Monday, March 31, 2014


Before anyone was fussing about “Game of Thrones”, my cousins were enthralled with “The Outlanders,” the Diana Gabaldon series about a Scots woman who had gone back in time and was involved in clan warfare over the Scots throne.  Though the series is basically a romance thriller, they were so anxious to include me in what they took to be actual events in our shared Strachan past, so significant to our family identity, that they actually sent me a little green iPod with the story on it in audible form, read by a woman with a seductive but (luckily) intelligible Scots accent.  I enjoyed it.

But I was shocked.  The books, written by a biologist who knows sex and murder when she sees it, the plots were packed with S/M, perversion, violence, herbal witchery and miserable living conditions.  My cousins said they just skipped those parts and read for history, but I didn’t see much history.  What they valued was the importance of family (clan) and salvation by love.  It’s not hard to see why our family history in the last few generations since immigration from Scotland had taught us to believe in our superiority over others as a defense against poverty and hardship as well as a kind of helplessness about economic matters.  Pride in education traced back to Scotland, but didn’t show much understanding about what a high "intellectual" education might be like.  Not that I knew either until Div School and beyond.

Hero tortured by villain -- those are not swords Jamie is holding -- he is suspended.

Do not mistake me.  I’m not a print snob.  I will read anything about the worst stuff: torture, genocide, destruction of vulnerables, and so on -- but not with the idea that they are necessary or tolerable or that they can be skipped over or that our family never participated in such abuses.  It was through considering what I read, acting to get a “high” education, and trying to understand how to effectively oppose what -- for lack of a better term -- must be labeled “evil,” that made me a “justified outlier.”  (Until then I was just a rebel without a cause except self-protection.)   Some of the attitudes and practices I reject and oppose are part of my cousins' lives -- mostly worship of status, obsessive secrecy about small difficulties, and constant insistence on control.  Fawning and cooing will not turn me away from trying to at least think these issues through -- even sometimes to act.  So much fear, so much willful blindness.

Diana Galbadon among standing stones in Scotland.

My mother's family was Irish, American since the 1600’s, and not afraid of a scrap.  (“Albion’s Seed.”)  My Scots cousins are secular, but moral in the most respectable Protestant way.  No drinking, no smoking, no cursing, no nightclubs, no gambling.  But no church.  Ever.  Except one in-law, late.  Their children began to explore the edges.  My cousins forgot that my grandmother’s horror of alcohol came from family susceptibility until they suffered the consequences in their own children. (I still don’t drink.  Some of them have a horror of sex.  I don’t.  I just have a horror of responsibility for children.) I went looking for edges: Indian reservations, art, law enforcement, religion and writing.  I think about sex a lot, not as a practice but as an identity, a biological function on the cellular level, and a force in society.  I think about brain function and sanity.  I think about creating a body of work, thought-work.

Scotland is a darker country.

I did not marry into a tribe: I married another outlier with a Scots cultural identity, whose family was always fondly trying to draw him back into conformity, away from his career as a sculptor.  (Success destroyed our marriage which taught me to avoid success -- not sculpture.)  In the end of ministry I didn’t fit my denomination, though it represented itself as welcoming outliers.  No denomination or congregation can accept many outliers without losing its existence --  constant challenges and perforations and exceptions will destroy the boundary. 

The UUA is no more tolerant of dissenters and nonconformists than the Catholics.  UU clergy are no more obedient to high standards of personhood.  Nor are any other theoretically privileged categories like doctors, lawyers, Buddhist priests, generals, college professors or Native American ceremonialists.  Status no longer means obligation to a higher standard.  The deflation was meant to be a kind of leveling in the name of democracy and it succeeded.

Outlier writer

I live in a small town as an outlier who is morally careful about not challenging the consensus boundary, though I try to have a bit of influence without interfering.  Diana Gabaldon and her understanding of biological communities would see that if I destroyed this community, it would damage me, because it is their grudging willingness to tolerate variance that makes the little niche where I dwell.  Yet they tolerate me, not because they approve but because they do not understand me.  I might challenge their ideas, but I’m reliant on their consistency.

