being cool: the new key to a compassionate daily life

I’ve seen two things happen when we spend too much time listening to the BBC or CNN or New York Times litanies of despair. One: we become blind to the countless reasons not to despair. Two: we fall prey to cynics who invoke global warming as a vague apocalyptic force of overpowering proportions to cover their own lying and voracious greed…”


by david james duncan


I’ve been a novelist so long I think in chapters. So here is ….

Being Cool chapter 1: Spirit World Rush Hour
What kind of stories best serve in a crisis? We’ve all heard and read global warming stories ranging from outraged denial to pure grief and fear to effective analysis. Which touch us most deeply? Which might motivate people here in the northern Rockies? Which might paralyze or polarize the same people? What are the differences between an empowering narrative and a paralyzing one? What are the mechanics and secret fuel of a story that directs us toward acts of courage, good sense, good humor, and hope? How should we speak to our friends, kids, neighbors, about urgent climate phenomena and water issues for maximum positive result?

Pico Iyer, in a recent Orion magazine piece, writes, “We can never truly tend to our polluted waters, our shrinking forests, the madness we’ve loosed on the air, until we begin to try to clean up the inner waters and attend to the embattled wild spaces within us. Action without reflection got us into this mess… The answer is not more action, but clearer reflection. A peace treaty signed by men who are still territorial, jealous and unquiet (Jerusalem tells me) is not going to create real peace at all. A commitment to the environment based only on what is outside of us forgets that the source of our problems-and the solutions of problems-are invisible, and that “nature” is a word we apply to what’s within as well as without.” I’m in accord with Pico. With John Muir, too. “Books and talks and articles about Nature,” wrote the Sierra’s own child, “are… little more than advertisements, hurrah invitation, dinner bells. Nothing can take the place of absolute contact, of seeing and feeding at God’s table for oneself. The cold and perishing cannot be warmed by descriptions of fire and sunshine, nor the hungry fed with books about bread. The Lord himself must anoint eyes to see, my pen cannot. One can only see by loving; love makes things visible and all labor light.”

Early yesterday morning my wife Adrian and I woke beside Holland Lake, where we’d spent a few days celebrating our 20th anniversary. I began the day by sitting on a round of firewood on the shore of the lake, trying to describe some things love was making visible. Of course I failed. “Nobody can be ambitious to do anything wonderful,” Muir wrote, “when God’s wonders are in sight.” But here’s the advertisement, the hurrah invitation my pen managed to get down, offered in hope that you’ll all keep seeking moments of absolute contact on your own:

From first light today there’s been a dead calm in which morning mist has erased the lake completely. Even ten feet from the water I can’t see or hear water. It’s as if the three hundred acre lake beside us is gone. Last night’s Everything has become a perfect Nothing. The world beyond the lake-world we’ve been gazing at for two days-is now two colorless objects: a dark gray mountain silhouette; a light gray mist. Except for those two, nada: No lake. No wind. No sound. No world. Time doesn’t feel like time in a world so stripped, but after a duration I guess I’ll call “two cups of coffee” there is a change: the mountain silhouette, high above the featureless grays, turns faintly gold and the grayness above the mountain faintly turquoise. With that, ever so slowly, a Genesis begins, as they all do, from scratch. First the mist in front of me begins to move, then to thin, and then it starts to brighten till some of it turns pure white against the everywhere-gray. As it brightens, the mist’s movements grow intricate and differentiated: spirals spin; dervish whirls whirl; robes of mist rip free of dense rugs of it and wisp off as if in search of something more substantial to become. The world of objects and creatures remains nonexistent, but none of the grayness is any longer still. It’s all foment and ferment. I feel as if I’m inside the mind of a master painter, prior to pigments, prior to her even picking up the brush, as she gazes at blank canvas, conceiving some kind of prepainting. Another half cup of coffee and the painter’s brush, or a thousand of them, set to work: an on earth as it is in heaven feeling washes through me as the mountain’s gold intensifies, the sky’s high gray goes blue, and the lake’s dark water at last grows visible. Some of the mist-forms on the lake’s face turn silver now, and rise in disintegrating spirals. The first larch and pine appear on the far shore. A first trout rise turns dark water bright. Then, beyond the widening rings, a black silhouette emerges, first life-form of the day, what is it? what is it? Ah!, a female merganser, I see when she sets off running, each step a silver explosion. Though calm still reigns, countless mist-forms, driven by windless convection, now fly across the water, streaming West to East, fast. Bodies of mist detach from this streaming to rise like souls off the water, but not in a ghostly way: it looks more as if the spirits of the world’s awakening forms are commuting: it’s spirit world rush hour out there on Holland Lake: birdkind’s and animalkind’s and plantkind’s individual souls whirling off to work to give every creature its daily quota of life. The painter’s work grows more exacting: amorphousness fades and color, form and specificity intensify, till swallows fly through the swirling, crossbills flock through it, a first squirrel chitters, the first raven calls. A quarter hour infusion of spirit rush turns the gold silhouettes, stage left, into the Swan Range and the indigo lumps, stage right, into the Missions. A half hour infusion is then required to convince the two ranges to cast their reflections on opposite ends of the brightening lake. “There is an invisible world out there,” says my Montana amigo Jim Harrison, “and we’re living in it… “

