Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Student's Essay For Admission to the Yearlong Program

A former student kindly loans us a copy of her essay that Tamarack required for admission to his Wilderness Guide Yearlong program. His creepy harassment letters and a ticket to the hell that is the Teaching Drum Outdoor School were the result.

Somehow we doubt the admission essay was ever really necessary. As long as suckers are willing to give Dan Konen money, he will oblige them with an admission to his phoney, playing-Indian school.

Yes, indeed. It takes a long time and a lot of work to grow up. The Tamarack Song's of the world are what happen if you don't.

His face masked, arm raised, fingers open, his body clad entirely in black - a moment frozen in a photograph of a broken chunk of pavement just gone through a storefront window. A thousand pieces of bottle green glass all over the sidewalk.

A merchant's corporate window shattered.

At this photograph in a magazine held open in my hands, I stared and stared, bleary-eyed from a four-day trek across America from the deep South to Portland, Oregon. Four days earlier was November 30, 1999. The first day of the anti-WTO uprisings in Seattle.

At this stark photograph of a man in mid-riot I kept staring as two words, two questions kept flying around and around in my head - Shattered, Why? No quick answers came. I put the magazine back down. Only terrorists wear masks. Did they not know that?

Anyway, what did it have to do with me? Activism is a bumper sticker "Save the Whales, Save Tibet, Save our Salmon". Single-issue. Single attack. That's it. You broadcast your message to an anonymous authority who somewhere, somehow is supposed to change things. That's it. Stick a bumper sticker on it. You're done. Or you make a sign and march passively from one end of town to the other. But never ever under any circumstances do you commit violence - especially not property destruction. That is a sin. Property has papal infallibility, the divine right of kings, you will go to Hell if you question it.

The next day, I went back to that magazine and looked at the photo again. Now there were others - pictures of people my age, my background, kicked, beaten, gassed, pepper-sprayed - their suffering blatantly exposing the falsification of history that tells us that the circumstances creating police states and riots happen only in the past, only in the ghetto. Only in the Third World. But I did not fully understand that yet. I just liked the photo. A raised arm. A brick through a window. Shattered glass. It must have felt good.

I put away the magazine once more and picked up the first secretarial temp job I could find. Fourth temp that company had had. They all kept quitting. Not enough to do. No one really caring if anything got done. Unsupervised and unwanted. With internet access. Click, click. Where in the world do you want to go today? Seattle.

It took a while. There were a lot of "isms". The WTO, global finance, third world debt - not exactly easy reading. Then somebody tossed me a lifeline with these three words that came across my monitor like three wise men:

Property is theft.

Come again?

Property is theft.

Is that so? Prove it.

And I was hooked. Like a hound dog on a track, I followed anonymous tips back to the scene of the crime - back to the image of the black clad window-smashers - but this time the image had a newly-minted caption to explain it all Anarchists. Anarchists? Yes, anarchists said the bruised corporate media in Seattle. And they are all from Eugene. I got out my month-old Oregon map. Eugene is one hour and fifty minutes from Portland. Jeesshh. Anarchists in Oregon.


Around the corner, the boss' footfalls clomped. Away went the map and the internet, up went Microsoft Word on my computer screen. Without comment, the boss disappeared into his office and picked up the phone. My heart pounded. He sat down in his big chair, engrossed in a phone call with his boyfriend. A sigh of relief - I was free again for several hours. Still, better to look busy for awhile. I started typing into the Word document.

Believe it or not, finding jobs like these is not hard, their main attraction being the loads of free time they allow one to dream, to surf, to write. Writing was the reason I moved to Oregon, because once there, I intended to finish a novel about a woman lost in an ancient and deadly forest where the only way out is to learn how to love. But the tale needed a setting and Oregon promised to be a land of mystic oceans, volcanoes, old growth forests. Above all, I needed a forest.

How the story initially took shape and why is beyond the scope of this relating, but it honestly can be said that the main impetus came from a near-death experience. Quite literally, one radiant Fall day, I felt the Angel of Death pass through the room; his presence hovering just long enough to impart one word:


In the wake of his leaving came turbulent thoughts about the reality of my own passing. I imagined being rowed across the river Styx. What would I say to Death should he ask me about my life? The question elicited an indifferent shrug, then a sullen scowl, then smoldering anger, hot tears, and finally beneath it all - despair.

To recuperate powerful emotions threatening to overwhelm everything, I put Death in the book and gave him a brother - the God of Love. To the woman in the story I gave four guides - a condor, a wolf, an owl, an opossum. To her adventure - a forest haunted by love and death and the dawning hope that nothing is as it seems. The book was an attempt to face the grief of a lost home and a broken family, to recuperate the energy of a looming nervous breakdown, to try to understand why I am so alone. I became convinced I was nuts.

