My Great Year for National Parks, Monuments, and Forests

A Joshua tree in bloom at Joshua Tree National Park

June 2016 through August 2017 has been an incredible one year and three months for me for visiting United States’ National Parks, Monuments, and Forests. The National Parks and Monuments are managed by the National Park System, the National Forests by the United States Department of Agriculture. They are all among our nation’s national treasures and I am so grateful that we decided, as a nation, that there are some things too beautiful and rare to be despoiled for short-term material gain.

I’ve also been to many National Historic Sites over the course of this same period, but the journeys I’m focusing on here have been all about enjoying my country’s spectacular and incredibly varied natural beauty in just these few of the greatest of our natural preserves…

1 – Zion National Park, Utah. Panoramic view from Observation Point which overlooks the Virgin River canyon from 6,507 feet, June 2016

The Narrows, Zion National Park, is a slot canyon formed by the North Fork of the Virgin River. Most of the hike through this amazing formation is done by wading through the river. It’s wonderfully refreshing on a hot day but it’s also hard on your feet, hiking on and among slippery rocks while your feet are continuously soaked

Enjoying cold milk (it’s a very good thermos) and salty bacon at after the hot, steep hike to Observation Point, Zion National Park

2 – Bryce Canyon, Utah, a panoramic view, June 2016

A windy day at Bryce Canyon. The evening before we were to return home from that trip to Zion and Bryce, my companion and I heard that it was going to be a clear night. So we packed up our Zion campsite that evening and returned to stargaze from above and among the rock turrets and canyons at Bryce, a prime place for viewing the night sky nearly free from light pollution. We ran into a trio of night sky photographers, and they let us look through their cameras and see the starlight they had captured throughout the night.

3, first visit – Yosemite National Park, California. Tenaya Lake from Tioga Pass, June 2016

Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Valley, still gushing in June. When I return later that year, it will look very different

4 – Grand Canyon, Arizona. View from South Kaibob Trail, August 2016

On the South Kaibob Trail on the way to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. This was a whirlwind trip: I had just been in Southern California to visit family and had only a few days off work. I took the last two days of this precious time off to go to the Grand Canyon because I’d never been, an unacceptable state of affairs. I woke up very, very early in the morning, drove from Southern California to the Grand Canyon. I arrived about 3 pm, and chose this quicker, steeper hike to the canyon floor, which I reached not long after sunset. After a scolding from a fox, whose den I had stumbled into while exploring in the half-light, I spent a rather hot, buggy, restless night with just a ground tarp and sleeping bag, arose very early, and hiked out of the canyon via Bright Angel Trail. It was gorgeous, and fortunately, the first third or so of the trip followed the course of a creek where I was able to bathe my hot head, arms, and legs from time to time. I arrived at the rim around noon, and once the bus returned me to the car, I began the drive straight back to Oakland, with one break at a truck stop to take a shower. I arrived home very early in the morning, took a nap, and reported to work as usual at quarter to eight, stiff, sore, and glowing with adventure. By the way, in ordinary circumstances, I don’t recommend a hike into and back out of the Grand Canyon immediately succeeded by a twelve-hour, straight-through drive. Straightening and moving my limbs became far more difficult each time I got out of the car, and by the time I got to work, I could hardly manage a hobble. But we had been understaffed at work for a long time and I needed to break away and do something fantastic, so it was well worth it.

View of Grand Canyon walls from Bright Angel Trail, September 2016 Amy Cools

View of Grand Canyon walls from Bright Angel Trail

3, second visit – Yosemite National Park, California, a view featuring Half Dome from the Yosemite Falls – El Capitan Trail, September 2016

At Yosemite Falls overlook. The Falls had dried up by this time.

Panoramic view from the El Capitan Trail, September 2016. What a beautiful hike! Long and steep in places, but great places to rest. Be sure to bring plenty of water and a filter in case you need more, there’s none to be had up here. I was pretty thirsty by the time I finished.

5) Canyonlands National Park, Utah, December 2016

A view of Canyonlands National Park, December 2016 Cools

A view of Canyonlands National Park

6 – Colorado National Monument, Colorado, panoramic view, December 2016

At Colorado National Monument, December 2016

Bighorn sheep at Colorado National Monument, December 2016

7, first visit – Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, Idaho. Lochsa Lodge on the day of my arrival, January 2017. I was on a literary retreat and had decided to keep my camera put away and enjoy nature thus undistracted this time. It was beautiful here, covered in snow, and the natural hot springs by Warm Springs Creek were glorious

8, first visit – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. At the north gate’s Roosevelt Arch, Montana, January 2017

Canary Spring with Mount Everts in the distance and bison near the lake below, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Bison at Yellowstone National Park. During my visit, despite the cold and deep snow, I saw plenty of wildlife, including elk, many species of birds, deer, and a red fox

9 – Joshua Tree National Park, California, panoramic view of Hidden Valley, March 2017. This park is especially dear to my heart

Joshua Tree, pencil cholla, yucca, and blue blue sky, in the Mohave Desert portion of Joshua Tree National Park.

A natural sphinx among the sun’s rays and above the yucca plants

10 – Pinnacles National Park, California. I was here this year in March 2017, but I didn’t take any pictures during that visit. I was on another one of those literary retreats, and I decided to repeat my no-cameras-in-nature policy from last retreat. My companions and I saw many more California condors on this trip than I had seen during my earlier visits here, and since it was early in the year before the heat of the summer, there were many wildflowers. I took this photo and the next during one of my earlier visits, in July 2013.

At Pinnacles National Park, July 2013

11 – Olympic National Park, Washington. A view of its stunning mountain peaks, May 2017. Excuse the shadow in the corner, I keep my mini tablet in a sturdy case since I carry it hiking and just about everywhere else with me; I can take great photos with it as well as write on it comfortably. The case offers better protection than any other I’ve found, but its camera opening is a little misplaced, requiring I nudge the tablet over before I take a photo. I forgot this time, as I all too often do

At another overlook in Olympic National Park, May 2017

Panoramic view of Olympic National Park from Hurricane Hill. You can see the ocean near Point Angeles in the distance to the left

7, second visit – Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, Idaho, in the Bitterroot Mountains. A view from a trail not far from Wendover Creek’s West Fork, July 2017. This time, I camped near Lochsa Lodge at Powell Campground, then hiked, or attempted to hike, the Wendover Ridge trail that the Lewis and Clark expedition trekked over this mountain. I got in a very hood hike indeed, but lost the trail. It’s not often used and I had no guide who is familiar with it, so I ended up off-trail quite a bit. I was not disappointed, however: it was a glorious adventure.

Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, a view from near Wendover Ridge, July 2017

8, second visit – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Wyoming, July 2017

At the summit of Mt Washburn, Yellowstone National Park. My elation is pretty evident in this photo

12 – Custer-Gallatin National Forest, view from the high point of Beartooth Highway near the Wyoming/Montana border, July 2017. They closed the high point of the pass late night through early morning, and since I was driving through a little after midnight, I pulled off to sleep. So glad they closed the road. I saw the most incredible array of stars before I went to sleep, and I woke up to this view.

Custer-Gallatin National Forest, view from Rock Creek Vista, Montana, off Beartooth Highway

13 – Black Hills National Forest, entering Black Elk Wilderness on the Black Elk (formerly know as Harley Peak) Trail, July 2017

View of the Black Hills with a Rocky Mountain goat from Black Elk Peak, July 2017

14 – Badlands National Park, South Dakota, July 2017. I passed through this park on a long drive and didn’t get to spend much time, but admired what I did see greatly. I will be back!

