Listen to the sound of tree limbs clashing deep in the primeval forest. ‘Klick!’ – It’s Doctor Strange on the offense, striving – ‘Klack!’ – to drive off the nefarious mystical spell castings of Baron von Mordo. My brother and me among the giant virgin pines in a Pennsylvania forest in 1963, acting out our favorite comic book fantasies as our parents set up our overnight camp. In those days we played at adventure and wandered magical worlds that are always open to imaginative travelers and children. Our family roamed the highways from Cleveland and the Midwest, circling the Great Lakes into Canada and driving south to Florida and east to Maine and the coast and along Appalachian ridges. We stopped at ocean beaches, floated in ‘glass bottom boats’ among the Everglades, gazed across rural landscapes from high mountain perches, peered up at the tall canyons of Manhattan and took in the futuristic wonders of the New York World’s Fair in 1965.
Growing up in the shadow of World War, I remember military aircraft flying in formation over the neighborhood when I was very young. Every Sunday we drove past an enormous parking lot filled with surplus tanks parked in the General Motors lot on our way to church. The weeks were punctuated by air raid sirens and school was interrupted by ‘duck and cover’ drills designed to stimulate the vivid nightmares of those of us who could contemplate the final fate of humankind.
An older boy who lived down the block kept pigeons in a coop on his upstairs back porch. The pigeons would circle over our houses every day. We kept a turtle in the back yard that our grandparents brought back from the road on one of their exotic yearly trips to California. This was before the Interstates were built, and the turtles were found crossing the two lane highways that made America interesting. In the winter the turtle would dig a hole in its little enclosure in which to hibernate. Every spring we anxiously awaited the resurfacing, coaxing the displaced beast with offerings of earthworms. Sometimes the turtle wouldn’t appear and that year our grandparents would bring us another.
My mother told me stories late in life about my very early childhood as an infant caught in the midst of a rivalry for attention between her and my grandmother, her mother-in-law. I carry almost no conscious recollections from those very early days when my parents shared a house with my grandparents. I have one dim memory of being pushed in a baby carriage by a very nice young woman who was my babysitter. She died of leukemia when still a teenager. Perhaps this was my first taste of grief. It could be that my mother only told me these stories in dreams. Maybe I’ve mixed up her stories with those of other relatives who are long gone.
The house I remember growing up in was located in an older part of town across the street from my great grandmother’s large corner dwelling. I spent hours upstairs in her kitchen, drinking coffee tempered with evaporated milk, listening to her tales of coming to America from the old country with her brothers early in the century. They opened a butcher shop in the neighborhood, when that part of the city was still mostly rural, the streets mostly dirt, yet to be covered in red bricks and later with asphalt when I was a teenager. There was still a butcher shop on the corner downstairs in the front of the large house, run by another family at the time. The large back yard was full of fruit trees and flower beds that my family would help her maintain. Just outside of the second story kitchen windows was a cherry tree that became the centerpiece of every summer when we climbed and picked the ripe and sour cherries. My younger brother fell from it one year and broke his leg, spending the remainder of that summer as an invalid perched in a bed that was set in our narrow downstairs dining room.
When I’ve gone back recently to visit the old neighborhood our old house still stands, in the very center of the block, slightly raised above the neighbors, and incredibly small. It’s hard to believe that four kids and two adults occupied that space for so many years, while my mother dreamed of the suburbs and argued with my father, who always hesitated, not one to take chances risks. Only after I had moved on into my independent life and my father died of lung cancer did my mother finally make the move that she dreamed of.
An Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser careens through the night along the rural roads of northern Ohio carrying three boys, almost men, probably stoned or drunk on something, composing poems out of the romantic words on road signs; “Pass With Care”, “Soft Shoulders”, “Narrow Curves.” The car was borrowed from someone’s parents. With the windows wide open and the moist breezes of northern forests wafting over us, we exulted in our futures and the promising scents of freedom and all things that grow.
I left home with a cloth sleeping bag slung by a rope over my shoulders, on my back my uncle’s old Korean War rucksack, the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ and an ‘Oxford Annotated Bible’ from my college years, a change of clothes and a few sandwiches and provisions stuffed inside. I’d spent three and a half years at a prestigious institution (Case Western Reserve University), learning much and experiencing much during years of upheaval (1968-1972) and finally left after my number came up late in the lottery for the draft. The experiences I had were mostly outside of classes that were interesting but appeared rather irrelevant at the time.
I said farewell to my mother (my father was at work) and walked down to the embankment alongside the brand new interstate. (As a teenager I’d watched it tear through my neighborhood several years before. We’d watched the bulldozers turn my best friend’s house into a pile of broken pieces, set fires to excavated piles of discarded brush, fought snow battles in abandoned dwellings, stalked and vandalized the huge road builders in the middle of the night.) I put out my thumb and was subsequently propelled across the whole wide land, to Colorado and California and up the West Coast through to Oregon and Washington to Canada, across the Rockies and the great wide flat northern plains and along the pebble beaches of Lake Michigan and back toward Cleveland. (My dad drove out from Cleveland to meet me and we had a glass of wine together in Ann Arbor. Between that meeting and my later departure toward the beaches of Florida I felt our connection deepen as we had grown beyond our frequent ideological conflicts over the war and he had come to acknowledge me as an adult.) I was young during my travels and learned very little, but I took it all in with a feeling of constant awe, collecting inside of me a map of memories, of North America and so many of the people that drift within it.