In other niches on the internet I am also an outlier, but in a more mutually understanding way:  circles of environmentalists, tribal members from across the continent, religious thinkers, and social activists in the most perilous and reviled contexts.  I am a hunter-gatherer of ideas among them without signing up for membership.

Outlier writer.

There is another niche that I look at from afar with amazement and sometimes disgust.  Mass publishing is the most misunderstood business in America.  Once attached to upper-class Euros and then the romanticized Transcendentalists of New England, it is now occupied by people who want a steady stream of narrative that won’t scare anyone while being outrageously sensational in the most brutal ways, always winking -- in shades of gray.  The business model is the lowest common denominator with the highest gross profit, which often comes from big numbers with small margins, the dimestore model.  It is arts exploitation, forcing individual expression into forms to sell, and supplying false flattery.

To be published, writers must present manuscripts ready for print and agree to promote them.  Publishers are only advertisers, if that.  More like handlers.  Writing is a kind of personal obsession possibly better handed off to arts that demand less skill.  Publishing, with a few exceptions, is the manufacturing of highly seasoned, morally fattening soup.  No one reads the books, except those romantic women and idle men who run narrative through their brains without any retention --  unnecessary since it’s all repetitious fantasy anyway.

But blogging exists in a sort of limbo where no one can find anything without tracking skills and already knowing the territory a little.  Partly academic, partly wild-hare, partly deeply personal, blogs might be sound, image, and/or word, any language.  It’s wonderful for outlier writers, in spite of the relentless attempts to industrialize writers into commodifiable groups, partly by constantly changing the terms of service.  

There’s no status, no reward, no profit and therefore no door-keepers, no unwanted editing, and no reputation.  Just the pure pleasure of driven writing.  If someone should read it, so much the better.  Someday a form of true publishing -- that is, an interface between serious writers and serious readers -- will form again.  Probably not in my lifetime.  I'll save what I can.  The secret of every blog is that someone somewhere is always saving everything.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


An institution is an organization of people for management purposes and there are many patterns.  Some develop spontaneously and others are derived from pre-existing organizations or invented to meet some need.  We are currently struggling with the consequences of defining an organization as a person, particularly when it comes to rights.  It has nothing to do with reality, everything to do with advantages.

But many other problems come from the boundary of the institution: who is in and who is out.  The model for that is the wall, esp. the defensive wall around a town or a fort.  Consider the problem of the Pope, or at least the Catholic church.  There are two kinds of congregations:  those that include everyone in a given area or those who are gathered from among the people in an area because they have affinities or beliefs in common.  At one time all Catholic parishes were the first kind because everyone was Catholic -- that’s the only church there was.  

If someone was not Catholic, it was because they were foreign and therefore semi-enemies or because they were heretics who challenged the church from inside.  They were killed.  This worked until a LOT of people became “protestant” because the church was too corrupt for the people to bear.  Then they became "gathered" from several places.  

Because the church was defined in the same way as a “nation”, the two were politically conflated, so a king could choose the nation’s church and two kings could be at war because they were of opposite religious positions -- or were they of two religious positions because they were at war?  Nations are more recent than religions, so the Pope could claim higher authority granted from God.  Sometimes this was a good thing since he could sometimes broker peace.  When Henry VIII snubbed the Pope, he stepped out of the loop.  Elizabeth I was smart: she made the loop much looser.  People could stay in the country without conforming to a religion.

Today it is not kings but technology that challenges the Catholic church.  In the emphasis on keeping order, the church insisted that anyone who was a member could not have premarital sex, could not use contraception, could not abort, could not marry outside the church, could not divorce, could not commit suicide.  The invention of birth control pills, economic pressure to limit the size of families, knowledge of problems in gestation that might require termination and a host of fiddling stuff like sperm sorting, in vitro fertilization,  surrogate mothers, mitochondrial transplants, etc. etc. and molecular knowledge of the actual process has made it impossible to use the old common sense understanding of when a baby is “ensouled,” just as technology makes it very hard to make decisions about exactly when death has happened if machines are making the body breathe and the heart beat.  

