Archive for the ‘Remembering’ category

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

November 21, 2021

The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, by James Hillman, Ballantine Books, 1996
The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, by Robert Bly, Sierra Club Books, 1986, republished by Harper Collins, 1992
Ensouling Language: On the Art of Non-Fiction and the Writer’s Life, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, Inner Traditions, 2010
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I often have the sense that the part of me that struggles with writing is a self different than the everyday one that goes grocery shopping or the self that tries to charm my wife.  (This latter effort usually fails and all my selves, and hers, have a good laugh about it.)

I think of that crazy man and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in this connection.  Gurdjieff, of Armenian and Greek descent, was born in what was Russia at the time.  He became a philosopher, a mystic, a composer, and a wanderer both geographical and spiritual.   As a spiritual teacher, he used methods including shock, music, dance, and hard labor to induce self-confrontation in his followers.  Although he died just after WWII, his writings and students continued to have influence.  There’s an interesting article from 1979 worth looking at in The New York Times upon the occasion of a preview of the feature film Meetings with Remarkable Men, about his life.  It gives the flavor of the man and his teachings.

Here is a relevant quote from Gurdjieff:

“One of man’s most important mistakes, one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I. … Try to understand that what you usually call ‘I’ is not I; there are many ‘I’s’ and each ‘I’ has a different wish.”

The writer Buster Benson makes a similar observation.  “We are better understood as a collection of minds in a single body rather than having one mind per body.”

(If you want to explore even more down this weird road, into one of the odder varieties of human consciousness, check out the “tulpamancers” described in an article in the journal Narratively.)

So to return to Gurdjieff’s formulation, the wish of my writing self is to conjure with words the closest, truest representations of the world and my experience of it that I can manage.  This is something I inarticulately feel strongly I have to attempt.  The act of trying to do so sets it apart from the rest of my selves, and it becomes a kind of identity.

These three books, each in its own way, have made this aspect of me sit up and take notice. I intend to write a post – part reflection, part review – on each of them after this introduction.

The first, The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, is a book I often came across, years ago, browsing in bookshops, but never really felt attracted to until recently.  Hillman, who died in 2011, was lauded as the most important American psychologist since William James

Deeply influenced by the psychology of Carl Jung, he went beyond it in incisive ways.  He founded a movement called archetypal psychology which, as others have pointed out, would be more accurately described as imaginal psychology, due to the importance he places on the imagination in the formation of our human reality.  His ideas are actually quite subversive to the usual run of thinking about our place in the world.  In The Soul’s Code, he proclaims the primacy in our lives of the “acorn” — all people already hold the potential for the unique possibilities inside themselves, much as an acorn holds the pattern for an oak tree.

The second book, The Winged Life, by the poet Robert Bly, is a commentary and examination of the writings of transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.  “He believed that the young man or young woman should give up tending the machine of civilization and instead farm the soul.”

Bly also refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that older fellow traveler of Thoreau’s, and his understanding: “…All mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball.”  Bly follows Thoreau’s poetic and wide-ranging investigations around the meaning of this metaphor.

The third book, Ensouling Language, by non-fiction author and poet Stephen Buhner, is the one most directly concerned with writing, and what makes it good.  Although the subtitle emphasizes “the art of non-fiction”, the book’s discussion, about how to follow the hints from the deepest parts of ourselves, can apply to any kind of writing, including and especially fiction.

In Buhner’s own words:

“I am and always have been interested in the invisibles of life, those meanings and communications that touch us from the heart of Earth and let us know that we are surrounded by more intelligence, mystery, and caring than our American culture admits of….”

The most common thread uniting the intent and meaning of these books is that of the poet Robert Bly himself.  The author of the book on Thoreau, he is also cited in the other two books, especially that of Buhner’s.  I was fortunate to take in one of Bly’s presentations many years ago, which had an impact that I recounted in a post on “The Shadow,” one of Bly’s preoccupations.  Hillman and Bly both approached psychology from a Jungian perspective (in the broadest sense) and they gave workshops together during the height of the “men’s movement” of the 1980s.

