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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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    Thursday, June 30, 2005

    Yellowstone Magic : "Venus on Earth"

    Before the war in Iraq started and I got into anti-war protesting in earnest, I used to maintain a site called "The Magic of Yellowstone." There's still a lot of good information on that site. I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote about my experience going back this summer.

    Venus on Earth, Part I of ?
    by Jim Macdonald
    June 10, 2005

    Yellowstone, more than anything else, is about magic. Magic is
    not a supernatural phenomenon. When I speak of magic all I mean
    to say is that the reason for something’s happening cannot be
    explained simply by referring to the particular causal phenomena
    available to us. Illusionists practice something like magic when
    they pull rabbits out of hats. We do not understand, after having
    seen the hat empty, how a rabbit could have found its way in the
    hat. As it turns out, the so-called magic was merely an illusion,
    either a slight of hand, or the use of a mirror, or something that
    has a causal explanation available to us. Real magic has no
    explanation available to us. That is not to say that there is not
    a reason, which would be absurd, but it is to say that the reason
    is not available to us as beings with finite perception. Magic is
    that natural phenomenon for which we can offer no natural
    explanation, or at least no commonly natural explanation.
    Yellowstone is a place where magic happens repeatedly, or at least
    it happens that way in my experience.

    In 2005, I returned to the magic land, life being dramatically different
    than when I last came in 1998. In 1998, I was on something of an
    extended working honeymoon. In 2005, I’ve been in the process of
    divorcing that same woman for the past 2 years. I came this year with
    another woman, in Genevieve, one I am now deeply in love with, who had
    never been to this Wonderland. Perspectives change, fond memories become
    bitter, and bitter memories become almost inconsequential by comparison.
    Life is a thermal tempest that changes gradually on the exterior but is
    volcanic beneath, sometimes even poisonously so. We make pronouncements
    about our present because we must, and we must invest ourselves with a
    kind of belief in our current reality. We cannot help it, and we should
    not apologize for it. Today, I am deeply in love, just as in 1998, I
    thought I was beginning the rest of my life with someone else, perhaps
    bidding goodbye to Yellowstone for ages to come. But, the fires destroy
    our own personal forests, new life comes to spring in its place, and we
    do our best to preserve the life we find ourselves in.

    I have always relished seeing the metaphor of Yellowstone as the metaphor
    of my life. What I hope it conveys is the sheer love, fascination, and
    excitement I have with the place. Nowhere else do I feel more alive,
    more in love, more at home with myself. Even when I’m dark or angry or
    neurotic, as I often am when I’m in Yellowstone, I cherish that as an
    inner sanctum of my psyche, a place where all is well even when it isn’t.

    This is a love story first and foremost, and that is the essential cause
    and result of Yellowstone’s magic. But, what is this magic, and what is
    this love, this mythical fiery Venus with trees? And, am I talking about
    Yellowstone there, or am I talking about Genevieve, my own beloved
    mythical fiery Venus? I think the answer can only come from filling in
    the blanks with the actual stories of our Yellowstone experience (what I
    once awkwardly dubbed “yellowstoning experience”).

    While I do not have time to document an entire trip (though see the
    timeline for a skeleton attempt), I hope to share an episode or two,
    depending on my inclination.

    Here is more from the magical love story.

    Why is Yellowstone Venus on Earth?
    In 1993, my father came with a friend to pick me up after my first summer
    working at the Grant Village General Store. I was only 19 and had no
    idea that my life would become linked forever with the Park. I had no
    idea about a lot of things, though I had a pretty decent idea of more
    than most of us are willing to grant ourselves from our youth. The
    reason I say that is because we always fancy ourselves to have a better
    grasp on things today, and the now is often a revision of what came
    before us. However, if we look back into that past more closely, we will
    discover that we were not as lost as we might imagine. Nevertheless,
    Yellowstone seemed at the end of that summer to be the end of a special
    time. My thoughts often turned into how to make my life back home in
    Ohio like Yellowstone, hoping that all it took was a creative imagination
    to turn a cornfield into a canyon cave.

    So, my dad picked me up, and I gave him a tour of the Park, taking the
    opportunity to see areas I had scarcely seen myself. One morning, we
    drove up to the Norris Geyser Basin, which I had only seen once up to
    that that time, and then only for a matter of seconds, from the museum
    looking down on the Porcelain Basin. My dad, his friend Steve, and I
    walked through this eerie, violent landscape. Loud fumaroles scream, the
    land bubbles, and the ground looks like nothing on Earth. It is not only
    alive with volcanic activity, but also Norris does not look like this
    planet, or for that matter smell like it. I felt surrounded by poison
    and by a landscape that was best described as “hellish.” The colors
    looked like hell, the sounds sounded like hell, and it certainly smelled
    like one expected hell to be. I remember mentioning this quality to my
    dad, though noticing one exception. Somehow, in this violent unearthly
    landscape, I nevertheless managed to see a large number of trees all
    around. So, it seemed to be a kind of “Hell on Earth.” And, yet, it was
    so beautiful all the same. That day, I suggested it briefly, and over
    time the thought had resonance, that this was actually more like Venus,
    the poisonous twin planet of Earth, and also the goddess of love. Yet,
    with the trees as undeniable markers of our actual solar location, I’ve
    come to know the Norris Geyser Basin as “Venus on Earth.” And, as my
    mind is prone to wander through metaphorical forests, I realized more and
    more that Norris was but an example of the lush supervolcano that will
    some day devour this world in poison and ash 10,000 times stronger than
    Mt. St. Helens, that perhaps the name “Venus on Earth” is also a proper
    nickname for Yellowstone itself.