“If only I had the genius of an onion,” Jim writes in Saving Daylight, “to grow myself in laminae from the holy core that bespeaks the final shape. Nothing is outside of us in this overinterpreted world. Bruises are the mouths of our perceptions. The gods who have died are able to come to life again. It’s their secret that they wish to share, if anyone knows that they exist. Belief is a mood that weighs nothing on anyone’s scale but nevertheless exists. The moose down the road wears the black cloak of a god, and the dead bird lifts from a bed of moss in a shape unknown to us. It’s (morning) in Montana. I test the thickness of the universe, its resilience to carry us further than any of us wish to go. We shed our shapes slowly, like moving water…”

Spirit rush hour ends. In morning sun, a nuthatch’s call is languid. A world erased by night has become the lake we name and think we know. But the erased world, too, is home, the genesis swirl is home.

Being Cool chapter 2: Circumventing the Rush & Al Impasse
Mark Twain once started a novel by writing, “No weather will be found in this book. This is an attempt to pull a book through without weather.” Ernest Hemingway, meanwhile, once told a fellow writer: “Remember to get the weather in your god damned book-weather is very important.” Two great authors. Two strong statements. 100% disagreement.

If we replace the word “weather” with the term “global warming”, Hemingway and Twain pretty well frame the current public debate. There’s the Rush position: No global warming will be found on this radio show. My broadcasts are an attempt to pull AM radio through without global warming. And, in a more raw vocabulary, Hemingway gives us the basic Al Gore position: Get global warming into your god damned head-global warming is very important.

Here’s how I deal with the impasse. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But no one is entitled to their own facts.” Because facts are indeed facts, I occupy the Hemingway position-but gently; quietly; often silently. Rush Limbaugh typifies the growing eagerness of corporations and political entities to purchase whatever flavor facts that prostituted science, prostituted theology and PR trickery are able to provide. During this same onslaught of prostituted thought, I’ve stood in abject gratitude beside some of the most moving stream restoration and salmon and trout rehabilitation projects in the world. Something I couldn’t help but notice: the people who were the driving force behind the restoration did not take strong political or rhetorical positions. They took strong practical positions, hid their political and theological cards as much as possible, and constantly reached across demographic, religious, racial and party lines to coax remarkable cooperation from some very diverse human beings and get wonderful things done.

Last month I did a gig for the Trust for Public Land. The moneyed visionaries who TPL managed to unite had just bought 500 square miles of Montana and are preserving it for the public in perpetuity. To celebrate, TPL took our benefactors fishing for a few days on the Madison, and invited me and the great Trout Samaritan, Craig Matthews, to regale these good people in the evenings. It was wonderful but a bit surreal for me. Picture it. I talked about catch and release as a philosophy of life that includes catching and releasing our own personal fortunes, our energies, our artforms; I talked about a hermit monk of Japan, Ryokan, who owned nothing, yet wrote poems that are a model to us all, poor or wealthy, on how to lead a life; I spoke openly of how the only true “ownership,” in the end, may be the moments of love and wonder wherein we are more truly possessed by the wondrous than the possessors of anything ourselves; I surmised that in the end we’re all renters, who can own none of an earth that in truth owns itself-all of this, heh heh, to a roomful of billionaires.

They proved too polite to boo me if they were so inclined. Or, maybe not everything I said struck them as nonsense.

Afterward a man in cowboy hat, boots, buckle, jeans, the whole Madison Valley ensemble, walked over, shook my hand, and said he’d been moved. When a TPL person saw us talk, then go our ways, he snuck over and told me the man was a local hero named Jeff Laszlo, who in the past few years has rehabilitated several miles of the ruined headwaters of Odell Creek, a spring creek trib that joins the Madison at Ennis. Jeff “owns,” rents, or anyhow runs a 13,000 acre cattle ranch that includes the headwaters of Odell. Once I heard he was restoring it, opportunist that I am, I scooted over and asked if I could see his project. We spent three hours on the recovering creek next morning. What a gift.