Passing from the Badlands into the Pine Ridge Reservation, July 2017

15 – Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota, overview of Kabetogama Lake from Blind Ash Bay Trail, August 2017

On some very ancient rocks at Voyageurs National Park. The exposed rocks at this park date as far back as 2.8 billion years, over half the age of the Earth itself.  Such ancient rocks are exposed here because the park contains the edge of the Canadian Shield, an ancient volcanic bedrock that’s been exposed in places by glaciers that passed through here then disappeared around 11,000 years ago. The rocks I visited are not that old, but they are very old indeed. Grace, a geology enthusiast and employee of the National Park Service, was excited at my inquiry about the geology of the park (her fellow National Park Service employee watched our interaction with an ‘oh no, here we go again! look), and she took me on a tour of some nearby ancient formations. The one I’m sitting on is one of those.

A garter snake sticks out its red tongue on an ancient rock at Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

16 – Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, panoramic view of Painted Canyon, August 2017

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, another view of Painted Canyon. Unfortunately, I also got to spend only a very little time in this park since I needed to hurry on to my next destination, but I had to get myself over here for at least a peek and to pay tribute to this man who did so much for conservation efforts in the United States. Thanks, Theodore Roosevelt!

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East Bay Hike with Plutarch, June 11th, 2017

Title page of Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, 1579, first edition

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

I’ve been planning to read the whole of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans for some time. I’ve also been longing for a really good stretch of the legs, especially after this last week of office work and a Saturday selling off more of my belongings in preparation for my move to Scotland. (Sorting and selling off most of the artifacts of my life and of my twenty-plus years of small business ownership has been a tedious process. If the ashes would turn into dollars to fund my education and travel, I’d gladly set it all on fire at this point and be done with it.)

It occurred to me yesterday that I could do both my hiking and my reading on my free day tomorrow! So I downloaded Lives from LibriVox onto my little portable audio player and plotted a good long Bay Area Ridge Trail hike similar to one I did two years ago. This time, my start in Anthony Chabot Regional Park would be from Lake Chabot Golf Course on the lower east end of the park since I can get there more easily without my car than to other trailheads down there. The hike is about 28 miles long, with about 4,200 feet of climbing and about the same descending all told, and goes from Oakland north to San Pablo. The hike goes through 8 regional parks and nature preserves: Anthony Chabot Regional Park, Redwood Regional Park, Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Siesta Valley Recreation Area, Tilden Regional Park, Tilden Nature Area, and Wildcat Canyon Regional Park. I’ll hike through winding creek canyons, oak forests, redwood forests, eucalyptus groves, an ancient volcanic site, and chaparral.

This morning, I walk north and east from Lake Chabot Golf Course shortly after seven thirty, then enter Chabot Regional at the end of Grass Valley Road in south Oakland, near the San Leandro and Castro Valley borders. I take Jackson Grade east and down to Brandon Trail, where I turn left just before the sweet little stone bridge that crosses Grass Valley Creek. I head north along the east bank of the creek.

Stone Bridge over Grass Valley Creek, at Jackson Grade and Brandon Trail, Anthony Chabot Regional Park, Oakland

Plutarch’s first story tells of Theseus, founder of Athens, who rampaged around Ancient Greece like the personification of Dante’s nine circles of hell, punishing wrongdoers by inflicting on them the same species of violence they’d wreaked on others. He was quite bloodthirsty in his righteousness, slaying men and animals alike in the goriest ways possible, parading their carcasses around as warnings to the would-be wicked. But hey, all in the name of justice and glory, right? After all, according to the honor code of Theseus’ culture, a man was nothing until he’d proved himself by feats of courage, usually involving slaying an enemy. But in pitting his strength only against those who harmed and oppressed others, Theseus can be thought of as a sort of combination of Robin Hood and Dexter, the fictional serial killer/forensic scientist who directs his blood lust only against other serial killers he’s proven guilty by means of his science. But like Dexter, Theseus’ life of exploits didn’t end well, though for very different reasons. As well as a brave one, Theseus was a vainglorious and randy man, and his reputation as a hero was undermined over time by his increasing rapaciousness, concupiscence, and mistreatment of women, especially by the abduction and rape of Helen of Troy.

Looking back at Macdonald Trail, across Grass Valley Creek, from Big Bear Staging Area, where I cross Redwood Road to enter Redwood Regional Park

It’s a beautiful morning here in Chabot, sunny and a little cool. The blustering winds of yesterday have given way to occasional gentle breezes. The poppies are still closed. The cottontails hop across the trail: they emerge in the cool of the morning and the early evening and are as plentiful as, well, rabbits. Tall thistles are in bloom, and wild mustard, and lupine, and tall dandelions, and a flower that looks like Queen Anne’s lace, and sweet-smelling cones of pale pink flowers on a species of tree I can’t name. There’s a plentiful grass tipped with seed pods that arrange themselves in structures that look like rattlesnake tails, bending the stems over with their weight.

My itchy eyes and runny nose tell me I forgot to take my allergy medicine this morning in my haste to start early. It’ll be a sneezy, watery day as well as an educational one for my head.

Entering Redwood Regional Park across Redwood Road from Big Bear Staging Area of Anthony Chabot Regional Park

I cross Redwood Road and Grass Valley Creek by a little bridge into Redwood Regional Park. As I cross the bridge, Plutarch has begun to tell the life of his second hero, Romulus, founder of Rome and for whom it was named, and some stories of his twin brother Remus. Plutarch introduces this account with a long series of summaries of alternate foundation tales from popular lore. He assigns various levels of credibility to each since each story appears more fantastic than the one before, but still includes them so as to remain faithful to the pledge he makes at the beginning of his Lives to be as historically accurate as possible. But I think he settles on this Romulus story because it fits with his chosen literary construction, and not so much because it’s any less implausible. Plutarch is aware of the latter, so he seeks to gain the confidence of his readers with the admonition ‘we should not be incredulous when we see what a poet fortune sometimes is.’ As you likely guessed already, Plutarch alternates his accounts of great Greeks and Romans in pairs, chosen because they play corollary roles in the history and mythology of each culture. Theseus was the storied founder of Athens, Romulus of Rome.

Commemorative marker on Golden Spike Trail running north along Grass Valley Creek, Redwood Regional Park

Romulus and Remus, for one of many possible reasons of court intrigue that Plutarch offers in explanation, were cast out as babies from their royal family, set afloat in a trough on the river like the biblical Moses, and left to the mercies of the rushing water and the wild animals, their flesh to become food for the birds. Instead, they were suckled by a wolf and fed by birds, especially woodpeckers, made sacred to the Romans by this kind act. The twins grew strong, bold, and handsome, conquerors of men and lovers of women. Now grown men, they overthrew one usurping and unjust tyrant, and instead of taking control themselves, they handed the city over to the rightful ruler. The only power they chose to wield was over a city they would found themselves.

