#1270 Total Extirpation

#1270 Total Extirpation

"It really upsets me that Jefferson should be anti-canine, but there you are."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

This week, we answer listener questions about Jefferson’s personality traits, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the State of Jefferson, the Hamilton Soundtrack, fashion during Jefferson’s time, touring Monticello, and Jefferson’s distaste for dogs.

From Meteorites to Motel 6: The Pain of Re-Entry


I woke up the morning I wrote this in a Motel 6 to the sound of a rodent-sized dog barking its head off. When I staggered to the window and pulled open the curtain, I saw a very large, slightly clad man with tattoos over 50% of his body smoking a cigarette with one hand and drinking a beer with the other (7 a.m.), periodically telling the yapping "Princess" to shut the "heck" up. Princess seemed to me a strange name for a very large tattooed man's rat terrier, but soon enough a comely woman appeared, smoking as she came, with tattoos over 85% of her body, and some visible piercings, too. It was a fascinating wake-up call at the end of ten days in wild country.

But they left the light on for us.

One day earlier I sat for four hours on a rock in the Lochsa River just inside Idaho reading a book. From time to time I looked up at the dark evergreens that carpeted the steep slopes evenly from the river to the top of the Bitterroot Mountains. Hawks flew in stately leisure low over the water. Orange, yellow and red wildflowers graced the little meadows in the river bends. The never-ending waters of the Lochsa rolled gently over the lower half of my body, certainly not too hot, just barely not too cold. Whenever I looked up from the pages of my book, I saw tens of thousands of points of lights dancing on the river all the way to where it turned a corner and disappeared forever into the American West. It was one of those heaven on earth days, those Huck Finn days, those A River Runs Through It days. I tried to breathe deep and live deliberately (as Thoreau advises), to drink in the whole perfection of the day and the place. "Suck out all the marrow of life," said he. I tried to be fully present and fully alive to the present moment, because I knew that it would be at least a year before I sat in that river again, and maybe never.

Maybe never. There is a haunting feel to those words.

I haven't kept a precise count, but I reckon that was about the twentieth time I have sat in the Lochsa for at least an hour on a summer afternoon, about the same number of times I have sat for an hour in the sacred Little Missouri River. I'm not quite sure why, but sitting still in a thing that flows past forever almost invariably puts you in a philosophic mood. Where does all the water come from and where does it go? Why doesn't it ever run out, like the hot water in a Motel 6 bathroom? If you threw a ping-pong ball into the water, and there were no dams anywhere downriver, would that ball eventually slide past New Orleans and bob into the Gulf of Mexico? How long would it take? What is my message to the people of New Orleans—or Lisbon?

What happens when we die? How am I different from the trout that just brimmed the river surface, or are we just two equally important (and unimportant) momentary effusions of the unrelenting Life Force that covers the planet with verdure? How does a Salmon find its way back to its upstream spawning grounds years after it flowed over the bar into the salt of the Pacific Ocean? Why do humans scurry about so much pretending they have urgent things to accomplish, and why does our species quarrel so unceasingly? Pronghorn antelope don't gossip and backbite and take Prozac.

The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 BCE) said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice." The river changes. The water that flowed over me in Lochsa will soon be redistributed over the broad sweep of the planet. And we all change too. I know I am distinctly a different man (in some respects) from the one who sat in the Lochsa last year at this time. Frankly, I wish I were more not less different. I wish we were really capable of re-inventing ourselves, of re-booting our lives, of burying the Old Adam once and for all.

This is the point each summer when my Lewis and Clark cultural tour in Montana and Idaho ends, and I return to "civilization" (i.e., Bismarck). I woke up yesterday in a funky, perfect Spartan lodge west of Missoula, and I ended it at Motel 6 in Miles City. Because I was not quite ready for re-entry, I spent the day driving slowly, even aimlessly, along US highway 12 from Helena to Forsythe. It is one of the most beautiful roads in America. I never once turned on the car radio. For the first few hours it parallels the Musselshell River, named by Lewis and Clark on May 20, 1805. Then, at Melstone (east of Roundup), the river turns north and US 12, continuing east, enters some of the most beautiful empty plains country you will ever see. I stopped several times to take photographs, knowing in advance that no photograph can do justice to the vast, unimproved, un-industrialized openness of the countryside, where even the cattle are so swallowed up that they barely register.

