(or other places to find my writings from the mundane to the supermundane)
The Magic of Yellowstone
A sample of Jim's writings
Buffalo Allies of Bozeman
- Name: Jim Macdonald
- Location: Bozeman, MT, United States
Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.
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I have been coming to Yellowstone for 22 years, and what strikes me about my writings related to those early times
was just how scared I was of everyone around me. While there are so many ways that the boy I was became a large part of the man that I am, there are many significant ways where I diverged and became a much stronger and confident person. Looking backward, I can point to moments in my life that built, one stone at a time, the man that I've become.
One word we use for being scared is petrified, which literally means being turned to stone. Now, I did not literally turn to stone, though there are moments in my life that image would come to mind
. My lack of confidence and assertiveness were so paralyzing at times that I might as well have been a rock. When I came to Yellowstone, I had never had a girlfriend or been on a date, and I felt incompetent in the work environment. One reason I had trouble finding work was that I was scared to look for it, afraid that I would be humiliated by the experience, much as I was during my first work experience at age 16. Now, there were plenty of areas where I had confidence - school, athletics, and (strangely enough) public speaking and acting - but in the aspects of being human where there was no script, I had great difficulty acting the part while staying true to my sense of morality. It was hard to know how to be myself as a non-drinker, non-smoker, non-drug user, spiritual, politically radical young adult who cared about the world and really wanted to do good, all while overcoming plenty of shortcomings, especially as it related to applying all those high ideals into knowing how to care for people. I always felt different and tended to have a bad judgmental streak toward others. It all contributed to this deep paralysis inside me - as if even if I did my best with social interactions, I was bound to fail - isn't that the lesson I always drew from rooting for my favorite, perpetually failing Cleveland sports teams
Life provides many opportunities to find our footing, to grow, and therefore to show that we are in fact living flesh and bone - rather than stone. Over the years, I have fortunately seized many of those opportunities to find my footing and therefore become a happy father, a loving mate, an adventurous soul, an activist organizer and leader, a writer, a dancer, and a baker. However, most importantly, I also learned how to be a friend - that is, someone who can help others find their footing and that sense of safety.
One moment that I look back to on that path occurred in the summer of 1994 during my second summer working in Yellowstone.
Many things happened to me that summer - the first of which being a brief romance with a young woman whom I still consider my first girlfriend, though it lasted only six incredibly riveting days. It may have been only six days, but a lot changed in me from that moment on. I knew I could be wanted that way by someone, could have incredibly romantic experiences (imagine cuddling all night on a geyser boardwalk as elk bugle and as thermal water steams and sizzles around you - imagine if that were the location of your first kiss). After that, I knew that life had a lot more to offer me.
One smaller event may have been just as significant in its own way; it was only a brief moment on a hike that otherwise proved to be unsuccessful. However, I think that moment helped set the stage for becoming the man I have worked so hard at being.
In 1994, my hiking companion and I attempted to discover Yellowstone's petrified forest. I re-journeyed that same hike only two days ago.
I did not know then as I know now that "Yellowstone's petrified forest" is a misnomer in a lot of ways - one being that the Yellowstone area does not simply have one petrified forest. It has many areas with petrified trees, so many in fact that I have heard that there are more than what you find in the famed Petrified Forest in Arizona.
Another distinguishing fact over the more famous Arizona "forest" is that - unlike Arizona's - Yellowstone's actually have many standing petrified trees. Yellowstone has so many marvels like this, honestly, that are incredibly spectacular but go largely unnoticed because Yellowstone simply has so many volumes of wonders that many that would be the pride of entire states go largely anonymous here.
The anonymity, though, of Yellowstone's petrified forests has a much more obvious reason. The Park Service would rather you not know that these trees exist because people often have taken the petrified wood for themselves. Anyone who has driven through the northern part of Yellowstone near Tower Junction surely has seen the sign for the famous petrified redwood tree (no, there are not living redwoods in Yellowstone). What many may not realize is that there used to be other petrified trees at this spot that were subsequently stolen. After so much vandalism of petrified wood, the Park Service is loathe to admit to tourists that the forests exist, and you will not find a trail marked telling you where to find them. A woman I met on the trail to the trees said that she could get no information either from rangers or from workers in the concessionaires about the trees.
Yet, once one discovers that there are petrified trees, and standing trees at that, and that they are more impressive than what you will find at Petrified Forest National Park, how can you not want to go see some of them for yourself? That they are hidden and hard to find makes it all the more exciting. We were always meant to eat that forbidden fruit, weren't we? How would we ever grow up in our relationships if we did not? Only as we grow up do we understand better.
In 1994, I set out to find the petrified forest with my hiking companion, Sarah.
Sarah - I came to believe later - developed a crush on me. She was an odd girl to say the least. One might have actually thought she might be the petrified person of the story, as her personality was unusually and almost fiercely blank. She was someone who did not express emotions, particularly happy ones. I do not remember Sarah joking or smiling; she willfully tried to convince the world that she was devoid of any warmth in her personality, that she was essentially a machine. She was from England, and it is rather strange to hear an English accent with no sense of feeling in it. For some reason, I took enjoyment in hanging out with her. It's not that she was mean or angry or particularly rude (though she may have had her moments), it's that she simply - to a comic extent - refused to take down the wall that would allow for normal conversation. Because I had some unusually successful social relationships that summer, I was far less shy than normal. So, I took to hanging out with Sarah and her coworkers and would almost tease Sarah relentlessly trying to show her that I saw cracks in her stony demeanor. That I enjoyed her company despite how she was, cracks did show. I was finally able to get her to smile at times; consequently, she willingly accompanied me when I would go for one of my many drives to somewhere else in the park.
Let me share one small anecdote about Sarah to illustrate her eccentric behavior. Once - to my shock - she nonchalantly and without warning decided to take off her clothes and change while I was in the room; I turned my head so fast that I saw nothing. At the time, I thought it might be some cultural difference that women from England were comfortable changing in front of men. I learned later from an English female friend who claimed that was definitely not the case.
Anyhow, I enjoyed my strange friend, though I never thought of her romantically in the least - it's hard for me to connect that way with someone who is so difficult to have a normal conversation with.
One day, I invited her to go hiking with me to Yellowstone's petrified forest, after learning something about its general location.
Now, if you think I'm going to tell you where it is, you are mistaken. You can surely find that information elsewhere, but I am not going to turn this story into a trail guide - my own protective instincts are at work, the same ones I was about to discover I had even then.
When Sarah and I began the hike, the key moment happened almost immediately. As we were hiking, about 150 yards away, a large herd of bison were heading in the opposite direction crossing the main road. Sarah already was becoming uncharacteristically nervous, and this was surprising from a woman who had expressed to me in her bland demeanor that she had no care of whether she was alive or dead. At that moment, I found myself calmly telling her just to keep hiking and that we would be fine. Then, the last buffalo in the herd - a big bull - turned toward us, his body directly facing us. Sarah began to panic - she was shaking and asking me in a panicked voice what we should do. Now, how was I supposed to know what we were supposed to do? Did she think that I'd ever had a buffalo make what appeared to be a threatening gesture in my direction while I was on the trail? She was every bit as qualified as me in that moment to know what we were supposed to be doing. And nothing up to that moment in life had shown me that when push comes to shove, I wouldn't have been just as petrified as she was becoming in that moment.