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Robert Bly

A little of his outlook can be gleaned from his statement: “It’s so horrible in high school when they say, ‘What’s the interpretation of this poem?’” He wanted to shake off the intellectualism of “modernism”, as noted by the poet Elizabeth Hoover, in favor of the passion of Spanish poets like Federico García Lorca.

It is sad to know that Bly, now in his mid-90s, is suffering in the last stages of Alzheimer’s (recounted on Buhner’s blog).  As Buhner observes:

“He is greatly missed . . . even by himself. After the Alzheimer’s had taken hold, he once said, after watching a video of himself with his family, ‘I think I would have liked him.’

So, in the near future I will work through these three books in separate posts about what I found meaningful to the writer in me in each one.

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My Book House

April 19, 2021

My Book House, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, 12 volumes, 1937; For My Book House, A Parents’ Guide Book, 1948.
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For those of us who are readers, what we read as children is at the core of who we are and the paths we’ve taken.

I have a dim memory of going as a child to second hand bookstores with my father and mother in Washington state searching for books to take with us to the wilds of northern British Columbia.  This was in the early 1960s.  I was 9 or 10 years old.

Their finds included all the volumes of the famed 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, literature such as Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and the 12-volume set of My Book House, by Olive Beaupré Miller, 1937 edition.  It must have been my mother who insisted on completing the set with the 1948 parents’ guide, since the older grouping didn’t have it.

Inside the front cover of Volume 10

Sixty years on, I still have the My Book House volumes.  It is amazing to hold them – the illustrations are so evocative and bittersweet.  A reminder of a completely different time and place.

The volumes are slender blue books, in this fourth edition, numbered 1 to 12. They very roughly correspond to grade levels in their contents, although the first volume is oriented to much younger children, to be read to them.  Miller was an ardent believer in education for the young, and began these books, originally in a six-volume set in the 1920s, when she found that nobody was providing the graded stories, poems and illustrations she thought important for her daughter and other children.  

Books to grow with

The books were meant to “grow” along with their intended audience.  Early volumes contained nursery rhymes and simple stories and later volumes drew upon Chaucer, Shakespeare and Swift among many other classic writings which Miller adapted.  Sometimes, she wrote the stories herself.  Not only were fables, stories and poetry intended to be read by children, but also to be read by parents to them.  And the illustrations!  The illustrations by well known artists including a book cover by N.C. Wyeth do a wonderful job of creating imaginative space for the stories to dwell in. 

Miller set up a company with her husband to publish these books in Winnetka, Illinois and the first one, In The Nursery, was issued in 1920.  The first six-volume sets were often, as a promotion, enclosed in a small wooden house.  The six were eventually split into 12 thinner books for the benefit of small hands.  An interesting aspect of her publishing company was its staffing predominantly by women, including the sales force.  This was most unusual at a time when women were deemed best suited to staying at home.

The last edition was published in 1971.  Miller had continued to revise her books until her retirement in 1962. She died in Arizona in 1968.

A father’s Grand Adventure

Not only do these books connect me to my childhood and the northern log cabin I grew up in, but in an indirect way to my father.  He died of a stroke a couple of years after he moved his wife and three sons to the pioneering life he imagined and hungered for in the north.  He was only in his mid 40s.  He fought in the Second World War in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, went to university where he met my mother, and dropped out with her to start a family. He worked for years as an architectural draftsman and trouble-shooting machinist, before embarking, his family in tow, on his Grand Adventure.

These books were part of his design for his family (along with serious advice from my mother, without doubt) as he took us to the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia to live on a section of land without electricity, phones or indoor plumbing.  He changed all our lives, and our futures, in a fundamental way and for the better.  We boys were given, on the outside, the gift of wild spaces, and our interiors were furnished by My Book House and all the other books that made the inside of our small cabin seem like a library.  Even my mother, who at first regretted our departure from the States and its amenities, came to love where we made our home.

