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Hopeless

January 5, 2013 in The People by Charles Thrasher

In her new book So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World Margaret Wheatley savages hope, guts it like a street fighter.

Beyond hope of success lies the freedom to act without constraint, without need for practicality. Once you’ve abandoned expectations, intent is no longer harried by hope or despair or the need to endlessly compromise in order to achieve diminishing results. You act because it’s the right thing, the needful thing, without expectation, without hope or need of success. You act because you can, because you must.

Hope is the expectation of a particular result among a continuum of results. It’s hope that binds us to the fear of failure and the paralysis of despair. Hope makes us vulnerable to exhaustion. Hope deceives us with the belief that the outcome is the reason for action. In reality, action is the reason itself.

Wheatley has a long history of trying to save the world. It can’t be saved, no matter how much we sacrifice. There’s no controlling the future nor even the avarice and greed rampant in the present. The future emerges unpredictably. Once present, it can’t be undone.

There are hard times ahead for humanity, for the planet. We may not survive the challenges we’ve created. We may not have the intelligence or the heart to transcend our petty, squabbling politics in a time of great need. There is no guarantee of our evolutionary success. We could be a dead end, a net loss to the planet. Or we might make the transition to something unexpected and wonderful, a shared intelligence capable of governing itself wisely.

Ultimately, personally, it doesn’t matter which. The outcome isn’t mine to own, only the action, the intent. The metaphor that comes most to mind is Zen archery, a meditation in motion where the archer becomes both the bow and the target, collapsing the distance between. The arrow is released of its own accord. It doesn’t matter so much where it lands. What matters is the meditation, the mindfulness of the archer.

Wheatley mentions Carols Castaneda only once and obliquely, referring to Don Juan [Matus]. Castaneda has been discredited as an anthropologist but he was a significant influence upon me as a young man, a conscript in the US Army during the Vietnam War and wandering in the wilderness in the years afterward.

Juan Matus’ concept of the existential warrior is somewhat like what Wheatley describes—actions with intent but without expectation of success. Where they differ substantially is the need for community, for relationship. The Yaqui sorcerer’s world was solitary and guarded. Wheatley’s world depends upon relationships. Ultimately, they’re the only thing that matters.

This I Believe…

December 2, 2012 in The People by Charles Thrasher

National Public Radio (NPR) broadcasts a series of essays titled “This I Believe.” I’ve shamelessly stolen the idea on a smaller scale. These are the things I believe stacked in no conscious order.

  • Humanity is much better at responding to disasters than avoiding them. If we’re not embroiled in crisis, we create one. There’s nothing more abhorrent to us than boredom.
  • We’re past the time when a sustainable economy was an option. What we need now are resilient communities capable of weathering radical changes.
  • Our economy is a Ponzi scheme that’s now unraveling. A few hucksters have stolen the inheritance of generations. Unfortunately, they’re the ones most admired by society.
  • Evolution is no longer just genetics, it’s cultural, even technical. We are no longer the effect of evolution but the co-creators.
  • We need to consciously choose our evolution. The ability to do something simply isn’t reason enough.
  • In order to choose wisely, we need cultural values that encompass not just the present moment but moments across time and generations.

 

God, Chess and Einstein’s Dilemma

November 29, 2009 in Mysterium Tremendum, Sailors, The People by Charles Thrasher

Tristan Jones once sailed to the Arctic Ocean in a converted lifeboat and the company of a three legged, one-eyed dog. Frankly, I think the dog was the only one he could convince.

Tristan_Jones Inevitably the ice fields closed around him and the boat was trapped in the lee of an enormous berg. The counterbalancing mass beneath the surface eroded and the berg shifted, positioning thousands of tons of blue ice directly above the lifeboat held fast by the pack ice. Throughout the arctic winter the odds were even whether the pack would free the boat first or the berg would turn turtle and crush it like a rotten melon.