I thought of my artist friend Catherine Meier, now of Duluth, who gravitates to such places and draws huge paper "canvases" of undifferentiated plains landscapes. Since I met her in Red Cloud, Nebraska, earlier this summer, and saw some of her stunning representations—some big enough to cover an entire wall in a gallery or auditorium—I have been found myself saying, somewhere or other, "Catherine Meier needs to set up her shop here." There was a place on my drive yesterday that was so beautiful that I instantly nominated it as a top-ten Great Plains landscape.

In a few minutes I am going to push "send," and find gas, soda, and licorice, then amble on to Glendive, Medora, and then Bismarck. There is light rain in Miles City, just right for the melancholy feel of the day of return. "The world is too much with us," Wordsworth wrote, "late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers."

I made it up the Wendover Death March for the umpteenth time, with less pain and exhaustion than usual. Thirty of us sat around a fire while Nez Perce elder and historian Allen Pinkham explained why his people, the Nimiipuu, decided to assist, not kill, Lewis and Clark. (There was a long debate!) When he began to explain how the Nez Perce named the constellations of the night, a meteorite shot across the vault of the sky. All of us were alive in ways we had not been, and probably will not be, six months prior or hence.

At the same time we saw the International Space Station move slowly, but surprisingly bright, from one horizon to the next. One of our group, an outstanding New York Times reporter, said, "Hey, there is an phone app that tells you when the ISS is over your zip code."

There is pain in re-entry. The world is too much with us.

Are There No "Higher Laws" in North Dakota Life?

For the past five days I have been holed up at a fabulous Spartan resort just inside Idaho west of Missoula, Montana, with a dozen folks from all over America. We gathered in the mountain snow at Lochsa Lodge for the sole purpose of discussing one of the world's great books, Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods.

Walden has many themes. It is much more than a book about one solitary man's love of nature. It is a surprisingly muscular and argumentative book that wrestles with some of the main issues in American life, then and now. It was published in 1854 at a time of rapid industrialization in the United States, when the railroad boom was transforming the landscape and the social structure of America in an unprecedented manner.

One of our participants was an ideological libertarian. He believes that government exists solely for the purpose of protecting property rights, and that anything else government might do is an intrusion into our liberties. He believes that absolutely everything can be "monetized," and that the free market is the best tool humans have to sort everything out, from the price of a loaf of bread to the delivery of health care.

So, to take an easy example, it's the year 1900 and the timber companies are cutting down every redwood tree they can get their hands on because there is a lucrative market for redwood lumber. Theodore Roosevelt (a big believer in free enterprise) decides that unless government steps in to manage the resource and conserve it for future generations, the short-sighted profiteers of the timber industry will cut down the last redwood to squeeze the last dollar out of the species. Moreover, Roosevelt believes that there is an inherent majesty in a redwood forest and that is in the interests of American civilization to release a few extraordinary things from the tyranny of the market. TR therefore determines that the national government will supervise the timber industry on public lands to insure the sustainability of our forests.

According to our Lochsa libertarian, that was the wrong thing to do: sloppy, sentimental, misguided, unfair, possibly un-American. "If you really think a redwood tree is as valuable standing in the air as it is turned into lumber for redwood decks, then you need to outbid the lumber companies tree by tree or forest by forest. The market works." You don't want a power co-op to put up wind towers just offshore at Martha's Vineyard, outbid them for the resource.

Thoreau was something of a libertarian too. He trumped Jefferson's "that government is best which governs least," to declare, "that government is best which governs not at all." Thoreau was committed to the individual, not the state. But Thoreau believed that individual had a duty to evolve from the brutishness and savagery of his base character into a more enlightened being, that America cannot be a great civilization unless we learn to hearken not just to economic laws but also to what he calls "higher laws." An individual who learns to hear "higher laws" does not believe that the value of everything can be measured in dollars. I think Roosevelt would regard Thoreau as hopelessly naïve. While you wait for the slaughterhouse owners to evolve, you are going to eat a fair quantum of rats, excrement, and tainted pork in your breakfast sausage.

