hate the desert and I believe I recall the moment when the seed of distaste was planted.

The Berea City School District had a particular rhythm to its curriculum in the early 1970’s. We pledged that we would have allegiance to a flag. We learned that we were all created as equals. We learned that the proper move during a nuclear attack was to crouch under our desks and hold our heads between our knees. We learned that America was the land of innovation. We learned that it was destiny that caused us to occupy the land from one shining sea to the other shining sea. We learned that any of us could become wealthy and famous if we tried hard enough (Horatio Alger was referenced). We learned that we could become president, or an astronaut (!). We learned that if we raised our hands in class we could be ignored but if we appeared to be bored we would be called upon every time. We learned that excellent readers and spellers belonged in the “Doodie” reading group and the lesser skilled belonged in the “Raspberry” group.

I believed that I could be president because that was what I was told. But no one ever told me that I might, as a Raspberry, some day aspire to achieve the rank of Doodie. I struggled with spelling and assumed that this was a Raspberry birthright. One day, while reviewing a spelling-test-catastrophe with my third grade teacher she pointed out that I had spelled dessert with only one‘s’. “When you spell it that way Mark it means a desert…like a place with a cactus. Always remember that dessert, like something you get as a treat, has two s’s and the nasty hot desert has only one s. Remember that you use a longer word for dessert because you want to linger over a treat and enjoy it. In a desert it is hot and there is nothing there. Therefore you want to be there for as SHORT a time as possible…so only one s.”

I have been working in education for 14 years and it seems to me that learning is, at best, about 80% efficient. We work hard to learn things and that knowledge hopefully refills a tank that is functionally leaky due to things we learn that are incorrect, and thus must be relearned.

I needed to relearn the desert. And so I did. When I visit Dad and Dorie I can ramble on the fringe of the desert that lies just outside of the last house in the housing development where they live. It always amazes me how little ramp-up is needed between a full-on housing development, complete with a homeowners association and zoning laws, and the wilderness of the desert. I have seen rattlesnakes, javalinas, roadrunners, scorpions, and huge jackrabbits within a few hundred yards of someone’s front yard. I regularly hear coyotes. And Dad reports that he saw a mountain lion once and that a neighbor spotted a bobcat drinking from his swimming pool.

The desert, far from being a place “with nothing there”, is completely filled with living things…and most of them can kill you. Against old advice I linger over runs in the desert. Sometimes I tell Dad and Dorie that I will be back in 45 minutes and show up back at their door 2-3 hours later. Who can blame me? Running through the side streets of Delaware I am a traffic hazard…a possum…but in the desert I am Caballo Pecoso (the freckled horse) lone runner of the purple sage...

...apologies to Micah True : )

I’m not alone. I have found that most of my running friends love the desert. At least we love to visit. Maybe the desert represents the best in us. It is reminiscent of a survival game. The desert evaporates away everything from me that is not necessary to live and leaves in my mind the tiniest and most efficient byproduct: an emollient of amazement that life exists anywhere that it possibly can and that we can live with so little. I spend my days so crushed by modern culture that it is enlightening to be reminded that I can live without it after all.

I need to admit that I leave the desert at the conclusion of the runs. Pabst Blue Ribbon, air conditioners, swimming pools, and ‘Ice Road Truckers’ reruns await. Walden Pond did not make an outdoorsman of Thoreau and the desert does not make a nomad of me. But I do leave the desert requiring little and knowing that I can live with less.

And so I do.

Maybe we aren’t as enamored by the desert as we are with the frontier. Possibly the desert is one of the last hold-out frontiers because it is not easily exploited. It is difficult to carve a profit from the desert. And so, in terms of measurements used by modern culture, it fails to exist. The desert is empty only in terms of profitable resources. There is little in the desert that can be owned, or stolen, or used up before moving on. Land is often bought and sold for less than one hundred dollars per acre. And historically this lack of conformity to Wall Street earned the resources of the desert the title of “nothing”.

When we preserve a desert or a wild place perhaps we are seeking to preserve the surprise that comes with learning that some of our life lessons have been inaccurate and that our culture is expendable. I have heard claims that the youth of our nation no longer seek physical activity. But I will tell you that I have never seen a child brought to a geographical place requiring struggle that didn’t see the adventure in the experience. Upon leaving the wilderness a child, like Thoreau, might return to creature comforts but surely the lesson remains. A donut and a ball cap need not signal the end of Native American Culture any more than the return to Wii means that my Anglo children are ruined. Both can hold the truth that their culture is their choice and not their boss if they are taught as much.

Our children are not broken.

Neither is our need to learn, or relearn.

I believe that I should hold the legends, inventions, and success stories of American culture as sources of pride. And I do. Our nation does not lack heroes. I have a friend who is currently stationed overseas away from his wife and daughters so that our way of life (and the lives of innocents around the world) can be preserved. This man is a hero. We should always learn of our heroes and admire heroism. But we should also be honest about our successes and failures. The truth is that much of our nation’s wealth and infrastructure was built on the backs of slaves. While we can be proud of ending slavery we should recognize that the sharecropping system that immediately replaced it was a functional evil as well. We should not forget that our parents and grandparents almost certainly saved the world from evil during World War II. But we should be humble about the economic boom that followed, which was surely the result of hard work but also came as the result of the bomb- induced destruction of nearly every industrialized country in the world…except ours. Now that the world is catching up to us corporate leaders have taken to moving manufacturing overseas where unfair wages may be paid to uneducated and desperate citizens of third world countries. I suggest that this practice is as evil as sharecropping.