In 1950, before Jeff was born, his ranch’s five-mile portion of rich wetlands and spring creek were “improved” by one of the post-World War Two engineering schemes ubiquitously practiced by agencies like the Army Corpse of Engineers (sic) and Bureau of Wreck the Nation (sic). The “improvements” turned a wildlife haven and rich wild trout stream into a twenty foot wide, four- inch-deep, fishless ditch that cattle soon trampled into clay pavement around a small, irreparable swamp in which the cattle kept getting mired, sometimes to death. So Jeff decided to restore it, and got help from TPL and a bunch of revamped government agencies. His plan attracted an army of doubters and critics, of course. But Jeff was used to that: he’d been working in the film biz in Hollywood. He had decided the film profession was too virtual for him (if he’ll forgive me substituting the term “too virtual” for his own term, “horse shit.”) He said he wanted to do something real, however small, that left his ranch better off than he’d found it. He decided a little headwaters repair job fit the bill.

Jeff figured it’d take a couple years. Turns out it’ll take decades: true restoration is a slow, careful, reciprocal conversation with nature. But even given the brevity of his effort (not quite four years, counting the gleam in Jeff’s eye), today there are three miles of gorgeous meandering spring creek flowing in place of the tepid ditches.

Here’s an observation regarding this Rush & Al, heated versus cool approach to restoration I’m talking about:

There was a big crew working all kinds of heavy equipment the day I walked the project with Jeff. And for all I know some of the backhoe operators or dozer drivers or earth movers or crane operators listen to Rush’s hot thoughts three hours a day five days a week. But the work of their hands and machines showed no sign of such heat. Their work was so literally cooling, in fact, that it has raised the water table along that creek by four to five feet, and lowered the water temperature by ten degrees. Talk about cool. And to the springfed ponds they’ve so carefully crafted, herons, cranes, all kinds of ducks and shorebirds, deer, antelope, and moose have returned. And young willows and cottonwoods now thrive on the formerly denuded playa. And as I walked the little stream with Jeff a Pale Morning Dun hatch began, and returned trout began rising in sinuous pools everywhere, because trout, like Buddhists, love cool, and that 56 degree-year-round sweetwater lures them up from lower Odell, or the Madison twenty miles below, and they stay. The most fecund rivers in Montana tend to max out at 2000 trout per mile. Jeff’s recovering creek has a flow of 22 to 27 cubic feet per second, compared to the Madison’s 2000 cubic feet. Yet today, according to a recent census, upper Odell supports one healthy trout every three feet of its flow. 1,760 trout per ten-degreescooler mile. Happily sipping pale may flies regardless of what Rush and his legions or Al and his acolytes say or think about anything. That is cool.

Being Cool chapter 3: the word “cool” itself
One of the most unusual words in our language is the slang word, cool. One strange thing about cool is that though it began as slang, it has morphed, because of the easy-going nature of its meaning, into the full possession of its own indelible meaning. Shit. Sorry about that sentence. Once upon a time I was an English major and it still shows. All I meant was, no other word manages to mean what cool means. Other words try. “Sick,” for instance, is trying to replace cool today. But these other words come and go. Cool’s staying power is inarguable. It’s international reach is inarguable, too. Translate cool into French and you get frais, “kind of cold.” But that’s hardly a description of James Dean’s acting or Miles Davis’s jazz. And the French realize this: so, to convey the Dean/Davis meaning, they pepper their French with our American word cool, untranslated and unexplained. So do the Germans. And Mandarin has , Russian has coolnah, Swedish has coolt, all trying for cool’s effect.

English dictionaries and thesauri will tell you cool means “great,” “fine,” “excellent,” “fashionable” or “the opposite of ‘sucks’” But each of these meanings is just a shard of the greater (or, more accurately, cooler) meaning that cool has come to own. Etymologists agree that cool has been cool since at least 1933, that it came from Black American English, famously jazz musicians, and that sax man Lester Young was one of its first overt fans. But I’ve got a Buddhist scholar friend who believes the word was born a few decades before that.

My friend Charles is a student of the scripture known as the Pali Canon. This five thousand page Buddhist bible was translated into English by a scholar named T.W. Rhys David in 1917, and became popular over the next few decades to a small intelligentsia that almost certainly included a few Black jazz players. It’s not technically “scholarship,” but it’s not much of a stretch, to imagine that cool’s newborn Pali Canon meaning became known to the likes of Charlie Parker or Lester Young and, from there, jumped to the Beats-many of whom revered the jazz pioneers-so that you suddenly had writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, or the scholarly Gary Snyder deploying the jazz word, cool, perhaps knowing it originated in translated Buddhist scripture.

What was this new meaning of cool? In his Pali Canon translations, Rhys David applies the quality of cool to the most evolved human souls. In a metaphysical system that embraces reincarnation, evolution of consciousness is much more important than Charles Darwin’s obsession with evolution of form. (This is a curveball but I’m an old junk pitcher so I’ve got to say it: it is a creepy and almost forgotten fact that Darwin’s most famous book is not called “The Origin of Species.” It is called The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. And in portions of his book, as its title promises, Darwin argues his belief in the existence of an utterly superior demi-god known as White European Man. With all due respect, I’m no more willing to swallow this white male superiority shite from Darwin than from Rush Limbaugh. End of curveball.)