However, I could see very clearly that Sarah needed me to lead in that moment, to be calm, to protect her, to protect us, and to provide safety. In that moment, for lack of a better way of putting it, she needed me to be a man - and not the indecisive and scared boy I often was. There was no script here. I had no idea what to do. Yet, in that moment, I did not hesitate. I immediately said to Sarah, "Keep hiking. If we keep hiking, we will get to the big rocks up ahead and can shield ourselves if he decides to charge us." She was almost paralyzed by fear - it was audible; this rock of a person had turned almost to tears, and was panting heavily. I had never seen anything like this transformation. But, I was the one really being transformed in a small way in that moment. I was able to get her to move, to keep walking, to keep her calm enough to keep moving and to trust me, to tell her that we were going to be fine, but that we just had to keep moving.
Now, as you might imagine, a buffalo from that far away is just making sure that we were no threat. There never was any real danger here. Eventually, he turned around and ran off to catch up with the herd. That herd, by the way, was amazing to watch. I saw one of them just run almost as if taken by joy at full speed. I had never seen a buffalo run at 30 mph until that day, and wow was it a sight to behold.
What I'm getting at here, though, was that I discovered something really important about myself - that in a moment where someone needed me to be strong, to be their rock, I could be that rock. I would not be petrified, and yet I would be their rock. Time and many events allowed that to be more consistent and not simply require a moment of crisis for that instinct to come out of me. Yet until that moment, I do not think there ever was a case where I was called upon to protect. However, in that moment, I did so without blinking. It has happened repeatedly throughout life - as I had to act when people would attempt suicide in my presence, or as I had to come to the aid of people who were injured or bleeding, or as I had to keep groups together in scary street protest situations facing antagonistic police officers, or as I found myself doing in numerous other situations. Here was a simple moment, but it began to teach me at least as much about myself as I had learned in discovering that I could have spectacularly romantic moments.
The rest of the hike was much more relaxed, even if ultimately unsuccessful. We found ourselves up on a ridge, and there was a man giving a tour and looking over a petrified log turned on its side, which was pretty cool. I asked him where we might find the forest, and he pointed to some trees and said something about the direction we should take. In the end, we climbed a lot and ended up on the top of a mountain with a great view of Mount Washburn, but we never saw anything else.
I didn't discover a petrified forest that day, but it was not lost on me that the event at the bottom of the mountain was significant. Though truthfully, I was as struck by the rare showing of emotion that Sarah showed me as by anything I had learned about myself. I used that knowledge to tell Sarah repeatedly that I knew that beneath her facade of stone, she was hiding a beautiful woman.
I may have accidentally laid that on too thick because when I left Yellowstone that summer and went back to college, one morning Sarah called me from Boston. This was shocking in itself because I had not heard from Sarah since leaving the park. Then, she proceeded to tell me in her normal nondescript voice that her hotel was on fire - at that very moment - and that she'd been evacuated from her room and had almost none of her things. You'd have thought it happened ten years ago by the tone of her voice. What's more, I was the first person in the world she thought to tell this information - not to her family, not to anyone back in England, but to me. I think it was that very moment where I realized, "Uh oh. She likes me." And, that's when I failed, and I became scared, and looking back, wow did I have a long ways to go to grow up into manhood. She wrote me letters in the following months that I would not even open - that's how uncomfortable I felt about not having similar feelings. Whatever I had gained from being there in a moment on the trail, you can see that there are many ways I was still far too small of a person. Who I am now would never shy from that moment, from that emotional reality, from any uncomfortable emotional situation where feelings did not quite match. Perhaps, I learned something from that failure, too. Sarah, if you see this for some reason, I am sorry, and I hope that you have found your own way into being the lovely woman I know you could become. Likewise, I want to thank you for unwittingly playing a small part in me becoming the man I am today.
Anyhow, a couple days ago, I returned to this trail searching for the petrified forest of Yellowstone.
I cannot enumerate all the ways I am different now, but this is what comes to mind. I chose to take this hike by myself, now 21 years older and with many life dramas leading me to this point - but happy to be hiking by myself and not the least bit concerned about whether I'd find what I was looking for. This is not to say that romance is dead in me, far from it - it's stronger than ever. What I am saying is that I am happy and content and strong in my own company. When people express to me worries about hiking alone, I smile and largely feel unconcerned or unworried about it. Yet, I take far more precautions and am far more prepared for what is about to face me. I had a good sense of where I was going, what I might face, and what I'd do if I faced it. All I'm saying is that though in some ways I feel like we are always growing up, I did feel like a grown man on the trail, and that's a very good feeling.
This time, when I set out to hike, there were no buffalo near me at the beginning of the hike. Things were not entirely as I remembered them. The boulders were there, but some of the memories of where things were get jumbled up with dozens and hundreds of other hikes through the years. All I could see was that I had to go up.
One thing that occurred to me when I was hiking was that I might have always suffered under an illusion. It was like a eureka moment that really helped me in the end find what I was looking for. I had always heard there was no trail to the petrified forest; what I should have realized was that there was no marked trail to the petrified forest. Of course, there would be a trail. And, when I disabused myself of that falsehood, all I had to do was discover the trail while keeping an open eye to any stand that looked like it might be a small stand of petrified wood.
The day was beautiful; a partly cloudy and cool day that soon felt hot as I climbed and climbed up the steep trail. I kept moving slowly and steadily up just wondering what I'd find, thinking back a lot on what I shared here. Yes, it was all present to me. How could it not be? I would meet a couple on the trail from Eureka, California (didn't I just use eureka in the last paragraph) who asked me if I'd ever been on the trail. I didn't hesitate to answer that I had tried the trail 21 years ago; it did not feel that long ago except when I think about all the many events of my life that have happened between these hikes. Writing this essay was on my mind, wondering where it would go. It was already just following the script that it has so far - I'm climbing and thinking of burning hotels and how to explain Sarah and how the play on the idea of "petrified" would become part of my writing.
Yet, things do go off script, thank goodness! Things happen that add to the experience and do not quite fit the script, things that we must live and react to. I climbed out of one stand of trees, and I saw a pronghorn antelope. He or she saw me, and then stared at me, and I couldn't see behind him or her. I wondered if she - perhaps - had a baby nearby, because this antelope was not going away and was right on the trail. I was thinking that the antelope seemed strangely big - when you see them from your car, they look so tiny. I was also thinking that if this animal decides it has young to protect, I don't stand a chance since pronghorn can run 60 mph. I once was bluff charged by an elk, where I immediately threw my body between the charging elk and my son as well as his mother, and that was pretty scary. However, knowledge told me it would be absurd to be charged by a pronghorn, even if this one did not seem to show the slightest bit of fear. So, I shook my head, laughed, and walked around off trail as the pronghorn decided to eat.
You can tell animals in Yellowstone are not accustomed to being hunted because this is pretty strange behavior by a wild animal in the presence of a human. Did he/she just say to himself/herself, "He smells like a vegetarian"? Or, perhaps, the animal just knew that I clearly meant no harm and could sense my guilt for disturbing breakfast.
That really struck me as I continued hiking - this idea that though I'm reliving my own rite of passage into manhood - that this mountain is home every day to all kinds of animals and plants that simply live without paying heed to some greater symbolism. It's a place to eat, sleep, survive. Soon, I saw a caterpillar on the ground just inching away, and it was remarkable to me that it probably had no concept on any of the things that draw people to this place.
This goes off script - I do not know how to tie it neatly to the narrative I carefully crafted, but I took in and enjoyed the moment, and so I report it here back to you.
I climbed further, and I saw my first petrified wood - against the side of this cliff - pretty substantial amount of wood turned to stone. It looks so much like wood, you have to touch it to convince yourself. Then, you see how clearly different it is from actual wood, and there's no mistaking it, but it is really incredible stuff, and you can see how it was wood and is now stone. As there was a lot of it there, I began to wonder if by standing trees, they simply meant little stumps here and there and that maybe this was all the forest really was. I didn't mind, either way, I was really enjoying the hike, but of course, I just kept going.