A little later on in the story, I’m struck by Plutarch’s justification of the legendary rape of the Sabine women by the newly made Romans, a story immortalized countless times in art over the centuries. The commoners who left home to follow Romulus and Remus, out of admiration for their courage and just dealings, after a time sought to populate their new city by abducting women from the neighboring Sabine people. Plutarch shrugs his shoulders and writes, well, this violent act of mass rape and coerced marriage wasn’t really an act of barbarity or cruelty, but rather of necessity, since there weren’t enough women around actually consenting to marry them. And anyway, once the men had raped and impregnated and wed them, they were nice to the ladies thereafter. Yikes. As James Brown would observe, that was a man’s world, and the first Roman men of legend agreed, in the worst possible fashion, that it ain’t nothin’ without a woman or a girl.

The Abduction of the Sabine Women by Nicolas Poussin, 1634–1635, Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain via W.C.

And besides, Plutarch continues in his attempts at exoneration, the budding new city openly offered sanctuary to all escaped slaves, to fugitives from the law, and to all other unhappy and dispossessed people willing to become members of the new society they were building from scratch. It’s interesting that Rome, which Plutarch praises as the pinnacle of justice, order, and noble accomplishment, is, as he tells it, also the product of abductors, rapists, and violent criminals as well as of enterprising seekers of liberty and a better life.

Redwood Bowl in Redwood Regional Park, a welcome water stop and bathroom break

Plutarch also tells of a certain philosopher and mathematician assigned many centuries later to fix the date of Romulus’ birth, based on accounts of an eclipse that occurred around that time and on other events in his life ‘just as solutions of geometrical problems are derived.’ Plutarch goes on to consider the validity of the idea that the lives of human beings could similarly be described and even predicted so long as the astrologer had all of the relevant celestial information about the positions of the heavenly bodies. Plutarch describes the controversy over that theory in terms not entirely dissimilar to naturalist determinists and their ideological opponents today.

Panoramic view of Redwood Regional Park from West Ridge Trail

Following Plutarch’s account of a later attack of the Sabines on Rome, since the former didn’t take kindly to the earlier predations of the latter, and the subsequent betrayal of the city to its enemies, Plutarch makes another interesting observation. Julius Caesar once said that he loved treachery but hated traitors, just as all people hate and despise providers of things they need but are ashamed of needing. Plutarch offers these quotes and incidents as emblematic of the ways of the world. And we’ve seen this sort of this countless times through history following Plutarch. Christians of Europe, for hundreds of years, justified their persecutions of the Jews partly on account of usury. The objects of their hate were making a living providing the very loans the Christians relied on to build their wealth, but when it became more expedient to rob and kill their creditors from time to time, all bets were off. Slaveholders of the American South similarly despised and persecuted the very people who made their wealth and comfort possible, justifying their oppression on account of supposed inferiority as they quashed any attempt by their slaves to better themselves through education and work on their own behalf. And so on, and so on…

Amy and a stand of Matilija poppies at Skyline Gate of Redwood Regional Park. Two parks down, six to go!

Tiny pink buds seem to float among the starry leaves along Skyline Trail in lush Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve

After a good long climb, West Ridge Trail curves around to the right to become East Ridge Trail; after a short walk along this trail, I turn left at the Bay Area Ridge Trail, leaving Redwood Regional via the connector path, and crossing Pinehurst Rd., I enter beautiful Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve.

Skyline Trail, which winds through beautiful and lush Huckleberry, and which runs along Round Top Creek through much of Sibley Volcanic, the next park, is thickly lined with poison oak, in some places hard to avoid. The rainy winter and spring caused them to flourish, but I walk in trepidation. I had to pick my way with special care on Golden Spike Trail in Redwood, since that trail is very, very narrow, almost overgrown in places. The wildflowers that grow plentifully in spring, such as hound’s tongue, blue-eyed grass, and California buttercups, are nearly gone. Now, there’s lots of sticky monkey flower, Ithuriel’s Spear, blue dicks, mule ears, and many other flowers, as well as those I named earlier.

Plutarch wraps up this part of his Lives with a reflection on the sudden and unexplained death of Romulus and the deaths of other heroes and kings under similarly suspicious circumstances. He takes this opportunity to share his beliefs about death and the soul, and quotes the ancient philosopher Heraclitus: ‘A dry soul is best’. This quote is oftentimes interpreted as a comment on the immorality of drinking, but Plutarch interprets it as being about a soul burdened by its connection to a fleshly body, full of blood and fluids associated with the basest of needs and desires and with illness: saliva, semen, urine, phlegm, and so on. He believes that souls are defiled so long as they remain arrayed in flesh, and become pure and holy only when completely divorced from the body. Plutarch goes on to say that he believes all great and virtuous men, purified of flesh, go on to become immortal heroes, then demigods, then gods. In his ideas about the purity of souls, the corruptions of the flesh, and that at least some human beings have the potential to become gods eventually, Plutarch is in agreement with the Christians in some ways, and with the Mormons in others.

Panoramic view looking over Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, from an outlook above the steepest part of the climb out of the creek canyon

Lycurgus, illustration from William C. Morey’s Outlines of Greek History, Chicago, American Book Company, 1903

Then comes the story of Lycurgus the Lawgiver, the legendary Greek king who instituted the rigid militarist social system that remains emblematic of ancient Sparta to this day. Plutarch tells how a preceding king, Eurytion, had relaxed the severity of his monarchic rule in order to win the favor of his people. But the people, over time, ‘grew bold’ and rose up against attempts by subsequent rulers to strengthen their own power. Earlier, in his reflections on the comparative merits and demerits in the characters of Theseus and Romulus, he praised Theseus’ preference for increasingly democratic rule over Romulus’ evolution (or, devolution) into tyranny. Plutarch attributes excesses in favor of democracy to a generous and kindly spirit, and excesses of tyranny to pride and selfishness. Yet when he opens his story of Lycurgus with the destabilization of society following increased democratization, he seems to contradict himself when he earlier associates virtue with democracy and vices with tyranny, until we remember that in the first case, he’s speaking of the characters of individuals, and in the second case, he’s pointing out that democracy is not always the best answer for society at large. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton would sympathize with Plutarch here, while Thomas Jefferson would side with the people. I think Jefferson would point out, as he does following the pandemonium following the first French Revolution, that excesses are bound to happen in any struggle against tyranny. As they settle into their newly won liberty, however, people’s better natures, which predominate in the souls of all free and educated people, have the opportunity and the desire to create a just and happy society.

When Lycurgus took power, however, he perceived a society that had become ‘effeminate’ (negative term in those days), weak, selfish, and corrupt through addiction to sensual pleasures and the small-souled desire to amass personal wealth. So Lycurgus set out to re-craft his Sparta into an ideal society. One of his first reforms was the redistribution of land. He observed that most of the land was held by a few, leaving much of it undeveloped and unfarmed, while many more people were poor and unemployed. He convinced the landowners, as Plutarch tells it, to give up some of their land, which he thus distributed evenly among the citizens. He then instituted more practices designed to reduce useless luxury, overeating, and other forms of excess which caused both poor health in the individual and envy between individuals. In fact, he convinced his subjects to perceive the appearance of wealth as a defect, something to be abhorred as a sign of petty, self-indulgent weakness. Lycurgus’ system of social engineering, instituted by both persuasion and force, was not entirely welcome to the Spartans, but Plutarch heartily approves.

Looking back on shady Skyline Trail in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, which runs along Round Top Creek

Looking back on Sibley’s volcanic formations rising above the trees, from Fish Ranch Road. Please excuse the shadow in the corner, I didn’t notice the cover on my tablet had been knocked askew in my backpack, slightly obscuring the camera lens.