T.W. Rhys David’s Pali Canon translations emphasize evolution of consciousness rather than marooning themselves on the desert island of evolution of form. And the Canon applied our fine word, cool , to the most evolved consciousnesses among humanity, the “old growth” of souls, so to speak, who are known in the Pali language as Arahants. (Sanskrit Arhat.) The word Arahant translates “saint”; “wise one”; “illumined one”; “great sage.” Something like that. So in The Brahmin Sutta, for instance, we find references to (quote): “The Arahants, the Saintly Cool, whose work is perfected, and they sane and immune (to illusion… )” Or in the Dhatuvihanga sutta : “(The Arahant) comprehends that … as the soul’s trajectory nears its end, all experiences here on earth become cool.” This reference to cool comes with an interesting footnote: “The term siti-bhuta,” Rhys David tells us, “means to become cool, and is often combined with nibbuta, gone out, extinguished….(because) the fires of… lust, greed and anger no longer burn in one who is nibbuta siti-bhuta. It is in respect of these terms that a man is extinguished and cooled.” In the Yakkha Sutras, one more Buddhistic take on cool: “Surely at all times happily doth rest / The Arahant in whom all fire is extinct, / Who cleaves not to sensuous cravings / (who has) cooled all his being and is rid of (Illusion’s) germ.”

English etymologies of cool dovetail with the Buddhist direction. The Oxford English Dictionary links cool to Old English colian and Old Teutonic kolojan, “to be cold or cool,” and gives the Old English figurative meaning as “to lose the heat or excitement or passion; to become less zealous…” Catching the scent of some kind of spiritual paydirt here, I wrote to Gary Snyder a while back, asking if he knew of any hard linkages between the jazz musicians’, the Beats’, and The Pali Canon’s cool, so that we could state that the term, in an etymological sense, originated in the diamond mind of Shakyamuni himself. But when my letter arrived, Gary’s wife was dying. No time for etymological snipe hunts. Atha dipa, Ana sarana, Anana sarana. Gary’s writing a book now, I hear, about how Buddhism came to this continent, how it rooted here, how it has spread. It’s not out of the question that he’ll tie Beat cool to jazz cool to Pali Canon cool. It’ll be cool if he does. But if I’ve taken The Pali Canon’s use of cool to heart, it’ll be cool if he doesn’t, too.

Being Cool chapter 4: Scapegoating Global Warming
I’m just a passionate amateur when it comes to tonight’s topic. But I do track global warming somewhat scientifically by tracking a species I fell madly in love with when I was six years old: the wild salmon. Through a friend at the online mag, Grist, I daily receive every story that appears in the U.S. or Canadian newspapers on salmon. The vast majority of them are grim. I’m also friends with fisheries biologists who’ve tracked salmon crises all their lives. But the research I compile continues to be cooled and quieted by the wisdom traditions that long preceded the industrial world and its science. And the alarming stories and data I gather is colored and weather-beaten and rained and shined upon almost daily by what John Muir calls “the absolute contact” of “feeding at God’s table for oneself.”

I’ve been writing first hand observations, for decades, not so much about my fishing experiences as about the entire psychospiritual effect of “absolute contact” with salmon and steelhead rivers. For the past few decades these writings have included some anomalies. During the El Niño of the late 80’s and 90’s, for instance, I noted that brown pelicans off the Oregon Coast stopped having to migrate to California to survive the winter. Many now winter off the coast of B.C. and summer in Alaska. I noted when Oregon deep sea fishermen began to catch Spanish mackerel instead of salmon in the 90’s. I noted hiking to a cove north of Lincoln City Oregon in September of ’93, where my twelve-year-old son and I watched a sea turtle swim past us, heading northward, though it was already five hundred or so miles north of what was previously believed to be its northernmost range.

I noted a few global warming circus freaks too: in ’92, on my home stream in Tillamook County, Oregon, I caught a coho jack I described carefully. A jack is a male salmon that spends just one year at sea and then, we’re not sure why-hyper-horniness maybe-returns to the rivers as a three or four pound sex maniac. Jacks tend to make trouble on spawning beds for big, genetically preferable salmon. They’re also delicious and the bag limit is ten, so during my coast years I targeted them as food and caught hundreds. The circus freak jack of ’92, after a year spent feeding in El Nino currents off Oregon, had returned to spawn, or at least make sexual trouble. He had an adult spawning male coho’s red head, green body, and hooked kype. But this poor little guy was eleven inches long. Catching and holding that fish sent some weird feelings through me. Those of you who hunt, imagine coming upon a two-foot tall whitetail buck; a yard-high bull elk; a rooster pheasant with a six-inch wing span. I felt as if I was standing inside the pages of Gulliver’s Travels, and released the little fish in Lilliputian confusion. That coho was no metaphor of diminishment: it was the thing itself.