So these books mean a lot to me.  I’d like to give just a sampling of their content.

Volume 5, Over the Hills, contained stories about Abraham Lincoln, Jack and the Beanstalk, the boyhood of Robert Fulton, and Wilbur and Orville Wright, among others, drawn from many classic sources. 

I think my favorite from this volume though was “Casey Jones, A Song of the Railroad Men.”  It goes: “Fireman says, ‘Casey, you’re running too fast. You ran the block signal, last station you passed.’…”  Then later: “He turned to his fireman said, ‘Boy, you’d better jump. ‘Cause there’s two locomotives that are going to bump!'”

Volume 8, Flying Sails, featured for me “Gulliver’s Travels to Lilliput” adapted from Jonathan Swift.  The accompanying illustrations are marvelous, of Gulliver tied down by many tiny figures.  This volume also included a couple of stories from the Arabian Nights, “The Adventures of General Tom Thumb,” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

In Volume 10, From the Tower Window, we have the story of the Children’s Crusade, “The Home-Coming of Odysseus,” legends of the Round Table, the Spanish tale of “The Cid” and what moved me, for some reason, as a teenager, the tragic “Song of Roland.” 

In this last, retold from the Chanson de Roland, Roland heroically blows his horn, Oliphant, at the end of a great battle to call for relief for his men and himself, only to finally die.

In demand for homeschooling

In an interesting twist to the saga of the long out-of-print My Book House, the volumes, in all their many versions, are in demand as part of the homeschooling movement.  The set, as the Parents’ Guide points out, has 2752 pages of graded selections from over fifty different countries with two thousand illustrations, many in full color. They are a valuable resource for any family, homeschooling or not.

Homeschooling as a movement began in the 1970s as a rebellion against the rote regimented learning of the standard classroom, and has spread in many different directions, from the free school perspective to the evangelical.  But to me, My Book House is ideal as an underpinning for any youngster’s education.  I’m grateful that it was part of mine.

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References:

For more information on My Book House, here are some sites of note:

Winnetka Historical Society

Books In Heat: Books As A Passion

Circe Institute

Arthur Chandler

Plumfield and Paideia

TurtleAndRobot.com

Pam Barnhill

A Novel Is A D-9 Cat

February 19, 2021

Once upon a time, in the north-central part of the province of British Columbia, I worked in a coal mine.

(I will get to the nub of this post encapsulated in the title, but it will take me a little while.)

British Columbia is not particularly well-known for its coal, but in their day coal mines on Vancouver Island and in the north in the Telkwa area supplied home stoves and wider industry too.  At Telkwa where I worked one high-school summer at a small mine in the last half of the 1960s, some coal was hard enough to be considered metallurgical and all types were exported through the port of Prince Rupert in the post-World War II era.  Of course, there are modern-day large coal producers in the eastern part of this province.

But when I went to work at Bulkley Valley Collieries for $1.87 an hour that one summer, the old mine, once underground but now open pit, was barely supplying local coal stove needs.  Most people had wood stoves, and even then coal was considered too dirty for widespread use.  And trees were much more plentiful and accessible than coal.

I was looking for summer work, and we knew Les Hatfield, who hired me on.  Les was a neighbour who lived with his family way back in the woods around Walcott, a barely-there old railroad station on the Bulkley River.

Les was an interesting guy.  In most weather, he liked to wear vests made out of shirts with the sleeves cut off, revealing impressively tanned and muscular arms.  He and his family emigrated from Oregon to the Bulkley Valley not long after our family had done the same from Washington state.  He was an ex-race car driver, in the lower circuits, who claimed that he had once raced alongside A.J. Foyt.  He was a Bible-thumper, obsessive about the Book of Daniel.  He was also a hard-working, genuinely decent man.

So Les – Mr. Hatfield to me – hired me on at the coal mine for 10-hour days when he ran things for the manager for awhile.  He seemed to love to work outdoors and with machinery. At least those were the jobs easily accessible to him, whether in logging or mining.

