Before leaving, I work in the mornings and evenings, between the heat, to sand and prep the wood on the back porch, before quickly painting the bare wood. I switch from right hand to left hand and back to right as each get too tired to keep painting, but I can’t quit. I must finish this. It wasn’t neat, it wasn’t pretty, but it was done, and I loaded up the truck, and drove out of town as the sun was setting out across the valley heading north. My summer vacation had begun. I was heading to be with my family at my grandfather’s memorial service.
Judge Learned Hand (1944)
“We have gathered here to affirm a faith, a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion. Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. For this reason we have some right to consider ourselves a picked group, a group of those who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land. What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? We sought liberty - freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves.”
Chico and I pull over along the Pit River. I saw it on the Google satellite image as a possible place to camp for the night. The Milky Way stripes the moonless sky, the centrifugal facture of the universe. I used to look up and think of the night sky as infinite chaos, but I look around now to the fractured United States, the broken world, and the night sky feels ordered, ancient, and comforting. While personally, the abyss of space makes me feel unimportant and meaningless, this feeling helps me deal with the politics of the world around me now. I try to say that it all doesn’t matter, but I can’t make myself believe that.
President Obama (2016)
“Scripture tells us that in our sufferings, there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see.”
My Aunts and Uncles tell stories. Stories about my grandfather and his love of nature and his desire to take them out there to experience. Hunting, fishing, rafting, backpacking…long before it was popular. The service is good. The military shows up to unfold a flag, play taps, fold it up, and hand it to my Uncle John. I never thought so much about what the flag represents. My grandmother once took me to the Smithsonian to see the original Star-spangled banner that flew over Fort McHenry during the war of 1812. General Armistead ordered the largest flag ever made so that the British could see it from their ships. I remember sitting through a talk at Fort McHenry as they told the story of the hours of bombardment and as the morning of September 14th came, the smoke cleared and the flag was still there. Not since that day over 30 years ago have I felt so enamored with a flag. The flag is folded so that only the stars shine through. This flag, today, represents my grandfather. Taps resounds across the empty air. The last note lingers almost too long. I once worked all summer trying to learn to play taps on the bugle. I cry as they fold it up, walk it over to my Uncle who stoically stands in salute as they present the flag to him. He says to my uncle, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.” Salutes, turns, walks away, and we all breathe. Day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.
“I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few - as we have learned to our sorrow.” Learned Hand
Why do we fight so fervently with each other? Deaths have been stacking up in the news filled with hate and frustration. Rhetoric is spilling over into the streets. Bombs are not bursting in air, they burst in our hearts and our homes. We expect for smoke to clear over and over again and from that smoke, from “morning’s first beam” we expect that flag to wave. I keep thinking about “the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion.” No, it is not in God that we trust, but in each other.
“Now, I’m not naive. I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency. I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence. And I’ve seen how a spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate, overtaken by the return to business as usual, by inertia and old habits and expediency. I see how easily we slip back into our old notions, because they’re comfortable, we’re used to them. I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been. And so, I’m reminded of a passage in John’s Gospel, “let us love, not with words or speech, but with actions and in truth.” President Obama
The family all decides to go camping because Grandpa would have wanted that. I am not sure I really knew my grandfather that much. He wasn’t around. But he is more like a mythical person to me. A shadow figure. He would send me letters he wrote to congressmen about logging areas, forests in need of better conservation, rivers in need of preservation, trout runs threatened. He would send me articles from newspapers about environmental problems. He would send me books. Ever since I was young I would receive a new book each Christmas from him. They are books that would shape me. Two Years Before the Mast, Huckleberry Finn, By The Great Horn Spoon, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Mutiny on the Bounty. Stories that, in some ways, would later define me, or give me some sense of wonder and desire for exploration into the world. I would read the stories he wrote of growing up in rural Oregon at the turn of the century, his father a local pastor and mailman delivering mail by horse and buggy and his own embarrassment at the horse that would fart all the time. He would write about logging the old growth, about searching for remote trout streams in mapless areas. He would write about Pinchot and going to school for forestry. Later, he would give me all his topographic maps he had collected of California over the years. I still cherish them even if many of them are outdated now. Maps have always felt like treasures, as if I am still reading Treasure Island as I would scour the maps for remote lakes high in the Sierras, places to go where others would not. Mostly, I think of how he would fight to protect these wild spaces of the world. He is the true heir of Muir in my mind. A boy, born along with the National Parks, he would fight too for protection. He thought the Bald Eagle was done; he thought he would never see a bear or elk. We the people, with his help, have proved him wrong. The delisting of the bald eagle is perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of what an informed public can do. We did that with our government, with good policy, with good education, and with a realization that the chemicals we were using were not good for us, not good for ecosystems, and that those corporations didn’t want us to know that.