But precisely here is where I would sound a cautionary note. Here’s where the term “global warming,” if we’re not careful, can paralyze rather than empower. Portentous as a mini-salmon may seem, mine was one fish. Yes, the world has been drastically reduced by the inability of industrial humanity to treat our natural capital sanely. But I’ve seen two things happen when we spend too much time listening to the BBC or CNN or New York Times litanies of despair. One: we become blind to the countless reasons not to despair. Two: we fall prey to cynics who invoke global warming as a vague apocalyptic force of overpowering proportions to cover their own lying and voracious greed.

Two examples of the cynics at work:

In the 1990’s, Ken Lay & Company cooked the books at Enron, resulting, in 2001, in one of the most devastating bankruptcies in history, costing hundreds of thousands of Americans their savings and pensions and hundreds of utilities districts their electrical power. Shortly thereafter, Southern California, which purchased its power from Enron, got a heatwave, tried to turn on the air conditioning, suffered brown-outs and shortages, and went fishing for power. The federal Bonneville Power Administration, smelling gold, decided to sell Columbia/Snake River hydro power to Southern Cal at exorbitant prices. But the Columbia/Snake hydro system’s 227 major dams happen to suck, like 227 leeches, at the life-giving currents of the world’s greatest salmon river. And a law known as the Endangered Species Act is meant to protect those salmon.

On the Columbia/Snake, however, the ESA is “upheld” by a federal agency known as NOAA. NOAA and BPA are siblings in the same federal family, one with a responsibility to turn rivers into hydropower, the other with a responsibility to turn them into safe havens for salmon. A conflict of interest if ever there was one. But when, in 2000, King George the Bush was coronated by the Supreme Court, the conflict was over. My home river became a deadly joke. NOAA let BPA run their dams for maximum hydro throughout 2001, and river current that should have been rushing migrating juvenile chinook and sockeye from the mountain birth-houses of Idaho and eastern Oregon and Washington to the Pacific was sent through turbines and shipped to Southern California in the form of electricity instead. The outcome? Southern Cal got air conditioning but was financially reamed for it, Governor Davis was disgraced, paving the way for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and ESA-“protected” juvenile salmon were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousand, decimating the outmigration of 2001. And Why did these salmon die? Because of a political chain reaction leading directly from corruption at Enron to corrupt federal science to broken laws at the dams to the mass-death of frail juvenile salmon sucked into the moneygrubbing turbines. And the political spin goes on and on: when adult chinooks didn’t return from the ocean two and three years later, BPA and NOAA tried to make this disgusting chain reaction disappear, by pointing the finger at global warming. “Bad ocean conditions,” the feds tell reporters after every BPA-engineered NOAA-assisted adult salmon disaster. “It’s global warming. Unstoppable! Overpowering! What can we do? Tsk tsk! But at least our hydro dams are green!” The fact is, salmon slaughtered before they make it to sea can’t return from the sea. And slaughter inflicted by BPA engineers is not global warming. And extinction power is not green. And hydropower isn’t green either: an estimated 20% of the earth’s greenhouse gases are created by vegetation rotting and turning to methane in the slackwaters behind the world’s 400,000 dams.

A second example of cynics scapegoating global warming. In 2002 the chinook and coho of the Klamath River in California are in life-threatening danger due to drought. Meanwhile in the Klamath’s Oregon headwaters, Republican Senator Gordon Smith is in a tough race for reelection. Bush/ Cheney’s team is concerned: in 2000 they won in Oregon by one percent. So in 2002, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney go to work for Senator Smith. Klamath Basin farmers are demanding that irrigation take precedence over endangered chinook and coho. Winning the vote of farmers, Rove and Cheney believe, will swing rural Oregon and get Smith reelected. So the White House phones an Interior Department headed by Gale Norton, someone at Interior calls The National Academy of Sciences, and the Academy convenes a panel to review the findings of scientists who have been insisting that the continued withdrawal of Klamath water will exterminate the river’s salmon. Four months after the phone call from Interior, the National Academy of Sciences becomes the Academy of National Prostitution by stating that rock-solid science linking salmon survival to irrigation withdrawal is “inconclusive.” That’s all the Bush administration needs: in March, 2002, Norton and Gordon Smith call a joint press conference in Klamath Falls, where they primp for the press as they open the floodgates, diverting the Klamath River onto 220 thousand acres of farmland. And a few weeks later, surprise surprise, 75 thousand adult coho and chinook salmon die in a dewatered Klamath-the largest adult salmon kill in U.S. history. And thousands of fishing related jobs in California, Oregon and Washington die with them-putting the economic lobbying power of these voices in the poor house, and so silencing them. broke the story linking Rove to the slaughter. The Washington Post linked Cheney. A year later, a federal judge ruled that the Bush administration violated the ESA by diverting the water. But Smith got his salmon-killing self reelected, the scurrilous creeps at the National Academy of Sciences are also still in business-and none of this was related to global warming. The river had reared the salmon, the ocean had faithfully fattened them, the adults had returned to spawn. Those 75,000 deaths were pure partisan politics.

