Before I tell you about those formative years I spent on the lake, and how they shaped the way I came to see the world, I want to briefly go back to my earliest memories of growing up in a house with competing narratives. My first clear memory is kind of an odd one: I was four and sitting on my bed when for some reason I became hyper-aware of myself as a person distinct from everyone else around me. My very small bedroom, sometimes referred to as the sleeping porch, was between the huge bedroom where my grandparents slept and the slightly smaller one occupied by my parents. This placement was symbolic of my being caught in the middle between two antagonists, in the form of my mother and my grandmother.
Gretchen, my grandmother, was very protective of her relationship with my father, and deeply resented my mother for taking her boy away from her. She had him here under her roof, but not all to herself, as she would have preferred. So there was a competition between these two women for the affections of my father, and that was at the heart of their mutual enmity. But there was also a competition between them for my own loyalty and affection, and this is where the competing narratives came in. Gretchen never missed an opportunity to try to discredit my mother, finding fault with almost everything she did—making her seem like quite a despicable person. For her own part, my mother, Ann, would tell me about the dirty tricks that Gretchen routinely played on her, like taking and hiding some of her clothes, or a sentimentally valued ring. And more than once Gretchen sabotaged something mom was cooking, like turning up the temperature of the oven when she was baking cookies, so they’d burn and be inedible. Some of the accusations and counter accusations were petty, like these; but some were quite serious, and called into question the integrity and character of the other person.
This was my world when I was four, five, six, and seven. I was caught between two powerful authority figures, each giving me different versions of the world, each playing on my emotions, testing my instincts, requiring me to sort out for myself the relative merits of each conflicting story. The conflict between these two women would play out over decades, the dynamic changing only slightly over the years. But I bring this up because of what it did to me, and also for me. It made me question just about everything I was told, to sort through possible implications, and to seek out the underlying motives behind whatever narrative was being pedaled. And this came to include the cultural narratives I was exposed to on a daily basis. I could see that teachers, preachers, politicians, and just about everybody else were in the business of selling ideas and ways of looking at the world. Because of this early childhood experience, I became a selective and discriminating judge of story lines I was exposed to, and in this way developed the ability to “see through” culture, and how its narratives were meant to influence my view of the world.
As I would later discover, this is not a common ability. Most people are quite unaware of how they have been played by culture and made to think that all their beliefs, values, and perceptions are strictly their own. Culture, in this way, is a great deceiver, and to the extent that it has its own agenda and purposes, culture is not necessarily an ally or friend. And to the extent that culture has been cynically manipulated to serve the interests of the few, at the expense of the many, culture can be, and in many cases has become, the enemy of all life.
Probably I was born with a rudimentary disposition to be the kind of person I turned into—not a contrarian, necessarily, but someone with a sense of the world that was different from those around me. For instance, most everyone I know easily falls into the category of anthropocentrist– being not only human- centered in their thinking, but having rather inflated, self-flattering, ideas about the status of human beings in the world. I think it is fair to say that they believe the world is all about humans, and all the other species on Earth are just here to serve our interests, and have no meaning of their own. I don’t believe that at all, and one reason why is almost certainly connected with three formative years I spent in a world far from the man-made disasters we call cities.
When I was eight, nine, and ten, I lived on a remote lake in northern California. It was far enough out in the sticks that I had to walk or be driven three miles on dirt road to the school bus turn-around, which was itself fifteen miles out of the six-hundred person town where the school was. This whole area, even today, is remote and unsettled enough to have no franchise fast food outlets whatsoever. But it was not the school or the town that had such a big effect on me; it was the lake itself, and the fact that the lake was on the Pacific Flyway, which then supported six million migratory waterfowl, as these birds cycled south and north and south again with the changing seasons. Our lake was in sight of Mt. Shasta, except for those times when the ducks and geese were on the fly and so filled the sky with their wing beats and raucous cries that they made the mountain disappear. There were lesser and greater Canadian honkers, and it was a delight to see them fold back their wings and stretch out their webbed feet as a squadron of them cruised in for a landing on the lake that was our front yard. The ducks would poke around in the tules and cattails, feeding on whatever they could find there. Grebes would also fly in with the ducks and geese, and for some reason we called them hell divers. There were also black-bodied white-billed coots that we called mudhens, and unlike the ducks and geese, who could rise off the water with graceful alacrity, these mudhens had to flap and flap and kind of run along the lake’s surface for a good long ways before they finally achieved flight. I had the use of the family rowboat then, and had developed a slow, gentle stroke that would take me out among all these birds without much disturbing their feeding, or squabbling, or sunning themselves on the odd protruding log, or just paddling easily along, sometimes in formation and sometimes in broken ranks.