Skyline Bay Area Ridge Trail crossing on Fish Ranch Road, looking north at Siesta Valley Recreation Area

Intensely blue starry flowers along Bay Area Ridge Trail through Siesta Valley Recreation Area

Yet Spartan society, so rigidly designed by Lycurgus according to his ideas about virtue and utility, was not egalitarian in the sense that we’d understand the term.  It was an intensely aristocratic society centered around a warrior elite, with an equality enforced only among that class. Wives were obtained by force, children were removed from the care of their parents at the will of the state, and deformed and sickly babies were put out to die of exposure. And as Plutarch so casually mentions, all of this equality of the ‘best’ in society, crafted by both positive and negative eugenics practices, and their strict training in virtue, sport, and war, was made possible by the slave labor of the subjugated helots. Plutarch does not seem the least distressed by this; in fact, he seems to accept this as a most natural state of affairs. He does regret that the helots were often treated harshly, even murderously, by their Spartan enslavers, but he insists that this institutional cruelty came only after Lycurgus’ rule by subsequent kings of lesser moral character.

Plutarch tells us next about Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. Numa was a was held in high regard by the people because he was humble, contemplative, lived simply, scorned money-making, and spent his time in study and in service to his people. After the death of Romulus, he was widely accepted as the best candidate to succeed to the throne, endorsed by Romans and Sabines alike. The original Romans and the Sabines, who had cohabited Rome in an uneasy, fractured peace, wanted a ruler who would deal as justly with one group as another. The senators who had taken over the government didn’t have the trust of the people: many believed they were corrupt and that they had, in fact, assassinated Romulus. So they decided to elect a king to keep watch over the Senate and to lead the inhabitants of Rome as one united people.

Hillside covered with sticky monkey flower in Siesta Valley Recreation Area

Beautifully patterned redwood stump near the meeting of Siesta Valley Recreation Area and Tilden Regional Park

So at 40 years old, having lived an already long life of virtue, Numa settled with reluctance, feigned or not, onto the throne. According to Numa, wielding power was not his dream: he preferred a life of mostly solitary contemplation. Plutarch, however, rather seems to describe the actions of a man secretly rejoicing in the power offered to him while coyly disguising his satisfaction. In any case, Numa was a philosophical man who believed strongly in social justice and had some earlier experience as an adjudicator. So he immediately got to work. He banished the huge retinue of servants the Romulus had gathered around him in his tyrannical old age. He instituted many reforms to gain the trust of the people and to promote peace, especially between the Sabines and the original Romans. The factional and ethnic conflict that had long plagued Rome threatened its stability and made it vulnerable to attack. So he found one inventive and one practical way to solve these problems: involuntary social mixing and censorship. He assigned individual members of differing groups to shared trades that would force interaction and cooperation that otherwise wouldn’t happen, and he forbade any references to belonging to particular cultural or ethnic groups. From now on, decreed Numa, all of his subjects were simply Roman.

I’m reminded here of a very interesting article I read about Singapore a couple of years ago, a nation which addressed a similar problem in a similar way. Singapore is a densely populated, tiny island country made up largely of immigrant workers and their descendants, of very diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Singapore maintains its relatively low level of interracial and interreligious conflict by assigning ethnic and religious quotas to all neighborhoods. By forcing its citizens to live, work, go to school, shop, and in every other way share their public lives by people of diverse backgrounds, Singapore hopes that everyone will be so accustomed to diversity that they’ll accept it as a matter of course. Or, even better, a matter of pride and celebration. I suspect that Singapore’s two Prime Ministers may have read Plutarch’s Lives.

Panoramic view facing east from Seaview Trail, Tilden Regional Park, with Briones Reservoir and Mt Diablo

San Francisco, Treasure Island, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, Angel Island, and the Bay as seen looking west from the Seaview Trail in Tilden Regional Park

Statuette of a running girl, Spartan, about 520 BCE, British Museum. Note her bare breast, short skirt, and saucily exposed thigh. I think Lycurgus would secretly like this sculpture very much

Plutarch admires both Lycurgus and Numa. Like Lycurgus, Numa instituted his vision of a virtuous society through strict social regulation. They both believed it was the government’s job to protect the people from enemies within as well as without. Therefore, both instituted strict behavior codes for citizens as well as ways to promote peace and defend their people from military attack. Plutarch, who values virtue over liberty, generally approves of their social engineering systems but has a few problems with both as well.

For example, he’s shocked by Spartan women mingling freely with young men in public, wearing short tunics that left their thighs visible, permitted by the Lycurgian code. Plutarch seems sympathetic to or at least intellectually satisfied with Lycurgus’ theories about the power of sex to unite sympathies and strengthen social bonds. But Plutarch really dwells quite a bit on the topic of publicly bared Spartan female thighs with so much delighted horror that methinks he doth protest too much. Plutarch doesn’t, however, seem to pass judgment on the sexual practices of Spartans, which include lover- and spouse-sharing, homosexual sex and erotic play, child lovers, and coercive sex, all of which have been mostly censured and banned by law and religion since Plutarch’s time.

He approves of Numa’s restrictions on women, such as banning them from appearing and speaking in public, and of the policy of marrying them off very, very young so their husbands can instill complete obedience in them as they grow up. Yet Plutarch criticizes some of Numa’s policies when it comes to punishing crimes against women, finding them merely arbitrary in some cases and not punitive enough in others. He believes Numa could have done more to protect women’s virtue in this area. In matters of gender and sexuality generally, it’s not sexual practices that provoke Plutarch’s moralizing, as it was for so many governments and religions succeeding him throughout the centuries. He seems bothered only by practices which run contrary to his own conception of the primary feminine virtues, which, according to Plutarch and Numa, are modesty and obedience.

Wildcat Canyon, panoramic view from the entrance to the park from Tilden Nature Area looking northeast

As I enter Wildcat Canyon Regional Park from Tilden Nature Area, Plutarch has recently introduced me to the ancient Athenian lawmaker, poet, and ruler Solon. I’ve heard of him, but remember little. I’m about 23 miles in with another five or so to go. My feet have been very sore for the last five miles already and I’m limping. But I’m happy, and in a dreamy, almost hypnotized state at times from my regular, ceaseless footfalls. I discovered it’s no good to stop: as soon as I let my feet rest, the blood rushes into them and then it’s more painful to start again than it was to keep them a little numbed by constant use. Besides, I need to meet my ride home, and I’m behind time since I had paused so often to take pictures and slowed down so many times to tap out my reading notes.

In Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, view looking northwest from Nimitz Way

In Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, looking northwest along San Pablo Ridge Trail

I forget my feet for awhile as the wind picks up. This is usually the case on the ridge trails in Wildcat Canyon. I’ve been in winds so strong up here they suck the saliva right out of your mouth and whip it onto your face. Keeping your mouth closed doesn’t save you from this indignity, however, because the winds perform the same action on your nose. Yuck. It’s not quite so windy this time, but I can see rain in the distance, and know I may not be dry at the end of this hike. The sky, land, and water are spectacular from up here, at this time of day, in this weather. I pull on a lightweight wool sweater and this, with my shorts, keeps me perfectly comfortable temperature-wise. The wind is swaying the golden grasses like a wavy sea, and they’re glowing and shimmering in the varied light. The sky is blue, white, silver, and steel gray, and gauzy curtains in the same shade indicate scattered rainfall. After quite a time on long, level Nimitz Way, I take San Pablo Ridge and Belgum Trails, curvy and hilly, exciting in their winding, rising and falling changeability but hard on my weary knees on the downhills. I think the shoes I wore on my last hike like this were better.

In Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, panoramic view with San Pablo Bay, Richmond, and Mt. Tamalpais in the distance (‘Mt. Tam’ to us locals) from the San Pablo Ridge Trail

Among many other things (I’m tired, and my attention is waxing and waning), Plutarch tells of Solon’s meeting with Croesus, and my ears perk up. I remember this story as told by Herodotus. Croesus (as in the saying ‘rich as Croesus’), receives Solon ostensibly as an honored guest, but really as a potential propaganda tool. He wants to impress Solon so that Solon will spread the word about the great riches, power, and glory he’s beheld in Croesus’ court. But Solon, like Plutarch’s other most admired heroes thus far, is unimpressed by such vulgar shows of wealth. The harder Croesus tries, the less Solon is impressed. Instead, he foretells the doom that such wealth is liable to bring Croesus. And sure enough, it attracts the notice of King Cyrus of Persia, who sweeps in with his army and takes all that nice gold and treasure by force. As he is about to execute Croesus, Cyrus’ attention is caught by Cyrus’ lament that he had not heeded Solon’s wisdom. Cyrus decides to spare Croesus’ life when he observes that Croesus has grown wise in turn. It doesn’t do to execute wise men so long as you are strong enough to benefit from their wisdom while keeping them in their place.

For the last mile or so, I hike in a light rain. It feels good. Then about 7 o’clock, I read my destination: Alvarado Staging Area of Wildcat Canyon near the northwest end of the park. I borrow a kind stranger’s cell phone, since mine is malfunctioning, and check on my ride, my always supportive and patient sister Therese. She’ll arrive shortly. I shelter under an oak tree, take off my shoes and socks (oh, sweet relief!) and watch the drops fall from a partly sunny sky. A young girl emerges from her house down the street and places herself in the rainfall in surprise and delight; we watch the water steam off the asphalt that, until a few moments ago, was warmed by the sun. My sister and her boyfriend Eric (who has also become my friend) pick me up and whisk me away to feast with them on papusas and beer. On our way, we see a rainbow glowing against the blue and gray to our left. It’s been a rich and thoroughly satisfying day.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Houghton, Mifflin, 1885

Graham, Daniel W., ‘Heraclitus‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta

Plutarch, Lucius Mestrius (c. 46 – c. 120), Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, translated by Bernadotte Perrin (1847 – 1920), Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4, recordings at Librivox.org

Zakaria, Fareed. ‘What America Could Learn From Singapore About Racial Integration’. The Washington Post, June 25, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Trail and Monument at Mount Saint Helena, CA

Stevenson Memorial Trail to the summit of Mount Saint Helena. The trailhead is about nine miles north of Calistoga, CA

My sister Therese and I hiked the lovely trail to the summit of Mount Saint Helena on April 22nd, 2017. This hike was Therese’s idea, as are so many of the best ones; thanks, dear sister!

The Stevenson Memorial Trail winds five miles to the summit (one way), about 1,800 feet of climbing all told to the 4,343-foot peak. The entrance to the trail led into dreamy forest, with branches highlighted here and there with fluttering pink plastic ribbons to guide the trail runners in an organized event held here that day. There was a table set up in the parking lot off Highway 29, with drinks, treats, and cheers available for the tired athletes.

On our way up, we discovered the monument mentioned in the sign at the foot of the trail, a handsome little tribute to the memory of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife placed here exactly 94 years ago on May 7th, 1911 by the Napa Club. Stevenson and his new wife Fanny Van de Grift stayed here for an adventurous honeymoon on the cheap, living for two months in an abandoned miners’ cabin. Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verses, was seeking adventure, new fodder for his writing which he feared was lagging due to his chronic poor health, and a climate in which his congested lungs could do their best. And he was here for Fanny: he had met her years earlier and fell in love. They had to wait to join their lives together until the divorce from her abusive husband came through, and when it did, he left his native Scotland to join her in her home country.

Monument at the site of the miners’-turned-honeymooners’ cabin on Stevenson Memorial Trail, Mount Saint Helena, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, CA

The engraved marble tablet on the stone monument reads:

‘This tablet placed by the Club Women of Napa County
Marks the site of the cabin occupied in 1880 by Robert Lewis Stevenson
And bride, while he wrote The Silverado Squatters.

“Doomed to know not winter only spring,
A being trod the flowery April blithely for awhile,
Took his fill of music, joy of thought
And seeing and stayed and went
Nor ever ceased to smile.” – R.L.S.

It was a beautiful hike, the first mile or so lovely and shaded on the narrow switchback trail, the last four mostly fire roads, though we found a couple of steep little shortcuts. The view from the top was spectacular, though not as far as it might have been on a less cloudy day. The wildflowers were lovely too, and the pine and madrone forests (and plentiful poison oak) very much as Stevenson describes them in The Silverado Squatters. It’s the story of his travels to California and his time here in Napa County with Fanny, which is available to read in full online. It’s an amusing and charming story, though the way he describes some Jewish acquaintances is disconcerting unless you keep in mind the prejudices of the time.

Enjoy!

Engraved stone book on the monument at the site of the old cabin on Stevenson Memorial Trail up Mount Saint Helena

Stream near the monument on Stevenson Memorial Trail. Stevenson describes a stream near the old bunkhouse in The Silverado Squatters

Panorama of the view from the peak of Mount Saint Helena, CA, 2017 by Amy Cools

The flat rocks at the peak make a perfect place for a picnic on Mount Saint Helena, CA, 2017 Amy Cools.jpg

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration

Bazzoli, Kathy. ‘The Legend of Mount St. Helena,’ The Weekly Calistogan, May 19, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)‘ – The Poetry Foundation website

Robert Louis Stevenson – Marriage‘, from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

Robert Louis Stevenson / Mt St. Helena State Park,’ Sonoma Hiking Trails website

Robert Louis Stevenson State Park,’ Napa Valley State Parks Association website

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Silverado Squatters, 1883

Trading In

Some of my treasures… Art Deco glass horse heads and handpainted bowl, chest of drawers, lamp glass…

I’m preparing for my big move to Scotland and my subsequent years pursuing my PhD …where, I don’t know.

So I’m selling off my business, which I created and built up for well over a decade, and most of my belongings. At first, I’ve felt no pangs. I’ve been yearning for a big change and the freedom to move where my interests, passions, and opportunities take me, and owning a home based business with inventory makes that very difficult. Though I’ve enjoyed the work, it’s time for all that stuff to go. But as I dig deeper, I’m uncovering the treasures and mementos I’ve packed away from my whole life thus far, and my heart feels little stabs now and again, sometimes of joy, sometimes of nostalgia, sometimes of parting-pains.

There are some things that will remain packed away and stored at my sister’s house (thanks, Bonnie and Jasen!) for me to retrieve when I’ve settled down again. My inked and quilted artworks, mementos, photos, most beloved fabrics, my first and favorite clothing designs, my sewing machines, and so on. But most of my belongings other than my clothes, shoes, and personal needs will all go.

But then I think of what I’ll gain from shedding all this stuff: the public goods the world has to offer. For this first year alone, the treasures in Edinburgh’s wonderful museums and great libraries (all free to the public!), the architecture, the rich history, the beautiful views on the old streets and beautiful parks, will all belong to me too. And so on throughout all of the places my endeavors and travels will take me in the upcoming years, as I’ll be light, mobile, freed from the burdens of ownership.