As I went up, I'd find more fossilized wood here and there but nothing as significant as a stand of trees. Then, I saw a group of cow elk, who saw me. These ones decided to run, and I really enjoyed watching them move. I continued to climb, and then I saw a trail that forked from the main trail and off into a wooded area. Something told me that this had to be it - that this had to be the trail to the so-called forest.
Yet, as I entered into the wood, I found the elk again, who ran, and there were also female bighorn sheep there, and the ewes apparently don't speak elk language, so when the elk ran toward them, the sheep decided to run from them. It occurred to me again that in the happy cartoons we see of forest life where somehow all the animals in the forest are able to speak to one another, that that worldview is utterly ridiculous. While not a new insight, witnessing firsthand evidence of it was immediately striking. A bighorn sheep is as clueless about what the elk are up to as a human is of what the elk are up to - we all speak wildly different languages. We really are disconnected and do not understand each other, and there is no secret society in the woods where Thumper and Bambi are all able to commune as man hunts on the edge of the woods. For all the interconnection of nature, there is a lot we cannot connect. Does the buffalo charge us or run to its herd? What was that pronghorn doing? Why did emotionless Sarah decide to fear for her life in that moment and rely on me to protect her? What makes the bighorn sheep near the petrified wood become petrified by the movement of elk and yet remain perfectly calm when they saw me?
And yes, that's what happened, as I kept moving into the wood, I soon saw some of the sheep again just looking at me. I was hoping that they might scurry off as I knew I was nearing the edge of the cliff and had to be nearing petrified trees - how I knew this I wasn't so sure. They did not. They just looked at me, almost as if puzzled. It was like, "Who is this stranger in our home?" I felt nervous about it, again worried about a situation where an animal backed into a corner might lash back, even if I don't recall anyone ever mentioning being attacked by bighorn sheep. Still, young were involved, and this may have been their most private area for the time being. Bighorn sheep migrate, but they consistently migrate to the same areas. I was so close to seeing the petrified wood, and yet I did not want to be charged by a sheep any more than I wanted to be charged by that buffalo 21 years prior.
They were so beautiful, though. I was behind some trees and snapped pictures of them. Ultimately, I realized that they were pretty calm, but I remained wary. I edged along the forest closer to the cliff. Then, I saw a huge petrified stump. I looked to my right, and below me I saw yet another bighorn sheep - so bummer, I was now really between them, and that was not a great feeling, but they didn't budge. So, I inched a few feet more and saw near that sheep a couple large standing petrified trees. There was evidence that much more was there, but that's all that was visible. That's all I could safely see, and I wanted to give the sheep back their area. I snapped another picture that I thought was awesome with the one sheep and the petrified trees.
All of this was going well beyond what I expected from my experience, and I was loving it - I was loving the new information, the new situations, the encounters with wildlife - the preeminent wildlife of pre-park Yellowstone - the bighorn sheep - in the prehistoric forest.
I climbed to the top and had a magnificent view of the northern part of Yellowstone, including Mount Washburn. It was already such an epic hike for me - tying my past to my present, adding small new sublime moments with my gentle wildlife encounters. At this point, when I saw another bighorn near the peak, I did not worry - they clearly were going to stay gentle. Nevertheless, I kept my space and did everything I could to remain respectful.
On the way down, many of the bighorn had moved on to the trail, so, I found another route down, which led me to another trail back into the so-called forest (it is hard to call a few standing trees a forest, though I could tell there were many, many more trees along the surface or beneath my feet buried in the ground). So, I went back, this time without bighorn sheep on the trail, but each time that I thought I was alone, I'd look out at a petrified area and see yet another sheep. They blended in so well with the landscape. I was able to get closer to the large petrified stump and take much better pictures and get a feel for it. I felt like I was in a holy place where the stone even feels alive, where the life that is there is so unusual. I mean, who spends a morning hanging out with stone trees and wild indigenous sheep? That it was blending with my tales and past in the way it was just made me feel like an incredibly blessed man. I have lived a good life, and there are so many more adventures to come. My mind turned to my son River and hoping to bring him to this spot at some point. My mind turned to my heart and the dreams of future tomorrows and future adventures and future romance. I can't wait to take her to Yellowstone and discover new dreams while dancing together.
At the very bottom, it was only appropriate that things would come full circle. As I approached the boulders, I saw three buffalo crossing the path of the trail. Two of them stopped to graze right on the trail path. So, I smiled and calmly climbed on one of those boulders and watched them as I ate some lunch. I watched and watched peaceful and calm, not a concern in the world but hoping that at some point they might move off my path. That did not happen. So, I eventually took a very wide loop around them, giving them probably 200 or 300 yards. I do not think they even looked up at me. All of it was realization that I was no longer reacting simply in the moment, but that I understood how to act appropriately, and there is a peace of mind that comes with that. If I took a loved one, I'd keep her safe; there's not a doubt in my mind. We would ultimately have the adventure that Yellowstone allows us to have. Maybe, we find the trees; maybe we don't. Maybe an animal blocks our path; maybe the animal lets us gently enter. However, we would enjoy each other's company; we would be safe, and I would know how to navigate all the things that took us off our script. I have been there and done that. I have seen what it is to keep someone safe, and I've learned in the end how not to run from situations whether they be physical, emotional, or spiritual.
When you have that sense of yourself, when you do find yourself growing up, it is really quite a good feeling. When you've had the great fortune to have Yellowstone play a significant role in that process, you have to drop to your knees and thank God for that opportunity. I have been blessed to be freed from being petrified, so that I might truly be a rock, a stone in the great edifice of nature - alive and human and romantic and dancing and free to explore either alone or with the people I love.
I danced in a field
of dandelions and thistles.
Did any of us belong?
Weeds, so to speak.
Home can be ...
as wind scatters us.
... to root and to belong ...
can feel ...
But lacking that,
what else is there to do
except to ...
dance some more?
The character assassination of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is not surprising; the deflection of the issues he raises is not surprising, either. Yet, let's not take the wrong lesson from this. It does matter who Edward Snowden is, just not in the way we might typically think. Snowden, like all of us, is a complicated, no doubt flawed person. There is a real lesson in keeping to heart that reality while understanding it in terms of what he brought to light.
What happens when you give a few complicated, flawed people unlimited power? Bad things happen.
Rather than turn a flawed man just like us into a hero - though his action was heroic - let's recognize that he's wrong about something. It's not just that the American government was engaged in criminality; it's that this government - like all governments - are run by flawed people, people who have far too much power. It's not enough to hold them accountable and to put people in power who aren't criminals. We need to dismantle the power of a system that demands that we put trust in people who are inherently flawed and which is therefore incredibly dangerous because of the power it wields.
If we all fall short in some ways of being able to earn full trust of each other, can't we at least be fully human without worrying whether our every decision might impact the lives of billions of people? Who Edward Snowden is matters; who each of us is matters. We'd matter a lot more if we didn't abdicate that responsibility to an economic and political system that currently dictates so many of the terms of our lives.
I'd also urge that we not abstract the ideas of Edward Snowden from the man, flaws and all.
Language has no atoms - not the syllable, not the word, not the phrase, not the sentence, not the consonant, not the vowel ... which of these is really fundamentally prior, that which upon language is actually built?
The structure of language, therefore, shows no implicit hierarchy, though we can construct hierarchies depending on what the prism is through which we see language? Is it through the prism of sound, through terms, through action, through coherence? The prism we choose will select the property of language we deem to be the actual building block upon which all others depend.
Language, however, does not have a prism through which all other prisms matter. However, since we forget that truth about language, we often favor one way of teaching language over another. Do we think that vocabulary is most important, or grammar, or learning letters? Is it learning to speak well? Is it being thoughtful? When we then preference one way of teaching and therefore learning over another, we tend to enforce a control over not only the teaching of language but the usage of language.