“What then is the spirit of liberty?
I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten - that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side-by-side with the greatest. And now in that spirit, that spirit of an American which has never been, and which may never be - nay, which never will be except as the conscience and courage of Americans create it - yet in the spirit of America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America so prosperous, and safe, and contented, we shall have failed to grasp its meaning, and shall have been truant to its promise, except as we strive to make it a signal, a beacon, a standard to which the best hopes of mankind will ever turn; In confidence that you share that belief, I now ask you to raise you hand and repeat with me this pledge:
I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands--One nation, Indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Learned Hand.
I camp with my cousin Larry. We have done so many adventures together over the years. He is the closest I have had to a big brother growing up. He picked on me as such, but also he took me with him. We would fish streams, lakes, canals, ponds; hunt ducks, chukar, and grouse. We have had some devastating days where we would spend all night cleaning our catches. Larry is a hunter through and through. Once, on one of my summer visits to Boise we were driving through town. A crow was in the street, Larry swerved over and hit it. He looked at me and said, “always hunting.” I shouldn’t laugh, but I still do. Larry has taught me to be true to me, to be fearless of others thoughts.
Everything has changed so much now. He recently went through a divorce but that is nothing new. We all sit around the campfire and start to try and count the different wives my grandfather had. My Aunt, the oldest sibling there (Steve is the oldest, but he has stopped talking to everyone in the family. The family thinks he might have moved to Europe) seems to think that my Grandpa was on his 7th or 8th marriage. Every single one of my Aunts and Uncles have gone through at least one divorce. And those numbers seem to be mirrored in the grandkids too. I have no misconception that love is solitary. Like my grandfather I don't think about a god or a resurrection. Love might be boundless, but not about one person, not until death do we part. I believe in community. I believe in diversity. I believe in creativity.
“In the end, it’s not about finding policies that work. It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism and finding the will to make change.
Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other? Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anybody perfectly good or perfectly bad, it just makes us human.
I don’t know. I confess that sometimes I, too, experience doubt. I’ve been to too many of these things. I’ve seen too many families go through this.
But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel. “I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.”
That’s what we must pray for, each of us. A new heart. Not a heart of stone, but a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.” President Obama
My Uncle John doesn’t make it to the camping trip. I guess, in his attempts to be more like my grandfather, a person that repaired everything he could, never gave up on a piece of clothing because it might have some wear to it, once bragged that everything he was wearing he found, left behind, discarded by those who no longer wanted it, Uncle John, although he can afford whatever he wants, he chooses to try and fix and repair. His latest invention is a coffin like box he hauls behind his truck in the remains of an old pop-up tent trailer. Everyone jokes with him about it. John is a decorated war vet, a lifer in the military, a green beret in Vietnam, Major Millard. He jumped at the chance to head to Afghanistan long after he had retired. “War” he would say, like some character from Full Metal Jacket. My grandfather would say that he understood that draw to go to war. Stationed in London during the V2 rocket bombings, the camaraderie of war left an impact on him. In his final days his mind kept taking him back to London.
John doesn’t make it camping because he left a few days early to go fishing up near Stanley, in the wind, the pop-up top collapsed on the coffin and locked him inside. He yelled for help for almost two hours until someone came to rescue him from his self-built box. We all laugh good at the thought of him there. His brothers joke about him. Everyone tells stories.