And when I think of what I’m trading in all my little treasures for, I think I’m getting the far better part of the deal.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

John Steinbeck Country Part II: Grave Site and Fremont Peak State Park Hike

San Ardo Gas and Liquor Store, in San Ardo, off highway 101 in central California

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

I head north from Paso Robles, where I dropped off a troupe of long-distance cyclists this morning, via the 101 back towards the San Francisco Bay Area. My route takes me through Salinas and other old stomping grounds of John Steinbeck. I want to visit one site I missed when I was here last time on a cultural tour following his life and writings, and to revisit another site more thoroughly. On the way, I stop for gas in a little agricultural town called San Ardo, having forgotten to fill up in Paso Robles. I’m glad I have to stop here, because this little town reminds me of happy times visiting so many other small towns rather like this on road trips. I stop into the cafe to fill my thermos with coffee and buy some cookies for the road, and have a chat with the friendly young man who works here, in English and in Spanish.

San Ardo Cafe, outside and in, San Ardo, CA, 2017 Amy Cools

The town’s appearance, too, is probably not unrecognizable from Steinbeck’s time. Who knows, he may have passed through here, it’s not far from his old home territory. The people who live and work here are in many ways Steinbeck’s people, those who work the soil so that we can eat but who we have often long neglected and abused. He made it his business for much of his career to illustrate the lives, circumstances, and sometimes desperate plights of these people, often immigrants and refugees fleeing hard times in their places of origin, for the often oblivious American public.

Guide sign to John Steinbeck’s grave in the Garden of Memories, Salinas, CA

Steinbeck and Hamilton family plot, Garden of Memories, Salinas, CA

I continue an hour north to Salinas, where I visit Steinbeck’s grave in the Garden of Memories at Abbott St and East Romie Ln. Here he lies surrounded by his family. His headstone is the one decorated with tributes: coins, pens, and one pine cone (artfully placed by nature or a fan, I don’t know). You may recognize some of the names from his novel East of Eden: Hamilton, the family name of his mother; John Ernst, the first and middle name of the author and his father; and Olive Hamilton, the schoolteacher daughter of Samuel Hamilton and the author’s mother. It’s pretty here today, very green, with tiny white daisies and various kinds of yellow flowers blooming everywhere.

East of Eden is a double Cain-and-Abel story about two pairs of brothers in which one brother enjoys the love of his father with seeming little effort, and the other is jealous and driven to despair when his strenuous efforts to win that same love are rejected. Steinbeck wrote this novel for his sons and in hopes of creating the Great American Novel. It is an excellent novel, great in parts, but not the Novel. If any of his works are contenders for this mythical status, he had already written it as The Grapes of Wrath.

John Steinbeck’s grave marker

Fremont Peak State Park entrance sign, Cold Springs trailhead is to the right through the gate

Then I return to Fremont Peak, which Steinbeck ascended during his Travels with Charley to take in the broad view of his homeland from above. I plan to climb it from the bottom or as near as I can get to it, but find that Fremont Peak State Park is surrounded on all sides by private property until you’re well up the mountain. It was hard to tell this from Google Maps and from my print California maps. The park brochure, which is available free for visitors at the main parking lot near the center of the park and online, contains the map showing the entire trail system. I decide to walk them all, in an order which will take me winding counter-clockwise all around the park, leaving the loop about two-thirds of the way around for an out-and-back to the peak. I’m guessing Steinbeck would likely not have walked this long way up and around. His health was not great: he had long-term heart problems and was a lifelong heavy smoker, which seems to have aged him more than necessary for his years.

On Cold Springs Trail, Fremont Peak State Park, CA. Left, the windy and narrow under the mossy oaks. Right, a small abandoned shack which on first glance appears to be a two-room outhouse but which contains no signs of plumbing or waste pits. The sign above the trough warns that the water no longer piped here is unsafe for drinking

I backtrack to Doe Flat Day Camp near the park entrance and park my car there. As you’re entering the park on Juan Bautista Road, Doe Flat is to the left of the Fremont State Park entrance sign. The trailhead to Cold Springs Trail, on which I commence my hike, is across the street from the campground and through the gate, unmarked except on the park map. I had missed it when I first entered the park since it lacks a sign and because it’s so overgrown. Only a little, narrow, blurred strip of dirt marks the way that evidently few hikers take. It’s green and lush here, a gift of the winter and early spring heavy rains that ended our drought of the last few years. Miner’s lettuce, wood fern, thistle, various grasses, and maidenhair proliferate and revel in the joy of living. The trail is obliterated in many places by fallen trees, the less fortunate recipients of the storms. At one point, I use my head as a battering ram to get through the branches that my hands are already too full to push aside. I’m grateful for my new red sun hat, broad-brimmed and made of a not too heavy but very sturdy synthetic material. It keeps my hair free from the tangling twigs and my shoulders free from scratches. Its bright color will also serve to mark the site of my remains if I am one of those few Californians that make a meal for a mountain lion every two decades or so, if such an enterprising feline takes advantage of my aloneness on this solitary trail. My shins and ankles, however, are shit out of luck.

Left: Maidenhair, miner’s lettuce, spiny wood fern, and grasses. Right: Fallen logs. On Cold Springs Trail, Fremont Peak S.P., CA

Except when it comes to poison oak. I keep an eagle eye out for it; I still have scars from the last time I was here. It’s much easier to see now since the leaves have grown in thick and it’s already starting to redden in some places. I’m also alone this time, and hence undistracted.

Suddenly, the path changes. It’s broader and sandier, and the mossy oaks abruptly give way to manzanita, toyon, and coyote brush. Now I can look up and out at the view because the growth is lower and sparser here, and because the poison oak clearly doesn’t like this dry and sunny side of the hill. Soon after the change, I come to a clearing where a signpost marks the beginning of Valley View Trail where Cold Springs ends at a fire road crossing. There are two weathered picnic benches to my left and a beautiful stand of purple lupine to my right. I veer left on the fire road, then right to continue on to Valley View Trail. The oaks have reappeared, interior live, scrub, and poison. I pick my way with great care again, but the trail is so overgrown and the fallen branches so tangled with it that I’m not sure if I successfully avoid all danger. I’ll be sure to take a hot shower with a scrub brush and plenty of soap when I get home.

Left: Fremont Star Lily. Right: California Mountain Lilac. Fremont Peak State Park, CA

Milk maids and miner’s lettuce in bloom around a mossy trunk, Fremont State Park, CA

The wildflowers are not so thick now in most spots, though I can see the dried and shriveled evidence that they were not long ago. They may soon enjoy a second bloom from the straggler storm that passed through recently. Those still here are just beautiful, white, pink, yellow, purple, and blue. I see waxy yellow California buttercups, blue witch and blue-eyed grass, purple shooting stars and larkspur, golden poppies, white woodland stars, and many, many more. A woodpecker knocks overhead as other birds chatter, squawk, trill, and call with that ‘wheeeeeew’ sound that accompanies old-time comedy scenes.

I cross a little road and Valley View Campground, a sweet little spot. On the other side, Valley View Trail becomes a much wider and well-traveled one, and I start meeting hikers now and again. A pair of lovers frolic and laugh somewhere nearby, fitting in perfectly with the bird chorus. A barbed wire fence running along the right of the trail marks the park boundary.