    Over the years, Norris became an important place for me. In 1994, I
    tasted my first kiss under the moonlight and steam. In 1995, I replaced
    those memories with Loree on those same boardwalks. Now, I was with
    Genevieve, and while I had given up the childish need to rub out past
    sour memories and replace them with new ones, I was hopeful all the same
    that Norris might provide a new niche for us. What had changed, however,
    was the need to use Norris as a romantic stage, though I still had plenty
    of desire. Rather, it was more like I was paying an old friend a visit,
    and so I wanted to catch up and see what it had to offer on its own
    terms. I can’t say that I was always so secure on the trip like this, as
    I found myself overwhelmed by memories at West Thumb and Grant Village
    almost to the point I was overcome by a brief psychosis (one that
    Genevieve was at her wit’s end trying to deal with), but I can say that
    at Norris I was at home and secure enough to see it for what it was.

    Norris truly solidified itself for me as the example par excellence of
    Venus on Earth, and here is a tale from the magical homecoming.

    Steamboat Geyser
    Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in the world, but I can’t think of
    a single person I know who is not in some degree disappointed by it; or
    if not disappointed, more wowed by other geysers or thermal pools. Some
    geysers erupt more regularly, some erupt higher, some have more
    interesting cones, and some are generally more surprising. Steamboat
    Geyser, many will be surprised to know, has the world’s largest
    eruptions. Water from a major eruption of Steamboat Geyser can explode
    300-450 feet, or approximately 3 times the average eruption of Old
    Faithful. Yet, Steamboat is a lesser-known geyser in large part because
    its eruptions are widely erratic. Major eruptions can occur anywhere
    from a few days to decades apart. The last major eruption of Steamboat
    had been in October 2003, and the last daytime eruption in October 1991.
    During the five years I worked in Yellowstone, 1993-1996, 1998, there had
    been no major eruptions of the Geyser.

    On our first day in Yellowstone, on May 18, I took Genevieve to see the
    Norris Geyser Basin, hoping to see an eruption of nearby Echinus Geyser.
    Before you get to Echinus, you get to Steamboat. The geyser looks
    violent, but few stop very long to see the strange mixture of off-white
    and reddish hues around the geyser. Without a sign mentioning that it is
    the world’s largest geyser, signs I doubt most tourists bother to read,
    you would have no idea that Steamboat had any special place in geyser
    lore. It bubbles and spews out water, sometimes to heights of 6 to 8
    feet, but that is thoroughly unremarkable in Yellowstone. Geysers that
    don’t seem to have names often erupt to similar heights, and one quickly
    gets used to the landscape. Is it fog? Is it steam rising from a recent
    rain? Is it a thermal feature? Is it a forest fire? When you see white
    vapor in the sky, you constantly have to figure out what it might be.
    Thermal activity is constant, the weather often freakish, and forest
    fires (especially in late summer) a part of the Park’s life. On May 18,
    we saw Steamboat as one among many, a curious footnote of this intense
    and less famous thermal landscape.

    On May 23, Genevieve and I wanted to be romantic. Earlier that day, I
    had missed eruptions of Riverside Geyser, which I have never seen, and
    Grand Geyser, the world’s largest predictable geyser, each by half an
    hour. Never had I had such bad luck in the geyser regions. At dinner,
    we talked about potential evening destinations. An eruption of Grand
    would not happen until later that evening, and so that seemed
    impractical. We talked about going to the Canyon, but the mood was not
    right for heading into the mysteries of the “cave” and the spirituality
    required for such a getaway. Love has no numeric limits on the ways it
    may be expressed, but it does have logical limits on its scope. You
    cannot love two masters, one can rightly say, because the kind of love
    talked about is exclusive. How could you love both if both masters ask
    you to take contrary action? You will of necessity reject one or both
    masters. I have tried, in like vein, to be romantic in the Canyon’s
    cave, home of two extremely meaningful spiritual experiences. However,
    that was not the kind of love most appropriate for the cave. The goddess
    finds more appropriate expression on the boardwalks of places like Norris
    and West Thumb, Yellowstone Lake and places like that. Why? Sizzle and
    steam. What other answer can I give to such a question? I’m not going
    to make out with you on these boardwalks, experiment in remote caves, and
    show you what I mean. How can I explain a truth whose expression is so
    grounded in particular and unique experiences? Sizzle and steam. Fire
    and ice. The moon and the shooting star. The silence and the bugle of
    elk. Anyhow, having only been to Norris Geyser Basin only once the
    entire trip, Norris it was.