Being Cool 5: When is Heat Justified?
Pico Iyer spoke of seeking coolness within. Jim Harrison writes of finding it there. But protesting the heat of the world’s most heated and harmful institutions is necessary work too. In the same Orion in which Iyer praises cool, Carl Safina of the Blue Ocean Institute deplores the actions of those who remain hot. He writes: “Dysfunctional values married to catastrophic leadership has led us to the place you go when you are made to believe solution is sacrifice, and that sacrifice for a just cause is not noble, but out of the question. This refusal to sacrifice is actually a pathological refusal to change for the better, framed and abetted by the disinformation campaigns of companies that would shrink if we realized we’d be better off with less of them. Think of Exxon Mobil: such companies fear of us, and of reality, compels them to an… effort to retain power over us by distorting our understanding of what’s real.”

Let me illustrate Safina’s Exxon-Mobil reference with a painful set of facts. Why would I ask a kind audience like this one to endure pain with me? Because the word “compassion” means “to suffer with another” and the Buddha and the Christ were both the apotheosis of such compassion and we who would follow their Great Way must in our small ways do the same. So then, with my thanks to you all for the emotional suffering we’re about to endure:

In Indonesia in the late 1990’s, the company Carl Safina names, Exxon-Mobil, made security arrangements with the military and police. These forces were soon blamed for civilian massacres and human rights abuses. In May 2001, one Radhi Darmansyah traveled from Indonesia to the U.S. to confront Exxon-Mobil CEO Lee Raymond at a stockholder meeting. I got this text of the meeting transcript from a socially responsible investment firm, Trillium, who holds a little Exxon-Mobil stock so that they can attend these meetings and try to force some compassion into the proceedings. Here’s some of the 2001 transcript:

Radhi Darmansyah: “While you made $26 million as a CEO last year Mr. Raymond, more than one thousand six hundred of my people were killed, maimed or tortured around your facilities in Aceh. I am here to ask for your help. We, the Acehnese, are asking that Exxon-Mobil stop working with the Indonesian military for its security forces, because the military is murdering its citizens in Aceh. Murdering my brothers and sisters. Raping and keeping schoolgirls as sexual slaves. I ask you today to please issue a public statement that you will not return to Aceh until my land is free of these human rights abuses and my people are free.”

Exxon CEO Lee Raymond: “I believe your time is up.”

By my watch, Radhi’s specch took 45 seconds. He continues pleading for his people.

CEO Raymond butts in: “I’m sorry, you’ll have to come back another time. Sister Pat, I think we’re about to move on to the next item. You have three minutes.”

Radhi continues pleading for his people.

Raymond blores: “Sister Pat, he’s using your time… I think you should turn off the light of Number 1 please. You understand you’re out of order?”

Radhi, of course, continues pleading for his devastated people.

Lee Raymond says: “Sister Pat, please! I’m getting ready to move on to the next

Radhi, bless him, bless him!, continues pleading, and Raymond ignores him. Raymond also fails to call on Bianca Jagger, who is standing at a microphone ready to support Radhi’s claims. Instead Raymond blusters: “Sister Pat has the floor. Thank you.”

On the contrary: no thank you, Lee Raymond. Your “refusal to sacrifice,” to quote Carl Safina, is indeed “a pathological refusal to change for the better.” Your “Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” is lethal corporate Darwinism and a corporation is not a living entity and if we live our lives by the rules of what is not alive, we will not survive.

End of illustration. Carl Safina continues:

“Nearly every cause is a struggle between the good of the many and the greed of the few. But because greed has the advertising dollars to make selfishness fashionable, it sustains itself by turning people against their own interests. Of all the psychopathology in the climate issue, the most counter-productive thought is that solving the problem will require (onerous) sacrifice-as if our wastefulness of energy and money is not already sacrifice; as if war built around oil is not sacrifice; as if losing polar bears, ice-dependent penguins, coral reefs, and thousands of other living companions is not sacrifice; as if withering our croplands, losing the fresh water of cities, losing glacier-fed rivers and the agriculture and dense populations they sustain, risking seawater inundating and displacing hundreds of millions of coastal people, is not sacrifice. According to the brainwashing… campaigns of the so-called free market, a more efficient car is… “a sacrifice.” Meanwhile we’re sacrificing animals, peace, and children to retain wastefulness while enriching those who disdain us.”

