Author Archives: Brown Dirt Cowboy

Ninety-nine

I took a quiet walk in the old growth at Overton Park yesterday. It’s the park of my youth, where I spent many days at the playground, the zoo and searching for secret places. Much has changed, but the most important things remain unchanged, thanks to a handful of conservationists and good thinkers.

The leaves are just starting to turn in the Upper Delta, and our colors should be good this year thanks to good rainfall and cool nights. As I walked along the moistened path, my mind raced back fifty years and to the simple joys I had here. I felt grateful to still be here, winding through the oaks, elms, box elder and pawpaw trees, enjoying the fall display and unmistakable quiet. After a couple of near death experiences in recent years, every moment on this side of the dirt means a lot.

Overton is an old park acquired by the city of Memphis in 1901. In those days, it would have been on the eastern edge of the city. Memphis was born at the foot of the Mississippi River and grew eastward from downtown. We almost lost the park in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when “planners” (terrorists) decided to extend a dreadful interstate through the heart of the park. But some clever and energetic nature lovers, including a few with very deep pockets, blocked it and saved the park with a case that eventually reached the Supreme Court. That effort eventually became The Overton Park Conservancy, and they’re still active today fighting the nitwits at the zoo who want to claim additional acreage for parking.

Today, Overton is an urban park deep in the city surrounded by a mix of upscale, historic homes but only a stone’s throw from poverty, hopelessness and high crime. In that sense, it’s not unlike many other urban parks, except this is my native park. This is my community. My home and one that I share with hundreds of non-human species.

Memphis is 65% African American, but the trails, both here and at Shelby Farms slightly east of here, are mostly used by white people. Thanks to institutionalized racism, we’re generally better educated and affluent and therefore have more leisure time. Too many in our African American community, thanks to the failures of Reconstruction and one hundred years of Jim Crow, are struggling just to keep the lights turned on. They often work multiple jobs. Who has time for nature walks when MLGW is getting ready to cut off your lights? Life isn’t equal behind The Magnolia Curtain.

It’s a sad situation as nature, especially wilderness (assuming there’s any real wilderness remaining), has such healing power. In order to really know how the world works, you need time in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. To escape the tedium of driving through traffic to work for taskmasters that hold equity you’ll never get your hands on. It seems the great American outdoors is the private playground for those with wealth, great educations and leisure time. It’s the domain of the Patagonia crowd with their Subarus adorned with bike racks and prep school decals. And that’s a shame, because the natural world belongs to all of us. How can a child function successfully in the world if it doesn’t understand how the world actually works?

But Overton is waits, quiet and still, as it has been for the millennia. It waits for all. All it needs is more lovers.

Ninety-eight

There’s an article in the Financial Times suggesting we should be prepared for chip wars. This is in addition to all of our other wars. Actual wars, either where we’re directly involved or via proxy. The war on climate change, one where we’re losing badly. The war on poverty. Also losing badly. Been to San Francisco lately?

But we are doing well in other wars. The war on women and brown skinned people is going well for Republicans thanks to two big weapons. Stacking the judiciary and gerrymandering are the atom bombs of modern political science.

As a nature lover first and a technologist second, I’m not naive about technology. There’s a vast amount of evidence that clearly proves it’s not benign. In fact it’s often harmful. Exhibit A is atomic weaponry. Exhibit B is the combustion engine. Exhibit C is the wrongheaded belief that technology will solve our climate issues. I suppose that one is still not completely known, but Vegas has planetary destruction at -30 points. For non-betting types, that means our failure is assured.

And now we have a chip war. I will admit that technology is what makes it possible for me to create a blog post critical of technology. This screed was typed on a lovely Apple Mac, sending bytes of information into the cloud and therefore into a big datacenter somewhere that uses prodigious amounts of energy. What this new war is really all about is profit. U.S. companies wanting larger margins and more control. That’s what companies do. But I still find having the word “war” interdigitated with “profit” a troubling thing. It usually means we’re willing to do things that will harm other people or nations in order to make more money. That’s what “Christian” nations do and the more wars the merrier.

We’re #1!

“Greed, the profit motive, is the ugliest thing in America, the closest we’ve got to pure evil; even the nuke bomb, SDI, the arms race, are based essentially on greed-greed for money, greed for power.”-Edward Abbey

Ninety-seven: My Journey In Environmentalism and It’s Failure

In the late 80’s, I was a young aspiring business guy trying to establish myself professionally. I was clueless about environmental matters, although I’d always been drawn to nature. I was a full participant in the Reagan world of profits and wealth building.