Jones mostly ate burgoo, a loathsome layering of porridge, bacon, and whatever else was at hand, flavored with whiskey and frozen in a barrel on deck. Meals consisted of chipping off bits of burgoo with a hammer and heating it in a paraffin stove. The dog ate the same but probably enjoyed it more.

God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

Jones played chess with himself. A game with proper suspense required he forget his opponents’ strategy, a sort of self-induced schizophrenia. At first he had to wait several weeks between moves until he had forgotten the old strategy of what was now his new opponent. It was awkward.

Over time he perfected his ability to play without cheating. Not only could he bounce between players in the game, occupying the memories and strategy of one while forgetting the other, but a third personality developed, a meta personality that impartially observed both players, cognizant of either strategy, forming judgments and opinions but giving away no clues to the opponents. The lifeboat became rather crowded.

I wonder if God plays chess.

Before the first creation, before the spark that ignited the universe, God was pure potential, the sum of all possibilities but the realization of none. What’s the point of potential if it’s never actualized? I suspect God was like a kid with a new 12-gauge shotgun and nothing to shoot.

Of course it’s absurd to ascribe human emotions to something utterly beyond human experience. Whatever the impetus, God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

There’s a problem. A game is hardly interesting if you already know the outcome. God was faced with Tristan Jones’ dilemma: How do you play a game alone? I suspect God’s solution was the same—forget that all the players are yourself.

It’s an elegant solution if simplistic. Everything comes from God initially; everything returns. In the interim, everything forgets itself in order to play the game convincingly.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong.

Of course, it’s not my original idea. It’s been kicking about for thousands of years, probably first recorded in cuneiform on clay tablets. God is insatiably curious. Curiosity is the spark that ignited creation. Of course God, being omniscient, already knew what would happen. But we didn’t. We’re continually surprised, delighted, appalled, enraptured, disgusted, intrigued, excited, depressed, disappointed, amazed. In short, we’re immersed and enthralled by the game.

And that may explain those people with near death experiences who don’t remain dead, their entire lives flashing before their eyes in exacting detail complete with emotional soundtrack played in a bubble of timelessness. It sounds rather like a data dump, the incredibly dense data of a person’s entire life.

Albert_EinsteinI find that thought oddly comforting. Nothing is lost, nothing forgotten. Every false start, every failed ambition is remembered. As well, every kindness, every selfless act, and every bit of wonder.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps God does play dice. Or chess.

A Small Dog’s Death

April 26, 2009 in The People by Charles Thrasher

Yesterday Moppet died. Linda cried all day and fell asleep crying. So much grief, such a small dog. Today the page is blurred by my tears. I’m slower to respond than Linda; perhaps only one of us can be crazy at a time.

Moppet could no longer stand upright when we took her to the vet the last time, wrapped in a blanket that will forever belong to her. Linda washed her beforehand. She lay in the tub without lifting her head. She was hardly more than bones and beautiful hair. She never weighed more than four pounds when most substantial. She was little more than a whispered breath at the end.

After so many years life becomes welded to life, even the life of disparate species. Sixteen years is a lifetime for a dog and no small part of a human lifetime. The shared times and places form a web of connections that are sundered by death like a storm wind scattering the strands of a spider’s web.

She was a stubborn little dog who consistently failed to recognize her proper size, intimidating much larger dogs that could have ended any debate with a single bite. Four pounds isn’t much weight to throw into a dog fight. It was as if she cast a virtual presence, a shadow much larger than herself. She was most like a Bouncing Betty, a disagreeable little anti-personnel mine made popular during the Vietnam War. Step on one and they would leap from ground level to detonate in your face.

For a lap dog she was surprisingly disdainful of laps nor did she care to be coddled. Perhaps she was true to her genetic coding. Dogs bred to follow rats down their holes shouldn’t be humiliated by cloying familiarity. It takes more bravado than brains to beard a rat in its own den.

She died with her eyes open but unseeing. She seemed incredibly small on the vet’s examination table, diminished by death, her consciousness collapsing into itself like a dark star.