The mine could only support a few workers at that time.  So mainly it was Les and me, occasionally his son Terry, whoever up on the hill was excavating coal with machinery – often Les no doubt – and an old German guy with a nose like a potato who was my immediate boss.

At the coal mine years before the conveyor belt there was a track for underground workings.. I identify with that guy with the smudged face.

The coal mining worked as follows.  An excavator would claw coal out of the ground well up in the foothill surrounding the mine buildings below.  That coal would be dropped in a waiting dump truck, which then trundled a ways down the hill to deposit its load on the top of the widely spaced iron grill of a large hopper.

My mission, which I accepted, was to then use a heavy pick to break up the large pieces of coal so that they could pass through the approximately eighteen-inch squares of the grid, and fill the hopper.

The other part of my job, after dealing with the truck load, was then to race below under a long canopy covering a conveyor belt where the old German fellow sat next to the hopper outlet.  I remember him as being extremely grumpy.  He plucked out pieces of clay and dirt from the coal as it passed by on the slow-moving conveyor.  He gruffly pointed out my mistakes as I occasionally missed a clump of clay covered with coal dust.

It was a job, but not one I particularly liked.  The 10-hour days seemed to go on forever, although Les would usually drive me home to our cabin on the way to his more remote farm.

One day, I think he must have taken pity on me during a lull in production.  The mine had a monster of a bulldozer, a D-9 cat, rarely seen in our environs down below.  For some reason, probably for Les to work on during a weekend, it sat at the beginning of the long gravel grade leading past the hopper and up the hill to the coal face.  Les explained he needed to go up and clear off overburden so the excavator could get at the coal.  We were going to “walk” the machine up.

A D-9

He climbed on and fired it up with a roar, the cover of the diesel stack fluttering as black smoke puffed and belched.  He beckoned me over.  It was too noisy to talk, but he gestured me on board.  The 49-ton machine seemed huge, its tank-like tracks a chest-high hurdle to climb up over and into the covered cab.

We started to move slowly, in an amazingly loud cacophony, grinding over the gravel, Les at the controls.  Walking was an apt metaphor.  I could have jumped off and kept up easily.

I have a vague recollection of the controls, but there was no steering wheel, just a collection of vertical and horizontal metal sticks to grab — clutches and throttles, chokes and hydraulics.  Les had me turn the beast by standing on one of the track brakes, like a car brake, but on either side of the operator’s seat.  This enormous clanking pile of metal, smelling of oil and iron and diesel smoke moved up-slope.  It was fun, but too soon it was back to breaking big ones into little ones again at the hopper.

So, a novel is like a D-9 cat?  Really?  It struck me, as I got 8000 or so words into the first draft of this second science-fiction effort that a novel is a bulky, clanking thing.  A bit of a behemoth to even think of directing.  Lots of moving parts with an uncertain driver at what he thinks are the controls.  The shaking noise of it like thoughts banging around about characters, and plot, and meaning.  It moves at a slow speed, unduly slow it seems often as the operator strains to get to the imagined sweet terrain ahead.

Or perhaps the process of a novel is more like what that lone teenager did, trying to keep balance on crossing metal struts, swinging that pick up and smashing down into the large pieces of coal.  Getting into the nitty-gritty of each scene, emerging finally with a smear of hard-earned dust on a forehead.  Maybe it’s like that.

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In Praise Of Westerns

May 8, 2020

Here in the midst of our Covid time, I am on my own, since my wife is stuck in China (fortunately in good health).  This is not necessarily bad, as I am a solitary sort, and thus there are few people coming upon me to randomly scatter virus.

In the evenings, after I work on development of a second novel, I like to watch DVDs from a collection accumulated mostly by happenstance.  I’m watching most of them for at least the second time, and it’s remarkable how much I’ve forgotten about each one!

Lately I’ve focused on westerns for some reason, and they make me think about my own history and that of the genre.  The four movies I’m going to pay attention to here are: Appaloosa (2008), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Little Big Man (1970), and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006).