Yet how was I to explain the three or four great horned owls that moved into the woods outside my apartment window, the opossums in the yard in the middle of the night, the vultures surfing the air rising up from the hollows into whose folds my apartment complex was built, and then one day, a snake lying across the sill of my door when I came home. Not too long after, a large stray dog shot out of the woods and clamped massive jaws onto my ankles and wrists in a terrifying hold whose meaning I still do not understand.

As it all unfolded, possessive relatives began to cling more and more tightly as I tried to pull away for the psychic space necessary to write. Unable to escape their empty conflicts, their golden cages where anything may be had but personal growth and freedom, I ran away. To Oregon. To a land of mystic forests.

But most of all, I was writing to convince myself that wilderness is only a story; I was writing to silence the nagging doubt that the artist gives to her art what she cannot give to her life. Then somebody threw a rock through a window. Shortly thereafter, I drove to the Hoh Rain Forest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Spellbound, standing beneath old growth Elders in the Hall of Mosses, I felt a message come loud and clear: You cannot justify cutting down even a single tree for a novel that will never describe a forest as well as Nature can.

As fast as I could, I got away from those trees, and for a little while longer fought their wisdom. A great novel had to be written; I wanted to become famous and wealthy. How else does a person get out of meaningless McJobs, isolation, banality? Without money, one cannot have a thatched cottage by the sea in a Gaelic-speaking county in Ireland. Without money, one cannot grow bamboo for a Zen hut to be built beside a hidden spring in the heart of Florida. Without money, one cannot....

But I was not really convinced. Fame and money rarely change anything - certainly not isolation and banality. A few days later, a terrible case of writer's block set in. Still I slogged on. The block got worse until finally, exasperated, the Angel of Death lost his temper. Grabbing me by the back of the collar, he dragged me to the door and rasped gravely, "Get out!"

I went to a protest. Gaping like a tourist, I saw my first in-the-flesh anarchist giving a fiery speech on class war. Homeless, he was a resident of Dignity Village - the self-governing tent city in Portland that once every few months gets evicted from their campsites on public land by armed eunuchs of the State - evicted because the presence of a tent city in the neighborhood drives down the price of real estate.

The struggles of Dignity Village increasingly embodied everything I was learning about the economic and spiritual violence of capitalism, and about the resistance to that violence that Dignity Village modeled in their anarchistic selfdetermination. Anarchist theory poses a question, how can we live our lives without domination, coercion, violence? Without hierarchies and pyramid schemes? In Dignity Village, and in street protest as well, I saw what the Zapatista Marcos meant when he said we are fighting for communal spaces against market forces. Yet there was an unspoken barrier between Dignity residents and their supporters - we could help but we were not homeless. I kept reading.

As my faith in the system steadily unraveled, at night sometimes, I went to bed shaking, pulling the covers up over my head. I am going to Auschwitz. They are going to put me in Auschwitz. Because I don't believe in Them anymore. Because I can see what They do. For seeing the truth, for wanting to leave Them, we are all going to be beaten and imprisoned. War is the health of the State. Yes, I know. I remember childhood.

On and on I read, the books piling up beside my couch as a great, nagging fear that some collapse, some terrible reckoning, is just around the corner would not let me rest. What could a person do, how would one survive when it came? Survivalist books shot to the top of the reading list. Meanwhile, the corporate media was still looking for someone to blame for Seattle. They found John Zerzan - the primitivist writer from Eugene. He was to blame for the property destruction in Seattle because he and "his" tribe hated Civilization. How wicked!

Off the library shelves flew the books by Zerzan (and others), who page after page, methodically demolished the sacrosanct, civilized ideologies of time, technology, language, number, agriculture, art, and industrialism. It was exhilarating. It was as if something long dormant, scarcely to be believed, but there all along came springing up like hearty weeds through the cracked pavement.

The mists of pre-history clearing away, an enlightened picture began to emerge of the people who lived before the conquest of civilization. Particularly inspiring were their intimate ways with the natural world, their freedom from time and toil, their refusal of accumulation, and a marked absence of exploitation and hierarchies. Just as surprising came the evidence that there are still primal peoples living the old ways; that it is even possible (and desirable) to do so.

Yet this idea was terrifying in its implications, in its risks. America's ongoing policy towards Old Way peoples has always been nothing less than exterminationist. With my own eyes I have seen a measure of this kind of intolerance in Portland's treatment of Dignity Village. If Native Americans got genocide, if Dignity Village's homeless cannot even have a communal place to pitch their tents, then what chance do any of us contemplating this lifeway have?

Then I remembered the radical's challenge that if it does not revolutionize your daily life, it isn't revolution. And in this day and age of ecological and spiritual devastation, anything less than revolution is death. Perhaps it is too alarmist (or hopeful) to say that civilization is collapsing. I really do not know. But it has collapsed inside of me.