One thing I've learned in my recent studies is that written languages have developed mostly in cultures that have valued commerce and therefore needed a rigid language to protect contracts related to commerce. A standard spelling, a rigid syntax and semantics, best serves cultures who wish to control the flow of trade. Language, then, preferenced a certain way begins to exhibit the values of such a society. Those values in turn affect the language. English, which has very rich vocabulary but fairly rigid syntactical rules, has become the language of commerce across nations and languages.
These considerations have suggested to me that we have been conditioned to preference aspects of language that are not actually preferenced in nature and that this actually plays out in our social interactions. The flow is restrictive and prejudiced - much as we move in society mostly by walking (not by running, jumping, hopping, skipping, or dancing). We have reserved the flow of our language to specific forms of communication (not poetry or singing except in special occasions to special audiences). We have forced an education system on our children that continues to serve the prejudice of larger societal values (values which are not in my mind healthy).
I don't know how to get out of it; these are just some intitial thoughts on what I call grammatical anarchy - which isn't a grammar without rules; it's a grammar without rulers. I'd argue that by missing that there are no atoms to language, we have prejudiced certain aspects of language and used those aspects to reflect the values of our rulers. Figuring out how to have a healthy appreciation of all the prisms with which we may approach language actually can be radically transformative.
Syntax is garbled my;
Meaning lost in
Or was it found?
Twice recently while dancing the 5Rhythms
I have had a peculiar vision come to me; tonight, the vision returned with a new wrinkle. Let me share it with you.
In a public art museum, a crowd of people are looking at sculptures. The main attraction is Rodin's The Thinker
, but behind it tucked - in a corner drawing fewer spectators - is a white sculpture of a naked man. The features of the man are almost formless, as if his true nature is being hidden by the sculpted material with which he is made.
A small group is looking up at this rather unremarkable sculpture when one man hears a small thud coming from inside the sculpture. He hears another and another.
"There's something in the sculpture!" he shouts. A group of people begin banging at the sculpture with hammers and chisels. Sure enough, there is a naked man alive inside the sculpture.
The man in the sculpture is me
I look around, and everyone has receded from view. I am no longer in an art museum but in an empty and formless place. I look down at my body, and what do I see? As if my skin were transparent, I can see all the tendons in my body. Yet, instead of actual tendons, I see small chain links where every tendon is supposed to be. My muscles are muscles, but my tendons are chain links. The only place where I do not see these chain links is around my heart. My heart I can also see through my skin has a pulsating illuminating glow. In the back of my right collarbone up close to my neck, I feel a very sharp pain. I perceive that there is a deep knife in my back.
I reach to pull the knife out, but another knife immediately takes its place. I get the knife out over and over, and each time it is replaced. Eventually, I get the message that the knife cannot be pulled out but will only come out gradually from within.
Tonight, I have the very same vision, only this time there are some slight differences. Where the knife is, the pain has greatly reduced, though the knife is clearly still there. The tissue around the knife feels softer. Where the chain link tendons are, on each tendon, there is one less chain. At the end of each tendon is actually living organic tissue. However, there was something else astonishing. When I picked up my hands, they were heavy and made of solid gold. I could not move them very easily at all, and I did not yet know whether there were living hands still stuck inside these now golden hands.
I got the message to come home and write this story out immediately and share it with you all.
What I think It Means
At the most significant level, these are messages about my body. For many years, though I hardly noticed it, I have had a very rigid and stiff body. I have lived life with terrible posture - so much so that from recent body work and a recent doctor's visit, I discovered that I was a half inch taller than I had ever been since I had stopped growing. My shoulders hunch over, my waste collapses, and I have trouble moving my neck. I discovered during one dance workshop that I can't lie on the ground and stretch my hands on the ground behind my head. I have never been terribly flexible, but I am further than ever from being able to touch the floor.
This has been how I have projected myself to the world, though I hardly realized the messages I was sending. I shyly moved from place to place, shoulders in, trying to stay out of the way. Even in moments where I found my voice - and there have been many in life - there is no doubt that my message got through in spite of my physicality, not because of it. I never realized that my hands are often held like a claw, that my arms have trouble swinging, that all the confidence I have as a writer is often lost in person because I have not been able to express myself in the same way.
It was as if the man I am was lost inside a sculpture of sorts, the facade I sculpted to the world. Yes, there were some bright spots. I was physically fit, for instance. However, ultimately, I looked as if I were made of stone. Only moments shed light to people that there was a man alive inside the sculpture.
This is about my body, but it's also about all of my being in this world. There have been times where I have obviously not been a sculpture, where I have raised my voice loudly for things I believe in, where I have put my body on the line for those very things. Yet, at other times, I have grown quiet for the wrong reasons, and it shows not just in my body but even in my writing voice. Sometimes, I am all too diplomatic and hoping to please people. Yet, geez. I am an anarchist who wants to smash the state and capitalist society and every hierarchy under the sun. There is no pleasing people when those are the things you want and believe in.
I mean, we live in a society with a lot of things that are simply unacceptable. Many women are afraid to walk the streets at night. If a woman is raped, how common is it to hear, "She should have known better"? Poor people are told its their fault if they can't make ends meet. People of color are looked on with suspicion simply for the color of their skin. If you are Arab or Black or Indian, you are made to feel aware of your differences in awful ways. People with mental illnesses are made to feel ashamed of their conditions. Children are regimented to conform to the most authoritarian instincts of our society at the youngest ages. This isn't even a start of what's wrong.
How can I stay silent and pretend that my place in this world isn't to rabble rouse, isn't with all my might to bash a hammer against the larger sculpture - which is the political and economic system that binds each one of us living beings?
You know, I can post pictures of my son River all day long - and I will - and they will get nice response. If I get a new job or happen on something uncontroversial, I'll get a good response. If I post something like this, what can I expect? It doesn't matter really; I am finding my legs moving again.
I projected a stiff and small hunched over man who seemed to have trouble connecting with people, but I am determined to live a life that is true to my nature, that isn't afraid to speak the truth as I am called to speak it, to move my body as it was fully intended to move, to be fully a man. And who is this man? I'm still a work in progress. I have so far to go; I probably need all the help I can get from all of you - represented by the people breaking through my sculpture. Yet, I will get there, and I will dance and write and move and speak and LIVE and LOVE.
And, in the process, I hope we all break through and be free.
The Yellowstone River glistened as it flowed into Yankee Jim
Canyon. Its banks were outlined by white patches of melting snow.
Yet, for me, its flow was not comforting; the
flow was like an open wound in my body, agitating me to take action.
I glanced at the glistening river, looked out
at the barren Cutler Meadows and up at the rocky trail before me. Why was I here
standing on this ground? Why was I being called here?
I stepped out of my car and up the Joe Brown trail, some 13 miles
upstream from Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance. It was about 27 degrees, mostly sunny, and no
one else was on my trail. It was me, some magpies, and a raven that kept flying
high overhead circling the basin. I
tried to pay attention to my body, noticing the weight of my steps, the
interesting rocks and geology I was seeing, the cold air I was feeling, but the
truth was that I could not inhabit every step, every moment around me.
There were simply too many memories and too much knowledge
of where I was for that, and they were largely painful memories. Why did I bring myself here of all places?
Two years ago, I walked this trail with fellow volunteers from
Buffalo Field Campaign. That day, there were buffalo in Cutler Meadows, which
is at the far boundary of anything approaching tolerance for wild bison. I had witnessed bison forcibly removed from
near the trailhead. They were
hazed miles down the road one late Sunday afternoon. Now, a cattle guard serves to deter buffalo
from crossing the absolute zero tolerance line into Yankee Jim Canyon. Any buffalo that crosses north of that
boundary will be killed.