Individuals who are currently unemployed as a result of this practice are at times called out by politicians, corporate leaders, or members of ‘the greatest generation’ for lacking spirit or work ethic. They are encouraged to pull themselves up by their boot straps. They are asked to exude national pride while bearing the stigma of losing their homes in the worst economic crisis since the great depression. If we are not honest about the sources of success and failure then hope is replaced by shame. And without hope our paths become nearly impossible. Former factory workers and members of the armed services who are now homeless are invisible to our culture because they cannot be exploited for their resources. If they do not exist then how can they be human? And if they are not human then why should they have human rights?

Native Americans were moved from the Midwest onto “other lands reserved for them” in the west. As I drove through these “Reservations” I saw that they were America’s wastelands; lacking in resources. I had to stretch my mind to imagine scraping out a living on them. In fact many of the Indian reservations in Arizona are older than the state itself. Arizona only became a state in 1912. Compare this to Ohio, which became a state in 1803, or the original 13 colonies which date back to the famous year of 1776. Westward expansion slowed things somewhat, of course, but states well west of Arizona are much older. For example California became a state in 1850 and Oregon in 1859.

Why the delay? Why did we skip Arizona to move to other states? According to a website dedicated to Arizona mining:

Since 1910, Arizona has been the nation's top copper producer — producing more copper than all the other 49 states combined. Two to three generations later, in 1996, about one out of every eight jobs in our state still depended on the copper mines.

Arizona became a major copper producer in 1910 and a state in February of 1912. Economic reality seems to equal physical reality in our culture. Perhaps prior to copper production Arizona did not exist in the eyes of politicians or industrialists because there was nothing to exploit.

Zanesville Ohio suffered an opposite fate for a similar reason: An environmentally friendly but economically disastrous law was passed in the late 1970’s that ruled that the high sulfur content of most Ohio coal was unfit for burning. An arithmetic problem yielded Zanesville, a major coal mining town, economically non-feasible on the day that it was calculated that high sulfur coal PLUS scrubbers needed to safely burn such coal EQUALLED a higher cost than low sulfur coal alone. It was the day that Zanesville began to cease to exist as an asset to corporate America.

Zanesville is not alone. Nearly all of eastern Ohio has been economically damaged to a point that it may never recover. Zanesville was once a town of white picket fences and black metal lunch boxes. It was a town of churches and clean streets. Now, along with unemployment, alcoholism and domestic violence are up. The population is down, as are school achievement scores and graduation rates.

A cynic might suggest the United States is truly only great when it can operate in unfair environments. I hate cynicism. What a message it could be to tell tales of greatness that were accomplished on even playing fields.

What if we took a fraction of the credit that industrialists received for building fortunes by exposing workers to unsafe conditions and place it in the hands of the less-than-greatest-generation that insisted that poisoning our children with air borne sulfur was wrong, regardless of the economic impact it had?

At the very least can we not unclench our iron fists from some of our less true legends? What a great thing it could be to admit to past sins and release the unsuccessful coal miner from Zanesville from the yoke of guilt they personally feel for failing? We could admit that the closing of the mines was not caused by a lack of work ethic or a character flaw on his part. We could tell him to hold his head high and that there is no need to resolve his heartbreak with a bottle or with his fists.

We could tailor a similar message to former steelworkers in Youngstown, family farmers in Illinois, and the white collar worker from Medina who has lost, or soon will lose, their home. But the message cannot be believed if we insist on identifying our place as a place of endless opportunity where hard work always leads to success and failure can always be traced to one of the seven deadly sins. Our myths can inspire us but they can also break a person’s will.

Our people are not broken.

John Denver sang of coming home to a place he had never been before. It has taken me a few years but I think I understand why I felt immediately at home in the desert. When I am at my best I am desert-like. When I run I lose water, my temperature rises, I become salty and dirty. Mainly though, I become limited in what I can carry. If this condition represents me at my best then why would I not feel comfort when presented with a matching geography? There has to be a natural attraction to all of this. I don’t need to be in the desert to experience the desert.

I believe that God communicates in metaphor. God went to the desert to think and to pray. Why would he not want us to do the same?

Our culture should not determine our value. We should determine our value and we should determine our culture. But myths held sacrosanct offer no room for self-analysis. Our culture is a choice. I need to understand that I can choose some elements of it and reject others.

Our spirits are endless. Horizontal expansion always ends but our self discovery will not ever be limited or defined by anything outside of ourselves. Not even a shining sea. We are perfectly renewable resources and can never be used or used up unless we allow it. When the last frontier on the planet has been occupied we will still have our own internal deserts. We are not broken unless we choose to be.

Maybe I should have bartered with the old woman. Maybe she does not need my pity. Maybe its okay to be at peace with taking less. Remove profit from our culture and it ceases to exist but remove a native and ancient people from their lands and they produce art.

Who do we want to be?

1 comment:

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