That our feral natures and primal selves are eternal and irrepressible is miraculous news yet not really new, for it seems that for so long the natural world has been trying to make contact. Only just recently have I learned that this understanding has a name: Dodem. It is the only way I know how to explain what I wish to become. This is our story:

Unfazed by concrete, suburbs or social climbers, the Relations were not long in appearing. That first house in the South where we lived when I was a toddler was adjacent to a piney woods, and one day while I was playing in the yard, a copperhead came slithering towards me out of the woods. My mother managed to intercept the creature with a garden hoe just in time to prevent the occurrence of what most likely would have been an interesting conversation. Despite my mother's hostility, the viper clan was not deterred.

A few years later, we moved to another Southern state, and one day my father took the family out in a boat on a popular lake. As lunchtime neared, we anchored about twenty yards off a small island during an unusually humid May afternoon. My mother, when she relates this story, says that there was something about that island and the unusual weather that just felt "snaky". The island was covered in thicket with shady trees hanging low over the water.

Ignoring her intuition, my mother began to pass out sandwiches to a hungry and cranky crowd. Next to me, a red can of Pringles potato chips sat on the right side of the boat nearest the island. Suddenly, like a dark flash of lightning from the shore came a tremendous, black explosion through the water. A serpentine missile, it drove towards the boat with great speed and blasted the red Pringles can head first, knocking the chips into the water.

Gape-jawed, I sat with half a sandwich clutched in my hand as the water moccasin slammed into my side of the boat again and again. Had she chosen to, this water viper easily could have slithered into the boat as she was well able to raise her head high enough over the edge to knock out the Pringles. My father gunned the motor into reverse and we fled. That was our first welcome to the area. There were more to come.

At eight years old - scrambling hand over hand up an embankment above a rain gully - I was just about to place my hand on the next hold when something inside said look. I glanced down in time to keep from placing my hand on a baby moccasin hidden under a brown leaf that he had just raised up enough with his head to look me straight in the eye. My heart stopped in my chest. Then I fled.

To no avail.

At ten, my childhood friend and I were running across a long-abandoned railroad trestle that passed over a wide creek in the woods below our house and fields. Way ahead of my friend and flying over the thick, rotting ties I felt a voice again say look. I glanced down and saw - a step away and easily within striking distance - a tremendous water moccasin sunning himself on a support tie below the top of the railroad. He had to have been at least six feet long as his fist-sized head was propped up at a forty-five degree angle between several coils, his tail placed coyly under his chin. I will never forget the look that viper gave me. I turned and ran.

Incredibly, we came back a few months later to hunt crawdaddies sure to be lurking beneath the hardened slag under the railroad trestle. Finding a particularly promising slab about three feet in diameter, I instructed my friend and his sister to ready themselves on the other side for all the crawdaddies that were sure to come flying out and into our pails as soon as I tipped the slab on its edge. Heaving the tall slab back, I could not immediately see what was under the capstone, but looking across into the shocked faces of my friends, I knew we must have hit the mother lode. I grinned and peeked over the edge of the slab. It was horrible.

A slimey, graybluegreen mass, the medusa's head beneath the capstone seethed and twisted and writhed like the living viscera of some monstrous animal. There must have been thousands of them. Looking up at my friends whose color had blanched completely out of their faces, I managed to choke out a single word: run. Slamming the capstone back onto the nest, hundreds of writhing, seething missiles shot out on the enormous splash towards the backsides of my fleeing companions.

Barely escaping with our lives, we never played together in that creek again. Two decades later I happened across a specimen of the monster in a natural history museum. At last, the beast had a name: Gray's crayfish snake. Perfectly harmless, and as fond of crayfish as any child.

Nonetheless, the water moccasin got the blame and the woods and creek remained abandoned with the approach of adolescence. Sixteen came and I was again in the yard of our house, only this time no happy toddler, but a distant, sullen teenager working on the only thing that really mattered - a perfect tan. A radio headset covered my ears shutting out all the world. Turning over to bake the other side, I saw something flutter in the corner of my eye. It was a blue jay hopping madly beside my mother's rose garden (which she watered obsessively, causing both the frog and nesting bird population to shoot up dramatically and thereby attracting predators fond of said populations).

A black whip cracked maniacally at the blue jay's head, and the jay slashed back at the water moccasin with its sharp claws. Undeterred, the viper continued heading straight towards me. I shot out of the yard and onto the porch and into the house.

Then away to college at a big university, then off to LA for film school, then to a Pacific island resort to teach American sports to Japanese tourists, then up to Kyoto to teach English, then home once more to join the military, then to months of physical therapy for permanent injuries from that dumb stint, and then lots of temp jobs and a vain attempt to explain through a novel why my father went bankrupt and lost everything including our home and why my parents divorced so brutally.