Back in the ’60s

Along with my mother and two younger brothers who loved to play cowboys and Indians, we lived in 1960’s rural north-central British Columbia in a log cabin. We had almost unlimited space to imaginatively populate the trees, creek and hillocks with what we saw on TV and the occasional movie.

After my father died, our little household was more or less adopted by a huge-hearted neighbour family.  The older I get the more unusual I realize their caring was.

maxresdefaultAlmost every Sunday, and often other days during the week, my mother would drive the four of us up the narrow dirt driveway to the neighbour’s house on a rise above the highway.  We were always there to watch Bonanza with the Cartwrights just after we all finished Sunday dinner.

Westerns on TV

Westerns were the most popular genre on TV.  Other shows we boys watched with great enjoyment whenever we could (at our cabin we had no electricity and no TV) included Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Virginian, Daniel Boone, and especially, for me, Maverick.

Maverick starred James Garner. To see the wiseacre gambler, mildly larcenous with a hidden good heart make his way amidst the dust and guns of the West, often playing off Jack Kelly as his brother, greatly appealed to me.  It was in some ways the same kind of role that Garner would perfect as the reluctant hero in the much later detective drama The Rockford Files.

It reflects changes in American culture that Gunsmoke was the longest running prime-time TV series of all time until it recently lost out to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, an urban police drama about disturbing sex crimes.  (Which is very good in my estimation: the acting and the writing are top notch.  But still… my mother would never have let us watch it if it had been around. For that matter, it would have been impossible for that show to even be on TV then.)

At the end I would like to touch again on this contrast.

So here I am with my four movies of interest.  They are all from a later era than the TV glory days, but hearken back in varying degrees.  All of them, it turns out, are about male friendship, even Little Big Man, that older movie of the four.

Appaloosa

indexThis is the most traditional western of the four to me in tone, character, and wonderful cinematography. But the set-up is not so usual: it is that of two itinerant lawmen who travel the west hiring themselves out to pacify lawless towns.

The two men played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen have been doing this for 12 years and know each other well.  Appaloosa is the town they come to, and due to a rogue rancher tyrannizing the place, the two are hired by the frightened town fathers.  They promptly and rather dictatorially take over and put things right.

Of course, a woman comes between the two men, interestingly portrayed by Renee Zellwegger, and although the friends eventually resolve that, there are the standard confrontations with the bad guys and final justice done.

Ed Harris also directed the film, and it is amazing to me how he fulfills that role and acts with such focus at the same time.  (This is similar to the equally impressive Tommy Lee Jones taking on both jobs in The Three Burials….)

3:10 to Yuma

yumaThis is more modern in tone, directed by James Mangold, with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the lead roles.  Appropriately enough, it is a remake of a decent western from more than 50 years ago.

Crowe, who plays a masterful and murderous outlaw leader, is captured. A poor dirt farmer played by Bale, takes on the duty, after everybody else is too scared, to shepherd Crowe to a trailhead and thus off to prison and a death sentence.  Bale needs the reward money.

Crowe is an outlaw with a nihilist philosophy, but he is smart enough to have a philosophy in contrast to the men he leads.  He has become, almost despite himself, a student of human nature.

It is hard for Bale’s character to explain to either himself or his family how he has ended up in such a dangerous enterprise.

The two men slowly discover with some shock that they can make themselves understood to each other.

Peter Fonda is in the mix as a Pinkerton bounty hunter, and along with nasty henchmen from Crowe’s gang, they up the violence quotient.

But in the end, the heart of the story becomes the unlikely respect that forms between the two leads.

Little Big Man

little bigI first saw this in a movie theatre in 1970, and a couple more times over the years since.  Dustin Hoffman is in the title role as the 121-year-old lone white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand.  The movie begins with the aged Hoffman, in amazing make-up, in an old folks home telling the story of his life to an interviewer.

The movie, directed by Arthur Penn (also known for Bonnie and Clyde), shifts from sincere to satirical and back again.  Hoffman relates and the movie shows the lengths he went to for survival as settler, adopted Cheyenne brave, gunfighter, medicine show spieler, cavalry scout, hermit and drunkard.