My young mind and sensibility took all this in with an excited delight. The part of me that was trying to be a hunter, wanted to exploit all of this bounty with my new .22 rifle. At least there was a voice in my ear telling me that I should be thinking in these terms. But mainly I just enjoyed being in the middle of so much Life, embodied in so many life-forms. The geese would gather in the fields across the lake and feed by the hundreds and thousands. One day when I was watching them feed and take off and land and feed some more, something happened to make all of them take off at once and fill the sky as a mass, and then break off into their own flocks and form their characteristic lopsided Vs as they headed to their next destination. When I looked back to where they had been feeding I noticed some movement. It was a goose trying to fly but unable to get off the ground. I told my mom I was going to go get that goose and bring it home, and she assented. I rowed across the lake as quickly as I could, jumped out of the boat, and ran down that goose, after much drama and noisy complaint. I stuffed it in a gunny sack, tied it off, and deposited the goose in the stern. By the time I got to our side of the lake, it had settled down a bit, and I got it to the house with only a bit of struggle. When I opened the sack in our living room, Mom looked the goose over and determined that it had been shot in the shoulder and broken its wing bone. “What should we do with it?” I asked. “What do you want to do with it?” She asked in return. I thought about how it would be good for at least a couple dinners, and how this would be my first goose, and how much the family would appreciate me for bringing fresh goose to table. Sitting in our small living room, so composed, the bird seemed very large, and not just large, but stately, its eyes alert but not alarmed. What would I do with it? Shoot it in the head with my .22? Take an axe to its neck? Looking at it without the excitement of the chase I began to realize that this goose was its own being, just like I was my own being, and I just didn’t have it in me take this being’s life. Mom helped me get it back in the bag, and I rowed it back to where I had found it, and turned it loose. It occurred to me that a coyote might end up having goose dinner that night, but that was out of my control. I had gone to a bit of trouble to catch that goose and bring it home and take it back again, but I now knew something I hadn’t known before. In just the same way that all dogs are the same, and yet each is an individual; and just as all people are the same, and yet each is an individual; so too with geese, who are all the same, and yet each has its own essence and will to live and even its own sense of dignity. I saw that in the living room of our house when I was nine when a wild creature had been brought into an alien enclosure and showed me something of itself.
As fall turned into winter only a few ducks and geese stayed on at our lake. Then in the spring they came back by the tens of thousands, on their way north. Next fall they came back again, and I then began to see that there was a pattern here, a cycle, and that this was part of something much bigger than me or my family, and bigger even than all human beings. This was Nature, and Nature was the source of all this abundant life around me, as well as my own life, and that of my family, and of all humanity. Nature was the source of all Life, and Life was good, and Nature was good because Nature was the source of Life.
The Korean War was going on back then—1950, ’51 and ’52—and this last little bit of the last frontier was a rarity in the world even then. The experience I had then is now available to almost no one. In the year nineteen hundred, the Pacific Flyway supported 12 million migratory waterfowl. In 1950 it was six million. Today it is just about a million. There is a pattern and trajectory here. In 1950 there were about 150 million people in America. Now we have more than doubled that number. There is a pattern and trajectory here, too.
I got a taste for life in all its abundance when there was still a little abundance left. It was a remnant then, and now only a remnant of a remnant remains. Before my European ancestors arrived on this continent half a millennium ago, North America was the very picture of natural abundance. Life was thriving here; ecosystems were intact; there was integrity, stability, and beauty within the biotic community. Nature was whole. From my perspective, this is what it is all about. The meaning of Life is Life fully expressed. It is Life in dynamic balance, in all its complexity, diversity, and overflowing abundance. If you were to ask me for my best vision of the future, it would be a continuation of this 3.8 billion year evolutionary Project of Life—and that could be with, or without, the human being, depending on who we turn out to be.