25 March 2019


Oceans perchance can be forgiven for unawareness of their own power. Such pelagic giants have concerns far larger than humans and animals. There is some suspicion that marine giants such as blue whales have insight into the machinations of the deep, but are notoriously silent in the relation of that knowledge. Silent, that is, if humans have not yet learned to listen and understand. As a species humanity has vast distances to cross before viewing even the outer walls of true understanding. In the interim humans have no need to comprehend titanic unself-consciousness in order to understand its effects. Look no further than the tide line, with its jetsam and wrack and faunal remains.

Freed from the shackles of economy and utility, beach combing is more about meditation than acquisition. Serenity can be found along the tide line while executing a patient search for that which is of interest, interest being defined as “you’ll know it when you see it.” The flotsam of ships afloat and under the waves. Natural curiosities. Shiny things. Strolling along the scalloped edge of retreating waves, a curious mind cannot help but be entranced by the leavings of the tide. The stories that could be told by shard or shell!

Stories are the root of the exploration. Every rounded lump of glass is an essay. Every man-made object is a codex. Every animal carcass, large or small, is a tome. All await the eyes and mind of the reader. What do we want to know? When his students were stuck for inspiration, the architect Louis Kahn advised them to ask materials for advice. “What do you want, brick?” was his famous question (the answer: “I like an arch”) and it was pointedly about creating engagement. To encounter a faded crab carapace or burnished chunk of driftwood is to be graced with an opportunity for wonder. Surely the sight of pearlescent fish bones fading into sand makes one pause, ponder, and ask “What brought you here?”

The tide line intrinsically serves as catalyst for the asking of that question, which in turn acts as mirror and reflection. Lying amongst the calligraphy of cast up seaweed are chapters and verses, tales of creation and life. The hummocks came from somewhere to end up here in the now. This state of affairs is the human condition writ large. People are not lumps of seaweed, obviously, but we know more than we can say about being carried along by currents we cannot fully perceive only to end up in places we may not have expected to inhabit.

Wandering along the laminar edge of the breakers’ last hurrah, there is much to be seen that is unremarkable. The homogeneous grit of sand interspersed with drab pebbles and uncountable shell fragments represents “beach” to many of us. This is ordinary. This is as it should be. The ordinary is crucial as it serves as backdrop to the extraordinary, those bits of glitter and opalescence that beckon fitfully to the eye as they are rocked by the waves. Especially in the sunlight the fragments call out. It is nearly impossible to resist the urge to bend low to pick such treasures up. We see them. We know these irregular shards as shells and as pages, cast up from books not written by the hands of humans. But they tell stories. Stories of long journeys and hard experience. Once they were whole, now echoes of something larger. The form is still here, different from the “used to be” which existed in that time referred to as “ago”. Different, but beautiful all the same. A pearly fragment in the surf is not so distant from us, tumbled as we are by circumstance and fortune, to emerge from the chaos with burnished edges and wondrous tales to share.

18 March 2019


Consider the oyster in its unassuming shell. It has neither the Fibonacci grace of a clam nor the sublime fluting of a scallop. Human prejudices tend towards beauty that does not admit of jaggedness and the rough. Perhaps it is so amongst the animal kingdom. Clams with their curves burrow themselves away from hungry eyes. Scallops lie on the sand, but they have speed to evade their enemies. Oysters grow in clumps, tucked in craggy armor, not giving a damn about passing predators.

Maybe oysters do give a damn about predators. Hard to say, by nature being quiet and sessile creatures. Is it jealousy they feel, abed and watching clams dig in and scallops gambol about the sea floor? This is a topic for serious investigation. Imagine a curious heart immersing itself in an estuarine embrace to visit among the oysters. Filter the water. Share salt with strangers for whom rapprochement begets gratitude. Tuck into bed and dream with them in the interstices of the tides. Patience receives its reward when the shells open. They may be amenable to sharing secrets once their bellies are full.

Secrets. Yes, this is it. Humble exteriors holding secrets. This helps explain the clumps, the ragged shells, the propensity for mud. Appearances deceive throughout all kingdoms, human and animal. The phrase “Do not judge a book by its cover” has many variants among the languages of earth. Yet humans often fall for the notion that virtue and worth are arbitrated by prettiness, shininess, and affluence. Judged by those characteristics alone oysters would seem to have no chance at becoming a regular foodstuff for Homo sapiens. Jonathan Swift wrote, in his book Polite Conversation, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”. Gazing upon inelegant shells strewn amongst the mud of the tide line, hard labor is not required of the imagination to understand the genesis of Mr. Swift’s epigram.

But was it boldness that drove the choice? Or was it an overarching hunger? Hunger was likely the prime directive. When the belly scrapes the backbone, who knows what one will do to put space between those two. That includes pulling unlikely manna from the muck. There is nourishment there, and beauty. These things are known by hunger when it exerts itself to open the tightly closed shells, freeing that which lies within. When that hunger transcends survival, the soul can then turn to boldness. It finds things hidden in the mud with secrets to be revealed and shared. Be bold. Shuck the oysters of the self. Drink the liquor, find the pearls, and spread them all before the light.