The only instrument the Catholic church had for enforcing its boundary was access to Communion.  But the people were stubborn.  They just left.  Priests were merciful and slipped them communion anyway.   Confession was supposed to keep them under surveillance but they left that, too.  Enough stayed in the pews in some places to keep a congregation going.  But priests were supposed to obey even more strict rules than their people.  Yet they no longer felt the empowering call of faith nor did they obey even the most basic decencies of secular society but hid behind their privilege.  The church refused to cede any more power to the state and therefore gave up its soul, denying corruption, even in matters of wealth.

An institution is maintained in two ways:  the magnetic and rewarding core around which it is gathered and the protective or confining boundary created around it.  Science is blamed for discrediting the core; society is blamed for breaking down the boundary.

Now let’s look at Indian tribes.  At first they were organic, pulled together by a core of genealogy, successful survival on the vast prairie, ceremonial sharing, language, and their existence as the only real choice since an individual in such an ecology cannot endure.  There were no towns so the only walls were natural -- mountains and rivers.  When the Euros came, they were semi-religiously committed to their identity, representing nations that were still kingdoms, still struggling in competition, driven by the need to dominate and grow.  They imposed all that on the tribes.  “Tribe”, they thought, was a sort of mobile nation.  They set about inventing boundaries, which mostly separated the land they wanted from the land they didn’t want.  Then the Indians were pushed into the unwanted lands -- until there was some advantage in suddenly claiming it back.

Signatories of the Box Elder treaty.

In Europe the people were listed so taxes could be demanded from them.  In America the tribes were listed because their existence after the buffalo had collapsed was dependent on commodities and because there was a pretense that they had been “paid” for their land.  The early lists were genealogically based,  as they would have been in Europe.  This seemed sensible when the indigenous people were so very different.  

There were two points of view:  one was that the tribes were a different species and possibly could not have children with Euros, so that the boundary would always be there.  The other was that Indians would intermarry with Euros and in a few generations there would be no Indians.  (Dr. Thomas, principal in Heart Butte at the end of the Nineties, went around saying that if he could import a dozen beautiful blonde Swedish girls, there would be no "fullblood" Indians in the next generation.  Then he wondered why all the Indian women were angry at him.)  The truth is a wandering ambiguity that cannot find a definition.  At what point does a tribe stop being a tribe? 

Genetics are the least helpful markers of identity in persons.  Identity of a person is formed after birth.  Though physical heritage is the carrier of the person’s identity -- its presentation and capacity --  in fact the person develops through culture.  It is those who endow the child’s culture who are the true parents.  Some institutions also shape the child -- church, state, business.  Many institutions are simply economic.  But we are discovering how corruptible and violent economics can be.  Economics can be based on conditions and resources that disappear, leaving shells that can do damage.

Jesuits in Argentina.  Pope Francis at lower left.

The institutions of church and tribe would like their members to be clearly and totally committed, to be at the nucleus of the organization out of attraction and dedication.  They may ask for oaths of allegiance, ceremonies of joining, and the wearing of marking clothing, tattoos, badges, hats.  But there will always be concentric circles, so that the outermost circles wander off, and there will always be breakaway circles, either that stay within the larger institution (like Jesuits or Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s allegiance to conservative sub-groups of both Americans and Catholics) or that separate entirely.

St. Anne's Catholic Church in Heart Butte, MT.

Among the Blackfeet an economic subgroup was defined by the tribal council as Siyeh, a subsidiary with a separate board that is shielded from intervention by those whose allegiance to their own subgroup (family, we hope) is greater than it is to the tribe.  An educational subgroup was defined by the tribal council as Blackfeet Community College, which responds to the standards and guidance of national educational organizations.  A voluntary and entirely independent subgroup, Piegan Institute, was formed by Darrell Kipp, Dorothy Still Smoking, and Ed Little Plume for the purpose of preserving the Blackfeet language and scholarship about Blackfeet people.  All of these subgroups still exist and operate.  The Catholic parishes also thrive.

New resources found on Blackfeet lands (oil) mean that the half of the legal tribe that lives elsewhere has suddenly taken an interest in the land.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was supposed to have recused itself as soon as the tribes were able to manage themselves, are now forced to umpire factional war within the tribes.  No one knows what to do next.

The present Pope knows what to do.  He is gradually eliminating corruption along with secret wealth, and setting up a glowing heart of attraction while he and others try to understand how to integrate modern technologies with millennia-old cultural rules about families and reproduction, health and morality.  