“We turn on the TV or surf the internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout. We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.” President Obama
Eventually, everyone goes home. I watch Larry pack up his camp, load up his truck, with his new girlfriend and her kids, and drive off. I decide to stop by myself at some hot springs and soak. Nobody is there and I have them to myself for a while, but eventually people show up. I am in the largest pool alone and everyone tries to be respectful, they find other pools, but eventually one family stops and asks to join. I say, please.
We talk, he is a war veteran, from Iraq. But also a fisherman and hunter. We have a good conversation, a conversation of friends that are strangers, but find commonality in a love for the world around us, the ecosystems and beauty of mountains and rivers and oceans. I don’t know his political affiliation and I worry about it. I want so badly to talk about it because I am so worried about which way our country is going. I am so afraid that people can’t see how fragile these ecosystems are and how much we need to protect them. I am too afraid to be put into a subgroup, too often have I been called “a liberal” or “a democrat” as if they are derogatory terms, and perhaps I have done the same. I prefer to share this idea that we are fishermen. I get into my car and drive back to my Dad’s house.
“We also glory in our suffers because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. For all of us, life presents challenges and suffering. Accidents, illnesses, the loss of loved ones; there are times when we are overwhelmed by sudden calamity, natural or man-made. All of us, we make mistakes, and at times we are lost.
And as we get older, we learn we don’t always have control of things, not even a president does. But we do have control over how we respond to the world. We do have control or how we treat one another.
America does not ask us to be perfect, precisely because of our individual imperfections, our founders gave us institutions to guard against tyranny and ensure no one is above the law. A democracy that gives us the space to work through our differences and debate them peacefully, to make things better, even if it doesn’t always happen as fast as we’d like. America gives us the capacity to change.” President Obama.
My brother, my Dad, and I pack up for our annual backpacking trip. This year, we actually are not backpacking. My Dad’s recent heart attack has him a little spooked, and I can understand. I think I am too. A little more afraid of death, afraid of leaving the world when there is so much more to see, so many more people to love. We decide to make a home base and do a lot of day hikes to different lakes and scout a new area up in the Payette National Forest. The forest is filled with tarns, lakes left behind when glaciers slid down from the mountains, remnants of an icy past. I take to the mountains to find some center, to find footing, to let go of the world out there that fills my mind, to find perseverance and hope. It isn’t coming.
It is beautiful, each lake we visit, the long hard hike up to Box Lake, the short but steep climb to Snowslide Lake, where we off-trail to a summit. Each day is glorious and fun. My brother and I jump into the lakes while my dad catches his fill of trout. We decide to move base camp and pack up to drive to another lake. We are scouting for short hikes where we could take the next generation of Millards out into the wilderness. We drive down to an easy hike at Boulder Lake, and find it filled with people. It is easy and beautiful, but there is something about the ease of it all that doesn’t sit with us. Sometimes I feel like Abbey that you have to crawl on your bloodied knees. Maybe that is my own problem too.
On the walk back, I realize that I forgot some small solar panels sitting in the sun at our last base camp. Damn! It was over an hour back, but we load up in the car and drive back there. We race back up the creek, the dirt roads, the peaks; they feel familiar now, our campground, not a hunter’s space, but our own. Shaun runs up to get my left behind solar panel. We decide to travel over the saddle and down the other drainage. As we crest the saddle we hang out the windows in awe of the peaks and escarpments, the creeks, and rugged terrain. I joke that I left the solar panel on purpose. We were so close to this place and almost missed it. We drive over the saddle and into the Lick Creek Watershed. We look at the maps for lakes tucked up into granite cirques. We are sure we will return here. We camp for the night and plan to hike into Hum Lake the next day.