Sixteen years is a long time for a small dog. Near the end she was crippled, blind, deaf, incontinent…and unrepentant. That seems to me a worthy ambition, to be whatever you are without excuse, without apology, and without repentance.

A Mythical Bridge

March 26, 2009 in Mysterium Tremendum, The People, Water by Charles Thrasher

image  Hood Canal Bridge. Photo attribution: timtim 011 on Flickr.com.

The Hood Canal is a narrow body of water extending about 50 miles from its entrance at Foulweather Bluff, past a hard turn to the northeast at The Great Bend, and another 15 miles to the shallow tideland at Lynch Cove. It has an average width of 1.5 miles, a mean depth of 177 feet, 212 miles of shoreline, a surface area of 148 square miles, and it’s spanned by a mythical bridge.

Certainly the Hood Canal Bridge has a concrete reality, not to mention construction. It’s supported by cement pontoons that float, mostly, above a depth of water between 80 and 340 feet, water subject to a tidal range as much as 18 feet. It spans the 7,869 feet between the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas. Together the two spans weigh almost 5,000 tons. You can find all that on Wikipedia. But the bridge floats upon a fjord, has foundered and been refloated, and even its current reconstruction has resurrected the dead.

A Historical Misnomer

image 
Hood Canal Bridge from a distance. Photo attribution: keistersmom on flicker.com.

But first, a bit of background. The Hood Canal was named by Captain George Vancouver, one of the first cartographers to Puget Sound and therefore entitled to name things indiscriminately. Of course, those same things had been named by the people who already lived here but, frankly, they weren’t English. Vancouver named it after Samuel Hood, Lord of the Admiralty and one of Britain’s few competent commanders during the American Revolution. Actually, he named it twice—Hood Canal and Hood Channel. Both were wrong.

Outside of Puget Sound,
bridges rarely float.

A canal is an artificial waterway used either for navigation or transporting fresh water. A channel is typically a navigable passage between larger bodies of water. The Hood Canal was shaped by glaciation utterly without the help of humans. It doesn’t connect one body of water with another. It’s an inlet or, more exactly, a fjord. And a fjord, to restate the obvious, is a valley carved by ice and drowned by the sea. The fact that it’s called Hood Canal has led to some puzzlement in other parts of the world. In Puget Sound, we’ve gotten over it.

Bridges usually soar above an obstruction. Outside of Puget Sound, they rarely float. There is a floating bridge that across Dubai Creek (who knew they had creeks in Dubai?) but it’s temporary. And until 1992, a floating bridge spanned the Golden Horn in Istanbul. But the only other part of the world to make common use of floating bridges is Norway where they have even more fjords than Puget Sound.

Foundering

image The Hood Canal Bridge in a breeze. Photo attribution: Chimacum Joy on flickr.com

The Hood Canal Bridge hasn’t always floated. Eighteen years after it had been launched, it sank in a storm. Sustained winds of 85 mph scoured the Hood Canal. Gusts of 120 mph buffeted the bridge. Pontoons lost their anchorhold and drifted free. Hatches were blown open, pontoons filled with water and sank. The western half of the bridge to the drawspan foundered. It was three years before the damage was repaired. And it’s not the only time a local bridge has sank.

The lifespan of a bridge floating in salt water is longer than that of a Portuguese water dog but less than a Galapagos tortoise. Fewer than thirty years after its resurrection, the bridge builders began building its replacement. In those intervening years the population of Puget Sound has blossomed like pond scum and the industrial waterfront succumbed to gentrification. There was no place near Seattle to build the massive pontoons. Instead, Port Angeles was chosen.

Port Angeles was much further from the Hood Canal than Seattle but had the advantage of poverty. Since the timber industry and commercial fishing had shriveled, there was plenty of waterfront property available in Port Angeles and a desperate desire to utilize it. The people of Port Angeles saw the construction as their bridge to prosperity. But when the construction equipment began clearing away the industrial remnants of the timber industry from the shore of Ediz Hook, they began unearthing bones. Human bones. A lot of them.