Left: Hound’s Tongue. Right: Woodland Star. Fremont Peak State Park, CA

Left: Wild Pansy. Right: Royal Larkspur. Fremont Peak State Park, CA, 2017 Amy Cools

Captain John Fremont 1846 flagpole story sign, Fremont Peak State Park, CA

I arrive at the parking lot near Oak Point Campground where the Peak Trail begins, which I ascended with the John Steinbeck Odyssey Tour group in March. There’s a large sign framed in stone which tells the story of Captain John Charles Fremont’s run-in with Prefect Manuel Castro and General Jose Castro in 1846. It tells it as if it’s a heroic tale on Fremont’s part, but it reads to me like an act of arrogance and a provocation to war, waltzing into another’s country with an army and without a by-your-leave then planting your nation’s flag in their soil. His flagpole blew down, however, and the superstitious general hightailed it out of there with his soldiers before any fighting started. The roof of this monument has likewise fallen and a shirtless beefcake is reflected in the sign as I take a picture. The circumstances of this moment make me chuckle.

Rocky trail to Fremont Peak

Wildflowers along the grassy hill side of the trail to Fremont Peak

Panoramic view from Fremont Peak

Historical marker and flagpole on Fremont Peak

In all seriousness, though, this is a beautiful spot, conducive to much loftier thoughts and feelings. I climb to the peak, and the view is incredible. It’s even greener than it was in March, and now it’s wildflower season. The Monterey Bay spreads out ahead and a little my left, and the crop fields grow to my right. The Salinas Valley region is one of the most productive agricultural areas of California. The sight of Fremont’s flagpole here at the top has been marked by another, much sturdier one, and a brass plaque set in concrete, which tells the tale even more heroicly. I chuckle again as my reflective mood is broken.

Then I remember my travel companions gathered with me on the last occasion which brought me here, and sigh. I miss them.

At the foot of the Peak Trail, I turn right onto Carmen’s Trail, which zigzags thinly through slopes thickly covered with softest greenery and more thistles, which gently sting my ankles. It’s lovely and cooler here in the shade of taller oaks, which need to reach higher for the sun in this little canyon. The narrow creek bed running along its bottom is already dry. On the other side, the trail ascends a grassy, open hillside, the green just barely beginning its Midas’ touch transformation into the gold of summer. It’s inset with jewel-bright lupine and poppies throughout.

View from Carmen’s Trail, Fremont Peak State Park

Amy Cools on Fremont Peak

Carmen’s Trail ends at a little pointy shingle-sided building of quality construction, handsomely finished in varnished wood and teal paint, perhaps a cabin. I turn right just before I reach it and take Tony’s Trail, which returns me in short order to Doe Flat. I dine on some leftover pizza which I had set to warm in its foil on the sunny dashboard. It’s more delicious than it was when it was fresh at last night’s dinner.

It’s been a delightful day.

* See my profile of Julia Ward Howe, whose Battle Hymn of the Republic provided the title of The Grapes of Wrath, and which is printed in the opening pages of the novel

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Raconteur Street Blues, by East Street Prophet

Painting on a wall, photo by East Street Prophet at 518 Song of My People

I grew up around some of the great narcissists of our time. History won’t remember them, so I have to. They were great storytellers, who forged a knack for survival into an unequivocal hunger to live like kings. They spoke of riches and wealth that they couldn’t have possibly known, yet painted a picture so alluring we had no choice but to believe. They were raconteurs, wizards possessed of a singular illusion that painted the world in their image and presented it to us, as if it were ours.

A Raconteur is a person who excels in telling anecdotes. Also, an anecdote (Please note: I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence. I mean to provide clarity.) is a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident. A raconteur is a great storyteller. I’ve always considered the word to be closer to ‘being a good bullshitter’, which is worth its weight in gold. Anyone can tell a story, but getting people to care is a miracle akin to walking on water.

Storytellers are plentiful. You can see them in coffee shops behind laptops, biding their time until they have a chance to share, connect and separate. It’s in that singular moment, where we connect, that things change. They can become dangerous in a moment’s notice, as they infect your mind with complex riddles that the storytellers have been working on since the dawn of time. You might wonder, ‘why would a person share such a riddle?’ you can’t think like that. It’s how any good storyteller wants you to think. They want you to assume they have no reason to hurt you. There’s no harm in believing what they believe. There’s no harm in believing them without question.

The thing that all decent ‘raconteurs’ must ask themselves periodically is ‘do I care more about myself than I do the story?’ I’ve lived among some of the great bullshitters of modern history. We heard plenty of stories growing up, yet so few of them added up in a way that it could make me care. The raconteurs possessed this trait that added depth to their stories, not just with what images they infused, but with how they made us feel. We felt involved. They tugged on our heartstrings and moved us toward an end that we couldn’t see. They possessed our future, as we waited for these mindless heathens to comb through the vast wasteland of their psyches in search of an end to whatever narrative they were painting.

Any good story comes from a single point. It’s not the beginning. It’s just a point. They wanted to make a point. They’d lie about having sex, so they’d present a narrative that made the possibility of them having sex seem possible. They’d plant a few mental images here and there, forming past and future around this premise. Ultimately, their goal was to forge a real, however unlikely, narrative, in order to make us believe.

The raconteurs believed what they said. The proof was in their words. They told us to take it from there, because taking a man at his word is as good as taking it in blood… at least when you’re a child. When we were kids we lied and it helped. We had impossible things to accomplish in a collapsing world full of poverty and the imminent threat of some incomprehensible bullshit. We had to hide sensitive information from our parents, while taking advantage of our God-like inertia, limitless energy and simple-mindedness. We had to prove to other kids that we were cool, while, at the same time, making our parents think we’d never do the cool things that get you into trouble. It added to our personal mystique, having accomplished nothing, we needed something to set us apart. We’d lie about drinking and drugs, losing our virginity, feats of the utmost stupidity… you know… harmless bullshit.

Truth is the trickiest thing. Everyone says they want it, but when it’s not something they agree with they have a reaction that makes you wonder. Truth. It’s a funny thing, because I could write out the truth as I see it and (hopefully) half of you would love me and the other would hate me. The trick for any good raconteur is understanding the right formula, while having as full an understanding as you can of the truth. I believe that you can’t write a decent story, even if it sounds like nonsense, without a sense of truth. It has to be written, spoken and lived with conviction. Truth has to appear in every word, exactly as you’ve seen it, while managing not to conflict with the truth, as it is. You should, as a good storyteller, align yourself with the truth in order to make your narrative more honest and compelling.

I never thought about truth when I was young enough to fall for these stories. The morality of lying, as one presents it to himself, so that he might further his ends, has become all the more staggering as I’ve reached adulthood. I’ve been trying to think of the right way to word this question. I doubt it’s perfect, but it needs to be asked. I’m curious as to what everyone believes:

Can you have a moral premise without any evidence?

Some raconteurs have no regard for the truth. In all honesty, as a kid I didn’t care. I was surrounded by some of the greatest storytellers of my time. I couldn’t be bothered to figure out how some of these impossible stories could be real. I believed with all my heart, because I was a stupid kid who still believed in Santa. (FYI I believed in ghosts for longer than I believed in Santa, but I also assumed the ghosts would grant a wish or needed my help or whatever.) These are men who have learned to lie in a way that ‘everyone believes that you believe what you say’. You believe them, no matter the evidence to the contrary, because they, not their narrative, hold up well against the barrage of truth that assaults them on all sides.