That day, hundreds upon hundreds of buffalo were in
captivity; I had seen so many that had been shot. Wearying day after wearying day and night I
spent in Gardiner watching buffalo be hazed, shot, captured, or run over by cars. Much of that hike was spent in what felt like
a fruitless discussion with my friend. We were trying in vain to figure out a more effective way
to take direct action to protect these amazing animals.
This Sunday morning was very different. No one was around me; my purpose for being
where I was happened to be quite unclear to me.
I just knew that for whatever reason I needed to be here at this very
spot. Was it about buffalo? Was it about something else? The only thing that was clear was that I was by myself. The hand that life dealt
me and which I was playing had brought me to a moment where I was on this trail
without human companionship. Though, frankly, I
had little desire to be on a field patrol at that moment and had burned a lot
of bridges along the way. I haven’t
written anything substantial since my eight-year plus domestic partnership
ended last June. Life has become a
relentless soap opera.
People in my life tend to be scarce these days, and I’ve spent a lot of
time trying to figure out where I am, what I am supposed to be doing, and who I
am supposed to be. Much of the discovery
has actually been wonderful with moments that have been unforgettable and
sublime, but I would be lying if I said that there weren’t more than a few twinges
of melancholy dominating this particular moment. I did not really want to be
alone; it’s just how things ended up.
Seeing the river flow, the familiar Gardiner basin before
me, the rocks, and the birds, I knew I was at some sense in my home. Anyone who knows me knows I love the
Yellowstone region intensely, that it is a very spiritual and magical place for
me. I feel comfortable there and most
myself. Yet, though Yellowstone is a vast land,
I chose to be on a trail full of darker memories, full of what can be
conflicting about home. We may feel
safest at home; it doesn’t mean we are always happiest. There was too much wrong with the picture.
For one thing, I knew what was around the bend. Around the bend and below my trail was the
Slip ‘n Slide Ranch, home over the last many years to quarantined buffalo. Buffalo have been routinely removed from the
herd and been subjected to one experiment after another. Can a brucellosis-free herd be raised? Can buffalo with brucellosis be
sterilized? What can be done with these
“clean” buffalo? Might they be given to
Native American tribes? Perhaps, they
can go to the private lands of Ted Turner or perhaps alternatively to some
other public land? Yet, what thought is
given to these poor buffalo in captivity, locked behind a fence? They are wild and roaming by nature; what are
they now? Who are they? And who cares about them except to fit someone’s
dreams for their preferred policy objectives?
Of course, that is an exaggeration. I have
seen field volunteers weep at the torture; I know there are many who care and
who have been faithful year after year after year bearing witness. And yet it continues, and it so often goes
Being who I am, I could not help but think of what was
around the bend. The beautiful rock
formations could barely catch my attention.
And while I could not help but look down on the glistening Yellowstone, there
was little joy in its rushing waters. I
felt like something in it was bleeding me, taking me away from the moment,
taking my body away from where it might have been. In another world, maybe I could gaze at the
magpies, pick up rocks and simply wonder, check out the bones I saw at one
point below my trail, and pretend I was on some great outdoor quest in this
thing people call nature, but I just knew better. I knew that something was around that bend
that would not let me go.
When I got there, the view was every bit the disappointment
I expected. Mostly grouped together in a
muddy corner of the small squared captive pens that they occupied, about 20
buffalo breathed in the same sulfur-scented air of melancholia that I was. While I was at some distance, I have seen captive
buffalo up close – seen their wounds, their branding tags, their tendency to
congregate near the boundaries of their cages.
Two years ago, the powers that be in the Interagency Bison Management
Plan followed through on their crazy idea of allowing 25 brucellosis-free bison
to graze in Cutler Meadows across the river.
What was crazy, they expected the bison to stay there all winter. Bison being bison, they saw their captive kin
across the river, and most of them crossed over. Within 10 days, the entire plan had collapsed
because bison don’t want to stand still forever.
They want to move, and they are going to roam whenever they feel like
roaming. Seeing buffalo unable to move –
even after seeing this sight for so many years – is still a terrible shock to my
system. They had been reduced to
breathing pawns without any sense of home.
Beautiful vistas were all around, but the powers that be could not make
them more beautiful by letting buffalo be buffalo within them.
Instead, I was trailing a land of fences. I could not help but notice the trail
regularly moving through barbed wire fences, presumably used as a public right
of way through private lands. I could
not help but see the civilization of the Gardiner Basin below me and these poor
miserable bison. Only camera tricks could
make one believe that I was on some Discovery Channel or National Geographic
Channel trek. For, wasn’t this land significantly more natural, wilder than the
urban jungles, and much more intact than the Bozeman apartment where I came from – a
place that I cannot even pretend is a home for me?
Then, a different thought entered my mind. This place was still calling me. Out in the distance, I could see what I think is called Red Mountain. It was
gorgeous. Looking up were snow-capped
peaks in every direction. Behind me, I
could see that siren Electric Peak kissing the sky at almost 11,000 feet. “Those magpies are sure resourceful birds,” I
thought. I thought much the same of the
ravens. There was something alive and
pulsating in the ground beneath my feet.
And, that ground, sometimes frozen, sometimes soggy was something, too. As I felt for gravity, I took special notice
of the way my feet would sometimes press and sometimes slip into the surface
which was sometimes hard dirt, sometimes mud, and sometimes packed snow. I noticed how hard it was to work on my
posture that I’ve been trying to improve because the surface was so
unsettled in places that I had to constantly look downward. When my body does that, it tends to crumple
up. It being cold and without gloves, my
arms weren’t swinging because they were in my pockets.
Yet, it was wondrous to spend some moments aware of where I
was and seeing where I was in a light I wouldn’t have seen it prior to this past
year. I used to be barely aware of how I
pressed into the earth; I thought mostly of whether I was tired or whether my
feet hurt. Yet, now, in these moments of
moving, there was a remarkable symbiosis of me, the earth, and some very
positive thoughts about my surroundings.
Yes, I was home, and there is a magical something I cannot quite
express, as though I had been pulled in by a magnet of sorts.
And even the buffalo now receding for awhile from my view
gave me a sense of inspiration. This
connection I have felt with them, this calling I felt from this place and from
these buffalo must be leading me somewhere.
Life cannot simply be about what isn’t right, what has gone horribly
wrong, about being resigned to an open wound.
I felt moments of joy in being defiant, in returning home, in seeking
answers, in trying to figure out the puzzle of why I was here.
The trail turned completely to snow, and the warming
temperatures made walking on that snow gradually trickier. I was in no rush, though.
About 250 feet in elevation above me, I saw a beautiful herd
of cow elk. Most of them stopped and
turned around when they realized I was near.
They scouted me out and looked down on me. They then turned around and continued on out
of sight. I have had so many moments
like that; it felt good to be having another one.
I continued on for a little while, but I reached a point
where I knew that I was heading the wrong direction. My trail was moving away from the Gardiner
Basin and into the snowy mountainous regions ahead. How I’d love to keep going another time, but
this was not the right day for it. I
turned around and walked back down, down, down the trail. It was increasingly slippery, and I took some
delight in working on my balance – to bounce onto the other foot before the
lack of friction sent me tumbling, to be light on my feet. If I can figure out when to be light, when to
be heavy, when to step this way or step that way, it would be wonderful. These things feel really
significant to me right now.