Nevertheless, these temporary diversions have utterly failed to convince me that the viper in my mother's garden and the viper on the railroad trestle were not one and the same. Civilization's complicity in keeping this fact from coming to fruition has not succeeded either; its war against memory has failed. The ancient Eye of the Viper has looked into me and revealed just how deep primal memory goes. After all, these reptiles watched the dinosaurs die.

Now maybe water moccasins cannot really help to explain what is happening to me, and maybe I am about to overstate their importance to revolutionary Return, but when all else failed, they remained. They remained when the wolf and the Indigenous were murdered, when the trees were taken and the land exploited, when labor was enslaved and dissent silenced, they remained.

They remained to remind the genocidal South that you cannot control what is wild. They remained to retreat to some of the most god-awful hot and humid places ever created. And they flourished. And in these places where they flourished, they built a reputation for legendary unpredictability. In their numbers and in their stealth, they became the reason why we call some swamps hell.

The wolf and the Indigenous temporarily beaten back, the oppressors let down their guard and the moccasins began pouring out of the swamps - into swimming pools, into log piles, into basements, into rose gardens, into barns and boats and bathrooms. Everywhere. To walk anywhere in the South is to feel that you take your life in your hands; it is to know that you had better look before you reach or sit or step or lift. It is not that the moccasin is a fierce or particularly deadly creature. It is that s/he is so unpredictable that little can be said definitively about their nature.

Sometimes when threatened they vibrate their tails like a rattlesnake. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they warn before they strike by exposing the inner white of their mouths (giving rise to the alternative moniker cottonmouth). Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they inject venom when they bite. Often they don't. Sometimes they swim out with their heads up like periscopes to bite people who have fallen off of jet skis. Usually they don't.

Highly territorial during the mating season (May/June), they are sometimes aggressive. Sometimes they can be counted on to be lethargic in the wintertime. Often not. Sometimes docile, water moccasins occasionally have been picked up and handled without incident. Some people do the same and lose a limb. Experts claim that snakes do not crawl into sleeping bags to warm themselves up next to folks. Sometimes pit vipers wait near sleeping bags for mice seeking crumbs to drop by. Solitary creatures, moccasins usually travel alone. People who have fallen into nests of them say it is like wrestling with a ball of barbed wire.

Cottonmouths have a reputation for dropping out of overhanging tree limbs and onto canoers' necks. Perhaps sometimes, this is true, although the responsibility largely falls to the agile, tree climbing, and harmless water snake who, cloaking herself in the water moccasin's reputation, is the same color and shape. It takes an expert to tell them apart. Not to be outdone, water moccasins have also been known to climb trees. Sometimes boaters reaching around trees to tie up their lines have been bitten.

Armless, legless and deaf, pit vipers hunt in the darkness with profound subtlety relying almost solely on heat sensitivity (which they register through pits located between their nostrils and eyes). Elliptical, cat-like pupils are at the center of their night hunter's vision. A precious commodity, venom is reserved for prey and used only as a last-ditch defense in the most dire of circumstances. Bloodless in combat with one another, their skirmishes leave the loser to fight another day and the winner to procreate.

Despite their unpredictability, water moccasins are usually forgiving. In fact, I am alive today because a certain cottonmouth took mercy on my childhood carelessness and chose not to instigate a deadly fall from the top of a railroad trestle. On that momentous day, the look in the Eye of the Viper was many things, but above all it was Remember.

And so I remember, despite how greatly it hurts sometimes. Though much was lost, the Way of the Viper remains, and it is the Way of the Viper that I wish to walk into my path. As far as I can discern from limited research and personal experience, the Way of the Viper is this: patience and precision, subtlety and stealth, unpredictability and wise retreat, a deadly reputation for quickening surprise, a sensual fidelity to sun and water, and the silence and timelessness of eternity.

Wanting only this, no amount of face-masking, fist-raising, black-cladding or rock throwing at military formations of riot-geared eunuchs is ever going to mollify the recognition that they are not what's in the way. Besides, I cannot learn from an enemy I do not respect; I want my own fear not theirs.

And it is in the forest, not the streets of civilization, where I want to face this fear; it is there that I want to understand how to deepen love. Even if it means at first to be like an ungainly, near-sighted, omnivorous opossum with little for defense but playing dead in a musk of offal. Perhaps Nature will be forgiving. After all, the bumbling opossum has an immunity to cottonmouth venom up to ten times the dose that would kill a man.

When attempting to explain to the human Relations nearest me my desire to live and learn in the Wild, I am most often met with a sad or cynical "Well, that is all very good, but in the end we cannot go back."

And they are right.

We cannot go back.

But we can come full circle.

Like the snake swallowing its tail - the symbol for eternal Return.

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