The Blackfeet wait for someone to do that for them.  What is the glowing heart of being Blackfeet?  Or is it time to go back to the land as the definition, saying those who love this place are of this tribe?  Maybe like subscriptions, three levels of membership:  those who live on the rez, those who live within a hundred miles of the rez, those who are far away.  Should there be an automatic full-membership for those who are certified Blackfeet speakers regardless of genetics or location?  That was the oldest way, before first contact.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


Persons are processes, burning flames, unfolding growth, accruing, expanding, transforming, collaborating.

So are families, communities, cultures, organizations.

And so are the sun and the planet on which we live -- swirling and blazing and withdrawing.

All is change.

Institutions try to push all that into a box, label it, hoard it, sell it, manage it, maybe crush it.

Slightly more than half of young Americans say they belong to no religious institution.  But most of them would probably say though they are secular, they are spiritual.  Secular to them means no institutions, and yet they go on wanting ceremonies of coming-of-age, of marriage, of death, of birth.  When they do those things, they want to do them “properly.”  Or sometimes they think such transitions should be an ecstasy of abandonment and drunkenness. They get their ideas from the movies, a mish-mash.  But they want transcendent experiences, so much that they will take risky drugs.

Part of their resistance to “institutional religion” and most other institutions, comes from their belief that they are individuals.  They feel their happiness lies in controlling their own future and thinking independently.  They are together in groups in guarded, conditional ways.  Dear Abby tells them that if things are not working out, best to move on.  Hook up culture meaning connecting bodies, but not emotions or thoughts.  What is the relationship between spirituality and institutions?

This photo is of women in the Trashi Yangtse district of Bhutan, one of the last relatively untouched places on the planet.  They probably don’t think of themselves in terms of whether they are members of a church -- their lives are seamless between inside and outside.  Their religion is likely Buddhist and they probably know few people who are different. Their place is “The Thunder Dragon Kingdom.”   The headquarters look like a square fort.

In 2006, based on a global survey, Business Week rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world.  In 2008, Bhutan made the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and held its first general election.  It barely thinks of itself as a country, partly because it extends from the highest mountains to tropical lowlands, an “ecotone.”  And now in part what holds it together is throwing out all the ethnic Nepalese who have migrated into the country over the years.  These women stand on the cusp of natural organic spirituality and institutional, defining, and confining religion that justifies exclusion.  The women themselves are vivid, so obviously the same and yet so individual.  

I just now ran across the category of Archaic Greek sculptures called “kouros” if they are male and “korés” if they are female.  They are individual life-sized figures, different but the same.  The men are always nude and their heads are a little bit crude -- flat on the back, careless on the face.  The women are always clothed in what seems to be stiff clothing, with very elaborate and curly long hair that hangs down in a way that helps them form a column.  The women are painted bright colors.

Somehow, these figures seem to refer to gods: the men to Apollo or the Egyptian Horus and the women to Persephone.  Female figures like these were sometimes lined up as pillars to support buildings.  Then they are called caryatids.  There is much written about the symbolism of women who support roofs.  They suggest institutions. 

This woman stands between the two figures: strong, nude, female.

The style of the carving, especially in the treatment of the face -- but also in the nude men's bodies -- the muscle locations and definitions are treated in slightly different ways and in some periods certain muscles are omitted.  Archeo-anatomists note things like “there is a tension observable in this ground between the solid, architectonic quality of early styles and the expressive possibilities of a vigorous, fluid naturalism. . . The ear is carved in more than one plane.  A roundness of the eye is indicated henceforth.  Lips curve upwards and meet more or less at corners, the upper lip protrudes over lower.”

One comes to a concept called “the archaic smile.”  It’s almost a smirk that recurs again and again on the faces of these early sculptures.  Is it a convention or an attitude?  Or both?  A kind of ironic amusement at having to stand there, clothed or unclothed, weight-bearing or independent?  Ogas and Gaddam, authors of “A Billion Wicked Thoughts”, discuss at length the expression on the face of the Mona Lisa, which is very close to the “archaic smile.”  They feel it is fascinating because it combines a strict geometric shape with a blurred human expression, leaving the viewer caught between irresolvably seeing it one way or the other.