After all of these travels and all of these adventures, where have I arrived? Who and what am I exactly? Where do I live in relation to the boundaries between order and chaos? Am I descended from the sweet young boy that I see in an old picture feeding the gentle deer at a petting zoo? Am I the instigator of plots to vandalize the enormous machines that cut their way through my neighborhood to build the Interstate? Am I the respectful Zen practitioner bowing before his teacher, or the smartass student telling the President of the University approaching a student occupied ROTC building that I was a ‘gargoyle’ guarding the doors? Do I prefer to wander along the edges of civilization where artists and pirates, nomads, shamans and assassins are created?
I passionately defend what I believe in but hold all beliefs lightly. I welcome the challenge of argument. I’ve always been a terrible student, unable to stick with a specific teacher or any specialized program for very long. My mind is both expansive and contrarian, drawn to whatever knowledge threatens to challenge the prevailing view. Learning for me is a labor to fit what is novel into the larger pattern of what is known. Having found an accommodation between them my intellect has to move on. I’m open to all possibilities and apply equal amounts of skepticism and belief to anything that opens the doors to new encounters. I absolutely won’t tolerate the tunnel vision that substitutes repetitive memes of ideology for actual thinking and I avoid such as I would a reeking mound of decaying garbage.
I’ve been called ‘narcissistic.’ Perhaps anyone who parades their thoughts in public is a bit narcissistic, presuming to believe that anyone else would be interested in them. In a world of so much diversity and argument one has to be a bit narcissistic in order to call attention to oneself.
I’ve also been accused of being terribly judgmental and even intolerant. I believe that the good of the whole transcends the good of the few, but that the few have the absolute right to speak and I have the absolute right not to listen. I can’t decide for others the difference between right and wrong, true and false, sense and nonsense, but I reserve the right to exclude from my presence those who insist on unquestionable absolutes.
Also true is that I possess an undercurrent of terrible anger, passed down to me through generations of injustice, unkindness and the undercurrents of loving abuse. My primary struggle in this life is against being governed by the rage, instead using it as a barometer that fuels a kind of hypersensitivity and compulsion to expose the undercurrents of lies and tension encountered in the environment around me. This has lead to the most profound progress and the deepest damages in my life. It’s a catalyst that moves me from states of stasis to states of movement and change. For those around me and the collectives and organizations in which I participate it uncovers the cauldron, and my passion provides some of the fire and the heat.
My most influential teachers have been the cities I’ve lived in. Cleveland taught me that I could swim against the strongest tides of family, of religious and societal expectations, of powerful and destructive establishments, of accepted reality itself. In Cleveland I first walked through the doors of perception to glimpse the hidden schematics of the brain and its relation to the universe. Denver taught me about the irrefutable strength of collective will and how it can be activated, directed and abused by effective and charismatic voices. In Denver I learned about the secrets of leadership and it’s ability to channel the collective will. Since coming to Santa Fe I’ve learned to approach the world with a larger degree of skepticism and to examine every belief carefully before confusing it with ‘truth’.
In Santa Fe I’ve lived for 35 years, longer than anywhere else. Here all the previous lessons and teachings have coalesced, as I’ve been brought repeatedly face to face with myself and my shadows. Through two marriages, the raising of a child, my interaction with organizational structures both large and small, and in my most recent confrontations with cancer, disunity and extended solitude, I’ve come to view myself more clearly in all of my urgent creative and destructive glory. In the process I’ve gained and lost friends, loved and tormented myself and others, tasted the mechanics and powers of leadership and the dynamics of failure, and come to understand and accept the role I’m here to play.
Through all of this I’ve learned the deepest lesson of real magic; that it’s primary fuel is the human will. How, like the mysterious force of gravity it can bend and reshape the contours of the universe in strange and subtle ways. I’ve arrived after all these years at the boundaries of a world of perception that my comic book hero would find familiar.
In these days there’s a growing atmosphere that breeds bad mojo – bad magic born out of magical thinking, along with an army of con artists who thrive on fear and fantasy. It feels increasingly like the universe of Doctor Strange, where delusions and demonic forces constantly seek to break through and disrupt all sense of order, enslaving the populace to chaotic forces by encouraging their worst tendencies. In the process those whose greed for power compels them to pull the strings strive to gather more influence to themselves, using the maze of politics to entrap our best collective intentions.
I’ve long observed that the rules of our politics are almost identical to those of magic, both being forms of a somewhat occult practice of weaving spells of language intended to influence and manipulate perception and reality. The tools and technologies are the same, revolving around the language of signs and symbols, fueled by elements of human desire, collective will and the necessity of belief. Neither practice is inherently good or evil, although both magic and politics are concerned with an accumulation of power, and there are inherent dangers in such pursuit. The division between our intentions toward compassionate and self serving ends can become very cloudy when certain rules and cautions aren’t respected.
