I have been reading Old Jules, by Mari Sandoz. I have been swept up in it for weeks. (My reading these days being mainly a brief late-evening interlude, tuckered out and often ending sound asleep with the book lost somewhere alongside the bed, or with Kristen setting it gently aside as I snore.) Published in 1935, the book is considered a classic of American literature, and rightly so. A broad biography of the author’s father, Jules Sandoz: Swiss immigrant settler, curmudgeon, visionary, sharpshooter, horticulturalist and, in most regards, to be honest (which Mari Sandoz – his daughter, the author – certainly is) a damned poor excuse for a father and husband. A saga set on the western Nebraska plains, spanning from the 1880’s to the late 1920’s, clear through from the waning days of the bison and the free Lakota, to the coming of telephone, automobile, and radio. A tough book, not a light book, and especially difficult for its frank portrayal of a father who was so incorrigibly hard on those closest to him. Starting my Sunday with Sandoz, and it being Father’s Day today, has been a time to think about fathers and the legacy of fathers, good ones and not so good ones. (I was lucky. I had a good one. A great one, and never forgotten.) Sandoz’ masterpiece is thought-provoking and timely, too, for its litany of hard times on the high plains: prairie fire, blizzard, hail and flood, near-starvation, insanity, feuds, local and national politics, the ending of one era and the start of another. Much food for thought.
For those who relish such concrete tidbits more than my various ramblings, some near-Solstice Hoarfrost stats: 3 degrees above zero here this morning, about 37 degrees American. Made a fire in the big kitchen wood stove for the first time in nearly a month, and the heat feels good. Out the door it is all cold rain and gusty north wind, and a gray bay ice-free as of one week ago, June 12. As always the final floes of ice in the entire lake were those in the mid-section of McLeod Bay, just north of Shelter Bay, forty miles west of us. This ranks as our second earliest ice-out in 29 years. 1998 still takes the cake, by about eight days.
Two years ago today here, it was bone dry and “our” fire was already burning, and just beginning its stealthy advance toward us from the east. Little did we know. Today one would be hard pressed to light a campfire out in those soggy burned-over acres. The lake is rising visibly by the day, still “low” by our paltry three-decade perspective on “normal,” but higher than it has been for some years. The Hoarfrost River is surging down off the barrens, brim-full and boisterous for the first time in many springs.
Kristen is away from home, down on the prairies of North Dakota, helping her own father. Our two daughters and I walked north up the trail last evening, with six loose dogs happy to join us. Startled a lone muskox, a big one, on the slope above the river, and had a few tense moments as several of the dogs gave chase. Wisdom (or what passes for wisdom in the mind of a rambunctious summer sled dog) prevailed, and they saw the better part of valor as coming back to our calls. Mr. Ovibos, for his part, decided it was best to lumber off through the charred spruce and pockets of ash now festooned with tiny sprouts of green, lurching along under his enormous shaggy coat, looking for all the world like a mastodon or mammoth back from the dawn of time.
After my past three monthly jottings here, my dear sister asked if I was “down.” That was alarming, because no one who takes the time to read this does so for updates on my personal hard times or down times, and certainly no one needs a monthly rant-and-whine missive. Her question did get me thinking about the state of my own mental ship: was it floating on a solid mooring, sailing in high seas, or foundering, or worse? Bear with me, and read forward, because what I have come to is this: No, I am not down. I am just trying my best to continue to become disillusioned.
Hold on, wait, stay and don’t hit that instant-departure key. Viva Disillusionment! Is dis-illusion-ment not a good thing, something to strive for as we live? Should we not, all of us, be eager to be dis – illusioned as we make our way and learn our (sometimes very hard) lessons?
I’ve had many illusions. Still have plenty. About people, about the Far North, about heroes and causes. About how much a man can do in a day, for how long, and how well. Some of these illusions are the stuff of dreams, of romance, of boldness and assurance and inspiration. Long may they inspire, and motivate. But the fire of 2014 and its aftermath burned up a lot of illusions around here, “permanence” right up at the head of the list: The Illusion of Permanence. Think about that, as my hero Dick Dorworth likes to write. Permanence? Out here? (Or anywhere for that matter, but here right now is always a good start.) I know I am not alone, as I come close to 60, in having seen some of my own dearest illusions marched out into the bright light of morning, grabbed by the shoulders and turned to face the sun. We clever modern idiot-savants are nowadays much too cocksure of ourselves, in my view. We have such deep belief in our own illusions of competence and grandeur, to name just two varieties, that we have soiled our planetary nest and put at peril far too many of our fellow voyageurs.
So this morning I am glad to make it my day’s work to try and step clear and see past the illusions around here. And to do so with a light heart, if I can. Mari Sandoz had no illusions about her father or about immigrant life on the Nebraska plains, and from her steadfast dis-illusionment came her book, a timeless masterpiece of a book.
Thoreau weighs in on this topic with one whopper of a sentence, and still comes through like a champ, summing up perfectly what I am trying to say:
”Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face with a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter [scimitar], and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.”