But this is the dilemma of being human.  On the one hand we are replications of a universal plan for a creature.  On the other hand we are negotiably in league with others and responsive to circumstances.  Institutions try to control that.  We are either in compliance with basics of anatomy or crippled; functional or struggling to compensate; mindfully in control or lost.  Archaic Greeks are the ones who developed the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his Koré so that it came to life.  

There is no ancient mythic story about a sculptor who fell in love with a living woman and made her into a statue.  But there is one about a wife who was turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment for looking back.  It’s an institutional story: conform to the rules.  There’s also the story of Midas, so greedy for wealth that he turned his daughter into a golden statue.  He was the King.  But he turned out to be human when he missed his human daughter.  There is one about a boy, a puppet who wanted to be human.  Is all this about love -- attachment to other humans in an intimate way?

This film is about a modern version of the Koré -- clothing mannequins, nude as a Kouros but smooth, hairless, colorless, identical.  The modern expression is not the archaic smile but detached scorn, the runway model stalking along with a voluptuous mouth and blank eyes. “Fuck me -- I don’t care.”   No one makes clothing mannequins for size 44 women, grinning flirtatiously.  But paleo-sculptors made fat women to be fertile -- they weren’t sexy.  “Feed me -- I’m making babies.”

I watch Australian films where many old pot-bellied men are seen nude, almost always from the back and satirically.  They are not quite Buddhas, not happy and always fleeing.  Is this a sort of anti-kouros?  On their way to being satyrs, not-human?  Is it more human to show people in all their variousness or is it better to resolve them into an ideal, though even intended similarity seems to slip in small distinctions, if only the treatment of the earlobe?  Should we force conformity for their own good?  Send them to gymnasiums to shape up? 

Is this in Australia?

Even a painting can do a better job than sculpture of capturing the flaming process of the human being of constituent cells, united by the brain’s idea of who they are and what they are doing.  Rodin had a theory about movement, that he could make a statue seem to move by letting the different sides imply the change as the viewer moved around the figure.  In his lifetime he went from making a kouros that was ideal (“The Age of Bronze”)

to one that was moving (“John the Baptist”)

 to one that was a pillar (“Balzac”).  

Likewise, he portrayed one woman, Rose Beuret, throughout her life but never as a standing figure, an individual.  Always entwined, folded.  Would she rather have been a koré?  Is a koré just a human box?  A human with a "box"?

Eifman Ballet – Rodin – St. Petersburg

Aad de Gids, Netherlands poet and philosopher has this response:
The kore seems even more "natural" than the "kouros" whose musculature seemed so strangely overproportioned but in that, even weird, almost like feminin musculature on a man: wide hips, not a clear male posture. i find it interesting. then the indeed "smirk" on the faces,seemed to me to be a remnant (often overseen) of africanism in greek statuatory art. 
Then the strangest thing happened: the film you inserted didn't "clicked" so i watched it by micro-inching away with my cursor right to the "progressionedge". so it jumped parts of millimetres. i saw the strangest scenes, frozen cinematography. there were several things that struck me. to me it seemed a company in the making of mannequins.  
The boss looked to have walked straight out of napolis quarter "scampia", marseille du nord or palermos "Z.E.N." (Zona Espansione Nord) . yet greatest revelation was that all involved males (designers) seemed to have become sexless, effeminite in their faces (the darkskinned man), the white man kind of a morph  as if, in handling the human form had robbed them from their own characteristic or distinctive features. then,i assume bc it was such strange viewing, it more and more resembled in watching a snuff movie, in particular where one of the designers was watching a coffee table book with, indeed, newtonnesque, bourdinnesque, photos of women, lying, with heady red accents, lipstick, blood? it gave your text even more profundity bc you were writing about exactly the same matters. where does the human figure begin, has it ever begun, where does the puppetry end? plus the mystique of the mona lisa her perhaps, darker indistinguishability a forebodening of what would come later. 
And now,the "hordes" of similes,mannequins with the fuck-me look, shoes, titdress, yet totally numb ,empty, available for cocaine, commodification, profitism, exploitation, blaxploitation. rodin was a scorpio, sculpting is a scorpionic art. what is hidden in the stone, in the deep...... 
i enjoyed this "vernissage" very much. we seem to have studied in time muchly the same topics. where does the one end and the other begin. the force of institutionalization, societal pressure, conventionalism and of course anticonventionalism. pot-bellied men (embouchure) and the stone age venus.