On the third day of the Lochsa retreat I took a long walk through the woods in the hopes that I would encounter a wolf or a mountain lion. As I crunched through the pure white snowpack along the magnificent Lochsa River, I wondered what are the higher laws of North Dakota life in the era of the Bakken Oil Boom.

An oil shale deposit is different from more traditional pool oil because once you perfect the technology, in a fracturing boom you "strike oil" nearly 100% of the time. There is so much shale oil and natural gas in western North Dakota that you can more or less arbitrarily pick your spacing protocols, lay down a drilling grid of 40-60,000 wells, and then systematically work the field over time, until you have created the maximum extraction efficiency. Most of the land in North Dakota is privately owned. Even most of the public lands are open to development. As long as there is money to be made—and the money to be made dwarfs anything North Dakota has ever seen or dreamed about—oil companies are going to come get it. The drilling of any one individual well is a highly-efficient, nearly miraculous example of human technological ingenuity, and the environmental "footprint" of any given well is comparatively light, especially once the fracking process is over. But add all those drilling events together—systematic oil extraction in every direction—and then add in the pipelines, the storage tanks, the transfer facilities, the natural gas processing plants, the new roads and railroad spurs, the bypasses, the giant parking lots for idle trucks and pipe, and the industrial "hospitality" infrastructure, and—voila--you have transformed western North Dakota from a quiet rural countryside into an overwhelming hive of pell-mell industrial activity.

All on the principle of the market. Although the overwhelming majority of the oil wealth of North Dakota leaves the state never to return (such is the history of North Dakota), the amount of money being left behind in the hands of mineral owners, service providers (from water haulers to car dealers and hotdog stands), and in the coffers of the state treasury is so vast that it makes a mockery of my libertarian friend's economic equations. A day care provider in Watford City can barely pay her bills and put tennis shoes on her children's feet (traditional economy). An elderly couple in Dickinson, living on a modest pension and Social Security, is told that their rent will triple on March 1st (traditional economy). The rancher who would rather not see oil development in that special pasture near the river is told by a company representative or his lawyer that he will be getting checks for tens of thousands of dollars per month if he signs in triplicate, here, here, and here (the oil economy). Who can resist?

It's as if there are two types of currency in North Dakota today—the currency of our state's 125-year history, in which we toiled and scrimped and wound up moderately prosperous because of the quality of our character and our work ethic, and the new currency of unbelievable stacks of carbon money, funny money, that staggers the imagination and overwhelms any discussion of "higher laws."

I believe that North Dakotans value many things that cannot be monetized. If there were a precise enough way of polling the people of North Dakota, I believe that the majority would say they do not want western North Dakota to be overwhelmed by industrialization, however grateful we are for the surpluses and the full employment and rural renewal in our beloved state. Our traditional commitment to higher laws—family, neighborliness, community, volunteerism, faith, stewardship, civility, lawfulness, decency--is what has made us such a special people in such a special, improbable place. But this thing that has come upon us is so gigantic and the payoff is so huge that it is eroding things in our heritage and our character of incalculable value, in both senses of the term.

There is a value in a rolling prairie and windswept ridge, but who will be left to measure it?

Seeking Renewal on the Wendover Death March in the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark


I'm sitting out on the patio of the Grand Union Hotel looking at the Missouri River. This is the halfway point of my annual Lewis and Clark canoeing and hiking trip. We have spent the last three days paddling through the magnificent White Cliffs stretch of the Missouri. Tonight we regroup in a historic hotel (which mostly means showers). Tomorrow we head up to Lochsa Lodge on the Lolo Trail just inside Idaho (west of Missoula), and prepare for four days of hiking along the most pristine stretch of the entire Lewis & Clark trail from Charlottesville, VA, to Astoria, OR.