They’re not not-sympathetic characters. Their truth is a depressing harangue of emotion and pain that most couldn’t understand. What’s worse, they keep it to themselves. They keep it! They hide all that pain and suffering, but even more, they hide the truth! They move with such intent when they tell their stories, as if revealing a deeper, more significant wisdom, while simultaneously hiding it from the world. It’s in their emphatic gestures, their movements, as if their bodies shift depending on the tone of their narratives, not to mention their eyes… it’s in all these things that those of us who were forced to listen HAD to believe.

We believed it all the more, because we lived it. They borrowed from our lives and, in this way, we added to the false narrative. Storytelling is a necessary skill. It made us feel good in a time where people were laughing at us, because our river was full of poison and visitors had no reason to… visit. The pain of being alive could’ve shown itself in crime and self abuse. For us, it showed itself in acceptance of nonsensical bullshit and downright lies.

Near-possible realities were a simple narrative that captured our attention, which begs the question: why do they need our attention? Evil raconteurs are like evil yogis. You can assume they don’t exist, as if there is no darkness when there is also light, but this is another simple narrative that’s easy to digest. The simple narrative is used to ensnare. You don’t need to talk about angels to be a good raconteur. You have to make people believe. This is that much more significant. You MAKE people believe. You take them on a journey, where they start out as a skeptic and then, through a few twists and turns… holy shit… you just made someone believe in angels.

(Also, if you don’t make them believe, you at least allow them to suspend reality for a time, which is kinda the same, although I admit there are differences.)

Making people believe and sharing with them a deeply personal truth is about as different as water and oil.

For what it’s worth, they thought they were kings, but that never stopped them from fighting to become that oh-so-desirable, and unquestioned ruler of the universe. They lied and stole and fought, but the stories to me became all the more touching. These people, the Raconteurs, were at war with themselves, as well as the truth and as well as a circumstance of poverty and extreme depravity, which was plentiful, in our ever-collapsing society. They fought for freedom: the freedom to be as insane and harmful to oneself as you can get. They fought to make the world a weird place.

Originally published at 518 – Song of My People

~ East Street Prophet 518 writes beautifully about hometown Rensselaer, just across the Hudson River from Albany, NY, and their experiences within the 518 area code: Albany, Rensselaer, and Troy, and various outlying places as well. They’ve been having a lot of fun with it and creating a bit of ‘folklore’ from local stories at 518 – Song of My People

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone, by Philip Reed

by-terimakasih0-public-domain-via-pixabay-croppedIt is mildly subversive and perhaps a little quaint when someone clings to their flip phone and refuses a smartphone. Refusing both kinds of phones is viewed as downright lunacy, especially if the person refusing was born after the mid-1970s. But I’ve never had a cellphone and I’m not going to get one. I have several reasons, and they are good ones.

The first is cost. No cellphone means no monthly bill, no possibility for an upgrade, no taxes, and no roaming charges (whatever those are). In an era of stagnant wages and growing income inequality, it is remarkable that people unthinkingly spend $75 or more per month on something that we hardly knew existed 15 years ago, much less counted as a necessity.

The second is concern for the environment. The manufacture of mobile phones (including raw material acquisition), the power they consume, and the energy used to transmit calls and access the internet all produce significant carbon dioxide emissions. The idea that cellphones are good only for a couple of years is widespread, increasing the number of phones that end up in landfills and leak toxic heavy metals such as copper and lead into the soil and groundwater.

The decisive reason, however, for me to refuse a cellphone is the opposite of everyone else’s reason for having one: I do not want the omnipresent ability to communicate with anyone who is absent. Cellphones put their users constantly on call, constantly available, and as much as that can be liberating or convenient, it can also be an overwhelming burden. The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere. Anyone who has checked their phone during a face-to-face conversation understands the temptation. And anyone who has been talking to someone who has checked their phone understands what is wrong with it.

Communicating with someone who is not physically present is alienating, forcing the mind to separate from the body. We see this, for example, in the well-known and ubiquitous dangers of texting while driving, but also in more mundane experiences: friends or lovers ignoring each other’s presence in favour of their Facebook feeds; people broadcasting their entertainment, their meals, and their passing thoughts to all who will bear witness; parents capturing their daughter’s ballet performance on their phones rather than watching it live; people walking down the street talking animatedly to themselves who turn out to be apparently healthy people using their Bluetooth.

The cellphone intrudes into the public and private realms, preventing holistic engagement with what is around us. Smartphones only perfect their predecessors’ ability to intrude.

The disembodying and intrusive effects of cellphones have significant implications for our relationships to the self and to others. Truly knowing and understanding others requires patience, risk, empathy, and affection, all of which are inhibited by cell phones. Cellphones also inhibit solitude, self-reflection, and rumination (formerly known as ‘waiting’ and ‘boredom’), which I think are essential for living a good life.

Long before cellphones, human beings were good at diverting themselves from disciplined attention. ‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,’ observed the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, ‘is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’ This propensity for diversion was notably confirmed in a recent study where subjects preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than occupy themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes.

Pascal believed that the height of human dignity is thought, and that the order of thought begins with oneself, one’s creator, and one’s end. He linked this kind of thought inextricably to genuine rest and happiness. Avoiding a cellphone allows, for me, space for thinking and so enables a richer, more fulfilling way of life. With fewer tasks to perform and preferences to satisfy, life slows to a pace compatible with contemplation and gratitude.

A cellphone-free life not only helps to liberate the mind, but also the body. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras presents a different view of human nature from Pascal: ‘It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.’ We can be pretty sure that Anaxagoras was not anticipating the advent of smartphones. On the contrary, refusing a cellphone enables one to use one’s hands to carry out meaningful activities (playing the piano, gardening, reading a book) in such a way that one is fully absorbed in those activities, so that they reach their height of meaning.

Without a mobile phone, it is easier to concentrate on what is in front of me: my spouse and children, my work, making dinner, going for a walk. I try to choose my activities thoughtfully, so when I do something, I don’t want to be somewhere else. What cellphone users call multitasking does not interest or impress me.

Of course, it’s true that cellphones can be used responsibly. We can shut them off or simply ignore the incoming text. But this takes extraordinary willpower. According to a recent Pew survey, 82 per cent of Americans believe that cellphone use in social situations more often hurts than helps conversation, yet 89 per cent of cell owners still use their phones in those situations. Refusing a cellphone guarantees that I won’t use it when I shouldn’t.

Some people will insist that if I’m going to refuse a cellphone, I should also refuse a regular telephone. It is true that using a landline introduces similar disembodying, mediated experiences as to mobile phones. But there have always been natural and physical limits placed on the use of a regular phone, which is clear from the name ‘landline’. The cellphone’s mobility introduces a radical form of communication by making its alienating effects pervasive. I want to protect what unmediated experiences I have left.

The original meaning of ‘connect’ indicated a physical relationship – a binding or fastening together. We apply this word to our cellphone communications now only as metaphor. The ‘connections’ are ethereal; our words and thoughts reach the upper regions of space next to the cell tower only to remain there, as our devices disconnect us from those with whom we share space. Even though we have two hands, I’m convinced that you can’t hold a cellphone and someone else’s hand at the same time.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Philip Reed is an associate professor of philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York State. His scholarly interests are in ethics and moral psychology. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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