In the morning, we drive to the trailhead, and begin the long hike up to Hum Lake. A forest fire burned through here some time ago, and the wind through the dead trees seems to cry out. As we crest the saddle to look down to Hum Lake, we decide not to hike down, but once again go off-trail and hike for the nearby summit. We sit on the summit and watch clouds form across the range; Shaun trundles rocks down the empty scree fields below. We are in the heart of the Payette now. This land is so amazing. I am not sure how many more summer the three of us will get to go hiking together, but I am doing my best to be grateful for what I have right now. On the walk back, I stop at a water crossing to let Chico drink and to take pictures. My Dad and brother go ahead of me. I have been injured for a while, but I feel better. I decide to start a short run to catch up to my Dad and Brother. Chico is clearly excited to run. When Dad and my brother see me coming, they too begin to run. All four of us, trundle our own way down off this mountain. Maybe god doesn’t change our heart from rock to flesh, but gravity and the mountains erode the stone away to reveal the heart that lies beneath. Suffering doesn’t produce perseverance, desire does. Liberty isn’t in the heart of people, it is out in the land around us. We come back down that mountain because there is another mountain out there waiting.
“Weeping may endure for a night but I’m convinced joy comes in the morning.” President Obama
We stop, out of breath, and I can see my own father, a glow in his blue eyes, a red smile on his face, his heart, not of stone, his heart, not broken, his heart not failing. My Dad stops and thanks both me and my brother. He says, he felt alive again. Someday, if I’m lucky enough to live to old age, I too will cope with the loss of my father. We fold the flag to hide all the stripes, all the harsh lines that divide us are gone and only the stars remain. Stars have always been reminders of those who have past, they are like mnemonic devices to remember the stories of those that came before us. Those stars are unfathomable. The universe is unfathomable. The light is older than any story we can tell and what might be out there waiting is a great mystery that humans must seek to explore. We can change the stories. I can blend the story of Orion with that of my grandfather, the great hunter. Maybe Pisces is better. The strange duality of fish tied together swimming in different directions. Some have argued that we are leaving the age of Pisces, or already left it. I don’t think it has ended yet, not when I look around at the world. The next age is the age of Aquarius, the age of water. Water. That is when we realize how interconnected we all are. That is when we stop fighting, stop swimming in circles around each other, leave silly religions behind and see each other, see how the universe spins around, and how we are just a small fish swimming in a cosmic sea. I look up at stars like I look across the ocean. The vastness does calm me from the news, from the killings, from the bickering, from the death, and fighting, and meaningless attempts at controlling some small part of this rock. You can’t really control water. Water doesn’t know the boundaries of states and nations. The clouds lift up from the great seas and rain down upon land, erode rock, and carry away sediment. Dams can stop it for a little while, but even the land floats upon a sea of liquid magma, and the earth floats upon an endless sea of space, and this solar system spins in the rising tides of a galaxy we barely understand.
Maybe we shouldn’t seek joy in the rising sun and dawn of a new day, but instead, be OK with weeping into the night, be OK with what we see around us. Understand that the sun doesn’t illuminate; it actually blinds us from seeing out further to a universe much larger than our petty wars, our meaningless green pieces of paper, and bank accounts. When the sun sets, we can look out to see so much further. We can see the stories of the past wrapped up in the stars and know that the light is old, and there is more still coming. We share this. Can the stories of the stars remind us of how many wars we have fought, how many people we have killed, how much power we have sought, and how little it means? Shouldn’t looking up cause us to look in? There they are, every night, we can predict where they will be and when they will be there. Pisces, the two fish strung up, caught, out of water, tied up, soon to be eaten, fried. Perhaps when I look up and see Pisces, I will imagine my grandfather, his logging boots on, jumping from rock to rock, a pole in his hand, tempting fish with a fly. Perhaps, I will use it to think of my own father, and his joy of the fish he catches. Inside Pisces is a whole other galaxy, a spiraling galaxy with billions and billions of more stars inside that galaxy that we see as perhaps a minor star in the tail of the fish. Perhaps the suicide bombers, the cowardly shooters, and even the egotistical leaders of nations will think that they can write their stories into the stars, but they won’t be there. All that they deem so important right now will just spin out off this world, consumed in supernova, eaten in a black hole. What they do means so little in the end? Instead, they just cause momentary grief, pain, and sadness. When things break, we sometimes think they are then broken. No wall will keep you safe. No gun will ease your fears. There is nothing safe about living. There are no good ways to die, only good ways to live. If we only would look up and see. There are stars shining all around you right now. Their light is upon you.