This year I'm joined by 35 adventurers from all over the United States—and one winsome young geologist from Australia. With my tour partner Becky, that makes our little corps of discovery about the same in size as the permanent party of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1805). The main difference is that we cannot establish military discipline. Last night one of the enlisted men engaged in an unauthorized incursion into our limited supply of liquor. After a wonderful midnight thunderstorm that woke and enchanted our urban guests, he went wandering through our camp like King Lear on the heath, tripping over guy lines, chanting patches of patriotic song, and invading tents of perfect strangers in search of his longsuffering wife. This produced a little chaos. We wanted to flog him at dawn, but he looked pretty self- or spouse-flogged, so we merely pardoned him to nurse his hangover. The mesh cowboy hat that he has been wearing all week looked as if it had gone through a tree shredder. I predict a long run of temperance in his future.

These are minor concerns. Each year for five years my canoe partner Becky has attempted to drown me in the Missouri River. She's a natural water nymph with a heart the size of Montana, but she has two exceedingly bad habits. She stands up from time to time in the canoe, and she turns around to take pictures, adjust her life vest, reach for something in her kit bag, ask me a question, or just tempt the river gods. No amount of caution or rebuke can prevent her from taking appalling risks, and every summer I lose not only my new camera—an expensive sacrifice to what Meriwether Lewis called the "mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River"—but books, notes, GPS devices, journals (both my own and the expedition's). I went to my favorite camera store a few days before this trip to buy my fifth annual digital camera. The clerk said, "Ah, it's your annual Montana trip, is it?"

I can now report a miracle. My camera survived the canoe portion of the trip. We'll see how it fares on the Wendover Death March.

I don't know if I can explain why this annual trip means so much to me, but I am going to try. When you are out on the river drifting through some of the most enchanting scenery in America, or placing one foot in front of the other on a serious and strenuous hike directly in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, you get out of yourself. You all know that persona you drag around almost every day of the year, full of fears and frets and frustrations and figments and frauds and foolhardiness. It's almost pure pleasure to check that tinny thing at the embarkation point, and become a more basic and authentic self for a few days. The camping trip tasks are very basic: paddle, hike, perform rudimentary acts of hygiene in rudimentary structures, sleep, eat, warm your hands in the fire in the chill of the evening, and get up in the middle of the night to pee in the dewy grass just outside your tent, and then linger in your shorts in the night chill to watch for a shooting star. The idea is to let the past slip away, put the future on hold at the other end of the journey, and just try to BE for a change. Feel the tinge of sunburn on your face and legs, the affirming strain in muscles you don't much use in what Huck Finn calls "sivilization," and let the long stretches of pure silence redeem your life.

There is also the "same time next year" phenomenon.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said "you can never enter the same river twice." That is true of the Missouri. This year it was down by three or four feet from last year. Last year's gravel-bottomed swimming hole was a mud bog this year. The air was easily ten degrees cooler this summer, and the afternoon swimming was therefore less imperative. Etc. But I also know I bring a different me to the river every year. My left shoulder was not a factor this time. I was more serious, less playful in the evening talks. I know why, though I'm not willing to explain it. People from all over the country insisted on my talking about the Bakken oil boom, even though I came out here in part to escape the oppressive never-endingness of that subject in my life. I threw myself into this year's adventure with none of my usual detachment—in part because there is so much I wish to escape from this year, and I am counting on the journey to provide spiritual renewal.

When we undertake the Wendover Death March Friday morning (nine miles more or less straight up) I will be listening to my body take that severe strain. Every summer I wonder when the year will finally come when I cannot make the hike—or, worse, choose not to make the hike. In a strange sort of way, this summer journey is my way of testing who I am, who I still am, and who I might be able to become, because the one constant is that a full year has passed since the last seemingly-identical journey.

The jury is still out about this year's Death March, which is led by my glorious young friend Chad, now just under 40, who prances and gambols and jibes his way up Wendover Ridge as if he were jogging to the corner post office, while the rest of us bend over and cough up a lung every ten minutes and curse the day Chad was born. The trip would not be worth making without Chad—who knows everything about the Bitterroot Mountains except the trees, which is a bit ironic if you think about it—and it certainly would not be worth making without Becky. They are the north stars of my summer.

Mostly I thank God I live in virtually the only country on earth where this is possible—where the population density is light in the heartland, where there is still plenty of public domain to play and wander in, where the qualities of wilderness and frontier still have some potency in our national soul, and where the words "the West" touch off a long reverie of romance, awe, redemption, mystery, and renewal.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," said Thoreau. That indeed is my quest.