Friday, March 28, 2014


This is an attempt to round up and list some of the ideas I’ve been chasing off and on.  They mostly come from thinking about Indian tribes (Blackfeet) and religious congregations (UU and Catholic).  The roots are in a little sermon I gave years ago that compared “bundles” with “boxes.”   Boxes are the way the Euro world has stored things as far back as the Ark of the Covenant (a box that carried the pieces of the stone Ten Commandments)  which links boxes to writing and to rules. The box keeps its shape no matter what.  Hard to pack on a horse, camel or donkey, but easy to lift into a wagon, which is a box itself.  Euro-style is a box.  "Box goods" are wooden square kinds of furniture, like beds, tables and chairs.  

Travel trunk for a ship, a wagon, a railroad.

The bundle is even older, going back to the swaddled child in a blanket.  Bundles, which are the way the Blackfeet transported things, take their shape from their contents, so they can change shape -- that is, adapt.  A tipi or tent is a wrapped flexible fabric surrounding a framework or object.  The most basic shelter is a person wrapped in a blanket or bison hide.  (Not counting the emotional shelter of someone's arms.)

A wrapped bundle of sticks.

There’s a relationship to the way journeys go -- winding paths or squarely-measured streets and blocks.  That links to the contrast between rural and urban, and also to the contrast I talk about sometimes between the way my father could find his way on the chess-board of surveyed fence lines and the way my mother could find her way along waterways and by landmarks.  We might think that rationality is full of right angles like a box, but that might not be a justified assumption.  Even some cities have sinuous streets, serpentine, labyrinthine.

Today we’re told that mammal cerebrums contain cells that monitor which direction you are facing, supply a grid overlying areas, and tells whether you are close to an edge of some kind.  I watch the cats choose where to hunker down: often at the edge of a shadow or a porch or the rug -- on the side where they are harder to see.  But those edges might be curved or complex.  There is probably something in the brain about what will cause a mammal to be camouflaged.  Most camo is in "organic" blob shapes.  Not being seen would be a survival advantage.   Being plainly graphed is a mathematical advantage.

Now I’m moving to talking about organizing principles that contrast:  those that gather around a center, a kind of concentric accumulation driven by attraction to the middle or pressure from outside the formation, biomorphic ; and those that are based on decisions that draw sharp edges, boundaries, barriers, a difference between one place or condition and another.

A pipe bundle but maybe not so sacred.

This defining difference lets me think about the difference between a pre-contact Indian tribe, which is a freely assembled group of people usually gathered around an admired leader or genetic nucleus and responding to the larger ecology by moving; losing individuals through war, misadventure, aging, disease or famine; but also gaining members by accepting visitors, marrying, capturing, and birth.  The group can change in size as well as its demographics, so that sometimes there is a high proportion of men versus women or a high proportion of young versus old.  If the group is too small, they can join with another group; if they are too many, they can split.  This is biologically and environmentally related so it can be true of pre-humans.  Cultural memes develop in response to all these factors.

Boxes can be locked.

The discoveries made in the “Cradle of Civilization,” the Middle Eastern countries, were originally driven in organic ways until certain new techniques were discovered.  One was geometry, which allowed the drawing of boundaries that were based on mathematics, drawn in reference to stars, mostly driven by the need to keep track of owned property, either land that could produce profitable crops or the exchange of virtual value: money, debts.  Soon towns formed -- with boundary walls to protect accumulations of value like granaries -- and that meant they offered an increase in safety inside the wall.  This hardened the relationship between those who belong and those who are “other” and also created value by controlling the gate.  People might pay toll in order to enter or leave, which means a “salary” for those who kept the gate.  

A woven sack.

It also enabled the creation of formal laws, written and recorded so therefore transcending any one person’s memory, leaving no arguable wiggle room.  Controlling those laws also meant a source of power and profit.  Enforcing the laws and enacting laws that benefitted one group or individual over the others led to the elevation of someone to being the “Decider,” as Bush liked to call it.  This is the beginning of class divisions and the discrepancies in prosperity that we speak of now as the super-wealthy 1%.  If it all becomes too harsh, too burdensome, the 99% will breach the wall and tear down the geometry of the town.  Smart rulers shelter their people.