I was trying to listen and take in all that I was
feeling. What were these experiences
adding up to? Maybe, it was too early to
consider that. So, I walked with a sense
of rapid stillness. What do I mean by
that? I didn’t try to put my thoughts
into an order yet. If I were to do that,
I would have cut my hike short and headed home in an instant to put it all
down. Yet, something hadn’t happened
yet. The reason I was there had not been
made clear. It was slippery to be
thinking all these thoughts; I needed to let my thoughts dance as quickly as
they were coming to me. If at that
moment I put too much into it, I would have missed what was to happen when I
left the trail. So, instead of trying to
put them somewhere, I needed to be still and let them happen. It was just that letting them happen required
something like nimble feet. My brain was
moving quickly; I had to be aware of that so that it could move quickly while I held the stationary position of my mental balance.
One thing was for sure, however. I needed to head in the direction of wild
buffalo. As I went by the quarantined
buffalo again, I stopped. In this
moment, I prayed and passed along a message to them. The message I got back in return was that
there was more to discover, that the trail I was called to be on was only
Whether it was my own fancy or something more, who
knows? It doesn’t matter, really. Whatever that variable was that was inclining
me to keep going did so. It is
remarkable, really, that I ever ended up in the Yellowstone area given that I was raised so far away and grew up with such different interests. I grew up paying attention to sports, history, and politics. Nothing more than
liking short walks in the woods could have foreshadowed half a lifetime now
mesmerized by this place. What did
it? What still pulls me? I am sure I can muse on that and give some
sort of specific answer. I also know
that just because I am attracted to Yellowstone and buffalo does not mean that you will be
similarly attracted. You may find
yourself engrossed with any number of meaningful things; do you ever stop and
wonder how miraculous it is that you find yourself right here, right now where
you are in life? What were the
odds? What were the odds that any of us
would actually come to life from so many possible outcomes? Your great-great-great-great grandmother goes
left instead of right just at the moment a turtle decides to go right instead
of left on some other continent, and you would not have been born. Yet, here we are being pulled and moved.
Buffalo are like that.
In some ways, movement is predictable; we generally understand the
migration patterns of park bison and the reasons for it. Yet, in any given moment, we have no
idea. Something moves the herd, moves
the individual buffalo. In all this
apparent order is also a kind of chaos we cannot hope to understand. And, yet, the buffalo before me were
contained, and all buffalo in this region are trapped by policies that act as
if nature requires more boundaries and controls, as though the outcome of our
heart’s desire can be determined. I do
not understand that. I think it’s
outrageous, in fact. Our very existence
is almost astronomically impossible – this very moment of our lives – and instead of
allowing the wonder that we are alive and moving take us, we try to bottle
up. It becomes so precious to us that we
ruin the spontaneity of its essence. We
live in our little boxed houses, in our little square streets, in our little
cages. Many of us insist this of our children,
our loved ones. I sure know I have been
guilty. We also do this to bison.
Anyhow, I made it to my car and headed on U.S. 89 toward the
park. I felt large pangs of pain for the
quarantined buffalo. Again, the sense of
power I felt in being connected with these animals transformed into the
futility of realizing that I could not actually reach them with my voice, with
my compassion, and maybe not with my action.
They remain behind those fences tonight sleeping with no idea how they
have been made pawns.
I drove south, and then I saw something I hadn’t seen in two
years. I saw wild buffalo on the other
side of the Yellowstone River, north of Corwin Springs, meaning outside the
park boundaries. My heart, however, did
not leap at the sight. I did not think
immediately to stop and simply watch them, to ponder about their nature like I
do from the quiet environs of my apartment.
Immediately, I worried for them and felt the danger of their situation. At least a couple dozen bison
were on the other side of the Yellowstone, and not terribly far from these
buffalo I could see several vehicles congregating.
Instantly, I felt almost as if I were on a field patrol;
however, again, I was in my own car and alone.
I had no video camera, no partner in the car with me, no sense of what I
should be doing in the moment. Yet, I
felt a compulsion to go nearer, to see what was happening. To be honest, I felt like I was stumbling a
bit. There were no rules, no music to
which I was dancing. I didn’t know what
my next step would be, why I would be taking it, or what the outcome would
be. I was just following the lead of
some vague notion in my heart. Yet, at
the same time, I knew what might be happening.
I had seen the script play out too many times before. There was likely a hunting party on the other
side of the river, and they either had hunted buffalo, or were hoping to hunt
this particular group. I might have been
stumbling, but I wasn’t ignorant.
Now, most people driving by the same scene not knowing what
locals or volunteers with Buffalo Field Campaign probably know might have simply
marveled at the buffalo grazing in fields not far from the Yellowstone River,
which was still glistening. They might
have hopped out to take pictures, or having just seen so many buffalo in the park,
remarked, “Oh, there’s more buffalo.
Imagine that.” A camera crew
might have been bored with no wolves stalking the herd. Yet, how wonderful it would be simply to be able
to live in the moment of that scene – of wild buffalo in Montana outside of
Yellowstone National Park. How peaceful
and serene, to take in the mountain ranges in all directions beyond,
highlighted by Electric Peak. Perhaps,
one would argue it brings better energy to block out all the negativity and
focus on the positive moment – that buffalo almost to the point of extinction
are alive and breathing in lands outside of a national park.
Yet, how can I of all people do this? I know the truth. I know that those buffalo were probably being
tracked by a hunting party; that if they managed to stay outside the park that
the Park Service has recently expressed the desire to capture more than 60 bison for more
experiments; that if they avoid that, that if they go too far North, they will
be shot; that if they manage to stick around too long into the spring, that the
federal and state governments will forcibly haze them all well inside the park
– often right at the time these same herds will be giving birth to their
newborn calves. How can I out of some
phony sense of good energy and positivity pretend when there is so much
injustice going on with these animals?
When I know that the plight of buffalo are but one of millions and
millions of injustices being perpetrated by humanity right now, right this
instant, how can I just block that out?
Get real! This is real, that
though there was something quite beautiful in that moment, something truly
special, that there was real ugliness all around. And I can’t stand by!
I couldn’t stand by and just do as so many do watching their
favorite cable news show taking sides as if things like the death of Hugo
Chavez, drones, sequestration, and the election of a new pope are
merely like sports competitions to be watched.
What side am I on? Did our guy
win? How does this look for our team in
the next election? All these things
matter greatly. Many, many, many are
affected by acts big and small around the globe; didn’t I just say that the
decision of a turtle somewhere else might determine who lives and who is never born? What I couldn’t do in that moment
– however lacking intention I had – was pretend that the moment didn’t matter, that
I was merely a spectator or a witness.
Always, that same edge, which got me wondering about direct action on a hike
with fellow volunteers, must drive me, must be the truly real sense of positive
energy that I take with me – the one that acknowledges that bad things are bad
things and that it is intolerable.
And, when it comes to buffalo, what does it matter who is in
power and what side wins? Current
buffalo policy dates to the Clinton Administration, continued under Bush, and
continues unabated under Obama. Montana
was governed by Republicans who waged war on buffalo, and then reached new
heights of slaughter under current Democratic administrations. Right now, Democrats control executive power
at both the federal and state levels, and bison get the shaft. When power has been shared or exclusively
under Republican control, bison get the shaft.
And in a world much bigger than buffalo, it is really impossible to feel
good about settling for this game and simply accepting the few things done
better by one side versus another. I saw
a homeless man on my way home in a parking lot; I can’t speak for him, but I
wonder if his fate matters much in the outcome of which side wins. What matters is that we cannot possibly sit completely and passively
still. We have to move; that it’s our
very natures to move! We can’t look on
things and simply sit still and pretend.
Even in our stillness, there can be every need to move rapidly lest we
slip in the muck.