Village of the Dead

It was Tse-whit-zen, the ancestral village of the Klallam people occupying the Lower Elwha River. The Klallam had lived on Ediz Hook for generations prior to first contact with Spanish explorers in the 1770s. Then they began to die from smallpox, influenza and measles. They had no immunity, no protection. Entire villages of First Peoples were decimated throughout the Pacific Northwest. In some places there was no one left alive to bury the dead. There may have been 3,200 Klallam before 1770; by 1880 there were 485.

image 
The ruins of Tse-whit-zen. Photo attribution: nwpainter on flickr.com

At Tse-whit-zen, the dead were stacked like cordwood. They embraced one another, husband and wife, mother and child. Among the dead was a mother with an unborn child in her womb. There was no ceremony in their burial. They were hurried into the ground by the few who remained alive but those few may have taken revenge upon the shaman and medicine men who failed them. Skeletons were found beheaded, buried face down, their hands covering their face.

The Washington State Department of Transportation finally abandoned the site have disinterring 335 intact skeletons. The construction equipment fell silent, the workers left, and the dead reclaimed their land. The bridge was built in Tacoma.

A Mythical Bridge

The bridge spans more than the Hood fjord. It’s footed in time as well as space. It guards the western approach to a land that is itself mythical, a land form by the c
ollision of the sea and the shore where mountains rise like stone waves, forests are entangled in cloud, and people hunt whales with clam shells.

25 things…

January 31, 2009 in Signature Stories, The People by Charles Thrasher

There is a craze currently consuming Facebook’s bandwidth called 25 random things about me. The idea is simple. You expose 25 bits of your life history without reference to importance or priority, 25 things that reveal who you are, what you’ve done, how you feel. You then post your list to 25 people you want to know better. Given the popularity of the exercise, I believe Facebook has now limited tagging to 10 people in a single note so really it’s 25 things to 10 people.

Anyway, as an exercise in giddy candor and with complete disregard for my dignity or future employment, I give you my 25 things.

1. An albatross once landed on my head. We were both half asleep at the time. Apparently I was the most likely looking roost within hundreds of miles of ocean. When the albatross realized its mistake, my ears were softly boxed by its 6 foot wingspan as it struggled to gain altitude. It was like being enfolded in the wings of an angle. Fortunately it didn’t poop on my head.

2. When I walk any distance I close my fingers over my thumb, forming a fist. It’s something I learned from Carlos Castaneda and he learned from his mentor, a Yaqui sorcerer named Juan Matus. It actually makes my stride feel more energetic but looks a little weird.

3. In my life I’ve broken arms, legs, wrists, ankles, ribs, fingers, nose, and furrowed my skull—the result of a consuming curiosity or a reckless disregard for reality. I still don’t know which.

4. I believe that, if there is a God, it doesn’t have a human shape, it doesn’t intervene in the lives of men, and it’s driven by one thing only—an insatiable curiosity. The function of God is to endlessly ask “What more?” and remember the answer.

5. When I was a child I was terrified by the film Darby O’Gill and the Little People. For days afterward the screams of the banshee haunted my dreams. Snow White was pretty scary, too. (You don’t think a witch living in a castle of thorns is scary?)

6. During the McGovern presidential campaign, now ancient political history, I registered with the Socialist Labor Party, just short of becoming a communist. After McGovern lost dismally, I no longer registered at all. I was no better at being a socialist than I was at being a democrat.

7. I have an FBI record, first because I was a clerk in a nuclear artillery battalion, secondly because I was discharged from the US Army as a conscientious objector, and finally because I was registered with the Socialist Labor Party. I’ve been something of a disappointment to the FBI.

8. In high school I dated the daughter of an FBI official, the man in charge of the hunt for Angela Davis. (Look her up in Wikipedia. Both John Lennon and the Rolling Stones wrote songs about her.) We never got along well, the father and me, especially when I refused to shave my beard. America, you gotta love it, or leave it.