Then one day while buying a bicycle, I noticed a copy of Outside Magazine near the counter of the bike shop. The cover was adorned with a pretty girl sitting outside a tent, camping in some fantastic looking locale. It struck me as the perfect scene, and I’d always thought camping would be fun. I bought the magazine. Pretty girls on covers work.

When I got home, I took the mag out to the patio with a cold Lowenbrau (they were in back then) and started flipping through the pages. One article caught my eye. It was about Edward Abbey, this curmudgeonly defender of wilderness. The article talked about environmental degradation and Abbey’s belief that capitalism was a key culprit. Overdevelopment, misuse of resources, etc. Our house sat adjacent to a golf course, and as I peered out over the fairway, I started to question things. I thought, “Am I one of the bad guys? What am I doing?”

It wasn’t hard to push me to new ideas, because I’d always been curious and was starting to see the flaws in the story I was told about the American dream. I was fertile ground for life changing ideas.

There was no Amazon in those days, so I had to go to the local library (what a wonderful idea…a library!) in order to find some books by this Abbey fellow, and I did. One was a collection of essays, The Journey Home, and the second was his well known novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. I read both in days during a practically non-stop reading binge that changed the trajectory of my life.

I read all of Abbey’s books, and in doing so, was introduced to other important writers and a new group of friends on a list-serve devoted to Abbey. I discovered Gary Snyder and Arne Naess. Robinson Jeffers. Richard White, Joel Kovel. And by reading their works, I discovered a bunch of new-and some really ancient- ideas. Bioregionalism, green economics and the return to the commons. I learned that the core problem with our environmental crisis was growth capitalism, a system where economic growth trumped all, a system that existed outside of any concept of biological or geophysical limits.

I dove headfirst into green economics, trying to find a way to make capitalism more sustainable. I was eager and thirsty for more knowledge. I fell in love with Northern California and its bioregion. It’s flora, fauna and culture, especially its poets. In a very short amount of time, I went from a typical Brooks Brothers corporate toadie to a desert loving anarchist.

My wife wasn’t so thrilled. She was mostly concerned with income for our family, and understandably so.

But it was an exciting time for me. In the early 90’s, there was accelerated interest in organic foods. More people were getting outside. There was a boom in cycling, hiking and backpacking, and I felt like more and more people were discovering the wonder of the natural world. We’d moved close to the Smoky Mountains, and I was hiking and backpacking on a regular basis. I became a bike commuter, diligently placing my belongings in my panniers and heading off to work each day. My entire outlook on life had changed, and the possibilities seemed promising.

One particular friend on the west coast taught me how to really think. He taught me how to question and look behind what I call the “hype.” For example, you say electric cars are a solution. But how are the batteries made? What materials must be mined in order them to work? Where are they mined? How? He taught me that there’s no “free lunch” when it comes to how our economic system operates within the natural world.

But all that thinking can lead you to some dark places. Thirty years later, my optimism has waned. I still believe those things, but I’ve lost hope for our planet and in the left’s ability to accomplish things. Our planet is basically a simmering crock pot and there are no acceptable solutions. Corporate America has of course seized the day and turned planetary gloom into an opportunity for profit. California’s governor and the President have bought into the false notion that everyone needs an electric car. That’s what will save us. There’s never any talk about better mass transit. Reduced use and consumption. Constructing local economies that exist within biological limits. But there’s plenty of talk about technology taking us to other planets we can fuck up. It’s an Orwellian nightmare where technology and the profit motive, not good thinking, will save us.

In order for the planet to thrive, its human inhabitants must change behaviors, but there’s no will to do so. Not on a large enough scale. Those in poverty or close to it are mostly concerned with keeping the lights turned on and being able to afford food and healthcare. Reading books on science and topics like bioregionalism are the last things on their mind. I get it. I know these things, because I’ve had a high income and enough leisure time to educate myself. A single, exhausted mother likely does not.

Unfortunately, an poorly educated population is easily duped, and are ripe ground for people peddling false promises, including technology.

Abbey wrote about the dangers of the misuse of science in his essay, “Science With a Human Face,” where he states


“…science in our time is the whore of industry and war and that scientific technology has become the instrument of a potential planetary slavery, the most powerful weapon ever placed in the hands of despots…it may even be the case that the situation has so far deteriorated that the only appropriate question now is whether or not technology will succeed in totally enslaving mankind before it succeeds in its corollary aim of destroying life.”