11 March 2019

Overturning the Bushel

Lux. Corpus lux! A folly of a translation, in service to the idea of we are but bodies of light. Or is it homines lumine, humans of light? Our bodies become an amalgam of stardust and intentions. Language itself becomes light. The gravity of Latin is ancient, its pull irresistible in the search for essence. These words! How far back must we travel to grip the soul of light? The gap between the experience of light and its description may never be closed. Words weep under duress of inadequacy, but they must make do. I can only blink my eyes and gape in wonder when it fills the around me, the sky above me, the heart within me.

Light all around. What was it like before humankind learned to paint it as it is known to modern man? Before electric light? As a teenager I camped one night under an unsullied canopy of stars. It was was enough to still my voice. My head filled with awe, dumbstruck by this highway of diamonds I never knew existed. A faint film of jealousy occluded my heart to know that long ago humans had experience of light never tainted by clever inventions. Jealousy because I wanted to know that, too. Such desire awakens to know these disappearing night skies because the universe turns fittingly. It is not due to artificial impositions of creatures who do not fully understand what they do.

Light reflected by water into sky. I laugh to myself. My fellow patrons in the coffee shop where I write don't notice my humor, or are polite enough to not stare. Do they know I dream here in the window? While I cannot see the water nearby, directly, it is visible in tiny slices if one looks carefully through the windows of the market cross the street. Some days there is no certainty if what can be seen is real, or just a figment. My mirth arises because I take comfort from the water in reality and in imagination. Water presents the light in an ever-changing familiarity of mien that we have never seen before but will always recognize.

Light. Where is this light we seek? How does it find us as it leaks through the slats, shines in the spaces between the leaves, illuminates our skin as we stand gaping under a sky so blue it makes the heart swell? This light, lovelies. This light that arrives and vanishes without warning. It fills the dreams and wakes us from the same, only to leave us confused and bereft but with comfort and hope. It will be back. Our light is fickle as we constantly hide it from ourselves. The soul can be a basket or a candlestick. To know in our lives the difference is a universal struggle. We are our own bushels, struggling to be overturned, that we may bring about the sharing of light.

04 March 2019

On the Horns of Mourning, Part 3 (End)

Mid-October at the ranges of Chimney Butte and Elkhorn. The cusp of winter on the plains and work is underway on a ranch house made of cottonwood logs. The main house would be finished by spring of 1885. Other buildings would follow, including a barn, a blacksmith shop, and a chicken coop. Theodore Roosevelt had ambitions to raise about one thousand head of cattle. One wonders how much of that ambition was driven by the relatively successful cattle raising season of the year before, and how much was driven by the need to grow something new from the ashes of grief.

If I could ask Teddy a question, it would be, from what was he running when he arrived on the ranch? He had a reputation for forthrightness which leads me to believe he would give honest answers to honest questions. He also does not appear to have talked much about losing his mother and wife. Perhaps his own version of the “man code” advised him to lock up the pain so as to not feel it. Certainly as a way to avoid displaying personal damage to the world. Displaying pain has often been taken as a sign of weakness, in personal and societal mores. History shows Theodore Roosevelt as the kind of man who placed great value on personal strength and courage. Given all that, my questions to him most likely would have been met with polite demurrals.

I have a clear idea of what he was escaping, though. Pain such as that is relatable. It is translatable. My respite from it would have to happen within. With limited exceptions there was no place to go but to the wilds of the mind. More so than usual, I began to live in my head. I ventured into the dense benighted thickets that became my emotional landscape in the months that followed. I had nowhere else to go and was at a loss to find anything better.

The soul as animal kept for study. Cranium as vivarium, the only safe place for that animal to roam. Its security I augmented by undertaking long walks in the woods and by water. Hiking provided relative solitude in what was far from frontier country. Birds and deer and the occasional fish became my herds of cattle, free ranging through the the parks and river. Boulders served as impromptu rocking chairs on riverbanks serving as porches. I took counsel from wind in the leaves and water flowing over rocks. Voices such as theirs beckoned me back from the black edge at the end of the universe. It is safe to say that nature had a direct role in preventing my dissolution.

Solitude in conjunction with the natural world allows hearts and minds seeking respite from trauma to find their respective levels. Solitude and nature are undeniably restorative, a gift that is integral to what they offer to human beings. I conjecture that Theodore Roosevelt understood this, and he was fortunate to have the resources to act on it in such direct, spectacular fashion out on the western edge of the Dakotas. My circumstances were more modest, but no less worthy and helpful. I never made it to the Territories in the physical world. I wish I could have done so. In my mind I have a different story. I would join our past President on the porch of his ranch house, with a rocking chair and a good book. Out there in the gold light of summer afternoons, Teddy and I would share our experience on the surviving of grief, with nary a word having to be spoken. We both understand being gored by the horns of mourning.