9. I drove the water truck that filled the quicksand hole on a film with the working title of Black Bart. I had lunch at Slim Picken’s table. Mel Brooks yelled at me through his bull horn to get the damned truck out of the shot. The damned truck didn’t have baffles in the tank. The first hill I hit the water sloshed aft and the front wheels came off the ground. I could spin the steering wheel freely at 35 mph. The film was later renamed Blazing Saddles.

10. I was recruited into the Flag Land Bureau, the governing organization of Scientology, by Suzette Hubbard, the daughter of L. Ron Hubbard. She was a fetching red head. I didn’t last much longer as a Scientologist than a socialist and quietly slipped away in the dead of night. They may still be looking for me. I owe them money.

11. I have never killed a deer in my life but I once rode shotgun with a poacher driving a hefty four-wheel drive madly through the woods at night. My job was to hold the spotlight and keep a lookout for the cops. I could probably fill a list of 25 things with a “wild ride” theme.

12. At one point I owned both a ’49 Chevy Coupe de Luxe and a ’54 Ford pickup with a flathead six and 3-speed overdrive. Neither was restored; both had original equipment. Surprisingly, I wasn’t a collector. I used them for everyday transportation. The Ford didn’t go up hills well and the Chevy’s front wheels tended to ratchet side to side when I hit a pothole. Both were painted an alarming yellow.

13. I went to boot camp in San Diego when I was 14. I lied about my age to join the Sea Cadets. Actually, my father lied about my age. He thought a paramilitary organization would make a man of me. The Sea Cadets were a lot like the Navy but for adolescents. They taught me how to make a life preserver out of my pants, how to smoke unfiltered cigarettes, shirk duty, and swear like a sailor—all served me well in later life.

14. Earthquakes follow me. I survived the San Fernando Earthquake (Los Angles) in 1971, the Loma Prieta Earthquake (San Francisco) in 1989, and the Nisqually Earthquake (Seattle) in 2001. Where I walk the ground trembles.

15. I still haven’t written a novel.

16. I spent a summer living in a camp trailer in the Mohave Desert. There was no air conditioning. When the sun came up like thunder I had 10 minutes to wake up and get out before my blood began to boil and trickle from my ears.

17. I once attended the Renaissance Faire in Los Angeles dressed as a monk in the company of a pregnant nun and a bishop with staff and miter. We carried a goatskin full of wine. By the end of the day we were utterly in character and barely comprehensible.

18. I’ve never met the most influential people in my life. They were writers. All of them are now dead.

19. I believe we must all play the cards we’re dealt by life but some hands are better than others. It’s not the obvious things that determine the strength of your hand, not wealth and privilege, but the things that go unseen, the things that happen to children behind closed doors.

20. I suspect that humanity doesn’t have much time left. What survives will be hardly recognizable to us now but it may be a wiser, more respectful, less arrogant species. Or not.

21. I once lived briefly surrounded by a flock of sheep that were guarded by Basque shepherds and their fierce dogs. At night the coyotes gleaned the flock and barked on my doorstep.

22. I’ve learned you can survive any circumstance except the one you don’t and that one doesn’t much matter. I’ve lived a lot of places, some without money, friends, home, work or prospects and each time I’ve rebuilt my life, one step at a time. That’s a lesson I think a lot of people are going to learn soon.

23. The Doors and the Jefferson Airplane played gigs in my high school gym. Terry Gilliam is our most illustrious alumni.

24. I remember watching the original episodes of Saturday Night Live in a 100 year old house in Marysville, California. The house was built on stilts to accommodate the Yuba River historically flooding the town. You could ride a skate board from one side of the living room to the other without pushing. I was especially fond of John Belushi’s Samurai.

25. I once worked backstage on a college production of The Hobbit. The costumer—a big woman with a mischievous sense of humor and a history of prostitution—sewed a stuffed penis and a pair of balls onto my sleeping bag. She was a clever seamstress. The penis had veins and the balls sprouted hair. She hoped I would invite some woman camping and when I rolled out my bag, the penis would rise like a flag. The cost of thread, stuffing and cloth—a few cents. The look on my face—price
less.