The reason we can’t solve the problem of climate change and general environmental degradation is there’s no will. The free market rules all and anything that threatens profits and growth is an anathema. A non-starter with our bought and paid for whores in Congress.

What’s left doing? They’re marching right along with the electric car idea, despite the fact most of them can’t come close to affording one. Today, the left is consumed with their causes du jour like pronouns and have lost their traditional power block of blue collar workers. That’s how in FDR’s time, Democrats won elections by wide margins. Today, when they do win, the margins are razor thin, and the reason is messaging.

Major environmental organizations (The Nature Conservancy is a notable exception) have failed. At some point, they became feckless marketing organizations more interested in driving membership sales than in fighting for legislation with teeth. They’re all on the electric car bandwagon because Bill McKibben said so. Then again, maybe McKibben is right. Perhaps he realizes that Americans are not going to change lifestyles and will only accept a solution that perpetuates the economic status quo. After all, we’re not a nation of thinkers. We’re a nation of buyers and travelers and zipping around in an Amazon world.

Meanwhile, our planet, the only one we’ll ever have, is dying. I’ll die before the final ugly dystopian scenario plays out, but my children and grandchildren will likely be here. A lot of folks will turn to god, whatever that is, and say it’s the end times. Perhaps it will be the end times, and on that point, I’ll leave you with the poet Jim Harrison’s final poem. He dropped dead while writing it.

A good death.

In unease the earth turned itself inside
out when its gravity fled. All of us
fell off the earth. I was in Africa
at the time and fell near an elephant.
I made my way to her and stretched
out on her stomach for protection
from the polar cold of the high atmosphere.
I caught a couple of passing
tomatoes to eat and a bottle of whiskey.
The earth used to be God’s body
but he took too many wounds and abandoned it.
He left us with the husk we made
of his body like a wasp’s nest.
Man shits his pants and trashed God’s body

Ninety-six

I go out less these days. The traffic, noise and crass behavior of humans is too much. Instead, I spend more time in my garden, watching the birds, talking to my dog and cat. They’re great listeners.

I often contemplate the folly of humans. Our profound ignorance. But I also consider the simple genius of the Sioux, moving as environmental and seasonal conditions changed. Moving south in the winters, north in the summers. A better lifeway.

And what do we do? We build enormous cities and golf courses in deserts and destroy the delicate balance of ecosystems systems. It’s because we have a ravenous appetite for development and profits. Money lust.

Black Elk aptly described our money lust when he first encountered white men, Wasichu, on the Madison Fork during the gold rush. He described gold as “yellow metal that they worship and that makes them crazy.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Ninety-five

Life offers us simple pleasures like clean, cotton sheets. They’re so wonderful when you climb into your bed after a long day. Even better is when you were a kid and your mother fluffed the sheets over you like a tent canopy before your bedtime story.

Ninety-four

If I had to choose between saving the life of a rattlesnake or the governor of Florida, I’d choose the snake. Both are merciless, but the rattler at least serves a purpose central to life. The snake doesn’t go out of its way to commit random acts of violence or to hurt people. It eats its share, procreates and attempts to avoid confrontation. It gives reasonable warning. The governor, on the other hand, goes out of his way to hurt people. He’s boastful. Proud of his acts. I’d prefer the snake as a neighbor.

Ninety-three

I hear the hummingbird before I see it. The slight buzzing sound of its wings alerts me.

Looking upward, I see it at the feeder taking a sip.

But its time is brief as a second bird zooms in to chase it away.

The birds continue their tussle for supremacy, apparently unaware there are enough spaces for both to share.

Oblivious to cooperation, I realize they’re like humans, fighting needlessly for territory and resources when there’s obviously enough for all.

It makes me sad to reconsider Hobbes.

Ninety-two

I never wanted a job. Jobs always struck me a type of prison, being beholden to a hierarchy, always chasing money and inevitably, more things. But I got one and never escaped. As I entered the business world in the 1980’s, the Depeche Mode song Everything Counts constantly played in my brain.

The grabbing hands grab all they can
All for themselves, after all
The grabbing hands grab all they can
All for themselves, after all

It’s a competitive world
Everything counts in large amounts

I married young, had children and needed a steady income to support my family, so off to work I went taking my place amongst the corporate toadies in a sick, sick world.

What I really wanted to be was a surfer. I spent a lot of time on beaches in college and instantly fell in love with what I perceived as a life way. Man in nature, seeking zen like bliss as the mighty ocean carried you with its great power to shore.