Change categories.  At first Christianity was an organic religion based on a shift from understanding virtue as privilege to virtue as generosity and gratitude.  When the local religion merged with the Roman Empire, it was an attempt on the part of the Caesar and ruling senators to shift to those values, but instead it transformed Christianity into an INSTITUTION.  As soon as a population is organized around rules, boundaries, safety and prosperity, it becomes an institution.

Institutions like it best if there is a clear boundary between who is in and who is out.  As soon as a reservation was defined in contrast to the fluid moving back and forth of tribes, they had created an institution called a “tribe” and named according to Euro names (Blackfeet) which meant that a supervisor could be appointed, rules could be imposed, and resources could be managed.  At first the reservation was like a kingdom with the agent, at that time under the Department of War, having total power over the people -- ANY people, Indian or not, who were within that boundary.  What he did with that power was determined by Washington, D.C.  (too far away to know or or interfere -- operating only on theory and desire) or by his own conscience.

Religious institutions are subject to the same forces as any other human institution.  Spirituality and meaning form the way families form or the original Siksika bands found an organic form.  Though religious institutions try to be gatekeepers who build a wall around these organic forms, spirituality and human institutions do not exist in the same dimensions.  Spirituality does not respond to geometry or prosperity or safety.  It is “wild,” outside civilized writing and buildings, and always will be.

This did not prevent one arm of the most Euro of religious institutions, the Roman Catholic Pope’s “army” (Jesuits), from coming at once to the Blackfeet territory -- even before it was a reservation -- to compete with the newly formed reservation machinery.  They had their own networks and gatekeepers of great power and determination.  Many indigenous with destroyed lives responded to this as a way of surviving and finding a new meaning.

Miraculously, in spite of rigidity and a punishment mentality, spirituality seeped back in.  Today we see a Pope educated in the Asian spiritual traditions, a Jesuit who studied Zen and Tao, leading us back to what had been walled out:  joy and the Gospel of generosity and gratitude.  Meanings without boundaries because they come from human sensory life.  Some feel that Buddhism was what converted Jesus to the Gospels.  

But those who have done well with the Procrustean forts, commodities, and railroads -- cling to the patriarchal ideas of the Old Testament which justified the destruction of the vulnerable, the defiant, the rule-breakers and the “other”.  Strangely, China has joined the Old Testament believers, maybe through Shinto, the worship of family ancestors, the use of genealogy to justify power and status.  But then, they always believed in Great Walls and emperors.  These are impulses that arise from too many people, too few resources, but enough prosperity for some people to become mathematicians, lawyers and . . . uh-oh, scientists.

But scientists ask why, why, why?   So do artists.  They are always escaping from the scouted territories, the maps and therefore the blueprints.  The reason that is a GOOD thing is that it leads to new resources, new ways of being in the world, and more world than anyone living inside a wall according to the past can ever imagine.  But the easiest way to drive people inside confining walls is fear.  Surveys now are saying that people are valuing security more than prosperity.

Why, Why, Why?

Thursday, March 27, 2014


My cousin, Scott McLean, is an engineer recently retired from Seattle City Light and makes this report.

The big mudslide near Oso, WA that you may have been hearing about in the news strikes close to me in more than one way: that was the way I drove back and forth from Seattle to the SCL (Seattle City Light) Skagit hydroelectric project for 20 years, so I know that road so well that I could probably drive it in my sleep. Because of traveling this way so much over the past years, and because I worked on a big rockslide project (the Ross Slide) for my last three years at City Light, I feel this news story more personally than most.