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A Carnivore’s Sensibility

January 12, 2009 in The People by Charles Thrasher

In the last year of the last century, the Makah, an aboriginal people who inhabit the outer coast of Washington, hunted and killed a gray whale from an open boat. The death of that whale ignited a firestorm of opposition. That opposition constellated around three arguments.

  • Lack of necessity
  • Inhumanity of the killing
  • Intelligence of whales

I’ve written elsewhere about choosing your food based upon a sliding scale of self-awareness (see Devouring Intelligence) but I wonder still about what’s humane. Is the pain we inflict an inverse measure of our humanity?

Mind you, I’m not a hunter; I am a carnivore. I live by devouring life. It doesn’t seem to me fair to draw a distinction between animal and vegetable life. I don’t gut and bleed the animals I eat or rip the vegetables from the ground; I pay someone to do that for me. I risk nothing in the hunt; my prey is bred and raised from birth, held captive, often in horrendous conditions, in order to maximize profit per pound. The fact that I’m removed from the bloody business doesn’t make me less culpable. I can’t distance myself from the awful mystery: life consumes life.

Makah_Flensing_Whale 
Makah flensing whale on the beach at Neah Bay circa 1910. Asahel Curtis, photographer.

It seems to me hypocritical to deny our biological imperative. One way or another, we all live by devouring life. In some cultures we even eat each other. Mind you, I’m not recommending cannibalism if for no other reason than the bio-magnification of toxins in predators. My question is whether the pain we inflict on our prey make us more or less humane.

In other words, is the absence of pain our greatest good? And pain for whom, predator or prey?

Web of Indebtedness

The whole food chain is enmeshed in a web of indebtedness. Life feeds upon life. Stockmen and slaughterhouses and chicken farms keep us a safe distance from the blood and the dirt but the debt piles up until it’s too big to pay.

The Makah have been hunting whales since before the birth of Christ, maybe even before the birth of Rome. They stalked whales in open boats until they were close enough to be wetted by the whale’s spout, close enough to kill by hand with a harpoon tipped with clam shell, close enough to be killed by a twitch of the whale’s flukes. They knew there was no fundamental difference between themselves and the whale, that hunter would inevitably become hunted. Life feeds life. They acknowledged the debt; they repaid it with their lives.

The measure of our humaneness is surrendering the separation between ourselves and the world…

The Huichol are another aboriginal people. They live in the Sierra Madre of Mexico. They’re a poor people barely scratching a living from the dirt but each year they walk hundreds of miles to make a sacrifice to the sea. By the time they return to their mountains they’ve eaten all the food they could carry and walked the soles off their sandals. It’s an absurd, painful ritual but the Huichol believe that the world will end if the sacrifice isn’t made. They’re paying the debt for us all.

The measure of our humaneness is surrendering the separation between ourselves and the world and acknowledging our indebtedness to all life. Ultimately it’s not about saving the whales. It’s about sacrificing ourselves.

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Heart of Darkness

November 17, 2008 in The People by Charles Thrasher

There is little that can be said about the short, brutal life of John Tornow with certainty, whether he suffered brain damage from measles as a child, whether he escaped from an insane asylum, or even his actual body count. The firefight in the woods that ended his life precluded a trial. It is certain that his life, and death, captured the imagination of the nation.

Tornow_Cabin The basic story is this. John Tornow grew up near Grays Harbor, Washington, at the end of the 19th century. He preferred living deep in the forests of the Olympic Mountains. The man hunts began when his two nephews were murdered in the woods, each killed with a single shot. There was no evidence that John Tornow was the murderer, no motive, but the men sent to arrest him suffered the same fate and Tornow sealed his own.

The prolonged man hunt for Tornow, the circumstances of his life living rough in the woods, and his uncanny success avoiding capture became the subject of newspaper headlines nationwide. His story has been retold in several books and articles. The post I wrote about him several years ago has generated more comments than any other. (See Wild Man.)

