Walking Across America

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting a man named Andrew Forsthoefel. There was something about the way he listened and engaged with people that I instantly liked and made me curious about him. He had this way of drawing out of me and others around him the important parts, the parts we don’t often speak of with people we’ve just met. When I heard his story, I realized that he’d had lots of training.

One big important part for Andrew was what he learned while walking across the United States, from the east coast to the west coast. He wore out several pairs of shoes — five? six pairs? And he wore a sign that said, “Walking to listen.” He recorded conversations he had with people along the way.

When I listened to the part where he sees a bunch of young men ahead of him on the tracks, and he strides forward to talk with them, despite feeling a pang of apprehension, I couldn’t help but think of a similar experience described by John Muir, more than a hundred years before.

The part where he gets giddy with the freedom of the open road before him and starts singing is wonderful.

And the stories and advice and songs and gifts of the people he meets are also wonderful. And how he shares what he’s learned without hitting you over the head with it, because he’s still in the daily process of figuring it out, forgetting, remembering those moments of grace and beauty that he witnessed, was, and is part of.

I highly recommend the radio piece, “Walking Across America: Advice for a Young Man,” about his walk across America.

The Rugged Days of Old

Today, I’m writing to share a poem by George Bilgere that describes the world’s greatest slingshot expert. But first, the poem brings to mind the protagonist from The Last American Man, a creative non-fiction book by Elizabeth Gilbert:

“By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.”

Such abilities like marksmanship were held to be admirable qualities in the rugged pioneer days when being handy with a slingshot or a knife meant you could nail a rabbit for supper. Now who eats rabbit for supper? With supermarkets, computers, guns, malls, factories, and industrial jobs, who needs to? This poem mourns how wonderful qualities like being a good shot with a knife or slingshot are now, at best, quirks and, at worst, useless in our technologically advanced society.

To listen to the complete poem read by Garrison Keillor, you can here. I’ve excerpted it below.

You Asked For It
by George Bilgere (b.1951)

“He was a grown man, as I recall,
and he lived in an ordinary place like New Jersey.
At a distance of ten or twenty paces
he could pulverize one marble with another.

He was the kind
of father I wanted to have,
an expert shot, never missing.

And I think of him now, perhaps long dead,
or frail and gray, his gift forgotten.
Just another old guy on a park bench
in Fort Lauderdale, fretting about Medicare,
grateful for the sun on his back, his slingshot
useless in this new world.”

“You Asked For It” by George Bilgere. © George Bilgere. (George Bilgere’s books.)

I can’t help but wonder: if the slingshot expert had continued to hone his abilities, how might he have used them? How can our society meet slingshot experts, and honor their gifts? Perhaps our society could ask the man to become an arborist, placing difficult lines in trees where the cherry picker couldn’t reach. Perhaps he could take that visual acuity and do landscape architecture. Or with that motor control, pick up a guitar for fretting with instead. Somehow, these solutions seem pat or condescending though. There’s no true replacement for being a slingshot expert except being a slingshot expert.

What is Eustace Conway up to these days? It sounds like he’s still out there as a student of nature, helping connect other people with nature, as an educator and a role model. On his website, it says:

“Studying modern America, he has found his most interesting subjects: people in cultural and environmental crises, his own people. Eustace started teaching about environmental ethics long before it became an “in thing.” He said, “Americans have separated themselves from the natural world. During the past eighty years we have been ‘advancing’ so fast that we are as infants trying to run. We would be wise to slow down and learn more about primitive (first) values. Today more than ever we need to understand and live by harmony and balance with nature, for truly, man separate from nature is a fantasy.”

All you slingshot experts out there, don’t lose hope. American kids still need real people — people who know how to throw a knife or make their own shoes — to look up to. We might just need a slingshot expert. Not someday, but now. We need people who can model what it’s like to embrace the wind and the cold. People who embrace our natural limitations.