Powerful words. And mighty heated, out of context. But in context, what Lee Raymond does to put gas in our cars renders Safina heated no more: only informed, hence as creatively desperate as Radhi Darmansyah, Bianca Jagger, and millions of other brave and informed activists. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but no one is entitled to their own facts. The deaths and damage in Aceh are facts that Lee Raymond and Exxon-Mobil are not entitled to smother.

But here’s a trick: watershed restoration work begins on the ground, among diverse swaths of the populace among which there is seldom broad consensus. Not all truthful words can be shared just anywhere. Many people are so bound in illusions, addictions, superheated smash-mouth radio opinions, that even mildly contradictory truths throw them into denial, rage or fear. This is an old story: the Buddha-the Compassionate One himself-journeys into hell to help the delusion-bound souls suffering agony there; but alas, because the souls there are in the grip of fun-house-mirror delusions, they see the approaching Compassionate One as a red-eyed, six-armed, white-fanged demon.

Armed with that example, we must be sensitive and subtle in our work and, even so, some are going to imagine us red eyed and fanged when we state facts they’ve never before heard, or are desperate to deny (like NOAA, Rove, Cheney, Smith, and Raymond). Finding stories that motivate some people in our watersheds doesn’t mean the same stories won’t paralyze others. Serving the earth and our neighbors requires constant intuition and constant adjustment of our narratives, not a blanket policy from on high. Policies from on high are the Rove Exxon modus operandi. The integrity and power of the grassroots lies in its ability to rise up via nuanced support from below. Walt Whitman is telling us how to be cool in response to the likes of Exxon- Mobil when he says, “Cheer up slaves and horrify despots.” California poet Jim Dodge is being cool in the face of global warming when he says, “Revolution starts at home, less is more, enough is plenty.” The genius Paul Hawken was giving us hard but cool advice when, in a recent email, he told me, “Jet travel is the new tobacco.” The Great Plains contemplative Kathleen Norris is being cool in the face of global warming when she writes, in Dakota, “Asceticism… is not necessarily a denigration of the body, though it has often been misapplied for that purpose. Rather, asceticism is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person.”

A way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole… Now we’re getting somewhere. I don’t know if we need to link this creative surrender to a baggage-laden term like asceticism. Words like “simplicity,” or “frugality,” or my friend Wendell Berry’s old favorite, “thrift,” could invoke Norris’s “surrender that enhances the whole” without invoking self-flagellation and hair shirts. Making such a surrender willingly and creatively-recognizing that, in a world of 7 billion humans, frugality is not onerous sacrifice but a life-giving daily enactment of mercy-this undeniable new fact will be central for the rest of our lives, and will determine the quality of subsequent human lives, including not only our children’s lives but-we believers in evolution of consciousness and reincarnation hold-our own.

Being Cool 6: surrendering to circumstances that enhance the whole
While the poor AM chatterbox Rush Limbaugh makes 38 million a year and maintains his 24,000 square-foot Palm Beach mansion by telling listeners that human-caused global warming is a hoax perpetrated by Al Gore, and while his minions claim each fall that the freezing of Arctic water in winter “proves” the U.S. Navy and NASA are “wrong” to painstakingly document ice sheets the size of Alaska and Texas disappearing from the Arctic over the past few summers, I keep looking for a guiding word and a sentence that might cool as many human minds as Rush manages to overheat, a word and mantra-sentence to give comforting direction in our beautiful place and troubled time.

The guiding word I keep returning to is of course cool, if we mean the cool we can chase back through the Beats and jazz greats and Pali Canon in order to steep in the wisdom tradition of “the Arahants, the Saintly Cool, whose work is perfected, and they sane and immune”.

And the guiding sentence I keep liking, from another wisdom tradition, is a statement of Jesus’s. “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” I’ve never recovered from the wondrous confusion I felt when I first heard these seven words. I pray I never do. And the wilds of the Northern Rockies help make sure that I won’t. One thing I love about Jesus’s statement: he didn’t say the kingdom is within us only in times of tranquility, or that it rises up only in times of crisis. He said the kingdom is always within us. What compass arrow points me most reliably toward cool in this beautiful place and troubled time? Grandiose, religious, or unscientific as it may sound, Remembering to seek kingdom, is my intuition’s answer. Contact, in John Muir’s sense, with inner kingdom keeps us cool in the Buddhist sense. Keeps us “sane and immune.”

How to seek an inner kingdom in times like these? our overwhelmed, news-blasted, alternately depressed and skeptical minds want to know. At the end of Dakota, Kathleen Norris’s monk names it. “You have only to let the place happen to you: the loneliness, the silence, the poverty, the futility, indeed the silliness of your life.”