Tornow_Corpse_Tree When they brought his body to the small town of Montesano three days after the gun battle that killed him, a restive crown formed. His family wanted privacy but the crowd would have nothing of it. In 30 minutes 650 people filed past the body; hundreds more were unable to get inside. They would have stripped the corpse of clothing, cut its hair and splintered the plank beneath it for mementos if 30 sheriff’s deputies hadn’t prevented stood guard.

I’ve thought about John Tornow often enough to wonder why. Why is the story of this feral human so compelling? Why did hundreds of people push and shove to be near the body of a man dressed in ragged clothes and burlap who had been dead as long as Lazarus and probably smelled no better? Why has the story been retold so often and still told today?

I think the story is inseparable from the setting. The Olympic Mountains are a place of magnificent wildness within sight of the city streets of Seattle. They are impossibly rugged, mountains thrown into the sky from the collision of tectonic plates when the sea literally crashed into the shore. As the plate bearing the Pacific Ocean subducted beneath the North American plate, the Olympics were scraped from the sea floor and piled into pressure ridges sharp as shards of broken glass. They’re young mountains, the youngest in the continental United States, and still bear the rough edges of youth. On a clear day they can easily be seen from Seattle, their peaks white with glaciers, clouds spilling down the mountains like a stream.

Despite their proximity to civilization, the Olympics remained terra incognita, unmapped until the first expedition successfully crossed their short axis east to west in 1890. The Press Expedition had to hoist their mules up the mountains with block and tackle. Even the aboriginal tribes that inhabited Puget Sound never penetrated further than the foothills. The Olympics remained inaccessible yet within sight.

John Tornow became as wild as the mountains. Loggers going about their uneasy business of cutting down the ancient trees would sometimes turn and see him watching, silent, like a wraith. Hunters following an elk’s trail would discover they were being stalked like prey. His presence was unnerving.

Tornow was a man who had surrendered his civilization. The rewards and restraints that governed the behavior of civilized men no longer applied to him. He couldn’t be cajoled or threatened. He had gone native.

There is a deep, abiding ambivalence in American culture regarding our relationship with wilderness. I suspect we realize that our veneer of civilized behavior is perilously thin. Wilderness reminds us of what we were and what we may become again. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s the promise of freedom from constraint and the threat of brutish violence.

The English in their far flung empire were known for dressing for dinner even in the jungle. It was important for them to polish the veneer of civilization especially when surrounded by so much wilderness. Their greatest fear was “going native.” That fear was captured in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.

John Tornow might parallel Conrad’s character Kurtz but without the moral dilemma. Tornow wasn’t a man tortured by ambivalence. By all accounts he killed without compunction when threatened. But his circumstance, his story, becomes a mythic vehicle for our own uneasy relationship with wilderness—the wilderness that encompasses us without and within.

Bibliography

Beast-man: A historical of John Tornow: hermit, outlaw & murderer on the Olympic Peninsula (1911-1933)
Michael Fredson
Mason Country Historical Society

On the Harbor, From Black Friday to Nirvana
John C. Hughes & Ryan Teague Beckwith
Stephens Pres, LLC 2005

Guilty By Circumstance, The Troubled Life of Northwest Outlaw John Tornow
Ron Fowler

Born Under A Stump, The Life and Legend of Big Bill Hulet
Ron Hulet
iUniverse

Outlaw Tales of Washington
Elizabeth Gibson
Globe Pequot, 2001

Famous Northwest Manhunts and Murder Mysteries
Hollis B. Fultz
1955

Stalking the Oxbow Forest Killer
Earle C. Jameson
1945

The River Pioneers
Ed Van Syckle

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How is a handgun like a seat belt?

October 26, 2008 in The People by Charles Thrasher

The conversation at a dinner party the other night drifted to handguns. I’m not sure whether handguns are a topic typical of dinner parties but it seems typical conversation at the few dinner parties I attend. The host’s young son had just moved away from home and been permitted to carry a concealed weapon.