In its serious aspect, the movie is a meditation on the continuous betrayal of native Indians by an expansionist and merciless white culture.  The massacres shown of Indian villages brings this home.

But where the movie shines for me is the warm portrayal of the Cheyenne chief, Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George.  He is the father figure, and the friend, where Hoffman’s character finds his spiritual home.

Towards the end of the movie, General George Armstrong Custer, played by Richard Mulligan, arrives with his golden locks and his megalomania.  I’m sorry to hit this note, but he resembles no one so much as Donald Trump.  (The calamitous stupidity demonstrated in this very short video, is entirely emblematic and parallel to Custer’s portrayal here.)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

51RKF1m8EnLThis has become one of my favorite movies, of any genre.  It is authentically a western, although it is set in modern times, in Texas and Mexico.  Hey, it’s got horses, guns, desert, and a laconic hero!  And it has a profound sense of hard bitten decency in the midst of the wasteland of modern life that hearkens to the best of what westerns have to offer.

As noted above, Tommy Lee Jones stars in and directs this tragic tale, which also ends with redemption of a sort.

The beginning of the movie is non-sequential in places and confusing until you realize the scenes are spiralling toward the tragedy at its core.

Melquiades Estrada, played by Julio Cedillo, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who rides into Texas on his horse one day and asks for work from a small rancher outside a small town near the border.  Pete Perkins, played by Tommy Lee Jones, takes him on, and they become fast friends.  Estrada tells Jones’ character of his wonderful family and the little village he comes from in Mexico, and makes Jones promise to return his body there if he should die.

Estrada is shot and killed by mistake by an angry and lost young Border Patrolman, played with impressive intensity by Barry Pepper.  Pepper buries him to hide his mistake, but the body is found.  The town’s sheriff has the body relocated to the local cemetery. The sheriff has no sympathy for illegal immigrants and ignores anything that implicates the Border Patrol.

Jones’ character is pushed over the edge by this, and kidnaps Pepper at gunpoint.  This turn of events caught me by surprise.  Jones throws over everything to keep his promise to his friend.  He makes Pepper dig up the moldering body, and the two men and a cadaver take off towards the border and Mexico on horseback.

I have to mention the Texas small town.  It’s like places, I’m sure, all over North America, but the arid southwest highlights the arid emotional life portrayed here.  Everyone seems lost, desperate, alienated, without any centre to their lives, so they indulge in drinking or adultery or pornography or mindless violence.  Both the sheriff and Jones commit adultery with the aging wife of the local cafe owner. Pepper’s too pretty wife gives up on him and leaves.

Meanwhile, on the way to the destination in Mexico, Pepper tries to escape from Jones, but is brought painfully to heel.  Adventures ensue.  They fill the corpse with antifreeze so it doesn’t rot too badly.  They find a lonesome blind old man in the middle of the desert, played by the wonderful Levon Helm (of The Band fame).

Finally, they arrive at where Jones was told he should go by his friend, and finds that most of it was a lie, perhaps to make it seem like the man had a fuller life than he did.  There is no tiny village of the name Jones was given.  The wonderful family doesn’t exist.

Pepper has been a hard ass all the way along, unrepentant yet slowly breaking down from the rigors of the journey.  Jones has been tough on him.  They find a ruined house which Jones decides must be the site of the third burial.  He orders Pepper to apologize to the corpse for what he did, and when Pepper resists fires his gun at him several times, but deliberately misses.  Pepper finally breaks down completely and apologizes fervently for the wrongs he’s committed.  Jones looks on approvingly, and leaves him there, riding off on his horse, leaving Pepper with a few words that capture the moment, and their humanity, roughly: “You’re free to go, son.”  Pepper calls out after him, asking if Jones will be okay.

I’ve spent some words on this because for me the movie captures an existential truth of the human condition: we are alone, but the meaning we create is with each other.