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

Like every great quote, this one can be misinterpreted. Conway is talking about cleaning our plates instead of throwing half into the garbage. Of things being functional. He’s definitely not talking about over-exploiting our Earth. I can imagine someone advocating for space travel and resource exploitation on Earth and other planets misinterpreting this quote. I wonder what Eustace Conway would make of the film, The Martian. I’m certainly not opposed to space travel. I loved the film, with Matt Damon as Mark Watney. He decides that he’s not going to give up fighting for survival. To fight to return home to Earth despite the odds:

“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

What I am opposed to is the egregious waste of our shared resources, making not only survival more difficult for future generations of human beings, but especially that wonderfully immersive skin-to-ocean or skin-to-river experience of thriving on Earth, eating unfiltered fruit, fish, and plants from our gardens.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

What a horrible fate if human beings were headed for the post-apocalyptic setting described in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which so much of the biodiversity of life was lost.

Let’s return to what Eustace Conway said about slowing down:

“During the past eighty years we have been ‘advancing’ so fast that we are as infants trying to run. We would be wise to slow down and learn more about primitive (first) values.”

For more along this vein of thought, see Thich Nhat Hahn’s book How to Walk, in which he talks about how slowing down can help us live happier lives.

Thich Nhat Hahn talks about how amazing walking is for astronauts returning to Earth. He muses about how long that amazing feeling lasts — 10 days? A couple weeks? — and encourages us to really feel and love the Earth as we walk, for we walk,

“not only on matter, but on spirit.”

He says it’s possible to “arrive” in the present moment with each step, even without ever having visited the moon, or Mars.

For more great writing and ideas, see Maria Popova’s wonderful blog, Brain PickingsI signed up for Maria Popova’s weekly articles months ago, and a few days ago finally donated to her website because it’s just that good. 

Website Transparency and Credit

Note: This post is modeled somewhat on Maria Popova’s formatting: the way I included more quotations, figured out how to get an Amazon commission if you purchase a book through this website, and also how I’m recommending other things to check out at the end of the post.

At first, I felt weird about going for the Amazon commission. Is it a huge shipping force that’s putting local bookstores out of business? Maybe yes, maybe not. It’s certainly making local businesses adapt. Personally, I purchase books both at my local independent bookstores, and through Amazon. (For example, I purchased How to Walk from my local independent bookstore, but Teach Like A Champion from Amazon.)

If you figure out how to get book descriptions and book graphics while simultaneously linking to a reader’s independent bookstores, please let me know using my contact page!

Thanks to Harry Haines for introducing me to the Bilgere poem.

James Gurney: A Visionary and Inventive Artist

I’m sorry for the delay in posting this week. I’ll see to it that the next posts are on Friday as planned.

One of my favorite books as a child was Dinotopia by James Gurney. I love the alphabet that the dinosaurs created using footprints. I love the intricate pictures of the machines. I love seeing human beings riding pterodactyls through the sky. I love that Gurney played with biomimicry (before it became a buzzword), tree houses, flight, language, romance, adventure, an island, and dinosaurs all within the same series.

Perhaps one of the aspects that appeals to me from the books is that human beings and dinosaurs seem to be working mutualistically with each other, and with their environment. Together, they create beautiful and sustainable cities, like this one.

Part of the trouble for western countries is the seductive ease of using fossil fuels and disposable products, in spite of the hidden toll it’s taking. Global warming aside, hydrocarbons and other compounds get into the water and muck up our fish and shellfish. Oysters and scallops and clams were once a national treasure. Now there are few places in the U.S. where you can get an abundant amount of shellfish that are safe to eat right away. It takes a concerted effort to decide the trajectory of our cities now and into the future, and how our cities and towns mesh with the environment.

How can we live in such a way that we are conscious of what we take out, and what we put back in?

Look at the lights above your head. Look at your computer screen. Where does the electricity come from? Where do the minerals and the parts come from? What is the factory like where the pieces are assembled? In too many factories, the workers suffer poor health from breathing stale air, doing repetitive work for long hours that leaves the mind and body aching. Everyone benefits from range of motion. People can’t live truly rich lives when they don’t have access to fresh food, fresh air, or wild places like mountains, streams, rivers, lakes, the ocean, plains, or forests.

I’m not advocated for ditching technology. We can do great things with it, and connect, and make change happen.

Can we do better? We can advocate for better working conditions, and we can better respect the products by remembering where the parts come from. Which minerals? Which mine? Which forest? We should also keep in mind where the products go when we’re done with them, and how well the local landfills can, or can’t, keep them separate from the farms, schools, houses, and conservation areas nearby. Yes, we can do better.