    Blind to the situation at Norris, with nothing more than a place to go on
    our hearts and minds, we headed toward Norris in the late afternoon. We
    passed by several animal jams, one of which turned out to be a sighting
    of a wolf, but we stopped for none of it. Maybe, I had a premonition.
    Genevieve is convinced that I did, but I don’t generally have
    premonitions, and I don’t think that was it. Premonitions may involve a
    kind of magic, but dumb luck is sometimes even more fun. As we
    approached the Geyser Basin, a huge cloud of steam appeared off to our

    “Something’s going off. I don’t know what, but it looks big.”

    We drove into the parking lot of the geyser basin, the steam cloud was
    dominating. I thought to myself, “Could that be Steamboat?” We got out
    of the car, and it rained mist onto us. The ground rumbled beneath us,
    as though the whole thing could be torn apart. “Was this Steamboat? Is
    that the right direction for Steamboat?” Excited, we both began running
    hurriedly toward the geyser. Tourists seemed unconcerned and unaware of
    the situation, and that seemed to suggest that maybe nothing was going
    on. On the other hand, there sure were an unusual number of cars in the
    parking lot.

    We ran and walked quickly.

    Then, there was Steamboat, pumping steam out of its vent ferociously, now
    at an inclined angle that extended hundreds of feet almost parallel to
    the earth. Not normally one to ask a lot of questions, I asked a woman
    nearby, “Is this a major eruption of Steamboat?” She said, “Yes. At
    2:30 today, Steamboat had a major eruption. It’s now in steam phase.”
    Steam phase? Who the heck cared? It was exciting and monumental, the
    rain in the parking lot half a mile away was like a baptism of sulphur.
    What luck? Steamboat? And, we just happened on it? We had seen a
    mountain lion, the first anyone I had ever known had ever seen in
    Yellowstone, several days before, but Steamboat Geyser? It never erupts;
    it never erupts in daytime, and certainly it was not going to erupt on my
    weeklong vacation when I just happened to be passing by. Yet, that’s not
    magical. That is just highly improbable. What was magic was the feeling
    that overcame me. What was this rumbling, this sight, this strange
    landscape, an almost nothing in the photographs I took, doing inside me
    and others who were around? We were amazed. It continued to shake us
    up. We looked at each other and knew giddily that this was something we
    were all sharing, all were blessed to share, in a beloved and mysterious

    The tourists…they mostly just walked by…

    A park service videographer showed up and started filming
    Steamboat and nearby Cistern Pool, which feeds the geyser.
    Cistern Pool eventually loses all its water during a major
    eruption of Steamboat. It had already lost some when Genevieve
    and I finally saw it.

    I ran all the way back to the car, which was still getting rained
    on, to get my camcorder. The rangers said that the cars risked
    having their paint jobs ruined. I ran back dancing and happy in a
    way I hadn’t been on a trip that was almost entirely happy. Soon,
    employees from the Old Faithful area started showing up. They all
    understood; they got it. The euphoria captured us all, and this
    grand event was ours to share. We didn’t know each other, but
    there we found ourselves talking. I even met a former work
    colleague from my days in Grant Village. Oh, what joy! This was
    the experience, where land brought people to look at the land,
    which brought these people together? How did this steam, this
    violence, this poisonous air, this rumbling bring such peace and

    We came for romance, but the love that evening was a different
    sort…the love of community and earth, of natural spectacle with an
    apparently unnatural effect on us. This was amazing. Genevieve
    and I found our moments of romance walking through the Porcelain
    Basin, though the area that originally inspired me to call this
    area “Venus on Earth,” but Venus is not merely a lonely goddess,
    incapable of knowing the fullness of love, the staggering insanity
    of its power. That was what was exciting, how integrated love
    seemed to be on this hellish landscape. Hell had been tempered by
    life, by trees, by us, by algae, and by the magical power of art
    and aesthetics.

    This evening ended early. It wasn’t my past, where nights on the
    boardwalk went on until 4am, where the steam and sizzle were
    simply in the backdrop of the intense connection between two
    people. This was much more complicated, much more interwoven,
    much more dazzling, and yet subtle. Steamboat Geyser’s major
    eruption was something special to behold. It gave new meaning to
    my beloved “Venus on Earth.”

    Wednesday, June 29, 2005

    Check out the DC Anti-War Network

    Here's the group I run with, the DC Anti-War Network (DAWN) at . I'm also on the board of the Washington Peace Center at .