For me, surfing was never about conquering the ocean or the wave. It was about finding unity with it.

In those days, I imagined living in my Japhy Ryder hut near the beach. Futon, small table and a wall of books. I’d also be a poet. I’d have an old record player and all sorts of albums. Miles Davis, old tiki and surf tunes. Depeche. An old Volvo wagon with a surf rack. A beautiful, carefree girlfriend with mocha colored skin and sparkling, loving eyes. She could never imagine life with me and the ocean. Waina, mushrooms, sex. An adequate, simple life, uncomplicated by the ceaseless demands of an otherwise sick society.

To make ends meet, I’d rent chairs and umbrellas on the beach and hopefully sell some poems. One day I’d be a widely published writer signing books filled with nature poems for throngs of adoring fans, mostly women, of course. It was all mapped out, at least in my hopelessly romantic brain.

But as John Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. I suppose you could say I made a choice for a different life, and that is true. But I was always bound to responsibility, especially to the people I love, so I gave up the dream, cut my hair, got a suit and opted for decades of corporate torture.

I had a brief period in the 1990’s where I started an outdoor oriented venture. I was heavy into backpacking and Edward Abbey in those days and was fortunate to spend a of time hiking and backpacking in the Appalachians. Likely the best years of my adult life. The plan was to lead corporate types on backpacking trips in an effort to help them recapture their souls. Unfortunately, the money was poor for so many nights lying on the dirt, so I kicked the idea to the curb. I also came to believe that most corporate types were beyond redemption. They might have a few days of loving nature, but they’d almost all go back to their drudgery.

But unlike me, they’d like it. The wealth building. Gradually buying bigger houses and joining exclusive country clubs. There’d be second homes. And almost always at the expense of the natural world and on the backs of employees that make a fraction of what they made. You just can’t build financial wealth without hurting something in the process. It’s not possible.

So I went back to my own corporate life and ushered in the most depressing years of my life. Business issues forced us out of East Tennessee and its lush mountains and back to the place of my birth in the Upper Mississippi Delta. Memphis. A place known for its high murder rate, terrible infant mortality rate, failing schools and racial tension. I made more money than at any period in my life doing tech work and was ceaselessly unhappy.

My wife decided it was time for an intervention and invited my aunt, a medical doctor and a personal hero of mine, to our home to confront me. The solution was pills. It was abnormal for me to not be happy living in a highly violent city with no mountains, desert or beach. I should be happy in this concrete hell hawking technology and paying taxes. The suburbs were magnificent! All I needed were some pills to dull my senses and beat back the normal tendency of my brain which was me this place sucks and to get out.

After that, I decided to keep my feelings to myself and use writing as an outlet. I joined a writers group and took some courses in creative writing at UCLA. It was a much needed salve and outlet for my frustration and provided me with a way to cope. Truth be told, I’m not very good at it. At least not good enough to sell books. I got A’s at UCLA, but a man has to know his limitations.

Last week, I returned to the beach with my family and grandchildren. The weather was poor, but that meant the surf was high. All the old memories came flooding back as I watched the warm, green Florida surf pound the beach. I was 20 again. My blonde hair had returned and was down to my shoulders. I’d just caught a glassy left and sailed through the tube like a missile, eventually riding the white water back to the sugary beach. The powerful Florida sun blazed across my back tanning my skin to a deep, dark brown. And yes, this is a fantasy, because there are rarely “tubes” in Florida. It’s just 3-4 foot choppy surf that might keep you up on the board for a few brief seconds and last week, the water was brown thanks to the storms and prodigious amount of Sargassum seaweed. It’s not great for postcards but is great for marine life, especially young sea turtles.

As I day dreamed, my charming three year old grandson woke me and took my hand. As he guided me to the water he said,

“Hey Pop, let’s play!”

At that moment, everything felt as if it had come full circle. Perhaps all that corporate suffering had lead me to this point, because it’s doubtful I would have had my children and this special moment outside of that path.

Everything was ok. Ua ola loko i ke aloha (loves gives life within)

Ninety-one

Sometimes you only have to step 3 feet to the left and the whole insane machine goes roaring by.Lew Welch

Back to poetry. It was always my first love, something I discovered early in high school. It’s why I chose English as a second major. The only problem was skill. I sucked at poetry.

Eventually, I discovered the Beat poets, and they opened up a whole new world for me. The rigidity of meter and rhyme (what Lew Welch called “terrible academic dry-ball non-sense”) seemed broken and the language of the streets ruled. Lew Welch was my favorite, of course. He was probably the darkest of the Beats and died of suicide, much like Sylvia Plath, another favorite. It’s disturbing that I’m drawn to such people.

