Way back on 27 October 2008, more than seven years ago, when I was respected by some and I was busily, self-importantly holding down a “respectable” job, I penned the essay posted below. I’ve kept the title, added a brief introduction, and embedded a song.
Far too late in an unenlightened life, I realized there is no way out. Not out of Weippe. Not out of anywhere. The only way out is in. I doubt most folks in Weippe ever achieve that realization. Ditto for the human race. It’s difficult to focus on personal philosophy when you’re trying to pay the bills. We’re collectively committed to maintaining the system that allows us to pay the bills to such an extent we’ll snuff out every non-human species before we abandon our own sense of exceptionalism. Such is the arrogance of humanism.
The age of economic contraction reached Weippe early. My classmates who were willing and able to move when the old-growth timber was harvested from the area departed for Alaska and the west side of the Cascades in the 1980s. There’s nowhere left for them to go. Except inside, as always.
Or perhaps, to put a more atheistic spin on the situation, we can turn to Romanian philosopher and essayist E.M. Cioran in his 1976 book, The Trouble with being Born: “The certitude that there is no salvation is a form of salvation, in fact is is salvation. Starting from here, one might organise our own life as well as construct a philosophy of history: the insoluble as solution, as the only way out.”
Where will you spend your final days, weeks, months? And with whom, doing what? It’s later than most of us can imagine.
People dread the story that begins, “Back when I was a kid.” And with good reason.
You’ve been warned.
I grew up in a backwoods burg of a few hundred people. Known now as the first place the Corps of Discovery met the Nez Perce Indians, Weippe, Idaho was a timber town, back when timber was king. My childhood friends had fathers who worked in the woods, felling and bucking the trees that shot down the flumes into the nearby Clearwater River. I remember when the last log drive in the continental United States was shepherded down the river by hardy loggers with caulk boots and black, stagged-off jeans held up by red suspenders.
That was 1971. Before the first oil crisis. Before the Iran hostage crisis. Before broad knowledge of many planetary crises. Before globalization ruled our lives. Simpler times, for sure. Just about everybody in Weippe was an FDR Democrat, dedicated to strong workers’ rights and a decent social safety net.
Not all the good old days were good, of course.
Just a year before the last log drive, when I was 10 years old, I was walking the three blocks to school when I had an eerie feeling (or perhaps heard a noise, subconsciously). As I walked, I looked over my shoulder to see one of the town bullies pointing a rifle out his bedroom window, aimed at the base of my neck. If memory serves, he was 13 at the time. I kept walking, knowing enough to hide my fear. I thought so little of the incident I didn’t tell my parents for a couple decades. It just never came up.
Such were the consequences of being a bit weird in a redneck town in the early 1970s. Far worse things happened to really “odd” people, including hippies, Jews, and people of color. And there were no gays or lesbians, at least not in Weippe, in full view.
What made me odd? Mostly, I suppose, I was odd because I was the principal’s kid. As a result, I was one of the few youngsters in town who was often reminded that education might serve me better than a Hobbesian life in the woods. Mom and dad were both educators, so I read voraciously. Real trouble was hard to find — the meth labs hadn’t moved in, yet, and the country’s cultural revolution never actually arrived in Weippe — so I played outside and, when it rained or snowed, I read books. It rained and snowed a lot.
After a few visits to the town library, I clearly remember believing I would read all the books. And not merely all the books in the tiny library, but all the books. This fantasy died when I visited the stacks at the University of Idaho library. The bittersweet memories return every time I catch the musty whiff of old texts.
I graduated from crappy state universities and I work at one that’s the worst of the lot. And yet, despite poor educational institutions and serious swimming in culture’s main stream, I saw the world.
Actually, the world is spectacular. It’s the humans in the world I find disappointing, disturbing, and — to quote Nietzsche — all too human. Weippe is an excellent example. Overnight, all those FDR Democrats became Reagan Republicans, dedicated to growth for the sake of growth. They’ve traded in tomorrow for today by adopting the ideology of neoconservatism (and the cancer cell). And they, along with the rest of Americans, continue to memorialize the world as we destroy it.
But seeing the world, and experiencing its wonders (and its books), led to learning. And that has made me even more odd, in the eyes of most people, than when I was an odd 10-year-old. Now I’m not merely odd — I’m downright wacky, sheer terror to neocons everywhere.
A little education goes a long way. Education was my ticket out of Weippe. But I should have stopped at knowing a little about forestry instead of a little about humans, ecology, economics, and limits to growth. I’d be a happy neoconservative, rather than an informed — and haunted — liberal. I wouldn’t know our culture is violent, diseased, broken, irredeemable.
Ignorance is bliss. I need to get me some.