So, I drove across the bridge at Corwin Springs. There, I noticed the vehicles that had been
parked somewhat south of the buffalo. They were retreating. I saw several vehicles with Idaho plates packed
with native people heading away from the buffalo. This looked every bit to me like a Nez Perce
hunting party; I had seen it so many times before. Nez Perce and Umatilla are hunting right now
because they have treaty rights in the area to hunt game, though they pretty
much exclusively come to hunt buffalo. I
am not going to get into the whole treaty rights issue here; it is a really
complicated and delicate subject. Yet, I
will admit relief for a moment when I saw the hunting party retreating.
These buffalo were for the moment safe because they were on
private property, property that happens to belong to a controversial religious
group called the Church Universal and Triumphant. They hold land called the Royal Teton Ranch,
and their role in the buffalo story is convoluted to say the
least. Talking about this issue would
also take me far afield, and yet that was exactly what I already felt the
entire time. The world and America and
Yellowstone and buffalo had become so convoluted and complicated by people that
I could not simply see buffalo grazing near a big river. Instead, I saw an overly complicated human
web tied together in a vast history – significant parts of it involving
genocide and religious persecution – all converging before my eyes. My brain danced from the scene to the
knowledge occupying it. Imposed on this
land was my own internal political grid.
What lies we learn from the nature shows on television, of a delicate
balance of predator and prey relationships in some vanishing land known as “the
wild.” Do we dare take on the myth for a
second so that some day we might actually be able to appreciate what is really
before our eyes? When will I be able to
see that pregnant mama and not have to think of the distinction of private and public
land, treaty rights, and what the hell I am doing there in that moment driving
my Subaru around?
In all these words, I am covering up something terrible I
did see, though. When I reached the
point where the cars had been converged, I saw in the field before me so many
buffalo gut piles that I didn’t even attempt to count them all. It was a gruesome sight that instantly took
me into flashbacks from two years prior of finding so many gut piles, often
finding them after skiing over a trail of blood – often bloody tissue matter
hanging from sagebrush along the path.
Across the road from this very field, I had once watched a buffalo get gunned
down. Seeing these gut piles took me to that and so many
other moments all in an instant. I
indeed was in a killing fields, a small patch of public land that buffalo must
pass in order to reach the point those still living had reached.
I should have known because ravens were all over the place
having a relative feast on the leftover carcasses.
I cannot describe really what this did to me, but let me try. Volunteering an entire season at Buffalo
Field Campaign was an emotionally traumatic experience in terms of the
suffering I saw. Some volunteers return
year after year and have had the fortitude to be a witness to this so many
times more than I have. Yet, I still
feel an open gaping wound from the experience.
I still cannot fully process the sheer volume of things that I saw and
experienced. What’s more, it is
impossible to find the right sort of environment to talk with anyone about
it. Everyone processes grief in their
own way, and I didn’t have people by and large who grieved the way I grieved
when I volunteered. Where many around me
kept it inside – which was their own way, I suppose – I wanted to emote. I never felt I adequately did that. What’s more, the whole experience no doubt
exposed serious problems in my long-term romantic relationship.
I left that experience thoroughly depressed – having not fully processed
my grief and struggling to figure out what I was doing in my relationship. Life kept rolling, things broke open last June, and
then life changed dramatically. Yet, the
open wound of grief for the buffalo was still there. I
had not figured out what to do about my emotions, about the horror I witnessed.
Now, at this moment, it was before me again, like an avalanche. Living buffalo in the distance, but death was
all around me. Now, I was by myself,
though I always felt in some ways alone.
I was in my home land, but so much was wrong. The experience was exerting a kind of magic
on me, and yet it was at that moment pressing in all around me. What was happening? Why was the same scene for the buffalo still
happening with or without my presence? I
didn’t know, but I felt an urgency to keep going.
I headed along the Old Yellowstone Trail road in the
direction of the park. I could see
buffalo chips in the fields everywhere.
Eventually, I saw another herd of buffalo on Royal Teton Ranch land
still outside the park. Near the park
boundary at Beatty Gulch (this is still miles north of the North Entrance), I
could see even more gut piles. I had
read about buffalo being killed at the boundary, about some having survived the
initial shots and then scampering back across the boundary only to die there from their wounds. The tribal shooters were not allowed to collect
the buffalo due to where they died; the buffalo were now simply food for ravens
and eagles. Now in the park, in the
direction of the massive Stephens Creek Capture Facility, I saw buffalo I
presume by the hundreds in scattered groups all over the grounds near the
capture facility. Currently, I could see and have heard of
no buffalo in the facility, but there would be a huge number that could be
captured if the Park Service saw fit to capture them. And yes, I have witnessed buffalo many times
that never left the park that were captured.
While hunters cannot gather dead buffalo inside the park, the Park Service can capture
and ship buffalo to slaughter almost on a whim.
The management plan allows for very wide latitude. Only politics spared a mass slaughter in 2011
when the governor, citing the spurious concern of brucellosis being spread by
buffalo being shipped to slaughter, forbade bison that year to be shipped to
slaughter. Yet, many hundreds languished
for months in captivity.
I continued south worried about these buffalo, realizing
that they could be captured or could just as easily move a mile north to meet
their doom one way or another. I thought
I’d drive through the town of Gardiner and then north on U.S. 89; however, I
came upon a herd of bison in the road heading in my direction. I simply turned around and gave them the
Yet, it was at that moment that I realized why I was there.
It was definitely the buffalo that were calling me to
reconnect with them, that they are in need of something that I’m supposed to provide. At that moment and at this
one, all I can think of to do is to share their story and my place in their
story. Tonight, buffalo are moving and
sleeping. They are powerless to share
their story. For most people, the story
of buffalo is one of the past – of mass slaughter by 19th century hunters. Or it is the somewhat legendary story of the
recovery of the species; the species has not recovered, but that’s another
issue altogether. Or it is the story of
a leaner type of meat that is healthier than cow beef. Or it is the story of how they blocked the
road on that trip to Old Faithful. Or
perhaps it is the story of Indian peoples.
All of these stories are certainly part of the fuller story, but they are not the essence of
the story I need to share. I need to
share that under the same sky we sleep under tonight, buffalo that I saw are
sleeping, too. They are in peril. They are in a beautiful land that is being
hurt by human beings. They are affecting
me and are playing some role in helping me put my own life together. They are calling me, and I am calling you.
There are a lot of strands running through this. Being called, finding my sense of space,
looking for where I am, thinking about buffalo, witnessing brutality in the midst of beauty, dancing,
being alone, affirming life, being real, taking action, and a lot more besides.
Normally, I try to bring the strands together, but that somehow feels
wrong and even contrived. I know that
the glistening Yellowstone was unsettling to me; that still seems to be the
image I take with me even though it was the buffalo that were calling me. Somewhere, I need to sit and reflect on next
steps to get this story out there, to raise my voice, to do something for this
place and these animals that have done so much for me. If in the process, I can unsettle you to the
point of inspiration, I think that would be a larger goal. Our world is so beautiful; how can we stand
it? How can we stand by and watch what
gives us life suffer under our hands?
Life is beautiful; my world; my home is beautiful. I am blessed by regularly seeing the most beautiful people and
places and animals anyone could ever hope for.
Yet, part of that beauty is its life, its dynamism, its ability to
move. We can learn a lot from watching
buffalo move; we could learn a lot more if we’d let them and ourselves do the
Here’s a story. Arguments from analogy are
dangerous things without thinking about whether the context applies.
I’ll throw this out and suggest that the story is a fair analogy and let
you all let me know where it went wrong.
A prison guard comes
to you and offers you a choice for dinner. Would you like a half-rotten
hamburger or a garden salad for dinner? He offers you a choice; one is
ly better than the other. The
garden salad not only won’t make you sick, it’s likely to have some good
vitamins and things that may promote your health in your cell. Of
course, you saw that some of the inmates who faced the same choice
didn’t always get the salad they asked for. In fact a minority of them
even starved to death. Sometimes, they were served the rotten hamburger
instead. Yet, a fair number also got the salad they ordered, even if
sometimes the greens weren’t as fresh as one would like, or there was
some of that hamburger mixed in.