When I bring my loneliness, futility and silliness to the half-wild places of this world and let the places happen to me, my loneliness, futility and silliness are enveloped in an unceasing flow of natural power and pattern. Ever watch a Canada goose menage a trois in late March? I see them every spring on Lolo Creek. Letting the place happen to me, I share loneliness with the goose who loses the contest and ends up being the odd male out. And in sharing, I’m not alone. Ever watch a wild salmon spawn in a stream that’s been turned into an industrial sewer that can’t possibly support the young the salmon is sacrificing its life to produce? Letting such places happen to me, I have many times shared heart-rending futility with beautiful wild salmon. And when the heart breaks, not always, but often, new sensitivies or understanding grow from the cracks. Ever seen a magpie playing with a half-grown colt, or a crow teasing a dog that’s trying to catch it, or a couple coyotes chasing carp through shallow water on a warm day, or a bear lying on its back, oblivious to you, playing with its toes? Letting such places happen, I have shared silliness with magpie, coyote, bear and crow.

Yesterday it was the mist-enshrouded Void that replaced Holland Lake that happened to me, which is why, tonight, I feel fresh back from the Book of Genesis, page one. That’s a great way to feel. By allowing such events to fully take us, the depth and reach of our inner life is enormously increased: everywhere we wander as we “let the place happen” we want to wander further, and everything we see, we want to see more, because we’re not simply outside, in these places: due to what we might call “the kingdom effect,” we’re traveling further and further in. And when the natural patterns, mysteries, beauty of our godgiven interiors align with the same pattern, mystery, beauty in the natural exterior, it’s effortless to realize we’re not the droning of our brain, the cravings of our ego, or the maddened consumer impulses of our bodies. We are infinitely and mysteriously more.

“There is an invisible world out there, and we’re living in it,” writes Jim Harrison. The wild without and the wild within are as reciprocal as the gold and indigo reflections on Holland Lake are reciprocal with the Swan and Mission Mountains that cast them. There is no loveliness in the world that isn’t matched by the loveliness of the worlds within. And if you want to experience some of that loveliness, if you seek to gain some sense of what your inner kingdom holds, then for chrissake, head for those fields of lilies and watch those fouls of the air; consider the blue gentians of the ridge-lines and paintbrush and asters of the meadows; consider the crossbills, swallows, ravens crisscrossing the lakeshine; consider not just the trout of the waters but the movement of mist upon the face of erased waters; consider what Aldo Leopold called “the roundness” of our headwaters: mountains tipped with H20 in the static form of ice and snow; the clouds that bring the snow; the ocean-and-sun love-making that births the clouds; the rivulets and springs become creek become river, flowing to sea in increasing defilement by industry, yet-miraculously, I think, even once you know the science-returning to sky and peak purified, ad infinitum, in a prayer wheel of light, flow, reflection, translucence, and appearing, disappearing, and reappearing life-forms.

Translucence. Great word. Means: “The action or fact of shining through.” And no one is entitled to their own facts. The action of shining through is a fact. I witnessed a whole world shine through out of nothingness just yesterday morning at Holland Lake.

What should we be doing to cool ourselves, and one another, in our beautiful but warming place? If Norris’s monk and I might make a suggestion, try turning off the screens, busting out of the office and classrooms, and letting the beautiful places we inhabit shine through till they pierce our loneliness, futility and silliness and show us a little kingdom.

Why? To what practical purpose or ultimate end? Here’s another monk’s suggestion, St. Isaac of Syria: Make peace with yourself, and heaven and earth make peace with you. Take pains to enter your innermost chamber and you will see the chamber of heaven, for they are one and the same, and in entering one you behold them both.

[me to me: this felt too secret for the talk but a year and a half later I wish I’d included it somehow… Deep in the night, after a day of struggle as I was preparing this talk (the day I wrote of dying salmon was hard on me), I asked my secret Beloved for guidance. A little while later I heard a still small voice, if hearing is the right word to describe a voice so exquisitely silent. The voice said: “Every loneliness folds you into His castle…” I can’t say how this helped direct my thoughts but when I set to work the next day the words grew directed, activism and contemplative insights began to link, Carl Safina and Isaac of Syria were suddenly in conversation, the buddhistic meaning of “cool” grew central, and I stayed cool as I wrote.]

Originally published:
Issue Fifty-Eight
June 2010

(collage art: john richen )

This piece is taken from David James Duncan’s keynote for the Headwaters Summit, Missoula, Montana, September, 2008. Duncan is the author of two novels, The River Why and The Brothers K, and several collections of stories and essays: River Teeth, My Story as Told by Water, and God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right. He lives, laughs, plays, writes, and fishes with his wife and two daughters in Montana. More from David James Duncan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.


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