But I deeply connected to that Northern California group of writers, including the much older Robinson Jeffers. I always felt I had found “my people.” Then I fell away. Started writing personal essays, rants and whatnot. Too afraid of the hard work that it takes to be a poet and deeply disturbed by rejection, I stopped.

Funny thing, though, as I rearranged some things on my bookshelves, Lew’s work, “How I Write as a Poet & Other Essays” fell from shelf as if a ghost of my former self had tossed it upon the floor, forcing me to look. I looked, and those pathways reopened.

As I struggled through the first two lines, instead of becoming discouraged, I thought “this is how it’s supposed to be.” I’m not Sylvia Plath (few come close to her genius), and I’m not Lew Welch. But if Lew were alive, he’d likely tell me to just keep going, to just let it flow.

It’s kinda like my garden. I bought a new house late last year, and I had no idea what would emerge in the spring. I had to be patient and wait. Something would blossom and be a thing of beauty.

So this is spring. Patiently waiting for summer.

Ninety

Valentine’s Day doesn’t rank high on the favorite holiday’s list with most men. It’s more of a pain in the ass than a pleasure, a minor holiday that can cause major problems if you’re in a relationship with someone that cares about it and forget to play your part.

It originated as a Christian feast day, but in modern times has evolved into a feast of capitalism. It’s a Hallmark holiday where you’ll find thousands of desperate men roaming the card and flower sections of grocery stores striving for that perfect, but minimal, last minute symbol of affection for their beloved.

If you’re in love, it’s a fine day, but if you have no one in your life, I suppose it can be painful or just nothing at all.

I actually have fond memories of Valentine’s Day. It always struck me as a cheerful holiday whereas Easter was about some poor dude getting nailed to a cross. At Christmas, you could get coal in your stocking. Halloween was about ghouls, but I did have a strange fascination with darkness. I can remember sitting in elementary school making Valentine’s, pasting white doilies to red and pink pieces of paper and writing messages to imaginary people. Or mom. I recall making them for my mother, although I’m sure she took little notice of them.

And therein lies the roots of my lifelong obsession with love and romance. Goddamn mother issues. Rejected by mum, I decided to pursue women with great fervor and kept myself surrounded by girls and later, women. I wrote my first love letter in second grade to a girl named Gail Hilliard who quickly rejected my advances in favor of some kid named Kirk Christian. Odd that I still remember their names. I remember running into her at a college party and reminding her I had written that letter. For the rest of the party I remember her looking terrified and not straying far from a protective circle of friends.

I followed up second grade with my first official girlfriend, Cynthia. I doubt she remembers me, but I remember her and her straw colored blonde hair like it was yesterday. Good thing I had a wonderful, patient teacher, Mrs. McRae, because I’m sure she knew I wasn’t the least bit interested in actual schoolwork. It was a pattern that would continue unabated until my senior year when I all of the sudden had a moment of clarity and realized I better focus less on girls and more on books.

The torrid love affairs began high school. Well, mostly lust driven relationships, as I was a quite randy young man. Patricia was my first. A buxom blonde that was sweet as a Keat’s sonnet. I lost my virginity with her in the backseat of a ’77 Oldsmobile at the MidSouth Fair while wearing a cast on lower right leg. It was a bit of challenge getting my Levi’s down my leg, but my determination was sufficient. Deep love didn’t happen until college, with my Irish lust goddess Erin, and while the relationship ended in heartbreak for me, I realized in later years I had dodged a bullet with Erin. She was a beautiful, supremely intelligent young woman, but her life took some very dark turns.

But the roots of my lifelong quest for love are rooted in being rejected by my mother. No little boy needed a mom’s love more than me, but I never had it. She handed me off to my grandmother, a saint of a woman, but it’s never like being loved by your own mother. So I went on a quest, a conquest actually, for the love of women.

I needed a lot of them. They became a salve of sorts, healing my old wounds. Prodigious numbers were needed to convince me I wasn’t damaged goods. I collected women like baseball cards. Some were of great value, while others were little more than stock variety, sacrifices to my relentless ego and insane sex drive. Nothing meant as much to me as being cradled in the arms of a naked woman.

Then one day, I finally figured out what true love really is. It wasn’t a passionate embrace in an art gallery. Kissing in the Parisian rain. Writing a love poem or making love in the desert. Love is best described, in the words of Robert Heinlein, “that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”