.357 Magnum, a weapon capable of rendering a wild boar into chorizo at a hundred paces…

357_Magnum Apparently carrying a concealed weapon is the inalienable right of every adult in the state of Washington, other than those with a history of domestic violence, convicted of a felony, or currently wanted by the police. The state’s constitution permits citizens to openly carry a handgun anywhere except where specifically prohibited—Federal buildings, courthouses, schools, airports and such. Bars are also prohibited but churches, shopping malls, and the Issaquah Salmon Festival are apparently appropriate places to promote your personal firepower.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer reported recently that concealed weapon permits jumped 44% between 2003 and 2007. As of September 2007, there are 3,339 people licensed by the state to conceal their ability to exert lethal force.

None of the other dinner guests seemed so intrigued by this bit of conversation or perhaps they were more diplomatic. I couldn’t let it go. I narrowly avoided being so gauche as to ask why their son felt compelled to carry a concealed weapon. Instead, I asked the type of handgun he carried.

“A Walther PPK,” replied the young man’s father. “James Bond’s gun.” The father had recommended a .357 Magnum, his personal choice, a weapon capable of rendering a wild boar into chorizo at a hundred paces. (I missed the opportunity to ask if he carried his concealed .357 to the Salmon Festival.) His son preferred something more stylish than a piece of field artillery. Mind you, these are gentle, deeply religious people, not toothless residents of the periphery with refrigerators in their front yard.

You might use a Walther PPK on a rattlesnake or a rabid coyote but those are targets of little opportunity in Seattle.

“It’s like a seat belt” one woman told the Seattle PI reporter. “Hopefully I’ll never need it.”

How is a handgun like a seat belt? The single purpose of a handgun is neither to deter nor reassure. It’s not even to wound. It’s to kill another human being on command. Sure, you might use a Walther PPK on a rattlesnake or a rabid coyote but those are targets of little opportunity in Seattle. If you’re going to use a handgun, you’re going to use it on someone, not something.

And please don’t think you can use less than lethal force. Only in the movies do they successfully shoot the gun out of the bad guy’s hands. In the real world the police shoot to kill or they don’t shoot at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a conscientious objector. Well, actually I was but mostly I objected to the Vietnam War. My thoughts about personal violence have matured. I own a handgun even if I don’t carry it on my hip to the Puyallup Fair. I keep it at home to defend my wife and, to a lesser extent, my dog. And each time I pull it out of the drawer, I acknowledge that I may have to make the decision in a fraction of a second whether to take another’s life. If you’re not prepared to make that decision and live with the consequences, if you haven’t closely considered the gravity of taking “everything a man’s got and everything he’s ever going to have,” then you’re likely to hesitate when action is required or act when hesitation is wiser: live with the guilt or don’t live at all.

I wonder how many of the 3,339 people licensed to conceal deadly force in Washington state have the gravitas to understand the consequences of their actions before they act? I hope each one.

The Wisdom of William Munny

May 13, 2008 in The People by Charles Thrasher

I sometimes remember the small birds, agile as bats, flitting across the waves so very far from shore. They seemed small enough to nest in the palm of my hand with fingers curled, their wild hearts hammering against my finger tips. In the sudden darkness of the tropics, a darkness that descends without grace, their dark bodies were silhouetted for the briefest instant against the white of breaking waves. They were a flock, wheeling and darting among the waves. They seemed too fragile to survive such immensity. Where did they sleep in a storm?

My neighbor is dying. He asked me to witness his will. I’ve never been invited into his house before; now I’ve watched him put his signature on the disposition of everything he owns. It won’t be long—a year or two—before his will is executed. We’re all dying, of course, but the consensus of medical opinion is that my neighbor has a schedule to keep.

There is a scene from The Unforgiven when William Munny, a man expert at killing, describes to a dime novelist the meaning of death. “You take away everything a man’s got, and everything he’s ever going to have.”

I don’t mean to be maudlin. Years ago Monsanto used the tag line: “Life would be impossible without chemicals.” It would also be impossible without death. But sometimes I think we’re much like those small birds a thousand miles from shore, skirting the edge of a storm.