The choice seems clear, then.
I might not get salad, but it’s surely healthier than a rotten
hamburger, and so I should choose the salad the prison guard is offering
me. What’s more, it seems that if people order the salad this year,
they may get also to decide whether the cell gets some toilet paper,
which has been in short supply. There is a referendum on that in your
cell block; you may not care about salad or hamburger, but you
definitely could use more toilet paper.
Yet, strange as it may
seem, in your cell, there is a door that you have been told not to open.
You know only that it leads outside the prison. Yet, you have been
warned that you will be killed if you open the door, or chased down.
There are dangerous things, you are told, outside this door, and most of
your cellmates have said very plainly that they will never follow you.
It seems that the only real choice isn’t the salad or the
half-rotten hamburger but whether you are going to go through that door
or not. It isn’t even the consequences. You may or may not get salad
if you stay; it may or may not be good. However, you may not survive
leaving the prison. The question is whether life is worth living within
the apparent range of choices given to us if we remain confined
essentially to a prison. Voting represents those choices that have been
selected for us – some better, some worse; none coming with any
guarantees. Yet, staying and eating that prison dinner when there’s a
door waiting to be opened that leads out of the prison strikes me as
foolish. When you vote, you don’t walk through that door; you make sure
that the prison remains until the next vote, and those arguments repeat
themselves over and over again. Your voting choice will always be
real; it will always have real consequences – even in a prison
environment – but why allow ourselves to stay and hope for the best from
our rulers when we can all break out?
My vote is in the power
of each of us to take action. How sad that we have to depend upon nine
people to determine what “rights” people have or are going to lose. How
sad that people will kill and die going to wars no matter who gets
chosen because one man essentially has that power to do so. We could
stop this; their power rests in us. But we don’t; we abdicate. We
neuter our action and our voice by accepting that these choices have any
vitality. We postpone action and repeat the charade every election.
Yet, they don’t really have the power to keep us imprisoned; we simply
give it to them. How novel that they restrict voting from certain
groups and make it harder; this must be some prize. Wow, some people
don’t get to choose rotten hamburger or salad. Not all prisoners are
equal; let’s make them all equal and assimilate them to prison life.
Let’s make soldiers out of gay people and let them marry. Let’s not
restrict early voting; let’s not make people have ids. Yet, all these
things are meant to give more vitality to a choice that is still
essentially a prisoner’s choice.
The door is waiting for us to go through. Don’t vote.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
arises out of a discussion of the organizing challenges in Occupy
Bozeman. It deals with the question of why numbers dwindle
in organizing meetings. How is it that numbers that can produce
meetings often over 30 can dwindle in a relatively short period of time
to a group of 15 or less. The loss of energy can be disheartening and
devastating for a group.
This small essay raises the discussion of a different organizing
model, where instead of having a large group of 20 or more get
together and reach consensus on every issue, groups start from a model
where smaller groups within the larger group have more power and
autonomy and can still coordinate together in a larger "general
Groups can diminish for many reasons - infighting, lack of
consistency, etc. However, I think there is another reason that often
This is a dynamic I have seen so many times as an organizer. Groups
sometimes produce great energy. Then, they have these spectacular
meetings, sometimes with large numbers. As the process is consensus or
near consensus (I was in a group once that used 80
percent supermajorities), this allows everyone a voice (as it should
be.) However, when you have 1 or 2 hours, so many voices, and often many
new people unfamiliar with the often complicated meeting process
(sometimes coupled with poor facilitation), people get quickly
frustrated and disenchanted. They either feel they haven't been heard,
or they get frustrated because some people are heard all too much.
Consensus in any group can be messy; as numbers grow, the process
becomes much more unwieldy. Rather than producing something where
everyone is empowered, it actually can produce the opposite. Quieter
voices lose out. Less experienced voices lose out. Even more experienced
voices can lose out. The decisions made often leave out a frustrated
segment that simply grows silent. They don't show up again.
I once learned in a college sociology class that the maximum number
of people that can form a cohesive social group before it inevitably
divides is 15 (and often smaller than that.) I don't know if that number
is right, but it seems borne out by experience. When the group grows
much larger, it becomes disenchanted, or people find different means
besides meetings for their empowerment.
I have never seen a meeting of 30 or more people that was sustainable
over time. Individual meetings have worked, but it always seems to come
down to a natural social group number.
This is a huge problem for a movement that wants to empower every
voice, needs it to be a mass movement of the 99 percent. It's a huge
problem for anyone who believes in consensus.
The Occupy Movement has often given the most power to its local
General Assemblies. That might be a mistaken model because of the
reasons I mentioned. When General Assemblies participation grows to more
than 15, I'd suggest that it immediately must divide into 2 or more
working groups that have their own functional autonomy. When General
Assemblies get together then, they should have some kind of
spokescouncil function, where each working group empowers someone to
speak for the group. Members of the group would still participate and
can still block or request a caucus, but it reduces the number of
speakers and puts the work at the natural numbers where consensus
functions best. It leaves the General Assembly to bascially serve as a
coordinating meeting between autonomous groups and for giving its
blessing to new groups that might form. It would solve disputes that
arise over actions of a working group. It should do nothing more; the
real power should be in the consensus of the working groups.
If we ever find ourselves fortunate to build our meetings up, I'd
suggest we ask newcomers to join one of several working groups - of
which they'd be free to join or leave. It might be even the job of the
internal communications working group to help new people feel at home
and help them find a working group. Then, the last part of the meeting -
the general assembly - would essentially be a spokescouncil, where the
people who can speak for the working group would be empowered to speak
(and be reigned in by members of their group.) It would leave time for
caucusing that might need to arise.
This model gives each person a much richer say over consensus and
decentralizes the structure so that each voice matters. It also allows
for the potential for growth. Each group would be its own functioning
collective of sorts that would do its own thing and can use each
person's energy to reach out.
Hopefully, it would make for much happier newcomers so that meetings
could be much, much larger and still be okay. If a working group is
suddenly more than 15, it should as quickly as possible figure out how
to divide into two groups. If groups get too small (no group should be
smaller than three), then they should stop working, and people should
join the active groups. If necessary movement needs - like outreach -
aren't being met, then the existing groups need to pick up the slack.
I want to put it out there for discussion. I've just seen this too
many times over the years, where groups struggle with this, missing the
obvious that groups that grow too large alienate people. It's a
principle of physics, really. You can't have voice if your voice is too
divided over too many people and limited time.
I'll leave it out there for discussion.
that's another thing that movements struggle with ... meetings are not
for everyone; a lot more thought has to be given to ways of including
the energy of people who simply cannot stomach sitting in meetings or do
not best find their voices in them ... that's a hard challenge. One
nice thing about the outdoor meetings was the opportunity for some to
spend it talking with the public. It was an outlet ... coming up with
these kinds of useful outlets are great; they are really difficult to
implement (I lack a lot of creativity - as I'm someone who functions
well in meetings). In one group, we set aside space for people to draw
or doodle or move around during meetings. It was announced that it was a
creative space for people who had trouble sitting still, and so it was a
little less distracting. That had mixed success.
Anyhow ... a lot to think about ... my only real insight is to say
that we need to think hard about how we deal with larger groups of
people (and I suspect this has been a problem everywhere to greater and
lesser degrees ... some of the methods I suggest arise out of experience
in larger cities - where groups sometimes still dwindled to below 15
and would fracture - often bitterly (despite there being a much larger
pool of interested people).