When battling demons or conjuring new possibilities it’s important to remember that no matter what we do or what we intend, the rule is that any consequences, intended or not, will inevitably come back to us. (This is the rule of karma.) It’s also important to realize that those around us, even our ‘enemies’, are mirrors, and we must strive to show them the same compassion we have for ourselves. It’s most important when exercising power to stay awake, to remember where we are and what is our intention. Aside from these three, all other rules are subject to change at any time and it’s a wild and utterly changeable reality out there.
Ultimately the barriers to our imagination and our creativity will continue to be thrown open. The more they open the faster we must collectively adapt to the changes entailed by new technologies and new ways of thinking and perceiving. I’m optimistic that we will ultimately succeed and survive, only because we always have up to this point.
Meanwhile we drift, moving across worlds of fantasy through the outer space of our imaginations, with David Bowie’s song ‘Life On Mars’ rising behind us, the cold star-flecked blue screen backgrounds making us feel contained within a dark velvet sparkling blanket of the infinite. We travel through imaginary light-years, our sense of security wrapped and belted within capsuled contraptions, religions, ideologies and conspiracy theories, breathing through failing apparatus, imagining new colors and new planets in the dark. At this point we require more than a destination. We need redemption and forgiveness for one another. I know there’s better light far ahead, but I don’t know what remains to be seen. When truth has been abandoned to illusion its anyone’s guess what will survive when daylight comes.
Evolution never passes at a familiarly comfortable rate. The entire world can leap forward in an instant, or else changes take decades and centuries longer than human memory can track. If my great grandmother, who told me stories over the kitchen table, were transported to the present a good part of her sensory apparatus would no doubt go into shock, able only to process small quantities of totally unfamiliar data at a time.
Evolution doesn’t stop for us or for any other part of this ever changing universe, or for anything on this infinitesimal pebble we call the earth. Energy becomes matter, matter becomes atoms and atoms molecules. Molecules evolve to become the elements and elements combine to become life. Life goes through billions of years of creation and extinction, followed by resurrection, and so it goes, over and again. Evolution in matter becomes evolution in biology, plants and creatures emerge out of the earth and perish in amazing spectacles of life, struggling through extremes of hot and cold and countless changes.
Various proposals have been made for the start date of a geological epoch called the Anthropocene, which marks the significant impact of human culture on geologic ecosystems. Some proposals date this as far back as 12 – 16,000 years and the birth of agriculture, and others to the rise of the industrial revolution in the last century. I believe both of these views to be extremely short sighted.
About six million years ago, at the end of the Miocene, heading toward the ice ages, appear the hominins, our most ancient biological tribe, largely defined by the length of our legs being greater than that of our arms as we began to walk upright. While the biosphere was coming to resemble what exists today our ancestors struggled to come to terms with their expanding brains until, age after age, we arrived in our present form of homo sapien around 315,000 years ago, and evolution at long last crossed a critical threshold. While biological evolution proceeded in obscure niches and mostly through extinction, life entered a new phase, one that can no longer be adequately comprehended outside of the mental space of the self-reflective human mind.
Human beings have taken evolution in a new direction, possibly beginning with the emergence of the first tribes and the creation of the first cultural artifacts. When we began to shape the objects around us to reflect the images that appeared in our minds, we moved beyond the instinctive collectivity of the insect colony, the herd and the protective hunting community and began to consciously and deliberately reshape the world around us in our own image. Human evolution can’t be understood in strictly biological terms, for it occurs within the complex interface between the self-conscious individual and the ever changing forms of the collective. Humans are artisans of culture.
What’s become evident in our time is the pervasive effect of our evolutionary process on the atmospheric and geologic environment that surrounds us. It’s becoming obvious that human culture is now the dominant influence in the ecosphere, as our collective decision making largely determines what will perish and what will survive on our world. We are the caretakers and the destroyers. The dialogue between the individual and the collective has come to fully govern the dialogue between human civilization and the natural world. In the end, nature itself becomes, in effect, a human artifact.
Evolution is generally depicted in visual models as a vertical structure, where simplicity advances through complexity, leading to ‘higher’ developments along a continuum of molecules, organisms, species, etc. The focus of evolutionary theory in biology is on the structure and development viewed through the lens of individual organisms or species. Human evolution is no longer determined by individual divergence and biological mutation, but by collective structures and behaviors in which the uniqueness of the individual can’t be separated from the circumstances and influences of the social construct of which they are a part. The visual depiction of this structure could be more appropriately horizontal, characterized by recurring themes that arise periodically along a timeline, then disappear, only to arise again and again amid novel historical contexts, their ‘permanent’ influence determined by the qualities of the interchange and the impressions left in a particular time and place.
There is a quality of ‘eternal return’ in the unfolding of human societies. It’s as if the species is on a quest to replicate externally hidden structures already present in human consciousness in order to perfect them within the contexts of ever new levels of social organization. In light of this I recommend pulling back from the insanities of the present to take a long view toward the possible future.
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
⁃ ‘Woodstock’ Joni Mitchell