Regarding the Oso Mudslide, it occurred on 3/22/2014 on Hwy 530 about 10 miles east of Arlington, WA. If you look on a map, follow I-5 12 miles north of Everett then turn east on Hwy 530 at Exit 208, follow Hwy 530 about 15 miles through Arlington and on east to Oso. It is a beautiful highway that passes through the foothills of the Cascades along the valley of the Stillaguamish River, and takes you to the heart of the spectacular scenery of the North Cascades National Park. This whole valley is very prone to landslides. In fact there was another landslide 8 years ago only a mile west of the Oso Slide that threatened two of City Light's transmission towers -- and coming up with ways to protect those towers from the advancing slide was one of my projects at the time. We thought that slide was big: it dropped about a 200-foot stretch of Hwy 530 down about 20 feet as the whole hillside slid into the Stillaguamish River below. But that was small potatoes -- the Oso Slide is something else. In none of the other landslides I am talking about was there any loss of life. The fatality count in the Oso Slide is what makes this one a heartbreaker: 16 as of this morning with over 100 people missing. The slide came through at about 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning -- a time when many families would be at home.

See the attached photos from the Seattle Times. Photo 1 shows an overview of the range of the slide looking downstream to the west. At the very left edge of the photo, what looks like a linear clearcut is SCL's transmission line that carries about 25% of Seattle's power supply from the Skagit River hydro project to the city. You can see Hwy 530 at the upper left corner of the photo meandering into the transmission right-of-way, then it angles down to the right and disappears into the mudflow. What is striking to me is how far the slide debris flowed horizontally. When the mud reached the bottom of the hillside, it went into the river, filled up the river and kept on going another couple of thousand feet right through the middle of a community of about 25 homes, through some woods, and across Hwy 530 into some fields across the highway. What is concerning about this scene is that the slide "scarp" (i.e. cliff at the upper margin of the slide) is severely over-steepened above its "angle of repose" ... so pieces of that slope will calve off like the face of a glacier until the slope is finally reduced to a flatter slope near its angle of repose. It's just a matter of time until more of that hillside comes down. No one knows when. And because saturated soil loses its ability to stand up, the rain which started yesterday and which is forecast to last through this week makes that area a dangerous place for rescue workers to work. Hats off to those brave folks.

Photo 2 is a map showing the outline of the landslide in purple. It appears to me that the areas outlined in red are lots on which homes were located – I count 30 homes including ones south of Hwy 530.

Photo 3 is a screen shot from Google Earth of the slide area; north is at the top. The community of 25 homes between the highway and the river lies on the inside of a curve in the river. To the north across the river from the community of houses, you can see the outline of previous slides at this same location ... the slide area bounded on the west with bare soil that looks almost white in the photo, and the vegetation has a different texture in the slide zone, due to being younger. Hwy 530 clearly shows going generally in the east-west direction, as does the SCL transmission line right-of-way. Near the bottom left edge of the photo, you can see what looks a green meadow sandwiched between the river and Hwy 530 on the south side of the river. That green area is a massive reconstructed hillside placed by WSDOT. Just below (south of the highway) that green patch, you can barely make out the two SCL transmission towers that we were working to protect. Fortunately, the green hillside buttress plus a huge retaining wall built by the State put an end to our worries about those towers.

Photo 4 gives an on-the-ground perspective: mudslide debris and a house in the middle of the highway.

Photo 5 shows the rockslide I worked on for City Light near Ross Dam on the upper reaches of the Skagit River. Our task was to bring down the unstable rock remaining on the cliffs after the slide via blasting, then re-stabilize the rock cliff via rock bolts, then reconstruct the road and docks destroyed by the slide. The blasting, rock bolting and construction of temporary roads and docks was done over the course of 3 years on my watch, and the permanent facilities are slated for construction in the summer of 2014.

--Scott McLean lives in Edmonds.

This book is a version of a PNW myth about the formation of Columbia Gorge which in the story involves the love affair of two volcanoes: Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens.  It was performed as an opera in Portland, Oregon in the Fifties.  

The Pacific NW is always unstable, formed by volcanoes at the overthrust of tectonic plates, so that the constant pressure pushes land up into rumbles and sounds, but the rain coming off the ocean is always hosing is down into the constant run-off.  When humans build on a slope, they risk a sudden, devastating slide.  Love becomes grieving.  The angle of repose, which refers to the geological slant at which the ground comes to rest, becomes eternal because it is where bodies rest.  The bridge between lovers falls.  We try to find comfort by making the story beautiful.  

But it would do more good to listen to soils engineers when they say, "Don't build there.  You will awaken mud dragons."