Tommy Lee Jones’ later movie The Homesman, a kind of mid-western about women’s madness and early settlers in Nebraska, also has this feeling of apprehending difficult truth about the human situation.

Reflection

Viewing from Canada the decline of American society in recent years, I’ve formed an opinion about some of what has happened.  Watching movies like these and remembering the many westerns once on TV has reinforced it.

The shift away from westerns reflected the cultural centre of gravity moving from ranches, farms and small towns to the ever expanding large cities with all their opportunities and excesses.  Despite all the modern conveniences though, alienation from the land and from each other is rampant.  When a community of people depend on the land and its fruits, and each other, you cannot, for instance, be caught up in perpetual hateful political discourse.  You have to be neighbours.

The entertainment sought and offered also is part of the cultural environment, of course.

Given that westerns could be silly with their stereotypes of black hats and white hats, bad Injuns and good ones, of solving problems by violence, yet their essence often was that of a kind of morality play.  They modelled men, usually, striving and succeeding through honesty, decency and courage.

Men need that kind of modelling, especially.  Women tend to be more rooted in the everyday necessity of such values.  Men become distracted from them too easily.

I apologize for my sweeping generalizations, yet….

To me the demise of the western in popular culture was the beginning of the end of the American dream.

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Four Guys Living On the Telkwa High Road

March 7, 2020

When I returned to the Bulkley Valley after completing journalism school, it was an act of failure.

I’d sent resumés to so many newspapers across Canada, most of the dailies, from my student room near the University of Western Ontario, in London.  (It’s a great old-style university by the way, which doesn’t get that much recognition.)

But nary a peep in response.  In the early seventies there was a downturn in the economy just as I finished school. I often gave that as my mumbled excuse.

Hudson Bay Mt at SmithersBack I came to the Bulkley Valley in northern British Columbia, with its far-off mountains running up close to loom over the small town of Smithers.  The just-off-Main-Street Hudson Bay Mountain towered, its glacier and ski-runs gleaming in the sun.

My home, the home of my heart, a log cabin where three boys and their widowed mother all grew up, lay 20 miles or so farther east from the Town of Smithers, out past Telkwa and Quick to what we called Deep Creek in those days.

After my disappointment at the lack of clamoring for my services, I returned to the home place.  But all the available work seemed to be in Smithers, so I took a room there.

I found employment as a Child Care Worker at the Ministry of Human Resources or whatever its name was then, for the provincial government.  Child Care Workers were a definite step down from Social Workers’ positions, but that was the best I could do with just a psychology degree (prior to the journalism diploma, don’t you know).

Not quite sure what to do with me, the ministry put me in charge of the town’s teenage drop-in centre.  This was basically a two-room shack at the edge of a park a few blocks from the centre of town.

Provider of life wisdom

Of introverted and easily annoyed character, I was not really the best type to ride herd while distributing life wisdom to boisterous, even out-of-control young bucks.

There were a few girls drifting about, but most who frequented the drop-in were guys.  They were mainly there for the ratty pool table and the rock music emanating from a worn but nicely loud phonograph system.  One of those combo phonograph and AM-FM radio furniture units. The high-decibel band Nazareth was a big favorite.

At 23 years old, I was only seven, eight years older than these kids.  And, like, I’m really mature.  And I was supposed to do what with these juvenile delinquents?

I want to write more about them someday, but I’m trying to get to the Telkwa High Road!

Telkwa High Road 1Let me give you a brief layout.  Highway 16 runs its ribbon of asphalt two-lanes roughly east and west.  West to Prince Rupert.  East to Prince George. In our most frequented part of that road, we’d drive through the rolling terrain of trees and farms and fields, from Quick up over to Telkwa, where the Telkwa and Bulkley Rivers combine, than through that brief dip in the road to Smithers.  If you kept going for quite a few hours, you’d run into Terrace and eventually the sun setting over the port of Prince Rupert.

Heading towards Smithers, turn right in downtown Telkwa to get on what we called the Maclure Lake Road.  Maclure or Tyee Lake lies close above Telkwa.

And that’s the start of the Telkwa High Road, so-called because it parallels Highway 16 at an upland altitude, from Telkwa across various Babine Lake Roads and keeping on well past Smithers to the native village of Moricetown, famous for the precariousness of the old-time fishermen spearing salmon from the cliffs of its narrow river canyon.

At one turn along the way, you can head off to Driftwood Canyon and its 50-million year old fossils of redwood and gingko, ichneumon wasps and prehistoric trout and salmon.

Since the High Road ran in the uplands, often the views at sunset or from certain over-the-valley vistas opened onto a magnificence of sky and mountains and weather.

A farm on the High Road

In that year of my discontent as the manager of the drop-in center, I joined three other fellows roughly in my age group as we rented a farm on the Telkwa High Road above Smithers.

We only rented the farmhouse.  The outbuildings and barn were there, but not for our use.

The four of us knew each other from the ministry social circles in town, or from parties, or through my mother who was deep in the social whirl.  Two, Eric and Ron, were social workers.  Rick was a slightly younger guy with long black hair who mostly went to parties, played guitar and tried to charm the ladies.  He was an ingratiating and probably smart young man, doing what he wanted to do, and the other three of us weren’t that picky, we kind of liked him, and we needed somebody to share the rent.

One of the social workers I think had the relationship with the farmer which enabled the rental, and we found ourselves living in this ramshackle farmhouse on a knoll overlooking wide sloping fields of hay.

All four of us seemed to be between girlfriends or in dysfunctional relationships.

I had a broken down car of some kind. I commuted from the farmhouse to the drop-in centre every weekday, a 10-15 minute drive.

Memories

I remember two things the most from our time there.  One was the great parties we managed to have.  I’m not really a party guy, but the four of us worked together to put on these shindigs.  The music was loud and rocking, and that was my department.

R.Watts; Telkwa High Road, Bulkley Valley, Prince George Region, BcAt one of these parties, I remember in late afternoon walking towards the barn with a group of people, smoking a variety of substances.  I remember discussion of cocaine, which at that time in the early seventies was often considered innocuous, its addictive qualities thought to be exaggerations by the anti-marijuana crowd.  There was no cocaine at this party, that I knew about anyway.  But I find its mention interesting because although we lived far, far away from the centers of anything, in a rural place called a High Road, we were still connected to the impact of distant North American culture.

The other prominent memory I have, which still makes me grin at our youth and interests, were the tense team chess sessions the four of us had, while smoking whatever strong weed young Rick came across.

Ripped out of our minds, somehow we could really focus on these games.  In teams of two we debated and bickered with each other about the next move, while giving the other team the gears about the quality of their previous one.  Occasionally we would separate and whisper so our devious plans could not be overheard and then we would return to the table, confident.

We very formally recorded each move under our names and the date.  I wish I had just one of those old game scores.  That would be fun to play over….

Of course, sometimes we didn’t complete the games, distracted by animated discussions or just wanting to chill with the rock music we all liked.  Pink Floyd’s Meddle was often played.

A dream fragment

Oh, there’s one other memory, almost like a dream fragment.  It was a golden summer afternoon, late in our sojourn at the farmhouse, just before I found a job as a reporter/photographer with the town’s weekly newspaper.  I read a book while propped up on the mowed lawn. I listened through speakers brought outdoors to the Beatles’ Abbey Road album.

Eric, the cooler one of the pair of social workers, came and sat outside not far away, and listened too.

My favorite part of the album is the second half of the second half, from “Golden Slumbers” onward.  I put down my book.

Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home

Boy, you’re going to carry that weight, carry that weight a long time

And in the middle of the celebrations, I break down

On to the drumming and guitar solos of “The End” which always electrify me and then the song glides quietly onto

The love you take
is equal to the love you make

My companion rose up and against a leg dusted the wide-brimmed hat he always wore.  “That will last.”

We shared a moment, with that music, and then I agreed.

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